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From the Archive: Billy Corgan Interviews Eddie Van Halen in 1996

From the Archive: Billy Corgan Interviews Eddie Van Halen in 1996

At what age did you start playing guitar?

I started smoking, drinking and playing the guitar at age 12.

And how old were you when you recorded your first album?

I was 22.

So how did you get from playing your first open G chord to playing "Eruption"?

Practice. I used to sit on the edge of my bed with a six-pack of Schlitz Malt tails. My brother would go out at 7 P.M. to party and get laid, and when he 'd come back at 3 A.M., I would still be sitting in the same place, playing guitar. I did that for years -- I still do that.

But where did that attack style of playing come from? At 22, you were killing people.
I have no idea. I can tell you how I came up with certain techniques, but the rest is a mystery. It's the way I learned to communicate, because I was never very good with words. I was just chosen.

I find it interesting that it was so unpremeditated.

I believe that every one on this planet is born with a gift, and I was just lucky enough to find mine. So I'm very blessed, and very grateful.

So, what was it like to wake up and find you were suddenly everybody's guitar hero?

It was weird. But I'll tell you what was even weirder. Before our first record came out, this guy wrote an article about the band in one of the major Los Angeles newspapers. He singled me out as the important member. He just raved about my playing and didn't really say much about Roth. And it freaked David out because he was the lead singer and frontman. It really upset him that I was getting the attention.

I kind of felt bad and really didn't know what to do. It was like this journalist almost ruined the band and my life by praising my work. He actually hurt me by putting the spotlight on me. I was like, "Fuck you, just let me play." The tension it created in the band was unbelievable. I was like, "Holy shit, David! What did I do wrong? Did I play too good? I'll play worse. Will that make you happy?"

Yeah, suddenly everyone was tapping and doing whammy-bar dives. What was that like?

Actually, I thought it was kind of funny. Because, with me, it was a form of expression -- part of my style. When I used the stuff I invented, I was telling a story, while I felt that the people who were imitating me were telling a joke. I felt other players tended to use tapping and false harmonics as a trick, instead of incorporating them into their vocabulary.

On your debut album, Van Halen [1978], your guitar solo, "Eruption," was the second track. Wasn't it kind of a bold move to place this crazy guitar instrumental so close to the beginning of the record? Was it a conscious move?

The whole story behind "Eruption" is unusual. It wasn't even supposed to be on the album. I showed up at the recording studio early one day and started to warm up because I had a gig on the weekend and I wanted to practice my solo guitar spot. Our producer, Ted Templeman, happened to walk by and he asked, "What's that? Let's put it on tape!" So I took one pass at it, and they put it on the record. I didn't even play it right. There's a mistake at the top end of it. To this day, whenever I hear it I always think, "Man, I could've played it better."

But what was the idea behind making it the second track? It certainly gave it more weight than if you had sequenced it at the end of the album.

I think they put it there because it was different, but I'm not really sure. At that point in my career, I really didn't have any control over anything. I was just like, "Yes, sir. Whatever."

We barely had any input in the early days of the band. I mean, there are so many things wrong with those early records -- the drums sound like shit on the first album and the bass is barely audible. We just played live, they recorded it, and it got put out.

How did you guys write the first album? It's my guess that much of your early music evolved out of jamming.

A lot of the basic ideas were things that I came up with when I used to practice on the edge of my bed. I would take those ideas to band practice. At the time, we were rehearsing in David's father's basement, so me and AI would go over there by ourselves and jam on the ideas for hours until we came up with something we were happy with. For example, AI and I jammed on the basic riff from "And The Cradle Will Rock" two hours a day for two straight weeks. [laughs] We didn't really know what to do with it, but we were having fun because it just sounded so wicked. Then, out of nowhere, the chorus came to us and it was finished.

Sometimes you really have to work for inspiration. But ultimately, it's not really work, because my brother and I genuinely love to jam. I'd say that's the way most things happen in our band. It usually begins with me and AI, which is funny in a way, because most people don't usually think of the guitar and drums as a unit. It's usually bass and drums.

But I think that's the way a band should be constructed -- the core of a band should be built on the relationship between the guitarist and the drummer. It’s the simpatico relationship between me and our drummer, Jimmy Chamberlain, that provides the foundation for the Pumpkins. Drums can do so much more than just hold down the groove.

Exactly. I think AI 's drumming is more musical because he listens to me rather than just being concerned with maintaining a steady groove. Billy, how do you write with the Pumpkins?

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