Do not refer to William Patrick Corgan as “Billy,” and definitely do not call him an underdog, despite decades of evidence to the contrary. “Is that a serious question?” Corgan says, when I ask if he feels like one, at the age of 50. Just recently, Corgan purchased the National Wrestling Alliance—a pro wrestling company described as the sport’s “oldest and deadest brand”—with the hopes of reviving its glory days, which took place before the Smashing Pumpkins had even recorded a note. One would think the NWA venture abides by Corgan’s operating principles, as the Smashing Pumpkins owe their prime to Corgan’s insatiable desire to prove something to enemies real or imagined.
While their 1991 debut Gish was still buzzing, the supernova success of Ten and Nevermind nearly drove him to suicide. Instead, he took a dictatorial approach on Siamese Dream, reportedly playing everything except for the drums and channeled his crippling depression and writer’s block into MTV mainstays like “Cherub Rock” and “Today.” The Pumpkins were loudly denounced as frauds and/or posers by Sonic Youth, Steve Albini, Courtney Love and Pavement, so you can imagine how much Corgan identified with indie rock in the 90s. And when all of the alt-rock elite were starting to get all conflicted about commercial success as if they were indie rock bands, he dropped the monumental double-CD Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
But either way, when Corgan asks if I’m being serious, it’s not the last time he chides me for thinking too deeply about his motivations. This Friday will see the release of his second solo album Ogilala, a collection of unusually spare guitar and piano ballads that still bear his unmistakable bray, not a millimeter lower in register despite 30 years of wear and tear. He considers it to be the easiest record he’s ever made, largely due to his willingness to go against character and cede near total leadership over the recording process to Rick Rubin, a rock god whisperer who has kind of a thing about convincing difficult, control freak artists to let loose. “Less thinking, more playing” was the mantra throughout the recording of Ogilala, which inevitably makes talking about it the hard part for Corgan, who has a fairly dim view of the media. “Suddenly [you’re] putting a lot of intellect on things that you gave no intellectual thought to while you were doing them,” he says. “You end up saying more than you say on the record.”
To keep things in wrestling terms, maybe he more relishes playing the heel. “A lot of times people aren’t sophisticated enough to separate what I’m doing to be a nuisance,” Corgan flatly states. “I mean, half of what I do is just to provoke. It’s because it amuses me.” In the interest of space, we will not detail all of the ways that Corgan has made anyone with a meaningful relationship with Smashing Pumpkins reconsider whether it’s OK, most predominantly a paranoid, conservative streak that has aligned him with Alex Jones. There are definitely grandiose, Trumpian tones in calling NWA a “great business opportunity” and being proud of the hometown Cubs evolving into “one of the premiere organizations in all of sports, not just baseball.”
Given the tragicomic history of the Cubs, which allows their fans to maintain a lifelong sense of grievance despite being wildly successful in recent years, of course Corgan is a natural Cubs fan. “People used to ask me [about the Cubs] in interviews, even when the Cubs were losing, and I’d say, ‘I’d just like a winning organization, please.’” But I’m still tempted to intellectualize the whole thing and ask Corgan whether getting exactly what he’s wanted has altered his perception of himself as a human being. A fitting response from alt-rock’s proudest heel:
How’s it going?
Living the dream, y’know. Living the dream every day.
It seems like everywhere I’ve ever worked, whether it was in an ice cream shop, an office, wherever, everyone always says “living the dream.” I’m wondering when that became the term of art.
For me, it beautifully sums up both the dream and the nightmare of it all.
Was watching the Cubs this weekend part of the dream or the nightmare?
Yeah, the second game [in which the Cubs surrendered five runs in the eighth inning to lose to the Nationals]. Oh my god, classic, right? They’re up, they got all the momentum, you’re thinking, “Fuck, they got this, they’re gonna crush this.” And then, “here we go.” Classic.
I mean, is it classic though? Even after they won a World Series?
I was in Cleveland for that game. They almost blew [Game 7] too, don’t forget. In the eighth inning, they gave up the home run, and here comes [Aroldis] Chapman and he looks like hasn’t slept in 40 days, and the velocity’s down, and there’s a rain delay. The Cubs have a particular stumbly, fumbly… I don’t like to put that on this team, because this team is actually the best Cubs team I’ve ever seen.
With the record coming out on Friday, how do you plan on celebrating? Is there a ritual?
I don’t know, I’ve never really celebrated. I guess I should. I’ve done listening parties and stuff like that. By the time it comes out I feel sort of disconnected from the process. There’s the period of recording and finishing the record, and then there’s the period of waiting, manufacturing and all that. And then there’s the period of press, so by the time it finally comes out, it’s almost more like a relief, like, “That’s the end of that, now I can go back to the creative part.” The songs become more like a living document.
Given the personalities here, were there ever times when you and Rick were at loggerheads as far as, “I want to put drums in here,” or, “I want to put another guitar on that,” the sort of things that most people associate with your music?
I’ve done a lot of work like this before, but I get it. I’m not arguing your question. No, I came in the door, and the first day, I said to Rick, “I’m going to be very clear with you, I’m not going to fight you. Whatever you want to do, you point the way and I’ll do my best to support what you’re thinking.” That was it. There was nothing. We just worked together.
Are you more or less nervous about this one might be received compared to other records you’ve made as Billy Corgan, or with Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan?
No, I mean the response has been very positive. It’s probably the most positive response I’ve gotten in twenty years on a record, so maybe that’s a false sense of accomplishment. There just seems to be more of a relaxed air around this record. So far I’m just following that lead, not trying to make more or less of it. In the UK, the response has been very positive, but it’s not like they’re playing my song every five minutes on the BBC. You have to have a level of perspective. It’s still an artistic record in a very, very commercial world. So your hope is, “Is the music strong enough and is the lead of the record strong enough that it’ll go where it needs to go and not get stuck by the normally artificial constructs of the music business, where ‘because it doesn’t do this, it won’t do that’?” Occasionally, records come along that seem to get through the cracks because they’re strong enough or interesting enough, or even sometimes, they’re just timely. They just feel right in a particular moment. “Oh, that’s the record of the summer.” It would be nice if it was the record of something.
Do you think there’s any possibility of this one being a “record of a moment”?
You’re asking the wrong person. I’ve been wrong about every record I’ve made since Mellon Collie. I mean, Adore was very artistic but had commercial potential. The record company abandoned it after six weeks. It got shitty reviews. It was treated like a fucking cancer on my musical life. Twenty years later, everywhere I go, people want to talk about that fucking record. I was “wrong” then, “right” now, but it didn’t suit me a lot of good to be right then.
How have you learned to deal with criticism not just of your records but, more recently, your other endeavors? Do you read the reviews?
No, I don’t read anything, but you pick up on the ether. At some point, circa when I started wearing the scarlet letter for my profession, it becomes dissociative. Like, let’s go in order of significance. Like, “Am I still a person?” Yes. “Have I shown the ability to produce high quality music that’s timely?” Yes, not always, but occasionally. “Do I do the things that irritate people, on purpose or not?” Yes. I’m aware of that, because that started long before I was in a band. But in terms of proportionality, the reason you’re wearing the scarlet letter is because you’re still valuable. If you weren’t valuable, there would be nothing to talk about.
What do you mean by “scarlet letter”?
You know, “there he is making a funny face at Disneyland.” All that stuff. I do a synthesizer show at my tea house, which is free by the way, for thirty people, and it gets these write-ups about how I’ve lost my mind. It’s all a bit silly, but you’re obviously valuable to a particular group for a particular set of reasons. Is it generational? Is it a need to have pariahs so they can lift their heroes higher? I mean, whatever. But the conversation exists because of the proportionality that I listed, which is: I’m a skilled person. If I wasn’t a skilled person, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about. I’m not sitting here, “nah nah nah,” like a little kid’s “nah nah nah” phase. It’s not like that. It obviously hasn’t changed my path. I mean, I’ve done stupid things in reaction to it. But that’s human. I reserve the right to be dumb.
Yeah, that’s an important part of being human, particularly these days when just about anything dumb that anyone does is public.
It’s like somebody coming up to you and saying, “Hey, if you stop scratching your chin, people wouldn’t think you’re dumb.” And you go to them, “Did it ever occur to you that I’m scratching my chin to make you think I’m dumb.” It doesn’t rise to the level of their intellect because it’s their world—and I’m using “they” in a very general sense of the word, it may include you. It’s so self-reflective that they think that you think self-reflectively. First of all, I grew up in a completely different generation than most of the people who write about me. Secondarily, I was a provocateur long before it became considered counterculture. I was doing that quite early on. Go watch the early MTV interviews for source. I’m poking fucking fingers in eyes in ’92, long before a platinum record.
You get kind of co-opted into somebody else’s generational mission statement. You didn’t even ask for it. But every time you show back up with something substantive, which is, “Hey, I’ve worked on this album,” you get kind of thrown in the mob, like, “Why should we care?” And your showing up is some sort of entrance fee to “why should we care,” as opposed to, “Okay, what has this person done qualitatively?” You become more of a cultural figure than a musical figure. But the people who have confidence in me have always said, “Hey man, just stay in your lane, because you’re going to figure it out, and when you do, it’ll be quite interesting the way it plays.” And so I’ve had to sort of trust whether the Rick Rubins in the world, or other powerful people in the music business who have belief in my talents, that they’ll just ignore all that shit. Just do your work. Your best revenge is just to do good work. Don’t get caught up in the politics and the bullshit.
And as I’ve grown up, it’s certainly taken me longer than it should have. I’ve gotten closer to figuring out how to be that person in public without it bending something within me that makes me want to lose my cool. So last statement on this: if the world wants to be mad, great. If they want to try to include some avatar version of me in their madness, have at it. Pick your cartoon caricature of a twisted human being who lives in a nice house with his son. I mean, go ahead. I don’t have a response for it. I could just give you the context, but as far as an actual response, there is no response. What do you say to idiocy? It’s pure idiocy.
Does your son interact with your music a lot?
What’s his favorite work of yours?
Well, he’s not yet two, so you’re asking questions he doesn’t know the answer to. He’s very critical of the piano songs. No, he’s cool. He listens to ABBA and he listens to me. If he wants to hear ABBA he asks for ABBA, and when he wants to listen to me, he says “more daddy,” which is cool. It comes from him, so I’m really touched because he wants to hear my music.
When you talk about being from a different generation, and just seeing the way that culture and the music industry is now, are there are contemporary artists that you admire?
I don’t listen to anybody. What’s sad about that is, going back to the prior question, at some point I had to disconnect from culture. Because if I can’t recognize myself in it, why would I look for something? If you’re an observer, and I’m an observer of culture for many, many years, and then suddenly you look and you see the way you’re portrayed is so not close to the reality that you’re in, how much enthusiasm are you going to have for what else is going on? It’s not fun anymore. It’s like a hall of mirrors, grotesque.
Can you pinpoint when you really felt that way, just completely disconnected?
Spin magazine, 1998. It started with Spin magazine, 1998. That’s kind of an inside joke, but it’s true, actually. I think at some point, you realize, “We hijacked your culture, and we made it our own for a brief period of time, and then the next generation hijacked it, and then the next generation hijacked it.” As they should. I’m a firm believer in “kill your idols.” Fine, hack away at an image. When it ceases to be fun, and you see it’s kind of like winners and losers, that’s “best crooked teeth lead singer of 1992.” There’s lists and it all gets so weird, whatever. It has nothing to do with why I’m around. So my response was just to completely cut myself off from culture and go into a more monastic state, which is like, “I’m going to make music on my own terms, and not really try to follow a bouncing ball, because I can’t.” I don’t see a logic here. I mean for a generation that goes on and on about bullying, there’s still a lot of bullying in the generation.
Why 1998 specifically?
It’s kind of a joke. I’ll be sort of indirect. When magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone started celebrating pop music as if it was commensurate to alternative or creatively born music, as if it was the same thing. That’s when it lost me.
That’s probably even more true now—it’s called “poptimism.”
Right. The business reasons probably had to do more with economics. “Hey, we put a pop kid on the cover and we’ll sell more magazines.” Great, that’s their business and they’re fine to do it. But when you saw the erosion between the artistic class and the pop class, and you’ve got pop people who sell out at every fucking conceivable level—they have car deals, they have perfume deals, they have every advantage in the world, and they’re treated as if they’re the same as some kid coming out of his basement. That to me is like, what happened to, the artistic critical class was supposed to be the dividing line? Most festivals are just pop festivals with some alternative music sprinkled in to give street cred.
It still sounds like you’re describing 2017 more than 1998.
To make it personal: I’m like a weird man. I’ve got a weird voice. Even if somebody wanted to scrub me up when I was 25, they weren’t going to. I’m a weirdo. I got crooked teeth, I don’t stand up straight, I play guitar funny. I like to write lyrics to songs about things that nobody fucking cares about. And I don’t even mean this confrontationally. I accepted that a long time ago. So when you’re sort of thrown in the world and expected to swim in the pop waters, it’s like, “Okay… that makes a lot of fucking sense.”
When you talk about things that nobody cares about, I think of how obtuse the album title and some of the song titles are here, particularly, “Shiloh” and “Antietam.” Are the Civil War themes a follow up to Thirty Days or are they just titles that speak to you?
You’re thinking way too much into something that I don’t think about at all.
That’s kind of my job, isn’t it?
Yeah, I mean god bless, but as much as I’m a crank in public as an artist, I’m all intuitive.
So they were just some cool-looking words that work as song titles?
You’re going to intellect that I don’t have. It’s magic. Why do you say “hocus pocus” and “googa mooga,” you know what I mean? They’re magic words. When I sing them they sound magical to me. Do they sound magical to somebody else? I don’t know. I’ve written songs that people really like, and they still love, and they get married to, and I’ve written other songs that I really like and nobody gives a shit. So the magic doesn’t always translate, which is the point. So I go where I think the magic is, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, like a bad Harry Potter.
The first song “Zowie” has been described as a David Bowie tribute. Is that an accurate thing or am I over intellectualizing that one too?
You’re in the neighborhood. I mean, I was working on the song, and I played some chord sequence in it, and I thought, “Oh, that’s something like David would do.” And then it was not too long after David passed, and I remember just thinking about David when I was writing the song, sort of meditating. We had the Bowie show in Chicago, with his costumes. It was in the air at the time. And so when the song was finished, I thought it would be kind of cool. It’s just Pumpkin logic, it’s like sort-of acknowledging it without being plain about it. Because I said one thing to somebody from Rolling Stone, it’s turned into, “You wrote this song for David Bowie.” I got asked that 50 times in Europe. I would love to write a song for David Bowie, I just haven’t.
This year, we’ve lost Tom Petty, Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell, guys who were sharing MTV airspace with The Smashing Pumpkins in their heyday. Has any of this made you think more about your own mortality?
Are you asking me the morbid question now?
I am asking you the morbid question, and also, if you’ve thought about what an obituary might say about you when all’s said and done.
I don’t give a shit. That’s like bar talk, you know what I mean? That’s bar talk that goes nowhere. I’ll give you the exact opposite answer of the question you’re asking. To me, life is about being in the present. That’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned, is just, be in the present. Be happy today. Enjoy your life today. Be thankful today. I wish during the best times of my life, personally and musically, I had been more grateful. I wish I had been kinder to the people around me. I wish I’d thanked the audiences more. I look back and I think, “How could you not appreciate all of the gifts and the magical things that have happened to you?” Because I wasn’t able to be in the present, I was always in the past or the future. I was always thinking, “I gotta get somewhere or I gotta get away from somewhere.” And I’ve reached a point now where I’m fine where I am, it’s totally cool. I’m proud of myself, I have no problem talking about my mistakes, it’s all good.
As far as not wanting to live in the past, how does that weigh on your mind when James Iha is involved with this record and there seems to be more talk than ever about a Smashing Pumpkins reunion?
It doesn’t. It’s like, the door is open, and hopefully there will be some energy by which we, in some combination, can coalesce. But I’ve learned not to repeat my mistakes, which is, “It has to be this way, in this time frame.” I’m applying no pressure. I’ve opened the door to it because of personal relationships and the peace that’s been demonstrated within, and hopefully there will be an opportunity there. If there is, great, if there isn’t, I’m happy to have the friendships. I don’t feel any burning need to prove a point.
But I will say to the world, be careful what you wish for, because if we do come back in any format, we’re going to punch people’s heads in. It won’t be the shy, retiree “roll around with our walkers” spree. We’ll go right back to being the band that we are—not even were, the band that we are. People, rightly so, will often attach a lot of the whole group’s polemic mission to me. Fine, I was out front, I was writing the songs. But trust me, the other three were just as big of bastards. We enjoy taking on the New York snobs. We love punching people right in the guts where the hypocrisy grows.