Billy Corgan likes to talk.
During our recent phone interview, Corgan talked at great length about the state of the music industry, the Smashing Pumpkins’ place in it, and his outspoken role in the media.
Corgan’s mouth often gets him in trouble, because he freely and openly speaks his mind about any number of topics. And in today’s world of pull quotes and de-contextualization, some of his statements — when excerpted from their longer surrounding statements — can make him seem like one of rock’s biggest crybabies.
“I’m a guy who does better with a full quote,” he says. “For years I really suffered because they would pull the one or two sentences out of a paragraph and make me look like an a–hole, and of course then I became an a–hole, and then I was asked to be an a–hole, because it was more fun or more newsworthy.”
That said, here are some longer excerpts from our interview where he talks about the Pumpkins’ past, the band’s reissues and why he’s so excited about the band’s future.
On how his fondness for the past manifests itself into his music: “Doing the reissues for Pumpkins, I’ll go back and I’ll hear a song and I’ll be like wow, I can’t believe that I translated that set of themes into that song. It really kind of shocks me. One that really jumps out is the song ‘Mayonaise,’ which is kind of a treasured song by Pumpkins fans, off of ‘Siamese Dream.’ It was the last song I wrote lyrics for on the album. And it got to the point where it was like OK, I’ve gotta write these lyrics, I’ve gotta sing this song. And when I wrote it, I felt like I just threw together a bunch of weird one liners, basically. It didn’t feel like it had any synchronicity to me; I was just looking for good lines to sing. And now when I sing the song, I’m just shocked how closely reflective it is of what I was going through. It’s almost like this weird personal anthem to my experience, but I didn’t feel that at the time. And I can see why people identify with it, because now I identify with it. It’s hard to explain without going into long-winded answers, but just the direct narrative aspects of it really surprise me. It’s like how you can look at Picasso’s art and see who he was (sleeping with) at the time, you know. But instead of painting her, he paints Madonna. The Madonna, you know what I mean. He turns his mistress into the holy mother. Similar things happened with me. Stuff shows up in all these weird places, but I don’t remember thinking that at the time. I was just struggling for a language.
On his position in today’s music culture, and how it has changed over the years: “I would say In the modern world, it’s about influential power. I have a power now that I never had. I guess it’s maybe a different kind of soapbox. A different power to influence, a different power to connect to people. It doesn’t always translate into material power, but I think if you can stay a certain course, you have a level of integrity that you can’t manufacture. It’s only possibly by 25 f—ing years in a trench. And I’ve been in that trench for 25 f—ing years, literally saying the same stuff over and over again, and being poked at, made fun of, treated like I’m some sort of weird anachronistic creature, some sort of amoeba to be studied. And now suddenly I’m part of a new movement identified by many 15-25-year-olds, as creating a new model that has nothing to do with the old models.
It’s about individuality, integrity, but not the guy with the beard’s version of it. I live in Chicago with the stupid Pitchfork people, who have completely hijacked what it means to be alternative. Hijacked it. Put their own parentheses, quotation marks around what it means to be ‘alternative.’ It’s unbelievable! It’s part of the carnivorous process of music and its culture. ‘No no no, this is my version of cool, your version of cool no longer applies.’ There’s only one problem: Nothing has really evolved out of our old version of cool. They’re still living that old business model. Now if they had reinvented it? For example, I would argue the EDM music scene has reinvented it, so they deserve their props, because they’re doing it. They’ve taken something and they’ve made it their own. Rock and roll culture? I’m sorry. I mean, you can basically draw direct lines from today’s indie stars to the ’80s, ’90s, ’60s, ’70s indie stars. They haven’t evolved that archetype, they’ve just become more precocious, but without the hits. But there’s nothing new there. So that’s the problem, is they sell these kids a piece of pie that doesn’t work, and they won’t realize it until they won’t have made anything and they’re forced to go back and work for mom and dad or down the street at Starbucks, because they won’t have made their money in the time when you’re supposed to make your money. And making your money has everything to be with being correct, being a leading edge musical candidate.
On the band’s current shows, which begin with a full presentation of ‘Oceania’ and close with renderings of the band’s ’90s hits: “I think the whole show really works together and it’s really fun because in a way, it’s like a light to dark (dynamic). ‘Oceania’ is a little bit more up and has kind of a little upper modality, and then in the second half we dive into some better known songs, but we tend to take the harder edge of some of that stuff. We’re playing ‘Disarm,’ ‘Tonight, Tonight,’ ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings,’ ‘Cherub Rock,’ ‘Zero,’ stuff that’s really still invigorating to play. And it seems to flow in a longer narrative. The best stuff I’ve seen that people have picked up on is it sort of embraces the whole run. It puts its arms around a long story. It’s not just one thing or another. I think that’s really satisfying. It has almost like a theatrical feel, the way it feels top-to-bottom. It doesn’t feel like two separate shows, it feels kind of like Act 1, Act 2.
On playing ‘Oceania’ front-to-back: “It works, and it was funny to us when it worked because we weren’t sure it was going to work. We did a rehearsal, because we never played some of those songs live, they were basically studio creations. So when we put it all together, we were like, ‘is this gonna work?’ Because I had already been running my mouth that we were going to do it, so there was no backing off it. But it wasn’t until we did it that we thought, ‘this could work, it feels good.’ Then until we did it live, we weren’t sure we weren’t going to have 30 dead minutes where the audience was like, ‘oh come on, just get past this,’ you know? The fact that it worked as a whole body of work, as well if not better than it worked on record, was really like, okay, phew, this can be done.
I wouldn’t recommend it If you don’t have a body of work that flows in a specific way. I know a lot of people are sentimental, say, for ‘Siamese Dream.’ I don’t think that would work as well a musical body of work in that order. And it would only work because of people’s sentimentality for it, which I guess is how other people are doing it. We actually once did play ‘Siamese Dream.’ It was the last show of the ‘Siamese Dream’ tour. We’d been on tour for 14 months, and the last show was in Sweden, and I said, ‘hey, come on kids, let’s play the whole album’ – as a joke. And the audience hated it. Because they wanted the grunge show of 1993. Which is what’s funny to me when people get sentimental, because if they really wanted to let me do my thing, I could recreate for them a 1993 Smashing Pumpkins show that would be far better and far more interesting than play ‘Siamese Dream,’ but that doesn’t sell tickets. Maybe that’s what we should do: Maybe that’s my way to trump this bulls— and maybe satisfy a curiosity would be to say, ‘OK, I’m gonna play a 1993 setlist.’ That I could get into, because I’d like to see what we were thinking. But this idea of going out to play a musical body of work not designed to be listened to that way, or experienced that way, particularly live. We definitely sequenced ‘Oceania’ to be a concept album kind of flow, so we knew if it had a visual narrative with it it should work, and it did.
On the perception that the current version of the Pumpkins is Billy Corgan and a bunch of hired guns, much like Guns N’ Roses is Axl Rose and a bunch of hired guns: “I can appreciate why they think that way. I think the Pumpkins, as a business now, is about a tradition. And you can choose to connect with that tradition or not. I have people with me, as are heard on ‘Oceania,’ that are part of that tradition. And they’re upholding a legacy, which is important. And if you need to connect to a certain part of the legacy a certain way, that’s your choice. I think you’re making a mistake to deny yourself the opportunity to be open to it. If it doesn’t work for you symbolically, archetypally, or musically, that’s totally fine. My recent quote that I’ve been saying is we’re like Ringling Bros. Circus. You expect a certain type of show a certain type of sway, and you don’t get too caught up on who the high wire act is this year. It’s just you expect them to deliver that thing. And if I’m the ringmaster, great, you know what I mean? It’s my deal.
I think you’ve just gotta be open. I loved the last Guns N’ Roses album, you know what I mean? And unfortunately when they were out touring on that record, I didn’t get a chance to see them. But I would have gone. It doesn’t mean I disrespect or don’t appreciate the classic lineup. It just means that I want to have a musical experience with that artist today. And I think that when other people in my generation reinforce those ideas, of course it makes it more difficult, because it makes me look like I’m being difficult, because I don’t want to reform with people who have driven me up the wall, killed my desire to play music and have sued me. But I’m supposed to get back up on stage so they can relive their dream? They forget about my dream. Which is to be a musician in a band with people who actually want to be there with me. Let’s not forget about that end of the dream.
On the Pumpkins’ upcoming reissue of ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’: “I’m excited. I put a lot of work into it. In order to come up with 66 or 67 bonus tracks, I had to dig through a lot of archival stuff. And we’re still putting out ‘The Aeroplane Flies High,’ which is the B-side collection for ‘Mellon Collie,’ so I’m looking to figure out what the hell I’m going to put out for an extra disc on that. So that’s a pretty intense process. I have to go through a lot of tapes, I have to dig around. Some stuff is lost. I’ll give you a perfect example: there’s a 53-minute concert that was edited from 3-hour-plus concert from London. The record company lost the tapes. We were going to go back and put out the entire 3-hour concert and the record company lost the tapes. They couldn’t find the tapes anywhere. They might be misplaced or mislabeled, but we spent six months looking for these tapes because we wanted to put out a complete ‘Mellon Collie’ live show, because it was about a 3 hour live show, acoustic/electric, and we can’t find the tapes anywhere. So we only have this edited-for-TV 53-minute version that was produced at the time. We’re four or five regime changes at EMI/Virgin from who used to be there, so you can’t find anybody who remembers anything. When we started searching in the archives for stuff relating to Pumpkins, all the Pumpkins stuff was filed under ‘B’ for ‘Billy Corgan.’ So routinely, somebody would come back and say, ‘sorry, we don’t have that tape.’ We would have to beg people to go down and hand search. We found stuff late, we found stuff mislabeled, some stuff is supposed to be here and it’s there. We have some stuff we shouldn’t have, they have some stuff that we should have. It’s been very arduous to go through everything. So it’s very satisfying to put together a cool little window into what it would have been like to be part of the working team for ‘Mellon Collie’ at the time. It’s what you would have heard if you were behind the scenes – this demo, this live take of a song, this rough mix that puts the guitars in a different context — just different contexts to hear the music in. I think it’s exciting. With these reissues I’ve just tried to create windows into how the albums were made, and what was laying around around the albums, so you get the sense of the culture of that particular period. I’ve been really excited to do it and fans have really appreciated the journey, so I’m happy to do it.
On the reissue plan going forward: “Once we clear the Pumpkins’ first era, then I have about 65 unreleased Zwan songs, I have a ton of unreleased stuff relating to my solo album ‘The Future Embrace,’ and then there’s a ton of ‘Zeitgeist’ demos, probably songs I should have put on the album, that are pretty interesting and well-done. Also I have two unreleased acoustic records, plus an unreleased acoustic soundtrack — three albums worth of acoustic albums from the mid-2000s that are totally unreleased. So I’m hoping to just do everything chronologically.”
On the reissue of Machina/ The Machines of God: “We’re going to remix the whole album, ‘Machina I’ and ‘Machina II,’ and put it back in its proper sequence, so it will finally be heard like the concept record it was meant to be. I’m really excited about that. It will probably be two or three (discs). It will probably be two, but it has to be sequenced correctly. There was supposed to be a whole rock suite where you symbolically go to see the Machines of God in concert, so songs like ‘Everlasting Gaze’ were supposed flow into ‘Dross.’ I have the liner notes somewhere in my archives of what I meant to do. There’s supposed to be this fictional rock and roll concert that happens within the album, whether or not I’ll do the crowd noise and all the stuff I’d planned on doing, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll make it sound like Kiss’ Alive I or something.”
On his favorite Pumpkins song: “I don’t know. I’ve kind of had to emotionally distance myself a bit from the past work in order to create the energy for the new work. I know that sounds kind of self-serving. It’s hard to (pick one song), but I think there’s a message you would hope to send that says, ‘this is more me than the others,’ and I think a song like ‘With Every Light’ (from ‘Machina/ the Machines of God’) is a song that would be alright to play at my funeral, because there’s an honesty there that most people just glossed over. Those are really honest lyrics. In amongst a conceptual album where I was playing a character, that’s a song that really is close to my heart. I sing that song every night to warm up, and I still really connect with what those lyrics meant. It’s about a spiritual epiphany. It’s about realizing you’re in a tradition that’s far deeper than fame, and that’s kind of what holds you to it. I’m sure every night in John Lee Hooker’s life wasn’t so great. But he was steeped in the tradition of the blues, and am I whore, am I a poet or am I a folk musician, you know what I mean? All this other bulls— just kind of goes with the times. But that’s a song I think I would be alright with being part of what will be played at my funeral. It really expresses how I feel.