After he joined the Smashing Pumpkins 17 years ago, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin’s career began to revolve around incidents of death and rebirth.
In March of 1996, his father died when the Pumpkins were on tour. Then in July of that same year, road keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died from a heroin overdose while shooting up with Chamberlin. The drummer was arrested for possession and booted from the band for his inability to kick smack, with which he had battled since 1991.
Ironically, the seeming death of his career triggered his spiritual rebirth. With help from friends, he got clean and rejoined the Smashing Pumpkins in time for their farewell album, 2000’s Machina/ The Machines of God. After the band’s demise, Chamberlin and Corgan continued in Zwan; they released one album in 2003, toured for a bit, then passed on.
Then last year, at the urging of Corgan, who was working on a solo record, Chamberlin decided to start his own group. The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex were born.
The band, which has just released its debut album, Life Begins Again, gave the drummer new musical direction and re-emphasized for him the fragile balance between life and death.
“While I was writing these songs, my mother was very ill and on the brink of passing away, and my cat had just died of lymphoma,” Chamberlin said. “But my daughter had recently been born, which showed me how everything really is a big circle. The important thing is to take what you learn along the way and apply it, so when you get back to the same place in the circle, hopefully you’re a little bit smarter.”
Such life lessons brighten the crevasses of Life Begins Again, a musically diverse record that incorporates elements of hard rock, prog-rock and jazz-fusion. Most noticeably, heavy, atmospheric cuts like “Love Is Real” and “Life Begins Again” (which both feature vocals by Catherine Wheel’s Rob Dickinson) are about love and redemption, and even the pensive “Lokicat” (with vocals by Corgan), which addresses the death of a loved one, is ultimately about acceptance: “Who are we to complain/ When God takes things away.”
It’s not exactly what you’d expect from a survivor of the cynical age of alternative music, but Chamberlin is not the same man he was in the ’90s. “Certainly, when you try to destroy yourself and you keep failing miserably, you realize at some point that maybe the creator or the cosmos wants to hear some more music and you start to embrace just why you’re here,” he explained. “I’ve turned my life around and the main thing I want to get across with the record is that just through doing right, great things can happen in your life.”
Chamberlin started writing songs for Life Begins Again last January with multi-instrumentalist Billy Mohler. In mid-May, after securing a record deal, the pair wrote another batch of tunes, then brought in guitarist Sean Woolstenhulme and keyboardist Adam Benjamin to record. A mere 45 days later, Life Begins Again was complete.
“It was the easiest record I’ve ever made,” Chamberlin said. “That’s partially because I wasn’t getting hung up on getting radio play. I wasn’t looking to throw my hat in that arena, and I think that made it an intuitive, honest body of work.”
Even though Chamberlin didn’t strive to take over the airwaves, numerous college and commercial stations are already playing the jazzy instrumental “Streetcrawler,” the prog odyssey “Owed to Darryl” and especially “Lokicat,” which Corgan practically begged to be on. “Billy and I are best friends and we talk every day,” Chamberlin said, dismissing any notion that the two are at odds. “He has been such a big musical cheerleader for me, so I figured he would at least come in and play some guitar. But when I went to Chicago to play him the rough tracks, he heard ’Lokicat’ and just fell in love with it and said he wanted to sing on it.”
There was just one problem. The song was an instrumental. “My first response was, ’Well, I’m finally done writing the lyrics, and I don’t want to go write anything else,” Chamberlin said. “But then, after some conversation, I thought, ’Well, if Billy’s gonna ask to sing on the record, I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth.’ “