It was 30 years ago, in 1988, that a nascent local band called The Smashing Pumpkins was first starting to play its crunchy psych rock for handfuls of in-the-know concertgoers at Chicago’s famed Avalon and Cabaret Metro clubs. With the help of ‘90s mega producer Butch Vig, the band’s landmark debut album “Gish” was released in 1991, quickly followed by the sophomoric aftershock of “Siamese Dream” in 1993 that came to own a substantial corner of alt rock real estate and defined the sound of Generation X.
THE SMASHING PUMPKINS
When: 7:30 p.m. August 13-14
Where: United Center, 1901 W. Madison
While The Smashing Pumpkins has naturally outgrown those early roots, on the latest 41-date arena tour there is a definite return to form, starting with the reunion of three of the original band members: frontman Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who have not toured together in 18 years.
“The chemistry between us is unmistakable. It was immediately apparent when we did finally play together at that Ace Theatre show [a surprise gig in March 2016],” says Chamberlin during a break on the band’s current Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour. The road show arrives Aug. 13 at the United Center (with a second show Aug. 14) on the heels of that newsmaking 30th anniversary show in Holmdel, New Jersey, which featured guests such as Courtney Love.
“With Billy and James starting to talk things out, it really led to the genesis of where we are now, and the relationships have never been in a better place. I feel like we’re all old enough to be in the band now,” Chamberlin adds, laughing. “When you’re young it’s more difficult to navigate. You’re talking about three individuals that basically grew up together, which at times wasn’t always easy.”
While seeing the trio together again is a feat, notably absent from the tour is original bass player D’Arcy Wretzky. A series of posts that went viral earlier this year featured back-and-forth allegations by both her and Corgan of what led to the demise of their musical collaborations, and the damage appears to be permanent. “I’m not in the prediction business but at this point I think the concrete is dried,” says Chamberlin, who pivots the conversation instead to talking about the contributions of touring bassist Jack Bates, son of New Order/Joy Division great Peter Hook.
“We were all such big Joy Division and New Order fans and a lot of the bass on the early Pumpkins stuff was reminiscent of that type of playing anyway, so to have a genealogical participant who understands that material is pretty unique,” Chamberlin says. The touring band is further fleshed out by well-oiled guitarist Jeff Schroeder as well as keys and backing vocals from Katie Cole. There are also production touchpoints from creative cohort Linda Strawberry, who collaborated with Corgan on the short film, “Pillbox,” which accompanied “Ogilala,” his solo album released last fall.
“Linda and Billy came up with some really incredible visuals for the tour that, for the first time, are in lockstep with the lyrics to the songs in a way that only the person who wrote the lyrics could do,” says Chamberlin of the night’s full experience that spans three hours and celebrates the band’s best works like “Rhinoceros” and “Soma” along with covers. He adds, “It’s been fun for me as somebody who participated musically to see where Billy’s head was at when these lyrics were written.”
Chamberlin, Corgan and Iha recently returned to the studio to pen new material too, including the newest single “Solara,” working alongside pinnacle producer Rick Rubin. “The art is certainly flowing again in the best possible way,” says Chamberlin, noting that 16 new songs were churned out in three weeks, half of which will likely be released still this year. “Absolutely everybody is fully committed to this new journey.”
Chamberlin has also recently committed to a new role, having joined the Columbia College Chicago Board of Trustees in February. The father of two had previously been on the board of his children’s former Montessori school in Lake Forest where he says, “I really saw the impact that education can have not only on individual students but on their families and the greater culture. I’ve gotten so much from the entertainment industry and so much from my musical journey that I’m always looking for ways to give back and Columbia seemed like a natural fit.” He continues, “They are such an incredible institution that lets [students] explore the outer reaches of their creativity in a way that gives them confidence.”
In his downtime from touring and working as CEO of the media and tech-minded company Blue J Strategies, Chamberlin tries to work closely with the college’s student affairs committee to be “a cheerleader” for the school. “I feel like my job is to get [students] to see how valuable they are. Chicago reaps so many benefits from its art community whether it’s the blues bars to the institutes to the artists. Those are the things that identify the city and I think art will be critical to moving things forward.”
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