Led by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins are in the midst of an ambitious release cycle. The band from Chicago’s latest and 12th studio release is Atum, and it’s such a sprawling work that it has been split into equal parts, each featuring 11 songs. Act One was released in November 2022; the second part was released in January of this year; Act Three was released in May. And if all that weren’t enough, the album (full title: Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts) isn’t merely a rock opera, its the third part of a conceptual trilogy. Because with Smashing Pumpkins, everything is connected.
The alternative rock heroes who got their start in 1988 released their debut album, Gish, in 1991. Right from the start, Smashing Pumpkins’ music was a signature mix of personal, angst-filled and often confessional lyrics (by Corgan) and a melange of styles including art rock, shoegaze, goth and progressive rock.
Determinedly hard to pin down, the group made waves with critics and fans alike. Their second album, Siamese Dream (1993) was a breakthrough success, selling nearly 5 million copies and earning a 4X Platinum designation.
Corgan, who was born in 1967, came of age during an era in which many classic concept albums were created. Those records inspired and perplexed him in equal measure. I was confused by things like Quadrophenia [by The Who] and [Pink Floyd’s] The Wall when I was a kid,” he admits. “I couldn't understand: ‘If this is supposed to be a movie, how come it doesn't give me what a movie gives me?’” Nonetheless, he felt moved to create similarly ambitious works. “I thought, ‘I need to do something like that, because it’s the only way I can get at whatever it is I’m after,’” he explains.
So taking a page from the careers of iconic artists like Neil Young, Todd Rundgren and Bob Dylan, the band confounded those who would have preferred more-of-the-same with each album release. By the group’s third album, Smashing Pumpkins had taken a turn somewhat uncharacteristic in the alternarock world. Released in 1995, the highly regarded Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was a double album (two CDs; an eventual if hard-to-find vinyl edition takes up three LPs). And its songs are thematically linked, all exploring dimensions of sorrow.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, Corgan admits that when his band made Mellon Collie, its underlying character was a secret. “At the time,” he reveals, “I didn’t even tell the band it was conceptual!” He says that he was concerned that his band mates might have frowned upon what he calls the album’s “intellectual overlay.” Corgan says that the songwriting for the record simply took on a narrative form, and that the album’s 28 songs represent “a private way of dealing with whatever I was going through.” Yet merely a few years into his recording career with the group, Corgan was just getting started.
But first there would be some setbacks. Despite being made by a band with a conventional instrumental lineup, 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God is electronic in character; its arrangements scale back the roaring guitars that had characterized the group's earlier work. The change mystified some fans; by the band’s previous standard, sales were meager (though it did sell nearly 700,000 copies, going Gold in the process).
But the album shares an important quality with the smash hit Mellon Collie: it, too is a concept album. At some point, Corgan had a moment of self-discovery. “What I realized in poking around on Machina was that all my work from the beginning had been conceptual; I just hadn't admitted it to myself.” In fact, he explains, Machina is a continuation of the narrative begun on the group’s 1995 release. “As we were making the record, I knew that the band was going to break up,” he says. “The band had agreed to this idea that we were all going to play characters in public based on the [Machina] musical. They all agreed to it, and we even had clothes made.”
Yet as soon as the tour in support of the album began, Corgan says that his band mates abandoned the idea. “So I was the only one doing the narrative,” he says with a laugh. “Which made me seem like I was particularly crazy at the time.”
While he willingly dives deep into the world of conceptual works, Corgan admits that he often tires of them soon after they’re complete. “It’s no secret that I’m writing everything for the band, I’m producing and I’m playing a lot of the music,” he says. “By the time I get to the end of the journey, I’m exhausted with the subject; I’m sick of what I’ve done.”
But creating an album isn’t the same thing as touring in support of it. Corgan really enjoys playing live “Oh, that’s the fun part of it,” he says with enthusiasm. “Because you get to cherry-pick what’s going to work.” And he explains that the live reading of any given song is colored significantly by the mood he’s in that particular night. “One night it might be the ‘angry version’ of the song,” he explains. The next night, that song’s performance might be built upon a completely different emotional undercurrent.
Save for a live album (Earphoria) and compilation releases, nothing would be heard from Smashing Pumpkins for nearly six years. When the group resurfaced, only Corgan and Chamberlin returned from before. Between 2007’s Zeitgeist and 2020’s Cyr, members came, went, returned and left again; at one point bassist Mark Tulin (of psychedelic heroes the Electric Prunes) was a member, as was acclaimed pianist and David Bowie sideman Mike Garson. Along the way, a long-gestating and eventually abandoned project, Teargarden by Kaidyscope was conceived as yet another conceptual work.
Remarkably for a band that has been through so many changes, by 2018, Smashing Pumpkins’ lineup featured three of its original members: Corgan and Chamberlin would be joined by longtime associate James Iha. Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Schroeder has been with the group since its 2006 reformation. This lineup is proving the be the group’s most stable; augmented by another multi-instrumentalist, Katie Cole, the current configuration of Smashing Pumpkins has made three albums, including the sprawling Atum, the group’s most ambitious work to date.
Longtime fans of the band will be pleased to know that while the new three-act set takes the band in some new musical directions, the core characteristics of angst and melody are ever-present. And while Atum has its own conceptual theme (the protagonist making his way through a mixture of real world and fantasy), that central character is the same one – much older now – who appeared in Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Machina/The Machines of God.
And even with the wide palette of expression with which he works in making albums, Billy Corgan seems nowhere near exhausting his creative ideas. Some even involve returning to past themes. “I've had everything from discussions with Broadway producers to do Mellon Collie to poking around on the idea of what it would take to make Atum a visual narrative,” he says.
On that score, Corgan considers himself in good company. “I've heard for years that Roger [Waters] was going to put The Wall on Broadway, and it still hasn't happened,” he says with a chuckle. And while he’s interested in reviving and expanding past works in visual form, at present Corgan is most excited in making the most of Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts. “If it were ever done in this modern world,” he says, “Atum is likely to be done as an animated project.” Stay tuned.
For more than three decades, Jason Scheff was the voice of Chicago. Taking over for high-profile Peter Cetera in 1985, the bassist was only 23 when he joined the massively popular group. But Scheff’s skills as a vocalist, musician and songwriter immediately established him as a key to the band’s ongoing success.
Scheff left the group in 2016, but his musical career – already well-established before he joined Chicago – has continued in earnest. On a rare break between recording sessions and live performances – and ahead of his participation in an all-star golf tournament in Tahoe – Scheff sat down with Rock On Magazine to talk about his career, past and present.
You were only 23 when you joined Chicago, but you already had a great deal of experience in music. Tell me about that.
I joined a band in San Diego called The People Movers in 1979, replacing Nathan East who had just moved to Los Angeles. I was 16 years old, and the band leader said, “You have to sing, because Nathan sang.” I was like, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.” That was the beginning; I was just trying to experiment and see what worked. I never really saw myself as a world-class vocalist.
I was just playing in Top 40 bands and starting to sing more, starting to write songs. Everybody was like, “Let’s write!” And I’m going, “Um, okay, whatever that is. I guess it’s ‘making things up.’” [At that point] I was never a writer in the sense that I was an artist with something to say. I was just doing what everybody else was doing to try and go to the next level. But as it turned out, I was good at it.
You were still a relative unknown when you joined Chicago, and you were taking over for the band’s most recognizable member. What was that experience like?
Howard Kaufman – who was managing the band at the time – asked me on the phone, “How old are you?” I said, “23.” And he goes, “Uh oh. Can’t you say you’re older?” And I said, “Sure! I’ll say I’m 90 if that’s what you want.”
I went to meet with him, so he could make sure that I didn’t have two heads and that I was a nice guy. And it was really amazing; all of it was just very comfortable. Walking in on the first day of vocals with David Foster was pretty unnerving, but it all flowed beautifully. The [other] guys were just turning 40 years old when I joined the band. I thought, “Wow! Those guys are old!” But they were just always so supportive: “You’re our guy.” They gave me the shot.
When you joined, how much of your brief was to pick up where Peter Cetera left off, and how much leeway did you have to bring your own identity to the band?
I’ve seen people struggle with joining bands and wanting to be recognized for their artistry. That was not me. I was a guy who was very happy. Again, remember I was a Top 40 musician coming into that band, so it was like the best Top 40 gig I could ever have, although there was only one band, one style.
I was not trying to copy anybody. If you saw me in a Top 40 band six months before I joined Chicago, and we were doing a Michael Jackson song, I’d be leaning towards that. One of the blessings that I have is the gift of really adapting to a sound. I’ve sung on Poison records, Gino Vannelli, Kenny Rogers records; I always adapt myself. That’s the function of a background vocalist: they wrap themselves around the sound and phrase with them.
So, when I was doing Top 40 work, I was not trying to copy anybody, but this is the way I heard the music. I couldn’t do it any other way. And Chicago was exactly the same. I came in and just had certain phrasings that Peter Cetera had. I’ve heard people ask, “Didn’t David Foster tell you to [play and sing] like Peter Cetera?” No, because that’s virtually impossible anyway. There’s only one. It’s the gold standard.
But, I think the reason that it worked was that, again when we performed the live stuff, I was treating it as Top 40 music and leaning towards whatever I could do to make the song sound as much like what the audience was expecting. What was amazing was to join this band, and then all of a sudden feel comfortable that I was able to contribute to the recorded body of work. I thank my lucky stars for them believing in me to be the future of the franchise.
Almost from the start, you were placing some of your compositions on the group’s albums. Were they songs that you already had, or did you write to the strengths of Chicago?
I signed a publishing deal; that’s what got me to the band. I started running with Bobby Caldwell; I wrote a song trying to get his attention. Boz Scaggs ended up cutting it in 1988. “Heart of Mine” was Boz’s comeback single.
So I joined Chicago as the tenor lead vocalist, and sang a huge hit on Chicago 18, “Will You Still Love Me?” All of this stuff was happening in the mid ‘80s, and it was a great time. On the first album with David Foster, I had one song, “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” And then, from that point on, I was lucky. We worked hard, continually. They were still out there playing a lot of dates. And if you’ve got families and obligations, there wasn’t a lot of time to do anything else. We’d get off the road, and the guys would be taking vacations. But I was constantly writing.
And you bet I was writing pointed towards Chicago! I’m in the band, so it’s the best way to get your songs heard. So, I really became the principal songwriter of the group during my years. I had the most songs on the records, because I had tons to choose from.
Beyond Chicago, your hundreds of session credits as a vocalist are really varied. What’s the most unusual session that you’ve ever done?
Okay, that’s easy: Britney Spears! Rodney Jerkins was producing [remotely] from Miami, so he wasn’t even in the studio; we had him in our headphones. It was a collection of a dozen of the greatest L.A. session singers all in one room.
It was a group vocal, and it was for a movie called Crossroads. We were singing “I Love Rock ’N’ Roll.” It was unison, so you could’ve gotten anybody to do this, but I was looking at a who’s who of session singers including Chris Thompson from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, the guy who sang “Blinded by the Light.”
I was looking down the line, and these people were just cocked and loaded, ready to give this performance. It was this incredible sound, but then Rodney said, “That was really great, but what I’m looking for is … you need to sound bad, like you’re drunk.” I was watching these people freaking out: “What?”’
But I was thinking, “You picked the right guy. I’m going to give you what you need.” And I did! The girl standing next to me was recoiling, and I was laughing to myself. I’m a professional. I’m that much of a pro. I can give you what you want.
You left Chicago in 2016, but you’ve stayed very busy with other musical pursuits. You released a solo album, Here I Am, in 2019. And you lead a band called Chicago Nights. What inspired you to put that project together?
I started doing some stuff of my own; I did a cruise and basically played and sang the music that I’d been performing for over 30 years. I didn’t how it would go over, but people just loved it.
I just did my second Symphony date of the year. I really love those, too, because the music is perfect for it. My music director Bo Cooper based his work off of the Jimmie Haskell orchestrations from the ‘70s; they’re amazing. So I do dates as Jason Scheff’s Chicago Nights and then some others as Jason Scheff’s Chicago Nights at the Symphony. It’s just a blast!
You’re playing golf in this year’s American Century Golf Tournament in Tahoe. How did you get involved in that event?
Jay DeMarcus has been doing it for 15 or 16 years, I think. Jonathan Thomas – the CEO of American Century Investments – and I have become close over the last few years, and he invited me. I thought, “Man, everybody wants to play in that thing! So, thank you.” I love to play golf. I just played in the BMW Pro Am Tournament down in Greenville, South Carolina. And then I went on to a second one in Kiawah Island for football player Greg Olsen. I’m “getting some reps in” so that I’m ready for Tahoe.
Vocalist and songwriter Pat Monahan formed Train in San Francisco in 1994. The pop-rock band worked hard to develop its sound and cultivate its Bay Area fan base for a few years, eventually signing with Columbia. That major label then reissued the band’s self-titled debut, originally recorded on a shoestring budget and marketed independently by the band.
By 1999, the group caught fire with a national audience, and that momentum has sustained through the years. To date, Train has landed more than a dozen of its singles on Billboard’s “Hot 100” charts, and the group has scored three prestigious Grammy Awards, two Billboard Music Awards and an ASCAP Pop Music Award. Train has even broken through to the country music audience: in 2011 the band received a nomination for “Performance of the Year” at the CMT Music Awards.
While Monahan is the sole founding member still with the band today, the current lineup has been remarkably stable: bassist Hector Maldonadao, multi-instrumentalist Jerry Becker and vocalists Nikita Houston and Sakai Smith have all been with the group since 2009. Drummer Matt Musty joined in 2019, and guitarist Taylor Locke came on board nearly two years ago.
As Monahan explained to Rock On in a recent conversation a few weeks before the kickoff of a nearly three-month run of dates, Train’s original plans for this year didn’t include a tour at all. But the band’s ardent fan base demanded it. The band’s 11th studio album, AM Gold was released in early 2022, and this tour will give the band an opportunity to bring the songs from that well-received album to the stage, along with fan favorites from across the group’s nearly 25-year history.
Train’s music has explored a number of different styles. You explored a country vibe on “Angel in Blue Jeans,” and leaned in an acoustic direction with “Marry Me” and “Hey, Soul Sister.” There’s an orchestra backing the band up on “Drops of Jupiter.” You even did an album of Led Zeppelin songs. With AM Gold, you’re showcasing another dimension of the band’s character, a modern take on classic pop. Is that eclectic approach a product of your wide influences, musical restlessness, or something else?
Musical restlessness is probably a pretty good way to put it! I love so many different types of music that thinking about being in one lane doesn’t seem nearly as fun. It’ll still be my voice and words and melodies, but maybe with different instrumentation and a different take on it. When we were writing the AM Gold album, my manager, Jonathan [Daniel] recognized the style that we were writing in; he said, “This sounds like an ‘AM gold’ album!” I was like, “I don’t even know if I know what that is.” But then I explored it, and that sounded right to me.
So you weren’t setting out to write songs in a particular style?
Right; the [initial songs] came out that way. And then once I recognized what the style was, we were able to continue down that road and finish the album.
Does having such a widescreen approach to a musical style make it difficult or frustrating for your record company to market you?
At this point in my career, I don’t think there’s much of a marketing plan. People who like Train as something they listen to: those are the people that we’re marketing to. It’s less of a marketing plan and more of, “How do we get this heard?”
There’s an old saying that it takes years to become an overnight sensation. Train was together for five or six years before you broke through, producing and initially releasing your first album independently. Were there ever times in those early years when you were tempted to give it up and move on?
There weren’t give-up moments. I didn’t have another opportunity. I was painting houses in the Bay Area, and painting houses was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t seem like it was something I would be able to continue with and not feel terrible about [missing] an opportunity that I might have been given by whatever the spirit world is. The frustrations were really difficult to bear through, but when you don’t have a choice, then you figure out how to get through it.
In those early days, did you have a vision of where you wanted the band to go?
I did interviews [back then] and told writers, “We will probably never be the biggest band in the world, but we will outlive all of them!” Even in the early days, it wasn’t bragging; it’s just that I have a desire to learn. I listen to a lot of young artists that people probably haven’t heard of, and I’m getting a lot out of it all the time. So my desire to continue — to progress and try to tap into different things and even in myself — creates longevity.
Not only does AM Gold have that kind of early ’70s kind of pop feel, but it also feels very new and contemporary. That’s not a common quality among bands that have been around for 20-odd years. Is that by design?
Well, you can’t compete if [the music] sounds like it’s not current. Even if it is a throwback, it has to sound like you did it today. And that kind of always comes naturally to me. When you listen to classic rock or pop songs, they’re so good, and they’re so well thought out. I’m trying to emulate that, but with a “current” sound: my manager always jokes, “Kids don’t like real drums.”
While the band’s lineup has gone through some changes over the years, more often than not, Train has featured six or more members. What are the advantages of that?
There are times where we do shows without [Nikita and Sakai] in the band, but they add such a good vibe, and we’re like family. I like to have them around, because they’re great at what they do, and they bring such a beautiful energy to what Train is.
And the lineup through the years has changed due to reasons that are not really in people’s control. Some people leave because they need to, and some people had to leave because if they hadn’t, Train would stop existing. So, you try to figure out how to navigate through time, and you hope that your fans will understand. And they have; they obviously miss people for a short amount of time, but they realize that I am doing the best that I can to take care of everyone: bandmates and Train fans. And when they know that, I think they respond positively to it.
Train has had so many hit singles to its credit that you could easily populate an entire concert setlist with nothing but hit singles. What’s your favorite overlooked or deep-cut Train song, and do you ever play it live?
There’s a song called “Give It All” that was on [2017’s] A Girl, a Bottle, a Boat, and we hadn’t played that one in a long time. When we tour this summer, I definitely want to play songs that people have not ever heard live.
I was talking to a woman who has been to many many Train shows, and she asked, “Do you ever get tired of playing the hits?” And the answer is no, because people respond so positively to them.
There’s a song called “Running Back” on AM Gold and that’s one of my favorite songs ever written. So we’re going to start playing songs in these sets that we love, and hopefully people will respond the same way as [they do to] “Hey, Soul Sister."
When you play some of the band’s earliest material, do you recognize the guy who wrote those songs?
There were times in the early days when I was really sad, and there are fans of Train that are like, “I kind of like the sad Pat.” You like the music of sad Pat, but I don’t want to be that guy any more; I don’t want to live like that. But I think there were moments that I needed to be that guy so that I could write those songs. And those songs were part of the process of getting out of that [emotional place]. What a gift to be given to be able to work through things through music!
How do you think Bay Area roots show up in the band’s character?
San Francisco during the time of us coming up was the perfect city to be able to create not just music but a fan base, because there were so many venues to play. You didn’t have pay-to-play like in Los Angeles. At times you were paid, and at times you weren’t. But it was okay; it was a good trade [even when you didn’t get paid], because you were creating [a fan base] that cared.
And there’s no other place we could have done that but San Francisco. The beauty and the culture and difficulty of living there: all of those things played a role in the music that was written.
What are you most looking forward to about this upcoming tour?
We were only going to do ten shows this summer, and then I was going to write an album; we were going to tour amphitheaters next year. But we put the ten shows up, and they sold out. Then we put ten more up, and they’re selling out. So we just figured, “Let’s do a run of all the places that we don’t go to very often.” I don’t remember the last time we were in Wyoming, but we’re going to go. And we’re going to play to a sold-out amphitheater; that’s pretty cool!
So what I’m looking forward to is seeing all of these places that I haven’t seen in so many years, because those are my people. I was raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, and to think of my favorite band coming there when I was a kid, that sounds like a lot of fun. You get a whole different energy.
You mentioned that you predicted long ago that Train would outlast other bands. When you started the band nearly 30 years ago, did you ever imagine that you’d still be doing it in 2023?
Yeah! I mean, look at Tony Bennett. So why not me?
When I golf and somebody’s trying to make a 30-foot putt, that’s something we say: “Why not you?” And this is similar; it’s a simplified version of it: “Why not us? Why can’t we keep going like Tony Bennett?” It’s a different era, but it’s the same concept.
Postscript: Train released a brand new single in late June. “I Know” features the group joined by two guests: two-time JUNO Award winner Tenille Townes and multi-platinum rapper/singer Bryce Vine. “I Know” is the first new music from Train since the release of their 1th studio album, AM Gold, in May 2022.