August-September 1997 – Chicago Trax Recording

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August-September 1997 – Chicago Trax Recording
Studio session of The Smashing Pumpkins
ArtistThe Smashing Pumpkins
FromAugust 1997
ToSeptember 1997
LocationChicago Trax Recording, The Hinge Chicago, Battery Studios
Producer(s)Brad Wood, Billy Corgan
Engineer(s)Bjorn Thorsrud

The August-September 1997 sessions were the first proper recording sessions for Adore. After scrapping the idea of a live-in-the-studio album, Billy Corgan chose to make an acoustic/electronic hybrid record intended to be co-produced by Brad Wood and tracked in a different recording studio every week. Although Corgan deemed these initial sessions a failure, the album versions of "To Sheila", "Ava Adore", "Behold! The Night Mare", "Blank Page", "Daphne Descends" and "Tear" all hail from these sessions (albeit with overdubs later in Los Angeles).

Tracks recorded[edit | edit source]

Background[edit | edit source]

The success of "Eye", an industrial hip-hop crossover track that appeared on the soundtrack to David Lynch's Lost Highway instilled a much-needed confidence in Corgan. It was basic electronic production, but it proved to him that he could press on with more sophisticated fare. Corgan hooked up with Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Placebo) and began recording with the band in Chicago during the summer of 1997. It began as a solo album initiative but quickly expanded as a Smashing Pumpkins effort. Never one to do anything the easy way, Corgan decided to load into a new studio nearly every week. It was catch-as-catch-can recording. If something wasn't working in a new surrounding or couldn't get set up in time, it wasn't used.

"He was trying to create a different environment, quickly and geographically, and trying to avoid certain things that happen when a band settles into a studio," says Bjorn Thorsrud, who would later work with Corgan extensively on future albums.[1]

After much experimentation, the magic simply wasn't showing and Wood parted ways. Corgan would soon afterwards relocate to L.A. to refocus his energy, calling on Mellon Collie co-producer Flood for assistance. "It was a total crap shoot," Corgan told Electronic Musician. "I was out of depth. There was no process, there was no system, and there was no go-to piece of gear. There was nothing. I learned a tremendous amount, but I couldn't tell you what the hell I did."[2]

Equipment[edit | edit source]

Guitars[edit | edit source]

Corgan used a nylon stringed Martin acoustic on "To Sheila", which was recorded in the first hour on the first day.[3]

Production and engineering[edit | edit source]

Recording happened on both digital and analog formats. Corgan used ReCycle drum looping software, having already been familiar with Studio Vision Pro for MIDI and audio editing. In addition, a Kurzweil K2500 and a Alesis HR-16 (which was used on "1979") were used for rhythmic sequencing. Brad Wood's classic EMS VCS3 "Putney" can be heard prominently on "Ava Adore". Just as with 1995's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the band strived for experimentation. Every day new vintage synths, audio samples, and rack modules would be delivered to the studio.

Starcrossed, and Subsequently, a Door is Opened[edit | edit source]

The following is a copy of Corgan's April 12, 2005 livejournal entry:[3]

Supposedly now rested, I foolishly decide we are going to move to a new studio each and every week (6 weeks, 6 studios) to keep things fresh…this means packing up everything and moving guitars, wires, amps, all sorts of shit each time…this in theory sounds good for creativity (the keep it moving theory), but will bring to bear all sorts of technical issues (which prove to really bog the sessions down)…I hire Brad Wood, for co-producer, from his great work on Liz Phair and Red Red Meat, because I think he will help me get the sound I am looking for…everything is set to go, we don’t even rehearse, we are just going to learn the songs on the fly.

The first day we in, I meet the new pro-tools guy, Bjorn (little do I know that we will not only work together on my next 4 albums, but he will also become a close friend)…the first song we are going to record is a beautiful acoustic song that I envision will begin the album…James and D’arcy are not even in the studio when I start working (this is fairly typical)…I have bought an old Martin nylon string guitar just to record this particular tune…however, the guitar won’t tune right, and every time I go to the d chord, the darn thing is out of tune…too late!! Time to record…I decide I am going to record the guitar and vocals live, with no click track…when I start that first take, my whole body is shaking…I have totally put myself on the spot like never before…I feel terrified, like I am going over a cliff, and there is no one here to stop me (or catch me!)…Bjorn later told me that as I was playing, Brad Wood was bragging to him and the other engineers in the control room how much free equipment he had gotten by dropping the Pumpkins name (instead of listening to the take)…when I finished, I asked Brad how it was, he whirred around, pressed the talkback button said “that was great!” (and in that very first hour, we recorded “To Sheila”)

the general idea was a good one, to record one song per day, and in the beginning of the sessions this proved to be exciting and stimulating…I was mostly just working by myself, as it was easier and quicker and less stressful…after so many years of a passive-aggressive relationship of who plays what, and when (and how), James and D’arcy now knew to just get out of my way…Matt was my new partner, and stood by my side a lot as I navigated all these new ideas…he was truly wonderful, and supportive of me, and encouraged me to keep taking chances…The beginning of these sessions felt magical, like a whole new world of possibility had opened up…long before we had even started the album, an electronic song that I had done for the movie “Lost Highway” had been a hit (the song ‘eye’)…this added to the sense that I felt I could do no wrong…everything I touched (for about 5 years) seemed to literally turn to gold…this created a sense that I could do whatever I wanted, , and go wherever I wanted, and now I was going to tackle some sort of futuristic, electronic folk-rock (and it would sell too!)…but as often happens to an idea whose foundation is not based on pure intent, I ran out of gas fairly quickly…I slowly found that Brad, my supposed co-producer, wasn’t contributing much to the songs…I was used to guys like Flood, and Butch, who thought the song you were singing was everything…Brad was more of a “interesting type sounds guy”…and is often the case in the indie world, he was used to using clever production to cover up weak writing…but this left him without the skills to know how to get out of the way when a song was great (which a few of these songs were)…I grew more and more isolated as the days went by…I didn’t have Jimmy there to keep my spirits up (and also take the music to a higher level)…it had become James and D’arcy vs. me in the power department, and their opinion centered more on a “we’re tired, let’s take some time off” vibe than what would be best for the album…instead of taking stock of my own misgivings, or insecurities, I started to look for someone or something to blame for my lack of resolve…the long, slow tailspin started about 2 or 3 weeks in…instead of backing up, and seeing the writing on the wall, I got even more determined and stubborn, and just pressed myself harder…and sadly, stopped listening to anybody…

However, there were times in those first 6 weeks where the hassle was all worth it…the most magical moment of these first sessions came when we were set to record a long instrumental piece, at that time called “48 chords” (notable for the fact that the chord sequence did not uniquely repeat until 48 successive chords were played)…up until that point, I had not dealt with my divorce in any of the new songs, which I thought was odd considering the bitter fallout, but I blamed it on the fact that I was in a fairly new relationship and maybe just didn’t feel like getting into it (my girlfriend at the time forbade me to speak of my marriage)…I woke up early on a crisp, sunny morning, and reeled off a stream of consciousness type poem that seemed very much to deal with my anger towards my ex-wife…this surprised me, but I thought little more of it once I got in the shower…I typed it up, and put it in my pocket thinking I might rip off some of the better lines for a song as yet unwritten…I got to the studio, we miked up the piano, and fairly quickly nailed the long sequence of chords (I kept time by playing to a whole series of delays)…the basic concept is that I would put some guitar and strings over the top of it, creating a piece like something for a movie (one of the original ideas for Adore is that it would sound and feel more like a movie score, with instrumentals interspersed amongst the “sung” songs…) when I went into the control room, for some reason I pulled the poem out of my pocket while the boys were busy doing something technical, I started to sing the lines of the poem without much thought, and it was like something out of a dream…suddenly, the song rushed upon me, coming quicker than I could think it up…I got really excited, and ran out to a vocal microphone…”hurry, hurry, I pleaded”, fearful the feeling and the thought I was in would leave my body and never return…over the next 20 minutes, working line by line, I “laid” out the entire song…sadly, every time I asked Brad a question, he didn’t seem to have a solid answer, or feel as excited as I did about the piece…it was like I was trying to convince somebody their meal tastes better than it does…he just wasn’t “with” me, in lockstep…here I was, having one of the most exciting moments of my recording life, and I feel like I am in a boat by myself in the middle of the ocean…there was no one else to turn to at that moment (again, no band in the studio)…by the time I had finished singing all the lines, I had my mind made up…Brad would have to go…

Feeling restless and uncertain, I start to blame Chicago for the gray clouds hanging over the sessions…maybe it is my past here, far too many shadows and people rooting against me…everywhere I drive in Chicago I am reminded of my many failures…I was already paranoid (from years of self-denial), and couldn’t accept that I was in way over my head…in addition, my girlfriend really disliked Chicago, and didn’t want to spend any time there…I figured that if we all relocated, she would be happier (and come stay with me thru the end of recording)…I could get some support, the band could get some sun, and all would “instantly” improve!…so of all places to get centered, and find the heart of this album, I choose lovely, spiritually grounded Los Angeles, California…(look out Hollywood, here I come)

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Kylee Swenson Gordon (1 May 2012). Electronic Musician Presents the Recording Secrets Behind 50 Great Albums. Backbeat Books. pp. 150–. ISBN 978-1-4768-2136-8.
  2. Richard Thomas, "Signal To Noise: The Sonic Diary Of The Smashing Pumpkins", Electronic Musician, October 1st, 2008
  3. 3.0 3.1 Billy Corgan, Starcrossed, and Subsequently, a Door is Opened. livejournal, April 12th, 2005.

External links[edit | edit source]