In a walk through Smashing Pumpkins' history, we examine the stories and situations that created the studio albums from 1991's Gish to 2014's Monuments to an Elegy. We'll hear from singer, songwriter, and guitarist Billy Corgan, drummers Jimmy Chamberlin and Tommy Lee, and a cast of producers and engineers, including Flood, Alan Moulder, Butch Vig [Tape Op #11], Brad Wood [#99], Howard Willing, and Terry Date.
When did the concept of "produced by" on the back of a vinyl album first occur to you as a music fan growing up?
Billy Corgan: I had a very early awareness of sound that was very personal. Of course later I figured out what I was reacting to, but I do remember having really deep emotional experiences listening to Queen, Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick, and The Beatles, where I connected the sonic information to an emotional quality that I saw as distinctive.
You've been very hands-on throughout your entire professional career as a co-producer on all of the Smashing Pumpkins albums. What motivated you to begin taking an interest in the recording process?
Billy Corgan: I was intimidated by the recording studio environment early on, and in that intimidation I defaulted to letting the people around me do what they do – get the drum sound, whatever – and I had some early experiences where I questioned people, or I suggested maybe that there was a different thing that they could have done. I didn't get a very positive response, which set me down the path of, "Well, I guess I should know how to do that, so when they say, ‘No,' I can tell them why they're wrong." [I preferred that] as opposed to someone telling me, "No" and, "You don't know what you're doing."
Your debut album, Gish, holds up as one of those life-changing albums for most fans. It certainly was the first time anyone had ever heard a sound quite like that one. What made you feel Butch Vig was the right man for the job as your co-producer?
Billy Corgan: The first time I met Butch Vig was when we walked into Smart Studios to record what became our Sub Pop single ["Tristessa"]. I knew who he was by name and reputation, but didn't know anything else about him. I think [I liked] the fact that he wasn't pretentious; he was a hard worker and he wasn't intimidated by the scope of what Jimmy and I were trying to do. In fact, he seemed to welcome it. Then, in turn, he asked us to play at a higher level than we even knew we could play at, which just fueled our, "Alright, if you meet us there; we'll meet you here." That started this really incredible relationship between Jimmy, Butch, and I – we tended to feed off of one another's insanity.
Butch Vig: When I first met the Pumpkins I was thrilled to work with them because I think I had found someone, in Billy Corgan, who really set the bar high sonically. I knew right away that he was gonna push me, but I could push him right back. Quite frankly, on most of the albums or projects I'd done before Gish there was never any budget or any money. I had to do records really fast, in two or three days, or maybe five or six days, so everything just had to be by the seat of my pants. I'd have to make really fast decisions. When we went in to make Gish, I think the budget was maybe 30 days or something, and I was over the moon. I was really thrilled about that, because I always wanted to be able spend more time finessing a sound. As much as I love punk rock, rock ‘n' roll, chaos, and noise, I like to hear the focus of that sound. I like records to be focused: I like to hear the instrumentation; I like to hear the hooks. Billy and the Pumpkins felt the same way. We were a good pair, and I think that was one of the first things we bonded on initially; setting the bar really high in what we could do sonically.
What made the pocket between Billy and Jimmy so special, and key, to the core of the band's sound?
Butch Vig: Billy and Jimmy had almost a sixth sense, in terms of the feel that they developed within songs. They are both amazing musicians. Billy can play crazy, shredding metal, muso-jazz chords, and rhythmically he's just amazing. Jimmy had rock chops, but he also had jazz chops and could play these crazy buzz fills. He had a great swing he could bring, even if it was a 4/4 rock track. So they really just had a bond, in terms of how they played, which I'm sure came in part from when they first started out jamming in someone's basement. They definitely had a chemistry, and I think that's one of the things that really made that band sound special.
Jimmy Chamberlin: We were very intuitive, and we'd listened to a lot of the same music, so our idea of where the destination was, both rhythmically and harmonically, was oftentimes very similar. Billy's got an understanding of my ability that I don't have, so he knows what that intangible feeling is in my playing. If I listen to two takes, and I think one may be marginally better than another, and he picks the one I think is probably not as good, he's probably got better reasons than I do.
Billy Corgan: It was, "What can't Jimmy do?" [laughs] Butch is a very good drummer, but he, of course, recognized very early on that Jimmy was sort of a savant and playing at a higher level, even then, than just about any drummer who'd ever walked through his door. They hit it off right away; it was like Jimmy played the way Butch wished he could play, and Jimmy hits drums in the way Butch wished that he could hit the drums – which pushed Butch. If you listen to the drum sound on Gish, it's still one of the great drum sounds of any record you'll ever hear. It's just so beautiful; I'm still struck by it.
Jimmy, I think it could be credibly argued that Gish's "I Am One" is one of best examples of that synergy in action, and one of your most celebrated beats. What do you remember about bringing that one to life in the studio with Billy and Butch?
Jimmy Chamberlin: "I Am One" was really begat out of a drum machine beat that Billy had come up with that was really almost impossible to play on a drum kit. It's just one of those things where somebody writes something on a drum machine with absolutely no idea of hand-and-foot proximity, and then says, "Hey, what do you think about this?" "Oh, it sounds great" "Well, can you play it?" "Well, I can come back in a week and play it, but in order to play it faithfully I've gotta do a single paradiddle on my floor tom, and then bring my left hand..." There's a pedagogical component to learning that. The genesis of moving my big [floor] tom over to the left was just trying to assimilate that beat.
Billy Corgan: If you go back and listen to "I Am One," and the drum balance on the toms, those are not geeked up; those are him hitting the drums. That's the concussiveness of the way he's playing coming through the room mics. Oftentimes when you hear drummers play, and then you see them live, they don't have the same power because they're aided by the studio balance. That is actually true to Jimmy's balance; what you hear is how Jimmy sounded in the room.
What were some of the challenges of being a co-producer for the first time working with Butch Vig, who was probably used to running the show from behind the board with most of his artists?
Billy Corgan: Butch Vig loves vocals, so when I was sitting in Smart Studios, circa 1990, and I was cranking the guitar, he was looking at me like, "Yeah, every guitar player wants to crank the guitar." And I'm saying, "No, you don't understand. The guitars need to sit here for a reason." I wasn't turning up the guitars ‘cause I'm a guitar player, I was telling him, "This is the best way." Then I, of course, put what we call "Pumkinizer" around my vocals and then buried my vocal, like Exile on Main Street. He was looking at me like, "Wait a second." He pulled the faders down and said, "This is where the guitars should be, and this is where the vocals should be." I said, "That sounds boring." I put the faders back up, and I pulled the voice back up. "That's the sound. That's the sound." So I was saying that. And he was looking at me going, "Wait, you're the songwriter. You're the singer. You're the guitar player. Who am I talking to?" I was trying to say to him, "This is the producer talking." It's hard to have credibility in that moment, because they ultimately assume that you're like every other musician who wants to hear their part, their way.
Butch Vig: We'd go in the studio for 14 or 15 hours a day and just go to battle as co-producers. It wasn't like we were yelling at each other, but we were constantly trying to up the ante. I'd say, "Well, you can probably do that better." Or he'd say, "I don't think that sounds right. You can get a better sound on this." So we were just constantly pushing each other. I loved that. I respected that.
Your second album, Siamese Dream, set a new bar sonically and really solidified the band's "wall of guitar" as a signature sound. What was your vision for that aspect of the record?
Billy Corgan: I came in with a very strong mind that we needed to have a guitar sound that was idealized in the way that Cream or Boston had an idealized guitar sound. I'm not really sure how I arrived there, but it probably had something to do with the fact that Butch finished Gish and literally packed up the next day to record Nevermind with Nirvana. We were at Butch's for a 4th of July picnic, and we were probably some of the first people on the planet to hear that record. We were listening to Butch's mixes. The first song we hear was "[Smells Like] Teen Spirit," and the first thing through my mind was, "Wow, Kurt [Cobain]'s ripped off ‘More Than a Feeling' by Boston." The second thing through my mind was, "Oh, by the way, Butch has ripped off my fucking guitar sound." So I think, in my mind, it was like, "Okay, I'm going to create a guitar sound that no one can follow!"
Butch Vig: We recorded Siamese Dream on analog tape, and looking back it's inconceivable how much work it took. Nowadays, in Pro Tools, it's so easy to slide things around to edit, cut, and paste. It makes the engineer's job so much easier. The great thing about how we approached Siamese Dream is – because we set the bar really high – we had to make sure everything sounded really good, and then the band had to play. They were great players, but we did a lot of takes. Sometimes I would do razor blade tape editing between takes – especially when they were cutting a basic track. Jimmy had to play drums a lot, and Billy had to play most of the guitar and bass on that record. There was a lot of burden, initially, just on getting the drums right; and once we had all that tracked, it really came down to Billy. It was just me and him in the control room, and it was immense, long hours – 12 to 14 hour days – of him playing guitar and singing. I had to keep him really motivated and focused to try to keep track of his vision. I've always loved working with bands that have a strong vision as a producer, and Billy Corgan had a very strong vision. I had never really done a record of that sonic scope. I remember it almost killed me, but was an immense achievement for me personally. Billy was a mad scientist with the guitars. A lot of times I would have to draw out a map, literally, of the song for his guitars with all these arrows, going, "Okay, this one goes to track 14 for the clean guitar through the second verse." For instance, on "Soma," that was one of the biggest guitar maps I ever had. I remember that was epic. I remember having to flip over the back of the track sheet and continue the map.
Billy Corgan: There is a sonic aspect to that. My voice is quite thin and small, so my voice tends to sound bigger, actually, in a wall of guitars. It's been weird for me in the last seven years, because as vocals have gotten louder in the sonic spectrum – and the general consensus is, "Well, you should have louder vocals" – it exposed my voice in a way that probably wouldn't be as exposed if it was still sitting in a pile of guitars. Fans are always complaining and saying, "Turn your vocals back down," but that's the way I like to hear it. Siamese Dream is probably the greatest: Jimmy on fire, and me singing behind a wall of guitars is probably the greatest expression of what we are capable of.
Jimmy's drumming took things to an entirely new level. What were you pushing him to do on Siamese Dream?
Billy Corgan: Siamese Dream was a tricky record as it pertains to Jimmy, because Jimmy was asked to be more than he was at that moment. And, at the same time, he was asked to be less than he was at that moment. Heading into the studio on Siamese Dream, Jimmy was very much still the drummer on Gish. When you listen to something like "Geek U.S.A.," that opened up the door to where Jimmy was going as a drummer. It's like a Disneyland ride. [laughs]
Jimmy Chamberlin: Billy's a great barometer for my playing; he knows what I'm capable of, and he challenges me to move beyond what I think I'm capable of. I hope he'd say the same thing about me. We both have a great admiration and respect for each other's talents. I've heard him do things on the guitar that are literally like Coltrane-level lead runs; just stream of consciousness playing that I've never heard another guitar player do.
Billy Corgan: I loved Jane's Addiction's ability to shift gears, I loved Bad Brains' abilities to shift gears, I loved The Beatles' ability to shift gears, but I felt like we found our version of that. I felt like we were no longer imitating, or in the shadow, of anybody; we were now in our own clear space. The nice thing is that time has born that out. There are still people, to this day, that don't like Siamese Dream because they loved the Gish band and feel I cut that band off to go in this other direction. It's this weird what-might-have-been thing. I feel like the progression of Gish to Siamese Dream to Mellon Collie..., that was who we were. We would embrace whatever we were into, and when we were done with it, we were ready to move on.
By 1995, heading into the double-LP Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, what made you feel the co-production team of Flood and Alan Moulder would be your best sonic sidekicks to achieve your next studio ambition?
Billy Corgan: Flood, I felt, understood what I was trying to get at. My sense of it is Flood came to see us play live and said, "I want to record that band." Flood being Flood, would be way more attracted to the band as we really were, as opposed to the shiny version. He's more than capable of doing the shiny version, but I think he thought the other version was going to be a lot more fun.
Flood: When you watched them live, at that time, during Mellon Collie..., I don't think I've recorded a better band. They were so amazing, but it had to be all four of them there. They all needed each other in different ways. The groove and the feel of the combination of all of them; when they were really on it, nailed it, and knew what they were doing, it was amazing. Jimmy and Billy are so creative. Sometimes Jimmy might come up with guitar bits, or Billy might a have technical idea, so it was a really special time because no one was really overbearing ego-wise at all. As co-producers, Billy was one of those artists I've worked with who just had creativity coming out of every pore and he wanted to push; he never wanted to stagnate. He had ambition and he was always pushing. They'd rehearse a song until it felt right. You could say "genius," or you could just say somebody's found their calling and they're not frightened by it. They wanted to embrace it and push it as far as they possibly could.
Alan Moulder: Flood and I, as a team, both have the same sensibility about what we want from a record. We both want excitement and passion, so the same things get us excited. We work very well together that way, and we're free to argue without fear of anything being personal. We always know if we're arguing that it's a creative argument. We actually enjoy arguing, because it's more like you understand what the other person's hearing and it makes you hear the song in another way you might not have thought of. So we're free to say what we think without having to worry about each other's feelings, because we know nothing we say is meant to hurt that person's feelings. It's purely the creative war, if you like. It was the same way with Billy, making that record, and he would be an absolute fraud if he was not a co-producer. The team of the three of us was great, and a similar thing; where nothing was ever taken personally from what was said. We all felt everyone was confident in each other, and nobody knows how the Pumpkins should sound more than Billy. He was ahead of the charge, in terms of the vision and headspace where things came from.
Billy, how would you describe the energy Flood brought to the sessions, in contrast to Butch Vig?
Billy Corgan: When we played particularly difficult songs, like "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)," Flood would have us practice the song every day, first thing in. So we started every workday with an hour of band practice, and afterwards we would do two or three takes of "Fuck You," or whatever was the crazy, prog- gy, heavy song of that day. "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" is another song that comes to mind. So we would get in a really good, almost live, frame of mind. Then he would track it, and sometimes he would say, "Ehhh, wasn't very good. We'll do it again tomorrow." We would never get too stuck on anything.
Flood: With "Bullet...," really early on when we were going through all the demos, it was quite obvious that the great thing about working with the Pumpkins was that it was obvious which tracks were going to be the real main players. That was most definitely one of them, and we all knew it because it had the energy we wanted to capture.
Were there any new recording techniques that Flood brought to bear in the studio you felt helped you do something new on the album?
Billy Corgan: Most producers usually get out of the way with me with guitars. They know that I'm a charging bull there. They don't have a whole lot to work to do with me on the guitar, so one could argue I've rarely been produced on the guitar. Vocally, however, I think I've benefited from working with great producers like Flood, who've gotten the best out of me as a vocalist. I probably haven't done as good a job when I've produced myself. That's probably the hardest thing to do, is to have a critical eye, because I don't know any singers who love their voice. I hear that all the time. It's really hard to hear your voice and hear it the way other people hear it. So, for instance, early on, Flood realized that recording me with headphones was not only a challenge for pitch, but it was taking away some of the nuances in the personality of my singing; which he wanted more of, not less. So he freed me up to sing with a handheld [Shure SM]58 and the speakers on full-blast in the control room. By doing so, he got the singer that he saw on stage. Obviously we wanted the best version of that.
The production of "1979" has long been the subject of lore among Smashing Pumpkins fans, so let's pull the curtain back. Is it true that that one almost didn't make it to the finish line?
Flood: "1979" had been running around for a long time, and it had started to turn into one of these songs that every album has – where you just grind, and grind, and grind away, and it just won't turn any other color except for gray. You spend all your time on that one song, and it usually doesn't make the album. So it got to almost the last day of recording at Pumpkinland [the band's rehearsal complex] before we were going to swap over into CRC [Chicago Recording Company], and I went, "Alright, that's it. You've got one more day." We'd spent a load of time going through the song again and it just wasn't happening, and I said, "One more day. That's all this song's got, and then I'm gonna chalk it. I'm gonna drown the child." And everybody was going, "No, you can't do that!" And I said, "I can. I'm so bored of it."
Billy Corgan: I still remember the fateful day, sometime during the last week in the studio, when Flood turned to me, looked at the song, and in a very professorial way said, "You've got 24 hours." Meaning, "If you do not come in here tomorrow and have that song figured out, it's off the record. We don't have time to fuck around with these things anymore. We need to focus on things that need attention, because they're gonna be on the record." So I went home. I don't remember working on it all night, other than when you listen to the demo, the demo sounds remarkably like the record. So much so that we even took the drum beat: the exact tempo and exact programming from that machine – and that became the foundational basis of where we started. Then Flood and I worked basically alone, throughout the day, and added little pieces of prog rock and little new wave punches. We built this painting of a track. There was no sense of rules or, "It's gotta be like this." There was no sense of even, "Does this fit on the record?" We just got really excited by the version that we were into. Everything you hear on the track – except for the vocals – is from that one 12-hour span. We built the track up with just the drum machine. But then it was like, "Should we have Jimmy play on it?" We had Jimmy go in, and I think he played for four minutes to a click; just played the same beat, over, and over, and over again. Then we took the one bar that I liked, put it in the Kurzweil K2600, fucked it up, laid it in the track, and were like, "Oh, that works!"
Jimmy Chamberlin: No Pumpkin record was ever recorded with a click. The only songs that we ever recorded to a click were "1979" and "Try, Try, Try" because we sped the drums up. And I think that's it. We didn't use a click on anything else.
Billy Corgan: Then the famous "no one knows what I'm saying" thing at the beginning; I heard that in my head, picked up a 58, sang it into the Kurzweil, fucked that up, and looped it in. We thought, "We'll replace that later with a keyboard," because I heard it more as a melody idea, and then it just stuck. When we went to take it off, and they were like, "No, this is too good." It was like a beautiful day of weird stuff.
Alan Moulder: That's a classic Flood production: the vocal effects and the Kurzweil distortion on the drums. I think once they decided how to do it, it came together rather quickly. That was a special song.
The next album, Adore, took things in a more programmed direction rhythmically with Jimmy gone, arguably expanding on the "1979" production. Heading in that direction, where were you looking to do something different with the band's sound?
Billy Corgan: Adore was me trying to create a unique sonic landscape that was certainly inspired by those movements, but, at the same time, I had my own stamp or take on it. It was a very particular kind of ruin. Using that Kurzweil keyboard was one of the many tools that I used to make it almost [sound] like if you found a record in the attic and said, "When was this made, 50 years ago?" It was like trying to make a living relic of a record.
Brad Wood [initial producer, Tape Op #99]: Billy hired me to work on what was initially to be his solo album. That concept got expanded to a proper Smashing Pumpkins record pretty quickly, and we went at the sessions pretty hard. The first two weeks were really fruitful ("To Sheila," "Ava Adore," and "Behold! The Night Mare") and I felt good about the pace, and the relationship between myself and the band. That all kind of eroded soon enough, and what followed was a lesson for me in how not to produce an album. I learned a lot from the Adore sessions; much of it painful. I didn't serve my client in the best way – maybe I was never the right fit for Billy, or maybe it was the particular circumstances of our lives then. It doesn't matter now. What matters is that there are some really great songs that now are part of the Smashing Pumpkins catalog, and I am proud to have played a part in the recording of them. Plus, the dude can play the hell out of his guitar.
Bjorn Thorsrud [digital editing, engineering]: When we started doing the recording, Billy had this idea to go and set up in a different studio every week to create a different vibe and ambience as we worked.
Billy Corgan: It wasn't very effective, and I wasn't very inspired by Chicago even though I did good work. I think, in the first six weeks, I did "Behold! The Night Mare," "Ava Adore," and "To Shelia." When we moved to L.A. the record went through this crazy abyss that seemed to take months, and months, and months. As far as Flood coming in, I got so far out in the hinterlands – producing the record myself – and I got so lost in it. At some point I called Flood and said, "You've gotta come help me. I'm just lost. I really need a tour guide to get me out of this thing." I think he came in the last six weeks of the record, and in his very straightforward way said, "Right, this one's good. This one's not good. This drum set sucks. This has to be better." He helped me task out what needed to be done and helped me finish a record, which I don't think I would have had the strength to finish on my own.
Flood: Billy was really frustrated, because what he was hearing in his head wasn't seeming to translate. It was a lot of technical issues, where they'd tried to do things in a certain way and it hadn't worked. When you've got such a major part of your band dynamic missing, it was a bit like everybody was unsure of how to move forward. I came into it cold. I hadn't heard any of the songs; I just started going through them, and it was obvious that it was such an intensely personal record. It was going to be a solo record, but still had something about the Pumpkins in it.
Billy Corgan: I was a bit of a hot gambler. Every production decision I made seemed to pay off, and so, for me, – in that period of my life – the production style was intrinsic to the songwriting, and the songwriting was intrinsic to the production style. Nobody had really made a record like "Adore," up to that point.
You continued your working relationship with Flood on Machina/The Machines of God, but also made the decision to bring Jimmy Chamberlin back into the fold. What made you feel his live sound was the way to go after coming off a more "programmed" drum sound?
Billy Corgan: First off, Jimmy hadn't played drums a lot for the three years he was out of the group, so it took a while for him to even find his chops. Because he'd broken the linear chain of us working together, it wasn't like he just stepped back in and picked back up emotionally and musically where he left off. In fact, he missed the whole transition of Adore. The last record he'd played on was Mellon Collie..., and now he's playing on Machina; where spontaneity, darkness, and these weird undersea tones are prevailing. We're speeding up and slowing down drums, and doing anything in our power to make every element of the record sound different. So Jimmy was thrown into an interesting fire. I found the most effective thing to do with him, at that point, was just to say, "Here's the song." And we would go and record it.
Jimmy Chamberlin: On Machina, I think we got – in my opinion – to where we always wanted to be sonically. That record, for me – drum-wise with the distortion and the [Eventide] Omnipressor on the snare drum, the crispy-and-crunchiness of those drums, and how they interface with the guitar dynamics – from a production standpoint, really is our crowning achievement.
Howard Willing [engineer]: We recorded part of that album at the band's rehearsal complex, Pumpkinland, and it was wild. There was an API console up at the front, and it was like, "Okay, this is where we're recording." I said, "What the fuck is this?" This place was enormous. We had PAs set up. That's how we would track and rehearse, with the PAs going! So if Jimmy was playing drums, he was getting blasted with the PA and that's getting picked up by all the microphones. That became part of the sound of that record.
Flood: When Pro Tools first came out, I'd been working with Trent [Reznor, Nine Inch Nails] and I was very, very used to working with whole songs based in Pro Tools, and then committing them to tape. So it was very good for Machina. When he wanted to go off and follow a particular idea he could do that in Pro Tools, brilliantly. It was a great vehicle for him. Then I would try and hone those ideas down; just trying to make decisions. It was really good, and it meant that Billy could get rid of some of his frustrations, or try ideas while I was trying to manage something else. This is another reason why Alan [Moulder] is so vital; because he understands. If you're dealing with a very difficult situation, someone's got your back. The same for Billy. He knows as soon as Alan walks in the room that he and the other guys in the band respect him immensely. That's the thing about albums and individuals. It's never about one person; it's always about a group of people. One person cannot take credit; it's that collaboration. That's what's brilliant about music: capturing human beings reacting and working together, and providing an emotional response. You hope that you can capture that. I think you can. It's hard, but you can do it; and the Pumpkins were amazing for that. I think for me, Mellon Collie..., and Adore, and Machina capture that emotion perfectly – they're just very, very different records.
Billy, on your reunion record, Zeitgeist, you enlisted an eclectic collection of co-producers, starting with the core of yourself and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, then the great Terry Date and legendary Roy Thomas Baker. What was the root of that decision?
Billy Corgan: With Jimmy and I as the album's core production team, I assumed that it would take us a while to form a new language. I was surprised once we got into it that the language seemed to want to steer itself towards the primal and the elementary. It was almost like we got to start over. I know the audience expectation was that we were going to pick up either where we left off, or where Siamese Dream left off, if they got their wish. But for us, emotionally, it was almost like going back to the pre-metallic roots of Gish, where it was all about the [guitar] riff, the drum riff, and the interlocking of those things that created a certain, impressive power.
Jimmy Chamberlin: We rented a house in North Scottsdale, [Arizona], and I think we were down there for maybe two or three months. The idea was: "Before we start yakking about this, let's get in a room and see if there's anything there." It took a while for us both to wrap our heads around A.) "Do we want to do this journey?" and B.) "Can we do this journey? Can we play music, just the two of us now, not in a room with James [Iha] and D'arcy [Wretzky], or Melissa [Auf der Maur] hashing out stuff?" We're probably the two most opinionated ones, so just us two in a room making value judgments about music is what you hear on Zeitgeist. I think when he and I honestly challenge each other, that's when the good stuff happens. That's where songs like "United States" and "Doomsday Clock" came from. They were born of those challenges.
Billy Corgan: We spent over a year forming this new language, which is best embodied and probably most clearly stated on "United States." There, somehow, a primal foundational riff, which any kid can write in his bedroom, somehow turns into this other thing through repetition and a psychotic, polyrhythmic approach – throwing some weird blues vocal that probably seems to be from another song in that song, you can hear where all the pieces connected. Terry's sonic landscape is pretty particular, and of course I was aware of it because I was a fan of the records he had worked on. I got to get inside that, see the stark beauty I was attracted to, and [feel] the muscular power of what he likes to hear coming through the speakers. I think that had a very positive influence in cleaning up our act a little bit, as far as what we were going for.
Terry Date: We were trying to make that record using all tape without Pro Tools. During my time on the record, that's all we used. The challenge was competing with the advantages of Pro Tools while recording only to tape. There was no "fixing" parts. We had to get them right the first time, and Jimmy and Billy had a unique pocket that wouldn't work with a click track.
Billy Corgan: Our bringing Roy in was trying to bring in some peacock-type color over the top of the record. I kept saying to Jimmy, "Why is there no psychedelia on this record?" Every time we've ever made a record, there's been some psychedelia to it. Asking Roy to be a part of that, the vocal production and wider vocal seemed to be the perfect complement to – let's just say – a simpler version of the band's music.
Where were you by the time of the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope series? It's by far one of the band's most vivid expressions, both sonically and stylistically.
Billy Corgan: The tonal aspect of music to me is a felt language, and it's felt in such a particular way that I don't feel it any other way, which is strange. When I'm working on a musical track, and I feel it needs a certain Strat sound, I can't hear another sound. There's no alternate in mind; I feel like I need this particular tone, in this particular color, to say what I want to say. I get very focused in that way, and maybe it doesn't always work, but that's just the way I've always worked. I decided to make Teargarden a public experiment, where I was going take you into the bedroom and I was gonna say, "Okay, here's my first song. I'm going to be okay with letting you listen to me not at my best; not even trying to be my best." I did announce Teargarden as a public process of reclamation and rebuilding, and that turned out to be true.
On Monuments to an Elegy, you broadened your collaborative resume even wider, bringing in Howard Willing as co-producer and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee to sit behind the kit. What direction were you seeking to take the record sonically?
Billy Corgan: The biggest change was bringing in Tommy Lee. What was exciting about it was there were moments on Monuments... that, even though it sounds like the Smashing Pumpkins, it doesn't sound like any Pumpkins that came before – and it has everything to do with Tommy. I think it was the combination of Howard Willing and space. Howard was in the modern world. I think his favorite artist is Taylor Swift, and so, to Howard, production is always whatever people are listening to, and that doesn't mean he has shitty taste. He wants the best version of that. So there was a lot of discussion of how to make rock music, but also how to make rock music with space. Tommy is antithetical to the way Jimmy plays in that way. Tommy is attracted to space, where Jimmy is attracted to filling up the space, but there's no loss of power.
Tommy Lee: Doing Billy's record, for me, was such a cool experience, because stylistically – fuck man – I put on a couple different hats. All of a sudden I'm playing this crazy, prog rock that I don't typically play much of. It was such a challenge for me to come up with some really cool parts and make it "Smashing Pumpkins," but also leave my imprint. I love being challenged, so I want to thank Billy for that. He's a real stickler for not editing, so we would go for the ultimate performance, from top to bottom. There was nothing better than when I was cutting drums. I could see Billy through the glass; I'd watch him jumping up and down, dancing around like a little fucking kid when I'd nail a track. He'd say, "That is fucking amazing!" It doesn't get any better than that.
As someone who stays constantly on the cutting edge in your record making process, where do you think technology is taking us?
Billy Corgan: The studio, as it's been conceived for the last 50 years, doesn't really matter anymore. The studio is how you use technology, and when I think of my position vis–à–vis the studio today, I am an anachronism. No matter how well I can do what I can do in a studio setting, I still think it pales in comparison to what somebody can do using technology in the way I once used technology – which was pushing it to its seams. As a producer, if you're not taking it all the way to the end of that particular rainbow – whatever you're into – you're really not producing.
Do you have any ambitions to produce another band that grabs your ear?
Billy Corgan: I don't think I'm a very good producer for other people, because I have a very particular vision. Invariably you run into the wall of their version versus your version, and that's where I become the artist. The artist has to have the superior vision, even if the artist has the vision to say, "That's not for me." The artist has to be the one who really knows.
Where would you say feel you've been most misunderstood throughout your career as a producer?
Billy Corgan: I've gotten a bad rep through the years of people saying that I "want to do it my way." Actually, I don't want to do it my way. I'm more than happy to have a collective voice, if the collective voice adds up to a choir. My argument – and I guess it goes back to the Phil Spector way of thinking – is that the force of the track is ultimately more important than any particular individual instrument. That includes me, whether I'm playing guitar or singing. Now, obviously, my own predilections tend to come to the fore. If I have to make a choice, the guitar wins; but I think I've shown many, many times that I'm more than willing to sacrifice my playing, or my guitar sound, or whatever – which is why I'm willing to play guitars that are out of tune, or you could even argue "sound bad" – because they add up to something in the track.
What can fans expect next along that sonic journey?
Billy Corgan: Right now, there are two things that inspire me. One is to explore this acoustic other thing; like if Zwan had made an acoustic record. I've never made a record that's been built strictly around that style of music, so it excites me to make that kind of record with Smashing Pumpkins-themed tonalities and approach. So my next record has some electronics but is mostly an acoustic record; a different version of Adore, without the ruinous need to dissolve everything as [it] plays along. In that sense, as a producer, I'm more attracted to the pure and simplified statement than ever before, because I know I can deliver the most amount of information directly.
What do you hope speaks loudest as a singer/songwriter, player, and producer throughout this career?
Billy Corgan: I work to a symphony in my head. It's hard to articulate that symphony, and it usually doesn't come out the way I hear it in my head. It's a beautiful thing if a person can step back and say, "Even if I don't like his voice" or, "Even if I don't like his songs, I can appreciate that he set off on a journey that's quite unique." So that's the one thing I feel proud of – I was willing to take that journey, and I found people who were willing to take that journey with me. I picked up the guitar for very specific reasons, and I said and did everything I could have hoped to have done with that and more. It's been a very crazy route. I never would have guessed that I would have the influence I have had. And I never would have guessed that having accomplished as much as I did as a guitar player that I would be ignored as much as a guitar player as I have been. Part of that I really do think is, during those rosy years, people didn't realize it was me doing the guitars. I think many people assumed that it wasn't me. I think they thought I was the songwriter and lead singer, but they didn't realize I was the guy doing all the crazy overdubs too – it was almost too much for them to put in one hat. When I tried to claim it later, they were like, "Yeah right, here he goes again..." As difficult as that was, and as much stress as that put on us as a band, there were some beautiful things that came out of it. I'm still hopeful that with things like this, and with time, the other work that I've done that's been overlooked or discarded – because it didn't fit in a convenient narrative about me or my personality – will get its due. Then I think I'll find that position and that place, hopefully before I die, where people will understand what my point of view was, and how it was different, and how it was special in that I was willing to try something that no one had ever tried.