Jimmy Chamberlin, Smashing Pumpkins
Ah, the life of the rock star: adoring fans, packed gigs, fame, global travel, and . . . Montessori schools? Such is the happy life of Jimmy Chamberlin. He's been involved in music for 38 years, most famously as the drummer for the Smashing Pumpkins and most recently with his new band Skysaw. His time as a musician has given him a unique perspective on the role of the songwriter in society, a role that transcends merely traveling from city to city playing music. For Chamberlin, it's much bigger than that.
According to him, the songwriter, like any other writer, has a duty to "put the sophistication back in society." Chamberlin does his part: he reads constantly, often three or four books at a time, and makes sure that his young children see him reading so that they follow suit. As a result, they've become bookworms (his 8 year-old has read The Hobbit). And this brings us to his children's Montessori school, where he sits on the board of directors and champions the importance of reading. Chamberlin's love of the written word is not surprising, given that his favorite writer is Emily Dickinson.
But back to music. Skysaw's new album Great Civilizations was released June 21 on Dangerbird Records. Read my interview with Jimmy Chamberlin after the video.
Do you have a typical songwriting process?
It's ever changing. There are no rules. The main thing I've learned as a songwriter is to always make myself available, because I never know where the resonance is going to come from. In the best case scenario, I'll get an urge to pick up the guitar. With a song like "Sad Reasons" on this record, I sat down in my office and just played the song from start from start to finish on my guitar, and it never changed. It was like the song was delivered to me, and I was just the conduit. It didn't involve a lot of process other than making myself available to what was going on around me.
That song in particular was a telling exercise because I was interested in how it would change over time after I recorded it and again after I delivered it to the band. But the first version I laid down in my studio in the basement is the one that made it to the record. That's the ideal situation for me.
But that can't happen all the time.
Yeah, the other way is the more difficult way, and the one that happens most of the time. I put down a fragment of an idea and sit on it. I then tie two or three of those fragments together to see if they work. And then I use that knowledge as an instrumentalist, and with my knowledge of music theory and chord structure, to put the obvious chords on the front and the back of the idea and make a song around that.
But as I get older, I've learned not to discount anything and to put everything down. In the last two or three weeks, I've probably put 50 new ideas on my iPhone. I'll go back to those and do some data mining and see what sticks with me. There's a 60 or 70 percent attrition rate. Often the stuff that I thought at first was discardable actually ends up having something valuable. I try to wrap my head around those ideas that still resonate after a couple of weeks and expound on those.
You speak as if you wait for the muse to come to you, much i the way poets have told me.
That's probably fair to say, but I don't want what I say to be confused with just sitting around waiting lazily for things to happen, because the muse can take many forms. I have to always be ready when that idea comes. Let's say I got an inkling to write something that sounds a bit Calypso or that's got dark gypsy vibe. Often that will be enough of a catalyst to put things in motion. So sometimes I'll hear a groove or I'll be downstairs practicing my drums, and I'll play something unconventional that sounds like it would be a good idea for a song. I'll put it down, loop it, and try to write something around it.
It's not like I'm just sitting around waiting for full songs to be delivered. Instead, I'm aware that the smallest of ideas can turn into a cool song, or a simple exercise in tuning the guitar can generate ideas. I might wake up and say, "I think today I will downtune my A string to G and see what I come up with." Through that, I can come up with a new song. So the muse can take many different forms. Ideally, the greatest gift it to be hand-delivered a song from the cosmos and have it be the version. Billy Corgan often writes the same way. Like with "Tonight Tonight," he said he just woke up one morning, went down to the piano, and played it. And much like with a lot of those drum parts that happened in the Pumpkins, the first time he played it for me, the drum part you hear is the first drum part I thought of. So there's a community resonance as well, in that groups of people who collaborate a lot tend to be tapped into the same frequency.
I'm sure other songwriters beat their heads against the wall until they get the perfect song or the perfect riff, but I'm not that sophisticated of a guitar player to be able to come up with Mixolydian guitar scales until I come up with the riff of the century. For me, it's more a resonance: what is the general feel of the song. Then I leave the more sophisticated tunesmithery to my guitar player and bass player.
When do the lyrics come in your songwriting process?
After the music. I have a notebook next to my bed, so that if I do get an idea or I'm reading a news story or a piece of literature that gives me an impetus to write something, I'll make a note of it. I struggle the most with lyrics simply because I've spend 38 years as a musician and only a small percentage of that as a lyricist. When I write lyrics, I listen to what the music is saying to me and what is the message I want to convey. I don't sit down with the intention of creating some wonderful Emily Dickinson-esque poem and then putting words to it. I've always felt like whomever is singing the song should have an investment in what the words are saying.
Speaking of Emily Dickinson, who are you favorite authors?
Emily Dickinson is probably my favorite poet. But I also like W.H. Auden, and his darkness and imagery. As far as modern literature , I like Cormac McCarthy.
He's a favorite of many of the songwriters I've interviewed.
It's obvious why. His books like The Road are written in a very musical way. I also like Khalil Gibran, Thomas Merton, and some of the modern mystical writers who deal with archetypes and with metaphysical spiritual stuff. I really am a bookworm, and Iread three or four books at once. And of course Mark Twain is one of my favorites.
My 8 year-old daughter Audrey is a total bookworm. She's read The Hobbit and fashions herself an authority on Greek and Norse mythology. She loves to immerse herself in books. Both my kids go to Montessori School, and I'm on the board of directors there. There seems to be a real lack of emphasis in writing in young people's education now, and I think it's up to writers of any kind to put that sophistication back in society. When it doesn't come from the classroom, music, poetry, and the arts are the next best thing. I feel somewhat of a responsibility to be sophisticated, and in that sense I feel like I'm holding up my end of the bargain. And when my kids see me reading, they take a note from that. Some of the other parents at my kids' school wonder why their children don't read that much, and I'm always wondering if it's because the kids don't see the parents reading.
Does all the literature you read have an effect on your music writing?
Absolutely. In the arranging and production of songs, when I'm building them from the chords up and putting layerings of production in a song, I want to feel like I'm building this Tolkienesque world of music that's available to people on many layers. J.R.R. Tolkien's writing is so musical. Heck, even the songs in his books are sophisticated. He could have easily been a songwriter with his imagery.
Thelonius Monk was always good at playing something that on the surface appeared simple, but as you delved deeper you realized that the chord structure on which the melody was based was so complex. It's easy to sing along because there's a nursery rhyme quality to his melody. But underneath, there are layers of sophistication. And once you get into why it's simplistic and why the note choices make sense, it's very complicated. You can go as far down the rabbit hole as you want and still be confounded by its sophistication. The idea behind playing the drums is to play something simple enough so that people can rhythmically attach to it, but as an artist my job is also to satisfy myself with a sophistication that exists within the music. My favorite writers also do that, which is why Tolkien is so musical yet complex.
That reminds me of when people say that you can recite any Emily Dickinson poem to the melody the Gilligan's Island theme song.
Exactly. Mark Twain invites you into his world with seeming simplicity, but once you get into his writing, you realize how complex it is. He might say that Tom went down to the river, but you eventually realize the political l and social ramifications of that statement.
When you write, how much do you revise your lyrics?
It depends on my mood. Sometimes I write things and want to go back and reiterate the gravity points. So I might write something and it's right on, but other times I realize that it's too heavily weighted towards one point or isn't saying exactly what I want to say, even though the idea is there. And once I rethink it, give it time to rest, I have time to refine it. But in the ideal scenario, the initial thought is the greatest thought, the one that carries the most weight. Because anytime brain power interferes with intuition, there's problems, and sometimes you have to have the wisdom and intuition to leave it alone?
The flip side to that is if you write something in the throes of emotional intensity, you can ruin that feeling if you work on it in a more rational state of mind later on.
If you're Charles Bukowski, filters are a bad thing. But for people like us who don't operate in the bowels of vulgarity, we need to know where the line is. People confuse intuition with quality, and any of us can go back twenty years and be mortified at what we wrote. When I was with the Pumpkins and we did Zeitgeist, it had been almost seven years since we made the album before it. So having to go and play that style of drumming again, I was often I was at loggerheads with myself because I was saying, "I don't really play like this anymore. I wouldn't make those choices again." It became difficult to mine that stuff from 1996 and relearn how to play like that. It would be like writing in the style you did when you were a sophomore in college. That would be difficult since you've moved on and your toolbox has grown. You don't need that big hammer anymore. You can use the smaller hammer that's more beautiful.
One thing I hear from older songwriters is that they have to treat songwriting as work.
Absolutely. When I knew I was going to be one of the songwriters in Skysaw, one of the first things I did was buy Jimmy Webb's book and everything I could read about Burt Bacharach. I know how to make myself better as a drummer, so I just apply that same work ethic to songwriting. I immersed myself in books on songwriting. There's information out there that you can use to avoid pitfalls. Songwriting is a job, and you can't wait around for that moment to get lucky.
Would you call yourself a visual songwriter?
Sometimes. It depends on the complexity of the piece. The more complex the song, the cloudier the imagery. What I want to do is capture a feeling that will allow the listeners to form their own images. I'm not a fan of being told what I'm supposed to see when I'm looking at something, so I like to leave that part open-ended in songwriting. I want to write about how it feels to be outside drinking a cup of coffee this morning, not about what I see outside. I think you create more imagery by writing about what you feel.