E.E. Cummings said, "To destroy is always the first step in any creation." For Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, destruction and creation are a way of life. "A good artist is willing to die many times over," Corgan tells us over the phone. "What's funny is, I've died so many times."
The lead Pumpkin is talking to us from his home in the affluent Chicago suburb of Highland Park. He's wordy and well spoken; most notably, however, he is open — there's no topic we can't address, he's informed us. The only pauses during our conversation are the brief moments when he tosses toys to his cats.
Corgan has received some criticism since the 2000 breakup of the Smashing Pumpkins, particularly for his 2007 decision to resurrect the band in unrecognizable form. He is now the only remaining original member in the group. "Sometimes I'll interview with a journalist who's obviously not a fan, and they just look at me, like, 'Wow, you're still fucking here!'" Corgan says. "But if the music wasn't decent, I'd be a footnote at this point."
Since no subject is off limits, we dive straight into '90s Pumpkins territory, and explore Corgan's reasons for wanting to resurrect a band that had been so definitively laid to rest. As he speaks of his former bandmates, Corgan sounds as if he's recalling time with an ex-lover. His voice fills with yearning, affection — and scorn. "When I made the decision with (drummer) Jimmy (Chamberlin) to bring the band back, it wasn't too dissimilar from when you think, 'I'm going to get back together with somebody,'" he says. "But it wasn't that easy to return to a place where I even understood what it was about being in the Smashing Pumpkins that I liked."
In 2009, Chamberlin left the band. Determined to endure, Corgan formed yet another lineup to record this year's Oceania, including bassist Nicole Fiorentino, drummer Mike Byrne, and guitarist Jeff Schroeder. "The press has referred to them as 'rent-a-band,'" he says of his new crew, ruefully. "These are people with indie musical backgrounds. They're not L.A. giggers with full-sleeve tattoos."
Oceania is, simply put, an album of "isolation and love," Corgan says. And while it has been much better received than its predecessor, Zeitgeist, it still lacks the luster of those "Siamese Dream-sounding songs" Corgan claims he "isn't interested" in rewriting.
Instead, Corgan thinks the less he pressured himself to "do the ['90s] Pumpkins thing," the more vibrant the sound became. He also credits his new band for this positive direction. "When you actually like each other," he says, "it translates to the music. The difference with Oceania is, I've found harmony again." Harmonious the new outfit may be, Corgan admits the Pumpkins' original lineup carries an irreplaceable mystique. The obvious chemistry between the band members didn't necessarily help them function, though.
"There's no way to properly convey what it was like to be in that band," Corgan says. "And the fucked up stuff is 10 times more fucked up than what the world knows. I was in love with the Smashing Pumpkins," he says, sounding wistful. "I really believed in what we were doing. But I idealized the band — which overlooked their incredibly flawed human personas, and which now bites me in the ass, as they rear their heads for lawsuits." His tone turns from emotive longing to bitter resentment in just a few seconds. This seems to be a trend when he speaks of the old group.
As our conversation wraps up, Corgan becomes reflective. A guy known for his tough talk, the singer suddenly seems vulnerable, more human — quite the contrast from his pompous public persona. In past years, Corgan has been romantically linked to a string of women, including Courtney Love, photographer and director Yelena Yemchuk, Jessica Simpson, and, most recently, Aussie pop singer Jessica Origliasso. But the longest and most intense relationship of his life has been with music.
"It's been a long, weird journey," Corgan says. "If somebody would have told me 15 years ago that at 45 I'd be living in a big house with two dogs and two cats, with no wife and no girlfriend, I wouldn't have believed them. My life did not turn out the way I'd planned it. Not even close."
Despite the turbulence — the Pumpkins' grand demise, the band's rebirth as a wholly new entity, and all the drama in between — Corgan remains optimistic. "Being healthy, humbled by God, musically engaged, and surrounded by good people — those are the moments I'm okay with," he says. "Maybe this was the way it was meant to be all along."