Zwan: The End is the Beginning
Smashing Pumpkins were one of the biggest modern-rock bands of the '90s, but leader Billy Corgan never seemed too happy, constantly battling the media, grunge fans, even his own bandmates. Now, at 36, he's got an amazing new band, Zwan, and a bright new outlook on life. The most revealing Corgan interview ever
By: JT LeRoySmashing Pumpkins were one of the biggest modern-rock bands ofthe ’90s, but leader Billy Corgan never seemed too happy,constantly battling the media, grunge fans, even his own bandmates.Now, at 36, he’s got an amazing new band, Zwan, and a bright newoutlook on life. The most revealing Corgan interview ever
We’re riding in a snub-nosed, short, black van with tinted windows, which looks something like a special-ed bus for wayward funeral directors. There was a show earlier this evening, or, technically, yesterday. It was the kind of performance that disproves the theory that all a rock star has to do is prop his ass onstage and strum a lute for an hour to earn a disproportionate helping of glory. What fans witnessed at the cozy Los Angeles nightclub Spaceland was no different from watching an Olympian toss a discus 230 feet after years of training.
Let me introduce y’all to a little group called Zwan. What the hell is a Zwan? Well, here’s the CliffsNotes version, just enough to score you a solid B. Zwan: supergroup of the new millennium; two indie-rock heroes and a prog-metal diva merged with two of the founding dudes of ’90s modern rock. The latter would be Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin of Smashing Pumpkins, a Chicago band that sold 25 million records with no midriff-baring, choreographed, gangster-rapping young’uns prancing about. Corgan, 36, disbanded the Pumpkins in December 2000 after 12 and a half years. He swore he was going to rest on some laurels for a tad, but by April 2001, he was weaving the cord that would reel in Dave Pajo (of legendary post-rockers Slint and Tortoise), Matt Sweeney (cofounder of indie-rockers Chavez), and Paz Lenchantin (formerly of A Perfect Circle). Fans loved the more joyful, liberated sound.
Corgan and I first collided in cyberspace, on a Beyoncé Knowles chatboard. We exchanged heated emails arguing who was better suited to woo our lady of veneration. Eventually, we stopped thumping our chests long enough to admire one another’s peacock tail. We decided I would be the lone trusted chronicler of his tale, for Corgan felt burned by the press. Even when he first talked about his traumatic childhood, in the most vulnerable of terms, he was accused of exploiting his past to sell records. But me? I know the authenticity of my friend’s heart. Well, at least until Beyoncé comes trotting around. So here I am, in the inner sanctum of Zwan-dom.
It’s hard to stay awake in the gently jostling van. Guitarist Pajo pops a tape in the stereo, something, I presume, by a somber indie-rock band. At the first strains of what sounds like a gasp, I venture, “Uh, is this Tortoise?” Guitarist Sweeney lets out a feebly concealed chuckle from beneath his red trucker cap, which is pulled low to shield his eyes. “Oh, sorry, is it Chavez?” I reply, to cover my faux pas. He raises his cap and shoots me a look that questions my sanity. “No, that would be Slint,” Corgan says, like a teacher saving a student from utter disgrace.
The rumble from the speakers starts slowly at first, then picks up steam. “What is this?” I ask.
“JT, it’s anal breathing,” Pajo says between giggles. “It’s two of the guys from Slint. They would get on their backs and lunge their buttocks up to take in air, then they’d sit forward really fast and blast it out. It sounds like Darth Vader.”
“Pajo, I think I recognize that one right there,” Sweeney says. “You must be a guest contributor.”
I feel I’m onto something that no reporter has touched before. It is the crux of Zwan, the Pumpkins–heck, even the space-time continuum. “I hear you fart,” I whisper conspiratorially to Pajo. “And I think that’s great, because I don’t understand that not-farting scene.” (Corgan once told me that, unlike most bands, the Pumpkins did not passeth the gas in front of one another.) “I think I have a brilliant theory on why Zwan are so joyous and wondrous,” I continue. “Part of it is the vicarious releasing of gas! Billy might not be at the point where he can free it himself, but eventually, he will be. Being around people who inspire him like this means he can release his talent through the gasses that swirl around him!”
Pajo turns to me with a look of pity and horror. Then he hears Corgan’s laughter. “Yeah, I think you’re right,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s a sure sign.”
Spin: So, when you played on Letterman last night, you weren’t introduced as Billy Corgan, former Smashing Pumpkin. It was just straight-up “Zwan.” You’ve made it clear that you don’t want Zwan to be the Billy Corgan Five.
Billy Corgan: When I’m ready to be just Billy Corgan, I’ll do it. This isn’t that time. To me, a group implies a group psyche, and a solo artist implies a solo psyche. With the Pumpkins, people always thought it was my solo psyche imposed upon a group, and that wasn’t the case. It was a group psyche. Sometimes the four of us would be sitting around ordering food and [former bassist] D’Arcy would be the person who would make it happen.
Yeah. Different people step up to the plate for different situations. I mean, I step up to the things I’m most interested in. With the Pumpkins, I was the map reader. And the reason I was the map reader is that I was rarely wrong in how to get where we were going. If I kept fucking up, somebody else would have said, “Give me the fucking map!” I earn the ability to be the map reader. If I always get us there, everyone goes, “Here, you do it.” And occasionally somebody says, “Oh, let me do it today. I’ll be the map reader.” Oh, cool, great! It’s not a follow-me-into-the-foxhole thing.
You’ve got a very forceful personality.
But I’m constantly struck by how different perspectives and different approaches are just as effective as mine. So I don’t consider my approach a sacrosanct thing. I consider my approach to be the most effective approach for me.
With Zwan, now you have people who are kind of weathered, forged in their own–
–their own path and way.
Is that a relief?
Well, we’re not dealing in the core idea of “why we play.” There are never discrepancies about why we do what we do. With Zwan, it’s a given that everybody decided on a musical path on their own. Everybody has their own foundation of music being the center of their life. So I never have to intellectually or spiritually appeal to them to make music a priority, because it already is.
Is that different from the Pumpkins?
Absolutely. Musicians arrive at the end of the road different ways. Some people practice, some people don’t. Some people just like being in the atmosphere of music. Some people see it as a life-or-death issue–a save-the-world kind of thing. What makes Zwan interesting is that there are so many options and choices because of the diversity and individual talents of the members. It’s just a different approach. It’s like those tribes that dance for four hours to hit the ecstasy point, where they completely lose it and fall on the ground and start shaking.
Well, you also had that with the Pumpkins, right?
No. It’s a different thing. The Pumpkins were very organized. There was a certain form to the ceremony. And it was within that form that we reached ecstasy, the point of losing it and letting it go. But it was all within this almost dogmatic, religious kind of architecture. We literally had rules. And we lived by those rules in the way we played, the way we approached everything. Zwan is different. It’s achieving the ecstasy point, but with no rules. That’s what makes it exhilarating, because the possibilities are endless. If you’re in a building, you’re limited by [the form of] the building. You can only do so many things. You can stand on top of the building. You can jump around inside of the building. With Zwan there’s no building.
So how does that balance out with your personality?
What personality? [laughs]
There’s a way you carry all of your experience that is going to give you a sort of dominance over the rest of the band. They’re going to naturally look to you.
Of course, but that’s assuming that a child can’t teach a grandmother something. I learn a lot from seeing other people experience things. And I think that their confidence is bolstered by the fact that I’m telling them not to worry. So I think it feeds both ways. I mean, part of my joy is in watching somebody else enjoy something for the first time. Like, after we did Letterman, I said to Dave [Pajo], “Did you enjoy that?” and he was like, “Yeah, it was cool.” I’m glad it wasn’t a terrifying experience, because for me, the first time around, that kind of stuff was terrifying. I felt like they were going to come and take me away.
Well, there was certainly a different feeling in the air in the early ’90s. We felt like we were sneaking in the back door. It happened so quickly, and the music business was scrambling to try to catch up. I mean, was the business changing permanently, or was this just a trend? For a while we really had the keys to the shop, so there was this secret feeling behind the scenes that we were getting away with murder. It’s like those stories of people who accidentally get $17 million deposited in their bank account. They don’t know whether to spend it or turn themselves in. A mixture of “Lucky me!” and “Shit, what the fuck am I going to do with this?”
But you’ve got this real sense of self about you, the sense that you know how to handle whatever’s thrown at you. I think part of it is from your past.
It’s certainly related to the things I experienced as a young person, which were really damaging to my psyche and forced me to learn how to deal with extreme pressure in a sort of robotic way. Somehow I was able to not completely shut off. I think the way I’ve done that is by looking at each situation as an experience that I could have or not have. So I choose to have an experience, and I own it and say, “I want to be here; I’m thankful.” I was really grateful that they asked us to play on Letterman, where five years ago my attitude might have been, “Damn right we should be on!” Like, “We deserve this–fuck all those other people!”
It sounds like more of a gratitude shift.
But the gratitude is rooted in the idea that I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to do. Like, I finally got that through my head. It’s all temporal anyway; it’s like a very elaborate game. I don’t believe that much of what we’re doing right now is going to matter down the road. So some would say, “Why do it? What’s the point? Why win the race? Why try to be the world record holder in the 100 meters when ten years from now somebody who’s better trained or better psychologically prepared is just going to shatter your record? Why bother writing a book that 50 years from now might be in a dusty pile of dusty books?”
It’s the experience of believing that what you do matters, but also having the perspective that it only matters in what it means to you. Artists tend to externalize–“I’m glad I’m doing this music, because people enjoy listening to it. I’m glad I’m doing this, because somebody might be healed listening to it or it might make them think about something they haven’t thought about before.” But realistically it’s what you take from it [that matters].
What is failure? What is success? The American view of success relates to a material sense. They call people legends. We were lucky enough to meet James Brown, and to me, James Brown is a legend. He single-handedly completely changed the face of music. He changed the way black people view themselves in America. He empowered a lot of people. I mean, he really is a fucking mover and shaker. And, at 72 or whatever, he’s still up there getting it done. He’s the kind of person that an artist should long to be–he matters. So is James Brown’s music going to matter 100 years from now? Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t. I don’t think that’s really the relevance. I think it’s beautiful that he believed in what he was doing to take it all the way down the road.
To me, when I read the words to the song “Lyric,” everything you need to know about you is right there. You make yourself so vulnerable in your art. But I think there’s a way that you do completely block out everybody else.
I remember when I was younger, in my head would be running what I really wanted to say, but then I’d hear myself saying something else. If you look at the course of stuff I’ve said in public, the tone has become less incendiary and more about responsibility. It usually takes me five years before I can really get the gist of what I’m trying to say.
When I saw Gangs of New York, I dug how life was stripped down to pure survival. You can look around now and see who would’ve survived and thrived back at that time. You would have thrived. Like when you were backstage at a concert, and some idiot [the Used’s Bert McCracken] tried to trip you to fuck with you. Your reaction was instinctual–you kicked him. You didn’t aim to cause massive damage, but you didn’t allow this person to hurt you, either.
Right. That was a big topic of discussion today in therapy, actually. That I have a right to self-protect.
My reaction would be to attack myself. I’ll finish the job.
Nah, I want to get up and sniff the bull. I want to know why the bull wants to kill me. I want to know what the weakness is.
What do you mean?
When someone tries to hurt you, you know they’re trying to aim at some sort of weakness–generally. I want to know what weakness they see so I can fix it or shore it up. If I had this perfect castle and I found out that they were sneaking in through the sewer, I’d want to concrete up the sewer.
Don’t you ever just trip out on all the ways it could have gone? I mean, you had such a fucked-up past. You are, in a way, the classic abused child. We’re always rebuilding the fence to make sure nobody gets in.
Yeah, a lot of what went on in the early ’90s that forged what became the caricature of me had everything to do with the challenge of self-determination. A lot of writers thought they knew where we were coming from. First of all, none of them knew that the grunge thing was going to become as big as it did. Then, when it did, they all claimed a sort of authority over it. As long as you were from Seattle and going on about whatever and [were] photogenic, it satisfied both their fascination and their hard dicks. And if you didn’t fit into that category conveniently, they were going to try to force you in that box or they were going to try to cast you out of that box. Everything about us became about saying, “We’re not in anybody’s fucking box.” Unfortunately, that process bled us dry. By the time we made it to the top of the hill and stuck our flag in there, we were done. We were toast.
There’s a way the Pumpkins were really aggressive, and there’s a way that Zwan have a playful sweetness; it’s not a lack of sophistication but a sense of abandon.
That’s the goal. Not to stop doing things because somebody might say something. It’s like the old saying “Leap and the net will appear.” I hate it when I’m walking down the street and some asshole has an issue. It makes me question why I bother for about five minutes. But I don’t really think that’s what it’s about.
I think we want to go to our graves feeling that we just enjoyed ourselves. Like a butterfly–you’ve got that one day [to live], and you’re just fluttering around in the sun, and you’re getting the most out of it. My grandmother’s like 90 years old; she gets up every morning and walks her dog. She’s feisty as fuck, man. She’s happy to be alive. That’s not such a bad way to look at it. Why not apply that same sentiment to your work and not have [creating] be this cruel process of pretzel-twisting, you know? Not to drip some more blood out of your bones, but just to have it be a natural, organic part of yourself. And I think I’ve been lucky–I’ve endured horrible, horrible things and figured out a way to get back to feeling good. I mean, I’m not out of the woods, but–
–but you must be happy at the response you’re getting to Zwan.
Yeah, so maybe getting knocked around was worth it. Or maybe this is just a setup for more suffering. I’ll tell you one thing–I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts!