Smashing Pumpkins reunite, '90s upheaval aside

The Smashing Pumpkins, comprising (from far left) James Iha, Billy Corgan, Jeff Schroeder and Jimmy Chamberlin, will set out on a summer tour that will feature songs from their first five essential albums. Schroeder is standing in for original member
The Smashing Pumpkins, comprising (from far left) James Iha, Billy Corgan, Jeff Schroeder and Jimmy Chamberlin, will set out on a summer tour that will feature songs from their first five essential albums. Schroeder is standing in for original member D'Arcy Wretzky.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES • Despite reviving the Smashing Pumpkins brand with more albums and regular touring over the years, Billy Corgan, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist - and only constant member - has never again sniffed the creative or commercial success of the band's 1990s heyday.

So it was with some hard-won humility that he allowed himself to realise a few years back that the Pumpkins were just not the same without original guitarist James Iha, who helped found the group as a Chicago teenager in 1988; Jimmy Chamberlin, the drummer who has been Corgan's most frequent on-and-off collaborator; and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky.

After some tentative e-mails initiated by Iha - their first real contact since 2001 - and then a few air-clearing dinners, Corgan began the process of slowly piecing his band back together. Almost.

Beginning in July, the original group - minus a discontented Wretzky - will set out on a 38-date (and growing) summer tour titled Shiny And Oh So Bright. And though the shows will coincide with the Pumpkins' 30th anniversary and exclusively feature songs from their first five essential albums, it is not all a nostalgia trip. The band have been in the studio with guru-producer Rick Rubin at work on new songs, which likely will be released as two EPs before the year's end.

"I would say this is the happiest time of the band," Corgan said, flanked by Chamberlin, who was relentlessly positive, and Iha, who seemed content to go with the flow.

The question now is whether fans - who have weathered years of diminishing returns from Corgan's mercurial antics, broken promises and odd decisions - will allow themselves to trust the band enough to care. And assuming they do, how long can this infamously dysfunctional musical family hold it together?

"It's a bit akin to trying to rekindle a romance almost two decades later," Corgan said, away from his bandmates. "The love is there, but, you know, is the language? Is the magic there?"

In the studio, they decided, it most certainly was. The band put out a demo of 15 songs with hopes of perfecting one single with Rubin to publicise the tour. He ended up picking eight songs he wanted to record.

Chamberlin said the group's disagreements had never been musical, so upon reuniting, the new songs "just poured out".

Where Corgan remained most conflicted was in grappling with his outsize public persona (a reputation that includes authoritarian control freak, trash talker and conspiracy theorist) and how it has affected his band's legacy.

Never as revered as Nirvana or as overblown as Guns N' Roses, the Pumpkins made their name with sprawling musical ambition and all-out rock 'n' roll chaos. But at a certain point, the soap opera eclipsed even singles as monumental as 1979.

"If I kept my mouth shut and if I kept my band together," Corgan said, "we'd be playing a lot bigger venues and we would be a lot more successful and we'd be in somebody's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

"I'm a class-A heel," he admitted, using wrestling-speak for villain and adding an obscenity for emphasis. In terms of legendary heels in rock history, he added, "I'd put me two, behind Lou Reed, who's the king".

Corgan said that, for a time, "the controversy worked to our favour" and noted that the Pumpkins pulled off five world tours and produced some 200 recorded songs. "So how dysfunctional were we, really?"

But as the others fell away, Corgan's schtick soured. "To my discredit, I didn't realise that that formula works only if you're winning commercially," he said. And when the audience dwindled? "Well, then you're just a jerk with a bad message."

Although they were most energised when discussing their new work, the Pumpkins realised that by playing only their most loved songs on this tour, they could be, for once, crowd pleasers.

"It's a concession to a bigger goal," Corgan said, promising to play the music, for the first time, as faithfully as possible to its recorded version. "We collectively need to rebuild the public trust in our brand."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2018, with the headline 'Smashing Pumpkins reunite, '90s upheaval aside'. Print Edition | Subscribe