The core of the Smashing Pumpkins was the telepathic relationship between Jimmy Chamberlin and Billy Corgan. On one hand there is a grandiose and ambitious songwriter and guitarist and on the other, a pummeling and incredibly dynamic drummer. Avalanches of howling guitar shift suddenly into waves of shimmering melody and back again. A drummer whose thunderous rhythm, lightning speed, versatility, and incredible meter anchored the music while carpet-bombing fills and elegant flourishes added to the melody.
A prolific and storied partnership ended almost as oddly as it began. Chamberlin, for any host of reasons sought a change, one that would keep him growing and even writing music in a more collaborative atmosphere than to that which he was accustomed. A brief moment of hostility and hurt feelings as Corgan cried, “go ahead and drive around in a white van for the rest of your life if you want” [I am completely paraphrasing here from accounts read before 5.26.2011] Surely this was a jab at walking away from the monster brand of SP that they built together to start over in a smaller band. Although Billy was the songwriter and creator, only Jimmy’s drums could match this attack to fuel and propel their sound.
Enter Skysaw: A band that sees the union of some unique and powerful talent. Mike Reina and Anthony Pirog earned respect with their own psychedelic prog-pop in the Fairfax, VA / D.C. area. United as Skysaw, these guys create a new brand of music that is lush and diverse enough to showcase the awe inspiring drum work of Chamberlin while indulging the songwriter and arranger in him as well.
Out of tact and a desire to be original I quell the need to ask the nagging questions about the Pumpkins split and the personal and musical dynamics that propelled it. Yet as I dig deeper the reasons become apparent, boiling down to simple, personal creative integrity. Frontman Mike Reina and Jimmy Chamberlin took some precious time from their loaded schedule to talk music, plans, drums, and yes a little Smashing Pumpkins.
K&N: I really thought “THIS” was a cool name. What happened? Was it for the sheer fact that it would be impossible to gain any search engine traction with that name?
Mike Reina: That was an issue with the name. We were into the idea of keeping the name very general so that it could take on many meanings while avoiding specifics. By the time we were ready to release though, we traded that idea for the imagery that Skysaw might imply.
K&N: The typical trajectory of a band starting off is to tour then record – how does it feel to turn that concept on its head?
MR: It’s interesting to construct tightly wound songs and then go looking for the places where they can stretch out a bit live.
K&N: Who put together the orchestral arrangement on “Am I Second?”
MR: Jimmy wrote the orchestral arrangement, Anthony transcribed it and we recorded it at my place.
K&N: I expected a radical change when you departed SP. I always got the feeling that you are a jazz man at heart and maybe felt you thought you were “dumb-ing it down” – at least to yourself – by playing “rock.” When you made the comment about not being into the music anymore I expected something closer to the Complex – you know, a jazz trio or quartet type scene OR a crazy fusion experimental thing. SkySaw, although different, is not apples and oranges when compared to SP.
Jimmy Chamberlin: To me, music is music and it is all relevant and challenging . I never once in my life have felt like I had to “dumb down” anything. In fact the simpler music was always MORE challenging for me. SkySaw represents an opportunity for me to explore things about being a musician that don’t necessarily involve playing the drums.
K&N: I think I just had this question answered within the last two responses in a roundabout way but I ask anyway: What are you feeling right now, in this band, that you were not feeling in your last band?
JC: Basically a better chance for personal evolution as an artist.
K&N: How many songs have you recorded as SkySaw?
MR: Eleven – I think and demoed probably 12-15 others.
K&N: What was Roy Thomas Baker’s involvement with the record?
MR: We worked with Roy early on. Jimmy sent him “No One Can Tell” and asked if he wanted to be involved. He loved the song and came out to my place to work with us for two weeks. After the first two weeks we decided to remain insular and produce the record ourselves. We started from scratch and continued working together as we had previous to our stint with Roy. He was hilarious, btw …
K&N: I can see that. Beyond the production genius I see the dyed-in-the-wool rock guy; A legacy from the decadent days of rock, full of stories, anecdotes, and colorful insight.
How I came to be a Pumpkin fan was two-fold. I grew up on metal so as it phased out and grunge moved in – I liked it, but it wasn’t doing it for me. Then SP came around with walls of guitar and an appreciation for the solo that was briefly forgotten with grunge. It re-vitalized metal / hard rock by legitimizing it in a new and valid form. It was also fearless in mingling with just about every other genre of pop and revealing deep emotion.
Here, I do my best to not sound like a sniveling sycophant, but I failed …
But the first thing that caught my ear, making me listen further and appreciate SP, was the drumming. My friends and I were 17-18 when Siamese (Dream) came out. I remember listening every night on my buddy’s back porch with our friends. The guys that knew music would shoot glances back and forth at each other and bust out laughing – usually in utter disbelief – and be like, “what the fuck is that drummer doing?!!!” and “he’s not human!”
JC: Thanks, that is very flattering. I will say that those songs make me say the same things sometimes…….. Not the human part, the other part.
K&N: Ha ha ha! OK. I won’t argue, but I think they are damn near perfect.
Your drumming can be defined as pummeling or over-the-top. How do you bottle up the chops and intensity when working with a band? Is it knowing where to place the fills and flourishes within the confines of the music or is it to work with musicians that can write music that stands toe-to-toe with your attack?
JC: For me, it’s simply playing in context and listening. Those drum parts came about because of a need more than a desire. The Pumpkins provided a context for that type of drumming just like the Complex provides a different canvas and so on. It’s really about fitting the drums in the music, not the other way around.
K&N: I was drawn to your drumming because it sort of embodied everything about my favorite drummers: I could hear the hand speed and control of Chambers or Rich with the authority and flair of Krupa along with the rock power of Lombardo or Bonham dashed with the musicality and flourishes of Roach. Am I crazy? How exactly would you describe your style? It’s so distinctive and almost instantly recognizable in any song…
JC: First off, thank you very much again. I think that the goal of playing any instrument is to develop your facility to the point where you can be yourself and say exactly what you want to say. Those drummers that you mentioned, along with a few others, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, and a couple hundred others, said things on their instruments that resonated with me. I took those things and learned them, when I could, and moved them around until they represented how I felt. Much in the same way you would arrange words to convey an idea. Music is a chance to be yourself totally and uninhibited. That is the whole point for me. I only want to sound like me. I’m not interested in sounding like anyone else.
Jimmy discussing creating an identity with his sound:
K&N: What have you done with your approach to drumming to help propel SkySaw that you did differently (or the same) as SP?
JC: I think that my approach is the same as it always is: To move the song forward in the best possible way whilst still demonstrating a personal opinion about the piece.
K&N How did SkySaw become a band? Did you know each other before? Was it sort of forming anyway and then Jimmy entered the equation or did you meet first and decide to put together a band?
MR: Jimmy and I were introduced through a mutual friend. I went out to Chicago for a hang with him and to write and play a bit. We got along great and decided to become songwriting partners. Six months later I introduced Anthony with whom I’d been playing for a couple years and again it was a great fit and we continued. When we finished the record, I invited Boris and Paul to come down from New York to rehearse and we had our live band. I played with Boris and Paul in the DC based Phaser and I am a touring member for their NYC based Dead Heart Bloom. We are all thrilled to be playing together.
K&N: What is it like to play with a legendary drummer? I imagine his timekeeping is a huge bonus?
MR: It’s a great experience playing together. Each time is different and I notice something else he is doing that takes the music to a different place. My favorite drummers have arrangement at the forefront of their writing and Jimmy is a great arranger of music. Without any one element of his approach, we’d be playing a different song. Especially when I am playing piano, his precision gives me the sense that we are constructing a building together using sound. That probably sounds weird, but it’s the way playing with Jimmy makes me feel.
K&N: Not at all! I actually think I’m going to cry a little …
I always felt a differentiator was not only his impeccable timing, but also the ability to drive the music forward from the inside and actually add melodic qualities to the composition. Is that true?
MR: Very true. I haven’t heard a drummer that supports the vocal melody as well as he does. He’s driving. There is no question about that. The great thing about him is that he sees the point to which he’s driving before he gets in the car, but he’s ready to turn on a dime if the moment calls for it. He’s trained himself to be aware at all times and I think that gives him his edge.
K&N: Have you changed up your kit for SkySaw? I noticed a few pictures that didn’t seem to have the left mounted 14” tom or quite as many cymbals. If so, is this a reflection of your approach to this sound or brand of music?
JC: I moved things around for one show. My configuration is the same.
K&N: What do your jams sound like when you are hanging out / practicing / sound checking? Which direction does it go? Do you guys prog out, jam, get your metal on, heavy on showtunes?
MR: Jams are spacey and can definitely get proggy. No metal.
K&N: What is the name of this song and will it see a release?
JC: “Cathedral.” It is fairly new, not yet recorded and will be on the next release following Great Civilizations
K&N: Rumors are that the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex had a couple of tracks in the works, details?
JC: The complex lives and will rise up again at some point. Mohler and I started working on stuff before I left the Pumpkins and we continue to do so. It’s really just a time issue. We are both very busy these days.
K&N: What, if anything, can you say about the upcoming Smashing Pumpkins re-masters and re-releases?
I am very excited. Those records are sacred to me and I’m thrilled that they will be repackaged and marketed to another generation. The Pumpkins still have a lot to offer, old and new I’m sure.
K&N: As a respected musician and accomplished drummer, what is your summation of Mike Byrne? Ya know, if you were evaluating or grading him or just your opinion.
JC: I think Mike is perfect for what Billy is doing now; a great drummer with an extremely bright future.
K&N: As a social media and marketing guy in my day job, I always ask this of bands:
A) How are you using social media tools and tactics to spread the word (music) of SkySaw and engage fans and followers?
MR: Facebook and Twitter are great and are clearly changing the way music is exposed to the listening public. We are still a young band, having a great time playing out and learning to adapt to any tactic other than standing in a room together writing and playing. That said, we are ramping up on social media and are very excited about the prospect of being in contact with anyone and everyone that is into our music
B) Are there any devices – tablets, laptops, smartphones that you absolutely cannot live without; essential for tethering yourself to home (friends and loved ones) or for keeping notes and ideas for the music?
MR: I have a dumb phone, my laptop died three weeks ago and I still have a pulse (as of this writing), so I guess that means no. That said, I had to borrow Jimmy’s iPad to answer these questions, so maybe that’s a big yes? I have a lot of musical ideas coming to me throughout the day and especially during sleep right before I wake up, so part of my editing process is actually not documenting it. If I can remember it by the time I get to an instrument, than I usually consider it worth pursuing. That has definitely backfired before though. I have forgotten a couple really good ideas that I was sure were good at one time. But then again, there are things I documented in GarageBand quickly on my laptop and those are now gone as well. You have to be ready to jump on an idea the second it strikes because when it goes it goes and that moment of inspiration is very fickle more often than not….
Well, inspiration has definitely struck this band. Their blend of lush progressive pop is striking chords with critics and fans. Great Civilizations is as good as a debut album gets and the three main contributors in Reina, Pirog, and Chamberlin seem to be firing on all cylinders while sharing equal footing. SkySaw will be opening for Minus the Bear at The Ritz in Ybor City on Wednesday, May 25th. Be there.
Written for Suburban Apologist May 24, 2011
And a gigantic THANK YOU to “Drevpile” the curator of the excellent Jimmy Chamberlin blog, The Machine Somehow, for helping me overcome my hero-induced brain fart