In this week's music feature, we talked to Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan. He was wordy and well spoken; most notably, however, he was open -- there was no topic we couldn't broach. We talked about his bitter break-ups with former band members, what he's trying to accomplish with the new music and where he is personally. "It's been a long, weird journey," he says. "If somebody would have told me fifteen 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." But we couldn't fit nearly all the important points of our conversation in print -- here is the extended interview. The Smashing Pumpkins will play the Chaifetz Arena tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
Neph Basedow: How does it feel when you hear some fans and critics are still wanting you to write songs that sound just like Siamese Dream, so many years later?
Billy Corgan: At the risk of sounding arrogant for the 1,000th time in my life, I can write a Siamese Dream song if I want to - it's not like I've forgotten how to do it - I'm just not interested. It's like when someone says, "I really liked when you told that joke - can you tell it again, the same way?"
I saw (comic) Andrew Dice Clay do stand-up, and he was fantastic. At the end, though, he did his old nursery rhymes bit. To me, it was the least funny part of the night - and people were howling with laughter - but it's like, c'mon, it's not as funny as it was 25 years ago!
So do you ever go out of your way to write songs with the specific purpose of them not sounding like your old albums?
Yeah. I've done that, and it's a total mistake.
What's an example of something you've written like that - something that served as more of a "fuck you" to people?
Well, Machina. [Laughs] Because Machina was reactionary in two ways - it was reactionary against the band breaking up, because I was angry at them, and it was reactionary against the fan base that I thought was failing me, who had left in droves during Adore.
What about Oceania? Are there any classic Pumpkins traces in this album, or do you think it sounds totally fresh?
Oceania has a totally different vibe. It reminds me of what I used to like about the band - yet it's not the same. It's confusing, but it's a good confusing. What does "Oceania," as a term or theme, mean?
My being in a relationship with someone from that part of the world had something to do with the naming, but if I had any working idea, conceptually, for Oceania, it's this idea of isolationism and its different forms.
I think we're all going through some weird transformative thing, where we're living out one part of our id online, yet we're living out another part of our ego in life, and there's something really lonely about it all.
How did you approach Oceania's recording process with your new band?
I was really honest with them from the start, saying, "Here's the way it works, here's where you can fit it, here's where we're probably going to have a problem. I'm clear up front, but give them real opportunities to succeed. I mean, Oceania is the first album I've ever done where I don't play bass at all! [Laughs] It's one thing to say that, it's another to be in the studio, and tell [bassist] Nicole (Fiorentino), "This is your opportunity." Like, "This is not a kids' game. It's not 1989, and we didn't just roll out of the club. You've gotta deliver."
And, the band relationships have started to congeal over time, and we now have that unit consciousness.
It sounds almost like we're talking about finding love again after a messy divorce - your divorce, in this case, of course marks your separation from James, D'Arcy, and Jimmy. So it's more like three separate divorces, I suppose.
Yeah, three divorces and at three different times - and in some cases, re-marrying, then divorcing again!
But most divorcees don't wish to carry over their former surname when starting anew. Why recycle the name 'Smashing Pumpkins'? Did you ever entertain not carrying over the name, and just going solo again?
Yes, I thought about it. Honestly, the difficulty is, (the solo name) just doesn't translate to most foreign markets. In places like South America, they know "Smashing Pumpkins" - they don't know "Billy Corgan."
The great irony is, even if I give the band a different name, people still want to hear those (old Pumpkins) songs, so what the fuck does it matter what it's called? There's also something about the band name that just pushes the fucking button, and I like it. I like being under the name.
Are you happy?
[Pause] Personally or professionally?
Let's start with professionally.
Professionally, I'm content - but happy... that's a different thing. Are you ever satisfied, professionally?
No. Because I don't think I have it in me to think I've ever done enough to be satisfied - and that's my own personal issue.
How about personal happiness, then?
I actually have a pleasant personal life!
Do you see yourself doing something similar within music in five or ten years?
No. Without sounding overly prophetic, I just don't think the way we think of rock and roll is going to be around in ten years. I think pop is just going to obliterate everything. And I'm sorry, and a thousand men can throw their beards in the air, but most of what passes for "Alternative" music these days is pop.
It's sort of a Warhol-type idea, but when everyone is intent on doing the same thing, it's not dangerous anymore. So we have a lot of dangerous-looking people looking dangerous - but not really doing anything dangerous. It's sort of a "safe" time.
And where do you stand in this equation?
Someone like me - who has never looked less dangerous - is actually being incredibly dangerous, because I continue to be a battering ram against these (rock star) ideas.
I'm healthy - I haven't taken a drug or had a drink in over a decade. You're not supposed to be in a happy band; I am. You're not supposed to be running your own business transparently - I'm doing that. You're supposed to have some drug addiction issue or some horrible drama. It's none of that for me - it's just the music.
What do you foresee for the future of Rock, then?
I think we've tapped out. I mean, most of the Pitchfork bands are Pro Tools babies. They go into the basement and futz around with whatever they futz around with, like Garage Band. They fuck around until they think it sounds cool - and it does - but they're doing what a thousand other people are doing.
And then you've got this guy with his 1982 drum machine that he's painted pink, and he wears a rooster on his head, and Pitchfork is drooling all over themselves. It's conceptual crap, posing as qualitative expression.
What' next for you, once the Oceania tour ends?
I'm writing a book.
About your days in the Smashing Pumpkins?
Yep. It's certainly unlike any Rock book I've ever read. (Laughs) It's brazenly honest.
Let's put it this way - after the book comes out, I'll never get another date ever again!
So, "Billy Corgan: Songwriter, musician, wrestling promoter, book author." You're all over the place!
There's an old saying - "There's a method to my madness." I stick by that.
Riverfront Times works for you, and your support is essential.
Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of St. Louis and beyond.
Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.
Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep St. Louis' true free press free.