In 2005, we sat down with Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan to talk about his solo project, TheFutureEmbrace, which focused less on Pumpkins-style bombastic guitars and more on experimental electronics. Read our full feature below.
Billy Corgan isn't the type of artist who can stay silent for long. Following the demise of both the Smashing Pumpkins and his short-lived Zwan project, Corgan is finally stepping out on his own and making the transition from bandleader to solo artist, and the first tangible evidence of this is his new album, TheFutureEmbrace (Warner, 2005). Although the notion of Corgan working strictly as a solo artist is by no means an earth-shattering turn of events — he was notorious for recording almost every Smashing Pumpkins track by himself — this new album finds Corgan leaving the guitar-driven bombast of his former endeavors clearly in the past.
With TheFutureEmbrace, Corgan decided to channel his formidable talents as a composer and songwriter in a decidedly electronic and experimental direction. “I've always been interested in sort of alternative approaches to music and sound,” Corgan explains. “When you're dealing with conventional band issues, you end up making similar decisions. Like there is a reason to use overhead mics on drums. It might sound like a good idea to put the drums in the toilet. But at some point, it kind of comes down to the same set of tones and feelings. And I knew I didn't want to do that, because to me, that just sounds like Smashing Pumpkins. Even in Zwan, just trying to do guitar rock, I expended a lot of energy just trying not to sound like Smashing Pumpkins. And that's kind of a waste of creativity because it was me and Jimmy, so it kind of sounded like Smashing Pumpkins.”
For most listeners, the only clear point of reference for what an electronic-oriented Billy Corgan record might sound like is Smashing Pumpkins' Adore (Caroline, 1998), on which the band — sans drummer Jimmy Chamberlain — mixed icy bits of mechanical percussion and threadbare synths with minimalist guitar arrangements. Any similarities, however, to the Adore album are purely superficial. On TheFutureEmbrace, Corgan presents a collection of material that both defies easy description and avoids drawing clearly from any particular decade.
“That's where a lot of people are making the mistake,” Corgan says. “They hear the sounds, and they immediately go, ‘Oh, it's '80s programmed electronic music with some guitar on top of it.’ And, no, it's not. If you played me an '80s programmed electronic guitar album, it doesn't sound anything like this. It emotes those things but no more than the Pumpkins emoted '70s rock. Same thing in the '90s: People kept telling us that we sounded like the '70s. Now you go back, and we don't sound like the '70s, but that's all anybody had reference to at the time. So the 80 percent of the album that is nonreferenceable gets ignored, and the 20 percent that is referenceable gets talked about like it's the entire record. And I bristle at that because I'm more sophisticated than that. If I wanted to make an '80s record, it would sound exactly like the '80s.”
NEW SOUND, NEW PROCESS
When creating an album that doesn't rely on traditional instrumentation, there are generally two ways to begin the writing process: the first is to write demos in which the chords, lyrics and arrangement of each track are loosely defined and the second is to create a library of sounds and ideas that can be drawn from later. In classic Corgan fashion, however, he chose to not really do either. Instead, Corgan and co-producers Bjorn Thorsrüd (a longtime Pumpkins associate) and Bon Harris of Nitzer Ebb spent several months in Corgan's Chicago studio simply experimenting with different sounds and approaches to songwriting.
“We started in about February of 2004,” Corgan continues. “But most of the first four months were spent on technical issues, like sound approaches and different ways to write songs. It was systemic issues. I wasn't really writing songs, per se. It was more just textural, technical issues. You'd create a question like, ‘What are we going to do for drums?’ Here is a list of ideas. And then take those and ask what's better about this one versus that one. I wanted to have all of the fundamental issues of the album resolved before I got into the writing and recording. Having done the Adore album with the Pumpkins, when you get into sky-is-the-limit technology, which I have because I can, you can end up spending a lot of time sort of chasing after paper dragons that go nowhere — you know, like, ‘What a great-sounding beat.’ But a great-sounding beat doesn't make for a great song. So how was I going to pursue the level of production I wanted, create the kind of album I wanted, but not be a detriment to the songwriting? You know, it sounds really great, but the song sucks.”
“The first issue, really, was that he wanted to do something very different,” Harris adds. “The guy can walk in on any given day, pick up a guitar and practically write a hit if you ask him to. He was very actively looking at a different way of putting together a rock record and staying away, if you like, from his own clichés. The early part of the record was our biggest challenge. How are we going to make a rock record that's different but is still appealing and has power and directness and all of that? So a lot of the early days were trying to find something new. And then, once we'd hit upon the type of things we wanted to use and hit upon our working method, it was just a case of sonically making it as unique as we could.”
The songwriting approach that Corgan finally settled on ended up being rather straightforward in design, but it provided Corgan and his production partners with a solid, almost unshakable foundation, enabling them to experiment with different textures and sounds without getting lost on endless tangents. “Almost every song started as a melodic construction, no production,” Corgan says. “I was playing piano, generally. So every song, before we went into any sort of production, had to be emotionally engaging strictly as a melodic composition — without vocals. The melodies were intrinsically written into the piece. The lyrics weren't written until later. So if it makes any sense, everything that we went in to produce and went into a recording mode on, we believed in the heart and soul of the melodic composition. Because then, it's like, you can change the key; you can change the speed; and it's totally flexible because you believe in the nut and bolt of the tune. It's not the thing of, ‘Let's put up a beat, and let's pick a bass sound. Okay, that sounds great.’ And if you go off it at all, it's not as exciting as it was. And then you're stuck with this thing. And I didn't want that because I know it goes to fucking nowhere.”
Once Corgan was happy with the content of a particular composition, the pieces were then examined and ultimately broken down into their more elemental pieces. “Sonically, we decided to pretty much anchor our thinking in the age-old choral approach: soprano, alto, tenor and bass,” Harris says. “And we sort of went from there. That was our basic viewpoint. And quite often, the harmonies expanded beyond that, but that approach has worked since the beginning of harmony. It's the basic choral approach, and a lot of music springs from that. So we decided to use that as our sort of jumping-off point and went from there. On a normal guitar record, you'd sit down and write a bunch of chords and a melody, and that's kind of the backbone of the song. But we were very concerned with what individual voices were doing within harmonies. One of the things that Billy told me from our earlier conversations is that he was interested in baroque counterpoint and things like this. So we really spent a lot of time on the actual note choices and what each note was doing and where it was going.”
RULES TO LIVE BY
After years of fronting rock bands that utilized the traditional guitar-bass-drums formula, Corgan wanted to distance himself from that comfort zone by taking the guitar completely out of the writing process. He also imposed a number of strict rules on the production process that further removed many classic song-building techniques from the equation. “We'd spend a lot of energy on the core composition and then figure out how, in essence, to articulate the core composition into reality,” Corgan explains. “And then, we'd talk about how to take what we were hearing and translate it into reality and into a modern rock song. The guitar was the last thing in the assembly line. It wasn't done until everything else was completed. So the guitar was taken out of this initial formula. But I might have had a guitar part from the beginning, so we might expend energy examining my guitar part and splitting it into other approaches. So by the time we would arrive at the end, my guitar part would already be part of the composition through various other instruments, and I'd have to write, in essence, another way to play the guitar. It's totally deconstructionist-theory stuff.
“I made all sorts of decisions like no crash cymbals anywhere on the record,” he continues. “So you can't rely on the crash cymbal to say, ‘Okay, here is the top of another section.’ Well, how do you do that? You create the sense that a section is changing. There's also almost no drum fills. So if there's no drum fills, how do you create a dramatic shift from section A to section B? It was problem solving. You'd recognize what is normally there in a song, and you'd solve those fundamental or dramatic issues in other ways. So once those were sort of figured out, then you get into, ‘How is this thing going to work sonically? What is going to be the actual musical representation?’ Then, you sort of assign tasks to different people to explore those different things, and then you sit around and listen to those results. And it's very much a deconstructed, piece-by-piece thing. You might try 20 different approaches on a particular concept, like the bass line, and ultimately come to the decision that none of them work, but one of them hints at what you want. And you decide, ‘You know what, we want this certain feeling, but we need to change the key.’ And you change the key, and, suddenly, you have a whole different set of problems. It was very scientific.”
MORE MAN THAN MACHINE
Once the compositions and arrangements began to take shape, the team then moved on to the task of actually settling in and tracking the elements that would become the finished album. With the guitar out of bounds for this stage of the process, Corgan and Harris looked to their array of modular and classic analog synths. Both programmed and hand-played phrases are equally represented as a mixture on the album, but as Harris explains, even the sequenced passages were designed to exhibit a more organic feel.
“We had a lot of synthesizers, a lot of drum machines, just practically anything and everything we could get our hands on,” he says. “In the early days, Billy wasn't so keen on using anything virtual. We decided that it might be good to have some sort of a modular-synth workstation. So Billy ended up buying this rather massive Doepfer A-100 modular system. And that sort of became the backbone of a lot of things. There are sort of standard synthesizers that both Billy and I like to use. We used the Oberheim Expander a lot; we used the Doepfer a lot. I've got a Roland System 100 modular synth; we used that a lot and just any sort of interesting drum machine or anything else that we found. But, really, it was just a lot of older, heavy-hitter-style analog modular synths.
“With modular synthesizers, you've got a lot of flexibility,” Harris continues. “I mean, really, the basic principle is taking a fairly static wave and imposing all sorts of things on it until it comes alive. So a lot of it was just getting very deeply into how we modulate things and taking a lot of care with things like velocity to give it much more of a played feel. And then some of it was just in the process where we'd take a lot of care to modulate things to make it groove or move in a certain way. It's a long way around to getting a sort of human feel, but I'm kind of used to that after years of programming. It reminded me of animation in many ways because you're taking things down to these tiny time slices and manipulating them to make them appear as they're living and breathing. But it's a very methodical and painstaking process along the way because you're ultimately trying to make it sound a little sloppy. So it's weird that you have to go to that much painstaking detail to make it sound rough. Typically with modular synthesizers, it's like that anyway. It's very much a labor of love to get something unique.”
Harris and fellow co-producer Thorsrüd used a combination of sequencers and workstations for the formal production phase. Generally speaking, they used a Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 3 system for the bulk of the audio-related chores, such as editing vocals and other performances. (Alan Moulder ultimately mixed the album on an SSL 6064E inside Studio 5 at the Chicago Recording Company.) For the MIDI side of things, Harris preferred the expanded feature set afforded by both Apple Logic Pro and MOTU Digital Performer. “I personally don't like to do any of my MIDI stuff in Pro Tools,” Harris says. “Pro Tools tends to have a pretty basic feature set MIDI-wise. I'll either use Performer or Logic. In the background, I was running [Ableton] Live a lot. I didn't really get into Live too much until they added MIDI, and then I jumped right on it, and that's become a firm favorite. Quite often, I'll use Reason, as well, even though that didn't come into play so much on this project because Billy wanted to keep it a little more pure than that. But I'll often use that. Pretty much the mainstay sequencers are Logic and Performer. And Logic has got a lot of great built-in instruments, as well, so that helps.”
A CLOSER LOOK
Above everything else, the two thing things that Corgan wants to make clear to the listener are that this album is neither a piece of music that's looking backward in time nor, by nature of its electronic elements, a record that is meant to be a cold or sterile experience. “I think what will make this record unique over time is that it's the first record I've ever heard that combines guitar-based music and electronic music and doesn't play to the weaknesses of both,” he says. “It plays to the strengths of both, which is very difficult, and if it wasn't difficult, it would have already been done. There are a lot of people who have done it successfully, but it always leans one way or the other. This is actually a true balance between two worlds. And I think, like a lot of things, once the riddle is solved, then people will start to emulate the thing that has been solved. I spent the time and energy solving it.
“So to somebody who likes electronic music but who finds it at times too unemotional or lacking in the kind of juice that rock 'n' roll gives them, then they might be interested to know that this takes it to another level — in a very simple way, but it takes it to a different level,” Corgan concludes. “And for people who like guitar music, this is a totally different approach to an avant-garde record without the typical lame alternative-rock guitar stuff. So it's progressive on both fronts. I've heard people say that it just sounds like some '80s music and they don't get it. The album is meant to trick you into thinking that you're hearing one thing when you're really hearing another. That's very similar to what I did with Pumpkins, and then people figured that trick out. Most people say that they don't get the record until they hear it a few times, and then they start to hear this other thing in the record because it's actually a very emotional record. And to me, when people hear electronic, they assume it's cold or not emotional. But if you know me and my music, you know it's not going to be cold.”