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Founding Member of Smashing Pumpkins Discusses Career

Jimmy Chamberlin, Grammy Award-winning musician, writer, and producer and founding member of the band Smashing Pumpkins, spoke November 1 to a rapt audience about his success in music, entrepreneurship, and giving back in Scott Hall.

“If you can make a living doing what you love, then that’s what’s important,” he told Northwestern students at the event, sponsored by EPICS. “My dad worked on the railroad and he loved it. He woke up every day happy to go to his job. Find something you love to do and then find a way to do it.”

Chamberlin, who was named one of the world’s best drummers by Rolling Stone, grew up in Joliet the youngest of six kids. He began playing drums at age 8, would practice six hours a day, and was landing regular party gigs by the time he was 15. He met Billy Corgan, the front man of the Smashing Pumpkins, through a mutual friend. Corgan needed a drummer in order to secure a gig at the Metro, a popular Chicago concert venue.  

“You get a ton of credit for changing the band’s sound,” said Gregg Latterman, founder of Aware Records and adjunct professor at Northwestern who mediated the discussion. “You really are a huge part of their success.”

“Billy was a great songwriter, and he would’ve had success with or without me,” Chamberlin said. “But, I allowed him to write around the drums. I’d play, and he’d say, ‘I’ve never heard that before. Play it again.’ And I would. For me, I could use my own identity and be authentic as a progressive drummer, and Billy worked with that. We both wanted to write sophisticated arrangements… and get them played on the radio.”

The Smashing Pumpkins, who saw a meteoric rise to fame in the 1990s, also saw how evolving technology changed the music industry with the invention of Napster and iTunes. Some artists might complain about the lack of revenue from CDs, but he said he feels that misses the point.

“People who are in the music business for the money are playing for the wrong reasons,” he said. “Once you vacuum out the economics of art, things get really interesting… Music isn’t the place to point your economic flashlight and go looking for gold. It’s a place to go if you’re passionate about music.”

Chamberlain also spent some time in the tech world, working as CEO for LiveOne Inc., an audience engagement and data analytics company that sought to combine live streaming entertainment with a broad base of users who could find and interact with one another while watching a concert or other event.

“Some people asked me what a musician could know about tech or engagement or user testing,” he said. “I’d say, I know all about user testing. I do it all the time. We’d play a song, and if the audience clapped, then we’d play it again… Isn’t that user testing?”

He added that finding career success is really all about learning how to focus, how to work hard, and how to learn to do something well. “When you learn how to work, how to focus, how to be OCD in a good way, then whether you’re running a tech company or a dry cleaners or you’re performing on stage, you will find success,” he said.

Chamberlin is now focused on charity work to help improve literacy, and said he feels the most important thing you can do in life is find ways to give back.

“I’m 52, and I don’t want to sound like a grandfather or anything, but for me, when I look at the human experience…it’s about building a foundation based on joy and honesty and then inverting that,” he said. “For me, now, it’s about giving back. I have two kids, ages fourteen and ten, and they’re growing up in a narcissistic world. It’s all about how do I get that? The biggest gratitude for me is that for most of my life, it’s been about giving. My experience with my instrument, that was all about giving. To get, you really have to give.”

Dylan McCann, a McCormick senior, said he’d been a Smashing Pumpkins fan since his dad introduced him to the band at a young age.

“I thought it was cool hear him talk about his opportunities, and to talk about how he’s tried to give back,” McCann said. “I also liked how he focused on hard work as a key to his success.”

— Cara Lockwood