Smashing Pumpkins

Over two decades after the Smashing Pumpkins first brought their amalgamation of psychedelia, dream pop, shoegazer and hard rock to the masses, Billy Corgan is on his eighth studio album with the Pumpkins, Oceania. With Corgan, guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bass player Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Michael William Byrne in the fold, the Pumpkins have fashioned a lush, assertive, sensitive opus in Oceania, with distorted guitars, rousing melodies and, of course, lots singing Gibsons.

Hours before the band’s Detroit stop of their Oceania Tour 2012, Corgan and Schroeder chatted with about the band’s trajectory, their go-to Gibsons and what particular guitar Corgan famously used on Pumpkins classic “Tonight Tonight.”

Billy, when you started the Smashing Pumpkins decades ago, did you have any idea the band would become such a pioneering musical influence?

Corgan: No, I didn’t. I think that’s because in the beginning, our whole mentality was just to get out of Chicago and get a record deal. You don’t start thinking of those other goals or those other aspirations until you achieve something on which you can build. We saw over and over again around us, bands that were being called the next-big-thing in Chicago and would never get past the state line as far as national interest. So, it’s surprising. There were a lot of years there where the band wasn’t name checked, which seemed strange to me, because I knew we had influenced a lot of bands. But really, in the last five years, all of a sudden, people are really name checking the band, which is cool. It’s nice.

Why do you think people are naming the band as an influence so much more now?

Corgan: I think maybe the values that the band represents are like a fine wine: They’ve gotten better over time. There were a lot of value systems that were around the band where people pretended they were cooler or more indie, and those have kind of fallen by the wayside. I think that being musical and the integrity of having your own musical language is more important over time than whether somebody likes you or whether you’re popular.

Even though we were popular at different times, we did a lot of things that were highly unpopular, so it’s not like we just had this beautiful arc across the horizon. Our walk through the ‘90s was extremely contentious, and so was my walk through the 2000s, mostly personally. So, it’s surprising for me to now see that the confluence of visual images, the overall musical aesthetic of the band and the actual language of the band is now being commonly referred to in a way that has become part of the greater lexicon of people’s language, and to me, that’s the biggest honor you can have as a musician. It’s to the point where people can play something, and people can say, “That sounds like the Smashing Pumpkins.” That’s one of the biggest honors a musician can get. That’s the unofficial honor.

Smashing Pumpkins

What are your current go-to Gibson guitars?

Schroeder: I play a lot of Les Pauls, but I have a few different kinds of Gibsons that I play now. My main E natural guitar is a Les Paul Iced T Sunburst with a ‘60s neck that I really like a lot. It kind of looks like a Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin era guitar. I’ve also been playing a Goldtop reissue with a ‘50s neck and a white Les Paul Custom. I really like them all. They all sound different. They’re all really good for different applications

Corgan: Onstage for this current tour, I have an early ‘70s Firebird. In the studio, I use a lot of Gibsons. I have a mid-‘70s 335 that was most famously used on “Tonight Tonight.” It’s that chiming guitar sound. It’s one of those guitars that has a switch on it, so you can switch between a single coil and a humbucker.

I have a really incredible ’54 Les Paul Bigsby and a ’72 Les Paul Custom that’s like a Jimmy Page guitar. We also have a ’78 Les Paul that sounds a little bit more like Randy Rhoads to me. It reminds me of what guys were sounding like the in late-‘70s. It has more of a glassy sound to the tone. And I have a ton of Gibson acoustics. I have a lot of Gibsons that I use in the studio, because it’s just part of the stew we make.

What makes Gibsons special and the right fit for the Pumpkins?

Schroeder: People always say, “Oh, this sounds like a Les Paul guitar,” but nothing sounds like it. Get the right Les Paul with the right amp, and it’s just an aggressive, big rock sound that’s become iconic. There’s nothing that can replicate it. I have yet to find a guitar that sounds like a Les Paul that isn’t a Les Paul.

Corgan: For me, the thing I notice that stands out about Gibson as a brand name, first, is their ease of play. They’re the easiest kinds of guitars to play. To use a modern term, they’re very user friendly. Secondarily, there’s a real consistency in Gibsons. You don’t have to work really hard to get a great sound out of a Gibson guitar. They just sound really great out of the box. Other brands, you have to really jerk around with. You can pretty much take about any amp, crank it up, plug in a Gibson guitar and it’s going to sound really good right out of the box.

Look for Part 2 of our interview to run in the coming weeks.

Photo: Anne Erickson