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Jimmy Chamberlin’s greatest claim to fame is his place as the drummer during what was arguably the most creative period of The Smashing Pumpkins’ career. That was Chamberlin pounding the skins on such notable albums as Gish, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Chamberlin’s talents were also featured with Zwan.

However, with Great Civilizations, the debut album from his new band Skysaw, we get to see Chamberlin, the truly well rounded artist. It’s a collaboration that also features Mike Reina and Anthony Pirog that surprises with minimalist percussion and even some country leanings. It’s long past time we gave this drummer – who is so much more than just a drummer – some love.

SSv: I wanted to start by talking about my favorite song on the Skysaw album, which is the “Tracey Janey Girl.

Chamberlin: Oh nice, yeah.

SSv: It’s definitely a departure for you because it sounds almost country. Where did that influence come from, and how did that song come about?

I always think the greatest songs are great songs, no matter how they’re interpreted.

I always think the greatest songs are great songs, no matter how they’re interpreted.

Chamberlin: Well, I didn’t have a ton do with that song. Mike (Reina) actually wrote that song about his girlfriend, and it was just kind of acoustic-y, kind of a seafaring song. I thought, you know, if we’re gonna put it on the record we should produce it a little bit differently. We should make it as if the Beatles were a country band — what would that sound like? [We were thinking of] Revolver, or something like that — something that was a little more experimental.

So I think the song has been around for a long time and it’s certainly a great song. The production was sort of to get in lockstep with the rest of the record. And the drums are certainly inspired by Ringo. All the production on the record is very of Eno-esque. Funny enough, when the record first came out on the iTunes that was the most popular song. It really kind of surprised all of us.

SSv: It’s a great recording and it shows a different side of your musical personality.

Chamberlin: I think the ideal with Skysaw — and even with any band that I’ve been in or want to be in — is to bring down the obvious parameters and, especially with first efforts, try to play a wide variety of music thereby not kind of cementing anybody’s impression of what you do. In some of the bands I’ve been in, it’s been really about kind of syncopated, heavy rock stuff. It’s a part of me, but there’s a lot of other stuff that I listen to that I want to incorporate into my musical scope as well.

Funny enough, most of the stuff that I write doesn’t have a lot of drums in it. It’s just because I don’t write to my drumming strengths. I try to write… like “Tightrope,” I wrote that song, and it has very minimal drums. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to challenge myself in a different way to come up with a drum part that’s not kind of the JC standard. That really kind of hearkens back more to, say, Phil Spector or Hal Blaine, some type of minimalist vibe.’ That stuff is a lot more fun for me these days.

I like “Sad Reasons,” which I also wrote on guitar, which has no drums except for some tympani swells. I just think, for me, the challenge is in removing stuff, and thereby challenging yourself to write things with power by removing things your normally go to, to get power. Normally if I wanted something powerful, I would start with a heavy drum groove and I know I can build power on that. But I think as an artist sometimes what you need to do is take some of the colors off the palette and force yourself to paint with two or three colors in order to kind of see where the real emotional content of a piece of art is, and not really get caught up in the machinations of, ‘Here’s 500 tricks that I know work for sure on any given day or any given song, and that’s were I’m gonna start.’

That’s what “Tracey Janey” is. That song could have easily turned into a kind of 6/8 sing-song-y thing, but why not just make the drums kind of Phil Collins and have like a subdued march thing at the end, and just maybe some tambourine as the percussion and see if you can create some anticipation and some energy with those few components? I always think the greatest songs are great songs, no matter how they’re interpreted.

Pick a great song. Well, that song is a great song if you just sing the vocal. Or if you just play it on guitar. Or a lot of times you hear somebody play an old Cole Porter song or something by Duke Ellington on piano and sing it, and you’ll realize the power of the composition really supersedes any type of instrumentation that may be administered to that particular score.

SSv: I love to hear the way you talk because I think sometimes drummers have this reputation of just being all about energy and volume, and you said the word power.

Chamberlin: That’s a common misconception, I think, with drummers. Drumming is certainly what got me into the arena of composing music, but it doesn’t stop there for me. I’m still a student of the piano and a student of lots of things without drums. Being a drummer, I do have my drum geek days where I’ll put something on and it’s completely un-listenable to anybody but me. Everybody leaves the room while I have my moment. But oftentimes I try to find music that has minimal drums, and to find by subtraction what you can achieve with power and grace and sometimes that’s a much more effective tool than just hitting, say a crash cymbal or a snare drum.

I think when you walk into a gallery, even if it’s a gallery of sound or a visual gallery, we all kind of know what the paintbrush does. And it’s all about how the strokes are administered that really bring out the emotion. And I think in a lot of ways when you’re stumbling across a famous art museum and you’re surrounded by beautiful colors and everybody’s kind of got their… if you’re looking at religious paintings and everything’s got this majestic glory to it. And then you see something that’s kind of dark and in the distance and maybe done only with blue and white paint, there’s really a feeling that goes along with that; more so than if that picture was just painted vividly.

Because I’ve spent so much of my life kind of stating the obvious as a drummer, for me, in Skysaw in particular, in the complex I’m purely a drummer, and I exist in that paradigm. But in Skysaw, I like to exist in the murk, so to speak, and let people figure it out. There’s so much out there that’s obvious, and everybody… and even if you don’t know about a song or what’s going on, you can be assured that whoever wrote it will tweet to you the obvious answer that you missed in an obvious way. And that stuff, to me, becomes really tedious and boring.

For me, music is about mystery and self-perception in an individual sense, as opposed to being preached to in a ‘documentarian’ way about how you should feel about a certain song because this is how I felt when I wrote it. I’m more into the guesswork of music when I listen to it and not, like, ‘Oh, I gotta know what was going on in so-and-so’s head when it he wrote this.’ It’s more about kind of how I feel. So, for me, I like to keep a lot of that in my own composing and let people kind of figure it out themselves. By taking drums out of compositions, it creates guesswork as opposed to eliminating it, which, I guess, is what the object of the exercise is.


  1. Dystopic says:

    Cool interview. Incidentally, Jimmy wasn’t involved with Atoms for Peace. That was Joey Waronker, who did some work with the Smashing Pumpkins for the Adore album. Jimmy working with Thom Yorke would be amazing, though!

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