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A Chat with Billy Corgan

As I type this very sentence, I’m in prep mode for the Smashing Pumpkins concert tonight at the NorVa, in Norfolk, VA. Yesterday, however, I was in conversation with the man who fronts the Smashing Pumpkins: Billy Corgan. The opportunity to chat with Corgan came up at the last second, so I’m in debt to my friends and fellow writers who stepped up to the plate and provided me with a few questions, but I managed to slip in a few of my own invention as well. During our conversation, we discussed the current state of the Pumpkins (as you probably already know, he’s the only original member in the line-up), their new music, why he gets frustrated with fans who can’t get exited about his attempts to move forward, and the chances of seeing him playing alongside Jimmy Chamberlin, James Iha, and D’arcy Wretzky again anytime soon. Hint: it’s about as likely as world peace.

Billy Corgan: Hi, Will!

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Billy, good to talk to you!

BC: Thank you!

BE: Well, I know you guys are on tour at the moment, but I actually wanted to kick off by asking you about something from the studio. How did the release of the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope Vol. 1 EP go for you? Was the reaction better or worse than you expected?

BC: It was…probably in the range of expectation, which I have to admit wasn’t real high. (Laughs) Because I knew that I was doing something kind of different, and I thought it would take awhile to put across the different ideas. Not just musical, but, y’know, “Why free? Why have a limited edition?” All of these types of things. I think that part’s gone okay. Musically, I’ve been more focused on trying to figure out a sort of musical way to connect and how that’s going to work over the long range in keeping myself and fans interested. I’ve been sort of more focused on that.

BE: Of the songs I’ve heard thus far, I think my favorite song is “A Stitch in Time.”

BC: Oh, thank you! That’s funny, I was just talking about that: some of the hardcore Smashing Pumpkins fans don’t think very much of that song, and I don’t understand why. I think it’s a very strong song.

BE: I mean this in the best possible way, but…it’s very much a pop song.

BC: (Hesitates) Yeah, but I also think it fits well with some of my other acoustic material, like “Disarm” and things like that. It’s very hard to write an acoustic song that has a narrative just within the acoustic form, if that makes sense, where the song can just hold up as an acoustic song and not just be, like, a nice song that you’re playing acoustically. I sort of look at them differently. And I see it in that way. Maybe people don’t like the production on it, I don’t know. But, yeah, I really like it. It’s one my favorite songs.

BE: So will these songs be collected in the future, a la The Aeroplane Flies High?

BC: Yeah, the plan is to ultimately create a full box that would include all the released material, hopefully some unreleased material, and then maybe, like, a DVD or a documentary. Some kind of reason to get the whole thing all at once.

BE: So what continues to drive you to make music under the name “Smashing Pumpkins”? What makes this band feel like “Smashing Pumpkins” as opposed to “Billy Corgan”?

BC: Smashing Pumpkins has always been for me a conceptual thing. Like, if Second City, the Chicago comedy thing, is supposed to be edgy comedy, well, to me, Smashing Pumpkins is always about trying to find a synthesis of an alternative idealism combined with classic rock musical values, and then somehow take those things into the mainstream in a subversive way. That’s sort of at the foundation of the Smashing Pumpkins ideology, and that’s related, obviously, in the releases. To me, when I’ve been in Smashing Pumpkins and I’m focused on making Smashing Pumpkins music, I think very differently about how to make music. It comes more from a conceptual place. It’s, like, “This is the place where you push boundaries.” Personally, I’m much more attracted to acoustic music. But I also realize that acoustic music is something that not everybody feels very strongly about, nor do they understand the force behind it like I feel I do. My voice really, honestly, is better suited for acoustic music. Smashing Pumpkins is, for me, very much like being in a certain kind of uniform and going after a certain sort of objective. If I’m going to follow those objectives, then Smashing Pumpkins is the best way for me to do it. That’s just the way I look at it. The whole question about everybody else in the band and who’s in it and all that, that to me has always been more of a moment-to-moment issue.

BE: Did you expect the controversy, such as it is, when you decided to continue with Smashing Pumpkins?

BC: I honestly…I don’t read press, but I don’t think it’s as much of a controversy as maybe the media tries to make it out to be. We’re selling out all our shows. The shows have been…I don’t know if you’ve seen, but they’ve been very highly reviewed. At the end of the day…you know, people try to be gracious when they say, “Oh, Smashing Pumpkins is you,” but I’ve never felt that. Smashing Pumpkins is about playing music a certain way with a certain sort of spirit, and I don’t think it’s any different from a comedy troupe, where it’s, like, “As long as everybody believes in the idea, it works.” In Smashing Pumpkins, when we had the original members and there were members in the band that didn’t believe in the idea, that didn’t work, either. (Laughs) It’s not always about the individual as it is about the collective idea. So to me, those are arguments that are…I really believe they’re media-based arguments that have more to do with sticking a pin in my side because they can’t really say much else. I’ve been a quality-level musician now for over 20 years, there aren’t a lot of my contemporaries that you can say that about. I’m not a casualty. I’ve been drug-free for 10 years.

BE: Congratulations.

BC: Thank you! Although I never had an issue. I just stopped. But I obviously talk about other things in the world…politics, God. I’m not a casuality. I’ve survived. I’m a survivor of a very difficult childhood, which many people of my generation understand. The things about me that should be celebrated sort of get ignored, and I’ve definitely helped foster the environment of that. (Laughs) I take responsibility for that, but many of those were borne out of artistic ideas. Like, “Being provocative is a good thing.” But it doesn’t always play well. But to somehow undermine my musical vision and my musical accomplishments because of who I’m playing with or not playing with, I think that really…I mean, it’s ultimately a really minor issue. Really, the issue should be, “Am I fulfilling the musical objectives that I’m setting out?” I think those are much more qualitative arguments to take on. Getting down to whether or not somebody…I mean, people talk about the original band, but my ex-bandmate D’arcy hasn’t played on stage or been in a band for 11 years. That is a really long time to be still making those arguments. It just becomes kind of a press coin to throw in there. But I don’t see that coming up off the street.

BE: I’m curious, though: do you yourself ever just think, “It would be nice to play with those guys from the original band again”?

BC: Only from the perspective of if it was a peaceful, positive collective idea of what it would mean. And that’s just not going to happen. It’s like someone asking, “Do you believe in world peace?” Absolutely. I absolutely believe in world peace. “Do you see a scenario by which world peace is possible in the near future?” No. The world does not want that. I’m not the only person who bears responsibility for such a decision. There are three other adult beings who have made completely different choices outside of being in Smashing Pumpkins. Again, it’s beautiful, wishful, idealized thinking, but it doesn’t bear into reality. And, listen, it’s simple: if you could go back in time and you could sit in that room while I’m recording Siamese Dream, you’d see me in there 12 hours a day, usually by myself. So here we are 17 years later, I’m still in that room primarily by myself. So for me, it’s not a fundamentally different experience. Now, in this case, the people I’m playing with now are going to be in that room with me. I have a different relationship with them than I had with the old band, so I’m looking forward to that.

BE: You mentioned politics a minute ago, and I was curious: given how many audiences you’ve played before, did you still find yourself a little intimidated before you testified before Congress.

BC: Oh, yeah. (Laughs) Yeah, absolutely. That’s a level of stage that’s unprecedented in my life.

BE: How did you find yourself there in the first place?

BC: I was asked. I got a formal invitation from…well, I mean, obviously, it’s arranged through whoever the backstage people are, but I received a formal invitation from John Conyers to testify on behalf of what would be a sort of a musical position on this matter, and it was a great honor. It’s a complicated issue. It’s not a black and white, good-guy-bad-guy issue, and I was careful in my testimony to not paint radio as the bad guy. In fact, the bad guy to me is the major label system.

BE: Setting aside the new material, what would you say is the most underrated Smashing Pumpkins album?

BC: Oh, I don’t even know. (Laughs) I mean, I don’t know. To be honest, the past, to me, is something that…it’s almost like if you have a picture on your wall at home and stare at it long enough, you can’t even see it anymore. I’m at that point in my life. The last original-era band album was from 2000, so now you’re going on 10 years since that. All of those things are close to me because of those moments in my life, and there are certainly a lot of memories, but it just starts to look like…you almost become more influenced by others’ thoughts than your own, because it’s so far in your rear view mirror. I’ve had so much life since then that it’s sort of like…I guess I look at it more from a standpoint of appreciation. Like, I appreciate that I did those things, and I appreciate that people still find something and come back and return to them, but… (Sighs) I guess I’ve kind of given up the ghost of trying to fight the fight of the old band. I’m so focused on fighting the fight of the band I’m in right now. And whether or not people understand why it’s called Smashing Pumpkins or if it should be called something else, that to me is such a minor argument, because even if it was the original line-up, if the band wasn’t qualitative, nobody would give a shit. So my number one issue is, “Can I create quality music at 43 years old that not only is current in terms of the world that we live in but can stand side by side not only against my past accomplishments but also people’s memories?” Because as you know, memories are often better than the real thing. (Laughs) People remember their proms better than their proms actually were, and you run into that. If some guy lost his virginity to your music, then it’s never going to get any better for him than that, no matter how good a song you make. So for me, that’s the problem. There are ghosts and impressions and mirrors that you don’t have any control of, so all you can control is if you’re engaged, if you’re excited, if you’re motivated. And If you look at any of the reviews that are coming out…I mean, they’re so positive because the energy is there. You can’t fake that. And if it’s taken me the path that I’ve taken to get to where I am now, it was totally worth it. There were many, many painful steps along the way, but I’m happy, I really like the people I’m playing with, and I’m enjoying playing my music, whether it’s from 17 years ago or 7 days ago. And to be at that point in my life at this point and not be a casualty, not be fried, and have a promising future….? That’s so amazing.

BE: Okay, I feel like we’re getting too heavy here, so let me lighten things up by asking you this: do you think it’s time for the Cubs to just go ahead and dismantle the whole organization and start from scratch? (Laughs)

BC: All right, well, look, here’s the real problem we’re dealing with: every single year, no matter what, the same question always gets asked. “What do you think of the curse? Do you think this is going to be the year?” And it creates a layer of pressure that just has nothing to do with whether or not they can win…but the moment they don’t win, that’s the story. To take it back to myself for a second, if I didn’t have a quality band and wasn’t playing quality shows, can you imagine the press I’d be getting right now? You have to know what exists, and you have to either overcome it by going straight at it, or you have to say, “It’s irrelevant.” The Chicago fan fanbase, particularly of the Chicago Cubs, is so focused on the curse that they won’t let the players get off it, and the players are sitting there saying, “I don’t have anything to do with what happened in 1945!” But they keep making it about them, so at some point, it’s got to just…there’s got to be an issue there. I mean, I was there at the Bartman game, and let me tell you, it was one of the most unique moments of my life. I saw the play…I wasn’t that far away…and within 10 seconds, this murmur went up in the ballpark: “We’re fucked.” It wasn’t, like, “Oh, my God, he blew the play.” It was, “Uh-oh, here it comes.” Now, I believe in energy and power and the power of intention…and there 35, 40 thousand people there thinking, “Something bad’s going to happen.” And it did.

BE: They created their own destiny, in other words.

BC: Right! Okay, back to myself again. (Laughs) You create your own destiny. You’re not supposed to continue with your band, you’re not supposed to be the only person, you’re not supposed to do any of that. So either you run away from it and you go, “Oh, no, it’s got nothing to do with me,” or you say, “Yeah, I understand, but it doesn’t resonate with me anymore.” I’ve conquered the fear of what it means and somehow come out the other side thinking, “Wow, I like being in this band!” That’s the most important thing to me: that I like being in this band. There were years when I was with those people and I didn’t like being in the band. It was awful. Awful. And it reflected in our ability to make high quality music. I’m a sensitive person. I mean, you know, the world expects me to somehow be a robot when I’m in public, but I’m a sensitive person. That’s why I’m an artist. I’m supposed to ignore all of this crap I hear…? And I’ve got to hear it from fans! “How come you didn’t release the seventh B-side of such-and-such?” I’ve got to hear that kind of crap all day.

BE: (Laughs) That’s funny, because someone wanted me to ask you if you’d ever consider doing a B-sides tour?

BC: Exactly! Think about that. Who’s going to go to that? Again, it’s the past. And the thing that offends me about that…and you haven’t asked me any questions that have offended me, so I just wanted to say that…but the thing that offends me about the past is that, at the end of the day, it says, “I don’t believe that you’re going to do better. You’re done.” That’s the underline: “You’re done.” And I’m sorry, but I’m not done. The next 10 or 20 years of my life might be tremendously better than the previous 20. So when the assumption is that I’m incapable of doing better, that really undermines my ability. That’s offensive to me. I understand I’ve been a pain in the ass, but musically I think I’ve earned my stripes.

BE: Okay, well, since I’ve made it this far without offending you, I’m going to risk this one, but to cover my ass, I’ll offer the caveat that it’s inspired by something one of my friends asked, so it’s not really my question.

BC: (Laughs) Sure.

BE: What would you say to people who would accuse your more recent music of being self-indulgent?

BC: (Bursts into long, loud laughter) It’s always been self-indulgent! When was it not self-indulgent? Now, see, okay, let’s look at that question. What does that question means? It means, “I don’t like your current self-indulgence.”

BE: I believe that was the implication, yes.

BC: Right. Okay, you know what I say to that person? I say, “Fuck off.”

BE: Fair enough.

BC: Look, it’s all easy in hindsight. I was talking about this with a friend of mine today. I’m 19 years old. I’m living with my father, who has totally serious drug issues. I got no money. I’m playing the guitar in the bedroom every day. He goes, “You better get a job. You better cut your hair, and you better get a job.” Some little voice in me said, “No, I’m going to do this. Even if my own father doesn’t think I can do it.” And my father was like a god to me. He was a great musician. So Billy Corgan, 19, decides he’s going to do this. I find some people, we start practicing, yadda yadda yadda. We release our first album, and…when we released our first album, we had been written about in Chicago one time. One time. As a local band, we were drawing 800 – 1000 people to our shows…and we were written up one time. That’s our own hometown. We put out our album, and it goes on to be the largest selling independent album ever made at that time. I think we sold, like, 400,000 copies, which was huge. The New York press were, like, “Who the fuck are you? We don’t know who you are.” We’re, like, “We’ve been riding around in a van for two years!” “Well, we don’t know you. You’re not friends with Sonic Youth. Fuck off.” That album comes out, it’s doing very well, and here along comes Nirvana, Pearl Jam…they’re massive. They’re all over MTV. Suddenly, the record company’s, like, “Okay, what are you going to do?” (Laughs) We go and make an album that’s very different from our first album, which has songs which are unlike any songs I’d ever written in my entire life. I didn’t even know I had that in me. In fact, my father called me after the album was made and said, “Who are you? Who is this person?” The album goes on and becomes very, very successful. What do we do? We make a double album with a totally different producer and a totally different style…and it’s even bigger than that. So when you’ve had that in your life, when you’ve gone from nobody giving a fuck about you to people arguing about what you should or shouldn’t do, when somebody comes along and accuses you of, in essence, not knowing what you’re doing, your attitude is, “Fuck off.” Because that same chance-taking had everything to do with what you achieved, so you can’t just tell an artist later, “Hey, that thing that you trusted when nobody cared about you…? Don’t trust it now. Do what I think you should do.”

You could go on a Smashing Pumpkins fan site, and you could identify yourself as a journalist and said, “I’m writing an article, if it was up to you, what would you have Billy do next?” Why? Because of that self-indulgence. It’s through the self-indulgence that some people have a favorite electronic song, some a favorite acoustic song, some a favorite 14-minute jam that some say is boring but that others say is the best song they’ve ever heard. That’s the whole point. But it’s an emotional indulgence and then, by extension, musical indulgence. I’m not talking about quality, because that’s a tough argument to make, but I would put my record of boundary pushing, culture pushing, experimentation, genre-bending, influence, and musical accomplishment up against anybody from the last 30 years. Saying that you don’t like my self-indulgence is like saying that you don’t like the way I talk between songs. If that’s the case, then don’t come to the show, y’know? At the end of the day…and I’ve said this to many fans…if you don’t believe in what I’m doing musically, then of course I’m going to be a pain in the ass. I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, I don’t say what I’m supposed to say, I don’t act how I’m supposed to act. But if you believe in what I’m doing, then I think you’ll go on an interesting journey. It’s frustrating for me, believe me. Some songs I’ve said, “I don’t know if I want to put that out,” but some of those songs have become the famous songs that everybody wants to hear, so, basically, what the fuck do I know? The point is…okay, look, before Smashing Pumpkins put out their first album, rock ‘n’ roll had been around for, what, 35 years? Look at everyone who came before me: Hendrix, the Beatles, Sabbath, Zeppelin. Where do you go from there? There’s nowhere to go. The only thing to do is to mash these things together, but in a way that doesn’t feel so precious. That’s what I learned from the Velvet Underground and Neil Young. Don’t be so precious and don’t be so safe. And, look, I’ve had an incredible life and I’ve been on an amazing journey.

BE: Hey, man, you were on “The Simpsons.”

BC: I mean, hello…? (Laughs) That’s exactly what I’m saying! I was on “The Simpsons”! They said, “Do you want hair or no hair?” I said, “Hair, please!” (Laughs) God bless everybody, man. If people are still arguing about you after 20 years, you’re doing something right, and that appeals to the artist in me. The marketing guy in me sometimes feels differently… (Laughs) …but as an artist, that’s what you’re supposed to do: to make people wonder what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. But right now, I’ve got a positive atmosphere, people I genuinely enjoy making music with, and don’t ask me why, but it’s working.

Smashing Pumpkins tour dates:

July 15 – Norfolk, VA, The Norva
July 16 – Charlotte, NC, Fillmore
July 17 – Charleston, SC, Music Farm
July 19 – Orlando, FL, House of Blues
July 20 – Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Revolution
July 21 – Tampa, FL, Ritz
July 23 – Knoxville, TN, Valarium
July 24 – Pittsburgh, PA, Mr. Smalls Theatre
July 26 – New York, NY, Terminal 5
Aug 5 – Singapore, Singfest
Aug 7 – Tokyo, Japan, Marine Stadium / Messe
Aug 8 – Osaka, Japan, Maishima / Summer Sonic
Aug 10 – Tokyo, Japan, Studio Coast
Aug 11 – Tokyo, Japan, Studio Coast
Aug 14 – Seoul, Korea, Chamsil Gymnasium
Aug 28 – Hollywood, CA, Sunset Strip Music Festival