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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.

Also, this seems to be a time when people like what I do, and now the quirkiness is making a weird sense. There have been times when people really didn't like [my music], and then they don't like all these other things I'm doing, like the wrestling. People are always kind of moving the furniture around the room so that whatever I'm doing makes them feel comfortable.

You've been in the public eye for so long now. Have you developed some tactics for dealing with it?

What's interesting is I've spanned a really unique period of history here in terms of being a public artist — from the ubiquity of MTV, to the dawn of social media, to now what I'd call kind of a second internet age. I've lived through three distinct social eras with three completely different sets of rules and expectations. I mean in the '90s it was all about credibility in the "alternative" world, and now I don't even know what alternative means anymore. I flipped on the alternative station in Chicago the other day and it was 30 Seconds to Mars, Lorde ... not that I have anything against those artists, but that's not the world I grew up in.

Speaking of how the music business has changed since you started: Do you have a stance on the recent hot-button topic of streaming music services, the Taylor Swift vs. Spotify kind of thing?

Well, No. 1 — this is sort of the topic du jour, but I saw Billboard announced they're going to change the way they do the charts; they're going to count streams. We have a term in wrestling called a work, and that means when you con the audience. To me, what Billboard's doing is a work: It's a con to keep the pop stars of the moment up in the charts longer, and it's going to cut the ankles of artists like myself, who are really the meat and potatoes part of the business, who consistently have an audience, who draw sales, who aren't ephemeral. The music business keeps shooting itself in the foot over and over again by artificially propping up their quote-unquote best and brightest, because they don't really know what else to do, but these are pop stars who can't keep up.

I have young nieces who are huge fans of One Direction, and Five Seconds to whatever, and the fact that they even love music enough to listen to them over and over again is great — it's not like I'm sitting there rolling my eyes. They have good taste in what they like. But the pop stars at stake can't compare to the pop stars of yesteryear, the dynasties, and they're definitely not affecting pop culture the way everyone pretends they are. The record business keeps scrambling to find ways to create a moral equivalent, but it's a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

How has that affected your career?

Well, for one, quality takes time — we don't sit there with 10 producers running beats all day, and then we get to go out and promote a perfume. Even though I qualify in the [top] .01 percent of record sellers, I get treated like I live in the middle of the forest, because they can't build that glossy campaign around us. I'm friendly with Sean Parker, I've known him since Napster and I've got no bone to pick with those guys — they're brilliant and they're using music like everybody else does: to sell their shit. And musicians like Taylor Swift are starting to realize they're getting jacked. To me, Taylor Swift is underpaid. She's the key in that lock right now, so good for her for realizing these people were not giving her the value she deserves. Artists have yet to receive their vested power. And the music business keeps treating people like me who won't go away like they're expendable, but we're the backbone of the industry.

For me, at this point, I have to rebuild a commercial credibility in order to rebuild an artistic credibility that, really, has never gone away. People try to separate me from my past, but the Pumpkins generally speaking didn't get good reviews [in the '90s] — like two and a half stars in Rolling Stone for Mellon Collie. And then in the 2000s, they beat me over the head with my own work, as if an alien had replaced my body and the guy who made the work in 2007 was someone completely different. And you can go into that for a while; I think some of it is the generational need to kill off previous generations, but by surviving that and enduring and refusing to quit, it's become this begrudging thing, and now the kids are coming around, because the work is there. A lot of young bands are name-checking us and it's finally adding up. The way the brand, for however much I hate that word, has been undervalued ­— that's coming to the fore. The same way people are going, "Well, there just aren't that many Led Zeppelins," or "Hey, I'd rather listen to Nirvana and Michael Jackson." Because the quality is there.

People act like you're already dead. I'll have these conversations with people in high places, and they laugh and go "It's not personal"...they don't see it as an emotional argument. It's a numbers game when you have a brand, and I don't care if it's Led Zeppelin and there's a depth and a catalog and a history, the business is not built to take full advantage of what that means. That depth of heritage can help break new artists, but my phone isn't ringing off the hook with managers begging me to take their band on tour.

I had an executive at a former label say to me, "What are the chances you'll re-form the original Smashing Pumpkins for one gig?" And I said, "Zero, no chance, are you kidding me? If I haven't done it already, I'm not doing it for you. And he said, "Okay, well I asked Pink Floyd the same question." And I said "Two of the guys are dead." And he goes, "I still asked." They view us like we're cardboard cutouts. So they run sociopaths out there who are willing to be that thing, this object that the Bowies of the world used to make fun of, because what they get in return is their ship sinks anyway...We've got to get off the sociopathy. The sociopathic business just doesn't sell that much shit. Look at the numbers. And if they are selling stuff they're selling cellphones, they're selling laptops, they're indenturing those artists to a model that will pay them less ... and the mythos of rock stars and pop stars was that they were free. If I'm a sociopath, at least I'm my own sociopath.

How does this shape your plans for after the Teargarden cycle of records is over? You've hinted that will be a time to take a break or step back.

Well, seeing as the only regular members are me and Jeff [Schroeder], there's not much of a band to break up. I've said on the record that the Pumpkins are an entity until I'm dead. And maybe even after that, just to irk future hipster generations. My niece can sing for the band after I'm dead. No, what I'm looking at is a real hard assessment about art vs. commerce. The road that was presented to me, which as you can imagine I rejected wholesale, was "Your best work is behind you, you made your money, now shut your mouth." And I kept going. It cost me ungodly amounts of money to reinvigorate an artistic entity that I think is still viable. Like a lot of artists, the Pumpkins are grossly undervalued, and you have to deal with people's perceptions about whether that's rooted in reality. You have to negotiate with promoters and radio stations in a way that doesn't match up with artists of our stature or pedigree. They all treat me like this fallen angel.

So you go through all this shit, and I think we're at the last part of that process in terms of re-establishing what could be there, what should be there. I have really low expectations as far as commercial [success] goes, but I think all roads are open to us, and I don't look at my contemporaries and shake in my boots at the material I'm releasing. When I'm critical of other generations, people get frustrated, but I have a right to criticize my generation for dropping the ball. I'm basically that guy who won't leave the party.

What drives you to keep going? Or, as it were, to stay?

It's something akin to the same righteous indignation I felt when I was 18 years old — the feeling of being undervalued. Probably something to do with being undervalued by family, by my father, who was a talented musician. Some of the last vestiges of "I'll prove it to you." I'm naturally lazy, so I actually think I need that extra bit of vinegar. But I'll let that run it's course, do this one other album next year, then step back and go "Where is this?" I've thought about doing something like picking one city to play a bunch of shows in once a year, doing unique sets, things I think fans would enjoy — basically taking the band away from that hamster wheel of this business that constantly tells me I don't equal X and I don't equal Y.

There's a level of surprise going on because for a lot of station programmers, they thought they knew what the Pumpkins were and now they don't know where it all lands; there's a bit of reserve, a psychological scramble. It's almost like you were a bench player and now you're a starter and people can't get over it. Some writer who had made a lot of fun of me recently wrote something like "this reminds us that he was once an architect of the '90s." Which, it's really strange that that title apparently had been lost.

It strikes me that people who grew up with your music really project a lot onto you.

Oh, but I asked for that. I set that up, the way a performance artist would, to raise bigger cultural arguments, I think. In the song "Cherub Rock," when I wrote, "Hipsters unite, come alive for the big fight to rock for you," I was sticking my fucking foot right in it. It was '92, and we hadn't even gotten very far and I was going after the rise of hipster culture, which I just find sort of amusing at this point — the whole mustaches and banjos thing. To me, generally speaking, that consciousness — not the people, but the consciousness — is the scourge of the Western world. People are starving and dying from Ebola and people are worried about re-creating beer bong competitions. People who are middle-class, and usually white, really celebrate our culture in this detached way ... and I think people like me fit into some uncomfortable spaces for them. But anyway, I wanted that argument; I'm responsible for that.  

Where are you on your memoir?

I started about four years ago, and I think it took me three years just to find my voice. I call it a spiritual memoir, and that will confuse people, but it's just my life through the prism of a journey: How did this person get from no aesthetics and no money to, you know, driving the Ferrari with the poodle. I honestly can say I've never read a book where a celebrity goes to this level of depth and detail to tell us about the person we want to know about. It's not just celebrating myself or my career. I'm hoping to finish the writing in the next six months.

How did you hook up with Tommy Lee for this record?

Writing this one song, we realized it had a particular strut to it, and we were going, "We should get someone who plays like Tommy." And Jeff said, "Why don't we ask the real Tommy?" At first it was a kinda funny idea, and then it became, wow, this would be the most sublime thing we ever do. So we called him up, played him the song, there's some pop stuff and electronic stuff, and he said, "I think this is a killer record, I hear it." So we worked together for about three weeks. He's such a life-affirming type person — he's just innocent in many ways, a wide-eyed soul who loves life and doesn't hold back.

You recently got pretty pissed at Anderson Cooper for making fun of your charity work for PAWS. Were you surprised by people's reactions to that magazine cover?

I think it said everything about the fact that people don't read beyond headlines, this hipster-based thing of "look how far he's fallen, he's fallen to doing cat magazines." The fact that no one on his staff even bothered to Google it — because there's no way they would have ran that [segment] if they knew it was for charity. There's this implanted image in people's heads of who I am and who I was that has no relation to reality. It kind of comes in waves of irony: Those people don't care about me, they don't care about my cats, they don't care about the time I took to do the charity, they don't care about the time Jeff and I raised $120,000 [for charity] by doing shows in people's houses, or how beautiful that was to them, how many cats and dogs were helped.

I think it says more about their lack of depth than my insanity. That my cultural contribution is the source by which they measure their place in the world, because they have no accomplishments. You are literally the piñata of the day, which is why the Anderson Coopers don't stand for anything -- they're nothing more than ambulance chasers. And the great irony that in a four-day cycle, he interviewed the Foo Fighters, then tore into me for being on the cover of a cat magazine. Foo Fighters, value; Billy, piñata. But the more people who treat me like piñata, the more strength I have. My credibility becomes almost unassailable. Because I've made mistakes, and I admit them, you cannot fuck with me on my record. Or on my records. How do you explain someone like me? Your math formulas just don't work.

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Emma Silvers

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