Tuesday, June 12th 2012
Interviews: The Smashing Pumpkins
Asshole. Egomaniac. Control Freak. Rock Star. Smashing Pumpkins frontman and nucleus Billy Corgan has been defined by onlookers for more than two decades, and he’s had enough.
With a new incarnation of the Pumpkins and a brand new album that, finally, hits a harmonic centerpiece in the band’s legacy, Corgan is keenly aware that right now is a special time in his creative arc. ”The world has never been more dangerous than it is right now, and we have a limp, impotent artistic response to the situation,” he laments in our Antiquiet interview, only days away from the release of his new album Oceania. And he’s absolutely right: while Rage Against The Machine collected royalty checks over the past decade, the fire of mainstream rebellious artistry has been lost, giddily extinguished in favor of ubiquitous accessibility. We’ve lost our fire, or rather traded it out for smaller packaging, faster connection speed and easier access.
In December 2009 the Pumpkins began releasing Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, a colossal 44-song collection and precursor to a proper new album (within an album), Oceania, which arrives June 19 on EMI. Early responses to the Teargarden material were dissonant at best, and even this Gish-spawned fan mused in print whether Corgan had gone creatively bankrupt.
A renewed fire and personal recalibration have sharpened the man’s blades, however, and this time Billy’s declarations of accomplishment are right on the mark: a thirteen-track collection that spans the band’s entire sonic spectrum, Oceania ”fulfills the promise of the original mandate,” according to the man himself. He’s still angry at his own injustices, but he’s leading with a creative spark that captures an essence of our original fire for the Pumpkins, without the pithy sense of throwback nostalgia most bands fall into in the sentimentality of their chronology. In short, the album is damn good. It’s what we’ve been waiting for. As a fan, a deep shade of relief bleeds into the excitement. For the first time in a very long while, it sounds as if the Smashing Pumpkins are truly back.
We began our interview in the most sensible place for a narcissistic live wire: talking about God.
In your everyday life, what is your driving spiritual influence, and how does that speak through your creative choices nowadays?
I think that if God is a mystery, what is the point to the mystery? Let’s start from the precept that God exists. If you agree that God exists. Well why doesn’t God just make himself or herself or itself known? Why is it this weird kind of virtual reality thing? What’s being asked of us? I think we’ve all had a sort of inner sense of who we are, and of course life will suppress that, repress that, encourage you to be somebody that you’re not. And a spiritual teacher will remind you that until you really know who you are you can’t accomplish anything. Your life is wasted. So in my case I’ve had to take a very long, circuitous route through my talent and my obsessions to realize that there’s some guy in there who’s trying to get out. It’s mixed in there amongst my need for attention, and ego gratification and whatever else.
Music has been the greatest teacher for me. Painful relationships, number two… (laughs) But music has been a great teacher, and I’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to keep doing this at a really high level, and learn these weird level lessons of consciousness, and how to communicate with humanity and what humanity’s obsessed about… and how you fit in as an individual and how you don’t. And believe me, when you don’t, they let you know. They kick you right out the fucking door.
You’ve said this is a new story, about renewal. You’ve spoken of diversity in approach being key to longevity, as seen with the Beatles, Zeppelin and so on. That clearly runs tandem with taking chances – aside from the creative collaboration, what would you say the risks are with Oceania?
That’s a really good question…. If I’m being honest, I think it was the emotional risk. Musically, I’ve done riskier things. I knew what I was doing. I was conscious. I like the conscious choices that I made. But 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. It requires a level of honesty and vulnerability that’s just really uncomfortable, certainly at 45. Because I’m just tired of hearing it. I’m tired of hearing who I am.
From others, or from yourself?
From others, from others. I mean, pick your year. From ’89 on I’ve had people tell me who I am. And they pick my personality as if it’s a one or two-dimensional thing, and I’m more like a tetrahedron. I can’t think of any people outside of Weird Al Yankovic who have both embraced and pissed on Rock more than I have. Obviously there’s a level of reverence, but there’s also a level of intelligence to even know what to piss on. ‘Cause I’m not pissing on Rainbow. I’m not pissing on Deep Purple. But I’ll piss on fuckin’ Radiohead, because of all this pomposity. This value system that says Jonny Greenwood is more valuable than Ritchie Blackmore. Not in the world I grew up in, buddy. Not in the world I grew up in.
So I find myself defending things. Is Ritchie Blackmore a better guitar player than me and Jonny Greenwood? Yes. Have we all made contributions? Yes. I’m not attacking that. I’m attacking the pomposity that says this is more valuable than that. I’m sick of that. I’m so fucking sick of it, and nobody seems to tire of it.
It’s intensifying, too. The climate of technological immersion runs tandem with a shortsightedness, a collective amnesia that people seem to feel a need for. In our culture, if something’s not new new new right now, it has rapidly diminishing value.
I’m sorry, every system up until the last ten, twelve years… it kicked its own door in. They didn’t need it lubricated first. The Clash kicked the fucking door in. Nirvana kicked their own door in. The Cure kicked their own door in. Whatever, pick your fucking movement. Kick in your own fucking door. You don’t need a guy with a beard to put you over. Do it yourself.
When SP first came into being, a cultural motivation was underway at the time to get involved, make a difference, recruit your friends and wear your passion on your sleeve. But with the technological revolution, passionate commitment to anything is polarizing and marginalizing. It’s been deemed hugely unappealing.
Look, we’re all insecure in our own ways, most of us. You’ve got a Facebook with a few hundred friends. If you do something truly radical, are you ready to withstand the forty negative comments? Most people aren’t. So they’re getting peer pressured at levels they don’t even realize. It’s what you don’t say.
It’s like the government spying on us. Right? Now it becomes about what we don’t say. The same thing with culture. I’m just willing to say it, and deal with the forty negative comments.
There’s a paranoia present as well, and it’s founded, and that has to be reflected in the art. If a band like RATM came into being now, would it be different? It seems like new laws would be enacted to prevent their impact.
I don’t think that’s paranoid at all. I still think Rock N’ Roll done correctly is one of the most dangerous things in the world to the systems of power. Because it is the ultimate viral concept. Go back to 1956 with Elvis. That was a much more mellow and serene world in many ways, beyond the nuclear holocaust that was always waiting. Elvis was such a fucking electrifying figure, he fucked stuff up. He fucked up the culture, he fucked up concepts of masculinity, sexuality, he fucked stuff up just like The Beatles did.
It’s free, it’s a free fuck up. You don’t need an army, you don’t need a tank, you don’t need a bayonet. You just need a really good fucking idea. There’s something about a guy… just like Tom Morello had this quote on his guitar from Woody Guthrie: “This guitar is a fucking weapon. This guitar kills fascists.” Love kills fucking fascists. And when music is so goddamned fucking iTunes friendly cuddly, it makes me want to fucking puke. It’s not for everybody to be like that, but where is that voicing in the greater collective voices? Why don’t we have that anymore?
Because nobody wants to deal with the forty negative comments on Facebook. “I don’t like what you’re saying.” We’re all being identified by a conceptual identity. Not a true identity, a conceptual identity. And the funny thing is that I’ve been playing with conceptual identities all along. And I’ve watched each turn, as I’ve adapted to each cultural identity, how I’m attacked for not being this or that, or too much of this or too little of that. Meanwhile the real me is standing behind it all noting where the deflector shield works and where it doesn’t. And what gets through. Now I’m actually strong enough where I don’t need a mask. I’m just myself. I’m fifteen pounds overweight, I’ve got crooked teeth, I’ve got a funny voice, but I’m fucking good at what I do. And this fucking voice kills fascists. That’s the way I look at it.
That’s the way your fans look at it. That’s what keeps them coming back.
Well what I’m saying is rather than be celebrated as a radical who’s continually subverted the system and turned his back on much greater commercial realities than I’ve embraced, I’m celebrated as this fucking weirdo who just won’t go away!
Depends on who it is I suppose. As a fan from the early days, it’s a wonderful feeling to hear this record without that sense of stroking nostalgia, reaching backward.
It fulfills the promise of the original mandate.
We stayed the course, I stayed the course, ephemerally or spiritually, to wander back to the space where it makes sense today. And it didn’t even make sense a year ago. But it makes sense today. This is not Sha Na Na, you know what I mean? We’re not up there trying to pretend like it’s 1994. 1994 wasn’t that fucking great either. The world has never been more dangerous than it is right now, and we have a limp, impotent artistic response to the situation.
On top of the need for an artistic fortification of the offensive front, it would seem though that if a Pumpkins record were to represent the now, there’s also a need for more room to breathe. An introspective offset to the overload of noise that we’re inundated with constantly. That’s part of what makes this album unique. The two big rockers that open the album grab you, but it would’ve been surprising for that approach to be sustained for thirteen songs. Was that intended, or just a consequence of current consciousness?
I think we were just trying to ride the wave of whatever it was we were feeling. I think it’s worth noting that everyone in the band is intelligent, sensitive, highly opinionated, no one’s a wallflower. So we’re all going through our own identity struggle here. We all bring that into the middle, and somehow the blues in that comes through. In the case of Oceania, the blues just feel a little bit brighter. I don’t know why.
When people say it’s lighter or happier there tends to be an implied impotence, whether intended or not. What I’m celebrating as a fan is that it seems like a wider spectrum rather than a downshifting of personality.
I was always offended by the idea that I could only write from a dark place or only the darkest stuff was worth listening to. Oh, Billy happy is really annoying. Billy’s talking about God now, there goes the music. I always thought that was a bit bourgeoisie, you know? If you’re good… John Lennon wrote songs about being in love, just like he wrote songs about not being in love. If he can do it, then we all can do it.
Consistency in live performance has come up in a couple interviews, where the greatest hits mentality takes a precedence over what could be a very real artistic journey. But it’s damned hard to take that journey in front of a sea of people experiencing the show from a glowing screen. Is that perspective what led to abandoning the “we’re not here to play the old hits” stance, and go back to including a good deal of Siamese Dream / Mellon Collie songs in your set? even including gems like XYU and Starla?
I think we’re running two concurrent models. One is when we intersect the mainstream, we have to re-attach them to the idea of why we matter. And when we intersect with the fanbase, we have to reattach them to the idea of why we matter as an artistic unit. So when people come to see the Oceania tour, we’re going to play Oceania, sixty minutes, as it was written.
Front to back.
Front to back. We’ll have to make that work in front of that audience. I think that you’re not going to get the rewards you used to get, to show up at the Reading festival and play some wacky set that you just feel like playing that night. I just can’t stand the negative wave. There isn’t an upside. And let me tell you, I don’t see the blog guy in the back going ‘how brilliant that they were able to stand up to the expectation.’ I see ‘he’s a fucking idiot’ over and over and over again. So fuck it. If I’m going to be an idiot, at least I’m going to be a successful idiot. And the fact of the matter is that I’ve written more hit songs than just about anybody in my generation. So if I feel like playing ‘em, I’ll fucking play ‘em. My mentality has always been, ‘okay, you want it? We’re going to shove it down your throat.’
We just played in Portugal, and we played Space Oddity by Bowie, we played Black Diamond by Kiss, we played a really cool version of XYU from Mellon Collie, and then amongst that we also played a lot of stuff that people would expect us to play. But we played it really really well. We rehearsed very hard to make sure that we were just rolling through it. The band is very committed to whatever we play, and that’s that. So us playing twelve hit songs in a set is really a different version of ‘fuck you.’ The fact of the matter is, the band who went on before me and the band who would hope to be on after me probably can’t do that. Or, or, if they do have twelve hit songs, they all sound fuckin’ the same.
If you’re playing a set with Today and Disarm and Bullet With Butterfly Wings and 1979 and Zero and Stand Inside Your Love and Ava Adore, I mean, those are all pretty different songs. So there’s really not a compromise in that way. Now, do I really want to get up there and wave a flag like that? No. But I have to be effective in this environment. I took a very hard-line artistic approach in the past ten years and I have not been rewarded for it. Now, the asshole says ‘it’s because your music wasn’t good enough.’ But I also haven’t gotten the artistic respect from the intelligentsia for taking a very hard-line path, because those people who had the success that I had in the ’90s wouldn’t have taken that fucking path in their thirties and early forties. So at some point you just get treated like a fucking pariah, because you won’t get with the program.
Dave Grohl, who basically does that, he’s a good guy. But I’m a dumb guy, because I’m doing what I want to do. So you reach a point where you say, ‘okay, fuck you all. We’re going to do what we want to do, and we’re going to do it the way we want to do it.’ And that’s it. There’s no apology.
Now you’ve put a tick in my head. You said you’ve played a different version of XYU… is this something you pulled from the archives and learned again for the Mellon Collie reissue?
Actually, on that reissue, I found an alternate take that was cut in the studio, and I was really surprised because my memory of it was writing the song, rehearsing, and just going in and cutting it. But actually listening to the tapes in sequence, the song completely evolved that day. It was slower, I was singing in different places, the arrangement was slightly different… and you hear it. The tape gets more violent, stranger, darker, and then the penultimate take… we’re still not clear on whether the finished finished take was a bit of an edit. My memory of it was just one take, but maybe we edited in a section. I don’t remember. So I found this alternate take that’s sort of at the cusp of the earlier version, and what became the final version. And it’s interesting because I’m singing a little bit differently, in different spots, a few different words. So you get a little sense of the evolution. When we were rehearsing the song, I really emphasized particularly to Mike that the song was generated and written from an interpretive spirit, and really the only way to play it live is to interpret it every time. The arrangement is a certain way, but it’s the way you lean into the section and the speed and the tempos of the changes that really really matter. And then as an added bonus we tacked on Walk by Pantera at the end.
Is the scheduling still on track for release of the reissues?
Uh… (laughs) I’d like to give you an honest answer, so let’s just pretend I said yes. Let’s just say that record companies are… still the same.
I imagine you’ve had quite a few guarantees from EMI that they’re going to do you right this time.
No. Unfortunately, no. I think it’s the nature of the record business. I don’t take it as personal anymore. I think in the ’90s and early 200s I took it really personally. I felt like someone was punching me in the face. It was that level of what the fuck?!
I don’t take it personally now. I just think that the whole business is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. And it’s shocking to me that after a decade we’re still in the same models, essentially.
At least I’m at the advantage that I made the record on my own money, and so I made a good deal with them where it’s still my record and I own it, I didn’t have to sell my soul to put it through their system. It’s a very progressive deal, so I feel very good about that. I feel autonomous. I’m just plugging into the system that still works, for what we need it for. You know that and I know that, so I don’t think that’s anything negative to say. But overall, I just criticize the entire business because they’re insane. They’re insane. They take people like me, who have an ability to sell records, and they’re toss you aside for some kid who might have a hit. And they tell you why that kid’s got something that you don’t have – and ultimately they’ll throw that kid aside too. They’ll never learn, is what I’m saying. It’s all moment to moment. ‘Whaddya got, whaddya got, whaddya got.’
It’s a damn shame. So let’s leave the business meetings and take it to the stage. You’re standing onstage in 2012 looking at a sea of people. Why are they there to see you?
I think people go to shows not to see hit songs. I’ll say it a thousand times. They go to see a fucking rock show. They want your cock out in some form or fashion.
Order Oceania at the official Smashing Pumpkins site.
Photo: Wendy Redfern