Twenty-four years and counting, Billy Corgan now arrives to Oceania, the ninth and latest full-length effort from his Smashing Pumpkins. Over 13 tracks, the album within the band’s ensuing, colossal 44-track concept effort, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, hints at a breakthrough for both Corgan and the surrounding members. It’s lush, aggressive, and endearing, insisting that this may be a new era for an outfit that’s struggled over the past decade.
Though, “struggle” is an understatement. In the past few years, the Chicago songwriter has dealt with countless blows and hurdles, including the departure of longtime drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. It’s an extraordinary story, and one recently told to Consequence of Sound‘s Len Comaratta, who spoke with Corgan on where he’s been and where he plans to push the Pumpkins moniker in the very near future.
I’ve been listening to Oceania and enjoying it.
Thank you. I still can get on the horse and ride if I put my mind to it.
I never doubted that.
Thank you, but believe me, I’ve been doubted plenty; and at some point, you get doubted so much that you actually start thinking, well, maybe they got a point, and maybe I can’t do this anymore. I never deep down believed that; but you end up sounding like a blowhard if you keep talking about how you know what you’re doing, and everyone’s like, “Yeah, yeah, sure you do.” Let’s talk about 1993 again, you know.
Well, we will revisit some of that, if that’s okay with you.
Oh, yeah, that’s totally fine.
Critics noted back when you released Mary Star of the Sea that you sounded happy, relaxed, and refreshed. Obviously, that wasn’t really the case then. On Oceania, though, you really do sound refreshed and happy.
Yeah, I’m in a really good situation. Honestly, I never thought I would be again in a band.
Well, obviously, the Pumpkins left a bitter taste in everyone; Zwan left an even more bitter taste, if you can imagine that. So, I thought, “Well, fuck this.” I’m never gonna put myself in a situation where anybody has any sort of authority. Even if I have a band, it will be a de facto solo project. With the one exception being obviously when I was in the band again with Jimmy, because obviously that’s a different kind of relationship because of the tenure and because of my respect for him as a musician. But even then, our relationship, as far as it worked, was sort of developed; it wasn’t a guessing game. I knew what he was great at, and he knew what I was great at, and we just knew how to work very quickly. But as far as ever letting anybody else into the space, into my personal space, my private space, my emotional space, I thought I would never ever again let any musician into that space.
And it’s been an interesting kind of fated journey with Nicole, Mike, and Jeff. I played with Mike for a while, just doing demos and stuff like that. We even did a few gigs – Spirits in the Sky. And when I started talking about putting the lineup back together to go play live, Jeff had gone back to teaching. He had been on tour with us for a few years and then gone back to teaching. He wasn’t necessarily planning on coming back. We didn’t have any kind of split or anything; it was that the situation was inert.
So, then when Jeff and Mike and I started to play, we were like, well, we need somebody to play bass, so for a while we had Mark Tulin, a friend from the Electric Prunes, playing bass. His health was a little bit suspect; unfortunately, he ended up dying of a heart attack not too long after that, which is really sad looking back. So, we thought, well we gotta get a bass player. As soon as Nicole was in the room, it was that funny feeling of “Wow, this is it. This is the four of us.” That was a long way to get to that, but it was like, “Could this actually be happening again? Am I in a band?” The four of us are meant to work together, just like you have a fated feeling with a love partner. It’s that sense of destiny, but you’re like, “What is this? I wasn’t really expecting this.” And I really wasn’t expecting it; I was just expecting to put together a functional music unit.
Over the two years that we’ve been an intact lineup, they’ve shown an ability and a willingness and a temerity to lead, to take possession of the Pumpkins’ world, to stand up for things, to fight for things internally that are important and help rebuild my confidence and support me when other people are constantly telling me I’m an idiot and to go back to playing the old songs kind of thing. Behind the scenes is really important to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like, “Wow, I’m really in a room with people who really got my back.” It’s a really good feeling, and I can’t praise them enough right now.
Byrne is only 22 years old, Nicole’s in her thirties, and you’re in your forties, so you’re covering over three decades of rock and roll. All over the country, too. Nicole’s from your hometown. How did your circles come together? Or was it just fate?
Actually, I think Nicole’s from Boston or Massachusetts.
Oh, ok. But she did play with Veruca Salt, right?
Yeah, but she never lived here. What was the question again?
Do you believe the band coming together was fate?
I believe in that kind of stuff; I know not everybody does. But it feels fated, because it just works. And like any unit, we have strengths and weaknesses. We’ve worked hard on our strengths, and we’ve tried to cover up a few of the weaknesses. We’re, maybe on the surface, not as full-on a rock and roll band as say, the original lineup was, but this band is really good with space and tone and texture, which I think you can hear on the album. And we’re just getting into that, so I’m excited about what’s to come.
And I said this to somebody yesterday in an interview: They’re having this experience for the first time. The fact that fans are already embracing Oceania so vividly, the same fans that have been super critical of them. You know, the fan sites have been really brutal, on particularly Mike, because he’s not Jimmy Chamberlin. It’s like, who can be fuckin’ Jimmy Chamberlin? He’s an incredible drummer. So, now they get to have the experience that people are going to actually embrace them, in their own musical situation. I get to take that ride with them, and hopefully it will inspire me, too.
Listening to the opening of the album, it definitely took me back to Gish–the opening part of “Quasar”.
Was that intentional?
No, not at all. I think what it is, is I’ve always worked pretty conceptually. And I think if you listen to Siamese you hear where I sort of cut off the Gish bridge; and then Mellon Collie you hear where I cut off the Siamese bridge. I’m just a crash-and-burn artist, and so for the first time in my life I’m like, “I’m not gonna crash-and-burn anything.” I’m just going to reach for what I know that I love, that I can feel. So if I’m playing a riff that sounds like Gish, fucking great if it rocks. Who cares? Especially when you live in the circumstance like I do, where you have other bands, especially young bands, continually, that are very influenced by my band, that are contemporary. What’s wrong with me being me? [laughs] You know what I mean? It’s like, “Ok, I’ll be me, too.”
You’ve talked about a DIY ethic and mentioned bands like The Clash, The Cure, and Nirvana as bands who have kicked the door in themselves. Is this you kicking a new door in?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, the jury’s still a bit out, ya know? I think what’s obvious is there’s going to be a revitalized energy with us no matter what the band’s called, just with the four of us, which is fun. I think it’s too early to ascribe any movement to it; I don’t know.
I think this is, at the risk of sounding for the thousandth time in my life that I’m a bit full of shit, we’re sort of getting into uncharted territory here, because artists from previous generations didn’t go through this virtual reality perpetuity on the internet. Meaning, if you’re a kid and your dad loves Dark Side of the Moon, you can pretty much go on the internet and almost pretend that Pink Floyd 1972 still exists. You can watch Live at Pompeii. You can get the DVD and the box set. Who gives a shit that that band hasn’t existed for 40 years. Who gives a shit? When I got into The Doors in 1982, full on, I didn’t care that Jim Morrison was dead; he was speaking to me through the fucking tape machine.
So, we’re living in this kind of constant everything-all-at-the-same-time. So, if you’re a Cure fan or a Pumpkins fan, you can pick whatever area you want. I’ve got fans, they’re just crazy about Adore. They just want more Adore. They don’t like the grunge shit; that’s not for them. They just want to live in Adore-land. Are they going to come to the Oceania concert? Do we attract them anew with Oceania, or are they still waiting around for the Adore reissue? I don’t know. I don’t know where this all goes.
In the past, you’ve made Pumpkins records either by yourself or with the band. How did you approach this album?
I think it’s pretty much like a lot of the other Pumpkins records in that you just get in the room and figure out who’s gonna do what, where, and when.
So, did you write it with the other members, or was it all you before introducing it to the band?
No, no. We worked at it together. It’s similar to the old band in that I come in with ideas, we kind of jam on the ideas, I go back, tweak the ideas, and we jam some more. I’d send them away; I’d work on the ideas on my own, and then once I felt like I had the whole album, then we went into the studio and started cutting it all.
You recently said, “It’s really hard to produce great work if you don’t open up that part of your heart that just doesn’t want to be opened.” How did you think you went about opening it? Because you’ve also said you’ve had a hard time letting other musicians in.
I think it’s as simple as I was placed in a life circumstance; there was no exit. Meaning, if you’re running your mouth like I am, which is like, “Ok, I’m not going to go out and play Siamese Dream. Fuck you all. Fuck all you bands running around playing your old albums. I don’t want to be this type of artist; I don’t want to be this type of artist.” I got backed in a corner; there was no way out. Either we were going to quit the band because it was not effective anymore as an artistic vehicle in the present, or we were going to have to come out fighting and actually deliver something. It was that simple. There was nowhere else to go; there was no other move. I cut off all those roads that would be the convenient move when you don’t have anything else to do, like Pumpkins With Strings and shit, you know what I mean? I still wanna do all that kind of stuff. [laughs] I do want to do Pumpkins With Strings, but I don’t want grandma in the fucking audience. I want the 18-year-old kid, because he’s interested in how I rearranged the strings for “Tonight, Tonight”, because it’s so cool. It’s either current cultural currency or not, and right now we’re in a “have or have-not” world. And so Dave Grohl gets to play in the sandbox, but somebody else doesn’t. I don’t get that, but that’s just the world we live in right now.
This is kind of a tongue-in-cheek question, but aside from working with David Pajo and, as you said, Mark Tulin, you seem to favor female bass players. Is there something to the feminine yin with regards to the bass?
I don’t know. Women seem to play bass more than they play guitar, in the people I’ve encountered. That said, I do like the way the women that I’ve played music with approach their instrument. They do play differently; the ones that I play with, they play differently than men do.
They just tend to have a different pocket with it. Men tend to play more aggressively. Maybe it’s just a byproduct of testosterone; I know I play aggressively.
So, does it lend a more soulfulness to your music?
Honestly, this is going to be a bit of a boring answer; I just like the way that it pockets into the music. I play guitar pretty much on top, and so the bass is better laconic. If the bass is too on top, like for example, Melissa Auf der Maur. When she played with us, she played very on top, and it was constantly tripping all over the fucking guitars. It’s hard to get… the Pumpkins’ sound. If you can bottle it, it’s sort of predicated on the idea the guitars are clearly on top and ahead of the drums; the drums sit in the middle, and the bass is a little back, so it has an impact and wide-scope sound. That’s the sound that I like to hear. Maybe it was developed through playing with D’Arcy and the way she played. I got used to that feeling, and so I’ve looked for that feeling ever since. So, if I found a man who could play like that, I would have no problem putting him in there. Mark Tulin played like that.
What’s your response to people who say that you are the Smashing Pumpkins?
I understand, and even my friends say stuff like that, and it’s flattering, but honestly, it isn’t a true reflection of the way that I feel. I feel that the Smashing Pumpkins is more of a conceptual thing, and it’s how the concept is applied. Now, I am the main driver of the concept, I’ve set up the concept, and I’m obviously the one sticking my foot in it by writing all the songs predominantly. But that said, I really think that the people I’ve been with in the commitment and the pressure of the moment, in that cultural construct if you wanna call it that. It’s what makes the Pumpkins different than if I just had a solo band or was just a solo artist. I play much differently on my own. The music I listen to is much different than the Pumpkins’ music. The music I like to play if I’m just sitting around playing guitar is much different. There’s something about the construct and the people I put in the construct that drives out something that’s more visceral and more powerful than I would do if I was just on my own.
That’s just the long and short of it. The statement that Billy Corgan is the Smashing Pumpkins doesn’t really reflect the reality. Where I’ve been annoyed in the converse, where people tried to give my band members, old band members, too much credit for things that I know I did do as a way to sort of strip me of my power and say, “See, you aren’t who you thought you were, and that’s why your solo album sucks” and all this kind of shit. At least on Oceania, it’s obvious that I am who I said I was.
I know what I did. I spent lots of long hours in the studio, just me and a producer building walls of guitar and orchestrating something or even having the vision to say to somebody like D’Arcy, “I really love the way you’re playing. Don’t change that.” It’s also being a good bandleader to recognize where the strengths lay.
Well, speaking of producers, you’ve done that stint as well. You’ve produced acts as various as Ric Ocasek and infamously, Courtney Love. Would you consider becoming a producer for somebody again?
I honestly don’t think I make a very effective producer. I think I’m too opinionated, and I think the great producers just aren’t that opinionated.
Is that why you still work with producers for your own material?
I didn’t work with a producer on Oceania.
I thought you just said you were sitting there with a producer.
I was talking about the past.
Oh, I misunderstood.
What I meant by that is that when people try to strip you of your accomplishment and basically try to assign more responsibility toward the successful Smashing Pumpkins music as a way to say, “See, that’s why you’re not successful now,” because you don’t have them in the room with you. And that’s what I mean. I remember who was in the room; it was me. That’s where I get fucking annoyed,when people tried to strip me in the reverse.
After you ended the Pumpkins, how did the New Order stint come about?
They called me.
They just said, “Hey man, we need an extra guitarist?”
No. Bernard [Sumner, lead singer, New Order] called me at home and said we’d like you to be a guest on the new album [Get Ready]. So, I flew over to England; I spent a week with them. And in the midst of being there, they mentioned they were going to do some tour dates and would I like to come on tour with them. And I was, do you mean, like in the band? And they’re like, “Yeah.” So, it was pretty wild. One of the greatest musical experiences I ever had.
I can imagine. And Hook was still with them at that point in time.
Yeah, yeah. It was really interesting. The most exciting part was when they would play Joy Division songs; they’d just play, the three of them. Listening to that original trio, which is just a powerhouse sound, up there with The Beatles and Cheap Trick. There’s something about the dynamic that you can’t put your finger on, but there it is. It’s like a certain groove. There’s a heaviness to Joy Division that I was able to stand in the middle of onstage and hear it and was like, “Wow, this is fucking amazing.” I would get goosebumps listening to them.
I saw New Order on Technique, but obviously they weren’t doing Joy Division at that point in time. And I was lucky enough to see you on Siamese Dream. That was a great performance.
Thank you. It was a great time. I’m glad I got to experience those things. It has informed my opinion, still, of what is possible. And that’s why when I see a bunch of people standing with their fucking iPads in the air, I have to laugh because I used to watch 30,000 people in a fucking mosh pit, singing every word to every song. Generationally, it’s shocking how muted things are.
Your playing has been described as sometimes wild and Hendrix-esque. You’ve cited early influences as Cheap Trick and Van Halen; however, your father was schooled in blues and jazz. Coming from Chicago, where those two genres have certainly made their footprint, did you ever consider going down that road?
No, I’m just not skilled enough, and I’m just not committed enough to the guitar. My father was really committed to the guitar in a way I never was. Once I fell in love with songwriting and producing and all that, I sort of abandoned the guitar a bit. I still love it. I still recognize it as my true voice, if that makes sense. Even more than my own singing. The commitment of a true guitar player is a higher level than I’ve ever been willing to commit to since I was 18 or something.
I don’t think that any of your fans would ever know that.
Well, I hide it well. I’m able to hide my sloppiness. I’m certainly a better guitar player than P.J. Harvey, which I was rated afterwards in the Rolling Stone poll. No, it was Spin, sorry. In the Spinpoll, I was 63 in the great guitar players, behind P.J. Harvey.
Do you think that’s why you have a certain way of layering your guitars?
To maybe mask some of your sloppiness.
Okay, now you’re offending me.
[laughs] I didn’t mean that. Didn’t you just say you hide it well? And critics have always noted you for having a very distinctive way of how you layer your guitar sound. I didn’t mean to offend you at all.
No, it’s okay. No, but I’m saying you can’t… at the risk of sounding prideful, you can’t do that layering unless you play super tight. There’s no way. If you put on Siamese with headphones, Zeitgeist with headphones, and you hear like six, eight guitars playing at once, you have to play super, super tight.
What was behind you covering the Bee Gees?
You mean on Future Embrace? I just loved the song. I’ve always been a guy that just loves songs; I don’t care who sings them. I’m not political like that. I always thought it was such a cool song.
Music aside, what’s with this pro wrestling reality show?
Well, I haven’t made it yet; we’re trying to make it.
What drew you to that?
Well, I have a wrestling company.
No, I mean, what draws you to wrestling?
That it offends writers, people of taste (we both laugh).
Have you always been a wrestling fan? I remember watching it after school in the 80s growing up, with the Iron Sheik and Rowdy Roddy Piper.
Actually, a guy just gave me an Iron Sheik signed poster; it was so cool, and I’ve actually met the Iron Sheik, which is fucking bizarre. Actually, the Iron Sheik twittered me the other day, which is even more bizarre. He’s on Twitter; he’s unbelievable.
But he’s not wrestling anymore? He’s too old for that.
He does personal appearances and comedy appearances; but you should read his Twitter. He literally writes, “I fuck Hulk Hogan in the ass.” (we both laugh) And they’re so fucking off, you’re like, there’s no way this is him, and it’s actually him. The Iron Sheik twittering.
I remember the “camel clutch” on Hogan.
Wrestling to me is one of the last bastions of true rebel spirit. Rock and roll doesn’t really have rebel spirit anymore; let’s face it. It’s manufactured rebellion. Wrestling really is rebellious; I mean, it’s fucking nuts in there. You’ve got a lot of crazy personalities; you’ve got people doing steroids, all sorts of crazy. Do you know what I mean? It’s the circus. I love the circus, and that’s what attracted me to rock and roll; that’s what I loved about T. Rex; that’s what I loved about Jimi Hendrix. They understood the circus. The circus has been taken out of rock and roll; it’s all so fucking calculated and, my god, dare you step out of the little perfectly colored lines and do something that even has an ounce of mirth in it.
Couldn’t you say the same thing about wrestling? A lot of people call it scripted and planned out.
That really misunderstands the nature of the business, particularly the independent level. WWE is a big television show, and that’s a different animal. Going to an independent wrestling show is very akin to going to a punk rock show; there’s a level of anything can happen, and sometimes it does. And that’s why people pay. They want to be there when those types of things happen. My job as a wrestling promoter is to create those opportunities for the talent to do that.
I think some people are under the impression that you are going to be in the ring wrestling.
That’s just people’s stupidity. You can’t spend enough hours accounting for people’s stupidity. I mean, go on CNN and read any article… “Romney Talks About Tax Cuts”… and read the comments; there’s your America. What hell hath wrought with the poor education system and 24 hours of narcolized TV.
You and I are in agreement there.
Okay, one last question. You made a lot of waves last week with your quote about Radiohead. Would you like to clarify what you meant when you said, “I’ll piss on fuckin’ Radiohead, because of all this pomposity. This value system that says Jonny Greenwood is more valuable than Ritchie Blackmore”?
It’s not Radiohead that’s pompous; in fact, I think Radiohead is a great band. It’s the pomposity that surrounds Radiohead in a culture that needs to celebrate them to reaffirm their own value system. Like, “Isn’t it cool that Thom Yorke just rolls out of bed, puts on his hat, and doesn’t care?” That’s people reflecting their own values back to themselves. That’s the pomposity. That’s what I said in that quote. The culture that needs to place me behind P.J. Harvey on guitar. And I love P.J. Harvey, and I have complete admiration for her, but, c’mon, me behind P.J. Harvey on guitar? I mean, c’mon, that’s a fucking asshole, in a beard, in New York, who has to put me there to make some sort of statement.
That’s what I’m talking about. That culture’s got to go. And what I mean by “got to go” is it needs to go back to where it belongs, in the basement. The fact that it’s being celebrated as some sort of cultural movement, the unchecked Id. We’ve all sat there with the remote and we’re watching football, “Fucking idiot, he should have thrown the ball.” Okay, you try to stand there with five 320lb men who run four-four forties coming at you, and let’s see if you can make the fucking pass. That’s what athletes think, because I know them, because they tell me. And that’s what rock stars think. You get up on a fucking stage and hold an audience for two fucking hours.
I’ve noticed over the years, shows are getting shorter, attitudes are getting shorter, people aren’t paying attention to a lot of things.
Right, and somehow we’re celebrating a culture that celebrates the death of freedom.
Celebrating ignorance over education.
Right, I don’t understand. A band like Radiohead is incredibly important; it should be that way. They’re a great band; they should have their audience; they should headline the festivals. The reviewers should write the four pages of reviews while they comb through Thom’s lyrics. They’re deserved of that. It’s the culture around that, that same culture that turns around and says my new release is worthy of a one-paragraph thing that dismisses me and says he hasn’t done anything good since ’93. Am I receiving the same level of critical review? No. They need to put people like me in that box to make their other box look brighter. That’s my point. It’s football players; it’s jocks and stoners and nerds all over again. And now the nerds are running the fucking show?
I guess the irony is that years ago, that’s who we wanted running the show, right?
Well, look at what hell hath wrought.
Be careful what you wish for.
Yeah. You have a bunch of precocious artists doing their thing. Great, fantastic, love it. Who’s selling any fucking records? Lady Gaga. What is she doing? 99 cents. You understand? It’s like, you marginalize it to the point it becomes ineffective. It’s so precocious, it’s ineffective. Nirvana was effective. Why? Because he wrote great fucking songs, and he got on the fucking radio! Hello?! No, no, you don’t want that. Kurt, stay in your room. Write songs only for us please. Don’t kick down the fucking door; don’t shove it up the ass of the fucking mainstream; don’t show them how they’re all fucking ridiculous; don’t kill hair metal. No, no. Just stay here, stay with us. Just play the club forever. Stay perfect forever; please don’t change.
There are a lot of people who probably said that about Smashing Pumpkins as well, especially in the later years.
Yeah, but here I am.
Here you are.
Look at what hell hath wrought. I’m happy and pissed off; it’s a perfect combo.
You’ve always been happy and pissed off.
No, not true. I was miserable and pissed off before… but I made more money.
[laughs] So, maybe the money bought a little happiness at some points.
Do with that what you will.
Well, Billy, thank you for your time and thank you for correcting my misunderstandings.
Oh, no worries. It’s all good.
Good luck with the album. When does the tour begin?
I keep hearing the fall. I have people that are professionals at this. I go, “When are we touring?” and they go, “Uh… the fall!” That’s the answer I get.