“I want to be ‘Jimmy Chamberlin, the drummer, the musician who’s done many things,'” the 46-year-old rocker tells SPIN.com, “not just ‘that guy from the Smashing Pumpkins.'”
The Chicago native and alt-rock vet is working towards that end with Skysaw, his new band and first musical endeavor since exiting the reformed Pumpkins in 2009. Together with Washington DC-based singer Mike Reina and guitarist Anthony Pirog — the writing team behind psychedelic rock outfit the Jackfields — Skysaw will release their debut, Great Civilizations, in May on Dangerbird Records. Hear the psych-prog jam “Tightrope Situation,” exclusively via SPIN.com.
LISTEN: Skysaw, “Tightrope Situation”
“After I left the Pumpkins, I went home and just sat around,” Chamberlin explains. “I have a studio in my basement and I found myself writing all these songs, just taking advantage of the relaxed situation. I wrote about 30 songs in about 30 days.”
His partnership with Reina was a total fluke: “I was talking to a friend, saying, ‘I wish I could find somebody who looks like a cross between Chris Cornell and Jim Morrison, has a great voice, is independently wealthy, has their own studio, and doesn’t do anything but make music.’ [Laughs]. Then my friend says, ‘I know [Reina]!’
The two started trading songs via email, and then Chamberlin invited Reina to Chicago, where the duo “rented a proper studio for a couple of days,” says Chamberlin. “We went in and wrote a song specifically for the exercise of getting to know each other. It sounded great and from then we worked together.”
The duo tapped guitarist Anthony Pirog and started fleshing out a collection of songs, and soon hit Reina’s DC studio, called the Brink, to record Great Civilizations “live to tape, no Protools,” says Chamberlin. They even brought in legendary producer Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, T. Rex, Yes, Rolling Stones), Chamberlin’s old friend, for a few weeks to work on the record.
The collaborative experience was refreshing for Chamberlin, who had taken a backseat to Billy Corgan in the Pumpkins. “I always wanted to be in this role, as a songwriter,” he says. “In the Pumpkins it was always impossible because Corgan would wake up and write five songs. He was so prolific there wasn’t a lot of room for anyone else.”
With Great Civilizations Chamberlin is exploring a new, more experimental direction from his Pumpkins days, while still respecting the moody elements of his past. The LP is a collection of prog-leaning, psychedelic jams with flourishes of acoustic guitars, keyboards, piano, and more. Think a proggier, more expansive Sparklehorse. “It’s symphonic at points and gets really dark, too,” says Chamberlin. There’s a full string section on “Am I Second,” while songs like “Capsized Jackknife Crisis” and “Tightrope Situation,” Chamberlin’s personal favorite, recalls experimental bands Yes and King Crimson.
Outside of Skysaw — originally called “This,” a name that “wasn’t resonating with me,” says Chamberlin, “it’s a prohibitive name to Google” — the drummer is a “closet suburbanite,” living outside Chicago where he spends a lot of time with his two children. He’s on the Board of Directors at their schools and even coaches his five-year-old son’s baseball team. “We’re in spring training right now,” he says. “Last year we finished pretty good. We’re hoping to get them fired up this year and go for a shot at the title.”
He’s psyched, however, to return to music and move forward with Skysaw, and put his past with the Pumpkins behind him. “It’s important for Billy [Corgan] to carry on as the Pumpkins — that’s a lot of his ownership and a big part of his personality,” says Chamberlin, who explains that he and Corgan are friends “from a distance.” “He’s an extremely talented musician, fantastic songwriter, and a great guy at getting what he needs. But as time went on it became less and less about my journey and more about facilitating someone else’s.”
“I’ve learned that you can call it a band, but unless everyone is contributing it’s not really,” says Chamberlin. “It’s pretending that it’s a band. I wasn’t interested in creating another experience like that. Skysaw is predicated on a three-way split.”
He adds, “That situation [with the Pumpkins] placed constraints and a parameter on my career that’s wasn’t always easy to deal with. That can stagnate your growth as a musician. Not anymore.”