Our story begins, as so many rock’n’roll fables do, with a little casual law-bending. Attempting to sneak into the
A stern customs officer pulls me from the luggage carousel and asks who paid for the flight. A record company, I stammer, with unwise honesty. Sensing my fakery, he asks why a record company would fly me to
The name of the windy city’s metallic-grunge godhead having been dropped like a huge clanging bell, I am speedily waved through the gates, but not until a couple more customs men, hair dyed black and in their late-20s, have flocked around me.
“Do you really know Billy?” asks one.
“Well,” I deflect, inching my way ever closer to freedom, a film of panic-sweat forming at my temples, “Does anyone really ‘know’ Billy?”
It won’t be long until I discover just how truthfully I unwittingly spoke.
“Billy’s happy now!” mugs the radio jock from
We’re speeding through the snowy streets of
We’re hurried through the side-door, to the dressing room where Zwan are chilling out before their show. In one corner, guitarists Dave Pajo and Matt Sweeney and bassist Paz Lenchantin jam quietly. Jimmy Chamberlain, without doubt the most ludicrously talented drummer of his generation, bounds around charismatically, looking happier and healthier than he ever did in the Pumpkins. And then there’s Billy…
So many spiteful things have been written about Billy Corgan over the years, about his appearance, his allegedly tyrannical and tantrum-bound studio behaviour, catty onstage remarks and reports of tetchy interview hijinks, and ex-manager Sharon Osbourne’s infamous departing dictum that Corgan’s company made her physically sick. If you believe everything you read, hanging out and chewing the conversational fat with Billy Corgan should be greeted with the same blatant panic as a years-overdue visit to the dentist. Doubly so if you’re a journalist.
But here he is, relaxed and chatting with fans, signing autographs and joking. Slim, immensely tall (6’ 4”) and more handsome than you’d think, he’s nothing like the goth-grunge Uncle Fester he resembled at the Pumpkins’ demise. Strumming the riff to ‘Whole Lotta Love’ in salute to the entrance of Kerrang! snapper Scarlet Page, he seems charming, pleasant, at ease. Happy, even.
“I love being in a band,” he smiles when asked why he decided to form Zwan, as opposed to taking the solo-artist route.
“It’s a lot more fun, it just is,” he continues, Paz singing a sweet folky ditty in the background. “I can do the solo thing any time I want. I could’ve done it during the Pumpkins, if I’d wanted to. I prefer working with people I’m close to. The best music is made by bands. I think 80% of the greatest music is made by bands, and 15% done by singer songwriter types. But ego-driven solo ‘projects’, they’re neither here nor there. It’s not completely independent, and it’s not completely collaborative.”
He remembers who he’s talking to, grins sharply. “And when I do finally record my solo album, you can be sure that quote will return to haunt me.”
We exit to the auditorium and take our places for the Zwanshow. The startling backstage bonhomie extends onstage, too; Billy’s clearly having the time of his life, grinning, cracking jokes, throwing gonzo guitar-hero shapes and even, at one point, halting the show so he can give each band member a clutch of belated Christmas presents. When he indulges in some reckless Hare Krsna dancing during the epic ‘Jesus, I’, you’re tempted to send this impostor back to whatever Body Snatcher pod he crawled from and find out what he did to the ‘real’ Billy Corgan.
But cock an ear to the gorgeous noise being wrought up there, and Billy’s glee is understandable. Zwan just glow tonight, opening with the crescendo-laden title track to the new album, ‘Mary, Star Of The Sea’, twenty minutes of ecstatic guitar overload, Jane’s Addiction channelling the cultured eloquence of Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’. Then there are the poppier songs, like ‘Lyric’ and ‘Settle Down’, a post-grunge vision of Fleetwood Mac’s 70s soft-rock. Finally, there’s the apocalyptic ‘Jesus, I’, morphing over it’s twenty minutes from mantric post-rock chiming, through Queen-esque pomp and dazzle, to a blistering cover of Hawkwind’s space-rock staple ‘Silver Machine’ and back.
Billy’s happy now, and why not? The blaze of Zwan in full-flight is easily fierce enough to scrub all abiding memories of Smashing Pumpkins from the minds of anyone lucky enough to catch ‘em.
But Zwan is a band, not just Billy Corgan’s second career. A genuine supergroup, weighted more equally than you might imagine. Corgan may have penned the songs for ‘Mary, Star Of The Seas’, but it’s the skills and invention of the musicians of Zwan that make it soar so high.
On drums, of course, is Jimmy Chamberlain, the only Pumpkin making the transition. Not that this was a given. “I was, like, do I really wanna be in another band?” he smiles, two days after the Metro show, at the band’s bustling press day in an ice-cream store in Chicago’s impressive Museum Of Science And Industry. “Of course, I look at it now and it’s like it was meant to be. But I’ve not taken it for granted.”
Bassist Paz Lenchantin met Billy when her band
Guitarist Dave Pajo’s recordings with
Since then, he’s worked with underground acts as legendary as Tortoise, Royal Trux and Palace Brothers, as well as tending to his rolling ‘M’ project. Infamously, he spent most of the 1990s unaware of the Pumpkins’ existence.
“I guess the music I listen to has always been the opposite of whatever’s ‘happening’,” explains the bashful, diminuitive guitar genius. “At a certain point I only listened to old music; in the early 90s I only listened to Delta Blues. Even now, I’m listening to blackface minstrel music from the 1920s. I couldn’t tell you what’s happening in the rest of the world. But Billy and I grew up with the same obscure metal influences, figuring out the same guitar solos in different cities.
For all his esoteric leanings, Pajo’s as ‘metal’ as any Zwan. “I was asked to join
Pajo’s route into the band was via Matt Sweeney, playing with him alongside fractured folk-vagrant Will Oldham. Sweeney spent the 1990s in rightfully-acclaimed indie-rockers Chavez, whose 1995 album ‘Ride The Fader’ – all angular twisted riffage and killer emotional gravitas – deserves rediscovery by the emocore generation. It was Sweeney who instigated Zwan’s birth, hooking up with his old friend Corgan shortly after the Pumpkins’ demise.
“I saw Billy at a party,” he remembers. “I respected him so much as a musician, moreover as a friend, and I’d missed him. I asked him what he’d been up to, and he said, ‘I’ve been trying to get out of the shadow of my past’. [laughs] And I was, like, ‘dude, whatever, don’t worry about it’. I think I said something like, ‘Weren’t you in Deep Purple?’!
“Playing with Will Oldham was pretty much my only performing outlet,” he remembers. “After Chavez, I’d gotten myself a day-job, wrote some songs, jammed with James from Chavez, hustled for quarters in bus-stations [chuckles].”
“You weren’t doing anything, were you?” teases Billy.
“Not by your fucked-up standards,” winks Matt, displaying the dry sardonic humour that so often has his bandmates in stitches.
But Corgan is exceptionally driven, and the Zwan era has marked one of his periodic bursts of intense productivity. The last time he was so prolific was the mid-90s, the Mellon Collie years. This time, ‘Mary, Star Of The Seas’ drew from a pool of over 120 songs.
“It’s because I masturbate less now, and take longer walks,” he deadpans. “If you masturbate less, you maintain your ‘chi’. You’re more creative.”
“Aren’t you supposed to masturbate three times a week, or something?” asks Paz, innocently.
“Yeah, for your prostrate health,” answers Billy, authoritatively. “I asked a doctor about it, men need to ejaculate every three days. This is Kerrang!, isn’t it? We can talk about this.”
Paz brandishes her right hand in my face. “Do you know why it’s better to masturbate with this hand?,” she asks, minxishly. “Because it’s my hand!”
And so we segue from self-love to romantic love; to discuss the lyrical content of ‘Mary, Star Of the Seas’, an exceedingly positive, romantic album. It’s a record heavy with love songs, and, what’s more, love songs that don’t always err on the side of heartbreak.
“It’s just an album about trying to have a good time being alive,” he explains. “For Europeans, the idea of living in constant terror of being blown up is not a new thing. But it’s a new thing for us over here; we’re still going through the shock of impending doom.”
The events of September 11th weren’t so much a specific influence on the record, as the endeavour of making a life worth living after that tragic day. “I remember talking one day to Bono,” continues Billy, “he was talking about how he had schoolmates who were killed by the IRA. His whole philosophy was, Shit happens, the world’s crazy, get on with it and just get out there and live. And I think that was a really healthy perspective for me to get. I know that when we play this music I feel motivated, to live, to eat, to fuck, to jack off… whatever. I just wanna get out there and do something. I don’t feel ‘heavy’, so, if that’s romantic, then I guess so. I want to live.”
He contends that much of the morbid, gothic imagery that enveloped the Pumpkins was “theatrical”, and that Zwan is not theatrical at all. “There’s not a lot of ‘consciousness’ about it. It just is what it is. When the band started, we were all aware of peoples’ expectations after the Pumpkins, but at the end of the day, we decided we really didn’t give two fucks.”
It’s an attitude Billy picked up while playing, after the Pumpkins’ split, as a member of Mancunian indie legends and quintessential second-career band New Order, who formed from the ashes of Joy Division following Ian Curtis’s suicide, and arguably managed to surpass that band’s achievements. The ironies aren’t lost on him.
“It was just a bloody fucking fantastic experience,” he remembers, animatedly. “The Pumpkins was really influenced by them – ‘1979’ is totally New Order. You can’t imagine how those guys think. Their whole world is just about whatever the fuck they wanna do. They’re like military people,” he laughs, “whatever they gotta do to find that groove, that feeling, they’ll go all the way. They’re not reverent about anything, the past, the future, anything. It blew my mind. Joy Division is such a revered thing, to me – they’re the godhead, they’re right up there with the Beatles – and they talk about Joy Division like they were talking about their tea, it’s not a big deal. They haven’t bought any of the hype, they just think they were a good band.”
“That’s the band,” whispers Paz, “That one good band that stopped, and another band as good followed.”
But Zwan is more than just another rock’n’roll band. Their next release is to be a live DVD from their acoustic side-project, Dijalizwan, while, says Matt, “Zwan is a very flexible thing. People in the band can do their own thing under the Zwan name, it could be any combination of members. It’s a very open thing; ‘Zwan’ is an open word.
“I remember when we were tossing around names, I saw that Billy had written down ‘Zwan’ and I thought, that’s a cool name,” says Matt. “I didn’t know what it meant, but it was evocative of certain 60s European bands that would just make up words so they wouldn’t have to have any preconceptions forced upon them. As it turns out, it’s also the name for a very popular canned lunch meat in
“My favourite is
What’s wrong with the name ‘Billy’?
“Look up ‘William’ and you’ll see,” he smiles. “The original origin of the name William is a German word. And it’s so fucking appropriate that it’s stunning. It means ‘he who is without dick’,” he fibs.
Paz: “‘He who is without dick, sucks nothing’.” [laughter]
Billy: “See, it’s only our second interview of the day, and already we’re in full-on dick-joke mode.”
Paz: “You’ll notice how much I talk when we talk about penis.”
Zwan’s release party that night should be a rock’n’roll dream come true – the band rocking out beneath actual 757s and Spitfires suspended from the museum’s ceiling – but, as Matt strolls onto an eerily quiet stage, quipping “It’s like a museum in here” before howling like a mad dog into the silence, it’s apparent something’s not quite right. Perhaps it’s the invite-only audience, a mixture of rabid fans and industry scenesters who don’t quite ignite like the kids Saturday night, who sang every lyric to songs not-yet released. Whatever, Zwan play a fine gig, but never quite unfurl to the glorious heights they’re capable of; which, once you’ve experienced the full Zwan vision, is somewhat crushingly disappointing.
Still, the kids in the first few rows don’t seem too upset. Billy throws out his plectrums to them as the band finish without their planned encore, shaking hands with those nearest him. But the vigour of their fandom – swarming like piranhas toward him, one kid howling to no-one, “I shook Billy’s hand!” at utterly bloodcurdling volume – seems to take him aback, make him uncomfortable.
Afterwards, in the dead, awkward hustle of the Record Company party, I stroll around the museum, wondering about Zwan, and their future. If history has taught us anything, supergroups are ever short-lived things, wrenched apart by the very egos that formed them. For all their protestations, their talk of flexibility and open-ness, their endless dick-jokes, what’s to stop that happening with Zwan? When Matt Sweeney tires of everyone considering Zwan to be just Billy’s band, of answering question after question on the Pumpkins? When Dave Pajo’s restless muse sends him off in wordless pursuit of another obscure, mind-blowing sound? When Billy decides it’s finally time for his ego-driven solo project? Billy’s happy now. But for how long?
I randomly stumble down a mock-up 1950s street, lined with old-fashioned shops, where, as eerie mannequins gaze mutely on, Zwan are being interviewed by French TV channel Musique Plus. It’s late in the evening of a day full of interviews and rock-shows, and the burnt-out Zwan are playful to the extreme. Pajo tootles a harmonica throughout, in lieu of actually talking. Matt wields his acerbic, anarchic wit without mercy. Paz, describing herself as a ‘yoga enthusiast’, stretches her limbs wantonly and obliviously. Jimmy flirts riotously with the interviewer, and Billy tries, through the fog of exhaustion, to elucidate the concept of Zwan one last time. Asked to give one last nugget of rock’n’roll wisdom in closing, he winks, “The band that sleeps together, sleeps together.”
The interview finished, the band clamber up and head back to the party. Billy, spotting me in the shadows, hollers out, “Hey! Did you get everything you needed?”
One last question… Why are you still doing this? I’m not being facetious, but it’s not as if you have to…
“You mean, what’s it like to be rich, famous and still make music?” he replies. “I love it. It’s like breathing to me. If you look at my life as a series of choices, the best choices had to do with music. If you look at my personal life, the sports teams I’ve followed [laughs], they’ve all been disastrous. It’s the one place I feel it won’t kill me. It’s tried, but it hasn’t killed me yet. I just think it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Without another word he walks away.
We did the research. ‘William’ is descended from the German word ‘willig’; it means ‘willing’, ‘strong-willed’. Maybe Billy sees this as a curse. But maybe he’ll discover it’s just as much of a blessing, too.(c) Stevie Chick 2003