Six Questions with Smashing Pumpkins Guitarist Jeff Schroeder

We talk books, rock and roll, and where they intersect

Back in 2007, Jeff Schroeder was studying for a PhD in comparative literature at UCLA — focusing on contemporary Asian American fiction — when he was asked to join the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins as a guitarist.

Jeff left academia for days filled with recording and touring, but books remained a constant in his new life. He reads in between recording sessions (for the band and his solo career) and while traveling on tour. Jeff also recently launched a book club called Reading the World with Italic Type, a website I use to track my reading.

Jeff was kind enough to chat with me (I never thought I’d talk to a rock star when I launched this newsletter) about books, music and books about music. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What was it like transitioning from academia to a rock band?

Even though I had been a musician my whole life, played in bands and had a minor level of success, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’ve been able to travel around the world numerous times and engaged with a level of artistic creativity that I don’t know I would have ever had the chance to do. But there’s also this whole other side, the business side. It’s still a very unregulated business — the relationship between artists, record labels, managers and booking agents. It was an eye-opening experience. I’m getting ready to leave to work on a new album in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to it.

Are you able to read while you’re on tour?

Actually, first thing I usually do when we’re on tour is to wake up, make a cup of coffee and then read for at least a half hour. I’m a morning person, so that’s when I’m firing on all cylinders. We’re performing for four or five hours, so I actually have time to read. I always take a bunch of books with me when I’m on the road.

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What books are you bringing with you for your upcoming trip?

I just picked up Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason. I’ve read it once before but wanted to reread it. It’s actually a trilogy — The Age of Reason, The Road to Freedom and then Troubled Sleep. Hopefully I can get through two or three. I would love to get through all three. That’s my goal.

I also started Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music by Jan Swafford. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more into classical music. I love all these things besides rock: electronic music, jazz, blues, folk, and now I’ve finally gotten to this point where I can really enjoy classical. It’s been touching me in a more authentic way, so I wanted to learn a little more about the genre. That’s something I’ll definitely take with me.

What are some of your favorite books about music — fiction or nonfiction?

I love Greil Marcus. His Lipstick Traces is one of my favorite music books. Mystery Train by him is also fantastic. Robin Kelley’s book on Thelonious Monk was amazing. And Miles, the autobiography Miles Davis did with the poet Quincy Troupe is one of the best music books ever.

Do you have any book recommendations for Smashing Pumpkin fans?

I know from talking to Billy [Editor’s note: Billy Corgan is the band’s lead singer and primary song writer] about the Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness era that he was reading two things: a lot of Shakespeare and a lot of Philip K. Dick. So, if you want to get a little more into where the themes come from, it’s from Philip K. Dick. And a lot of the lyrical imagery, the language and the royal stuff comes from his love of Shakespeare. Billy’s got a great vocabulary and I think that’s connected to all the Shakespeare.

Tell us a little about Reading the World.

Books are the way I contextualize the world, how I express myself. I grew up in a blue collar working-class family. I wasn’t exposed to too much outside of normal suburban things. When I went to college and started to be introduced to different writers, that really transformed who I was. Literature changed my conception of the world. Reading the World is a chance for me continue exploring new books with like-minded people.

The first book we chose was I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé, a Guadeloupian Caribbean author that writes in French. Tituba was a true historical figure, mentioned often during the Salem witch trials but is absent from the official history. Condit took this figure and wrote a novel around her.

I’ve been blown away by the discussion. People’s comments are just so insightful.

Thanks again to Jeff for speaking with me. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter and listen to his new solo single here. You can also check out Italic Type, a great alternative to Goodreads, here.

And, if you’re a Smashing Pumpkins fan, I recommend listening to Mellon Collie again knowing more about its literary roots. It adds a layer to the lyrics.

What to Read If is a free weekly book recommendation newsletter. Need a rec? Want to gush about a book? Reply to this email, leave a comment or find me on Twitter @elizabethheld.

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