Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan on touring with Manson and the 'open source' nature of his band
Smashing Pumpkins are enjoying a pretty good run at the moment. The band’s most recent album, Monuments to an Elegy, was exceptionally well-received, and they are also in the midst of a similarly enthusiastically embraced reissue project featuring super-deluxe versions of their classic albums. The band is also currently on tour with Marilyn Manson (who is enjoying a nice little resurgence himself thanks to the hook-filled glam goth leanings of his latest album The Pale Emperor), a trek that runs through August 9.
Frontman Billy Corgan is one of the smartest guys in rock, and he took some time out of his touring schedule to talk to EW about the forthcoming Smashing Pumpkins album and how his band continues to evolve.
Entertainment Weekly: I saw the show recently, and you seemed to be in exceptionally good spirits. Has that been the general vibe of this whole tour?
Billy Corgan: It’s been that way for years. The things that we went through when we came back in 2007 and 2008, that became almost the expected thing from me, so even when I was fine, people didn’t think I was fine. But I’ve made peace with the world that we live in. It took me a long time to make peace with the idea of celebrating the moment, and understanding that there are times to push artistically, and in a general context it’s just not that space any more. I think Manson recognizes that too. But at some point when you’re swimming upstream against the social tide, you’re asking for a problem.
Have you and Manson had conversations about that?
I can’t speak for him, but it’s something you figure out intuitively after a while. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that you’re swimming against something that has no relevance.
Jimmy Chamberlin is back in the band on drums. How did that happen?
We had picked someone to work with, and we got into rehearsals and it didn’t work out. With about three weeks to go, we found ourselves with nobody to play drums on the tour, and I started thinking about who to call, and it just hit me on the right day, like, “Oh, maybe I should call Jimmy and see if he’s available.” It was only a month long tour, and he’s out there running his own tech company, and I thought it might even be a good fit for him for that, because he could promote that and they’re looking for capital. He thought it was a good fit. We’ve been talking again for years, it wasn’t an out of the blue thing. When our friend Dennis Flemion from the Frogs passed away—he died in a tragic accident a few years ago—and that’s the first time we had seen each other. That broke the ice, mourning our friend. We’ve been in contact ever since. We addressed the idea that we would make music again. It wasn’t as big a gap as it seemed publicly.
You’ve played with a bunch of excellent drummers, including Tommy Lee on the last Pumpkins album. But do the songs feel different with Jimmy on the drums?
The cool thing about playing with other people is you get a different interpretative quality. When you play with Jimmy, it’s as-written. He’s playing his parts, I’m playing mine, and together we form this sound. It feels very comfortable, and Jimmy’s very powerful at what he does. I’ve enjoyed the process of working with other people, too. It’s not like without Jimmy it can’t be possible. That’s one thing I would caution people on. I see the Pumpkins as sort of an open source collective at this point. It’s whoever feels right at the time. It was the right time for Jimmy. But people shouldn’t assume he’s on the next record—we’ve already basically finished the next record. So what I don’t want to do is get into the repeat dynamics about what the original band is and isn’t. I’ve lived with that going back to the ’90s, and I just have no patience for it. The music business is rife with bands who existed in different configurations, and I don’t pretend that it’s something that it’s not. I think right now, with this particular lineup on stage, the band has never sounded better.
You brought back the Smashing Pumpkins a few years ago, but do you feel like it has been only recently that fans have come around to the idea of what the band is now?
At the end of the day, a band is a social construct like anything else, and if the relationships run out of gas in any particular way, I don’t think it’s healthy to artificially sustain them just because it’s good for a crowd. I think what I’m trying to do is that by allowing the band to be what it is in 2015, I’ve found new ground to cover and new music to make. There are songs on Monuments that have everything to do with Tommy Lee. Jimmy would have played them totally differently, and that’s not to say they would have been better or worse, they just would have been different. And it’s pretty cool, because Jimmy is playing some of those songs and has come up to me and said how much he liked how Tommy played on them. We’ve all reached a point of maturity where we can all kind of roll with it.
The difficulty with trying to renew or update a franchise that has a sound or feel is no different than trying to reboot a movie franchise. The bad analogy I use all the time is Spider-Man: If you go see a Spider-Man movie, you know what you want, but you want to see the new director’s take on it. If I’m going to call this Smashing Pumpkins, people are going to come in with expectations for better or worse. So if you don’t want the expectations, don’t go out as Smashing Pumpkins. Once I made peace with that, the question became how do we reboot this? You never could have convinced the 15-year-old me that working with Tommy Lee was even possible, and Tommy brought a fresh energy to that record that made me really appreciate where I am in my life, and that’s what makes me excited about the brand of the band in the future. It really opens me up.
The last two Smashing Pumpkins have been very well reviewed. Did that surprise you?
I think that has everything to do with the quality of the music. Obviously you have to write really good songs, and I thought I wrote good songs on Zeitgeist too, but you have to find that musical place where everybody thinks what they’re hearing or getting is meeting them somewhere in the middle of their expectations, and then you also have to think about it in the context of “What is modern music?” If you look at most alternative rock music in 2015, it hasn’t really evolved for 20 years. We get our asses kicked by EDM or some of these artists that are more keyboard and drum machine and reverb. They’re engaging in new technology. Guitar isn’t new technology—there are only so many ways you can warp it around. Radiohead was probably the last band that really did anything new with the guitar.
My point is once I started to make peace and committed to playing guitars and realized that all the time I spent trying to reinvent the wheel was a waste of time, now I could get back to writing really good songs and figuring out how to produce it in a contemporary frame. That combination of things has really brought fans back to the fore, and now they want to see deep cuts and acoustic tours. Every day on Twitter fans are asking me for a return to the 30-minute songs and the longer shows. There’s a call to bring back the band we put away because we realized nobody wanted to see that version of the band. Now there’s this rallying cry to bring back not the classic lineup, but it’s about bringing back the epic style from a few years ago. That’s an interesting thing to contemplate, because I had pretty much given up on that.
What have the audiences been like on the current tour?
I’ve been surprised. It’s far younger than I would have guessed. Generally speaking for a normal Pumpkins show, maybe 20 percent is younger and 80 percent is the audience you would expect. This is more 60/40, 70/30, depending on the market. Manson is having a really good run right now, so that has something to do with it too. It’s an inexact science and I hate to generalize, but I have teenage nieces so I’ve seen some of this up close: If all you hear is pop and all you see are perfect performances and everybody smiling, to actually see a band invoke a darker spirit on stage and conjure it right in front of you in a mass of power you can’t explain, that is quite rare to that audience. No band in the past 15 years has come along and figured out how to do that. Most of the bands you can point to that have been successful that still do that, like Queens of the Stone Age, they’re coming from an earlier generation of power and an earlier language, even though they’re having contemporary success. There are some flashes, like a Royal Blood or something, where they’re trying to figure that power out, but they’re dealing with an audience that is so predisposed to pop.
I often get the sense that the younger crowd doesn’t really know how a rock show works.
I think they come, generally speaking, expecting a rock show to be like an MTV awards show or something: A lot of flash, a lot of bang, a lot of putting your hands in the air, a lot of declaring everything awesome. Actually, Lisa Harrington, who played in the Pumpkins for a while, she’s a co-writer on that song “Everything Is Awesome!!!” That song sums it up. “Everything is awesome?” Sorry, no it’s not.
Is the reissue project still on? Is there a reissue of Machina: The Machines of God coming?
Yes. The problem is, and I can’t talk about the specifics, but we’re in a dispute with what is now the parent company, which is Universal. Everything has been put on hold. If I told you the truth of it, you’d laugh your ass off, because it’s a classic record company story. I feel bad, because people on Twitter keep asking about it, and people seem to have come around on that record in the last five years. It sounds contemporary again for whatever reason. I do want to put it out, and it takes a lot of time and effort to go through all the tapes. I’ve invested a good 300 hours in preparing the project, and now it’s totally on hold. It is what it is. I’m not mad at anybody. I don’t have time to be mad.
Those reissues have been incredible products. I can’t even fathom the work that went into putting together Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
It’s a bit reliant on memory, and a lot of times I was proven wrong. We were voluminous in that time as far as generating work product, so there’s a lot to cover. What really drove me was the opportunity to contextualize the work in the way I experienced it. It’s interesting to hear dead ends and ask myself why I didn’t finish things. The fact that the reissues have been well-received is great, and maybe it’s a testament to where people are at with the band, as far as just realizing there was a lot more to the band than “Billy is a pain in the ass” and “They sold a lot of records because they had good singles,” which is a really generalized story that doesn’t capture the band’s artistic place. Kim Gordon wrote something about me in her book, and she said we were never punk rock, and I laughed because I was like, “When did we ever say we gave a f— about any of that stuff?”
What’s the status on the next album?
It’s almost done. There’s probably six to eight weeks of work left until we finish. Right now the record company is leaning towards the beginning of next year.
And it has a very direct relationship with Monuments, right?
Absolutely. Some of the songs were written for Monuments and they got kind of pushed backwards because we didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t fit on Monuments but we knew they were strong, A-level songs. I’m still processing it, but my general thought is Monuments is, for me, the end of the Pumpkins thing—the big guitars, the epic chorus. It was like that was the last thing I had to say in that department. I think the well is dry, at least for me. Having been through that process, the album was well-received but didn’t sell, which in my nihilistic mind kind of proved my point, which is “You all keep calling for this album, so here it is, but you don’t really want it. You want Siamese Dream remixed or something.” So that gave me the freedom to cut the cord, just like I did for Adore. For me, it has that same sense of, “Wow, I’m leaping into the unknown here.” It’s as radical a departure as Adore was from Mellon Collie. It sounds very contemporary, very different. I found myself a lot of time musing, “I don’t even know what kind of music this is.”