I’ve never cared about Smashing Pumpkins. I remember hearing “Siva,” from their 1991 debut album Gish, on WSOU, the college hard rock/heavy metal station we listened to in the shipping and receiving department at Barnes & Noble, where I worked at the time. It sounded like imitation Soundgarden with a much less compelling vocalist than Chris Cornell; Billy Corgan sang like he was trying to power through a bad cold. I was aware of their subsequent singles — “Today,” “1979,” “Tonight, Tonight” — but those were even less to my taste. Eventually I stopped paying any attention to them at all. I don’t think I even noticed when they broke up after 2000’s Machina/The Machines Of God, an album I had to look up in order to remember its title.
So it’s kind of weird that I like Mary Star Of The Sea, the only album by Corgan’s short-lived band Zwan, as much as I do. Mary… turns 20 this week, and it’s one of the best rock records of the 2000s.
After Smashing Pumpkins dissolved, Corgan wasn’t sure what his next move should be. In 2014, he told Uncut that he “started making a solo album in Salt Lake City, which I have some tracks for which have never been bootlegged, so I have half a solo album somewhere. Then Jimmy [Chamberlin, Smashing Pumpkins drummer] flew out to hang out with me, and we started working. Next thing you know we’re talking about having a band, it starts to take shape, and the thing I’m noticing is — I’m having fun. I haven’t had fun for years. Like, you just sit together with a couple of buddies and play. So it was like, ‘Maybe I should have a band where I can have fun. It’ll be low-stress, I can write some good pop music.'”
Corgan (who was putting his own money into the project at first, with no label backing) and Chamberlin recruited guitarist Matt Sweeney and bassist David Pajo. Sweeney had previously been in Chavez, worked with Will Oldham, and helped Dave Grohl with his metal side project, Probot; he’s done about 10,000 more things since. Pajo was most famously a member of Slint, and later worked with Tortoise, but was also a onetime Will Oldham collaborator. They played some shows as a quartet, and then brought in Paz Lenchantin of A Perfect Circle on bass, with Pajo moving to guitar. Yes, three guitarists, like Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Lenchantin was first brought in by Sweeney, though of course it was Corgan’s decision. In a 2022 interview with Rolling Stone, she recalled, “I didn’t know if I was going to join Zwan or not. James Iha joined A Perfect Circle. We did a little switcharoo. He’s kind of passing by and going, ‘[whispering] I wouldn’t maybe be doing that.’ A lot of people were like, ‘Be careful.'”
In the Uncut interview, Corgan said, “I was listening to a lot of folk music at the time, and for me the best Zwan music was more folk-based and acoustic anyway.” He’s wrong, or just retroactively dismissing his bandmates’ contributions. The acoustic, ballad-y stuff is OK, but the best music on Mary Star Of The Sea is anthemic, energetic guitar rock. There are subtle keyboards — some synth, a little bit of organ — tucked into the mix here and there, but for the most part these are big guitar-bass-drums rock songs, much more overtly ’70s than anything I’ve ever heard by Smashing Pumpkins. And Lenchantin contributed vocals as well as bass. The first song, “Lyric,” is almost a duet; her harmonies are key to the first single, “Honestly,” as well. All but one of the album’s 14 tracks are in the three- to at most five-minute range, and have big, melodic hooks. The sole exception is the next-to-last song, “Jesus, I/Mary Star Of The Sea,” which begins as a sort of hard-rock spiritual and transforms into a cranked-up guitar jam that ultimately runs just over 14 minutes. The album then ends with the country-rockish “Come With Me,” which features acoustic guitars and keening vocal harmonies.
Although it’s of course a vehicle for Corgan’s songwriting (he wrote about 100 songs, of which 14 appeared on the album; another dozen were heard in fragmentary form on a DVD packaged with the deluxe edition, and “Freedom Ain’t What It Used To Be” was a B-side to “Honestly”), and it was produced by Bjorn Thorsrud, who had engineered Adore and Machina, everyone’s contributions are felt. The performances turn the album into more of a band effort than anything Corgan had been involved with since Smashing Pumpkins’ earliest days. Lenchantin described the recording sessions as dictatorial, but said she was fine with that, and the album has a vitality that’s absent in much of Corgan’s other work, without including any count-offs or snippets of studio dialogue or other “audio vérite” illusions.
In a Spin magazine feature promoting the record (written, hilariously, by literary con artist JT Leroy), Corgan said, “To me, a group implies a group psyche, and a solo artist implies a solo psyche. With the Pumpkins, people always thought it was my solo psyche imposed upon a group, and that wasn’t the case. It was a group psyche.” That “group psyche” was much more evident with Zwan. He told Leroy, “With Zwan, it’s a given that everybody decided on a musical path on their own. Everybody has their own foundation of music being the center of their life. So I never have to intellectually or spiritually appeal to them to make music a priority, because it already is.”
The rhythm section’s work in particular is often amazing. In her Rolling Stone interview, Lenchantin spoke about playing with Chamberlin, saying, “Listen to the snare, and the way he pushes and pulls. It’s a lot of listening. With [A Perfect Circle drummer] Josh Freese, I could put in a metronome. He’s perfect. He’ll work around the beat, but it’s solid. Jimmy was like wind. He was flowing in this other way that changes the way you play. He’ll push the beat. It’s more like jazz.” This is especially audible in the one-two of the fast “El Sol” and the ballad “Of A Broken Heart,” which comes right after it.
Mary Star Of The Sea is named for a church in Key West, Florida. More specifically, as Corgan wrote on LiveJournal in 2004, “I was asked the question many times during interviews about how the album came to be named, and I only partially answered the question. What I usually said, which ‘was’ true, is that when Zwan was rehearsing in Key West, Florida during the winter of 2001, I used to go and hang out at this church called Mary Star Of The Sea. What I didn’t say is that off to the side was a grotto of the Virgin Mary that I used to go and pray at to find some clarity and solace. I asked Mother Mary there to help me change the direction of my life, my negative attitudes, and to heal my broken heart. I promised Mary that in tribute to her, I would name the album in her honor, and thereby honor the place when I found comfort in hours of need.”
Most of the songs on the album aren’t explicitly Christian, but “Lyric,” and thus the album, starts with the line, “Here comes my faith to carry me on,” and the title track, “Jesus, I/Mary Star Of The Sea,” begins, “Jesus, I have taken my cross/ All to leave and follow thee/ I’m destitute, despised, forsaken/ All to leave and follow thee.” Generally, though, it’s an album of love songs, sometimes overtly playing with retro stylistic tropes. I don’t know if I ever expected Billy Corgan to write a song called “Baby Let’s Rock!”, but he did. And it’s good, but it’s also a total ’70s AOR/power pop pastiche, like Cheap Trick crossed with Neil Young And Crazy Horse.
The album didn’t do Smashing Pumpkins numbers, but it hit #3 on the Billboard 200 and sold more than 250,000 copies in its first six months. The band went on a North American tour in the spring of 2003, playing theaters and large clubs, and one or two arenas in the Midwest. In June, they went off to Europe to do summer festivals (Download, Pinkpop, Rock am Ring, and the like). But with about two dozen shows to go, including the Glastonbury, Roskilde, and Fuji Rock festivals, they ended the tour abruptly, citing “family matters.” Then, in September, Corgan broke up the band — not in a private meeting or even a series of phone calls, but in an interview with Chicago radio station WGN in which he said, “A couple of people asked me, ‘Why didn’t you tell anybody?’ I’m sort of out of the period of my life when I run around trying to generate news.” He also said, “I really enjoyed my experience with Zwan, but at the end of the day, without that sense of deeper family loyalty, it just becomes like anything else.”
The following year, while hyping his first solo album, 2005’s TheFutureEmbrace, Corgan told Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, “It was devastating because I had invested two years of energy setting it up. I didn’t want to start over again. But it was a disaster waiting to happen, worse than the Pumpkins…It’s not even as good a band as the Pumpkins were. The record company turned it into a simple explanation: The record didn’t sell, so Corgan got pissed off and went home. But the problems got started while the record was being made, and success would’ve only covered it up. Jimmy and I talk often, and we both thank God that it was not successful. Because if it had been, we would have been locked into it longer, and the atom-bomb potential would have been bigger.” Chamberlin was not quoted in the piece.
Corgan added, “The music wasn’t the big problem, it was more their attitude: ‘Why do we have to practice? I’d rather be hanging out at the Rainbo.’ Lifestyle stuff. And then you get into what I would call cataclysmic behavioral stuff. Sex acts between band members in public. People carrying drugs across borders. Pajo sleeping with the producer’s girlfriend while we were making the record. I just tried to do what I’ve always done, which is to patch it up and roll it out. You go into a denial state. I got snookered in by really bad people. It’s embarrassing to me. but it wised me up to why I play, and who I love, and it made me appreciate my old band even more.”
Lenchantin said to Rolling Stone last year, “His thing was, ‘If we’re going to fight, let’s just do it in the media.’ And he has a voice in Chicago with the Chicago Tribune. That’s the way he communicated with people. That’s how he broke up the band. He didn’t communicate to us we were broken up.” She also asserted that sales were definitely a factor, at least for Corgan: “He’s been competing with himself since Siamese Dream came out…He was able to sell 16 million records in the CD era. Now we’re getting into another era…The Napster era. That decline was affecting the 16-million-record people that were in the ring with themselves to make a better record. If a better record means how much you sell, it’s going to start to feel humbling pretty soon, no matter how good you are.”
In a 2017 interview, Sweeney said that he and Corgan “had a friendship from before he was famous. One on one, we had a pretty great thing going…But once it went public, everything was different. I was confused, it started to feel like fulfilling a commitment where the game had changed. It was interesting, I’m still sort of unpacking that experience. We all had to sign confidentiality agreements, so I can’t really talk about it.”
In his 2014 Uncut interview, Corgan retreated into passive-aggressive self-aggrandizement, saying, “What Zwan should have been was a band that got together for a couple of gigs, and that was it. Or like [Bob Dylan’s collaboration with the Band] the Basement Tapes. Once it became a serious endeavor, that was the fatal error. You can’t take indie musicians and expect them to stop acting like indie musicians. I grew up playing sports, I want to win and get to the highest level. I was taking three people who aren’t like that into a much larger spotlight, and their reaction was, ‘We think it’s kind of not-cool.’ I was like, ‘That’s all fine and good, but why are you ordering lobster every night? And why am I paying for it?'”
Ultimately, once you put aside the band’s abbreviated lifespan and Corgan’s dickishness, Mary Star Of The Sea remains a really good guitar-rock album. It doesn’t feel at all like a product of the early 2000s — one of the worst eras for mainstream rock music in my lifetime — it feels classic, like it had always existed. And even if it’s not on streaming services, it still does exist; go find a copy, and listen to it.