Q&A: Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins

July 2, 2010 by Marissa Moss

Q&A: Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins

BILLY CORGAN has been thinking about a lot of things lately: babies, World Cup soccer and Lady Gaga. Well, he’s been tweeting about them, at least. We caught up with the SMASHING PUMPKINS frontman the day before the band play their first of a series of intimate dates in support of the Pumpkins’ new EP, Teargarden By KaleidyscopeVol.1: Songs For Sailor.  Two decades into the saga that is the Smashing Pumpkins revolving lineup and seemingly endless drama, Corgan remains the band’s sole original member. Although apparently capable of making any contemplation interesting in 140 characters or less, right now there’s really only one thing on his mind: He just wants us to be happy with Smashing Pumpkins again—as is.

 

How is your mindset different now than it was, say, in 1998?
Well, back then, I had very unrealistic expectations based on the success of alternative music—that the culture of music was going to be taken seriously as art. So in 1998, I was like, “I’m going to walk in and play my new songs and it’s going to be this reverential moment,” and it just wasn’t.  I got hit by what [former drummer] Jimmy Chamberlin used to call, “Be L.A.”

 

What does that mean?
It’s where everyone in the room is more interesting than you are and you don’t impress them. There you are, wailing away and they are at the bar making movie deals. So I’d say now I don’t have that sense of expectation. I look at music, especially live music, as more about having a good time. It’s trying to meet the audience somewhere in the middle between what I like to do and what they like to hear. It’s a more positive experience and less, “Look at me; here is my moment in the sun.”

 

Do you feel like most musicians today are looking to make art or looking for that moment?
Nowadays, most musicians who I know love music from a deep place, but the culture has shifted so much that there’s such a big disconnect between artistic culture and mainstream culture—which now basically views music as entertainment. Of course, music has always been entertainment. But I grew up in a time in the shadow of the Beatles, where music had a sacred place. If you look at the lack of an artistic response to political shifts going on, it’s even clearer that music has been relegated to entertainment status. It’s not a political and social force. Maybe that was just a moment in time somewhere between 1955 and 1995, and that moment has passed.

 

I wonder if we’re just not in the same space anymore.
It’s weird, because I would prefer to be in that space. Part of being an artist is riding the cultural current—but it’s preaching to the few. I remember one time we were playing toward the end of the Bush [presidency] and I said something political, something snotty about the “horrible president.” Half the audience hissed. It was a violent hiss, like, “How dare you say anything?”

 

Like, “Shut up and play?”
Yeah, exactly. Shut up and play. I’ve heard that—even beyond the political realm, getting into social things.  People just say, “Shut up and play.” That’s really weird to me because I’m a human being, I’m an American—and conscious person who cares about what happens to people—and I think I have a platform from which to occasionally steer the cultural discourse. I think I’ve earned that. I’ve been in the public eye for 20 years now.

 

So many of those years have seen a good deal of public inquiry over who’s in the Smashing Pumpkins lineup. Maybe it’s more appropriate to speak about Smashing Pumpkins as a concept instead of a set of players?
That’s a fairly accurate understanding.

 

So then what do Smashing Pumpkins mean to you? What about all the hoopla over band members and whether you’re playing with the original lineup or not?
You know, I think it’s a legitimate question, but at some point I have to step back and ask myself why I keep getting asked it. If someone keeps asking about your shoes, you start to think, “Is there something wrong with my shoes?” It’s sort of a way of sticking a needle in me in a way that other people don’t get the same needle stuck into them. I don’t see the same level of scrutiny for Nine Inch Nails or other artists who are in similar circumstances [regarding their lineups].

 

You seem to be held to a different standard or set of rules.
I wrote a post online, and I was saying—not in a sentimental way—that I would have preferred if [the original lineup] had worked out and we’d stuck together because there was obviously something magical in the relationship. But at some point, it ceased to be organic. So are you really saying that you—the you out there—prefer me to be in an unhealthy, inorganic situation that satisfied one component of what you want, knowing that it’ll make the musical component suffer? I go back to the very origin of the band. I was lucky to find people who were willing to follow me down whatever rabbit hole I wanted to go down. But if you chart the course—the musical course—every album had a restless spirit that was always pursuing something different. Of course, what was going on inside and among us altered that. You had people on drugs, bored people and relationships breaking down—particularly my relationship with [guitarist] James Iha. I could barely work with the guy. I still soldiered on with him for six more years out of loyalty. But at some point, I had to make choices that were healthy. Healthy choice No. 1 was to get out of the band. I just had to get the fuck away.

 

That makes sense.
The central thing always is the music. I’ve been the central driver [of Smashing Pumpkins]. That’s not to say I’ve been the only driver, but I’ve been the central driver. So all I can do is say, “Who wants to be in this room with me playing this type of music?” All I can do is surround myself with people who are supporting where I am today. You can argue about the quality level being, “A versus B versus C,” but I haven’t fallen to an “F” or “G.” You can’t complain about my voice anymore than it’s already been complained about. You can’t complain about me being any weirder than has already been complained about. I’m obviously healthy and sober and clearminded. I talk about God. I’m not a fucking idiot.

 

Well, it sounds like you are in a good place.
Yeah. I mean, what I don’t understand, with the hardcore Smashing Pumpkins fans, I’m telling them, “Hey, I’m excited to be in the band. I want to make more Smashing Pumpkins music. I’m excited to play old Smashing Pumpkins music. I like the band I’m in.” So what’s the problem? I saved my money. I don’t have to do this, but I want to. I’m excited. Why can’t other people be excited?

 

It’s like, “Do you want to see a Smashing Pumpkins concert from 1996, or do you want to see the band as it is now?”
Yeah, right. There just seems to be a lot of trouble over the use of the name Smashing Pumpkins. But everywhere I go, I’m expected to play Smashing Pumpkins music, even if I’m in a different band. I want to play Smashing Pumpkins music so I might as well call it Smashing Pumpkins. If I called it Jerry And The Jerktones….

 

That’s catchy. Maybe you should.
But then people would be showing up and expecting me to play Smashing Pumpkins music. So I don’t get it. If I’m excited, healthy and I want to be in the band, I don’t understand under any qualifications how that’s a negative. I can see how you say it’s not as positive as it could be. But it’s not a negative. That’s the thing I don’t understand. I’m not out there putting out terrible shows. I mean, I saw a review of a Courtney [Love] show… She did a show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., and people have been calling it literally the worst gig ever. That’s the headline. You have to read the reviews—they’re unbelievable. We’re not gonna be that flip-a-coin, trainwreck-type stuff. It’s gonna be a very credible representation of my music. Believe me, I have tremendous respect for the people who helped me get there, but at some point, I can’t sit around and wait for them to grow up.

 

What was it like to all of the sudden see yourself in the gossip publications during the whole Jessica Simpson episode?
It was totally surreal, because it didn’t have anything to do with me. It was like a cut-and-paste situation, you know? It was like watching a cartoon from afar. I was having a reality experience in my life, and what was being said publicly wasn’t even representative of the truth. People would be quoted saying certain things, and it definitely wasn’t coming from my world. [Simpson] exists in a level of celebrity that is mind-boggling. There are literally headlines when she talks about not brushing her teeth. I only connected with the human being.

 

Did you ever feel the need to correct what was out there and say, “This is what’s really going on?”
I did at times, but I really resisted the temptation. If I had been younger, I probably would have. In L.A., they chase you around with cameras and ask you these dumb questions, and it’s the perfect opportunity to end up on TMZ. At least I had enough experience in the ’90s with tabloids to know what that’s about. It’s got everything to do with selling magazines. The people are interchangeable. Now it’s Lady Gaga, where it used to be Madonna.

 

Speaking of women, I’ve always wanted to ask: What’s with the female bassists?
Right? You’ve got me. I even said during [the latest] round of auditions that I was fully prepared to take whoever is best—male or female. Nicole [Fiorentino] is the best person. I would have been fine with a man. No disrespect to women—I have great respect for women musicians. But that’s the way I am: if you think I’m gonna do something [like only have female bassists], I’m gonna do it worse. Once I got a bad reputation, I just get a worse reputation. But Nicole is just an excellent musician. It may not totally show in the old material, but in the new material, she makes tremendous contributions.

 

So how is the songwriting process with the new band?
It’s very similar to the original band, where I sort of bring in a song and a lyric and we work together to craft an interpretation of that. Then maybe I tweak the interpretation. I don’t say much in the beginning other than setting the landscape. I use phrases like, “I want it to have a spooky feeling.” Then I let everyone run with their ideas, and we sort of talk together about what is and isn’t working.

 

What’s the genesis of the EP name, Teargarden By Kaleidyscope?
There’s a place in Berlin called a Tiergarten, but it’s spelled different. I didn’t know that. Someone told me it means “deer garden.” But I liked the idea of a tear garden—a crying garden.

 

There are a lot of aquatic, oceanic and sailing references in the songs.
I know, right! What the fuck is that? It’s really weird, because it keeps coming up and I’m like, “What the fuck?” I was working on a song the other day and it was something about the ocean again, and I thought, “Goddamnit. Can I move on from the sailor analogy?”

 

In one those sailor songs, “Song For A Sailor,” you say, “This is a song for a son/This is a song for a sailor/The son I never had.” When you talk about a son, how literal are you being?
It’s a double mix between my father and his father; they never really claimed their children. So in that case, it’s the son never claimed. In my case, it’s literally the son I’ve never had. I’ve never had any kids. I think there’s some sort of mystical connection in my mind that my father’s father didn’t claim him and my father didn’t claim me. That has everything to do with why I don’t have children.

 

Do you want kids?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been wanting to have kids for 15 years. Please. It’s become a job application when I meet someone now. The first question—it’s so bad, I’ve become one of “those” people—is, like, “Do you see yourself having children anytime in the next two months?” I’m on the baby chase. I don’t know about bringing a kid into this world in this particular time. But outside of that, I’d like to have children.

 

I’m sure someone, somewhere along the way….
Ha, right? Someone will pop one out at some point. alt

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