Matt Sweeney (right) and Andrew WK (left) karaoking in NYC on the night of September 10, 2001.
Back in 1990 there was a group of devoted guitarists that existed one tier above Maximumrocknroll’s scene reports. They loved metal and punk rock but were combining it with hate and drugs to make sounds that were so far ahead of their time they were doomed to be misunderstood. They were either loved or hated and, subsequently, they either went on to greatness or self-destructed.
The New Jersey scene for example divided into three groups. One lightened up their rage a bit and became legendary pop sensations, another took it easy on the drugs and became critically acclaimed indie rockers. A full third either died, went to prison, or is still attending NA three times a week.
Skunk, a combination of Jersey metal and Minneapolis-type shit, was the quintessential example of this. Their hatred for everything eventually ate away at them, making them intolerable to everyone – even themselves. When Billy Corgan (a huge fan at the time) approached the band backstage at a show in New Jersey in 1990, the then-unknown rocker was greeted with a fuck off from the even more unknown Skunk. He wanted to confide his insecurities about the recording of the Pumpkins’ first album Gish to Skunk’s bassist Matt Quigley.
“Oh, stop your fucking whining!” was the response. “You could record a fucking fart for this album and it would sell a million copies!” Corgan shrugged his shoulders and left Quigley to brood and swear at the wall. Later that night he approached Skunk guitarist Matt Sweeney and things went much better. They bonded on their love of metal and their love of two bands in particular: Come and Slint. They made a commitment to play music every time Corgan was in Jersey for the rest of their lives.
Two years later, after playing metal one night in Matt’s father’s basement in Maplewood, New Jersey, Corgan told Sweeney he wanted to start a band the second Smashing Pumpkins ran its course. A deal was made and they didn’t talk again for the next five years.
Sweeney started the critically acclaimed and willfully obscure Chavez. After they moved on, he held down a day job in NYC while touring and playing guitar with the likes of Cat Power, Guided by Voices and, most recently, Bonnie Prince Billy. Corgan continued with the Pumpkins until they became one of the biggest pop bands of all time.
In December 2000, ten years after their first meeting, Corgan and Matt ran into each other and decided it was time to fulfill their promise. The band would be called Zwan.
Images from left to right; Matt Sweeney, a buck, Jimmy Chamberlain, Billy Corgan, David Paho.
“It was like we picked up exactly where we left off when we were hanging in New Jersey, before the whole nineties rocket ride started,” says Corgan from Jimmy Chamberlain’s house in Key West, where they are still writing songs for the upcoming debut. “I loved Skunk,” he adds. “I hugged Matt the first time I met him because I had been a fan for so long. We were really close. We loved metal and we loved music but then there was this five-year estrangement. I don’t think either of us have ever forgotten about this band we now call Zwan.” Sweeney is nodding his head in agreement and rocking back and forth on a huge wicker chair with an unbutted cigarette in his hand. “I was like, ‘Finally,’ because I’ve been wanting and waiting to play in a Zeppelin/Moby Grape/Venom situation for a while now,” he adds, “a band where every member is crucial and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Matt is starting to remind me of Andrew WK at this point and I can’t tell if he’s going to beat me up or not. He looks out the window before adding, “At this point in our lives, on this Earth, the four of us KNOW that we cannot suck. Look at Chamberlain’s drumming, and his life force. It raises the fucking stakes, man. The guy is insane beauty. We cannot be slack and we must make good music. It’s understood. It’s all we’re good for. It’s finally come to this.”
“Finally” is a word that comes up a lot when discussing Zwan. There is a sense of completion when you hear this band and watch them play live. Zwan is four careers culminating into a project that sounds like a band that’s been trying to exist for the past ten years.
So, in case you just joined us, the band has gone through a few changes but it has evolved slowly into the following: Corgan is singing and playing guitar, and has reunited with legendary Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain (this is the duo responsible for the band’s best albums Gish and Siamese Dream). Sweeney is singing and playing guitar and has brought in old-time friend and guitarist/bassist David Pajo (Slint, Tortoise, Papa M), whom he met playing with Bonnie Prince Billy. And the result sounds like arena folk metal. Like if Bob Dylan was singing for Metallica. The Chavez-style headfuck riffs are evident and that progressive Slint crescendo is there. Of course there’s Corgan’s unmistakable voice, only now it’s more melodic and relaxed, with harmonies aided by Sweeney (who promises to emerge as a lead singer in his own right). Each member brings a whole different world of accomplishments to the band.
Take David Pajo, for example. His first band Slint, defined a chorusless, furiously instrumental sound that made them, as Steve Albini put it, “the most copied band of all time.” Spiderland, their holy-grail LP, has allowed bands like Mogwai to have huge careers essentially doing cover versions of each song. Even Glenn Danzig was aware of Pajo’s genius and tried desperately to get him to play guitar for Danzig after Samhain broke up. When I asked Corgan about getting Pajo in the band he sounded like a thirteen-year-old Asian boy talking about Michael Jordan: “Me and Sweeney have been sweating Pajo since Spiderland. When Jimmy met Pajo he was starstruck. He just kept saying ‘WOW. You’re fucking Dave Pajo. Man, you ROCK. WOW!’ We couldn’t believe he would even jam with us.”
Though the album is far from complete, the songs are shaping up to sound like a stirring combination of early Damned, The Germs, The Rolling Stones and even The Beatles played by metalhead prodigies who are skipping school.
They’ve played eight shows so far - each one totally unlike the others - leaving the crowd in a strange state of confused bliss. Sometimes they are a pagan folk band. Sometimes they’re an arena rock band. It’s like the past ten years haven’t happened and these are still four kids in jean jackets determined not to get a job. At a recent show in Hollywood for example, Corgan announced to the crowd the next song was about Jesus. A roomful of Pumpkins fans closed their eyes and decided to become religious. Matt then interrupted with “What’s the difference between a priest and acne? Do you know? Acne waits until you’re a teenager before it comes on your face!” As the crowd stood there in total and utter disbelief, Zwan broke into some of the sweetest and most intimate guitar ballads you’ve ever heard. Guitar playing that was recently described by The New York Times as “phenomenal.”
After watching Zwan play their past eight shows it becomes obvious they are going to be huge. They are an affirmation that all of those naive promises and rock and roll hyperbole you talked about with your high school friends in your parent’s basement is not bullshit. They are living proof that you will get around to it – eventually.