Interview: Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins
Reaching heights of artistic promise unheard in over a decade, Billy Corgan has returned with a revitalized Smashing Pumpkins to deliver Oceania, the ninth album under the Pumpkins moniker.
Through two decades' worth of weathering naysayers, band in-fighting, rotating characters and a musical era that fetishizes the disposable pan flash, Corgan has fought to maintain his artistic voice and vision among the high seas of rock culture. Oceania represents a full circle for the man and his band, and with a powerful new album and a series of retrospective reissues on the horizon (Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness and The Aeroplane Flies High are next), there was much to discuss when we spoke with Corgan last week in advance of Oceania's arrival.
There's a line in Oceania that I keep coming back to: "No one can love you cause no one can free you" What does it suggest? A person bound by themselves?
I have to think about that. It was a stream of consciousness kind of thing that I kept. I think the original line was 'no one can love you cause no one can touch you.' But then I started thinking well why can nobody touch you? It's because nobody can read you. So then I took it even further back to well, no one can love you – why? It's this idea that you're projecting on someone else, and that's their responsibility. You can put it anywhere. The audience won't let me play what I want. Well, why don't I just play what I want? Why am I even having this thought? Well, you have that thought because if you play what you want, the audience is probably going to throw eggs. Unless you're as talented as, say, Bob Dylan. So it's this idea of a constant projecting out, which you already have.
I read this beautiful essay once that David Mamet, the playwright, had written about playwrights and screenwriters. It was on how you have this incredible freedom, and yet you yearn to be a part of the system. And to be part of the system you give away your freedom, and then you work really hard within the system to win your freedom back. Why didn't you just embrace your freedom from the very beginning? And that really struck me. The central question being, what is freedom if you won't give it to yourself?
But freedom is a slippery slope… so subjectively interpretive.
Right, exactly. What does it cost if it's free? Like the punks down the street we all saw growing up… "anarchy"… Okay, well who's going to clean up the sewer pipes? Are we all going to shit in a field now, and you're gonna wear your leather jacket and say anarchy and listen to 7 Seconds. Somewhere between the intellectual idea of why we're attracted to certain things and the pragmatic reality is some form of ever-evolving truth. And I think that's what we all wrestle with. Sam Thompson (a beloved Resistance Pro employee who passed recently) knew roughly three months ago that he probably had terminal cancer. With every last ounce of energy he had, he kept working for the company. Just because he loved it and he loved everybody in it. He'd pick up people up from the airport, when he could be saying 'fuck this, I've got terminal cancer, I'm gonna sit on my front porch.' He didn't ask anybody for pity, and so when it came up that there were issues medically, everybody rallied around and did their best. I think that's the spirit of life that gets lost in the intellectual translation of who are you and why are you here? What are you doing?
I had such a big mouth for so long that it doesn't faze anybody anymore. But when I was a kid and I had a big mouth they'd say 'Who the fuck are you? Who the fuck are you to say that?' Well I'm me, that's who I am.
You don't think that also comes from age and experience?
Of course, but when you intersect with the mainstream world, the first thing they ask you to do is flaunt your credentials. Where did you come from? Who are you? What's your agenda? I want to be in the biggest band in the world. Well that's a bit ambitious, isn't it? Do you have the right to say that? You sure aren't handsome enough to say that. We're okay if Justin Bieber says it because he's actually that handsome. It's all about value systems, constantly.
It's an ever-fluctuating value system.
Right. If I'm on The View, I'm a whackjob. I'm a radical. Elizabeth whatserface is imploding because her blind Republican rallying can't handle a free thinker like me. It's either left or right. Obama or Romney. You can't contemplate anyone outside that paradigm, it's just too weird. But then I go on some of these weird radio shows, and they love it, because that's what they do over there.
That's within their reality spectrum.
Yeah, that's what I'm saying. I've floated between these two worlds, and never found a home in either of them. Indie world won't have me, and mainstream world treats me like an alien, but here I am still floating between these two worlds. (laughs)
I'm not sure I want to be a part of either of them, but hey. There's records to be sold, and mountains to conquer, and all that stuff.
How realistic is this "75 new songs" number going around about the Mellon Collie reissue?
Um… It's seventy-five, maybe even eighty at this point… alternate versions, rough mixes, demos… it's a pretty crazy pile. It'll be divided between Aeroplane and Mellon Collie. About five CDs of extra stuff.
Are people going to be able to dig through the Pastichio Medley slowly and piece some new things together that have come to light?
Interestingly enough I found this thing called "Pastichio snippet". The whole "Pastichio" track was edited on tape. I think we took all the extra bits and chopped up pieces and just strung them together in case we needed them. So that was transferred at some point, so it's sort of like leftover bits of the riffs… but some of them run backwards, because of the way they were assembled on tape. So it's a little bizarre minute and forty second blast of what would've ended up on the cutting room floor. So that'll be on there. And there are full versions of some of the "Pastichio" songs. "Zoom," and "Knuckles"… there's some cool stuff. It'll be interesting to see what people think when they hear the whole version. The whole three, four minute version.
At the time that was one of the most exciting things I'd ever heard on a record, because it was this blizzard of fragments that you could barely identify before being whisked off to another spot.
It's been fun going back through the stuff. And I give a lot of credit to Flood, because he made really good rough mixes, and so there's a lot of cool stuff. For example, after we would cut all the guitar overdubs for a song like Ruby, we'd have this DAT with a scratch vocal, where you can hear the guitar part's really super loud. So it's this really stark, guitar-driven version with an alternate vocal. But the mix is really good, because Flood did the mix. So if you're a fan of a song, maybe you can get a little different illumination of a lyric or a melody… it's the stuff in between the cracks, but I'm a bootleg guy, so I love that stuff.
As far as these Mellon Collie and Aeroplane Flies High reissues, fans are obviously out of their minds with excitement. But in terms of your own appreciation, have there been any tracks so far that leapt out at you as like… holy god why haven't I shared this with people?
I would say of all the songs, the one that's always been very quizzical to me is a song called "Methuselah". There's a bootleg out there of it, but a really really rough copy of. And in fact at one point I even asked the fan to make me a copy because I thought that I had lost my original demo of it. I thought the tape was lost forever. So we have a fresh transfer of that song and a mix of it. And everyone who hears the song goes 'Wow, this is areally good song,' and I laugh and I say yeah, I never even played it for the band or Flood.
It was one of those things, I got up in the morning, and I cut the song, and I just wrote down… I think the song deals very directly with my relationship with my father, and I think I just avoided the topic altogether. So it's a song that probably should've been on Mellon Collie and Flood would've been all over it. And no one ever heard it, so it just sat there in the corner somewhere.
Applying the logic of diversity and metamorphic creativity being necessary in a world with such short attention spans, how does that reconcile with someone like Gotye? There is still an urgency to create a box of reference, and his record really accommodates that. That makes it that much harder to approach an artist who's embracing the passion and spanning different sounds.
For me it's too late (laughs). I look at other members of my generation who have basically done one thing, and one thing well, and have been handsomely rewarded for it. I would say, pseudo-arrogantly, that my model of diversity will win in the end. Especially in the internet age, because I've got goth fans, electronica fans, heavy metal fans, grunge fans, sentimental songs, I've got wedding songs, songs to play at funerals… I just think at the end of the day, diversity will win. History will bear me out on that, and in about thirty years we'll know whether or not I was right. And if I was wrong, well… (laughs) It doesn't matter then anyway.
Dig deeper into the Smashing Pumpkins and pick up Oceania at the band's official site.