Jimmy Chamberlin: Father of A Pommel Horse Champion
Words by Tom Hoare
Chicago. Getting here was a struggle. Getting home was even worse. But what happened in between made it all worthwhile.
The itinerary was ambitious. From the time the plane touched down in Chicago, we would have five hours – almost to the minute – before we were required to be back on a plane heading out again. The marvels of online flight comparison websites made our schedule economically irresistible. Unfortunately, they also made it practically unfeasible. “Idiocy” was how a colleague chose to express their opinion. In hindsight they were undoubtedly correct.
Having never been to Chicago before, we opted to accomplish as many activities as possible. One was to eat some Chicago deep dish pizza. Another was to see a large, stainless steel, jelly bean-shaped sculpture in the city centre. Luke, the photographer, also wanted to visit a specific shop where he could purchase some patterned socks, despite it being inconveniently located in a region that was effectively Chicago’s version of the Bermuda Triangle, given that no transport, public or otherwise, seemed to go anywhere near it.
We also had another appointment.
I never had access to MTV growing up because our TV only had four channels. Because the dog had decimated the remote, we actually only had one, as nobody was ever prepared to get up and adjust the set manually.
One day at primary school, a kid in my class proudly announced he now had SKY. This was a pretty big deal back then. No one had SKY. Naturally, there were rumours he was lying. So after school, the class (all ten of us) piled round to his house, and sure enough, there was a satellite dish obscuring most of the front facing exterior wall. Besides trying to call his bluff, the other big draw was that everyone knew a subscription to Rupert Murdoch’s politically corrupt conglomerate included Music Television. So we sat down to watch, and as a result, the first music video I ever saw was Tonight, Tonight by The Smashing Pumpkins. It scared me, and I vowed I’d never watch MTV again.
The drummer, I would later learn, was a guy called Jimmy Chamberlin, and I remember thinking just how weird looking he was. The whole band looked weird to be honest – a bunch of people you’d hope not to meet on a dark night.
We’d arranged to meet Jimmy at noon in a restaurant near his office in central Chicago. “Shocking food but reliably quiet” was how Jimmy described it, and upon our arrival, this description proved wholly accurate. It was indeed empty and the waitress greeted us with a look of mild surprise. We’re shown to our table and sit for a while admiring the remarkably beige décor, also noting the strange absence of any natural light.
Not long after, Jimmy arrives. He administers a crushingly strong handshake and listens with a sort of bemused expression as I explain the nature of our visit to Chicago. “It’s a shame you’re not here for longer,” he smiles, “but you can put a lot of miles on quickly in this town.”
I’d read a lot about Jimmy, namely because there’s a lot out there about him to read. In the mid ‘90s, The Smashing Pumpkins were certainly one of, if not the biggest band in the world. “1994, that’s when I remember it getting pretty crazy,” nods Jimmy. “If any one of the Pumpkins walked down the street, we’d get mobbed. We were on the side of busses, on billboards, on park benches. We were on The Simpsons. We were all over the place. My profile as a drummer increased because our live shows were like drum clinics. I mean, there was no holding back. What you hear on those early Pumpkins records, that was as good as I could play. I was at the top of my game.”
The Smashing Pumpkins also had another reputation. “Intense,” Jimmy offers, “everything was very, very intense. That’s just how we worked. And yeah, I suppose eventually that took its toll.”
Following some intense browsing, I discovered there are three overwhelming themes that frequently reoccur in Jimmy’s interviews. The first is how he’s regarded as one of the world’s most influential musicians. The second is how he’s now CEO of a tech company in Chicago called Live One Inc. The third is that he once battled with substance addiction. “That’s usually what journalists want to go with when they write about me,” he sighs. “‘Former drug addict.’ I think that’s just how people see me. It was a long time ago. I don’t know why it’s still a big thing.”
Back in the mid ‘90s, there was one drug in particular that made a lot of headlines. Once associated with the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s, heroin became purer and considerably cheaper. In 1996, Trainspotting, a story of drug addiction and urban poverty in Edinburgh, was released and became one of the year’s most successful films. Pulp Fiction, also released in 1996, dealt with similar themes of heroin addiction and received severe criticism from those that believed the film glamorized substance abuse. The fashion industry also went through a phase where several designers offered collections called ‘Heroin Chic,’ the most notable examples of which were a series of Calvin Klein ads featuring Kate Moss looking very, very tired. If you’ve ever fancied looking into just how fucked up the fashion industry is, that’s a good place to start.
In a strange way, despite having never met or spoken to him before, I thought I knew quite a lot about Jimmy. When he sat down at the table, I actually realised that this was untrue. I just knew a lot about what people had written about him, and there’s a distinct difference. Still, I wasn’t here to dispel any myths or set any sort of record straight, or to drag up his past and parade it around as a sort of clickbaited cursor trap. There was no agenda as such. I’d just come to talk to a person I’d first seen playing drums on TV twenty years ago.
At the table, Jimmy studies the menu. “I’m honestly not too sure about this,” he warns, “we should have gone for pizza. There’s a great spot round the corner. It’s so good you can get mugged for it. Plus, you could have ticked off two things at once then: the interview and pizza.” He had a point.
We opt to stay, largely because the images which accompany the menu’s entrées bring a fun element to the ordering process, turning it into a game where you have to guess what the picture is actually of, given that it’s incredibly pixelated.
“We’ve enough time I think,” Jimmy states, looking at his sizable watch, “but I’ve a meeting at three back in the office.” This makes me think two things: “it’s nice he’s put aside this much time,” and “we’re supposed to be back at the airport by then.”
Jimmy is from a small town called Joliet just south of Chicago. “It’s known as Prison City because it has two huge prisons,” he grins. “Statesville Prison and The Joliet Correctional Centre. Those places are like the Academy Awards of crime: Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Speck. The most egregious people you can imagine have all been in there.
“It didn’t really impact on local culture though. I was raised a Catholic and went to church a lot. I was an altar boy for a while, so I think I was a good kid. I was into science, history and geology. I suppose when I got older things maybe changed a bit. Joliet was a tough place, full of tough characters, so you had to be able to hold your own. Thankfully I’d discovered I was quite good at drums, and had just the right ratio of people encouraging me to those who were trying to put me down. It helped me, that combination of frustration and inspiration. It drove me forward.
“I wanted to be a drummer because I liked the idea that as an artist you can give something back, you can make things for other people. My dad worked on the railroads for most of his life. When he retired, he went to work at another railroad, not for the money, but just so he could pass on some of the wisdom he had. To me that’s the point of art, the point of music – people need to be able to take something away from it or it’s irrelevant.”
The Art of Economics
Jimmy has absolutely enormous hands. This is a pretty weird observation, granted, but they’re honestly like shovels. It’s hard not to notice them because he sits with his arms extended and his hands face down on the table like a magician about reveal something spectacular in his palm. Due to a thought process I can’t explain, I get an image of Jimmy holding a drumstick and it resembling a match. Not that I was about to tell him this, because I then imagine one of those hands repeatedly hitting me in the face.
I remember being told by a music teacher in school that your first hope of becoming a talented musician came down to the size of your hands. Small hands were good because they were likely to be more dexterous and nimble. So it’s reassuring to know that when your gut instinct says, “that is an insane generalisation, how can you legally teach that?” you are not wrong.
Jimmy’s career in music has spanned three decades and, during this time, the way people consume music has changed immensely. CD sales boomed and declined. Peer-to-peer file sharing began. iTunes launched. YouTube and streaming services followed not long after. MTV changed its programming from ‘music’ to ‘not music.’ So, regardless of hand size, I’d say he’s well placed to answer a few questions about it.
“What do people mean when they say the music industry is in decline?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I don’t think it is. It’s like saying the forests are in decline.”
“Isn’t the Amazon being absolutely pillaged?”
“Well, yeah I suppose it is. What I meant was, even if you chop down a few trees, there are always new ones growing. It still remains a forest.” He sits in contemplation for a few seconds before continuing. “Maybe that’s not the best analogy. But, saying that, I think the environment in which art is created is more fertile than ever.”
“I think you’ve pulled that back. Well done.”
“Yeah, I thought I’d made a mess of that for a second.” He laughs.
“So you’re saying it’s better now to be a musician compared to thirty years ago?”
“Well, it’s not necessarily better. But there’s certainly more opportunity. Recording equipment back then cost thousands of dollars. Today most new laptops or tablets come with a version of it bundled on for free.”
“So does that mean being able to record music yourself makes it better?”
“No, of course not. But it at least presents you with the opportunity to record it. I had to live in my car to save up the money we needed for studio time.”
“Where did you shower?”
“Where did you shower when you lived in your car?”
“Friends’ apartments.” There’s a pause. “I’m so sick of hearing people complaining about streaming, or that no one is buying records.”
“Aren’t you CEO of a company whose business model involves streaming content?”
“Well then you would say that, wouldn’t you?”
“Right. I can see how that might come across as a bit biased,” he grins, “but I honestly think there’s more opportunity now than ever. I mean, when I was young and wanted to learn how Ian Paice did a drum fill, I’d stick my thumb on the record and slow it down. Now with YouTube, you have all this information at your fingertips. Nobody knew how Buddy Rich played his bass drum, there was no GoPro footage of it. The top drummers of today, take Steve Gadd for example, now it’s like, ‘do you want to watch a video of Steve Gadd’s left foot or right foot?’ There’s probably a video out there of Steve Gadd making an omelette.”
“I bet Steve Gadd makes a good omelette.”
“Yeah, I bet he does.”
“How about the potential to make money as a musician? How has that changed?”
“There’s an art to economics. If you want to lay the foundations to produce more art, then you need to understand exactly what you’re doing financially. A company will not do well if it doesn’t understand the market in which it operates. If you can’t manage finances, plan and execute on that plan, then it’s game over career wise. Rock music in particular is underpinned by economics. From an industry perspective, success in rock means volume sales. With jazz or classical music, it’s not like that, it’s more to do with legacy and transformative experience. So I think it depends on what type of musician you want to be. For example, I play in a jazz quartet. Last Friday, we played to about 30 people. Does the fact there was no economics attached to that make it any less relevant? Not to me.”
“But perhaps that’s because you weren’t depending on that gig as a source of income?”
“I see what you’re saying.” Jimmy pauses for a second. “Back when the Pumpkins were big, people used to constantly ask me, ‘what would you be doing if you weren’t playing for 10,000 people tonight?’ I’d be playing some dump for free because that’s what I do. I didn’t start doing it because I wanted to live in a big house, I did it because I wanted to play the drums. I don’t care if it’s a cliché or not. It’s true.”
“Are you guys going to leave a Yelp review of this place?”
Jimmy asks, grinning through his pork sliders. I look at my macaroni cheese with crushing disappointment. I hadn’t eaten in what seemed like an age and there’s a limit to the number of complementary bags of dry roasted nuts you can get away with asking for inflight. “Yeah, that’s the not the best you could have done here,” he states, sympathetically eying my ramekin of pasta.
The conversation turns to Chicago, and Jimmy can’t believe we’ve never been before despite growing up several thousand miles away on another continent. “Well,” he states, “you know there’s nowhere like the US, right? There was an old fort near here called Fort Dearborne. There’s a huge building now where it used to be, but there’s a little plaque on it which commemorates some soldiers who were attacked and killed by Native Americans in the 1800s. It neglects to mention that we went on to cleanse the entire Native American population. It’s a strange thought that these huge events in US history weren’t actually all that long ago.”
“Do you read a lot of history?”
“There’s a great book I read recently about the Americas before Columbus. It talks about the Incas and how sophisticated their society was. And we just wiped them out. They developed their own GM corn, for Christ’s sake. That’s how advanced they were. It’s amazing when you think about it.” He pauses. “I feel a bit old talking about this.”
“Do you consider yourself ‘a bit old?’”
Jimmy sits back and laughs. “To be honest, I look better now at 50 than I did at 35. I’m on the school board now and I’m definitely the squarest there. Everyone is drinking wine. They all think I’m super boring.”
How Jimmy saw himself was something I was interested in. In the back of my mind, I was still a bit unsure why he’d actually agreed to be interviewed, beyond the fact that we’d put in the request. He didn’t have any new records or products out to push. Most of the questions we asked him about his CEO position at Live One he answered pretty briefly before bringing the conversation back to drums. I also wondered how he perceived his own success with the Pumpkins, and to what extent he felt like it had come to dictate his current identity.
“I’m just proud of what I’ve done really, and what’s happening in my life. I’m happy to talk about it. I haven’t always felt that way, but I’m comfortable now, with everything that’s happened. I’ve been speaking at tech conferences and universities. I think it’s nice to be able to talk about things. Maybe it goes back to what I was saying before about passing things on. Maybe I’ve reached that stage!” He grins.
“Are you a perfectionist?”
“When it comes to me, yeah, I think I am. I’ll play a rudiment or pattern until I can own it.”
“So how do you feel when you look back on your achievements?”
“I’m really proud of what the Pumpkins did. And that absolutely includes some of the records that got a bit of a hard time by critics and fans. For the most part.”
“‘For the most part?’”
“I’ve got an identity behind the drum set, for better or for worse. I certainly think that what I play all starts to sound the same.”
“This is a genuine concern of yours?
“Absolutely. I mean, of course it’s important to have your own identity as a musician, but I think you can wear it out.”
“So did you wear it out?”
“I think it wore me out. When Billy [Corgan] and I got back together as The Smashing Pumpkins to do Zeitgeist in 2007, it’d been seven years since our last record. During that time I’d done lots of other things, including my own record as the The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex. When I got back into trying to play Pumpkins music, I found I didn’t make the same choices, musically, that I used to. I had to go back and listen to a lot of songs and almost relearn how to play like that again, because I felt as a musician I’d moved on. My relationship with music just became really awkward. Every time I’d go into my studio to play, I’d be thinking, ‘what am I doing here? Was that just an intro to the next hit song? Am I writing here?’ There was always an agenda. So I just stopped playing. I had to stop. But there’s stuff I hear on records where I just cringe.”
“In terms of your own playing?”
“Yeah. I just had a different outlook back then. My life was a lot different, what I wanted to accomplish was different.”
“What did you want to accomplish?”
“I wanted to be the best I could be. And in terms of a textbook drumming career, did I check all the boxes? Yeah. I got the magazine covers, the signature gear, the successful band.”
“And that wasn’t fulfilling?”
“It could have been, for sure, but the point came where I wasn’t able to see the value of repeatedly going out and playing a better version of the song I played last night. I mean, is a live show supposed to be a business card for your album? Is the idea to play better than you played on the album? So then I started to think exactly what it was I was offering people. Am I trying to make money? Am I trying to placate audiences so they’ll listen to something new I’ve made?” Jimmy pauses and there’s silence for a few seconds, which makes me think these questions are directed at me.
“No, this is all just rhetorical,” he smirks, before another brief silence ensues. “It became easy for me to be in the Pumpkins because it was of me. Sometimes, drummers would come up to me and say, ‘Jimmy, you’re the greatest,’ and as flattering as it is to have someone tell you that, I’d be thinking, ‘I’m absolutely not. I’m not even close.’”
“So how about now?”
“My goal now is to be a better bebop drummer. That’s what I practise. When I play with my jazz quartet, I’m the fourth best player on stage, and I like that. It feels like a challenge, like I’ve got lots to learn. But in a rock context, as much as I love what rock has given me, there’s not really much I think I could do anymore.”
In a similar vein, I was also interested in how Jimmy viewed his own media profile.
“I had quite an interesting conversation with my son the other day,” Jimmy states. “He collects coins right - he’s eight. He asked me, ‘how do you get on a coin?’ So I said, ‘you have to do something great, you have to be a President.’ So the conclusion we came to was that everyone should live their life like they’re trying to get on a coin. If everybody lived his or her life like that, everything would be cool.”
“Did Stalin not appear on the Soviet Ruble?”
There’s a pause. “Yeah, he probably did. Ok so it’s not a watertight idea but I think as a principle it works. He started being nice to his sister at least.”
“Do your kids ever Google you?”
“Yeah. They have done.”
“Is that not odd that your entire life has been documented? It’s out there for people to read about?”
He replies with a question. “Well surely you have documents of your life too, photos and things?”
“Yes, but I suppose they’ll only really tell anyone what I looked like at a given time. But with you, we could go online now and find out what your thoughts were, or what people thought of you, in 1993, for example. Is that not strange?”
“It’s not weird for me because I’m so used to it. But I think it’s certainly weird for my kids, yeah. I can’t hide from it. You’ve got to take it for what it’s worth, the good and bad.
“Certainly in the West, journalists like to latch onto 1996, my dad dying, my drug addiction and the death of Jonathan Melvoine. No one is concerned with the fact I’ve been able to move on, do other things and actually have a fulfilling life. I’m not anything like that person who is written about on the internet. And I’m not just saying that. When my wife and I had our first child in 2002, I quit drinking, I quit doing any type of drugs. We’ve raised our kids for 12 years with no escapism at all. And people want to believe that I’ve this side to me, this Charlie Sheen that’s lurking back there somewhere waiting to burst out, and it’s just not. Not doing that has everything to do with my success now, and I don’t mean having a lot of money; I mean being able to wake up and go to my job and enjoy what I do. There’s an honesty in my relationship with everything in my life now, including my past, that I didn’t have before. Before, when I’d see or read articles about myself as a drug addict, that I’m a bad person, all this incredibly hurtful stuff, it’d make me just try and escape from it further and it’d usually cause more damage.
“Today, I feel like I’ve completed a good portion of the healing cycle around a lot of the stuff that happened. I don’t say that lightly. It’s taken a long fucking time, but I feel like I’m now in a position where I can start to give back. I’ve chosen to learn from the mistakes I’ve made. And it’s time to give some of that back, especially in a way that resonates with young people. I feel really strongly about that.
“But still the stuff that’s written about me now, people will talk about me being a tech CEO, and it’ll be like, ‘former drug addict turned CEO Jimmy Chamberlin’ or, ‘Chamberlin, who was fired from the Smashing Pumpkins...’ I mean, that was like 20 years ago. Is that really still relevant? I mean, there is all sorts of information about me out there. My son is a pommel horse champion. Why not include that?”
I absolutely didn’t mind missing the flight back. Stood at the ticketing desk, I thought about my own, private assumptions I’d made about him and how they turned out to be untrue. I’d thought he was going to be quite serious and potentially quite egotistical. Part of me thought we’d just end up talking about Live One and the importance of what they’re trying to do. I thought he might not want to talk about The Smashing Pumpkins, and that doing so might even make him mad. In hindsight, the fact I’d actually thought all of this seems a bit bizarre. In this respect, assumption can be just as bad as ignorance.
I found it genuinely encouraging to talk to Jimmy. Not in a self-help group sort of way, but I just got the impression that he was pretty sincere. I think what he said about learning from your mistakes is right in that it’s one of the most important things you can do.
After the interview, we went outside to take some photos. Jimmy pointed out various landmarks and talked about them. When three o’clock came, we said our goodbyes.
“Is that true, what you said about your dog eating the TV remote?”
“You’re right to say we looked weird though - the Pumpkins I mean. We were a bunch of freaks really. I think we genuinely scared a few people.”