Zeitgeist - the sixth Smashing Pumpkins album and first since 2000 - doesn't just capture the spirit of our times, as the title might suggest. Even more impressively, Zeitgeist is a heartfelt, ambitious and deeply felt piece of work that vividly recaptures the spirit of this great and influential rock band. The release of Zeitgeist represents a powerful rebirth and reaffirmation of the Smashing Pumpkins by two of its key members, main singer-songwriter and guitarist Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin.
This second coming of the Pumpkins is also one of those rare examples of actual truth in 21st Century Advertising. Two years ago - on the release date of his first solo album - Corgan made headlines around the alternative rock universe by taking out ads in his hometown papers the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, an open letter publicly declaring his desire and intention to try "renewing and reviving" the Smashing Pumpkins. "I want my band back," he wrote, "and my songs, and my dreams."
More than two years later - much of it spent working closely together first in Scottsdale, Arizona and later in Los Angeles - Corgan and Chamberlin have managed to make good and then some on every line of Corgan's declaration of non-independence. Right from the thrilling yet apocalyptic opening notes of "Doomsday Clock" to the final resounding chords of "Pomp And Circumstances," Zeitgeist is quite clearly the sound of a rock group that has been emphatically renewed and revived and is now ready to embrace and further its musical legacy.
This return of the Smashing Pumpkins has been a meaningful if sometimes challenging easy trip from newspaper ad to musical reality. "Actually it's been a different journey than I had anticipated," Corgan admits. "You can intellectually figure what it's going to be like, but until you actually have the experience you don't know. For me, this has been an overwhelming experience."
"I had advance knowledge of Billy's ad, so I wasn't shocked," says Chamberlin. "But it was a real turning point in my life. It was an opportunity for Billy and I to re-solidify our relationship that never really went away. We were really always friends and partners through both our individual solo projects. So it really made musical sense and spiritual sense. It was a way to make a statement that we're not going to make excuses; we're just going to do what we do. If you like it, you like it. If not, we're still going to do it. It was a very freeing thing to read."
For Corgan, the decision to revive the Smashing Pumpkins one way or another was a way of reclaiming his musical birthright. "When I said ‘I want my band back,' I realized that I'd taken the best, proudest thing that I'd ever done and chucked it out a window and tried to build a new castle to live in. And in doing so, I took away every advantage of the one that I had built. Fundamentally, I asked myself, ‘Why build a new persona when Pumpkins was meant to include all the personas?' No matter what, I had to explain myself versus the Titanic symbol of what the band represented even if it wasn't realistic. So I just thought I want my Superman costume outfit back, my Zero outfit or whatever, and just going back to being that person that I'm at peace with."
As the record shows, the Smashing Pumpkins have created one of the most acclaimed bodies of work in music history. Formed in Chicago in 1988, they released Gish, their influential (and platinum) debut in 1991, which was followed by more platinum and multi-platinum albums including the nine-times platinum Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and the four-times platinum Siamese Dream. The pivotal group's many hits include "Disarm," "Today," "Cherub Rock," "1979," "Tonight, Tonight" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings"--songs that defined the alternative music era and continue to resonate on modern rock radio, influencing a whole new generation.
Despite overtures to the other longstanding members of the Smashing Pumpkins - D'Arcy Wretzky and James Iha - it soon became clear that Corgan and Chamberlin would have to go it alone together. In an attempt to get away and focus on this considerable challenge, the pair took up residence in Scottsdale to get down to work in November of 2005.
According to Chamberlin, "We immediately realized that Pumpkins wasn't something you just pick up and start recording again. We came to a lot of conclusions in the first three weeks of playing together including the fact that the sum total of Pumpkins is the result of lots and lots of work. We set about re-identifying what was great about the band, re-languaging some of the music of the past, inventing new ways to play new Pumpkins that still sounded like the Pumpkins, but didn't sound like old Pumpkins. It was very difficult at first. There was a lot of time when we were scratching our head, looking at each other, going ‘Can we even do this?'"
The answer, ultimately, was that indeed they could. "At some point about a month and a half in, we started turning a corner and the songs really started reflecting how we were feeling as opposed to trying to go back and recapture some kind of fire, we were rekindling a new fire, " Chamberlin explains. "When that started happening it became a very joyous experience. We had a vision and we had a way to achieve the vision-and then we were off to the races."
Chamberlin and Corgan were joined for some days at the races by the two men who helped them produce the album. "We worked with Roy Thomas Baker of Queen, Cars and Foreigner fame and Terry Date of Pantera and Rob Zombie and other sundry metal," says Corgan. "Roy is somebody whose name we had bandied about before but we thought he might be out of touch, so it never came to fruition. We'd always heard these crazy rumors that he's out of his mind. Roy came to Scottsdale and he was great so we ended up working with him. It was the right time. Then we were working with another famed rock producer who ended up being a total flame-out. He didn't even last 48 hours in our little intense world. So we called Terry and he ended up helping. But ironically, even though Roy and Terry were involved, we ended up producing ourselves mostly because of our twin mentality."
"We took the long road and not everybody understands the long road nowadays," Corgan continues. "And with only the two of us, tracking took a lot longer. Roy was really the only person who really auteured the record in a way, almost just by his mere presence and that's because he's not intimidated by anything-he's seen it all, done it all. You say something about throwing a piano off a building to Roy, and he says ‘Oh, I've tried that. Once. And the sad part is that it didn't sound that good'. That's Roy. It's mind-boggling what it takes to get him off."
Another significant contributor to Zeitgeist was artist Shepard Fairey--best known for his Andre The Giant street art--whose striking album cover suggests some of the simultaneously uplifting and sinking feelings of the modern world. "Like a great artist can do, Shepard had summed up very simply a lot of complex themes. He also used the type font from our very first single, and I asked him about it and he had no idea. He was just on point."
Corgan and Chamberlin are now on point to bring the band to life on the road. Their May 22 Paris show will be the first Smashing Pumpkins show since December 2, 2000. "We put a band together that's really amazing," Chamberlin says. "We went through a lot of growing pains finding musicians and people who had the same kind of musicianship. I did a lot of the auditions myself while Billy was doing the overdubs on the album, and what I gravitated to was even more spirit than talent. When I found the right two people, it was very obvious."
After the long haul of recording Zeitgeist, Corgan seems very at peace with the decision to proceed. "There have been different roads you could take. There's the much-vaunted reunion road where people do not speak, but because there's money to be made, they play but hate each other. We were very open to the idea of our former bandmates playing, but only under the circumstance of love of music, and love of playing new music. If those criteria weren't present, then they weren't going to be involved. Moving forward it really has to be about what the music asks of us."
For Corgan and Chamberlin, working as a duo on Zeitgeist has only brought more depth to a musical partnership-one that was tested by Chamberlin's past personal problems and his subsequent firing from the band in 1996. "It taught us a lot of deep, hard lessons about life and about what matters," Chamberlin says now. "Through our so-called estrangement I never felt a total disconnect with Billy. For us to have gone through what we've gone through--me personally and him personally...My publicized life aside, there were things we went through that people don't know about-Billy's mother's passing, my mother and father's passing, it's all really brought us together."
"I've been continually humbled by the relationship," Corgan adds. "You have this thing you do together that remotely sounds like what people identify as sounding like the Smashing Pumpkins. When you think of all the energy that's been created off that gift between us, that's a staggering thing. We could sit here and wax rhapsodic about why that is, but the truth is we have no clue why when we play together something seems to happen. And it doesn't mean we can't have great moments with other people, but we consistently seem to go to some other place together."
For now, both men express excitement to get to visit - and even reside in that other place - that Pumpkins place - again.
"It's an absolute joy," says Corgan. "In all candor, there are some songs I haven't played in 13 years and I'm the kind of person who can't lie about it. If I hated playing those songs, I would tell you. I'm loving being in a great place to represent this music. We want to play this music, and we appreciate that you want to hear it. And even if you don't we can respect that. We've come out of the fire of it all, and we're tough enough to go from here."
"It's amazing," adds Chamberlin. "What's amazing is the pure physicality, the primal instinct behind what we did back then-how our conviction was so much stronger than our intuition. It gives me a deep appreciation of myself as a young man and Billy as a young man—and for how unashamedly we pursued our craft and continue to do so."
"It's surprisingly fun," Corgan says with a visible smile. "That's not a word you normally associate with us, but it's fun."
- By David Wild, from an interview conducted in Chicago in April 2007.
In-depth Biography Of all the major alternative rock bands of the early '90s, the Smashing Pumpkins were the group least influenced by traditional underground rock. Lead guitarist/songwriter Billy Corgan fashioned an amalgam of progressive rock, heavy metal, goth rock, psychedelia, and dream pop, creating a layered, powerful sound driven by swirling, distorted guitars. Corgan was wise enough to exploit his angst-ridden lyrics, yet he never shied away from rock star posturing, even if he did cloak it in allegedly ironic gestures. In fact, the Smashing Pumpkins became the model for alternative rock success -- Nirvana was too destructive and Pearl Jam shunned success. The Pumpkins, on the other hand, knew how to play the game, signing to a major-subsidized indie for underground credibility and moving to the major in time to make the group a multi-platinum act. And when the group did achieve mass success with 1993's Siamese Dream, they went a long way to legitimize heavy metal and orchestrated prog rock, helping move alternative rock even closer to '70s AOR, especially in the eyes of radio programmers and mainstream audiences. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Pumpkins were able to withstand many internal problems and keep selling records, emerging as the longest-lasting and most successful alternative band of the early '90s.
The son of a jazz guitarist, Billy Corgan grew up in a Chicago suburb, leaving home at the age of 19 to move to Florida with his fledgling goth metal band, the Marked. After the band failed down South, he returned to Chicago around 1988, where he began working at a used-record store. At the shop he met James Iha (guitar), a graphic arts student at Loyola University, and the two began collaborating, performing and recording songs with a drum machine. Corgan met D'Arcy Wretzky at a club show; after arguing about the merits of the Dan Reed Network, the two became friends and she joined the group as a bassist. Soon, the band, who named themselves the Smashing Pumpkins, had gained a dedicated local following, including the head of a local club who booked them to open for Jane's Addiction. Before the pivotal concert, the band hired Jimmy Chamberlin, a former jazz musician, as their full-time drummer.
In 1990, the Smashing Pumpkins released their debut single, "I Am One," on the local Chicago label Limited Potential. The single quickly sold out, and in December, the band released "Tristessa" on Sub Pop. By this point, the Smashing Pumpkins had become the subject of a hot bidding war, and the group latched on to a clever way to move to a major label without losing indie credibility. They signed to Virgin Records, yet it was decided that the group's debut would be released on the Virgin subsidiary Caroline, then the band would move to the majors. The strategy worked; Gish, a majestic mix of Black Sabbath and dream pop produced by Butch Vig, became a huge college and modern rock hit upon its spring 1991 release. While it earned a large audience, many indie rock fans began to snipe at the Smashing Pumpkins, accusing them of being careerists. Such criticism did the band no harm and they embarked on an extensive supporting tour for Gish, which lasted over a year and included opening slots for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. During the Gish tour, tensions between bandmembers began to escalate, as Iha and D'Arcy, who had been lovers, went through a messy breakup, Chamberlin became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and Corgan entered a heavy depression. These tensions hadn't been resolved by the time the group entered the studio with Vig to record their second album.
Toward the beginning of the sessions, the Pumpkins were given significant exposure through the inclusion of "Drown" on the Singles soundtrack in the summer of 1992. As the sessions progressed, Corgan relieved himself of his depression by working heavily -- not only did he write a surplus of songs, he played nearly all of the guitars and bass on each recording, which meant that its release was delayed several times. The resulting album, Siamese Dream, was an immaculate production owing much to Queen, yet it was embraced by critics upon its July 1993 release. Siamese Dream became a blockbuster, debuting at number ten on the charts and establishing the group as stars. "Cherub Rock," the first single, was a modern rock hit, yet it was "Today" and the acoustic "Disarm" that sent the album into the stratosphere, as well as the group's relentless touring. The Smashing Pumpkins became the headliners of Lollapalooza 1994, and following the tour's completion, the band went back into the studio to record a new album that Corgan had already claimed would be a double-disc set. To tide fans over until the new album, the Pumpkins released the B-sides and rarities album Pisces Iscariot in October of 1994.
Working with producers Flood and Alan Moulder, the Smashing Pumpkins recorded as a full band for their third album, which turned out to be, as Corgan predicted, a double-disc set called Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Although many observers were skeptical about whether a double-disc set, especially one so ridiculously named, would be a commercial success, Mellon Collie became an even bigger hit than Siamese Dream, debuting at number one on the charts. On the strength of the singles "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "1979," "Zero," and "Tonight, Tonight," it would sell over four million copies in the U.S., eventually being certified platinum over eight times (each disc in the set counted separately toward certification). The Pumpkins had graduated to stadium shows for the Mellon Collie tour, and the band was at the peak of their popularity when things began to go wrong again. On July 12, prior to two shows at Madison Square Garden, the group's touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin, died from a heroin overdose; he was with Jimmy Chamberlin, who survived his overdose. In the wake of the tragedy, the remaining Pumpkins fired Chamberlin and spent two months on hiatus as they recovered and searched for a new drummer. Early in August, they announced that Filter member Matt Walker would be their touring drummer, and Dennis Flemion, a member of the Frogs, would be their touring keyboardist for the remainder of the year. They returned to the stage at the end of August and spent the next five months on tour. During this time, Corgan contributed some music to Ron Howard's Ransom.
Early in 1997, once the Pumpkins left the road, Iha and D'Arcy launched Scratchie Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records. In the spring, the Smashing Pumpkins recorded two songs for the soundtrack for Batman & Robin. Iha's solo debut, Let It Come Down, appeared in early 1998; Adore, the new Smashing Pumpkins LP, followed a few months later to disappointing sales and reviews. Chamberlin returned to the group and D'Arcy exited prior to the early-2000 release of MACHINA: The Machines of God. Several months later, Corgan announced his intentions to dissolve the band before the year was out. With former Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur replacing D'Arcy, the band launched their farewell tour in 2000. Fans of the band received one last treat when Corgan and company worked feverishly to finish off tracks that were left over from the MACHINA sessions. Surprisingly, Virgin Records balked at the idea of releasing the 25-track set so close in time to their previous album, so the band put the entire album (going by the official title of Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music) on the Internet for fans to download for free. On December 2 of the same year, the Pumpkins played a mammoth final show at Chicago's Metro (also the venue at which the group played their first show back in 1988), before officially calling it quits. But the former members of the band didn't wait long before carrying on with other projects -- Corgan spent the summer of 2001 playing guitar with New Order on select concert dates, and later in the year, unveiled his new band, Zwan, including Chamberlin on drums (as well as former Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney and bassist Skullfisher). The other two former Pumpkins, Iha and Auf Der Maur, began putting together an alt-rock supergroup dubbed the Virgins, which may include such big names as Ryan Adams, former-Lemonhead Evan Dando, and former-D Generation leader Jesse Malin. The same year, a pair of postmortem Pumpkins collections were issued for the holiday season -- a double-disc collection and a DVD both called Greatest Hits. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Greg Prato, All Music Guide