Saving Grace: An Interview with Jimmy Chamberlin
By: Brett Hickman
Friday February 11, 2005
After the demise of the short lived Zwan, Jimmy Chamberlin was at a crossroads in his professional life. But it was with some friendly nudging by Billy Corgan, his former bandmate in Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan, that steered him towards what would ultimately become the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex.
After the demise of the short lived Zwan, Jimmy Chamberlin was at a crossroads in his professional life. He had moved to Los Angeles with his wife and daughter, built up his home studio, went on several instructional drum clinic tours for Yamaha and Zildjian, as well as a symposium for the Percussive Arts Society. But it was with some friendly nudging by Billy Corgan, his former bandmate in Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan, that steered him towards what would ultimately become the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex.
"When I was doing these clinics, Billy called me up and said, 'You know, you should really look into doing your solo record now.' My take on it was, does anybody really want to put out a self-indulgent drum record?" His question was answered quickly when Merck Mercuriadis, CEO of Sanctuary Records, called him up out of the blue to declare his wholehearted support of anything Chamberlin was interested in doing. Within days, he was in New York signing an album deal without any idea of what he was going to do.
The first person Chamberlin contacted after the signing was Billy Mohler, a former member of the Thelonius Monk Institute and the pop-rock band The Calling. The two had met two years earlier when Mohler auditioned for Zwan. Even though Mohler didn't get that gig, the two stayed in touch and became friends. "I basically said, 'I got this crazy record deal, what are you doing, let's put together a band and make some cool music.'"
It wasn't long into the writing of the album that Chamberlin faced a task he had never faced before: writing lyrics. "The lyrics came out of necessity. When we started writing the record, we started in a more fusion environment and that got boring really quick and that wasn't what we were about on an organic level. At first it was a bit daunting, but once I started to do it, the more I got into it, the more I started enjoying it and being able to say things lyrically that I would normally have to say musically. I've always seen my drumming as lyrical anyway. Certainly in a lyrical supporting role with Corgan and company that I've worked with, so it wasn't that big of a stretch for me."
Originally, Corgan was supposed to lay down guitar tracks on the record, but when he couldn't take time out from work on his own solo record, Mohler suggested Sean Woolstenhulme, a young, unknown, and unconventional guitarist. "Literally the first note he played I said he was in. He's such a big part of the sound. To have somebody at twenty-two (Woolstenhulme is now twenty-three) to come in and play with that kind of maturity and that kind of texture...the guy's a prodigy, he's an amazing individual. All he wants to do is practice and that's all he does, all day long. That's what it takes if you want to change the face of music. You've gotta be committed to it. We had a saying in the Pumpkins, 'It's the extra 10 percent work you do that makes it 100 percent better than everything else.' And that's totally true of anything you do," Chamberlin said.
Life Begins Again boasts an intriguing variety of guest appearances that add a richness to the album's overall aesthetic. From Rob Dickinson of Catherine Wheel, who sings on two of the album's tracks ("It was just the fates that brought us together. He's another guy that's an amazing singer."), to, of course, Billy Corgan, who adds his distinctive vocals to "Lokicat," a song that features Chamberlin's brother Paul, who is also a drummer.
"Yeah, my brother's a great drummer, and was certainly a source of inspiration for me growing up. My brother was always in bands and on the road when I was a kid and he was my inspiration. He never made it with a big band, in fact he never made a record. Here he is fifty-something years old. My brother and I had a real love-hate relationship with my success. There was some bitterness there that I didn't understand until recently, but I told him that if I ever did a record I wanted him to play on it. I always heard the two drum part for the "Lokicat" song. Mohler and I wrote that song the day that Elvin Jones died. We were doing this tribal drum thing underneath this keyboard thing that Mohler had written. And I thought that if I could play that part as the percussion part and get my brother to sync this straight beat underneath it, it might be something cool."
Cool is an understatement. What "Lokicat," in fact does, is to finally put to rest the snide, derisive remarks that persisted over whether or not Chamberlin's presence on the Smashing Pumpkins' Adore would have somehow derailed that album's languid beauty. The song has the same sort of ethereal, ambient sound that was present on Adore. Overall, Life Begins Again features drumming by Chamberlin that is more soulful, gentler than in his days with the Pumpkins, but with a suppleness that carries over from the old days.
But perhaps the most stunning guest appearance comes in the form of a singer who is about as far removed from the rock realm Chamberlin came of age in as you can get.
To hear Bill Medley's sonorous voice over "Lullabye To Children," ("It was the one song I was really struggling with the lyrics for. Mohler and his fiance Becca came in with these beautiful lullaby lyrics to my daughter.") is creepy in the best sense of the word. Goosebumps and chills are destined to run down the listener's arms and spine as this track unfolds. "People just kept coming back to me going, 'That Medley tune, that Medley tune.' And every time I would play it for Dickinson he would say, 'You gotta turn the vocal up. You gotta really juice the vocal, cause I gotta hear every piece of spit in his voice.'" The song may not mean much to his daughter now at age two he says, "but when she's 15 or 16 she's gonna really get a kick out of it. And then maybe play it for her daughter. And maybe it's a thing that the Chamberlins play for their daughters for centuries. Stuff like that you can't think too much about, you just have to go with it."
Even though he's older now and the days of the Smashing Pumpkins are well behind him, his commitment to music has not changed. "Through the dark days in the mid-'90s, I think it was music that saved me. When you can look back at that and realize why you're here and realize, 'Okay, I'm alive because God wants to hear more music, or my mother does,' or whatever you want to call the energy force that's ruling around you. You start to look at it with a deeper respect and I think that deeper respect for what you do builds more self-respect. That period in my life, people see it as, 'Oh he was a drug addict and he messed up.' Nobody writes about the fact that I was in Australia when my father died and I felt like a piece of shit for not being there when he passed away. No one writes about the emotional things you go through. People just expect you to show up, be a cartoon character of yourself, take your money and go home. But don't screw up to the point where you're gonna be out of the picture. But back then the thing that saved me was the music, and it's certainly the music that saves me now. The music, my family and my friends and everybody around me. If you put the right things out there the right things will happen."
Being an elder statesmen of rock brings about great joy in Chamberlin as well. "I feel really good in the teacher role. When I'm at home I practice everyday. I take my craft very seriously. I can't take days off and play like I did last night. Maybe some people can, but I can't." However, he does not have delusions on his new band's place in the musical world. "Is the Complex going to change the face of music? I doubt it. But if it can help it along a little bit, that's great. When I go on the website and I see twelve year-old musicians writing in, going 'If the Complex is all about listening to Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus, then I'm going to check out those records.' If you can get a twelve year-old kid to go listen to Thelonius Monk, what more do you want? Do you want a big pile of cash, too? That's a home run for me. I was fortunate when I was growing up to go see the Oscar Peterson Trio, and Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, and have those people make a huge dent in my life. Just their commitment to music, those guys weren't making any money. I used to go see Oscar Peterson at the Auditorium, there'd be like 500 people."
Chamberlin credits his family for his rich musical background and the exposure to jazz at an early age. "My dad was a clarinet player, so the first music I was exposed to as a kid was Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Sonny Greer, Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, those kind of big band/swing drummers. And I had five older brothers and sisters as well, so growing up in the '70s I had constant exposure to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Rush and of course my sisters were into Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and Mose Allison. I think the way I play comes from that and that I took a little bit from everything I was listening to and made it my own. But if you ask me where my drumming lays, I think that it's somewhere between Elvin Jones and Mitch Mitchell, or Tony Williams and John Bonham, something like that. I can't really put my finger on where I turned a corner or where I started making it my own. Probably the most prophetic thing I heard from a drummer was when Buddy Rich said, 'The best musicians are thieves that never get caught.' That's something I really took to heart. And taking little bits here and there, taking a Keith Moon thing that you really like and work into an Elvin Jones thing. Certainly, being a drummer like that and being able to explore music in the Pumpkins, especially with Billy who is such a dynamic songwriter, and to be able to play on pieces like "To Forgive" and "Galapogos" and "Tonight, Tonight" and those types of songs where a standard drum approach isn't going to float the song. You know you need to get into something a little more orchestral, or you need to grab some brushes, you need to support the song in a different way certainly helped. Had I joined a straight rock band, I'm sure my drumming would be a little bit different right now. But I think that growing up musically with him and him growing up musically with me dictated the way we play now. Last night Billy came to me and said, 'Wow, I recognize a lot of the stuff you're doing, but there's a whole other side of you that I never really saw in the Pumpkins." He came to me and said "I feel like you've been dating somebody else.' Chamberlin lets out a series of hearty laughs.
"The thing I try to do the most is to play in terms of the song and play in terms of what I'm hearing. When people say 'Oh you've got a jazz background...', it's not like I've spent years playing trio jazz or went on tour with McCoy Tyner or something like that. I think that the jazzy approach that I have is based on the way that I hear music and in the way I play a supporting role to the other people in the band. And along with doing what I'm doing, I'm always listening to what's going on around me and trying to be as supportive as I can. And certainly the Complex lends itself to this little bit more of a fluttering, syncopated, more of a powerhouse, dynamic drumming than the Pumpkins or Zwan did. I think you can still tell it's me, it's just a different side of me, or maybe a little more of me, or a little less of me at times."
It's like what Billy (Corgan) said to me last night," 'The thing that supercedes all the technical proficiency you guys are operating under is just the sheer honesty of the music. There's this cloud of joy hanging over everything you guys are doing. And even though there's this crazy amount of dexterous, crazy rock, it never comes off as 'Hey, check me out!' or 'Look at how fast I can play!'' I think for me it's just being able to do something that's honest. It certainly restores my faith in humanity when I see radio stations picking this up and playing it and sitting here and doing interviews like this, because to be completely honest, when I went in to do this thing I wasn't expecting anything. I was expecting to do an art record and I figured a bunch of drummers would buy it and that would be it."
But the response has come from a lot more people than just "a bunch of drummers" for Life Begins Again. Chamberlin was given a royal showcase in a recent Chicago Tribune Arts & Entertainment cover story by Greg Kot, and the early reviews (including here at St@tic), have been quite favorable.
"People are not afraid to put their two cents in about something like this, because there's nothing they have to make up. This record doesn't pretend to be anything it's not. It is what it is. It doesn't come with any gilded wrapper or any preconceived notions of 'here's the hit and I don't really care if you listen to the other songs.' It's one complete piece of art."
And this piece of art will not sit on the shelf alone. Plans are already in the work for another offspring of the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex.
"We're already writing new songs for the next record. We didn't just sign a one-record deal. We signed a multiple record deal. What I see for the band by the end of this year is the Complex live at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I want my guys to be comfortable. I'm certainly not in this for the money, but I'd really like to see my guys make some money off of this stuff. They're young musicians and they deserve a break. They're putting their asses on the line. I just hope that we go on to be a great band, because we definitely have the makings of it. I think that the four of us are a force to be reckoned with. The next record, I think we'll take it even further. We'll get even more into the psychedelic creepy stuff. Get a little more towards Radiohead meets Duke Ellington. That's really what I hear in my head. A thousand harps and multiple drum kits. Just big. I just want people to think when they see the Complex that it's going to be good. Just like I did with the Pumpkins."
By opening himself up to positive energy and by surrounding himself with the love and faith of friends, band mates, fans, and family, Jimmy Chamberlin has struck karmic gold. Coming off of the precipice of death itself seems to have changed him spiritually, personally, and especially musically over the years. It's this overwhelming sense of joie de vivre that emanates from Chamberlin that makes Life Begins Again so special. It would be wonderful if more music came from such an enchanting place as this.
Posting for posterity and this is not the afore mentioned article...