Tag Archives: billy corgan

My Ambient Canon II: Pumpkin Seeds


As I wrote in my previous post, my introduction to ambient music wasn’t via ambient music directly, but rather through a variety of other sources. This nascent series isn’t intended to be chronological (from an autobiographical point of view). I’ll attempt some organization, but we’ll see. For this entry, I’ll begin with what I think may be my “patient zero,” at least as much as my memory is concerned: Smashing Pumpkins.

About three years ago I briefly wrote about SP as being a musical “primary source” of mine. Among the band’s many musical layers and nuances is the use of sonic ambience. Although it’s not a crutch, Billy Corgan‘s (and James Iha’s, etc. – but, primarily for studio recordings, Billy’s) guitar is often made many through overdubbing. Beyond that, the group has always featured two guitarists live (2+ via studio magic), and the added chordal layer is part of what gives the band’s music such sonic weight. Aside from weight, the additional guitar allows for layering in both the foreground and background. This is quite prevalent throughout Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and album that left a profound impression on me. (After all, I was 12 when it was released and I first heard it.) The album is mammoth in scope and sonic breadth – alternately intimate and epic. Some songs include layers that I would now consider to be ambient-friendly, though at the time it wasn’t in my vocabulary. One example is the lush and often soaring layers atop the core band in “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans.” The song itself is good enough, but that layer greatly enhances the sonic depth and I’ve always been very attracted to it. Of course, such layering is different from the symphony orchestra employed in “Tonight, Tonight” (bravo Chicago Symphony Orchestra!), as the orchestra plays defined parts and lines. “Porcelina,” on the other hand, includes additional layers meant to simply add sonic presence and/or weight. If you eliminate the core song – vocals, rhythm & solo guitars, bass, drums – the remaining layers would themselves, to me, provide an enjoyable listening experience. While I may not have been able to precisely put my finger on it as a preteen, I know that part of the attraction to this song has always been my wanting to listen to and enjoy that layer in a vacuum.

Another SP song to do this, released a year later, is “Set the Ray to Jerry” from 1996’s MCIS b-side box set The Aeroplane Flies High. “Jerry” is nowhere near as grandiose as “Porcelina.” It’s a chill, contemplative, midtempo number – one of the band’s hidden gems. (The box set, originally printed as a limited edition, has now been reissued and I encourage SP fans without it to correct themselves.) The song begins with a quiet arpeggiated ostinato before the full band enters, and it remains throughout most of the song. And while its nowhere near the piece’s focus, like “Porcelina,” it dramatically improves the listening experience. Towards the end of the song, additional soaring-but-subtle guitar lines are added to drive – or, in this case, coast – things to a close.

There are many other examples from the entire Pumpkins catalogue from which to choose, but these are early examples that stuck out to me at the time, especially considering that Mellon Collie was the first full SP album I dug deep into. But many other SP songs can be argued to have either ambient-, space-, or drone-/noise-friendly qualities. Some are: the outro in “For Martha” (…and much of the rest of the drum machine-laden Adore), “Soma,” “Glissandra,” “Owata,” “Silverfuck” from Earphoria (utilizing pure noise in a live rock performance blew my early adolescent mind), the 23-minute Cage-ian “Pistachio Medley,” and much of MACHINA: The Machines of God, including the fabulous outro of “This Time.” And of course there’s the seemingly ubiquitous EBow

Beyond the Smashing Pumpkins, Billy let these tendencies run rampant as well. An easy go-to would be his digital-heavy solo effort TheFutureEmbrace, which I described here. Also, Zwan, with its lineup featuring three guitarist, offered a richer sonic palette live than the Smashing Pumpkins, particularly on the epic “Mary, Star of the Sea.” In fact, droning nature of that song’s intro is something that, even now, my mind quickly goes to when in an ambient mood.

Interestingly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t that about a year ago Matt and I briefly discussed Robert Fripp, after which he sent me a video clip of him performing live. (A big name in ambient and non-ambient music, of course.) I don’t recall what it was specifically, but it instantly reminded me of Billy Corgan. I don’t know how much Fripp influenced Corgan specifically, but it’s interesting to somewhat reverse-engineer that lineage now, even if I’m largely speculating. (I know Billy likes David Bowie, but I’m unsure of King Crimson or Fripp alone.) And it was less than two months ago that I purchased Travis & Fripp’s Thread, an ambient album featuring guitar and sax/flute. Talk about coming full circle…

VIDEO: “Set the Ray to Jerry” live at Detroit’s Fox Theater 10.07.07. (I was there and pleasantly surprised that they played this one…)

(Photo: Smashing Pumpkins logo)

MTH-V: Billy Corgan Solo

After Zwan and before reconvening Smashing Pumpkins (2.0), there was Billy Corgan‘s solo project. (And yes, one could definitely make the argument that ultimately all BC-related projects are largely solo efforts.) Whereas Zwan was often considered SP-lite or the “happy” SP, there’s no confusing Corgan’s solo project and album with anything in the Smashing Pumpkins canon.

This result of this solo project was 2005’s TheFutureEmbrace. As the title indicates, Billy looking ahead musically and sonically. It’s interesting because it doesn’t simply sound electronic but digital. While I do like the album, I personally think that the concept of what Billy was going for with it was more successful than the actual product. With the rate of technological change we’re living in, it’s easy to date oneself, making music that quickly becomes irrelevant as the sonic landscape changes. This is something Radiohead excels at – I don’t listen to any of their albums and think Oh, that’s so 2003. Whereas now, when listening to TheFutureEmbrace, I feel like it’s a few years (at times decades) ago. That said, I do like the album.

Naturally, I caught a show on 2005’s Future Embrace Tour at Chicago’s Vic Theatre. The below video is from that two-night stand (not sure which night; I attended the first one I believe). Smashing Pumpkins fans will notice that Corgan maintains his “female quota,” this time with Linda Strawberry. (Zwan and all incarnations of Smashing Pumpkins include a female bassist – the latter is currently on its fourth – and that doesn’t change here even though his solo band lacked bass.) I think the music alone is more effective on record than live – partially because of the visual factor – but I had a great time nonetheless. Because of the album’s focus on digital sounds, Billy didn’t want traditional rock instrumentation for the live show. It was all synthesizers and electric guitar. Therefore watching the musicians was (and, in this video, is) at times a little jarring. But the digital backdrop coupled with the otherwise minimalist staging was quite intriguing. If nothing else, I think Ron Johnson would have approved.

It seems like I’m hedging, but I did have a wonderful time at the concert and enjoyed the album. It just wasn’t anything like Zwan (discussed here) or anything SP-related. Also, it was around this time that Corgan started to hint at wanting to resurrect Smashing Pumpkins, and during the final song at this show he played that trademark guitar lick from “Today” as a musical tease. The below video is of “All Things Change,” the album’s opening number.

*Warning: This video may load slowly.*

MTH-V: Zwan @ Pinkpop 2003

This is a real nice trip down memory lane for yours truly. I intended to post some Charles Lloyd this time week, but for whatever reason decided to a (more than) slight detour and opt for Zwan.

Zwan was the first big post-Smashing Pumpkins musical foray for Billy Corgan, and arguably his most successful. 2005’s “solo album” (what large BC project isn’t Corgan-centric?) was interesting, and quite compelling in concert, but nowhere near the mild commercial success Zwan attained. Overall, Zwan highlighted Corgan’s sunny side, which in a way reflects some of the early Pumpkins ethos. However, Zwan was overall more pop-oriented than SP, as evident in most of the songs on their only album, 2003’s Mary Star of the Sea. Zwan was a supergroup of sorts formed by Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin (both of Smashing Pumpkins), including Matt Sweeney (Chavez), David Pajo (Slint), and Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle). Corgan’s vocals and guitar work alongside Chamberlin’s signature manhandling of the drumset give it a particular SP flair, but the overall music is different (for the active SP fan). I of course championed the band, acting as a walking commercial via joining its street team. I still have a few of those stickers left… 🙂

[Note: It should be clarified for those other hardcore Billy fans that when I write Zwan I of course mean The True Poets of Zwan, the better-known electric incarnation of Billy’s overall Zwan concept. Djali Zwan, the acoustic “yang” featuring the same personnel plus cello, also performed but never completed a studio recording.]

I was fortunate enough to see Zwan twice, 12.17.02 at Cobo Arena in Detroit and 05.06.03 at Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. The latter performance not only turned out to be the band’s final US show, but also proved to be, if I sat down and really thought out the list, one of the ten best live shows I’ve attended (of any genre). It was truly special. Despite the band’s inner turmoil (another BC trademark), they were a solid ensemble and absolutely destroyed the hall that night. Also, with Billy being from Chicago, he was pretty laid back and even jovial.

This video is of the band’s performance of “Mary Star of the Sea” (the album’s title track), closing their 2003 Pinkpop Festival set. (This song closed the first show I saw and opened the second…one of the best opening numbers I’ve seen. I’ll never forget the feeling of their hitting that first big downbeat at that second show.) Now, with all of my defending the distinct stylings above, this particular song is somewhat reminiscent of the more exploratory jams found on SP’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. That being said, this live band features an even greater wall of sound. The three guitars comping and soloing in and around one another is one of my favorite features of Zwan. (Corgan is nothing if not epic.) Now, I’ll be the first to say that Billy’s singing isn’t too hot here – that’s unfortunately often the case, though he’s been better on recent Smashing Pumpkins tours – but the vocals are but one part of this piece.

Watching this just takes me back to seeing that final Chicago show, and I can’t get enough…

“Mary Star of the Sea” – Lyrics
Rooms full of salt
Fault my pluck
And a poet’s charm so far, ever far
Little stars that burn the holes in my soul

And everything just feels like rain
The road we’re on, the things we crave
And everything just feels like rain
The nights I sleep, what’s left to dream
When everything feels like rain

Drift as i dive
Find the deep
Out of reach of all light
Stars, ever far
Listless tides along the changing shore

And everything just feels like rain
The road we’re on, the things we crave
And everything just feels like rain
If I should sleep, what’s left to dream
When everything feels like rain