Billy Corgan | Anti-Hero

This interview has been published on Radio Metal the 12/12/2014.

I’ve hardly ever been as nervous as just before interviewing Billy Corgan. To many, more than a musician, Corgan is the embodiment of alt-rock, of an aesthetic, of a decade—some kind of hero. As he puts it, through the years, The Smashing Pumpkins became more than a rock band: an institution. Not that he’s making a fuss out of it: he’s lucid, high-spirited, and way more preoccupied with the future than the past.

On the occasion of the release of Monuments To An Elegy, the second album of the Teargarden By Kaleidyscope cycle, we talked about the present of The Smashing Pumpkins, its past, Corgan’s other endeavors, and the current state of rock music. Resting on the band’s laurels isn’t an option. Billy Corgan is too busy trying to prove that rock’n’roll isn’t dead, and that there are still boundaries to be pushed—that after all these years, he still would rather be an anti-hero than part of the status quo.

Your new album Monuments To An Elegy will form a pair with Day For Night, another one that should be released later on. How are the two albums connected and why not releasing them as a double album?

Here in America especially, getting anyone to focus on even one album is almost impossible, so I figured if I released a double album it would get lost very quickly in the media as it exists. So I thought about splitting the two albums apart. We wrote a bunch of songs and then we made two piles, first album and second album. We’re currently working on the second and of course, now that we’re putting out this first one, we’re already changing it. We’re still working on this second album, it’s not close to being finished yet. But it’s definitely related spiritually, and some of the songs are from the first batch.

Monuments To An Elegy and Day For Night are both part of the Teargarden By Kaleidyscope album cycle which was supposed to contain 44 songs. Did you have from the very start a big outline in mind for this project?

Yes. I was hoping, through the process of at the time releasing the music for free, to be able to engage a new audience for the band. I also wanted to reinvigorate the audience that was growing older and that was always complaining the music wasn’t what they remembered.

And artistically, what was your initial idea?

Really, my sense of who am I with the Smashing Pumpkins without the original band. Everywhere I go, people say—maybe not so much now, but before, people would say: “Why continue the band, why only you?” on and on and on. It’s a question I have to ask myself: why am I continuing? What is it that I’m searching for? Sometimes they say we all want to go back to our mother. For me, it is a like a journey to try and find the answer to that question: “Why do I still care?”

Day For Night is supposed to be the conclusion. Does this mean just the end of a chapter for the band, or could that be the end of the band too, as you have recently hinted?

No, that was one of those press things that’s very annoying… I never said it was going to be the end of the band [laughs]! They did a headline where they would make it sound like I was ready to end the band, but I’m not ready to end the band at all! I wouldn’t be doing all this work if I was ready to end the band. I think it’s more like the first part of your question: it should be the end of a chapter.

Do you have any idea yet of what will be next?

No. I think it has a lot to do with the public. If the public thinks of The Smashing Pumpkins as a band that makes contemporary music, we’ll continue making contemporary music, but if the public thinks the band is a thing of the past, we’ll have to look at making music in a different way, and probably in a less commercial one.

Nicole Fiorentino and Mike Byrne are not part of the band anymore. What happened?

We just disagreed on the amount of focus the band should have, not so much in terms of musical direction but in terms of the direction of the band on an emotional level. That’s how I would describe it.

Tommy Lee recorded the drums on Monuments To An Elegy. That’s a bit surprising at first as he’s mostly known for playing big glam rock music, which The Smashing Pumpkins has never been. And on top of that, people tend to say that bands like The Smashing Pumpkins kind of killed bands like Mötley Crüe in the 90s…

[Laughs]

How did you get in touch with him, and how did you get the idea to work with him in the first place?

I’ve known Tommy since 1982, so I just called him on the phone and said: “We were thinking that it would be good of you if you could play some of these songs”, and he said: “Can you play me the music?” Next thing I know I’m at Tommy’s house and I’m playing him the demos, and he says: “I wanna play all of these songs!” So it was very good, a very fun process, and he did a great job! He’s really easy to work with. Tommy’s a lot of fun, he’s a good person and he loves life. It’s easy to get enthusiastic about life and music when you’re around him.

He should be available after the Mötley Crüe farewell tour, so have you thought about pursuing your collaboration with him and having him on future tours with the Smashing Pumpkins?

I don’t know, that would probably be asking too much, but playing together and maybe making more music together would be great. I don’t have any problem with that and he seems to indicate he would like it too.

How would you compare yourself now to the young Billy Corgan from the old days? How did you evolve?

[Laughs] What a strange question! I don’t know… I don’t know who that person was, so I don’t know how to compare me and him. I think the question should be about the difference in the world, you know? The world has changed so much! When I started the band, there was no Internet, there was no social media, there were no people responding immediately to your new music. You used to put out a song or an album, then it would take time to build, and there would be kind of a wave. Now the wave is instantaneous, and if it’s a bad wave, you have no way to recover. It’s a very strange world. Maybe I’m the same person and it’s just the world that has changed so much…

Maybe a better way to put it would be: how would you compare The Smashing Pumpkins then and now?

Again, I think it has everything to do with the culture. I remember the first time when we went to Paris, in 1992 if I remember well. We were playing our first album, Gish, which was very heavy with riffs and solos. The French audience looked at us like we were from the outer space. They had no understanding of what we were doing. We had very bad press, and of all the countries in Europe we’d been to, the Paris audience would be one of the smallest. It took a long time for the Parisians and French to come around to what we were doing because what we were doing wasn’t this whole rock’n’roll thing, it was actually something quite different. You make music against a culture, or for a culture, and then the culture decides at the time or later whether or not it has any value. The Smashing Pumpkins of the 90s was like a hammer. It was a hammer against the very intellectual French, the very intellectual British, and the very intellectual people in New York who thought they knew what rock’n’roll was. We represented something different. Then we became very successful and of course, that’s a different story. Now, the world is very different, rock’n’roll is not in the same place in the musical culture, or even in the world culture I should say. Being a hammer in 2014 is almost a waste of time, because you’re a hammer against what? You’re a hammer against social media, you’re a hammer against yourself, you’re a hammer against your past, you’re a hammer against rock’n’roll? What is rock’n’roll anymore? When pop stars make albums with rock’n’roll music, it’s not counter culture, that’s for sure!

You were quoted saying that you should have quit the band when Jimmy Chamberlin left in 1996. What has kept you and still keeps you going, almost twenty years later? Do you think that The Smashing Pumpkins is in a better place or in a more favorable situation now?

I think that at some point a band stops being a band, and becomes an institution. I mean that both as a joke and in a literal sense. To me, there’s no band anymore. There’s a concept of a band, but there’s no real band. Right now the band is just Jeff [Schroeder] and I working in the studio with Howard [Willing], the producer. To me, it’s more the idea of what the revolution represents than the actual revolution. At one point, the band itself was a revolutionary thing. That day is over and now the band is just basically a very great musical outfit.

How much have you succeeded in making the current incarnation of the band and your most recent material accepted among the old classic material?

I don’t know how to answer that because that’s an impossible question to answer, really. Because I’m not trying to satisfy the fans, you know what I mean? I never did, I don’t think it’s something I could do, even if I tried!

You worked on many movies soundtracks (Spun, Lost Highway to name but a few). Is it different for you to write for a movie than for a record? What do you especially like about it?

The interesting thing about writing for a movie or, like I’m doing right now, writing a small musical, is that you’re writing more towards one particular idea while when you’re writing music for a band, you’re writing towards an audience that you don’t even know it is there. It’s almost like having a conversation in your mind with somebody that may be interested in what you have to say. It’s a very strange act to make music for strangers. In a theatrical context, there’s at least a physical media, dancing, and performing physical motions. In a movie, of course, there’s what’s on the screen, so at least you have a relationship there. Whereas being in a band and especially being the lead singer, it’s always about you, even if you don’t want it to be about you. You’re a character in that play.

You’ve been very outspoken about nowadays’ fashion where bands are relying mostly on their past and playing their classic albums in their entirety. Do you think that tells something about the creative ambitions of these artists, the relevancy of their music today, or about the state of music today?

Yes, very much so. I think it says that inwardly, there’s some sort of surrender: the audience no longer believes that the bands can generate something new and the bands no longer believe they can generate something new as well. That is vital. Everybody can make good music; these musicians should be able to make good music, that’s why they’re professionals. But to make vital music, to make music that changes the way people think about the world or themselves, it requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy. I think that now, what you have is a situation where both the audience and many of the bands have decided that the best day of rock’n’roll is over so that you might as well just finish out the cruise, sit on the boat and watch the river go by. I’m not that type of artist. I would rather die trying or fail and have no income from my concerts anymore as an artist than have to stand still with somebody hearing me play Siamese Dream in its entirety. I would like to see a day where I feel comfortable revisiting my past work, where I feel comfortable playing Siamese Dream in the right context under the right circumstances, but not because I have nothing better to do or because I don’t believe in the dream. For me, that’s the difference.

You’ve been working these past years on the reissues of your past catalogue and that sounds like a tremendous amount of work. I guess that can be nothing but a labor of love, but doesn’t it feel a bit vain in a world where physical music sales are just dropping lower and lower every day?

I look at it like a museum conservationist. I’m presenting complete version of the work for someone in the future to hear or listen to. Whether or not anybody listens to it now is not as important as the fact that it exists. It exists in physical and emotional media and it’s there, and that’s that. I don’t get too deep beyond the commercial part of it because you can drive yourself crazy thinking about that.

Has diving back into this music inspired you in any way for the music you’re doing now?

No [chuckles]… People ask me this question all the time and it always makes me laugh… No, not at all!

In the new material from The Smashing Pumpkins, there’s a very 70s vibe taking over on this typical 90s sound you’re known for: the spontaneity, the jams, covers of classics such as “Space Oddity” and “Immigrant Song”… Would you say that despite being one of the kings of the 90s, deep down, you’re actually a 70s kind of guy?

[Ponders] I don’t know. I don’t really think of it that way. I think the form of the bands in the 70s is still a reasonable form to play in against a lot of bands that really can’t play well at all. In that sense, if you have 90 minutes on a festival stage to play in front of a young audience, chances are they’re not going to ever see a band that can play like the Smashing Pumpkins, or they’d have to see other bands that can really play like Queens Of The Stone Age, for instance. Most of the bands they’re gonna see are playing to backing tracks, they don’t really play their instruments really well. They’re playing lots of disco beats and things like that which is fine, but they don’t really play music in an expressive or in an emotional way where every performance is different. It’s important that you can signify in public that what you do is different and that’s there’s a reason why you stand apart from other musicians.

At the beginning of the year, you did a performance which was an 8 hours long musical interpretation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Can you tell us more about it? How did it go, what inspired you to do this and why Siddhartha?

I’ve been intrigued for years with the idea of doing spontaneous musical performances. To me, the modular synthesizer is a very interesting form in which to work because when you’re putting the cables in and you’re creating the patches, you’re almost in a place of unknowing. Whether when I play the guitar, I have to know how to play the guitar, and if I play the piano, I have to know how to play the piano. With the synthesizer, I don’t always know what I’m doing, so I’m reacting almost like a child would: you twist a nub and something happens. For this performance, I figured it would last like 8 hours because I was making the music to an audiobook of Siddhartha and I was recording, because I still hope to release an album of the work. It became a very big controversy in America which was very strange to me; I didn’t expect it at all. One of the local papers here in Chicago wrote a very nasty article about me before the concert, saying how indulgent and how stupid it was and how the guy would rather be home watching the television reruns… I performed the concert in my tea house in Chicago which only holds about 40 people, and I did it for free, so it wasn’t even like I made anybody pay for a ticket! This controversy was very strange to me, but then I thought: “Well, I’m still able to do something that pushes some kind of [boundaries] somewhere.” In rock’n’roll culture, everyone acts like they’ve seen and done it all already, like there isn’t anything else anybody can do that’s new. Since then I’ve done other performances and people liked them. It’s like immersing yourself in a pool of music, you have an emotional response to it. And you can come and go, the door is open.

You’ve been working on a book lately, apparently called God Is Everywhere From Here To There. What motivated you to do some writing at this point?

I wanted to be a writer long before I wanted to be a musician, so this is a life-long ambition. I decided to start with my life story I suppose. Hopefully, once I finished that book I’ll write others, but I thought this is the best one to start with.

You have described it as a “spiritual memoir”. Can you tell us what you mean by that, and what kind of approach can we expect from that book?

I think the idea of a celebrity writing a book about being a celebrity is quite boring, so I write the book from the standpoint of a person who’s just been on a very strange journey. I also write from the point of view that memory is false. Although I’m telling stories that I remember or that I think I remember, I don’t pretend that it’s true, because there’s nothing true about memory. So this book is more like a fable.

In the title, are you referring to God in the true religious sense or more as some sort of metaphor for something else?

To me, there are two words that are synonymous to God: Love and Truth. So to me, God is Love and Truth, and you can take that however you want. I like to believe there’s an organizing principle in the universe that operates under those three ideas—God, Truth, and Love—and that’s the only moral clarity that I’ve ever been able to have in my life. If I turn to men or women for truth, I can’t find it [laughs]… I need to have a place where I can at least focus on the fact that there is an absolute moral clarity somewhere in the world, that there’s a moral justice, because I can’t find it here on Earth.

After the breakup of the Smashing Pumpkins in 2000, you released an album with a band called Zwan. Is there any chance to hear more about this band or is it completely out of the question?

It is completely out of the question, I don’t like the people from the band other than Jimmy Chamberlin, the drummer, who was also the Pumpkins’ drummer. Recently I did a solo acoustic concert in Chicago where I played some of the songs of Zwan and I think that’s where I would play that music, within the context of an acoustic concert.

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