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Interview: Billy Corgan (of Smashing Pumpkins)

on June 18, 2012, 1:28am
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smashing pumpkins 2012 band photo e1340041598223 Interview: Billy Corgan (of Smashing Pumpkins)

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.

Really?

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.

oceaniahires e1339995983113 Interview: Billy Corgan (of Smashing Pumpkins)

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”.

Yeah, yeah.

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.

How so?

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.

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