Let’s say you were born in 1999. And let’s also say you’re interested in learning about the rise and fall of 1990s alternative rock. Naturally, you brush up with some informative Google searches. Then you head to your streaming platform of choice. You search for the canonical albums of the era. After a while, you feel like you have uncovered all of the pertinent information.
But you haven’t.
There is a missing chapter from this story. It concerns a band — who actually formed in 2001 and broke up in 2003 but are nevertheless aesthetically and philosophically ’90s — whose sole album isn’t available online via officially sanctioned (i.e. legal) channels. In terms of the historical narrative, this group has been all but written out. But that one record (which came out 20 years ago this week) is full of stunning melodies and sparkling guitar tones, and it ultimately deserves to be known (for reasons we will soon get into) as the last great ’90s alt-rock album. Which is to say, this very shiny rocket ship that never quite made it off the launch pad is important.
I am referring to Zwan’s Mary Star Of The Sea.
Who (or what) was Zwan? The first thing you must know about Zwan is that, as a band, they made no sense. And this was true from the very beginning.
Let’s introduce the cast of characters:
Billy Corgan: A songwriting genius and an interpersonal disaster. His most famous album Siamese Dream begins with a thrillingly bitter anthem about how much he loathes the petty politics of indie-rock credibility. Seven years later, he disbands his multi-platinum rock group Smashing Pumpkins and forms Zwan with … two well-regarded indie-rock guitarists? Huh? In time, he will make an artistic decision to bury the indie-rock guys in the mix and solo all over their asses, before ending the band altogether in acrimonious fashion. He will subsequently justify this by insisting that his fellow ex-Zwannies only wanted to “live like pieces of shit and live their little weird creepy lives.”
Matt Sweeney: Indie-rock guitarist No. 1 (Chavez). A well-known nice guy and born collaborator. He recovers from his traumatic tenure in Zwan by making 2005’s Superwolf with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, one of the great indie-rock records of the aughts. Of his time with Corgan, he muses, “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.”
David Pajo: Indie-rock guitarist No. 2 (Slint and Tortoise). He annoys Billy by claiming to be unaware of all his many radio hits because in the ’90s “Delta blues was way more exciting to me than the Pumpkins and that whiny voice.” But he decides to join Zwan anyway because Corgan’s arrogance “cracked me up.”
Paz Lenchantin: In-demand bass player. She decides to leave her present gig with A Perfect Circle after receiving a “sign” to join Zwan in the form of a coloring book connected to the outsider artist Henry Darger purchased while on tour with Corgan in St. Louis. She subsequently likens Billy to a dictator, and says that being in a band with him is “like a fetish, like how people like being whipped.” Adding insult to injury, Billy borrows the coloring book and never returns it.
Jimmy Chamberlin: Long-suffering drummer who was fired twice from Smashing Pumpkins, once before Zwan and once after, and then rehired. Reflecting on the Pumpkins’ golden era, he once said, “I fucking hated the ’90s.”
On paper, this was not a band built to go the distance. In reality, it was even less stable. But that did not prevent Billy from making big plans. Behind the scenes, his new outfit worked up dozens of songs — between 100 and 200 tunes in all, based on varying accounts from his bandmates. Dubbing the electrified mothership band “The True Poets Of Zwan,” he also dreamt up an acoustic spin-off band with the same line-up (plus Paz’s sister Ana on cello) called Djali Zwan. He then declared his intentions to record a separate Djali Zwan album live in the studio with cameras filming everything, “Let It Be-style,” all while spearheading a high-profile rollout for Zwan proper.
For all of Corgan’s grandiosity, the idea behind Mary Star Of The Sea appears to have been relatively simple: Make a very catchy, streamlined, and accessible Smashing Pumpkins soundalike record for an audience who loved Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and then fell off once they went to college or started their first jobs. That’s a lot of people! And Billy was now prepared to cater to them, finally, once and for all. Put off by the Nosferatu posturing and goth-synth vibes of Adore? Overwhelmed by the excesses of the Machina/Machina II era? With Mary Star Of The Sea, Billy was attempting nothing less than a memory wipe that erased the years between 1998 and 2002, fully restoring him to his rock-star prime.
In fact, he was buckling down and writing only super-catchy radio-friendly songs. The long black frocks and “Zero” shirts were put in mothballs. Billy was now embracing uncharacteristic sunniness. On the effervescent singles “Lyric” and “Honestly,” the guitars jangle warmly and Corgan’s unmistakeable whine is sweetly leavened by Lenchantin’s enchanting backing vocals. The ingratiating vibes carry over to deep cuts like “Settle Down” — anchored by an infectious Peter Hook-esque bassline that evokes “1979,” courtesy of co-writer Lenchantin — and the self-explanatory “Endless Summer,” in which the listener is forced to picture the notoriously pale Corgan kicking it carefree at the beach. There’s even a track literally called “Baby Let’s Rock!” that more or less sums up Corgan’s aim to make his own slightly skewed version of a feel-good power-pop Cheap Trick record.
Heard 20 years later, Mary Star Of The Sea sounds like one of the most immediate and likeable albums in Corgan’s catalog. It’s pretentious, but not that pretentious, especially given what came before and after from him. There are no overwrought concepts, no confrontational provocations, no bullshit. It’s basically Corgan giving us what we want — heavy and melodic guitar anthems that feel simultaneously epic and intimate.
Only at the time, it wasn’t what people wanted. In 2003 — as online piracy was wiping out a music industry that the Pumpkins had dominated just a half-decade earlier — FM radio was now populated by nu-metal and mall punk bands and the music press was enamored with the sharply dressed post-punk outfits coming out of New York City. Into that world entered Mary Star Of The Sea, a record straight out of 1996, a castaway from the death throes of alternative rock that didn’t reach the shore until the next decade. In the moment, the anachronistic feel of Corgan’s songs — no matter how well they were executed — made it inarguably obvious that this bygone era was dead and gone forever.
All of this rendered Zwan, ostensibly a “new” band, an instant classic-rock fossil. Or, as Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber put it, “an enterprise so gleefully out-of-step with the present, so misguidedly earnest, so just plain wrong.”
Some of that wrong-ness is apparent in the video for “Lyric,” in which we see Corgan and his bandmates walking down the streets of Chicago as scores of admirers follow them, Pied Piper-like, to a euphoric dance party at local music club The Metro. There are two ideas we’re being sold here, neither of which feel credible — first, that this band is starting a movement that inspires people to take to the streets in solidarity. Second, that this is an actual band, in terms of being five individuals who enjoy working together as a creative and culturally relevant entity.
On Mary Star Of The Sea, Zwan only briefly feels like an actual band. And that mostly occurs on the ridiculously sublime 14-minute guitar workout “Jesus I/ Mary Star Of The Sea,” the one track where Sweeney and Pajo’s textured shadings are allowed to stand out amid Corgan’s relentless six-string blitzkriegs. (At least I think that’s Sweeney and Pajo — it’s possible Corgan merely layered his own overdubs, in the mode of Siamese Dream.)
It’s not that Zwan was a fraud, exactly. Based on live clips, Zwan was a polished and powerful act in concert. It’s just that they were never allowed to grow organically as a new band. They were instead treated as an extension of the Pumpkins, and afforded the sort of opportunities available only to superstar acts. Right away, Zwan landed plum TV spots on Saturday Night Live and The Late Show With David Letterman. And they toured throughout 2002 and ’03 with lots of media coverage.
If you wanted to see Zwan during this period, you most likely did see them. Though the gigs grew gradually less prestigious. I caught them in the spring of 2003 at a college gymnasium outside of Green Bay, when the record was already sinking down the charts, with a fitfully interested audience of students who were in junior high when “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” was all over MTV.
Despite an aggressive promotional push, Mary Star Of The Sea struggled to sales of 250,000. Not a bad number for a rookie act, but Zwan was saddled with much higher expectations. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Lenchantin astutely observed that Corgan “was able to sell 16 million records in the CD era. Now we’re getting into another era … 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. I think that era was affecting him.”
While Zwan technically fell apart in September of 2003 after Pajo and Lenchantin departed to play in Pajo’s band Papa M, the failure of Zwan to live up to the lofty commercial standards of ’90s-era Pumpkins doomed the project. Instead of looking inward, Corgan lashed out with withering post-mortem assessments, immediately reverting to his “Cherub Rock” view of the indie-musician mentality.
“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,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2003. “I got snookered in by really bad people. It’s embarrassing to me.”
He went further two years later in an interview with Paste. “They proved me right, which is that the whole indie thing is just a pose,” he said. “They’re just assholes. It’s simple. I could go on with a thousand stories, but you can put that in big capital letters.”
Where does this leave Mary Star Of The Sea, a very good record that — outside of YouTube and used CD stores — is relatively hard to find? Given that nobody involved in Zwan apparently enjoys the album or anything else to do with the band, Mary Star Of The Sea has long seemed doomed to the dustbin of history. Though that might change soon, given recent inklings from Corgan of a reissue.
Along with boasting some of Corgan’s best songs of the last 20 years, Mary Star Of The Sea crystallizes a moment in time when ’90s-style rock died as a commercially viable entity, even as it (creatively) still had some gas in the tank. Beyond that, Zwan is just a fun rock ‘n’ roll story that shouldn’t be forgotten. An ill-conceived supergroup that lived fast, died young, and left a tuneful and catchy corpse. Free Zwan!