Twenty Minutes with Billy Corgan
The Smashing Pumpkins Figurehead Comes Clean on the Eve of His Lobero Performance
Say what you will about Billy Corgan, but you have to appreciate the man’s tenacity. Since forming the Smashing Pumpkins in 1988, Corgan has seen more than his fair share of high highs (the Grammy sweeping Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness comes to mind) and low lows (deaths, divorces, and more band in-fighting and lineup changes than we can recall). Still, the frontman and mastermind behind the Pumpkins pushes on, now with an all-new lineup that includes 19-year-old drum wizard Mike Byrne and a forthcoming concept album appropriately (and cryptically) titled Teargarden by Kaleidyscope. I recently spoke to Corgan via phone in anticipation of the Pumpkins’ Saturday night show at the Lobero Theatre, during which time we touched on everything from past struggles to last year’s blistering (and sweaty) tour stop at Muddy Waters Café. What transpired is below.
I guess, first and foremost, I have to ask about your last trip up here with Spirits in the Sky. What prompted that string of dates?
Well, that summer I’d written a bunch of songs for Teargarden — I don’t know if I’ll ever record them — but we were working on them as a unit. I had the new drummer, Mike, and my friend Kerry [Brown] was playing congas and some drums and Mark [Tulin] from the Electric Prunes was playing bass, so we were just sort of jamming everyday. Then we said, ‘Oh, we should play a few gigs,’ so I called my agent and just told him I wanted to play just the simplest, smallest places. I didn’t want any stress or anything, just make it real simple. Next thing you know, once we started booking the dates, friends just kind of started stopping by to hang out — maybe because we were officially rehearsing or something. But suddenly we started saying to people, ‘Oh, you should sing on this song,’ and because it was just the one week, next thing we knew we had nine people playing. Everybody wanted to do the tour, and I never saw any of the venues so, particularly for the one in Santa Barbara, we went in and didn’t know how it was going to work. Because of the way it was all set up, the drummer couldn’t even see me when I was singing. But it was really good fun. I remember, I think I stopped the show because it was so hot.
It had been a long time since you had played venues of that size. What did you take away from the experience? You know, it’s a bit difficult because there’s the romantic aspect of, ‘Oh, I’m just going to play in a really small place and people will listen.’ The nature of crowds has really changed over the past ten years, I’ve found, because of the Internet and the way people communicate with each other, even. Anything that I do, you’ve got the ten hardcore Smashing Pumpkins fans who you know are super opinionated, for who nothing is ever good enough, or everything is great; there’s sort of no middle ground. Then you get the kind of casual dude who goes with his friend because they liked the Pumpkins in the ‘90s. It’s an odd mixture. The point is, there’s sort of a romantic idea that you’re going to play in front of a crowd that doesn’t know what you’re doing or who you are, because maybe in your mind there’s sort of an innocence attached to it. But it doesn’t really work that way. For lack of a better way to put it, the smaller the environment, the more you can interact with the environment. Once you get past a 500 person venue, the environment sort of controls the show, whether you want it to or not. I mean, you can ignore it, but there’s always some sort of effect that the environment has. At least in a small setting like that it has a little but of a communal vibe.
For me, the best part of that whole week was just having a really great time with my friend and having music be the highlight of the day. But the rest of the day was a lot of fun too. It kind of brought me back to the earlier days of the Pumpkins where we were sort of all on the same page, driving ourselves around with no tour manager. It brought me back to the simple thing of, this is why I want to play and I don’t want to do anything other than this any more. There’s a business creep that happens over time, and I see it with other bands too, and I just don’t want any part of it anymore.
How, if at all, did that inform the new record? I think that you could say that in a simple way, but I think overall it was just a progression of my spirit from one… If I can go back a little bit, the last sort of real serious touring that I did was at the end of 2008 with Pumpkins, and we did a 20th anniversary tour, which was really volatile. People were not necessarily happy with the shows we were playing. We got great reviews. I got some of the best reviews of my life because the critical end of it understood what I was trying to do, which was sort of shake some new stuff loose from the trees. But the fanbase people came expecting that 20th anniversary meant “greatest hits,” so there was a really dark energy to that tour. And after that I got really sick and had some really serious health issues. That whole year of 2009 for me was really sort of a spiritual progression to [this realization that] I can’t do anything that doesn’t sort of physically, emotionally, and spiritually support me. I don’t care what it is; I don’t care what you call it. Everything I do has to have sort of a happiness attached to it. It doesn’t mean I’m living in Rainbow Land, it just means I have to feel good about it or I’m not going to do it. At some point you have to sort of make that decision in your life that, if you’ve learned anything, you’ve earned the right to say “no” to something. So I felt like, ‘OK, I’m no longer going to be controlled by the Smashing Pumpkins expectations, or the Smashing Pumpkins world, or these groups of people. Everything I do I want to do with a full heart. If I can’t do it with a full heart, I won’t do it.’ [Those shows] were just part of that process of me figuring out what that really felt like. There’s the idealistic part and then there’s the reality component, which is ‘OK, how do you actually do this?’
Completely fair. Coming from there, and considering all of the negative feedback and all of the expectations that you’ve been dealt, I have to ask, what drives you to keep doing it? Well, at some point I fell back in love with music. Because at some point in my life I felt like I was enslaved by it. Success has a way of making you its bitch. I can be an over reactive person, so I feel like something’s pressing on me, no matter how good it is, or how good everyone is telling me it is, I can be kind of contrary in that way. It took me a long time to realize that music is the greatest gift I’d ever been given, whether it was the ability to hear music and understand the language of it and have so much pleasure from listening to so many great artists, or the ability to translate my own language in a way that was distinctive and obviously had connected with people all over the planet. I was able to step back at a humble moment in my life and realize that music had been a really incredible thing. Music had never been the problem; it was all the other stuff that had been the problem. It’s almost like how you hear of a man who falls in love with his wife after 20 years. I had that kind of moment of, ‘wow, this is an awesome thing.’ So I made a new pact with myself that I would only play music if I felt really good about it.
It’s hard to explain, but you reach a point in your life where you look at everything that’s, to use a New Age term, “served you,” and everything that hasn’t. And when I look at the public, it’s had a very fickle relationship with me. So as much as it’s been good, it’s also been criticism and stereotyping and all this other crap. It’s kind of been a wash. You look at other aspects in your life and you kind of step back and say, ‘Well, what are the things that have actually been a really good thing?’ And music was one of those things that I had to look and say, ‘Wow. For the most part, music has always been a good thing.’ It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to put my energy with music, and I’m going to pay a lot less attention to all these other forces and factors.’ Public persona is one of them. Trying to run the politics part, how you fit in the indie world and all that crap, I just gave it all up. I’m just sort of living in my little fort over here. If someone wants to come and try to fuck with me I’ll throw rocks at them, but beyond that I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing.
Can you tell me a bit about Teargarden by Kaleidyscope and where in this monolith of a process it’s at? Well, you know, an unexpected thing happened on the way to making the record. In the beginning it was essentially just me and Mike, the drummer, and he’s 19-years-old and had never been in a studio. I’ve got a kid who’s never stepped foot in a recording studio and I’m like, ‘OK, let’s record the new Smashing Pumpkins.’ [Laughs.] I just thought the whole album making process was essentially going to be pretty similar to all my other experiences with Pumpkins, where it’s just going to be a drummer and me making records with some help. And then somewhere along the way I found myself being really happy with my band, and I started to see a really different contribution from them as a unit. It all just sort of clicked recently, and that sort of changed my focus for where I want to take the album. I’ve got all this material—some of which is good and a lot of which is average—and I’m sort of reassessing now what makes sense within the context of the band.
There’s sort of an organic band around me all of a sudden that I can see myself working with and writing music for. Quite frankly, that’s when I’ve had the most success is when I’ve written for a band. It’s almost like you’re writing a Broadway play and you know who the characters are and you know what the plot is. I’ve always had success when I know those parameters. When I don’t have parameters, it’s almost like I’m in to too many things and it becomes too diluted.
I imagine it also helps to take yourself out of the process a little. I don’t now if I’m able to do that. [Laughs.] I think what’s nice is that there’s a really healthy balance. In the old band there was always this unspoken tension between what I was actually doing and what I needed to sort of portray to the other bandmembers to keep them at a level of comfort. And once we started dealing with shit publicly it became this whole other thing where they were almost asking me to front for them, so to take pressure off of them for the shit they were getting. Everyone would say, ‘Oh, it’s all Billy,’ so they’d want me to go out and, I guess, play up their contributions. But behind the scenes it didn’t change anything.
I’d guess it made things worse. Oh yeah. You had this real erosion of the recording and the personal process in the group, so I never expected myself to again be in a situation where I felt comfortable and I wanted to explore the terrain of a band again. I’d sort of given up on that. But to answer your question, we’ve recorded eight songs. The next song is coming out in about a week or so, and it’s a really pretty song. After that I’ve got two more in the can, waiting, and then I have to figure out when in the next four months I’m going to get back in and record another two to four songs to try to stay on schedule.
I’ve read a few things about your Sunset Strip Music Fest show. How was that experience? It was amazing. Honestly, I’d say it was one of the top ten moments of my musical life. I thought the band was spectacular, the crowd seemed to really enjoy it, and just the backdrop—you’re playing on a closed Sunset Strip with the Roxy and all those places right there. I just can’t believe they even got the permits. I’m pretty droll with my assessments, but it was a pretty special night. It definitely felt like one of those weird moments when — especially here, with the way the business works and the way people talk — once the buzz started on the band there was the intelligentsia that may or may not be interested if you have another musical run left in you. And then of course there’s the business, which kind of ravens around because they want to see if there’s any more money in you. It was this weird confluence of fans, interested business world, and the people with their arms crossed, and it definitely felt like one of those moments when everybody walked out going, ‘Wow. I’m pretty surprised. Not only am I cool with what he’s doing, but I’m surprised it’s this fucking good.’ Right now I’d say we’re the beneficiaries of surprising people [laughs], maybe because their expectations are so low?
I think there’s also just a lot of history in it. We’re playing, like, blistering sets. I mean, it’s up there intensity-wise with anything I’ve ever done, so I think that’s really surprising people that I’m able to generate just as much power in a different way. I think that’s what surprising people the most. It’s a lighter, more sunshine version of the group, but it’s just as intense and it gets just as dark when it needs to. It’s exciting. Believe me; no one’s more surprised than me. [Laughs.] … I think the thing I’m most proud of is that it derived organically. I wasn’t trying to make something happen; I’d accepted that maybe because of the parameters on my situation — the past included — that I’d sort of just given up on the idea that I would ever find myself in that same sort of dynamic that would yield that level of result. I’m really proud that I was willing to sort of trust God and follow my heart, and here I am. Believe me; I’m thankful everyday for the people I’m playing with and that there’s still people out there who get it. It’s a different world. I think a lot of people are really stuck in the past, and I’m really pleased to be moving into the future. I’m happy to let all that stuff go; it’s been a rock in my fuckin’ head for a long time.
The Smashing Pumpkins play the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) with openers Bad City this Saturday, September 4 at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for info.