What was the plan when you started the band with Iha? To play your songs?
The initial thing was much more even. He was writing a lot of music then, as was I. I was working in a used-record store, living with my dad and basically being the four-track-cassette-making geek. That's basically how it started me, James and a drum machine. We played a show in this bad Chicago Polish bar – this real ethnic bar – and here we were playing this geeky, gloomy art rock with a drum machine and me on bass. Then I met D'Arcy.
The story goes that you met her in front of a club, where you got into an argument with her. What was it about?
The Dan Reed Network [a late-'80s AOR band]. She thought they were good. I thought they were OK, but they were such an MTV-prepped band that it disgusted me. I heard her say to somebody, "But they're really good." And I said, "You're full of crap. They're so phony." And she's like "Who the fuck do you think you are?"
To think about it now, it's the symbolic genesis of our relationship. We see eye to eye but never quite totally in sync. It just started like that. The first time she came over to my house, she was so nervous that she couldn't even play. Her hands were shaking so bad, she couldn't hold the instrument. But I thought she was nice and such an interesting person that, hey, whatever, we'll worry about the rest later.
Jimmy is in symbolic and real terms the power. He's just a visceral character.
What was the Chicago scene like when the Pumpkins started?
It was a sub-Minneapolis, post-Hüsker Dü/Replacements thing. That Midwestern pop sound with a bit of edge. But it was still dumb girl-boy songs. Our attitude was not only we can do this, but we can outdo this.
The band wasn't really congealed when we started playing, so we were pretty much dismissed at that tune. We got this very early chip on our shoulder – of not being accepted. But we very quickly went up the little Chicago ladder of success; our fourth show, we opened for Jane's Addiction. We went from nobody to somebody. It created this kind of jealousy.
But it just made us try harder. No one was patting us on the back. We didn't have any indie credentials, we weren't friends with anybody. We didn't have anybody talking about us.
Then Nirvana happened.
Before Nirvana we were considered a retro band. After Nirvana we were considered a riding-the-coattails band. So we went from tipping off the past to ripping off the future. Whatever. We've never been very good at spin control.
How did you feel about that swipe at the Pumpkins in Pavement's "Range Life" ['Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins. . . . They don't have no function/I don't understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck"]?
How about let's start with jealousy? There's always been flak we've gotten from certain bands – the Mudhoneys and Pavements of this world – that somehow we cheated our way to the top, that we deceived the public to get where we're at. We have our own level of integrity that we've kept to, and we're not going away.
So I think it's rooted in jealousy, the kind where someone is looking at a picture and saying, "This is where I belong, and I don't understand why I'm not there." It shows true pettiness. And on top of that, Pavement started a rumor that I kicked them off Lollapalooza [in 1994], which was totally untrue.
I had no problem with Pavement. When I met the guys from Nick Cave's band, they said they were told that I'd tried to kick them off the bill, too. I'm totally a Nick Cave fan. That was astounding to me, maybe Pavement didn't start the rumor. Maybe it was some industry insider: "Blame it on Billy." But stuff like that is really pathetic.
It's as if the commercial success of alternative rock has created this exclusionary mentality in the underground regarding issues of purity and motive.
It's like high school all over again. You have the football team, except the football team is the guys in Pavement and Mudhoney. And they're all patting themselves on the back for how cool they are instead of healthily challenging themselves to greater heights. A lot of these bands have spent a lot more time worrying about what they look like in public, what their stature is than doing what they're supposed to be doing, what their fans would want them to do. Which is be the best band they can be.
What was it like headlining Lollapalooza? For an alternative band like the Pumpkins, it's the ultimate measure of enormity.
That was absolutely, positively the most draining experience of my life. I think that videos and overexposure have put bands in an unwinnable situation. Add to that the fact that part of the reason people like alternative music is that it's become quote-unquote classic-rock music, kowtowing to "put your hands in the air."
The Spinal Tap vibe: "Hello, Cleveland!"
Right. There we are, following the Beastie Boys, who are a very crowd-pleasing type of band. Then here comes us, the doom-and-gloom machine. We went with this monstrosity light show, but we did not back down from being the Smashing Pumpkins. We would come out and do all our known songs, the first five songs. It was like throwing down the gauntlet: Are you gonna hang, or you gonna go?
What was insidious was, I took a lot of flak not only from external sources like the media but from people and other bands on Lollapalooza for rippling the water. And I thought, "You bunch of fucking pussies." Here's Nick Cave playing to empty auditoriums, and he's not bending a hair off his head. He's fucking being Nick Cave. Fuck if we were going to go up there and go, "Hello, Cleveland!"
You just shared the bill with Hole at the Reading Festival, in England, where Courtney Love caused a ruckus during your set by marching into the photo pit with an army of photographers. Did that piss you off?
Didn't see her. [Laughs.] Honestly. Swear to God. Didn't know she was there. Because the Reading stage was like 50 feet high. So I really did not see her. I did speak to her the next day, because we were on the same bill at the next festival, in Belgium. It was probably the first time we'd spoken in a year.
What did you talk about?
We talked about babies, things like that. I've known her for a long time. We've been over a lot of ground together. I don't really know what to say about it. It's as personal as two friends can be.
But she is very vocal about you and her relationship with you.
But there's this other side to her that I know and most people wouldn't know. That's where we communicate. What do you say about her that hasn't been said? I could say nice things, but people wouldn't believe me.
I feel no responsibility to be her champion anymore. She's on her own. What do you say about her? She's an enigma. When I met her in 1990, it was obvious she was an enigma. I have plenty of good things to say and plenty of bad things to say. But it's kind of pointless.
Everyone's always trying to dissect. It's entertaining, but it's my life. There is a point where I want to separate something. I want to have some kind of sacred space.
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