The Smashing Pumpkins and Billy Corgan: legacies, freakouts and new beginningsBy John Wenzel | October 16th, 2012 | 2 comments
The media have painted Billy Corgan broadly in recent years, depicting him as both violently unstable and hilariously egotistical — the archetype of a nut-job musician who has lost touch with his fans and reality.
And truly, the Smashing Pumpkins leader is not doing himself any favors when he takes out full-page ads in newspapers or starts seemingly petty feuds with fellow musicians. Remember when he lived with Courtney Love? That kind of thing.
Corgan can come off like a disconnected artist drowning in his creative whims, his persona falling somewhere between Brian Wilson and Howard Hughes.
But the public’s quest for oversized, fantastical, self-destructing personalities is usually a self-fulfilling one. And anyway, Corgan is well aware of the perception.
“I tend to look at (doing press) as just a funny game,” he said over the phone last week from his home in Chicago. “When I started playing it I didn’t realize how deep it would go and the negative effects it would have on my musical legacy.”
Still, as much as critics like to psychoanalyze the 45-year-old songwriter, Corgan has kept his seminal ’90s alt-rock act firmly in the public eye — and usually for the right reasons. Between surprisingly well-received tours, reissues of classic albums like “Siamese Dream” and the occasional bursts of new material, Corgan has proven his creative output is not so easy to dismiss.
We caught up with him in advance of Smashing Pumpkins’ Tuesday, Oct. 17 concert at the 1stBank Center.
You’ve talked before about wanting the set lists on this tour to feel narrative as opposed to the new album-plus-greatest hits package. Do you think that’s coming across?
It does come across, and it’s hard to explain. It seems to transition from a very personal narrative to almost… let’s call it a public narrative. We start with (2012 album) “Oceania,” which is obviously idiosyncratic and self-reflective, but by lining up the songs in the correct order they gain in gravity. There’s one pass in there where we play “Disarm,” “Tonight, Tonight” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” but the feel is this cathartic emotional transition. It has the way of feeling like you’re lining up sonnets in the right order. We had to play with it for awhile to make it work.
When we finished the songs from “Oceania” we thought, “OK, what’s the best ‘first’ song we could play after that?” And I thought “Tonight, Tonight” would be the best one to make a perfect transition, and we played it and it just didn’t work. So it ended up being “Space Oddity,” the Bowie song. It’s almost like you end “Oceania” then you kind of go out into deep space and “Disarm” kind of brings it back. It’s hard to explain emotionally, because you’re dealing with emotive language. But we come back from these shows just exhausted, even though they’re only two hours and 20 minutes and we’re used to playing for at least three hours.
How do fans seem to be responding to the new stuff in concert?
Really well. It’s obviously really risky to say, “OK, we’re going to play bigger places and we’re going to start with the new album and make this statement.” It all sounds good. It’s a good media byline, but the reality out there it’s really well received. People tend to like the music and are willing to take the journey with us. They like the production that goes with it and they of course like the songs we’ve chosen for the second half, which is probably a little bit easier swallow than the first. We want to play a balanced set, so if you’re going to give us the indulgence of the first hour we’ll give the fans what they want in the second set. So that’s been nice and it makes the show not seem like a Russian novel. It’s got an A and a B to it. A bit of punch feels good.
I’ll check stuff like Twitter and it’ll be 98 percent positive — and usually the negative is because we didn’t play some song, not because we played bad. We or I have been touring consistently in America now for about six years and I’ve really noticed in the past couple years the amount of time you can play before the audience starts to check out is really diminished. We used to play for three hours and that was too long. We’re down to about two hours and 15 minutes now, but if you’re watching carefully you can see when the audience starts to check out at about the hour and 40-minute mark.
Because certain people are just waiting for songs and not hearing them?
We’ve been jerking around trying to figure out where to play my song “Today” because it’s a little poppier and a little bit more on the optimistic side, and if we play it wrong it feels like a duck out of water. We’ve been thinking of playing it more at the end or not at all, because it just doesn’t fit. We want to play the songs that tell the story into a deeper thing. It’s just super powerful. In this package of songs and band members it just has this completely different power.
I know you’ve been saying in recent interviews, too, that the visual aspect of it is intended to really keep people engaged along with the music.
I went and saw “The Wall” that Roger Waters has been touring and that’s obviously fairly long, and there was break in the middle, but it’s interesting how he pairs the narrative with the visuals. I probably don’t have as much tolerance for a lot of songs if it’s not a production or the band isn’t great. I mean, I’d watch the Allman Brothers or what’s left of the Grateful Dead play for three hours.
Your current band must feel a lot of pressure, too, playing in the shadows of such iconic original members like James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlin and D’arcy.
They’re very smart, all three of (the new members) and they really consciously understood what the obstacles were by being in this band. When I offered them the opportunity they said, “This is what it is, and you’re either going to get swamped by it or you’re going to make it your own and transcend it.” And I think the expectations on them have brought out a certain resolve. They see themselves as part of a legacy that the original members were unable to continue. I’m pretty smart and all, but they bring something important to the (new) album, a grace and a dignity that you can’t manufacture.
Your 1995 album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” was recently certified diamond (selling 10 million copies) and is being reissued in December. Is it tough forging ahead with new material in the shadow of such gargantuan past successes?
I’ve been very public about not wanting to enter what I call this new sentimental culture, even if it’s good for business. And of course I’ve been poked at by people saying I don’t want to play old songs, which isn’t true. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done on every record and I have yet to repeat a record. So that being said, people appreciating and loving and celebrating the past is great. I don’t feel I’m in the shadow of it.
Certainly the expectations for new work are high when you’ve only released a couple proper new albums over the past decade.
But people see things through the sentimentality of their own past. I could take any critic in a room and sit with them and talk about my catalog and say, “That was a good one, that was a bad one.” So I’m very clear-eyed about my own work. I feel like the work in the last 10 years or so has just been overshadowed because it doesn’t fit into anyone’s conception of what it was supposed to be.
Do you have an example?
The failure of (2007’s) “Zeitgeist” to connect emotionally with people is what really hurts my soul and I kick myself that I didn’t do a better job of translating what I wanted to translate. And the irony is that it will ultimately sell more than “Oceania,” probably by a four or five to one (ratio). If “Oceania” had come out in 2007 it might have sold over a million copies just based on who was buying records and how they were buying records. But “Oceania” has changed all our energy around us and people are talking about the music again. Now kids come up to me all the time and talk about the new songs.
You’re pretty confessional in both your lyrics and your interviews. Do you ever regret it, since the candidness has at times hurt your image?
Believe it or not I don’t read a lot of press. I’ll read Q&As because I want to see if what I’m saying is translating the way I hope it to. I don’t read the personality pieces, the way they usually try to break down my psyche. I just think I’m too complex a creature for anybody to nail, so they tend to default to… let’s just say if “bald guy” is in the first sentence it’s going to be a bad article. And if they define me by saying “angry bald guy” or “enigmatic” — which is just code word for “doesn’t sell enough records” — well, I’ve learned to kind of avoid the opinions of the press as opposed to the critical press that actually gets inside the work. There’s a whole new generation of writers and interviewers that are more interested in Q&A, more interested in exploring themes at a deeper level, so that interests me.
So you never read your own press?
For “Oceania” I think I read one review. You learn after a while to feel it. I know what people are thinking just based on the questions they ask. I don’t want to say I’m bulletproof, because I’m not. But I’ve been hearing it for 15 years. And when someone is able to get some light inside the way I work, if they’re interested in the music and not my personal life, then I know they’re doing it for the right reasons. But now it’s so far gone or so deep that it’s almost like a strange Dostoyevsky novel. I’ve been so overly caricatured that you can’t do it anymore. I don’t think my fans are interested that I’m a pain in the ass.
And yet you know that’s what sells magazines.
One thing that has happened that’s worth nothing is we’ve seen the rise of a culture that makes its money off of celebrities falling down — or in my case, trees falling down. That is their business model so I’m saying I have to understand that they have to make their money. They’re not going to write about my album, but they’re going to write about how I fell over and chipped my tooth. If I could speak about existentially: managing your public profile is sort of like Psy-Ops. You’re both competing against each other. This guy in new Zealand that interviewed me, this guy was a huge fan but you’d never know it because he seemed like he was being way too pokey. And what he said in the piece was something along the lines of, “Billy doesn’t realize that I’m a huge obsessive fan and I’ve got everything you’ve put out, but I wanted to explore if the myth of the Crazy Billy was real.” And about three questions in I told him to fuck off and he was like, “Woah…” and he saw that side of me that was like, “I don’t give a fuck what you’re going to write.” And he was like, “Woah! I’m just asking a question!” And I was like, “I don’t give a fuck about your question, fuck you.”
So my point is, you can trip the wire on me and I’ll go right at your because I don’t care. It’s a tired story. I think a story that’s much more interesting is one of endurance or perseverance or will or re-figuring something out I needed to figure out. That’s much more interesting to me than, “He’s back again to haunt our dreams!” So I bring that up because people want to portray me as a lunatic and it’s not that bad for business, and crazy works. And this guy thought it was a cute little game. Usually if people want to talk about a bunch of stuff not-album-related I used to get really uptight. But what’s beautiful is that the credibility of “Oceania” has engaged this argument I’ve been making for five years now: artists are in a broken system. Stop asking them to dance on the graves of the industry. I think the deeper narrative that’s emerged out of “Oceania” is the fact that the Pumpkins still have a future, which I think is the greatest thing that’s happened and “Oceania” gets the credit for that.
John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and Features blogs editor for The Denver Post.