Billy Corgan discusses new tour, R.E.M’s break up and the Smashing Pumpkins
Billy Corgan is one of the titans of the ‘90s alternative rock scene. He’s a polarizing figure in some circles, having issued a few controversial remarks in the past regarding his ex-band mates, with whom he no longer tours. But with a new set of musicians touring under the Smashing Pumpkins name, Corgan wants to bring the band into the present with his latest tour.
Does the music you write under the Smashing Pumpkins name differ from material you’ve written as Zwan or your self-titled work?
It’s weird because the whole idea with the Pumpkins originally that evolved in the early days was more that it was supposed to be kind of an experimental excitement kind of thing whereas away from the Pumpkins, I tend to write a little bit more traditional music. [It’s] probably a little more obvious in a way. For whatever reason, the Smashing Pumpkins, the idea of the band or the spirit of the band, has always pushed me to force myself out of my comfort zone. If it’s just me, Billy Corgan, I guess I want to try different things. There’s something about the way the band was formed as being in awe of rock and roll but also wanting to destroy rock and roll. That spirit still pervades everything that goes on with the Pumpkins. Somehow that only seems to exist under that banner. Once I get away from that, I don’t seem to have those agendas.
So then, how does one destroy rock and roll?
Maybe it’s different now, but let’s say 20 years ago there was sort of an unwritten rule that you don’t talk about how fake rock and roll really was. If you saw this interview with Iggy Pop and he was talking about these amazing books he was reading, people would scratch their heads and say, ‘I thought he was kind of stupid and rolled around in glass.’ They would be disappointed. So the Pumpkins came along and were willing to poke holes particularly in the indie alternative world, in the facetiousness of the whole thing, this idea that we were all living in vans down by the river. Kurt [Cobain] just rolled out of bed one day and wrote this song and fell back asleep next to his tent out in the woods. It was this kind of fantasy that musicians were a subterranean class, were able to create works of incredible beauty or something. So we were just like, oh f—k all that.
Do you think that exists now?
No, we’re so far away from that naivete. It’s been completely hijacked by the poseur class.
The poseur class?
Here’s how I define the poseur class. When I was 18 years-old and I first started hanging out at the alternative club in Chicago, which was called Medusa’s, which was 18 and older to get in. It was where I was first exposed to New Order and Bauhaus, stuff like this. I would stand on the street and I’d see these kids my age – the guy’s got the mohawk and a leather jacket. He’s got a bad attitude. And I’d be like “wow, that guy’s incredible.” He was way more into it than I was. Five days later I’d be walking down the street still dressed the same way and I’d see the same guy with his hair parted down the side wearing a sweater and I’d almost not even recognize him. I’d be like, “what are you doing?” “Uh, coming back from school.” So like, the whole idea like you get dressed up like it, you are it. Now it’s like if you dressed up like it, you are it. I remember standing at the bus stop with the Robert Smith haircut getting called homophobic slurs because I lived in an Italian and Polish neighborhood. Obviously my big black hair was threatening to them so everywhere I went, I was under threat of violence for having funny Robert Smith hair. That’s a different world to live in – you’re so committed to your lifestyle and your alternative ideas that you’re willing to get your ass kicked over it. It’s not so dangerous anymore.
So, there are no taboos anymore?
Well, I think it’s reasonable [to say] that it’s been fully explored. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. All art goes through that. I like to say that when Picasso was one of the progenitors of cubism, after about 23 years of it, everyone probably figured out all the different versions of it and it became kitsch art. And so in many ways, rock and roll has kind of become kitsch art. It’s not dangerous anymore, as much as it used to be. I personally was intimidated by Marilyn Manson, but the four thousand bands that came after him acting like him, I’m not so scared by.
But, where to go next? It’s kind of heart-breaking, looking at it that way.
Eh, I don’t think so. I think it’s just cartoon land. I think most of rock and roll will be cartoon. It’ll be dress up, play up, pretend, just like you see sometimes in rap. It’s like they’re talking about shooting people but they didn’t really shoot anyone. And yeah in rock and roll they’re going to be talking about rock and roll and how they shoot up and really all they shot up was [vitamin] B12. It’s going to be more of a fantasy, video game type version of rock and roll. Of course, there will always be real artists that sing real songs, but I think they’re going to have a hard time competing against the cartoon version of the same thing.
Where do you see innovation happening in music?
Honestly, I think in terms of predicting something, the future of rock and roll is probably in mixed media. Because it always starts in the basement with a 16 year-old. What can she do to actually change rock and roll? Maybe she figures out a very cheap, easy but creative way to combining moving image, a personal vision, and music. So imagine like, a 16 year-old girl puts out a 20 minute film that she did on her own of moving images, songs that she created and suddenly, a million teenage boys and girls connect to what she’s doing, not just because of the song, but also the way she’s cut the music and the sound effects, like a personal statement of her world but more three dimensional than say just music is. I think that’s the future of rock and roll. I don’t think it’s in the two-dimensional sonic realm anymore. I think it’s ultimately in combining visuals because obviously with HD, you see technology getting cheaper and cheaper. People can shoot really interesting things. There’s so much computer ability to manipulate images. So if a kid can make what used to be a $200,000 dollar video in a basement for 200 bucks, and really make a statement that will touch people, I think that will blow normal audio music out of the water.
So by extension are you saying that there’s no music that can be written that’s new?
I would say 99.9 percent of what can be done in rock and roll has been explored. I felt that way in the ‘90s. Not that you would dredge up a quote, but I was saying that stuff in the ‘90s. I just think it tapped itself out. I think that’s why you see less and less great songs. If we went back in a time machine, you and I would’ve been able to find ten songs that you could say would last, we’ll still be singing these in ten years. You’d have a hard time finding those ten songs now.
Well you brought it up, so give me those ten songs.
Well, you have incredible songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam or “Man in the Box” by Alice in Chains or “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden, any number of Hole songs or Nine Inch Nail songs. There was a lot of memorable work there. It’s easily recalled. [Today] you think of band, more like their sound or their style, but that one song doesn’t necessarily come to mind and I think that’s been sort of lost in the rush towards the cartoon world.
But it’s still all about the singles today.
Well, and I might be completely out of touch, but I just don’t see those cross-over moments like you used to, where suddenly somebody’s weird, strange take on music, even Bjork or Beck or something is suddenly in the mainstream. I don’t really see that anymore, do you? You might know better than I do, but I used to feel music more. You’d feel it. You’d walk passed somebody’s café and you’d hear it think, “what is that record?” I just think that everything’s really diffused and maybe there’s no point in trying to have that song anymore. It seems like there’s less moments and more of a loud din.
Also, touring under this name…
Yes, the behemouth, that’s what you’d say?
Yes! I’m sure in going into your back catalog as you kind of have to, are there any songs that you love playing again and are there songs you’d never play again?
Honestly, every time I tour, I look at the whole list and I go with what I feel. Songs we’re playing on this tour, some songs I haven’t played in like 15 years, 17 years.
Like what? Which songs?
Oh, I can’t give that away. But some songs you play and it’s ‘oh, it feels good to play this after 17 years.’ But nothing’s prohibitive. I love playing my songs. I’ve gotten a bad rap for being picky about what I’ll play and I’m not saying it’s not deserved but it’s weird because sometimes it’s not so much that I don’t want to play the song but it’s the audience’s expectations that effect what I want to play. I’ll give you a perfect example. We’ll play – and I’m only talking about the past. I don’t think this will have much relevance on the new tour because we’re playing a slightly different show – but you’ll play a new song that’s a pretty good song, a song you have confidence that it’s a pretty good song and the audience applauds and then you play a mediocre old song and the audience acts like it’s the greatest song they’ve ever heard. As an artist, you’re standing there saying, OK, that’s not real. That’s not a real reaction to what’s happening. That’s a memory-sensory reaction. And I understand that it’s about appreciating it. I do appreciate that. But at some point, you’re like, I can’t jive with this reality because if I follow this reality, this is a dead end. So, it’s about finding stuff that you can really feel strongly about, that you’ll actually to get the audience to feel what you’re playing in that moment.
So it’s about getting the order of things right?
No, it’s like, look, I don’t know how many songs that I’ve got that are like no-brainer songs that I should play. And no matter how badly I play them, the audience is going to be like ‘yeaaaah.’ My job is to put that song into a position that when I do play it, the person in the audience not only has the experience of ‘oh cool, he’s playing that song’ but they actually hear something different in the song or feel something different in the song because of the way it’s been portrayed or where it is in the set. That’s the difference between phoning it in and actually giving a fuck about how to make this work so that somebody walks out and goes, ‘you know what? There’s a lot of bands out there but there’s something more special about the Smashing Pumpkins for this set of reasons.’ That’s always what I’ve operated on and I’m disappointed by so many of my contemporaries just phoning it in. I couldn’t be more harsh on my generation at this point about just playing the old records and just picking up the cash. My point on that is beyond the business point. People deserve to have that experience in a way that will make them realize that something is still here. We’re not living in 1994. We’re in 2011 and this music is important because it still connects you to something today, not 15 years ago when you were in the back of the car with Sally. Nostalgia is the death of all art. I’ve read quotes like this and I wish I could quote one fancy-like but there’s quotes like, ‘sentimentalism is the death of art.’ Because it means that you’re not in the moment you’re in. Art, it must always be held into account – can it survive today? That’s why when you go to the Louvre, they don’t have every picture ever painted. It’s the ones that have made the cut, because somebody in 2011 can stand there and look at some 500 year old painting and actually feel something.
Well this reminds me about the news recently that R.E.M. has broken up. Some of us were saying cynically that they might’ve broken up only so that they can do a reunion tour in 5 years when everyone will get excited about them again.
Well, nothing against them, I think that is a completely reasonable way to look at it considering what the business has turned into. The only thing I’d say is that I know those people personally and I know that that would be the last thing that they would do. If that was their strategy, they would just go quiet for five years and then pick it back up with a really focused plan. That’s not in their DNA. They’ve never been that calculating. That’s why they’re one of the great bands, because that’s just not in their bones.
In that case, if you care to speculate, why would they break up now?
Well believe it or not, I actually have inside information but I can’t reveal it. That’s the good part about my job – I get all the inside dirt. But I can only speak from my own experience. It’s really difficult to maintain any relationship for a long time. We all know that. It doesn’t matter if you love the person to death. A band is ultimately an artificial construct. People grow up, people change. At some point, maybe you look at each other and you say, ‘this just doesn’t mean the same thing to us that it once did.’ That’s actually not a bad thing. That’s an honest thing. If those guys ever decide to get back together again, that’s great. I know those guys. It would because they give a f—k. Those are real musicians. I know them all personally enough to say that. I couldn’t say that about a lot of people.
Speaking of that, are you at all in touch with your old Smashing Pumpkins band mates James Iha, D’Arcy Wretsky and Jimmy Chamberlain?
No, no. That’s all so dark and ugly. I’m sort of at the point where I don’t want to go into specifics anymore.
Well, that’s the impression that I’ve gotten.
Yeah, I don’t feel like you’re digging. It’s just, they put me in a situation where, all things being equal and the history of the band, everything that we went through together, there should be something like, let’s call it a comfortable, open channel to do certain things together, even if it’s not music and they have made it completely impossible for me to do that. All I can do is shrug and move on. They’ve only hurt themselves in that. It’s hard to say this the right way and I hope it comes out the right way. There are a lot of fans who really care about them as people. And by kind of cutting me off, they’ve cut themselves off from their own experience of the Smashing Pumpkins fan base and that’s a shame because they deserve that. I feel bad for them on that because that’s part of their life and their history. My own personal opinion is that as people aside, they still deserve to have those relationships and they’ve made those relationships impossible.
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