Jimmy Chamberlin on his New Complex Song, Social Media, and the Future of the Pumpkins

The Smashing Pumpkins drummer on working in 2020 and new Pumpkins music.

For the Pumpkins, 2020 was going to be kind of a down year anyway. We didn’t have too much on the calendar. A few things had popped up — a festival in Atlanta and some peripheral dates around that, and we had an opportunity to open up for Guns N’ Roses, eight or nine baseball stadiums, that was supposed to be last month. We got booed off the stage once when we opened for them in the ‘90s so it’d be fun to see how things had changed — or if they changed. We were up for it, though, so it was kind of a bummer.Other than that, we didn’t really have a lot of plans. We recorded a record last year that we’re releasing this year. We’ve got plenty of work to do, just not necessarily in the venue space.

I feel grateful that we were so minimally impacted compared to so many of our contemporaries, who just got gutted. Rage Against the Machine, so many bands were going to go out and capitalize on the incredible market that we had, and then this hit and everybody’s kind of in flux.

We recorded Honor when the Pumpkins were in LA rehearsing, I think the beginning of 2018, that’s when we did the basic tracks. In regard to filling it out, whenever people were available, we inserted their parts. We probably had 20 ideas, and those four were the ones we worked on, and we kinda sat on them. It wasn’t about “Let’s make a record,” it was more just about having fun. Billy Mohler called up and was like, “I’ve been listening to these tracks, we should put these out!” People are so starved for music right now, and they’re good! So we put a little more effort into them, got them ready for prime time, and I’m really happy with it.

Working remotely can be more difficult from an improvisational standpoint. But Corgan and I have been working remotely pretty frequently during this time. He and I are kind of joined at the hip, anyway. There’s not a lot of disconnect there. But I could see if you’re trying to put something together from the ground up in an impersonal medium like that, it could be a little bit more challenging. It is what it is, right? It all kind of feeds into the holistic thing. Whatever you end up with is predicated on the environment or tools or limitations. Brain Eno was a big fan of limitation. “I’m just gonna use one keyboard on this record and that’s going to be the sound, and I’m going to marry myself to it.” It’s another version of that, in a way.

Corgan never stops writing. It’s just a matter of when we have the time or bandwidth to do something. We have a 20-song album coming out this year, the single drops this month. Then I just finished drum arrangements for 12 more songs that we’re working on. And then we have another opus in the works that we’re planning. For us, one of the driving forces in the band that keeps us going live is that it maintains its status as a creative force. We hold that sacred. We don’t want to just go out and do victory laps on our first four records. We want to maintain a creative stance and use it as an ability to push the envelope musically. It’s been fun. In this environment, where I guess you have more to gain and less to lose, it becomes easier to just push boundaries. Not that it was ever that difficult for us, but we find ourselves making decisions based just on quality and not much else. In that regard it’s a lot more freeing, or can be.

He’s over in his cave and I’m in mine. [Laughs.] I did see him a few days ago, because we had some stuff we couldn’t do over a screen. I’ve got a nice studio here and he’s got a nice studio, so he’ll send me stems, and we’ll go back and forth, rearrange stuff. It’s a slower process for sure, than him and I in a room. But there’s something cool about the built-in window of reflection that you have, which you don’t have when you’re just arranging on the fly. You don’t really get a lot of time to get out of your head or rise above yourself. With this kind of built-in delay mechanism, it’s cool to be not in a hurry, and to step back and listen to something from a listener’s standpoint as opposed to being judge, jury, and hangman, which is our usual position when we’re writing.

“Humility” was one of the first tracks we finished [for the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex release], and the rest kinda sat dormant for a while. The record is just kind of a document of a moment in time. The titles are representative to me of what we engage when we try to live a higher ideal. Integrity, humility, service, grace. In this environment whether it’s political or social or economic, in my opinion, trying to raise kids with integrity and honor, there seems to be a little bit of a deficit. I didn’t have any good titles, and I thought, “What could the world use more of right now?” And that’s when the word “honor” came into my head. And the rest were components of that. What are the components of an honorable life? And how do we put those into play?

Playing with Mohler and Sean Woolstenhulme and Ben Wendell and Shane Endsley and Adam Benjamin… I’m excluding myself here. But these are guys who’ve made supreme dedications to their craft and done it in the most integral ways. These are some of the reasons we play together. At our best we share something in the context of these attributes.

Improvisation at its best is rooted in compassion. It’s rooted in a willingness to understand your environment and only supply things that are additive. It takes an incredible amount of humility to do that. Guys that are super verbose, or are just blowing chops all over songs just because they can… Go back and listen to Miles Davis solos, where there are four or five notes because that’s all the music needed! There’s a humility in that that’s born of compassion for the environment and born of the respect for the other individuals. That title is more of a musical title than people think. In this word of auto-quantification and narcissism and Instagram highlight reels of people’s lives, I think humility is something that often gets overlooked, right? Look at me doing this! Does everybody know I’m doing this? I disconnected from all that social media stuff a few months ago because it just stopped seeming real to me. I miss the drum videos from my buddies, but I just had to get off it because I got sick of people selling me their soap, right? What does it really get you? Nobody can really draw a straight line from that stuff to a better life, or better economics even. I’ll just stay off it and maybe post a picture of my cat every once in a while.  

As told to Josh Modell.

Jimmy Chamberlin is best known as the drummer of Smashing Pumpkins, a position he still holds with the active band today. On the side, Chamberlin has played with many other groups, including the jazzy combo that bears his name: The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex. That band will release a four-song album on September 25 called Honor.