This story was originally published in the June 1996 issue of SPIN. To mark the 20th anniversary of the Smashing Pumpkins’ third album — 1995’s double-disc opus Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness — we’ve republished this piece here.
For someone who has seen even his grandest rock dreams come true, Billy Corgan sure has chosen a brutally self-negating credo for his 1996 campaign. “ZERO,” in silver letters set on a long-sleeve black T-shirt, first popped up in the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” video, as Corgan, then hair-some, sneered “Despite all my rage / I am still just a rat in a cage,” a most excellent bumper sticker’s worth of spleen. In an alternative-rock landscape where diminished expectations are the norm, and “Loser” was proudly pimped on a series of Sub Pop Records T-shirts long before Beck got crazy with the Cheez Whiz, “Zero” was a logical next step in the selling of self-flagellation, and it suited the shlumpy singer, well, to a tee.
Corgan, though, had only just begun. Throughout the following months, the T-shirt could be seen peering out from magazine covers, from CD booklets, and from behind the mic nightly, on tour in support of the band’s sextuple-platinum magnum opus, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. You, too, could be a “Zero”: At the Pumpkins’ February show at the Kawasaki Sogo Arena, just outside of Tokyo, “Zero” shirts were selling for 3,500 yen (about $33) a pop. And if you couldn’t score tickets to the show, not to worry: A recent trip to my local Urban Outfitters clothier turned up a well-stocked rack of the silver and black. I couldn’t help but wonder about Corgan’s relentless, not to mention potentially unsanitary, fascination with the aphoristic garment. “How many of those ‘Zero’ T-shirts do you have, anyway?” I asked. “Well, more than one, obviously,” he answered. Relieved, but still curious, I pried further. “Is it, like, your blankey?” “No. No. No,” he countered. “It’s just, you know, the superhero needs a costume.”
Unfortunately for Corgan and his band, the Japanese have yet to warm to the notion of a 6’4″ hairless American superhero. The above-mentioned Kawasaki show was only half-full, and the 2,300 or so fans in attendance were no more than quietly respectful of the Pumpkins’ enormously loud and powerful rock show. They dutifully bounced to “Bullet” and to the current single “1979,” but whenever Corgan and guitarist James lha stretched out and conducted mini-symphonies on guitar that were reminiscent of Television’s cinemascopic classic “Marquee Moon,” the tragically hip Japanese kids looked forlorn, even impatient. This version of the Pumpkins’ live experience — two sets: one acoustic, one electric, in sync with the twin discs and moods of Mellon Collie — is taxing both on band and audience, and the crowd in Kawasaki seemed exhausted by the Pumpkins’ ambition. Corgan, Iha, bassist D’Arcy, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin doggedly plowed forward, even digging in their heels for a series of ear-splitting encores. But the musical language the Pumpkins have spoken since their formation in 1987 — crudely confessional, defiantly middle-American, staunchly rawk — held no truck with these premillennial youths. And in the end, our superhero stood defeated, though hardly deflated.
“You can only be this high-powered mojo rock band for so long,” Corgan says. “And then you just can’t look people in the eye. So we’ve projected our own demise.”
Holding court in a hotel bar two nights later with representatives from the Japanese branch of the band’s label, Virgin Records, Corgan was far from the egomaniacal tyrant he so often is portrayed as. Over Diet Cokes and piped-in jazz, he sympathized with Virgin’s task of trying to break the Smashing Pumpkins in the Far East. “We’re not getting any prettier,” he quipped. But Corgan’s acknowledgement of the Pumpkins’ struggle to win over the Japanese went beyond self-deprecating swipes at his ungainliness; unlike so many artists, Corgan was willing to admit that perhaps the kids were onto something. While the Pumpkins, more popular Stateside than ever before, ready their plans for a highly anticipated 100-plus-date arena tour of North America, set to run from June to December, this recent overseas swing has been fraught with a palpable amount of audience malaise, and that has fed right into Corgan’s rather remarkable public decree that the Smashing Pumpkins, as we know them, are o-vuh.
“You can only be this high-powered mojo rock band for so long,” Corgan had told me earlier, “and then you just can’t look people in the eye. So toward that end, we’ve projected our own demise. We’re thinking, three years from now, are we going to want to do the same thing? No way. We couldn’t do it with conviction, so why bother?”
It may sound like commercial suicide for Corgan to futz with such a well-oiled rock machine, but his instincts, however unfashionably brash, have generally proved unimpeachable. He has outlasted grunge, shrugged off punk, and if the future-leaning sampler-pop of “1979” is any indication, Corgan sits in the pole position for the alt-rock race to 2000. Extremely self-assured of his talent and vision, Corgan’s relentless drive and ruthless approach to record-making have often come under attack from his more egalitarian peers most infamously, and for the ages, in the swipe Pavement took at the Pumpkins on “Range Life.” It was commonly reported that Corgan recorded nearly all the guitar and bass parts on the band’s 1993 breakthrough album, Siamese Dream, and while Mellon Collie is a more collaborative effort, all but two of the songs were written by Corgan (“Take Me Down” was written by Iha; “Farewell and Goodnight” by Corgan and Iha; both are tacked on as the final songs of their respective discs).
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Such blatant egoism, particularly in combination with mass success, has never sat well with “the coolies,” as Janet Billig calls them. Billig, who served as publicist for the band at Caroline Records and remains close friends with Corgan, knows all about “the coolies”; she used to manage Nirvana and the Breeders, and worked with Sonic Youth, among others — bands that typically resented Corgan’s gauche careerism. “All the alternative bands hated the Pumpkins,” she says. “Part of it was the feeling that they got every single break in the world: opening for Jane’s Addiction in Chicago as one of their first shows; after their first record release, the opening slot on the Chili Peppers/Pearl Jam tour; a Sub Pop single; the track on the Singles soundtrack. Anything they could close their eyes and think of wanting, they got.”
“But,” adds Billig, “a lot of the resentment came from the perception of how Billy treated his band members. And he was like, ‘F**k them, I don’t care. I’m going to sell more records than them.’ And he did.”
When I ask if he learned from the criticism, Billig laughs. “He was driven by it.”
While Corgan was busy garnering the enmity of the indie-rock community, bandmates Iha and D’Arcy busied themselves with outside projects. The pair teamed up, along with D’Arcy’s brother-in-law Jeremy Freeman, to form Scratchie Records, which to date has released singles from the Chainsaw Kittens, Ivy, and Ful Flej, among others. D’Arcy found time between world tours and band crises to marry Kerry Brown, a drummer with the band Catherine, and the two bought a farmhouse in Michigan City, Indiana, a couple of hours’ drive from the Pumpkins’ Chicago rehearsal space. And Iha dipped his sandaled toe into the fashion waters, turning up on designer Anna Sui’s runway last spring, while recently turning down an offer to appear in a CK One fragrance ad. “It’s a fun thing to do,” says Iha of his stint on the catwalk, “but you bring on the wrath of Rock. Music’s more important.”
The band seems to agree on this point. The front they seamlessly presented to me was one of shared purpose and downsized egos: For example, they insisted that they be interviewed en masse. But after sitting down with three quarters of the Smashing Pumpkins for a pair of conversations — Jimmy Chamberlin was laid up with the flu — I was most reminded of an Eastern European country trying out capitalism for the first time, and realizing it’s trickier than it looks. Both Iha and D’Arcy remained fairly quiet throughout, as much there to monitor Corgan as to contribute. Corgan, on the other hand, was annoyed that the interviews weren’t longer. “That’s all?” he wondered when I shut off my recorder, a hint of anger in his voice. (The only question Corgan refused to answer concerned the dissolution of his four-year-old marriage. “There is not and will not be any public record on my marriage,” he insisted. “That’s one thing I have to draw lines around.”) Despite Corgan’s genuine and heartfelt attempts to include his mates, he didn’t quite have the hang of it yet. It was as if, by acting like a democracy, the Smashing Pumpkins hoped to at last become one.
What’s your perception of the media’s perception of the Pumpkins?
Billy Corgan: Well, I’ll give you the short list. We’re too serious. We’re assholes. And we all hate each other.
Is any of that fair?
Corgan: Well, we have brought certain things on ourselves. I’ve certainly brought things upon us with my mouth. But I still wonder, what the f**k did we ever do wrong? All we’ve ever done is be a good band, make good albums; and be better to fans than most bands have ever dreamed of. We’re obviously communicating. People are buying the albums, and we’re selling tickets. If we’re not communicating to the music intelligentsia, then we just have to accept that, and go around it. Hey, being the Smashing Pumpkins is not so f**king bad. We make a lot of people happy.
How do you answer on the charge of being too serious?
Corgan: I remember reading reviews of Gish: “This band doesn’t have a sense of humor.” We didn’t realize that we were supposed to be funny, too. The whole point of the Smashing Pumpkins was always to blow everybody away, so it didn’t make sense to be funny at the same time. We were too busy trying to pummel your f**king head in. But we fed into the charge by being overanalytical about the way that we existed and operated. That’s stuff we never should have talked about. I never realized it would come back to haunt us. For, like, two years, every interview was, and still occasionally is, “Don’t you guys hate each other?”
Besides the band, what do the three of you share in common?
Corgan: I know it’s going to sound kind of coy, but what we really share in common is the band. Beyond that, we’re pretty different people. We weren’t a gang to start with, so at times it’s been hard trying to keep the band together. But as we’ve gotten older, it’s the diversity among us that’s made us more of a complete entity. We’re not like an untuned motor anymore.
“I told Eddie Van Halen that I like that his music has never been elitist,” says Corgan. “I remember Kim Gordon once said some horrible thing about having to play for the jock in Iowa. That jock needs someone like Kim Gordon.”
What have you learned to admire in, say, D’Arcy?
D’Arcy: Please don’t do this.
Corgan: Well, when I was 20 and met D’Arcy, my whole thing was music, music, music, 24-7. And I couldn’t understand why D’Arcy wasn’t music, music, music, 24-7. D’Arcy was like, “I have to have a f**king life. It can’t be that way.” And at the time I couldn’t respect that. But as I’ve matured, I really respect D’Arcy’s strength. She does exactly what she wants to do. D’Arcy showed me that you can have a life and play music. I use music as some kind of weird salvation to get away from my life. But eventually you have to live a f**king life, or you’re going to shoot yourself in the head.
D’Arcy: The opposite is true on my end. I take a look at Billy, see the way he is. and it causes me to meet him halfway and say, “Look at this person who works so hard.” Everyone always considered me to be a perfectionist, but I wasn’t even anything close to the way he is. We try and learn and better ourselves from each other, maybe even from the flawed parts of each other.
What were the three of you doing in 1979?
James Iha: I wasn’t doing much. I was in Elk Grove, Illinois, a boring, middle-class suburb of Chicago. I remember that me and my high school friends used to go to a friend’s house during lunchtime and watch MTV and make fun of, like, Prince and Bruce Springsteen videos, just like Beavis and Butthead. It wasn’t a bad existence. But, aesthetically speaking, it wasn’t the most exciting place to be.
D’Arcy: I was playing oboe and violin, and doing gymnastics, and my parents took us out of school for a month to travel around Mexico, Texas, and Arizona in one of those pull campers.
Your parents sound pretty bohemian.
D’Arcy: My dad is a very strange man. There’s nobody like him.
What does he do?
D’Arcy: Everything. He builds houses, he’s a contractor. He wishes he were a cowboy. He goes off and has adventures, looking for the Lost Dutchman Mine on horseback for months at a time. And he has his sailboat racing.
And your mom?
D’Arcy: My mom’s cool.
Iha: D’Arcy’s like her mother.
D’Arcy: My mom’s really cool. [Laughs.]
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Corgan: You know, my father’s biggest complaint recently is people keep telling him he looks like me.
D’Arcy: And that bothers him?
Corgan: Yeah, but what bothers him is the notion of him looking like me, instead of me looking like him.
Do you resemble your dad?
Iha: He does more now than he used to.
Corgan: Yeah, but a lot of that has to do with the whole jingly-jangly thing. Me and my father have the same slouch and walk. I’ve been to family gatherings, and after you eat dinner, and everyone goes into the living room, there will be eight people all sitting in the same Corgan way. [Laughs.] Anyway, back in 1979, I was bigger than most kids by a lot. When I was 12, I led my baseball team in home runs. The funny thing was, I dominated physically when I was 12, but by the time I was 14, I had been totally passed up. That’s when I turned to guitar.
How has being from the Midwest fit in with who you are and what kind of band you became?
Corgan: We didn’t grow up hanging out, being cool, going to concerts. When I met James he was 18 and I was 19, and our exposure to alternative music was the Smiths, the Cure, and some Bauhaus. We weren’t aware of some underground New York noise scene, or a punk-rock movement in L.A. We weren’t surrounded by a culture that supported experimentation. We were supported by a culture that was like, “I can’t come see you play because I’ve got to be at work in nine in the morning.” There’s not much of a lifestyle to live — it’s f**king cold there five months out of the year — so when we found one, which was the band, we poured ourselves into it. We attached an extremely heavy work ethic to success. If people liked us it was going to be because we had done everything we possibly could to be good. It’s been like that for five years. Hard work, hard work, hard work.
Iha: The big difference between the East Coast and the Middle West is that there’s definitely an East Coast scene. It’s more cliquey. There’s an aesthetic pride in playing a certain kind of sound.
Corgan: I recently interviewed Eddie Van Halen for Guitar World. And I told him that I liked the fact that his music has never been elitist. Even though they were f**king cool and looked good and everybody wanted to be them, there was still that element of, hey, everybody can join the party. He said he always felt that they never really discriminated in their minds. And I think we’re kind of like that. I remember Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] once said some horrible thing about having to play to the jock in Iowa, and I always think about that quote, because that jock in Iowa needs someone like Kim Gordon to say there’s a better world out there, that just because you’ve grown up with this mentality doesn’t mean you have to be this mentality. And that’s the difference. We’re saying we identify with you, but we got out. We’re not still sitting here drinking Buds with you in the f**king corner. We got out. And that’s always been what we’re about.
How has the musical climate changed over the past few years?
Corgan: In 1991, at least we were competing with the real deal. Now, we’re competing with Nirvana mimics. It’s a game you don’t even want to play. It’s not honorable. If rock’s going to evolve anymore — and I’m not so sure it’s going to — I think people will start to come at music with more of a sophistication. People are going to tire of the same s**t.
Audiences or musicians?
Corgan: Both. I think people are already tired of it, to be honest. We had a wonderful time with this kind of grunge awareness, where suddenly rock was cool again. People wanted to hear loud guitars. It was a great time, and I’m glad we were there. But the gimmick part of it has worn off.
Does that mean that you’re growing tired of playing the rawer, more Black Sabbath-like stuff?
Corgan: We still really enjoy playing rock. We love it, seriously, we f**king love it. And we think we’re damn good at it. But it’s ceased to have the connectedness with the audience that it had even two or three years ago.
What sense do you get from the audience?
Corgan: Been there, done that, seen it, heard it, pissed on it.
Iha: There are so many formulas for writing a typical heavy rock song, and we know how to make a certain brand of it. When we were jamming on a lot of the heavy songs for this record, we kept finding we had to do more and more different, crazy things just to make those songs work.
Corgan: And that’s why we publicly made the decision that Mellon Collie is the last Smashing Pumpkins record that will be that kind of rock thing. It’s not that you won’t hear it in the future in some guise, but we’re going to get off this train we’ve been on, which is to be this seek’n’destroy rock band.
How do you do that?
Corgan: We’re just gonna throw out the rule book and start over. People keep asking us, “What is it going to sound like?” We have no idea. I mean, “1979” is probably the only hint, something that combines technology, and a rock sensibility, and pop, and whatever, and hopefully clicks. Between “Bullet” and “1979” you have the bookends of the album. You’ve literally the end of the rock thing, and the beginning of the new thing.
Who came up with the concept for the “1979” video?
Corgan: That was all mine. The directors [Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farriss] took my original idea and then added some really good ideas to that. My original tone was a little more destructive, like what kids dream about doing.
Describe a scene that you would have included.
Corgan: Well, for example, my convenience store scene ended with the store totally destroyed, literally obliterated. I had the idea all along of James as the convenience clerk, and that he would catch some kid shoplifting. But instead of kids doing what you would expect, which would be to shrug and go, “Oh, I’ve been caught,” the kid shoves James over and he and his friends just destroy this 7-Eleven. And I thought kids would think, “Yeah, that’s totally what I want to do.”
Were you like that?
Corgan: I was never violent, but I’ve had that streak underneath me all along. People who have known me all my life, when first they saw us play, they were like, “Holy f**k,” because I’d turn into this beastie. They had never seen that side of me, but I knew it was there.
Why weren’t you violent, do you suppose?
D’Arcy: I’m the violent one.
Corgan: I’m a Pisces, and Pisces have this weird inability to be completely spontaneous. We’re too conscious of our actions. I’ve always been way too sensible for my own good.
When I was growing up, kids like those in the “1979” clip, with that kind of petty mean streak, acted out the destructive fantasies that all of us felt occasionally.
Corgan: Right. Who gets totally worshiped in high school? The stoners. On a surface level, the football players are the stars. But deep down it’s the full-on stoner guys that are the rock stars of high school.
But you weren’t the stoner, either.
Corgan: No, not at all. I was the closet everything. I was a jock but I wasn’t on the sports team. I played guitar but I didn’t hang out with the stoners. I just couldn’t hang in any way, and when you’re young and you can’t hang, you oppose. So I was anti-everything, f**k you all.
Corgan: “This friend of mine asked me, ‘Do you really mean it when you sing, “God is empty just like me”?’ And 363 days out of the year the answer is no. But those two days that I feel it, I feel it pretty intensely.”
What do you think is different about being a teenager now than when you were teenagers?
Corgan: Certainly the media saturation is way worse. Now you turn on the TV, and there’s fashion and culture and news aimed directly at 16-year-olds. It’s taken a little bit of the naivete out of growing up, so people are growing up faster without the skills to actually deal with the world. I’ve met kids who get laid at 10, 12. I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 18. Kids are acting grown-up, but they’re not grown-up inside.
D’Arcy: The grown-ups aren’t even grown up.
Corgan: So it’s making even more f**ked-up grown-ups. Look at the people of our generation — Jesus Christ! Look how many people are on drugs, or are crazy. It’s scary. This is not normal. It comes from the pretense of thinking you know what’s going on. TV makes you feel like you belong to a culture, or to a thing, but it’s not really there. It’s in your head.
Were you thinking about some of these ideas about youth when you wrote Mellon Collie?
Corgan: Absolutely. I think we have an interesting perspective, because we’re right on that generational lip. Not to draw some big huge line in the sand, but I remember before videos, and I remember after videos. James and I have talked about this. What did you do when you had an album when you were little? If there was no video, and you couldn’t see the band on TV, you sat and you just stared at that f**king album. Over and over.
Do you think that there are now too many choices for kids growing up?
Corgan: No, the choices have always been there. It’s the lack of mystery, the lack of discovery. And I really think it’s freaking people out. The weird nihilism that permeates Mellon Collie is extremely relevant to what’s going on right now. So many kids are intelligent and articulate, but they don’t know what to do with themselves. They’re not grounded. They don’t feel connected with their family. They don’t respect school. And this is why we have people paying way too much attention to rock bands. Because there’s that instant identity.
Do you have a feeling as to whether you need the fans more or they need you more?
Corgan: I’ve gone back and forth on that. I’ve certainly said things like “Why do I need 1,000 people validating my existence?” But I also think people need people like us…
D’Arcy: It doesn’t have to be us.
Corgan: That’s right. It’s not about us, the Smashing Pumpkins.
D’Arcy: They need someone.
Corgan: Look how quickly people moved on past Kurt. As important as Kurt was, people moved on. He still has a relevant place, but that need is so strong that they could only dwell on him for so long and they’re on to something else. It’s just human nature.
Do you worry about how you’ll react when those thousand people might not be there?
Corgan: Yeah, but it’s kind of a morbid thought. I’d rather think about people like Tom Waits and Neil Young, who are in this other stage of their careers and they’re doing it with such dignity that it makes them even cooler. Looking at that gives me humility when I go on stage. It makes me think “Well, I ought to really play a good f**king concert. I’m going to do my best to make this real.” At least when it’s gone I can look back and know that I took advantage of the situation, that this is not something you just f**king piss away. There’s a deeper meaning in all of this.
Does it seem genuine to you to be a political band?
Corgan: No. It’s just not right. We can look you in the eye and talk to you about life, heart, love, rock’n’roll, whatever, but we do not have the moral authority to tell people how to vote or what to do with their bodies. We are just a rock band. We attach ourselves to things that we consider nonpolitical, like AIDS-related charities or homelessness. Both James and I have disabled brothers, and we’ve done stuff for the disabled in our community.
How has having a disabled brother shaped you?
Iha: Well, talk about humility. I remember kids used to make fun of the handicapped bus. It still instantly puts a knot in my stomach ’cause it’s just so mean. How big of an ego trip can I go on when I’ve grown up around someone for whom ego trips are not even part of their consciousness?
On Mellon Collie, the lyrics tend to fall under two distinctly disparate categories: hopelessly nihilistic, or hopelessly romantic. Was that by design?
Corgan: I pushed both ends out as far as I could.
Are they exaggerated?
Corgan: Yeah, at some level. But it’s done on purpose.
For the point of…?
Corgan: For the point of making the point. Take the nihilism. As a 28-year-old who’s lived enough life to know the difference, I now know that the feelings I felt at 16 were not necessarily correct. But however overly dramatic, the desperation and hopelessness I felt at 16 was my reality. So now, if I’m going to go there, I’ve got to really go there.
As you’ve matured, has it become more difficult to write lyrics like “You’re all whores and I’m a fag / And I’ve got no mother and I’ve got no dad.”
Corgan: No, because those things are still a part of me. I just don’t feel them as intensely as I once did. This friend of mine asked me, “Do you really mean it when you sing ‘God is empty just like me’?” [from the song “Zero”] Now that’s a pretty over-the-top line. And 363 days out of the year, the answer is no. But those two days that I feel it, I feel it pretty intensely.
How do you guard against coming across like a victim?
Corgan: That’s pretty tough. You have to be able to say to yourself, “Am I saying these things to communicate with a higher purpose, or am I just saying them to be shocking?” I try to always keep it in the realm of having some other meaning that can be attached to it. People have tried to paint me as some kind of weird cathartic machine. But I’ve never done it just for me. I’ve always had a higher consciousness.
How would you sum up the band’s state of mind right now?
Corgan: We’ve come to the conclusion that we’re exactly where we want to be. If you’re going to put us on stage for 90 minutes or three hours, we are going to give you more than anybody else, and we are going to kick your ass harder than anybody else. You can laugh at us, you can poke fingers at us, but for what it is, we’re as good as it’s going to get.
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