The complexity of Jimmy Chamberlin: Pumpkins drummer rises again


By Mark Guarino

 The first musical project to rise from the ashes of Zwan is, surprisingly, not from leader Billy Corgan. Instead, it is “Life Begins Again” (Sanctuary), the debut album from Jimmy Chamberlin, Zwan’s powerhouse drummer and the dynamic timekeeper behind the Smashing Pumpkins. It is a rare find — a rhythm record that is not about showing off chops but is melodic with a wide emotional range, from calm to turbulence.    

“The initial thought was to go in and make this jazz fusion-y Jeff Beck record and make it self indulgent. When we got to exploring that, it certainly got boring and lackluster and derivative. All that stuff got replaced with better songs,” he said the opening day of his first solo tour. “I was in one of the most accessible bands in the world at some point. Everything I learned from working with Billy and Flood and all the producers I worked with over the years, all that stuff came right back to me and it became a lot of fun and an easy thing to do.”   

At age 40, Chamberlin has endured the break-ups of two major bands (see sidebar), although in the past few years, his personal life has itself provided significant drama. Last year, his mother died due to Alzheimer’s, following his father, who died in 1996. Chamberlin then moved his family from Long Grove to about 60 miles south of L.A., where his two-year-old daughter Audriella would be close to his wife’s parents. In the midst of the move, the family cat died. “Lokicat,” the song with vocals by Corgan, is dedicated to its memory.   

“I think at the end of the day, all that stuff is on the record,” he said. “A lot of that stuff became a sort of catalyst.”   

The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex is a partnership with bassist and songwriter Billy Mohler, who Chamberlin met when Mohler auditioned for Zwan. (Guitarist Sean Woolstenhulme and keyboardist Adam Benjamin round out the group.)   

The two struck a friendship together but it wasn’t until Mohler exited his band The Calling and Zwan disbanded, that the two found time to work together. After a one-day writing session last January, they reconvened in L.A. over the summer to record. Besides Corgan, guest singers included Rob Dickinson of the Catherine Wheel and, unpredictably, Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers. Turns out the legendary tenor is Mohler’s godfather.   

“He is a super legend and I’m a huge, huge fan, but it was like, where’s the common thread, where does Bill Medley fit on a record like this? But it was kind of weird, when he first came in and started singing, everyone who I played it for said ‘you have to turn the vocal up, it sounds so good’,” Chamberlin said.   

Chamberlin grew up the youngest of six children in Joliet. He inherited his love of swing music and jazz from his father, a recreational clarinetist who continually blared Count Basie, Pete Fountain and Benny Goodman in the house. His siblings schooled him in classic rock. “I had a really, really solid foundation as far as a music fan went,” he said.   

He met Corgan in 1988 when the Pumpkins were a trio working with a drum machine. Chamberlin, whose resume included the polka band Eddie Karosa and the Boys from Illinois, was recommended as an anecdote. His drumming became the backbone to the group’s mixture of dreamy psychedelics and hard rock. His influence can be best appreciated on the Pumpkins’ 1995 opus, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (Virgin), that required Chamberlin to create tricky signatures behind lush ballads and also, scorching metal.   

He said the experience came from his jazz background, where listening is essential. “I think a lot of musicians confuse playing with playing a song. If you don’t know what a lyricist is saying in a song, how can you play drums to it?,” he said. “The parameters in the Pumpkins was so broad, you had to be on top of your game to sound successful on each track. A track like ‘Tonight, Tonight’ is not your typical rock track, so how do you approach a track like that and make it exciting and … not sound like a dork playing behind an orchestra? You really have to look deep inside to find those parts. I think certainly years of playing gives you the tools to do that, but I think it’s a lot of introspection and soul searching to deliver the goods.”   

Chamberlin’s tenure with the band came to a temporary end in 1996 during the “Mellon Collie” tour when he overdosed on heroin in a New York City hotel room. He woke up to find keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin dead of a similar overdose. Days later, he was kicked out of the band and entered rehab. Invited back three years later, he followed the band to its conclusion in 2000.   

“That whole mess in ’96 was just a complete nightmare for me. It’s not something I’ve dismissed, it’s something I deal with all the time. The way you can show people that you don’t disrespect something like that is to do your job and say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I’m back, okay, I’m doing what I’m supposed to do’,” he said.   

He said he retains a deep friendship with Corgan because of their shared commitment to making music, even removed from the spotlight. “It’s something I learned before the band got big and nobody knew me and when I was doing Eddie Karosa’s Polka Party on Channel 26 in Summit, Illinois when I was 15. It’s like riding a bike,” he said. “It always intrigues me when people say ‘you used to play Madison Square Garden, how can go play the Green Mill now?’ It doesn’t seem that way to me. I’m just grateful to play music. And I don’t care how many people are listening. As long as somebody gives a (expletive), I’m there.”   

His playing will be on Corgan’s solo record due later this year and he said he expects the Complex to continue making albums into the future. In the meantime, he has become a kind of online mentor to young drummers via his website. He also expects future Corgan collaborations. “If we do come back, we will come back with conviction and we’ll come back because there’s a reason to come back,” he said.   

The Complex album title “Life Begins Again” was not chosen lightly. “It’s more of a tip of the hat to the cyclical-ness of nature,” he said. “The perfect example is when my mother died last year and I was going home to my daughter. It reinforces your trust in the Creator, but it makes you feel like everything is going to be okay. God did a really good job in replacing things.”   

“Certainly after my bouts with self-abuse, my kind of coming out of it still being alive reinforces that this is why you’re here. Obviously, you’re alive because nature or God or whatever you want to call it wants to hear more music,” he said. “So you better get to work.”

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