Last month, The Smashing Pumpkins announced a brief tour that would include Killers bassist Mark Stoermer and Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk. For the former, it meant not only playing for a band he’s admired since first picking up guitar and bass as a teenager, but getting to do so in front of a hometown crowd. Next week’s Brooklyn Bowl show wasn’t included during that initial announcement, and its later addition to the trek surprised even Stoermer, who phoned in from Chicago just before the tour’s opening night.
This is a little surreal, interviewing you as a representative of The Smashing Pumpkins. Do you feel the same?
It’s surreal for myself in a lot of ways, but at this point it’s just about being a musician, I think, and playing songs that I like. And it’s a lot of work, actually, and little bit of a challenge—but I mean that in a good way. A lot of practice, a lot of songs to learn in a short amount of time. Smashing Pumpkins songs are actually pretty complicated arrangement-wise. Even as someone who’s been listening to them for years and years, until you sit down and learn them, you don’t necessarily realize how tricky they can be. So that’s been a challenge, but it’s been a good thing for me in getting back to playing bass and being a musician and not worrying about being a songwriter or the business side of being in a band—just coming here to play music.
Were you someone who tried to play Pumpkins songs when you were a young musician?
Not really—maybe a few riffs here and there. When I started [playing music], I actually didn’t learn a lot of songs—it was more like pieces, especially of my favorite songs or albums. I wouldn’t learn them almost to not [ruin] it for myself—which maybe isn’t the best way because a lot of great musicians learn by [playing] the songs. I was never one of of those guys who knew a lot of songs, but I could pick them up and learn them if I had to. I practiced a few riffs, like maybe “Cherub Rock” or something. But I never learned whole songs.
So how did you come to join?
I guess me and Billy Corgan have a mutual friend. [Corgan and I] became acquainted about seven years ago. The Killers and Smashing Pumpkins did a few shows together; one was actually in Spain in a bullfighting ring. I met him then and on a few other occasion over the years. We’re not close or anything, but we had multiple conversations in person over the years. I guess officially Smashing Pumpkins is only two people—two people and Tommy Lee on [new album Monuments to an Elegy]—and they don’t have a band. [Corgan] called me a month ago and asked me to do it.
It’s one of those things where it’s just the right time for me. I’m not doing any music, I’m not feeling inspired with my writing at the moments, The Killers are obviously on a hiatus, and of course there’s a side of me, the 14- or 16-year-old in me, that would be freaking out, so I couldn’t say no. In addition to the nostalgia aspect, I also had to hear the new music, which I think is great. If the new music wasn’t up to par, I wouldn’t be doing it. I felt like, yeah, it was one of those things I had to do.
Silly question, but were you initially surprised he asked since the bassist of the Pumpkins has traditionally been a female?
I didn’t really think about that until after the fact. At the end of the day, it’s music, it doesn’t matter. [Corgan] played bass on 90-something percent of all the records, so actually, on the record, the bass player was male, not that it matters. But they had one male before, actually [deceased Electric Prunes member Mark Tulin]—another Mark, as they told me. I think it’s one of those things that’s interesting but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. It’s more about playing bass for me, not who’s shoes I’m filling.
Where do you even start in terms of preparation? Do you learn your song parts ahead of rehearsals?
Yeah, I did some homework beforehand. We didn’t have a setlist at first so I was going to some of the best-of stuff, just to reacquaint myself and [have] something to practice. Then I got the setlist, and most of [what I’d practiced] wasn’t on there! There are some hits, but not all of them. Then eventually...they sent me the album—actually, I had to pick it up at Fed Ex in North Las Vegas on Halloween—and 10 days later I was [in Chicago].
I sat at home and listened to the songs a few hours of the day and honed in on it. We started with 24 or 25 songs, and now it’s kind of down to 17 or 18 because we had less time than we thought, not two or three weeks but 10 days, and as I said earlier, these aren’t simple, three-chord songs where every verse and chorus are the same. Every song has little nuances, and a lot of choruses and verses happen one or three times—odd numbers, where usually in pop songs you have two or four.
So, a lot of things to remember. Even with 17 songs, it’s still like an hour and 45 minute set, which is pretty intense when they’re not the songs you wrote. If you wrote them yourself, that’s different. You might forget something one day and practice and you’ve got it again. This is different—you have to practice over and over to remember. It’s a different ballgame [for me] but I’m glad to be here. There’s session people who do that for a living and learn other people’s songs very quickly. But I don’t think [Billy] wanted that. He wanted it to be a little raw and [use] people who have a little bit of their own style.
It’s important for you to be in sync with the drummer. So do you also listen to material Brad Wilk played on ahead of actually playing with him, just to brush up on his style, or do you not worry about that?
I didn’t have to brush up; I’m familiar with the Rage material especially. I wasn’t worried, I figured he would play [as the drums are played in the songs] as closely as possible. But there is a different vibe. He’s definitely different from the drummers that came before, as anyone who knows him would imagine. If anything, it’s how you’re going to click together, and on day one, we had a good vibe. He’s a heavy hitter, as you can imagine, and I am too on bass. Even if the songs weren’t perfect on day one, there was a good feel right away. He’s fun to play with.
When you begin rehearsals, do you get a little charge or goose bumps or whatever when you first play these classics and look up and see Billy Corgan singing along?
Yeah, maybe at first. It’s exciting to play the old songs, but it’s also exciting to play the new ones. In a weird way, maybe during the first couple days of practice, the old ones were a bit more exciting to play, but now it feels now like the new ones are more exciting because even though Brad and I didn’t play on the record, we’re still going to be the first [drummer and bassist] to ever to play them live. It feels like these will be the first interpretations. The older ones are obviously us filling the shoes of those [musicians] who came before, and trying to represent the best we can in our style. The new material feels fresher; it’s like we have a little more freedom because no one’s ever played it.
Do you feel pressure from the band or its fans?
A little bit. Obviously I try to put that out of my head...but you don’t want to let down fans of another band that I didn’t write songs for or even start, you want to put on a good show. I’ve been there before when there’s a lineup change and I’m disappointed—I won’t mention any names—so I know what it’s like to be a fan and then go and expect something and get something totally different and feel let down. So I don’t want that. I gotta just to do the best I can and not be in anyone’s head.
If anything, maybe [with regards to] the other musicians—especially at first—there was some pressure. I don’t want to let Billy or Brad or Jeff down; they’re all great musicians. I felt like I had to step it up, I can’t look like a hack here (laughs). There’s some of that the first day. If you’re gonna say you should be in this club, you should put up or shut up. Everyone’s a fantastic musician. I wouldn’t want to let them down—I want to be up to their level.
How do you think longtime fans will receive the Monuments to an Elegy songs, especially since some will judge them against the older ones?
I don’t know. I think it’s an uphill battle and the longer you go on your career, the steeper that hill becomes when you present new material. Just as a listener and a fan myself, I like the new material, but it becomes one of those things where if you have a huge catalog of great music, you’re always gonna compare it to that. But I try to take myself out of that as much as I can, and ask myself, are these great songs you would listen to from a brand new band? And to me, yes they are, but does everyone think that way? Not really. It’s tough, and I can’t predict what people will say, but I know it’s a challenge.
I can say that out of the the people that came out from the early ‘90s and maybe the late ‘80s, Billy Corgan is one of the few that are still writing really good material. There’s maybe a few others, but not many. Whether or not it’s as good as the other stuff—and I’m not making a comment on that—it’s neither here nor there. Is it good today? My answer is yes. The public or fans don’t always perceive it that way, and I know that even from being in a band for 10 years. It’s a crapshoot, it’s gets harder and harder as time goes by once you set your own bar so high.
The Pumpkins are playing their umpteenth KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas show, and they’re still getting a lot of press and attention for a 25-year-old band. As someone who’s now been both an outsider and an insider, what do you think keeps them relevant?
I think it comes down to the songwriting. That’s why they are relevant to me. There’s new material coming out that I think is quality stuff. And...Billy and Jeff are writing material all the time, they’re making another album, they’re active as creative musicians. You can’t always say that about musicians 25 years later. And the material sounds fresh.
Assuming Billy will want to tour Monuments in 2015, are you onboard? And what about possibly performing on the upcoming album [currently titled Day For Night]?
None of that has been discussed. I’m just on board for this and I’m happy to be here. Everyone’s aware there may be more shows. We’ll see how it goes. I’m open to it but not expecting it. And definitely nothing has been mentioned as far as recording. They’re working on the album coming out in four months but we’re not involved with it.
Do you have to clear something like this with The Killers first, just to ensure the band won’t be doing anything for however long you’re needed with the Pumpkins, or did you make the call without them knowing everyone else would be busy with other things?
Sort of in middle. I made the decision on my own. I was a musician before I was in The Killers, I played bass 10-13 years before…though the public might see me only as a member of The Killers. I’ve been on the other side of that. But I let them know before I started. I spoke to a couple of the guys and the manager.
Is this to say The Killers won’t be recording or touring in 2015?
That was determined before this, or I might not have said yes. [The Pumpkins tour] won’t affect that. There was a clear plan to take off until . Brandon was already making a solo album when we were on tour this year and he said he’ll tour next year as well. There may be a Killers show or two, but there’s no plan to go into the studio yet. We’ll [discuss it] at the end of next year.
Smashing Pumpkins December 13, 9 p.m., $60.50, Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.