Smashing Pumpkins is an American alternative rock band that formed in Chicago, Illinois in 1988. While the group has gone through several lineup changes, The Smashing Pumpkins consisted of Billy Corgan (vocals/guitar), James Iha (guitar/vocals), D’Arcy Wretzky (bass guitar/vocals), and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums/percussion) for most of the band’s recording career.
Disavowing the punk rock roots shared by many of their alternative-rock contemporaries, the Pumpkins have a diverse, densely layered, and guitar-heavy sound, containing elements of gothic rock, heavy metal, dream pop, psychedelic rock, arena rock, and, in later recordings, electronica. Frontman Billy Corgan is the group’s primary songwriter - his grand musical ambitions and cathartic lyrics have shaped the band’s albums and songs, which have been described as “anguished, bruised reports from Billy Corgan’s nightmare-land.
Smashing Pumpkins broke into the musical mainstream with their second album, Siamese Dream (1993). The group built their audience with extensive touring and their follow-up, the double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. With approximately 18.25 million albums sold in the United States alone, Smashing Pumpkins were one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed bands of the 1990s. However, internal fighting, drug use, and diminishing sales hampered the band and led to a break-up in 2000. In April 2006, the band officially announced that it was reuniting and recording a new album. Returning members Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin were joined by musicians Jeff Schroeder (guitar/vocals), Ginger Reyes (bass/vocals), and Lisa Harriton (keyboard/vocals) in 2007 to tour in support of their new release, Zeitgeist.
At the age of nineteen, singer and guitarist Billy Corgan left his native city of Chicago and moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, with his gothic rock band The Marked. The band had limited success and quickly broke up. Corgan returned to Chicago, taking a job in a record store. While working there, he met guitarist James Iha. Adorning themselves with paisley and other psychedelic trappings, the two began writing songs together (with the aid of a drum machine). Corgan met bassist D’arcy Wretzky in 1988 after a show by the Dan Reed Network where they argued the merits of the band. After finding out Wretzky played bass, Corgan stated his band’s need for a bassist and gave Wretzky his telephone number. Wretzky soon joined the band.
The first performance of Smashing Pumpkins was on July 9, 1988, at the Polish bar Chicago 21. This performance included only Corgan and Iha with a drum machine. On August 10, 1988, the band played for the first time as a trio at the Avalon Nightclub. After this show, Cabaret Metro owner Joe Shanahan agreed to book the band on the condition that they replace the drum machine with a live drummer. Jazz drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was recruited for the band after a recommendation from a friend of Corgan’s. Chamberlin was at first an unlikely match, as he knew nothing of alternative rock at the time. As Corgan recalled of the period, “We were completely into the sad-rock, Cure kind of thing. It took about two or three practices before I realized that the power in his playing was something that enabled us to rock harder than we could ever have imagined.” On October 5, 1988, the complete band took the stage for the first time at the Cabaret Metro. Although not an official member of the band at this point, Chamberlin would soon be announced as such, and the complete four-person lineup from this first show at the Metro would be unchanged for the next seven years.
In 1989, the group had recorded a handful of demo tapes, which appeared later on the bootleg release Early 1989 Demos. The Pumpkins made their first appearance on vinyl that same year on the compilation album Light into Dark, which featured several Chicago alternative bands. They released their first record, a limited edition single of “I Am One”, in 1990 on local Chicago label Limited Potential. The single sold out and they released another single, “Tristessa”, on Sub Pop, after which they signed to Caroline Records. Smashing Pumpkins recorded their 1991 debut album Gish with producer Butch Vig at his Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. In order to gain the consistency he desired, Corgan often played all instruments save drums, which created tension in the band. The music fused heavy metal guitars, psychedelia and dream pop, garnering them comparisons to Jane’s Addiction Gish became a minor success, with the single “Rhinoceros” receiving some airplay on modern rock radio. After releasing the Lull EP in October 1991 on Caroline Records, the band formally signed with Virgin Records, which was affiliated with Caroline. The band supported the album with a tour that included opening for bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and Guns N’ Roses. During the tour, Iha and Wretzky went through a messy breakup, Chamberlin became addicted to narcotics and alcohol, and Corgan entered a deep depression, writing some songs for the upcoming album in the parking garage where he lived at the time.
With the breakthrough of alternative rock into the American mainstream due to the popularity of grunge bands, such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins were poised for major commercial success. At this time, and amid their protests, the Pumpkins were routinely lumped in with the grunge movement. In a Halloween night interview on MTV’s 120 Minutes in 1993, Corgan remarked, “We’ve graduated now from [being called] ‘the next Jane’s Addiction’ to ‘the next Nirvana,’ now we’re ‘the next Pearl Jam.’ he group nevertheless contributed the song “Drown” to the platinum-selling soundtrack of the 1992 movie Singles, a film set in the Seattle grunge music scene.
Corgan said that in the wake of Nirvana’s landmark 1991 album Nevermind, “We felt a great pressure that if we didn’t come up with a record that was huge, we were done. It was that simple in our minds. We felt like our lives depended on it.” Corgan’s depression deepened to the point where he contemplated suicide. To counteract his depression, Corgan worked overtime, saying he practically lived in the studio for the 1993 follow-up album, Siamese Dream. The album was recorded at Triclops Sound Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, mostly between December 1992 and March 1993. The band lived in Marietta during the sessions, as Butch Vig reprised his role as producer. The decision to record so far away from their hometown was motivated partly by the band’s desire to avoid local friends and distractions during the recording, but largely as a desperate attempt to cut Chamberlin off from his known drug connections. In this respect, the strategy failed, as Chamberlin quickly managed to find new connections and often was absent without any contact for days at a time.
The recording environment was very difficult, and the band fought constantly. The contemporary music press portrayed Corgan as a tyrant during the recording sessions. Corgan admitted there was some truth to the accusations, though he felt the press misunderstood the situation. Rumors circulated that he had recorded all the guitar and bass parts himself. It was never confirmed exactly how much each member participated on the album; Corgan did say he performed a majority of the guitar work, but only because he could record tracks and parts in far fewer takes. In 2007, Corgan would finally clarify the nature of the band’s recording habits, stating “ninety-seven percent of what you would hear off of any Smashing Pumpkins record is, pretty much, just Billy and Jimmy.” In all, it took over four months to complete the record, with the budget exceeding $250,000. Despite all the problems in its recording, Siamese Dream debuted at number ten on the Billboard charts, and sold over four million copies in the U.S. alone. MTV put the videos for the songs “Today” and “Disarm” into heavy rotation, garnering the Pumpkins international attention.
In 1994, Virgin released the B-sides/rarities compilation Pisces Iscariot which outperformed Siamese Dream by reaching number four on the Billboard charts. Also released was a VHS cassette titled Vieuphoria featuring a mix of live performances and behind-the-scenes footage. Following relentless touring to support the recordings, including headline slots on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour and at Reading Festival in 1995, the band took time off to write the follow-up album.
Corgan worked nonstop over the next year and wrote, according to statements in interviews, about fifty-six songs for the next album. Following this spell of concentrated creativity, the Pumpkins went back into the studio with producers Flood and Alan Moulder to work on what Corgan described as “The Wall for Generation X”, a comparison with Pink Floyd’s famous two-LP concept album.
The result was Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a double album featuring twenty-eight songs and lasting over two hours (the vinyl version of the album contained three records, two extra songs, and an alternate track listing). The songs were intended to hang together conceptually as a symbol of the cycle of life and death. Praised by Time as “the group’s most ambitious and accomplished work yet”, Mellon Collie debuted at number one on the Billboard charts in October 1995. Even more successful than Siamese Dream, it was certified nine times platinum in the United States and became the best-selling double album of the decade to date. It also garnered seven 1997 Grammy Award nominations, including Album of the Year. The band won only the Best Hard Rock Performance award, for the album’s lead single “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”. The album spawned five singles - ”Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, “1979”, “Zero”, “Tonight, Tonight”, and “Thirty-Three” - of which the first three were certified gold and all but “Zero” entered the Top 40. Many of the remaining songs that did not make it onto Mellon Collie were released as B-sides to the singles, and were eventually compiled in The Aeroplane Flies High box set. As a testament to the band’s popularity, Virgin Records originally intended to limit the set to 200,000 copies, but produced more after the original run sold out due to overwhelming demand.
In 1996, the Pumpkins embarked on an extended world tour in support of Mellon Collie. Corgan’s look during this period - a shaved head, a long sleeve black shirt with the word “Zero” printed on it, and silver pants - became iconic. That year, the band also made a guest appearance in an episode of The Simpsons, “Homerpalooza”. With considerable video rotation on MTV, major industry awards, and “Zero” shirts selling in many malls, the Pumpkins were considered one of the most popular bands of the time. But the year was far from entirely positive for the band. In May, Smashing Pumpkins played a gig at The Point Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. Despite the band’s repeated requests for moshing to stop, a seventeen-year-old fan named Bernadette O’Brien was crushed to death. The concert ended early and the following night’s performance in Belfast was cancelled out of respect.
The band suffered a personal tragedy on the night of July 11, 1996, when touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin and Chamberlin overdosed on heroin in a hotel room in New York City. Melvoin died, and Chamberlin was arrested for drug possession. A few days later, the band announced that Chamberlin had been fired as a result of the incident. The Pumpkins chose to finish the tour, and hired drummer Matt Walker and keyboardist Dennis Flemion. Corgan later said the decision to continue touring was the worst the band had ever made, damaging both their music and their reputation. Meanwhile the band had given interviews since the release of Mellon Collie stating that it would be the last conventional Pumpkins record, and that rock was becoming stale. James Iha said at the end of 1996, “The future is in electronic music. It really seems boring just to play rock music.”
After the release of Mellon Collie, the Pumpkins contributed multiple songs to various compilations. Released in early 1997, the song “Eye” relied almost exclusively on electronic instruments and signaled a drastic shift from the Pumpkins’ previous musical styles. At the time, Corgan stated his “idea [was] to reconfigure the focus and get away from the classic guitars-bass-drum rock format”. Later that year, the group contributed “The End is the Beginning is the End” to the soundtrack for the film Batman & Robin. With Matt Walker on drums, the song featured a heavy sound similar to “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” while still having strong electronic influences. The song later won the 1998 Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. Though Corgan announced that the song represented the sound people could expect from the band in the future, the band’s next album would feature few guitar driven songs. Adore represented a significant change of style from the Pumpkins’ previous guitar-based rock, veering into electronica. The record, cut with assistance from studio drummers and drum machines, was infused with a darker aesthetic than much of the band’s earlier work. The group also modified its public image, shedding its alternative hipster look for a more subdued appearance. Although Adore received favorable reviews and was nominated for Best Alternative Performance at the Grammy Awards, the album had only sold about 830,000 copies in the United States by the end of the year, which led the music industry to consider it a failure. The album nonetheless sold three times as many copies overseas. The band embarked on a seventeen-date, fifteen-city charity North American tour in support of Adore. At each stop on the tour, the band donated 100 percent of tickets sales to a local charity organization. The tour’s expenses were entirely funded out of the band’s own pockets. All told, the band donated over $2.8 million to charity as a result of the tour.
In 1999, the band surprised fans by reuniting with a rehabilitated Jimmy Chamberlin for a brief tour dubbed “The Arising”, which showcased both new and classic material. The lineup was short-lived, however, as upon the completion of the album Machina/The Machines of God, the band announced the departure of D’Arcy Wretzky in September. Former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur was recruited for the “Sacred and Profane” tour in support of the album and appeared in the videos accompanying its release. Released in 2000, Machina was initially promoted as the Pumpkins’ return to a more traditional rock sound, after the more gothic, electronic-sounding Adore. The album debuted at number three on the Billboard charts, but quickly disappeared and as of 2007 has only been certified gold. Music journalist Jim DeRogatis, who described the album as “one of the strongest of their career”, noted that the stalled sales for Machina in comparison to teen pop ascendant at the time “seems like concrete proof that a new wave of young pop fans has turned a deaf ear toward alternative rock.”
On May 23, 2000, in a live radio interview on KROQ-FM (Los Angeles), Billy Corgan announced the band’s decision to break up at the end of that year following additional touring and recording. The group’s final album before the break-up, Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music, was released in September 2000 in a limited pressing on vinyl with permission and instructions for free redistribution on the Internet by fans. Only twenty-five copies were cut, each of which was hand numbered and given to friends of the band along with band members themselves. The album, released under the Constantinople Records label created by Corgan, consisted of one double LP and three ten-inch EPs. Originally, the band asked Virgin to offer Machina II as a free download to anyone who bought Machina. When the record label declined, Corgan opted to release the material independently.
On December 2, 2000, Smashing Pumpkins played a farewell concert at The Metro, the same Chicago club where their career had effectively started twelve years earlier. The four-hour-long show featured 35 songs spanning the group’s career, and attendees were given a recording of the band’s first concert at The Metro, Live at Cabaret Metro 10-5-88. The single “Untitled” was released commercially to coincide with the farewell show.
In 2001, the compilation Rotten Apples was released. The double-disc version of the album, released as a limited edition, included a B-sides/rarities collection called Judas O. The Greatest Hits Video Collection DVD was also released at the same time, which compiled all of the Pumpkins’ promo videos from Gish to Machina along with unreleased material. Vieuphoria was released on DVD in 2002, as was the soundtrack album Earphoria, previously released solely to radio stations in 1994.
Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin reunited in 2001 as members of Corgan’s next project, the shortlived supergroup Zwan. Their only album, Mary Star of the Sea, was released to generally positive reviews but, after cancelling a few festival appearances, Corgan announced the demise of the band in 2003 under cloudy circumstances. During 2001, Corgan also toured as part of New Order and provided vocals on their comeback album, Get Ready. In October 2004, Corgan released his first book, Blinking with Fists, a collection of poetry. In June 2005, he released a solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, which he described as “(picking) up the thread of the as-of-yet-unfinished work of Smashing Pumpkins”. Despite this, it was greeted with generally mixed reviews and lackluster sales. Only one single, “Walking Shade”, was released in support of the album.
In addition to drumming with Zwan, Jimmy Chamberlin also formed an alternative rock/jazz fusion project band called The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex. They released an album in 2005 titled Life Begins Again. Corgan provided guest vocals on the track “Lokicat”. James Iha served as a guitarist in A Perfect Circle, appearing on their Thirteenth Step club tour and 2004 album, eMOTIVe. He has also been involved with other acts such as Chino Moreno’s Team Sleep and Vanessa and the O’s. He continues to work with his own record label as well, Scratchie Records. D’arcy Wretzky has not made any public statements or appearances nor given any interviews since leaving the band in 1999.
Corgan insisted during this period that the band would not reform, although when Zwan broke up he announced, “I think my heart was in Smashing Pumpkins; I think it was naive of me to think that I could find something that would mean as much to me.” On February 17, 2004, Corgan posted a bitter message on his personal blog calling Wretzky a “mean-spirited drug addict” and blaming Iha for the breakup of the band. On June 3, 2004, he added that “the depth of my hurt [from Iha] is only matched with the depth of my gratitude”. Iha responded to Corgan’s claims in 2005, saying, “No, I didn’t break up the band. The only person who could have done that is Billy.”
On June 21, 2005, the day of the release of his album TheFutureEmbrace, Corgan took out full-page advertisements in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times to announce that he planned to reunite the band. “For a year now,” Corgan wrote, “I have walked around with a secret, a secret I chose to keep. But now I want you to be among the first to know that I have made plans to renew and revive Smashing Pumpkins. I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams.” While performing at various drum clinics across Europe in September 2005, Jimmy Chamberlin confirmed that a reunion tour was planned to begin the next February, with a new album possibly to follow. In February 2006, MTV.com reported that Corgan and Chamberlin had signed a new management deal with Front Line Management, and Melissa Auf der Maur stated that the pair were currently working on an album of new material.
On April 20, 2006, the band’s official website confirmed the reunion stating, “It’s official. Smashing Pumpkins are currently writing songs for their upcoming album, their first since 1999.” The website later reported that the new album would be produced by Roy Thomas Baker, who produced many of Queen’s albums, including A Night at the Opera.
Corgan and Chamberlin were verified as participants in the reunion, but there was question as to whether other former members of the band would participate. In April 2007, Iha and Auf der Maur separately confirmed that they were not taking part in the reunion. Chamberlin would later state that Iha and Wretzky “didn’t want to be a part of” the reunion. Smashing Pumpkins performed live for the first time since 2000 on May 22, 2007, in Paris, France. There, the band unveiled new touring members Jeff Schroeder and Ginger Reyes, who took over second guitarist and bassist duties, respectively, as well as Lisa Harriton on keyboards. That same month, “Tarantula” was released as the first single from the band’s forthcoming album. On July 7, the band performed at the Live Earth concert in New Jersey. The band’s new album, Zeitgeist, was released that same month on Reprise Records, entering the Billboard charts at Number Two.
The group released the four-song EP American Gothic in January 2008. The EP was released digitally on iTunes in the US, while internationally, the EP was released as a CD. In a February 2008 radio interview, Corgan said the band will be playing smaller venues, with shows dedicated to particular eras of the band’s music. The band is planning on releasing archival material from their entire career. That March the group contributed the song “Superchrist” to a compilation CD released by Guitar Center. Though Corgan and Chamberlin have continued to record as a duo, Jeff Schroeder indicated that he might be contributing to future recordings. No longer signed to a record label, Corgan and Chamberlin purchased a recording studio in Chicago and began recording in May, again, as a pair.
The direction of the band is dominated by chief guitarist, lead vocalist, and principal songwriter Billy Corgan. Journalist Greg Kot wrote, “The music of Smashing Pumpkins would not be what it is without his ambition and vision, and his famously fractured relationships with his family, friends, and bandmembers.” Many of Corgan’s lyrics for the Pumpkins are cathartic expressions of emotion, full of personal musings and strong indictments of himself and those close to him. Music critics were not often fans of Corgan’s angst-filled lyrics. Jim DeRogatis wrote in a 1993 Chicago Sun-Times article that Corgan’s lyrics “too often sound like sophomoric poetry”, although he viewed the lyrics of later albums Adore and Machina as an improvement.
Smashing Pumpkins’ distinctive sound up until Adore involved layering numerous guitar tracks onto a song during the recording process, a tactic that Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness coproducer Flood called the “Pumpkin guitar overdub army”. There were a few overdubbed parts on Gish, but Corgan said he really began to explore the possibilities of overdubbing with Siamese Dream; Corgan has stated that “Soma” alone contains up to 40 overdubbed guitar parts. While Corgan knew many of the songs would be difficult or impossible to replicate from their recorded versions in concert (in fact, some songs were drastically altered for live performance), he has explained the use of overdubbing by posing the question “When you are faced with making a permanent recorded representation of a song, why not endow it with the grandest possible vision?” This use of multilayered sounds was inspired by Corgan’s love of 1970s arena rock bands Queen, Boston, and Electric Light Orchestra, as well as shoe gaze, a British alternative rock style of the late 1980s and early 1990s that relied on swirling layers of guitar noise for effect. Mellon Collie coproducer Alan Moulder was originally hired to mix Siamese Dream because Corgan was a fan of his work producing shoe gaze bands, such as My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive.
Like many contemporary alternative bands, Smashing Pumpkins utilized shifts in song dynamics, going from quiet to loud and vice versa. Husker Du’s seminal album Zen Arcade demonstrated to the band how they could place gentler material against more aggressive fare, and Corgan made such shifts in dynamics central to the pursuit of his grand musical ambitions. Corgan said he liked the idea of creating his own alternative universe through sound that essentially tells the listener, “Welcome to Pumpkin Land, this is what it sounds like on Planet Pumpkin.” This emphasis on atmosphere carried through to Adore (described as “arcane night music” in prerelease promotion) and the Machina albums (concept records that tell the story of a fictional rock band).
The Pumpkins drew inspiration from a variety of other genres, some unfashionable during the 1990s among music critics. Corgan in particular was open about his appreciation of heavy metal, citing Dimebag Darrell of Pantera as his favorite contemporary guitarist. When one interviewer commented to Corgan and Iha that “Smashing Pumpkins is one of the groups that relegitimized heavy metal” and that they “were among the first alternative rockers to mention people like Ozzy and Black Sabbath with anything other than contempt”, Corgan went on to rave about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality and Judas Priest’s Unleashed in the East. The song “Zero”, which reminded Iha of Judas Priest, is an example of what the band dubbed “cybermetal”. Post-punk and gothic rock bands like Joy Division/New Order, Bauhaus, The Cure, and Depeche Mode were formative influences on the band, which covered such artists in concert and on record. Psychedelic rock was also referenced often in the band’s early recordings; according to Corgan, “In typical Pumpkins’ fashion, no one at that point really liked loud guitars or psychedelic music so, of course, that’s exactly what we had to do.” Corgan acknowledged that a chord he jokingly claimed as “the Pumpkin chord” (a G# octave chord at the eleventh fret of a guitar with the low E string played over it), used as the basis for “Cherub Rock”, “Drown”, and other songs, was in fact previously used by Jimi Hendrix. Other early influences cited by Corgan include Cream, The Stooges, and Blue Cheer.
Regarding the band’s influence upon other groups, Greg Kot wrote in 2001, “Whereas Nirvana spawned countless mini-Nirvanas, the Pumpkins remain an island unto themselves.” Still, some artists and bands have mentioned the Pumpkins as an influence, such as Nelly Furtado and members of My Chemical Romance, whose vocalist Gerard Way has said that they pattern their career upon the Pumpkins’, including the attention they pay to their music videos. The members of fellow Chicago band Kill Hannah are friends with Corgan, and lead singer Mat Devine has compared his group to the Pumpkins. Deftones lead singer Chino Moreno said in an interview that he is a fan of Adore, listening to it extensively while touring, and that “Once Upon a Time” “really moves” him. Critics have found connections with the Pumpkins’ sound in various Deftones’ albums.
Produced by The Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, Oceania (2012) is an intense and dynamic offering that will appeal to new and existing fans of The Smashing Pumpkins alike. Oceania, the band’s seventh studio record, is an album within an album, part of their 44-song work-in-progress.