Q&A: Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins
The alt-rock vet on his band's triumphant return, new album, and promising future.
Seven years after their implosion under the weight of ego clashes, drug abuse, and a lack of musical focus, the Smashing Pumpkins reformed with just two original members — guitarist-vocalist Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain — and were lambasted for cashing in on their legacy with the release of 2007’s actually-pretty-good Zeitgeist. Ironically, it’s only now that Chamberlain has exited the band (again), leaving 43-year-old Corgan as the original lineup’s sole survivor, that the Pumpkins are finding new recognition in the alternative landscape they helped shape.
After parting ways with their major label, Corgan’s band — guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino, and 20-year-old drum whiz Mike Byrne — have begun releasing their new 44-song album Teargarden By Kaleidyscope for free, one song at a time, on their website. So far five songs are available, and each chronological set of four are being released as a limited edition CD via Corgan’s own Martha Music label.
The Pumpkins’ “leaner, meaner” lineup also recently launched a world tour, culminating with a sold-out set at SPIN’s 25th-anniversary concert series in New York (read our review here). As the band prepared to head to Japan, we checked in with Corgan to discuss the Smashing Pumpkins’ resurrection, new album, and future plans.
I read that you recently fainted onstage in Tampa. Are you okay?
Oh yeah, I’m fine. Just a bit bruised up. It’s happened before, where I just… over sing. I just faint. If you see the video, I fall down and when I wake up five seconds later, I get up and finish the song. The last time it happened was in 2008. I’ve done like 1,700 shows, so it’s not a normal occurrence, that’s for sure.
After a period away from the limelight your music career is really revving up again.
I’ve been so busy lately. It’s unbelievable. The band has really taken off again. The positive reaction to what we’re doing right now musically, and the emotion coming off the stage, has lit a fire. I haven’t seen a reaction to the band like this probably since the mid-’90s. We just had this thing happen that was kind of funny: Los Angeles’ alternative radio station KROQ had a poll asking, “Who was the best band of the ’90s?” We crushed the competition. We received about 38 percent of the vote over U2, Nirvana, and a bunch of other bands. Even KROQ site said that they were surprised.
You’ve been releasing the 44 songs from Teargarden By Kaleidyscope one-by-one online. How long will it take to release the entire album?
Probably about four years. Things are taking off right now so much that we’re getting a lot of demand to go on tour, so I’ve got to figure out when I’m going to record. Right now I only have three more songs done and waiting to be released, and I have probably 60 songs written. I love [writing and recording song by song] because it’s that sense of being in the moment again. It reminds me of being young and playing a gig and trying out new material. There’s a sense that I can exist in the moment with the music.
The new material is more direct and less grandiose than previous Pumpkins albums.
True. But I’m headed back in that direction [laughs]. One thing I’ve learned to appreciate as I’ve gotten a little older is direct forms of communication. Back in the day I was determined to have the band sound larger than life, maybe to cover up for the fact that we weren’t larger than life. Now I’m happy to find clarity in what I’m doing. I’ve been listening a lot to mid-’70s rock, like UFO, Rainbow, and Queen, and from a production point of view, there’s actually not a lot going on. But you can hear everything, so when [Deep Purple guitarist] Ritchie Blackmore plays you really hear it.
Who’s producing Teargarden By Kaleidyscope?
Pretty much me. I work with some different people, but it’s pretty much my problem. I think the days of working with producers in the conventional sense are over for me. I’m lucky in that I’ve worked with some of the best producers in the history of rock: Flood, Alan Moulder, Butch Vig, Roy Thomas Baker. I’ve been a real student while sitting at the feet of those masters. There just comes a point where you graduate and want to do it your own way.
The Smashing Pumpkins and Hole both played Japan’s Summer Sonic festival. Did you say hello to Courtney?
No. I’m not interested in anything to do with Courtney anymore. I’ve completely broken my relationship with her. I’ve always considered her a great artist, but I want nothing to do with her.
What was the final straw?
You can Google all that [laughs]. I’m having a nice evening. You don’t want to ruin my evening by recounting the stones along the road.
Should I also not ask about Pavement [who dissed the Pumpkins in their song “Range Life”] then?
They’re just annoying. I think history has judged the bands appropriately: My band continues to be a source of excitement, and their band continues to be a source of record critics’ masturbatory diatribes.
Why did Jimmy Chamberlain leave the band last year?
I’ve never really discussed it much, and I’m really not that interested in discussing it. It’s one of those things that’s almost impossible to explain. You just reach a point sometimes with somebody where it just doesn’t work. I wasn’t going to go down with that ship. Luckily, I’m in a situation now where the people I’m playing with are fantastic. We’re so in tune with each other and the shows are going so well. It really feels like this is why I’m in the Smashing Pumpkins. The right people are in the band and playing with the right amount of passion. You have to play with a lot of heart. You have to be willing to deal with the ups and downs of the music, the ups and downs of the audience.
The Smashing Pumpkins have been inviting fans into soundchecks on this tour.
It’s a little experiment to try out new songs that haven’t been released or even recorded. The reaction is very good. In the past we’ve tried to play new songs in the set, but we found that audiences’ attention spans in the digital age are a little shorter. And on top of that, the internet really influences how people think about music. So you play a new song live and everybody goes, “Oh, I hate that song.” Then you record a new version of the song that obviously sounds better. But people have already decided they don’t like the song, even though they haven’t heard the recorded version. So, we let about 20 people in for each soundcheck, but nobody was allowed to record or use their phone or camera. Although I like it from a musical point of view, it’s really hard on my voice to do a small show for 30 minutes, get my voice all warmed up, then cool down and later on do a two-hour show.
In a recent interview, you said webcasting shows — like SPIN did for the 25th-anniversary gig — could help relieve the strain of touring and allow SP to reach more fans with fewer gigs.
As the world comes online, we have to start considering that there are lots of people who are not able to go to shows. The ticket prices keep going up and up and up. If my favorite band was coming through town when I was 22 years old, and they were charging $50 a ticket, I couldn’t have gone to that show, no matter how much I loved the band. I just didn’t have the money. So, I think that there’s got to be a way to give people all over the world access to what you’re doing. The difficulty, of course, is helping them find out that you’re doing it. There’s just so much information out there.
How would you adapt SP’s performances to suit the medium?
I would think of it from an artistic point of view and try to marry live performance with visual material. I would want an interpretive aspect to the music. Like a Pink Floyd thing. So, maybe when I play a solo the crowd doesn’t just hear me play the solo, but the music would morph into something artistic. There’s a way to reach people in different ways that are outside the traditional models.
Is that why you decided to break away from the major label system with your new album?
Yes, because major labels are not interested in my musical life. There was a time when major labels were interested in helping an artist reach a place of high creative output, because they could make a lot of money off it. You can look at a million artists — Bruce Springsteen to Madonna to Prince to U2. They took people on a journey, and people were invested in the journey. They wanted those albums because they wanted to know where that artist was taking them. If you make it about, “What can you give me today?” then, well, that’s not music. I call it McDonald’s music. It’s fast food music.
Will you ever return to a major label?
There could be a time when they adapt and find their values and morals again. It’s completely possible. Is it going to happen soon? No. Their heads are so far up their asses. They just keep doing the same things and acting like it’s getting better. But it’s not. It’s like holding a smile too long for a picture. Your teeth start to crack. They’re in the business of, “You’ll thank us for making you a rock star, because being a rock star is more important than making money and being artistically successful. So if we say you have to do a remix with Timbaland, you’d better do it or we’ll fucking drop you.” Because kids have all grown up on American Idol, they all think that being famous is the greatest thing in the world.
So do you have a Timbaland remix up your sleeve?
Oh, yeah. It’s coming out tomorrow.
But surely you don’t intend to release your music for free forever.
One song at a time really isn’t that big of a deal. Does it cost money? Yeah. But it’s not going to put me in the poor house. I’m enjoying it and that’s the best part. I just do what I want to do. I don’t ask permission. I don’t have somebody telling me, “Oh, we’ve got to wait four weeks to put out your record because we’ve got to put out Paula Abdul’s solo record,” which is what they told us in ’92. It’s such bullshit. And they say it with a straight face like they’re doing you a favor. I could write a funny book about my experiences in the major label system.
I’d like to read that!
Yeah, right? I’d get sued.