On the eve of the MTV Video Music Awards, Billy Corgan was busy preparing for his new Chicago-based teashop, Madame Zuzu’s. This might seem odd among certain circles of people who remember when “Tonight, Tonight” won the Video of the Year Award in 1996. Influenced by Georges MéliÃ¨s’ silent film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), the video emblematized how the Pumpkins drew striking constellations of hope from the black-and-white weariness of life. Their videos transmuted escapism into adventure.
The Smashing Pumpkins were distinguished from their grunge rock contemporaries for their strong melodicism tethered to equally ornate visual worlds. Whether those worlds were crafted through the camera lens or Corgan’s lyrical imagery. From the acidic rumblings of Gish to more commercial successes like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a rock band never so elegantly cinematized isolation and self-deception as the Pumpkins. Although the popularity of music videos has diminished since the late 90s, Corgan’s theatrical acumen has not. This fall, Corgan & Co. will introduce their galvanizing new album, Oceania, to the stage with amped production that features luminous projections on a mammoth, floating sphere. Enlisting the people responsible for Roger Waters’ The Wall tour, Oceania is poised to be the Pumpkins’ most visceral undertaking in years.
Perhaps this explains why the thin varnish of the VMA’s is of little concern to Corgan anymore. Over the last 15 years, Corgan has collected everything from tea to Tequila. A glutton for a torrid Twitter fight as much as real life wrestling, the contemplative conductor, our veritable moon man, has not, however, collected any dust. During our conversation, the savvy, discursive frontman discussed the difficulty of expectations, the Dead, and giving nineties nostalgia a firmly upright, unswerving, middle finger.
I wanted to start by asking how Roger Waters’ production team contributed to the Oceania tour. What compelled you to pursue such a visual direction?
Well, our soundman is this guy Jon Lemon, who knows Sean Evans, who worked with Pink Floyd in the past. I know Roger as a friend, so it was just one of those things where I saw the tour as kind of blown away with visuals. When we were recording the album, we discussed whether we were going to play the album in full, which I’ve always kind of wanted to do. But we need something theatrical to happen – instead of just having people sit there, who weren’t familiar with the new songs at all. The modern age has really quickened the pace of the concert. Five minutes can seem like a really long time if what you’re doing isn’t engaging the audience.
On the other hand, touring gives you a unique opportunity to hold an audience captive for at least two hours.
Right. So, the first hour is going to just be the album Oceania, with the stuff Sean and his team did, which is pretty cool. [The visuals are] projected on a 25-foot sphere that’s above the stage. It looks pretty epic when you see it live. We’ve been very happy with it and actually, kind of had to invent new technology for it – 3D mapping around the sphere so the images don’t blur. It’s been an interesting process. I said that I had an idea, and everyone said it wasn’t going to work. [Originally,] even Sean came back and said he’d looked into [3D mapping] for Roger Waters’ tour and couldn’t do it. Now, someone invented what was needed to make it happen. It adds a regal atmosphere to the night, which is cool because when we break off in the second half and play a little more aggressively, you can kind of feel the gears shift. It’s nice because the concert doesn’t feel like one long monologue. It seems like it’s in two parts.
What was your idea that no one thought would work?
It’s hard to explain, and I’m not a technical person. But if you have an image and project it onto a sphere, like a face, it will blur around the images. Now, they actually have a computer correct the blurring, so when you project [the image], it doesn’t blur. Sean put together all these interesting visuals that are more symbolic. It’s not a movie. We didn’t want people just watching T.V.
To what extent is the enhanced stage production on this tour like a live music video? Did you ever consider making a video for Oceania?
You know, I really would love to make a video. The problem is, no one can tell you anymore that a video sells anything. At least in the old model, they’d say: “Okay, here’s half a million dollars and we know we’ll get it back if we get this thing on MTV.” Today, can spend $100,000, which is no small amount of money, and people could say it’s no good – that it’s not as good as your old videos – and then you don’t sell anything. So it’s kind of like, why are we spending all this money and putting in all this effort? I’d love to make videos. What’s difficult for me is that a lot of recent stuff I’ve done gets compared to the past when the budgets were much bigger. I don’t look at it in a pessimistic way; I think you just have to be more creative.
That difficulty is kind of ironic, given the accessibility of video technology, YouTube, and other forms of viewer culture today.
Yeah, you know, part of my maturation in the world – and me being a little bit more peaceful – is accepting the different parameters at play. I’d love to continue to make videos. I have a good track record and good ideas all the time. I just don’t see where it makes a lot of sense. Record companies don’t want to put up the money, but they’d be happy if you put up your own money to do it.
What is it like to play live when half of the other bands touring cite the Smashing Pumpkins as an influence?
I don’t know, it’s kind of like when someone gets a lifetime achievement award and they get up and say “I’m not dead yet!” I feel like the epitaph of my musical life isn’t written yet, but I’m very flattered where people cite influence and where I can see influence where it’s not cited. I think it helps correct some people’s overly negative views of my musical past and, in some ways, my musical present. I just think the long-term legacy of what I’ve done musically means more in a direct value system than the trendy stuff. So, over time, it evens out.
Is there a danger in people being happy to hear you?
I find that really uncomfortable. Once I realized, in 2007, when we came back, that people were on a sentimental death trip, I spent basically the next two years destroying that. [It] hurt a lot of business stuff and had a lot of people scratching their heads. But it was a bit of a scorched earth policy, because I wanted to break down certain things [in order] to rebuild them into something real. I think the period that we’re in now is a direct result of our willingness to go through scorched earth policy. I don’t see a lot of other people doing it and I understand why – the economics, the attention span, the YouTube clips, the comments on your Twitter – it adds this weird peer pressure. Some people are like, “Why cant you just get along?” And I don’t want to get along.
Right. Nobody wants to go from winning the gold to being given a consolation prize just for showing up.
That’s exactly what I mean. People say “Well, why do you have a problem playing old songs?” and I say, “I don’t have a problem playing old songs, I play old songs all the time. I have a problem playing old songs if that’s the only reason we’re in this room together.” I mean, that’s basically like going on a date with a woman and she says “Well, I’ve known you for ten years, so, why now?” [And you reply] “Well, you know, I used to think you were really hot back in the day, and I really wanted to fuck you and never got the chance, and now it’s just lined up that we’re both single, and, yeah you’re a little older and you’ve put on a couple pounds, but I still have that fantasy.”
That’s kind of what it feels like! You know what I mean? I still think I’m a fairly attractive artist today. I think my music is contemporary, I think my style is still forward-leaning. I can still write a good song, I still have interesting things to say, I add to the culture in different ways besides just music. I don’t get the [notion behind] “This guy gets to play in the sandbox and you don’t.” The delineation between those is not fan satisfaction; it’s hit songs.
It’s a strange and deeply rooted facet of the entertainment world, not unlike the Electoral College in some ways.
Right, and this dumbing down has rewarded the artists who were middle-of-the-road. Whereas those who have remained on the avant-guard edge either have to get into a different business or they end up being marginalized because the culture only really respects might. And then might is right. I don’t get that, especially from alternative world. I get that from pop and rock and roll and that kind of stuff, but the alternative world really still succumbs to the power of might. It’s funny to me that it has never gotten out of it.
How do the Pumpkins figure into your definition of ‘reward’?
There are different business models of success. You sell a lot – you get the DirectTV commercial – you’re everywhere, ubiquitous. Then, there’s like, the Leonard Cohen [model], one of authenticity, endurance, and being welcomed and recognized for a long, steady path. I’m more a zig-zag, right? So how do you define the success of a zigzag? I think it’s more what I would call the Grateful Dead model. Where, ultimately, your “world” means more to people than an individual moment, song, album, or tour. At least, that’s what I’ve been saying to people. I think the Smashing Pumpkins, as an idea, means more to [the majority of] people than whether they liked the last song, video, album, tour, and so on. And I think that’s why we’re seeing a whole new generation of kids coming to shows, just like I saw the Dead when I was 14.
How did that show change you?
Well, I stepped into something and realized it was a bigger “world” than the bands I’d been listening to. It’s not like I fell in love with their music. I’m not the biggest Dead fan. But I could appreciate that something was happening there. The Cure is another band that comes to mind, where the whole mythic pile of stuff that’s been created – good, bad, indifferent, crazy, weird, silly – means something to people on a direct value system, whereas the recording industry is predicated on that last single, that last record. I think there are a lot of fans out there that don’t give a fuck about that. But they don’t have a voice that speaks that language to them.
I’m on the good side of things: I can still play shows, sell records, get interviews. But there are a lot of bands out there – ones that were really integral – that don’t. [Pauses.] Aimee Mann also comes to mind. She had pop success and then built a very strong career as a singer-songwriter, and is someone people still respect. I think there are hundreds of Aimee Manns and Smashing Pumpkins out there, who people are fans of, and [those people] don’t want their artists dumbed down or flagellated because they don’t have the right handlebar mustache this year.
Despite the isolation implicit throughout Oceania, critics have remarked that you actually sound happy. Do you interpret this reaction as “dumbing down”?
I’ve heard that a few times. I think that’s a mystery. I’m just as puzzled by life; I just deal with it differently. If you listen to the lyrics, it was written around some serious relationship strife. When somebody breaks your heart, you can choose to accept, embrace, and forgive them, as opposed to condemn them. I got a few albums out of condemn! Now I’m working on compassion as a device. Life is still complicated. I still remain single. I don’t have a family. My life is still all over the map. Happiness. I don’t know. That’s a funny word. [Pauses.]
I just think that, for people like me, I can’t be reduced to a black and white image or quote. That’s for the rest of the punters who realize a smiling picture equals more record sales. I’m like Linus or something: a rolling ball of shit, and I’ve got everything from past band-mates to ex-girlfriends to family issues. I’ve got as complicated a life as anybody living in a trailer park – maybe the fact that I once lived in a trailer park has something to do with it. The fact is that life goes on. I just learned that my real interest is in reflecting life as I experience it. In total, I’m not interested in narrowing myself, personally or publicly, because it makes for an easier lesson or greater sales. I see a lot of my contemporaries doing that, and I think how could you do that? Especially the ones who experienced the ’90s.
Well, playing a new album straight through is a pretty strong way of pushing past complacency. Even if your penance is playing “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” for the rest of eternity.
Fatigue is that word that comes to mind. I’m weary. I’m just weary of the process, the engagement, the fights I’ve picked, and the fights people have picked with me. I look at it as the end of a long road. And I’m going to enjoy what’s left of that road, because I’m done with it.
What are you done with?
I see [the Smashing Pumpkins] as having a four to five year window in this guise, and then I want to morph the band, the business, and the intent into completely something else. I want to get off this hamster wheel.
Is it possible to make such a conscious break? Oceania, for example, incorporates a lot of evolved themes, both musically and lyrically, from your earlier work. Particularly Siamese Dream.
I would agree with that. But in terms of performance, it’s a bit like an actor on a stage. When you’re in character, you’re in character and when you out of character you’re out of character, and you can be observant in both. When you’re completely engrossed in character, you can be making mental notes like “God, I rushed that line,” and when you’re out of character, you can look and say, “I can’t believe I do that, and put on that makeup, and go on stage every night.” There’s an inner and outer experience and they’re not mutually exclusive. But there is a dichotomy of experience as you move back and forth [between the two].
As a younger man, I invested in the idea of character; embracing certain aspects of my idols because it allowed me to have a confidence that I didn’t have on my own. I wasn’t skilled enough, intuitively, to be able to pull it off, and then that inverted and I started to overly identify with the character. In wrestling, we call it, “living or giving” and I was lost in the gimmick. I can remember driving down the road in my Ferrari, laughing at myself and thinking: this is just silly, but I’ll just go with it, go with the ride, go with the dream. Now we’re on the backside of it: I’m neither the Billy Corgan that’s been created, nor am I the person not Billy Corgan.
Either life has infiltrated the other to the point where they’ve become a seamless mélange. And in that, there is a new level of contentment where I need neither device: I can just be. That’s why when people are like “Why you doing a wrestling company?” “Why you doing a tea house?” It’s because I feel like it. “Why are you opening your show with your album?” Because I fucking feel like it.
Have you found that embarking on new projects is a way to unify – orchestrate, even – this self-duality?
It is neither for nor against. But it’s not neutral. It’s like in quantum physics, how, when you look at a subatomic particle, the observance actually has an effect on whether it is positive or negative. Basically, the act of observance creates something. [Similarly,] the act of observance by the fans, the media, and the record company – it all has some sort of effect because nothing can exist in a vacuum. I’ve sort of neutered enough force around and within me to where the truth comes from wherever it comes from, but I don’t need to possess it or brandish it and say it is me or it is not me. And I think that’s where true spiritual progression comes from. It’s either the over-identification or the need to negate the identification where most of the pain comes from. Yes I am that guy, or no I’m not that guy. Argue, argue, argue.
Do you feel differently when writing your book as opposed to composing lyrics?
For as much people think they know about me, I’ve realized that 90% of the information in the book, I’ve never discussed in any way, shape or form, in public. Probably the only clues would be in the lyrics of the songs, and I’ve been struck by these crazy causal relationships that happened unconsciously between what I was writing and what I was experiencing at the time.
Isn’t it a little early to be writing a memoir, given what you’ve said about your unwritten legacy?
I don’t think it has anything to do with age. It’s a progression from point A to point B. And I can see where a lot of people from my generation haven’t been able to get out of part B. They stay there and are just cranky. So, when people pick up on the contentedness in Oceania, people have a natural question, which is, how did you get out of that? The book addresses how illumination can happen in the blink of an eye. I realize that I understood certain things in my 20s that if I’d just listened to them, I would have avoided a tremendous amount of strife and pain, particularly in my personal life. It’s been the avoidance of that voice that’s been the issue, as opposed to waiting for that voice to come.