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June-July 2014 - Pumpkinland II, Northbrook, IL Edit

Produced by Billy Corgan, Howard Willing & Jeff Schroeder; engineered by Howard Willing

Monuments to an Elegy album cover from Smashing Pumpkins

Continued recording sessions for Monuments to an Elegy.  Corgan and Schroeder track guitar, bass, keyboards and vocals to Tommy Lee's drums recorded in Los Angeles. 

Freshly back from the coast, Howard, Jeff, and I began the final-final (did I say final?) process of building up these 9 tracks we know so well; now that we have the T Lee drum barrage backing us up.

And oh how I missed these daily updates. But I wasn’t about to share (with the same intimacy) how said Mr. Lee fared under the withering gaze of our Producer! Let’s just say for the record that not only did he match the exacting precision demanded by that wearied veteran of the computer age, Tommy even brought Howard to tears as he recalled his own (yet distant) big-haired past.

But all joshing aside I want to say that working with a musician as warm, bright, alive, intuitive, and concussive as T Lee has been a great joy, and a highlight of my musical life. Lucky am I to consider him a brother and a friend.

As far as today’s studio work, we began assessing the drums takes we have while negotiating some of the minor editing work necessary to begin piling on basses, guitars, keys, vocals, and glingerschlinks. By the way that’s Teuton for dark matter. Also pulled out a phalanx of BC Strats for variety, and lined up the usual suspects: my Tonight, Tonight 335, the Mayo Kimberly, and even the Dross SG. Locked and loaded, ready to rock. Go! Bass tracking starts tomorrow.   [1]

Bass tracks completed: ANTI-HERO, BEING BEIGE, RUN TO ME, DORIAN; with designs on finishing the rest tomorrow. For those interested in gear, I’ve once again settled on the fantastic Reeves bass amp (probably the best I’ve ever used, and no I don’t have an endorsement); with mic techniques borrowed from the legendary Roy Thomas Baker (think 5 414’s on an Ampeg bass cab). For basses so far it’s the same Gibson Thunderbird used on OCEANIA, and a couple P-basses that go as far back as ADORE or ZEITGEIST. Oh, and the same bass used by the Byrds back in the day (a Guild Spitfire I believe?).[2]

Bass tracks are done. ‘Nuff said.

Tomorrow we traipse into guitars, and more guitars. Me left, Shredder right for those of you who still believe in stereo. Pure Marshall power (and no, we don’t have an endorsement!). Remember how I once had my own guitar model? Some day I’ll tell you that story too. Let’s just say there is reality and then there’s *reality. And I live in *reality.

Have I mentioned the bass tracks are done? Always a pleasing moment. So yeah we’re on the assembly line track: bass-bass, guitar-guitar, vocal-vocal and then overdub-strings-celestial choirs. At least tomorrow they’ll be more specifics. ‘Cause there’s specifics, and then *specifics![3]

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Guitar time, 2014-style…

Started by going through around 8 Strats, a prototype Reverand, and the early 60’s, blue Jaguar I played on the OCEANIA tour. In that we’d narrow down the suspects to those ‘most likely,’ and then Shredder did the same with 4 Les Pauls; all instruments being shot through the same speaker-mic combo for consistency. But in oscillating through cabinets Jeff would blow his vintage Marshall for the second time in a month or so.

This unfortunately set s off on a different course, and starting with the same mic-combo Howard would audition a number of mic-pre’s: Germanium and other old Neve’s, Datamix, Helios, Telefunken V76 and V72, and even a modded Scully. Followed by a succession of ancillary mic’s (421 or 414?) to broaden the sound without killing the distortion signature.

And if that wasn’t enough we tried other tricks of the trade (different style guitar cables, or trying the other back output of my amp). Followed by the testing of vintage-boost pedals, including a Dallas-Arbiter like the one used by Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi (back in the day!). Tomorrow starts tracking in earnest, ANTI-HERO up first.[4]Ah, finally, today, I felt like I was making a record as opposed to preparing to make a record. This is to take nothing away from T Lee, who’s admirably set us up. It’s just that The Shredder and I get to sink teeth now into overdub oblivion. So what’s that mean? Here’s an example: began with the ’63 blue Jag for the verses, and using a simple line driver into a 70’s Marshall combo laced a lo-fi, high-fi signal that made ever Howard proud. Which begat a super sonic sound (BC gtr into same line driver into me Super Tremolo head/thank you Uli!) for mega-choruses. For novices, a line driver is essentially a 35db signal boost with a kind of filter on it that juices an old amp; the good part being an animated sound, the bad part that you are often stuck riding a wild pony. So in 3 to 4 hours of experimentation I dialed, dialed, dialed in what was my lone rhythm track. Which then put Jeff in the same position of testing amps, cabinets, microphone positions, and even the best speakers (of 4) to use. And in that he’d get it sorted with Howard looking more panic stricken. Quote: “You guys are insane.”

Jeff: “Hey, any day that my amp doesn’t blow up is a good day.”[5]

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Oh cheesus louises, where do I begin? Try 3 blown amplifiers and one near casualty.

Day began with “let’s try TIBERIUS,” and moments later there went my Marshall; the speaker cable actually fusing to the input jack by melting; a first.

“Let’s try my Laney,” I told Howard. “Sounds alright,” he said, prompting The Shredder to mention, “Well, Iommi used to use the line driver.” And while the amp lasted it did sound good. Until that puff of smoke. Poof!

So that sent young Ryan off to the amp repair people, who were kind enough to work towards a quick turnaround. “Ok,” I said to Howard, “let’s try DRUM.” And in recalling the sound from the demo (Selmer 50, Strat), oops, there goes that amp too. Or so I thought. 3 hours later, we had located some issues (shorting speaker cable), but not all.

Back came the Laney from the shop. And it did sound good until it blew up AGAIN.

DRUM got done, thankfully. As did RUN TO ME (with a double of the TONIGHT, TONIGHT 335).[6]

For starters, nothing blew up today.

My day, abbreviated, as it was, stayed focused on the 10,000 permutations of how one might play DORIAN. 80’s? 60’s? 2022? How about never?

And after much hemming and hawing with Herr Producer (and our 10,001th convo about ‘what kind of album is this?’) I settled on one guitar, one amp, one speaker, three microphones. The guitar: a Kimberly, or as it’s better known around here, the 1979/MAYONAISE/PISSANT axe. Got essentially a full take and left it at that.

Rest of session was Shredder working on space-age BEING BEIGE elements (he’d report scant progress), and ANTI-HERO streetwalk-riff (‘killer tones bro’). More tomorrow, getting better all the time…[7]

You know the old adage, ‘maybe it’s not someone else’s fault, but yours?’ Neither do I. But let me say that this amp-blowed-up-again problem of mine is starting to freak me out. My tally today? Try two.

First one went like this: turn on amp, play 5 seconds, POOF! Second one went like this: turn on amp, play for 10 seconds, amp makes funny noise, drops to half power, then? You guessed it.

So what did we get done today? Shredder Shredding ONE AND ALL (just before a visit from indie stalwart-superstars Ringo Deathstarr). And a whole lot of noising around MONUMENTS, which will now just have one lean mean guitar. I would have finished tonight but I went deaf from the fuzz (Vox Tone Bender II: and no, we don’t have an endorsement).[8]

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A glorious day; at least for the first 90 minutes in session. The above pictured pedal caressing a Sound City amp, it’s treble negated to zero. MONUMENTS it’s beneficent.

What did I just say? Translation: I got MONUMENTS done quickly (a single take, thank you) by 1:30. Fast forward 6 hours, you’d see me, BC, sitting on a bench, chin on hand. Why? ‘Cause my amp blowed up a-gain (3rd time!)

When even T Lee tells you to turn down then you know you got issues.

So like a good scout boy I tried to match blowed-up amp sound with the Marshall Plexi, and came darn close. But I must admit I was defeated by the sound that just can’t be reigned in. So I await a 3rd (or is it a 4th) repair.

This left Herr Howard saying, ‘fellas, what are we gonna do now?” Shredder: “My overdub on ANTI-HERO?” Howard, “Sure!” (think high voice).[9]

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In documenting what has been one of the strangest weeks of my studio life, I’ve run out of descriptors for the barrage of crackles, snaps, fizzes, and poof-poofs we’ve faced in attempting the most basic of recording functions. So in session we've stared down more of the same, although thankfully nothing blew up! But here’s a list of the wounded for one day: 2 matched mics that were found to be not functioning, an old board with a mysterious hum (later fixed), lightning strikes coming through my pickups, inexplicable amp hums, and a computer that decided to open up a channel despite it being closed; each issue killing valuable recording time.

So in a weeks time we’ve probably only ‘worked’ for half of it with great productivity, which is frustrating knowing all basic guitars would be done by now. But they’re not. Perhaps there is a divine reason for this, and in that I’ll go with the adage that ‘God’s will is your will.’

Anyway, finished acoustic (60’s J-200) and electric (BC  Strat into 2nd Marshall plexi; a softer tone ironically) for BEING BEIGE, and then my side of TIBERIUS: my vintage Laney amp run though a variac to steam forward at what the man said was its preferred US power.

Only ANAISE is left. How typical.[10]

Rather than just update on the days particulars (cut the vocal for ANTI-HERO and Jeff added some guitar work; meaning work on the song is essentially finished outside of a few background vocals). I thought I’d get a bit into my lyrical process. And in offering this I’m going to say upfront that I’m not going to share the actual lyrics, for reasons that should be clear; so expect a somewhat esoteric dissertation.

Let’s say (for the sake of argument) that one had two choices: serious or ironic lyrics. Now let’s say that one didn’t like either choice. Why? Because with all the songs ever written laying about, what’s left to be said? Perhaps this is a cynical assertion, but that close to the way I feel. And in that I believe in penning lyrics that can exist on differing levels for different types of listeners.

To paint the picture more clearly, ANTI-HERO, on its surface, seems like an irony waiting to happy (think baby-baby ooh lyrics), but underneath that are dystopic ironies closer to the song’s message. Personally I think it’s both clever, cute, and sarcastic as fuck, and that would be the point; because the world is going mad while we discuss what celebrity a did to celebrity b at fake award show x last night. Point being that the violence of the culture is covered with a thin gloss of shiny-shiny; so why shouldn’t my song be the same.

Having the title ANTI-HERO before I’d ever written a line presented a challenge, simply because I’d assume that any song with that name would have a tougher message. Not a baby-ooh-wow-wow one. But isn’t it often that our relationships remind us of war (i.e. all’s fair in…), so as above so below, and so as in love so it goes, etc.

Anyway, ANTI-HERO is about a cause, in this case the cause of reaching the one you love while the structures around you crumble: be it school, government, culture, or who you thought you were living in that city you once thought you knew. Displacement, really, of energies you assumed would be there when you did say ‘baby I love-love-love you, you’re the one for me, there’s no one else like you girl, ooh, wow wow.”

And that I say proves what I’ve been saying all along: that SP is a piss take on a piss take on a piss take. What is real and what isn’t doesn’t matter. It’s all the same; real as important as false, death as valuable as rebirth, with only love as the ONE unassailable force (that’s a given.)[11]

Coming in today the plan was that I have a practice sing through MONUMENTS, and then we’d move on to finishing the remaining musical components (synth/bridge guitars, etc). But after a single take Jeff and Howard agreed that I should try to cut the vocal then and there. Three hours later or so I’d succeeded (or so they thought), and I plopped myself down to watch the World Cup.

The rest of the session (once I’d re-animated) was Jeff and I trying to fill what we call the ‘Bowie Bridge’ with dueling guitars (fail), and then adding one of my favorite synths of all-time: The Gleeman Pentaphonic (success). Legend has it they only produced a few (depending on who you ask), and considering it’s beautifully idiosyncratic tones I can kind of understand why it’s such a rare specimen.

But wait! We weren’t done. To play the counter melody I’d tinkle the fake ivories on a Freeman String Symphonizer (another rarity), and then we’d double that with a Polymoog. Holy Gary Numan! We got ourselves a rocker.

What’s left should be done by tomorrow. DRUM next.[12]

What did we get done today? Fleshed out ‘Bowie Bridge’ with a stack of Voyetra patches, a phased pair of Shredder chords, and some well placed Mini-Moog melodies. And going in a few more steps I pulled the rip chords to see what the section might need another day. Which means that MONUMENTS is essentially done (save for the mantra of BV’s/select lead drops, etc).

DRUM + FIFE, right? But who’s playing the battlefield fife? Past conversations centered on perhaps getting someone who can actually play the instrument, but given the reality of life in modernity I said a tuned sample will. Thus began a race between Herr Producer and I on dueling computers for who might actually locate a sampled fife (harder than you might think!).

So all was well in flutelandia until we discovered the downloaded samples were corrupted and crackling. “Let’s move on…”

Shredder’s parts were next: ala slashing Tele and bubbling, tremulous swing; much of time in picking right amp/setting, and so on.[13]

Pretty simple session: warmed up my voice for a half hour and cut into DRUM AND FIFE; which is essentially finished now. Three down, six to go.

“What’s the song about BC?” you might ask if you ran into me at the grocery story. “It’s about what’s coming down the pike for those who have it coming,” I’d tell you cryptically, pretending as such with mendacity that I was only there to make my own salad and nothing more. Let’s say you saddled up close and said with a whisper, “Did Howard ever get the sample issue fixed with the fife and all.” “Nope,” I’d shake, “was too busy comping my pony-boy vocals.”

TIBERIUS is next on the dock, and we’ll probably start with the Mini-Moog per the demo to play what is the song’s signature 6/8 line. But knowing my producer he’ll probably try to swindle me into singing. Seems he has a cat to get home to.[14]

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Pictured above are two notable secret weapons, and though you may not recognize them on sight you’d know the damage they do if you’ve listened to SP circa 1993-2000. Put together they make what I’d call a ‘supersonic sound,’ and we went looking for that texture today to blast up the middle of TIBERIUS.

TIBERIUS as a work, minus vocal, is there now, having been fitted with a Steiner-Parker Synthacon over the top of the geetars; my detuning driving us nuts; for what is ‘in tune’ when the whole worlds out of---?

Oh, and ghosted in some keys behind the middle-8 march after using the secret weapons, which Jeff and Howard insisted be powered by the ‘ol Bat Strat. ‘Twas a good day! We figure to be finished with all tracking in 3 weeks.[15]

Return to Monuments to an Elegy/Day For Night

  1. Billy Corgan, "Shacka-Lacka Boom-Boom", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 9, 2014
  2. Billy Corgan, "In The Big Country", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 11, 2014
  3. Billy Corgan, "Archangel Michael and The Full Force 5", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 14, 2014
  4. Billy Corgan, "Blow-Up", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 15, 2014
  5. Billy Corgan, "Heroes and Zeroes", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 16, 2014
  6. Billy Corgan, "Energy, Endurance, Focus, Power", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 18, 2014
  7. Billy Corgan, "Appetite For Construction", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 19, 2014
  8. Billy Corgan, "Yep, It Blowed Up real Good", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 20, 2014
  9. Billy Corgan, "Tone Benders", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 20, 2014
  10. Billy Corgan, "Felinus", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 22, 2014
  11. Billy Corgan, "Odes to the Alien", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 23, 2014
  12. Billy Corgan, "The Gleeman Pentaphonic", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 24, 2014
  13. Billy Corgan, "Rising Edge", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 25, 2014
  14. Billy Corgan, "Drummers Drumming Drummerly", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 26, 2014
  15. Billy Corgan, "Secret Weapons", Smashing Pumpkins Nexus, June 28, 2014
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