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Explaining Billy Corgan: Two Decades After They First Conquered the Alt-Rock World, the Smashing Pumpkins Still Have Something to Prove 

Tuesday, Dec 2 2014
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On May 23, 2000, the Smashing Pumpkins' frontman Billy Corgan, he of shiny bald head and unmistakable wail — veering, as it does, from sing-song falsetto to painful-sounding growl within a single, lyrical line — announced in a live interview on L.A.'s KROQ-FM that the band would be breaking up at the end of its current tour. It was no secret that band members were not getting along. The next evening, they played before a sold-out crowd at the Berkeley Community Theater, an auditorium at Berkeley High. Corgan said very little between songs. People in the crowd were crying. On the first, sweet notes of the iconic guitar opening to "Today," the room felt like it might literally explode. I was 15 years old, and I was pretty sure we were witnessing one of the most monumental events in the history of popular music.

I relay this memory not simply to out myself as a one-time teenager who felt very deeply and dramatically about radio-friendly alt-rock, but to illustrate that there was a time when a lot of people truly believed that the Smashing Pumpkins were The Most Important Rock Band Ever. It's tough to imagine now, when the kings who ruled the '90s are predominantly relegated to either nostalgic package tours (Counting Crows, Third Eye Blind, Smashmouth) or Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction followed by an anti-climactic official breakup announcement, à la R.E.M.

Despite having never again achieved the level of commercial success he enjoyed in the '90s, Billy Corgan has not accepted either of these roads as options for the Smashing Pumpkins following the band's re-formation in 2007. He's dabbled in other things: He owns a tea shop in Chicago, has worked on musicals and still-in-production professional wrestling TV shows, wrote more than 70 acoustic songs inspired by Chicago history, formed and broke up the band Zwan, published poetry, and, to the amusement of many, recently appeared on the cover of PAWS magazine, holding cats to raise money for no-kill animal shelters. But the Pumpkins — no matter who else is in the lineup; at this point, he's the only consistent member — are his life's opus, and he's made it abundantly clear that it's far from done.

In 2009, he announced Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, a 44-track Smashing Pumpkins project based on Tarot. Monuments to an Elegy, out Dec. 9, is the second-to-last record in this cycle (a more experimental final album, Day for Night, will follow next year). An emotive, straightforwardly melodic record whose early singles rely heavily on swirling guitar and synth, Monuments displays Corgan as a songwriter's songwriter again, in which context it doesn't matter who's playing the instruments behind him (though Tommy Lee from Motley Crüe on drums never hurts anything). On "Fife + Drum," Corgan repeats "I will bang this drum to my dying day" with such a calm determination that you can't help but believe him. Whatever comes next, Billy Corgan will not be going quietly into that good night.

He will, however, play the Warfield Dec. 11. We caught up with him by phone in the days before he left for tour, as he was driving from his home in Highland Park to the studio for practice.

SF Weekly: So you're heading to practice — what is this time like before you leave on tour?

Billy Corgan: It's kind of a mad scramble. I've never played with Mark [Stoermer, from the Killers] and Brad [Wilk, from Rage Against the Machine] before, so I want to help make sure they're comfortable — they're both putting themselves out there, coming from really successful bands, and putting in a lot of work. Smashing Pumpkins are known as a great live band, so we can't just show up and ramble through; especially since a lot of the newer songs are kinda prog, there's just a lot to do. I've also been working on a mini-musical that will be out in December in a musical theater here [in Chicago]. My friend is the director and she asked me to get involved. I've seen some blogs talk about that with a smirk, but it's a really incredible world and I'm really happy to be doing it. I've also been working on my book, and songs for Day for Night. There's no shortage of things to do.

You've been the only consistent member of the Smashing Pumpkins for a while, and even now you're touring with a different band than the one that played on the record. Does not knowing who you'll be playing with influence how you write?

No, not really. At some point, I had to give up on the proprietary idea of band equals these people equals album equals tour, repeat. Jimmy [Chamberlin] left in '96, and when you remove someone from the group it changes the dynamic of the group, so essentially since '96 I've been dealing with the fact that I don't get to have this fixed cast to write and build for and coordinate with. I'm a writer who prefers to write for a purpose, or from a character, more, anyway ... but it has been a weird journey ever since losing that footing.

It comes to who you want to work with, especially for the Pumpkins as a live experience ... I can't go out under the name the Smashing Pumpkins and play whatever I want. As a business, you just can't afford 1,000 negative comments on social media about how you didn't play their favorite songs. For these shows we're playing a balance of songs, having a good time. In terms of the lineup, I just want people who play rock with real power.

It's interesting you mention social media — you recently wrote a long explanation on your blog of why you're leaving your wrestling project. You've also been pretty transparent in detailing the ups and downs of writing your last few records. Why do you share so much with your fans? Do you feel obligated?

No. Not that anybody noticed, but there were a few years where I really didn't say that much outside of promotional obligations. And then at some point I came back around to sharing just as a genuine "this who I want to be as an artist." I'm not a big fan of the classic line, you know, when people say, "Yeah, but Picasso was an asshole" — that need to conflagulate the artist's personal life and ethos with their output. Most artists I know are fairly conflicted personalities, and their art becomes a way they can express something closer to their own truth, especially if they can't do that in their life. Being a transparent artist is part of being an artist for me.

About The Author

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.

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