The Smashing Pumpkins: Billy Corgan doesn’t give up

“At some point a band stops being a band and becomes more like an institution”, says Billy Corgan in the following interview. And there’s no question of giving up on his own institution, The Smashing Pumpkins, detached from all the original musicians except himself, although he describes it as merely a “concept of a band”. Corgan is now the soul of this “concept”, and has perhaps always been.

On the occasion of the release of Monuments To An Elegy, the second-to-last album in a cycle called The Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, Corgan shares whith us his feelings regarding his band (one of the greatest symbols of 90s rock), their music and the current state of rock music. This is an artist who refuses to compromise his investment in The Smashing Pumpkins, or to bow down to those who claim that everything that could be done in rock has already been done. This is a man whose well-considered, lucid and honest words make for a fascinating read.

« What is rock’n’roll anymore? When pop stars make albums with rock’n’roll music, it’s not counter culture, that’s for sure! »

Radio Metal: Your new album Monuments To An Elegy will come as a pair with another one called Day For Night that’ll be out later. How do the two albums connect to one another and why not releasing them as a double album?

Billy Corgan: Here in America particularly, getting anyone to focus on even one album is almost impossible, so I figured if I released a double album it would get lost very quickly in the media as it exists, in the social media. So I thought to split the two albums apart. We wrote a bunch of songs and then we kinda made different piles, first album and second album. We’re currently working on the second album and of course now that we’re putting out this other one, we’re kind of changing it. So we’re still working on the album, it’s not close to be finished yet. But it’s definitely related spiritually, and some of the songs are from the first batch.

Monuments To An Elegy and Day For Night are both part of the Teargarden By Kaleidyscope album cycle which was supposed to contain 44 songs. Did you have from the very start a big outline in mind for this project?

Yes. I was hoping, through the process of at the time releasing the music for free, to be able to engage a new audience for the band and reinvigorate the audience that was growing older and that was always complaining the music wasn’t what they remembered. So the plan was, over the course of releasing the Teargarden project, I would be able to create both a new audience and excite the one that I had.

And artistically, what was your initial idea?

Really, my sense of who am I with the Smashing Pumpkins without the original band. Everywhere I go, people say – maybe not so much now, but before, people would say: “Why continue the band, why only you?” on and on and on. So for me it’s a question I have to ask myself: why am I continuing? What is it that I’m searching for? Sometimes they say we all want to go back to our mother or something. It was for me like the journey of “why do I still care?”

Day For Night is supposed to be the conclusion. So does this mean just the end of a chapter for the band or could that be the end of the band too, as you have recently hinted?

No, that was one of those press things that’s very annoying… I never said it was going to be the end of the band! [Laughs] They did a headline where they would make it sound like I was ready to end the band, but I’m not ready to end the band at all! I wouldn’t be doing all this work if I was ready to end the band! I think it’s more the first part of your question: it should be the end of a chapter.

And do you have any idea yet of what will be next?

No. I think it has a lot to do with the public. If the public thinks of the Smashing Pumpkins as a band that makes contemporary music, I think we’ll continue making contemporary music, and if the public thinks the band is a thing from the past, I think we’ll have to look at making music in a different way, and probably in a less commercial way.

Nicole Fiorentino and Mike Byrne are not part of the band anymore. What happened?

We just disagreed on the amount of focus the band should have, not so much in terms of musical direction but more about the direction of the band on a kind of emotional level. That’s how I would describe it.

Tommy Lee recorded the drums on Monuments To An Elegy. That’s a bit surprising at first as he’s mostly known for playing big glam rock music, which The Smashing Pumpkins has never been. And actually people tend to say that bands like the Smashing Pumpkins kind of killed bands like Mötley Crüe in the 90s…


So how did you got in touch with him and had the idea to work with him in the first place?

Well, I’ve known Tommy since 1982, I just called him on the phone and said: “We were thinking that it would be good of you if you could play some of these songs”, and he said: “Can you play me the music?” Next thing I know I’m at Tommy’s house and I’m playing him the demos, and he says: “I wanna play all of these songs!” So it was very good, a very fun process, and he did a great job! He’s really easy to work with. Tommy’s a lot of fun, it’s a good person and he loves life, it’s easy to get enthusiastic about life and music when you’re around him.

He should be free after the Mötley Crüe farewell tour, have you thought about pursuing your collaboration with him and having him on future tours with the Smashing Pumpkins?

I don’t know, that would probably be asking too much, but playing together and maybe making more music together would be great. I don’t have any problem with that and he seems to indicate he would like it too.

« I’m not trying to satisfy the fans, you know what I mean? I never did, I don’t think it’s something I could do, even if I tried! « 

On another topic, how would you compare yourself now to the young Billy Corgan from the old days, how did you evolve?

[Laughs] What a strange question! I don’t know… I don’t know who that person was, so I don’t know how to compare me and him. I don’t know! I think the question should be about the difference in the world, you know? The world has changed so much! When I started the band, there was no Internet, there was no social media, there was no people responding immediately to your new music, it used to be you put out a song or an album, it would take time to build and there would be kind of a wave. Now the wave is instantaneous, and if it’s a bad wave, you have no way to recover. It’s a very strange world. Maybe I’m the same person and it’s just the world that has changed so much…

Maybe a better way to put it would be: how would you compare the Smashing Pumpkins then and now?

Again, I think it has everything to do with the culture. I remember the first time when we went to Paris, I think in 1992. We were playing our first album, Gish, which was very heavy with riffs and solos. The French audience looked at us like we were from the outer space. They had no understanding of what we were doing. We had very bad press, of all the countries in Europe we’d been to, the Paris audience would be one of the smallest… It took a long time for the Parisians and French to come around to what we were doing, because what we were doing wasn’t this whole rock’n’roll thing, it was actually something quite different. So you make music against a culture, or for a culture, and then the culture decides at the time or later whether or not it has any value. So the Smashing Pumpkins of the 90s’ was like a hammer. It was a hammer against the very intellectual French and the very intellectual British and the very intellectual people in New York who thought they knew what rock’n’roll was. We represented something different. Then we became very successful and of course that’s a different story. Now, the world is very different, rock’n’roll is not in the same place in the musical culture, or even in the world culture I should say. So being a hammer in 2014 is almost a waste of time, because you’re a hammer against what? You’re a hammer against social media, you’re a hammer against yourself, you’re a hammer against your past, you’re a hammer against rock’n’roll, What is rock’n’roll anymore? When pop stars make albums with rock’n’roll music, it’s not counter culture, that’s for sure!

You were quoted saying that you should have quit the band when Jimmy Chamberlin left in 1996. So what has kept you and still keeps you going, almost twenty years later? Do you think that the Smashing Pumpkins is in a better place or in a more favorable situation now?

I think that at some point a band stops being a band and becomes more like an institution. I mean that both as a joke and in a literal sense. To me, there’s no band anymore… There’s a concept of a band but there’s no real band. Right now the band is just Jeff [Schroeder] and I working in the studio with Howard [Willing], the producer. So to me, it’s more the idea of what the revolution represents than the actual revolution. At one point, the band itself was a revolutionary thing. That day is over and now the band is just basically a very great musical outfit.

How much have you succeeded in making the current incarnation of the band and your most recent material accepted among the old classic material?

I don’t know how to answer that because that’s an impossible question to answer, really. Because I’m not trying to satisfy the fans, you know what I mean? I never did, I don’t think it’s something I could do, even if I tried!

You worked on many movies soundtracks (Spun, Lost Highway to name a few). Is it different for you to write for a movie than for a record? What do you especially like about that?

The interesting thing about writing for a movie or, like I’m doing right now, writing a small musical, is that you’re writing more towards one particular idea while when you’re writing music for a band, you’re writing towards an audience that you don’t even know it is there. It’s almost like you’re having a conversation in your mind with somebody that may be interested in what you have to say. It’s a very strange act to make music for strangers. At least in a theatrical context, there’s a physical media, dancing, and performing physical motions and in a movie of course there’s what’s on the screen, so at least you have a relationship there, whereas being in a band, being the lead singer it’s always about you, even if you don’t want it to be about you. You’re a character in that play.

« There’s some sort of surrender: the audience no longer believes that the bands can generate something new and the bands no longer believe they can generate something new. »

You’ve been very outspoken about nowadays’ fashion where bands are relying mostly on their past and playing their classic albums in their entirety. Do you think that tells something about the creative ambitions of these artists or the relevancy of their music today? Do you think that tells something also about the state of music today?

Yes, very much so, I think it says that inwardly, there’s some sort of surrender: the audience no longer believes that the bands can generate something new and the bands no longer believe they can generate something new. That is vital, you know. Everybody can make good music; they should be able to make good music, that’s why they’re professionals. But to make vital music, to make music that changes the way people think about the world or themselves, it requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy. And I think what you have is a situation where both the audience and many of the bands have decided that the best day of rock’n’roll is over and now it’s like… You might as well just finish out the cruise, sit on the boat and watch the river go by. I’m not that type of artist. I would rather die trying or fail and have no income from my concerts anymore as an artist than have to stand still with somebody hearing me play Siamese Dream in its entirety. I would like to see a day where I feel comfortable revisiting my past work. I would like to see a day where I feel comfortable playing Siamese Dream in the right context under the right circumstances, but not because I have nothing better to do or because I don’t believe in the dream. For me, that’s the difference.

You’ve been working these past years on the reissues of the past catalogue and that sounds like a tremendous amount of work, given quantity of material in these. That must be nothing but a labor of love. But doesn’t it feel a bit vain in a world where physical music sales are just going down and down?

I look at it more like a museum conservationist. I’m presenting a more complete version of the work for someone in the future to hear or listen to. Whether or not anybody listens to it now is not as important as the fact that it exists. It exists in physical and emotional media and it’s there, and that’s that. I don’t get too deep beyond the commercial part of it because you can drive yourself crazy thinking about that.

Has diving back into this music inspired you in any way with the music you’re doing now?

No… [Chuckles] People ask me this question all the time and it always makes me laugh… No, not at all!

When we hear nowadays The Smashing Pumpkins, there’s a very 70’s vibe taking over on the 90’s you’re originating from. You have this spontaneity, some jams, these covers of 70’s classics like “Space Oddity” and “Immigrant Song”. Would you say that you’re more of a 70’s type of guy despite being one of the kings of 90’s rock?

[Thinking] I don’t know. I don’t really think of it that way. I think the form of the bands in the 70s’ is still a reasonable form to play in against a lot of bands that really can’t play well at all. In that sense if you have 90 minutes on a festival stage to play in front of a young audience, chances are they’re not going to ever see a band that can play like the Smashing Pumpkins, or they’d have to see other bands that can really play like Queens Of The Stone Age… Most of the bands they’re gonna see are playing to backing tracks, they don’t really play their instruments really well. They’re playing lots of disco beats and things like that which is fine, but they don’t really play music in an expressive or in an emotional way where every performance is different. It’s important that you can signify in public that what you do is different and that’s there’s a reason why you stand apart from other musicians.

At the beginning of the year you did a performance which was an 8 hours long musical interpretation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Can you tell us more about it? How did it go, what inspired you to do this and why Siddhartha?

Yeah. I’ve been intrigued for years with the idea of doing spontaneous musical performances. To me the modular synthesizer is a very interesting form in which to work because when you’re putting the cables in and you’re creating the patches, you’re almost in a place of unknowing. Whether when I play with the guitar, I have to know how to play the guitar, and if I play the piano, I have to know how to play the piano. With the synthesizer, I don’t always know what I’m doing, so I’m reacting almost like a child would, you twist a nub and something happens. For this performance, I figured it would last like 8 hours because I had an audiobook recording: I was making the music to the audiobook and I was recording, because I still hope to release an album of the work. It became a very big controversy in America which was very strange to me; I didn’t expect it at all. One of the local papers here in Chicago wrote a very nasty article about me before the concert saying how indulgent and how stupid it was and how the guy would rather be home watching the television reruns… I performed the concert in my tea house in Chicago which only holds about 40 people, and I did it for free, so it wasn’t even like I made anybody pay for a ticket! So the controversy on this to me was very strange, but then I thought: “Well, I’m still able to do something that pushes some kind of [boundaries] somewhere because in rock’n’roll culture everyone acts like they’ve already seen everything and done everything like there isn’t anything else anybody can do that’s new.” Since then I’ve done other performances and people liked them. It’s like immersing yourself in a pool of music and you have an emotional response to it. And you can come and go, the door is open.

« I like to believe there’s an organizing principle in the universe that operates under those three ideas – God, Truth and Love – and that’s the only moral clarity that I’ve ever been able to have in my life. »

You’ve been writing a book lately, apparently called God Is Everywhere From Here To There. What motivated you to do some writing at this point?

I wanted to be a writer long before I wanted to be a musician, so this is a life-long ambition. I decided to start with my life story I suppose. Hopefully once I finished that book I’ll write others, but I thought this is the best one to start with.

You have described it as a “spiritual memoir”. Can you tell us what you mean by that description and what kind of approach can we expect from that book?

Sure! I think the idea of a celebrity writing a book about being a celebrity is quite boring, so I write the book from the standpoint of a person who’s just been on a very strange journey. I also write from the point of view that memory is false. Although I’m telling stories that I remember or I think I remember, I don’t pretend that it’s true, because there’s nothing true about memory. So my book is more like a fable.

Given the title of the book, are you referring to God in the true religious sense or more as some sort of metaphor for something else?

To me, there are two words that are synonymous to God: Love and Truth. So to me, God is Love and Truth, and you can take that however you want. I like to believe there’s an organizing principle in the universe that operates under those three ideas – God, Truth and Love – and that’s the only moral clarity that I’ve ever been able to have in my life. If I turn to men or women for truth, I can’t find it [laughs]… So I have to go somewhere where I can at least focus on the fact that there is an absolute moral clarity somewhere in the world, that there’s a moral justice in the world, because I can’t find it here on Earth.

After the break-up of the Smashing Pumpkins in 2000 you released an album with a band called Zwan. Is there any chance to hear more about this band or is it completely out of the question?

It is completely out of the question, I don’t like the people from the band other than Jimmy Chamberlin, the drummer, who was also the Pumpkins’ drummer. Recently I did a solo acoustic concert in Chicago and I played some of the songs of Zwan and I think that’s where I would play that music, within the context of an acoustic concert or something like that.

Interview conducted by phone 5th, november 2014 by Chloé Perrin.
Retranscription and traduction: Chloé Perrin.
Introduction: Spaceman.

The Smashing Pumpkins official website: www.smashingpumpkinsnexus.com.

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