Featured in Blunt issue #135
The man behind one of the most iconic bands of the ‘90s makes his Soundwave debut hot off the release of the latest Smashing Pumpkins album, Monuments To An Elegy. BLUNT smiles politely as Billy Corgan navigates legacies and best-laid plans.
For much of his storied career, Billy Corgan has courted controversy. If not through his sonic risk-taking as a founding member and the lead vocalist of alternative heavyweights The Smashing Pumpkins, then through his deft ability to speak his mind in interviews, subsequently be taken out of context, and deliver editorial pull quotes in spades. As it stands, The Smashing Pumpkins consist of Corgan along with Jeff Schroeder, who came on board as rhythm guitarist in 2007; the ultimate incarnation of the band ended when the ‘90s did, which is somewhat poetic given the band were one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed of the decade. To pad out the band’s live line-up for their first ever Soundwave shows, Rage Against The Machine’s Brad Wilk and Mark Stoermer of The Killers have been enlisted for drum and bass duties respectively. When we speak with Corgan, it’s a wondrously lengthy phone call from the man himself; he’s holed up in Los Angeles shooting a video for “Being Beige”, the first single from the recently released Pumpkins album, Monuments To An Elegy.
“I flew out to Los Angeles to ‘live the dream’,” he quips with a dry, biting wit that seems to underlie his intelligence. With 2015 marking 20 years since the band’s landmark double album, Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness – which resulted in a notable collection of singles like “1979”, “Tonight, Tonight”, “Zero” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” among others – our conversation steers towards retrospect, and how Corgan views himself and his work today in light of virtually everything.
“To look back on the past, which of course a lot of people do, and I do it too sometimes as a fan of other artists, it’s hard to understand that you can’t recreate those circumstances that made those records,” Corgan considers. “Even if you were to try, you just can’t; it doesn’t work like that. It would be like being in a relationship with somebody for 15 years and then in the 16th year going, ‘Let’s have the relationship be like when we were first together’. You could pretend for maybe a week, but it’s not where you’re at, you know?
“Sometimes people forget that when albums like Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie came out, it wasn’t as though everyone was like, ‘Oh, this is so great!’ We got all these things like, ‘Oh they’re overproduced, there’s guitar solos – oh my god, why would you make a double album? How preposterous, how arrogant’, you know, Rolling Stone in America gave that album two-and-a-half stars and called it a bloated piece of shit. It’s not like it was rosy the minute it came out; we were treated like kind of, ‘What the fuck are you doing and why are you doing this?’ And then years later everyone was like, ‘Oh it’s a classic’. Okay, great. Now it’s a classic. It was always a classic to us, and that’s why we did it. That’s why we did it!” he says emphatically, letting out a laugh.
In the same way that Mellon Collie’s two discs come together like day and night, so too do the band’s latest pair of albums, Monuments To An Elegy and Day For Night, the latter of which is set for release later this year. The albums settle in as the final pieces of Corgan’s colossal project, Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, originally conceived as a 44-song concept album to be released song-by-song as free downloads. But as it goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Before entering Teargarden, Corgan had wanted to focus on one song at a time and approach them as beautiful and distinct in their own right; idealism is a tricky mistress and as the project progressed, that was not the case.
“Unfortunately I went into it with a very kind of hopeful idea that by releasing the music for free and doing one song at a time, I would be able to create a new momentum around my music and the band, and it would be an exchange that would ultimately lead to a younger and bigger audience,” he explains. “It didn’t work. In fact, it was the complete opposite; I felt the audience sort of slipping away because they weren’t getting our music the way they were used to – in an album and with all of the hype that comes with a record release. And that’s kind of what it felt like; I wasn’t even given a chance by the crowd that you’d figure would give me the best chance to explore and find something new in the music. When you have a lot of life experience, you can’t just sort of whip up something new – it doesn’t work like that. You’re the sum of things that you’ve done and the things that you still want to do.”
In the wake of Monuments…’ release, Corgan sounds positive. He, Schroeder and Tommy Lee of all people (“He’s very serious about work, but he lives as a person who just really embraces life,” Corgan says) recorded the album throughout mid 2014, with critics hailing it as the most enjoyable Pumpkins record from start to finish in years.
“It’s certainly cool that people seem to like the album right away; it’s been a while since I’ve had one of those albums, probably about 20 years,” he chuckles. “I feel like especially because I’m still, quote unquote ‘working in pop music’ and there’s been so much talk over the last 25 years of what I do, why I do it, and what other people think of what I do, that the only way I can really do anything new is to just let whatever come through me.”
And that’s how a song like “Being Beige” came to be.
“It’s not like I sat down and wrote that song, it kind of wrote me. I had some chord changes, I had the melody, and then one day it was just like the song all kind of appeared in this one session. The funny thing is when it doesn’t work that way and you think, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” he laughs. “You think it must mean it’s never coming back.”
If there’s one constant on which you can depend, it’s that Billy Corgan will always be Billy Corgan. And that statement extends to the way in which he views his band’s legacy and the prospect of Mellon Collie anniversary shows.
“I’ve always been proud of the album and I love that people still…” he pauses. “Sorry, I almost got in an accident.” It’s at this point that we realise Corgan has either been talking on the phone while driving for the better part of half an hour, or that he made a seamless transition to the car without us even knowing.
“I love that people still talk about the album, I’m just not big on the anniversary mood of those things. To me, where I draw the line is it’s the difference between something you want to do and something that you’re expected to do, and something that you should do because it makes sense for business. The fact that it’s this anniversary or that anniversary doesn’t mean much to me unless it means something to me, and if it does, I won’t do it the way you think I should do it, I’m gonna do it the way I think I should do it.”
Shying away from the typical anniversary-style full album tour, mid last year in Chicago Corgan and co. opted to do a seven-song acoustic set in the middle of one of their shows as a sort of tribute to how the Mellon Collie songs were originally written back in 1994. Who would ever want to live in a world where Billy Corgan bows down to what’s expected of him?
“It gave the concert a little bit of gravity that it wouldn’t have otherwise had, I loved doing it, and everybody went home happy. It doesn’t mean I have to go out and get the original people and do the thing and beg for forgiveness… To me, that’s all really boring and counter to why I got into a band.
“What’s funny to me is that I’m painted as difficult for not wanting to do that, and I keep saying, ‘But I’ve been the same person all along’,” he laughs. “You know, it’s not like I changed because I got a little older; I’ve always been like this. I’m still the same pissant I always was; I don’t wanna do what other people want me to do, I just wanna do what the fuck I wanna do. And when they match, everyone goes, ‘Oh, you’re so smart, you’re so cool, you’re so funny’ and when they don’t, it’s like, ‘Oh you’re so difficult, you’re this, you’re that’ – I’m just the same guy, the whole time.”