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Monday, May 12, 2014

Influenced: Estates' Charlie Markowiak on the Glory Days of Smashing Pumpkins

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In Influenced, we talk to Milwaukee musicians about the artists that shaped and inspired them, both as performers and listeners.

The Milwaukee three piece Estates formed just two years ago, but they could have just as well have existed 20 years ago. Drawing from some of the ’90s more memorable acts, Estates’ blend of slowcore, emo and shoegaze isn’t easily classifiable by any means, but that may be what makes them one of Milwaukee’s more unique up and comers. Bassist  talked to us about a major influence for both Estates and himself, a band who weren’t afraid to embrace their own eclectic influences: Smashing Pumpkins.


How long have you been a music fan?

I started listening to music very young. My parents had Rock 102.1 and Lazer 103 playing all the time when I was growing up, so I was familiar with a lot of those kinds of bands, or at least what their music sounded like. My grandparents got me into Elvis around that time, too. I just heard a lot of music growing up and that was pretty much the extent of it. My mom brags about how she has better taste than my dad; she always brings up how my dad was buying Smash Mouth albums while she was buying Tool’s Undertow.

When did you consciously start seeking out your own music?

I remember liking the singles off of [Green Day’s] American Idiot when it came out, so I bought that and then proceeded to go backward. When I checked out Dookie, I immediately recognized it from my parents playing it when I was younger. I had no idea that it was the same band until then, though. Not too long after that I started listening to Nirvana, which really made an impact on me. I had heard Nevermind growing up, so it had this familiarity to it, but it was really exciting at the same time. After that, I just started checking out a lot of other stuff from around that time, and around then I started listening to the Smashing Pumpkins.

What was your introduction to them?

Through Siamese Dream. Again, I knew a lot of the singles from having listened to the radio growing up, but hearing the album hit me pretty hard. Billy Corgan was singing about being different and feeling like an outcast, they had these really cool sounding heavy guitars and the songs were so catchy. I found the songs to be really relatable, because I felt like a weird kid at the time. Listening to them was comforting.

That’s interesting because people tend to criticize Billy for some of his lyrics. I mean, “God is empty just like me”? Not exactly the most insightful stuff here.

[Laughs] Yeah, Billy’s written some lyrics that are pretty questionable, but I think at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter because everything else is so great, you know? The songwriting, musicianship, production—all of those things are so strong that even though certain lyrics aren’t the best, it barely matters at that point. It’s like they get a pass because of it. Plus, a lot of the bands from that time period didn’t have that great of lyrics to begin with.

After hearing Siamese Dream did you begin to check out their other releases?

Yeah, I started working backwards and picked up Gish and Pisces Iscariot. Even now, between those two and Siamese Dream, those are the ones that I find myself listening to the most. When I heard those albums, I was just surprised by how good they were, front to back. Those three I think contain a majority of their best songs.

Yeah, I think most people wouldn’t argue with that. So when did you tackle the double disc behemoth that is Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness?

I think roughly about a year after listening to those three pretty seriously. It took me by surprise because…yeah…it’s an entirely different animal.

What was your initial reaction to it?

It had a lot of variety on there, like with the piano songs and whatnot, so it had these new elements to the overall Smashing Pumpkins sound that I hadn’t really heard before. There was a lot of material on there, but I think that’s what they wanted it to be.

Too much material perhaps?

[Laughs] Yeah. I think not to the point where it’s unlistenable or anything, but it’s definitely not the kind of album that you can listen to straight through like you can with Siamese Dream.

That the album is bloated is a pretty common complaint, but I think that goes for plenty of other double albums as well.

Yeah. That’s what they wanted though, you know? They had gotten pretty big off of Siamese Dream, so maybe they saw the next step as “go big or go home.” That’s the album they wanted make and I don’t think they could have made it at any other time. Like, yeah it’s totally bloated, but it serves its purpose.

So if you viewed Mellon Collie as a departure, what was your reaction to [1998 follow up album] Adore?

Honestly, for what it is, it’s a pretty good album. They were trying a lot of different things, like using electronics and stuff, and in some cases it works pretty well. A lot of that had to do with them kicking out [drummer] Jimmy Chamberlin, too. Instead of trying to find someone to replace him completely, they also explored the idea of not having real drums at all.

Interesting point you bring up. I think Billy has the tendency to give off the vibe that he is the Smashing Pumpkins. Personally, I’ve always thought of them as a very complete unit, and once the lineup changed, it affected the unit as a whole.

I think the other three members don’t get nearly as much credit as they deserve. I think with being the main songwriter Billy tends to get most of it, but those albums wouldn’t be nearly as good without the other members. They were carrying out his vision, but if it were three other people, they wouldn’t sound the same or be nearly as good. That’s why I think all the stuff they did after Mellon Collie really started to go downhill. It just wasn’t the same anymore.

Do you think the band’s best days are behind them?

As much as I love the band, I think so, yeah. Adore is where I drop off with them. Machina and Zeitgeist and all those more recent albums don’t really do much for me, but that’s just my opinion. I think had they stopped after Adore, they would’ve more or less gone out on top. Adore would be looked at much differently, too. It would’ve been that “dark weird album” they made before breaking up.

Did getting into the Smashing Pumpkins lead you to other bands? Bands they liked or bands that liked them?

Yeah, definitely started to seek out other stuff because of them, specifically Siamese Dream. I got into My Bloody Valentine after reading about how Billy was really into them and how he wanted Alan Moulder to mix Siamese Dream because of his work on Loveless. Hearing them made a lot of sense. It was like they took that idea of having really dense guitars like My Bloody Valentine did on Loveless and then applied it to what they were doing with more accessible kind of songs. But yeah, it led me toward other bands that people tended to compare to the Pumpkins like Hum and Failure. All of us in Estates really dig those bands.

Yeah, you can definitely hear the Pumpkins in Estates.

Yeah, definitely. I don’t think we sound a whole lot like them, but there are similarities for sure. We’re into layering huge distorted guitars on recordings, which is something that we got from listening to the Pumpkins. I think at the end of the day we’re an alternative rock band in the same way that the Pumpkins were, in that it’s a little bit more difficult to classify us. They had elements of a lot of different stuff, like classic rock and shoegaze and stuff. It’s not so easy to pin them down with just one specific style.

Yeah, the classic rock influence is really apparent at times, especially with some of those guitar solos. How were they able to able to get away with those?

I think a lot of those guitar solos come out of nowhere if you think about it. They don’t do that whole cliché “building up to the cool guitar solo” thing. At times they almost blindside you. Even when they do have solos, there’s usually something else happening while the solo is going on. I think they just approach solos differently. There’s totally those classic rock influences coming through but at the same time they’re kinda noisy and weird, so they’re not nearly as arrogant they it could be.

I think especially with the 20th anniversary of Siamese Dream, a lot of younger bands started to get into and reference them. I’ve noticed a lot of people who previously played in metal and hardcore bands starting to make music that veers more towards what the Pumpkins were doing, which is interesting. Why do you think this is?

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they have really heavy sounding guitars. They’re obviously not aggressive in the same way that a lot of those metal and hardcore bands are, but they still are a very guitar oriented band, and I think that’s kind of the gateway for a lot of those dudes. They’re still aggressive in a way but they’re also melodic, so it makes sense. It’s a way for them to make something that’s noticeably different but not too far off at the same time.

It’s been over 20 years now since the release of both Gish and Siamese Dream, and here we are, still talking about them. Do you think you’ll still be a fan 10 years from now?

I’ve been listening them for close to 10 years now and I still love them as much as I did when I first heard them. I think I’ll still be listening to them in ten years, maybe not as much, but I feel like they’ll continue to resonate with me as I grow up. They’ll always be important to me—that I do know. I’m always going to respect them for being one of my earliest influences.

Estates’ latest release can be streamed for free via Bandcamp.