FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S MAY 2018 ISSUE | BY JOE BOSSO
As a member of the alt-rock titans The Smashing Pumpkins, Jimmy Chamberlin has had plenty of time to work on his “studio tan.” The band’s albums have traditionally taken months to record, with their 1995 epic Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness requiring six straight months of tracking sessions. Now that the Pumpkins have reunited, he might be back at it for even longer stints. When leading his own outfit, however, the jazz-oriented Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, the drummer moves at a faster clip: The group’s 2005 debut album, Life Begins Again, was recorded in under a week, and their new album, The Parable, took a single day.
“That’s because one day was all we had!” Chamberlin says with a laugh. “Our schedules have us all over the place sometimes, but when we noticed that we were all going to be in LA on the same day, we booked time at Sunset Sound Studios and went for it. Everything you hear on the record is us playing in real time together — nothing is comped or overdubbed. Sometimes we even used first takes while we ran down a song. It’s certainly different from a lot of other records I’ve made.”
On Life Begins Again, Chamberlin took listeners who first came to know his nimble yet muscular style of playing with the Pumpkins and eased them gently into the waters of jazz. Among several Mahavishnu-influenced cuts, the record contained splashes of shoegaze-rock and even a few vocal tracks courtesy of Head Pumpkin Billy Corgan and Righteous Brothers legend Bill Medley. The Parable, however, is a straight-up, all-instrumental affair, and it sees Chamberlin, freed from the restraints of ABACAB song structure, letting loose his inner Billy Cobham on six daring and expansive free-form originals that blur the lines between traditional and progressive jazz.
“I don’t see a big difference between rock and jazz,” says Chamberlin. “To me, music is music. But if I had to isolate any difference, I would say that jazz allows me to paint in real time. There can be a lot of calculus in arranging rock and pop songs. In the Pumpkins, we were very conscious of trimming the fat in our pop stuff. With jazz, you know what the architecture of a song is, so you just go in and play within that framework. I’m not saying one genre is better than the other, but it’s fun to go in and freewheel it.”
Chamberlin formed the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex in 2004 following the demise of both the Pumpkins and the Corgan-led, alt-rock band Zwan. The original group comprised Chamberlin, bassist/multi-instrumentalist Billy Mohler, and guitarist Sean Woolstenhulme, but now it’s been expanded to include pianist Randy Ingram and saxophonist Chris Speed. “When I put the band together, I wanted a vehicle that allowed me to fully explore where I came from,” Chamberlin explains, “and that spirit’s still there.”
He pauses for a moment, then clarifies: “Don’t get me wrong — the Pumpkins were probably the least parametric band around at that time, and I always felt like I could express myself to the ends of my abilities. But it was never in a setting that was jazz or fusion-y, so this was a chance for me to get that other three percent out there. The guy who loves Mahavishnu, Weather Report, and Return To Forever wanted to come out.”
Mixing rock and jazz came naturally to Chamberlin. Growing up in Joliet, Illinois, his musician father exposed him to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, and Chamberlin, who took up drumming at age eight, played his father’s records by The Who, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin. After studying with future Yanni drummer Charlie Adams, he played in a series of bands (“everything from rock to a variety show–type group”) before hooking up with Billy Corgan in the late ’80s.
“Corgan and I developed a real brotherhood in music,” Chamberlin says. “The way we hear things is almost identical. Funnily enough, he never stopped me from anything that was ‘too jazz.’ If it fit, it fit. Even my sidestick playing in ‘Tonight, Tonight,’ where I’m doing my Alex Acuña thing from ‘Birdland,’ it worked. Billy pushed me to do that stuff. I think it’s because he always appreciated my intention to make good music, and he knows that the nature of collaboration is based on relationships. It’s about people.”
That same spirit is evident on The Parable. It’s there in the way that Chamberlin leaps into “Horus And The Pharaoh” with one of his signature snare rolls (think “Cherub Rock”), and then pirouettes around the bass and piano with a breezy, playful ride pattern, or how he answers Woolstenhulme’s cosmic guitar lines on the disorienting title cut with a series of equally disturbing crashes and rapid-fire flams. Every part sounds spontaneous and reactionary, but also comes off as purposeful instead of random. “What you’re hearing is five guys totally caught up in the moment,” Chamberlin says. “We’re creating, but we’re also listening to one another.”
Overall, he prefers a stripped-down kit with smaller-sized drums for jazz (20″ x 14″ bass drum, 14″ x 5.5″ snare, 8″ x 5.5″, 10″ x 7.5″, and 14″ x 10″ toms) than what he normally uses for rock (22″ x 14″ bass drum, 14″ x 5.5″ snare, 13″ x 8″, 10″ x 7.5″, 12″ x 8″, 16″ x 14″, 18″ x 16″ toms). “Live rock shows are more about replication, so the kit tends to grow depending on the repertoire,” he says. “I’m definitely a fan of ‘less is more’ these days, and love the way guys are pushing boundaries with smaller kits.”
The Complex will play live this year as often as the bandmembers’ individual schedules will allow, and Chamberlin, who has recently recorded and toured with jazz saxophonist Frank Catalano, is also looking forward to playing as many side gigs as he can. “There’s a whole bunch of guys who play at the Baked Potato in LA, and I’d love to do some shows with them,” he says. Since 2005, he’s been an on-again/off-again partner with Corgan in a reconstituted version of the Pumpkins, and since 2015 he’s remained in the fold.
Corgan had hinted at a possible reunion of the original band before the official announcement. “I can’t speak for anybody else”, Chamberlin said before the official announcement, “but for me, I’m 53 and I finally feel like I’m old enough and mature enough to be in the band now. We’ll see what happens.”
It may come as a surprise that Jimmy Chamberlin of Smashing Pumpkins fame is a longtime jazz stalwart, including recent work with Jimmy Chamberlin Complex. In The Parable, his unyielding triplet flow is reminiscent of Elvin Jones (John Coltrane). Chamberlin wields a huge dynamic range, generates a variety of cymbal sounds (including ride crashes and hi-hat splashes), showcases four-limb independence (bass drum, snare, ride, and hi-hat), and paints with a variety of articulations on the snare (rimshots, buzzes, and diddles).
BAND Jimmy Chamberlin Complex
CURRENT ALBUM The Parable
BIRTHPLACE Joliet, Illinois
INFLUENCES Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Ian Paice, Billy Cobham, Alex Acuña
STICKS Vic Firth
HARDWARE Yamaha, DW pedals