Q&A: Billy Corgan on Vocal Smashing Pumpkins Fans, Led Zeppelin’s Greatness
‘We’re a better band than most any band on the planet’
Yesterday, the Smashing Pumpkins released Oceania, the latest installment from their onging 44-song cycle Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, which the band began in 2009. Though many fans are hailing the disc as a return to Pumpkins’ prog-rock glory days, Billy Corgan begs to differ. “The songs on a ground level are completely different than old Smashing Pumpkins songs,” says the frontman. “There’s almost no comparison.”
Corgan spoke with Rolling Stone about his sometimes contentious relationship with Pumpkins fans, his new wrestling league, the greatness of Led Zeppelin and why his current bandmates – bassist Nicole Fiorentino, drummer Mike Byrne and rhythm guitarist Jeff Schroeder – are here to stay.
The response to the new album thus far has been very strong.
A lot of people say, “Oh, there’s a familiarity in this Oceania.” But we’ve been rehearsing the Oceania material because we finished the album six, seven months ago, and we’ve obviously been doing other stuff so we’ve had to relearn these songs, and the songs on a ground level are completely different than old Smashing Pumpkins songs. There’s almost no comparison. But the effect of listening seems to be registering as familiar, even if it’s not constructed the same, which is kind of interesting cause I would not have anticipated that myself.
I think the familiarity, though, may come in the songwriting. Maybe that’s what it was. Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions there, and maybe it is more about the literal songwriting.
There’s a theory that most writers have one theme and just perfect it over time. Do you think that could apply to you? And if so, what would be the theme?
I don’t necessarily feel that for myself. I spot familiar themes. My mother and I parting company at four years old is a recurring theme; although it’s not symbolically necessarily present, it’s present in all my relationships. So there’s a root there that keeps coming up, which are themes of abandonment or alienation that permeate my other relationships. And so I sense a familiarity in those themes and how they come up because of the way they play themselves out in my relationships.
When are you planning to tour around the record?
It seems to be U.S. in the fall. We’re gonna play the album in sequence as part of the show. It’ll be kind of interesting in that it’s a little bit of our “F you” to all the bands out there playing their old albums. We’re actually gonna play our new album. So we’re excited about that. And we’ve been working with Sean Evans, who’s been working with Roger Waters on the Wall tour, so there’ll be a visual component to the show. It’ll be a good mixture – the old warhorses to go alongside the new album. We’re excited about that because we feel the new material can stand next to the best of the old material, and that’ll make for a very interesting show, I think, from my perspective. People try to make a big deal, like I don’t want to play my old songs. That’s not it. I don’t want to play my old songs if that’s my only option. That’s a different thing. If I’m gonna get up onstage and there’s an audience that wants to hear Oceania, you’re gonna have the happiest guy in the world playing his own songs.
You played “Bleed” for the first time in 25 years recently and talked about how contemporary it seemed. Are there other older songs that sound that way for you?
It surprises me how autobiographical some of the songs were that I didn’t think were. A song that comes to mind is “Mayonaise” off Siamese Dream. It was probably one of the last songs I wrote lyrics for. I remember just cobbling together ideas, thinking, “I gotta figure something out.” So it’s kind of a bit of pastiche of different ideas and themes. Then years later I’m playing the song, thinking, “These lyrics are pretty poignant to what I was going through.” And I never thought at that time.
Every artist goes through cyclical periods of popularity. Have you watched other artists to see what makes them connect with their fans decades into their careers?
In other artists, in terms of observations, I have a positive and a negative theory. The positive theory, the artists who do succeed, the Bob Dylan’s and the Neil Young’s who are able to make great monumental work later in their life, it’s because they never strayed from their organic process. They were willing to trust themselves even when they know the work that’s coming out of them isn’t necessarily gonna be popularly embraced. The negative side of that is [when] an artist gets successful for a particular set of symbolism or moves or sound. Let’s say they start to change, and they don’t see the response from the audience, then they unnaturally force themselves to an earlier frame of mind because it’s the comfortable place to be, particularly on the business end of it. Then at some point, the muse sort of abandons them because they’re not listening anymore. They’re trying to make the muse be what it was when they were 22 or 28 or something, and it just doesn’t work like that. The things I’m guided to do are really strange to me. People think I take some sort of masochistic pleasure out of putting out music that’s gonna be unpopular. I really don’t, but I also know the most popular music I ever made didn’t come from me trying to be popular. It came from a place of wanting to communicate at a very high level, and that’s a different set of parameters altogether.
What’s going on with the wrestling league?
I’m a part of this company. I was up this morning working on the storyline stuff. So I’m very engaged with the wrestling, very hands on, and really enjoying it.
Who is your all-time favorite wrestler?
Ric Flair to me is Number One, because he’s the insane combination of incredible promos, electric promo style, with super high level, in-ring storytelling wrestling. He’s the full package basically.
I’ve always been an Undertaker guy myself.
I got to meet him after the retirement match with Shawn Michaels. That was pretty crazy because that was an incredible match, and to be standing there talking to him about wrestling was like, “Whoa, this is crazy.”
I think he has that rock star air of mystery.
I’ve been backstage at WWE events and he just walks by – he’s not even trying – he walks by and you’re like,” Whoa.” He’s just got that thing, that “X factor” that stars have.
What rock stars have that “X factor” to you?
Jimmy Page comes to mind, having met him once. When you think of what Jimmy Page created, it’s kind of mindblowing. You’re standing there talking to that man and there’s a mystical quality to his being. He’s not still running around like he looked in 1975, but there’s something about him. Whether it’s fairy-like or mischievous, there’s a mirth in his spirit that’s still there. When you think of Led Zeppelin music his guitar is almost like a lead vocal, so you almost have like two lead vocals, which is kind of the insanity of Zeppelin.
Are there other things you admire about Zeppelin?
When John Bonham died, they announced the band is done. They didn’t step back and think about it. I’ve always respected that, because he was their brother and they knew it wasn’t gonna be the same without him. And I had to learn those lessons the hard way. When Jimmy Chamberlin left the band in ’96, I thought, “I’ll just get somebody. The band is big and we’ll find somebody great. It won’t be the same, but it’ll be just as good in a different way.” It just doesn’t work like that. You just don’t replace your brother like that.
Have you applied that lesson since figuring it out?
Absolutely. Some people have called this [lineup] “Pumpkins Mach Two.” Because “Pumpkins Mac Two” is successful in this moment, I treat those relationships very differently than I would’ve before. I don’t view anybody as replaceable. I would hate to be in a position where I’d have to replace anybody in the band, because right now it’s just got that click point where it works, and it’s not because any of us is the greatest musician. For whatever reason, you get the right four people and suddenly shit just starts to happen. As soon as Nicole joined the band and Nicole, Jeff, Mike and I started playing shows, the difference in the audience was immediate.
Do you feel like the fans have come to accept this Pumpkins lineup?
I think it’s pretty simple math. If the band didn’t have a name – let’s just say we were called Band X – we’re a better band than most any band on the planet. [Laughs] So you either go with that or you don’t. If you’re gonna go against it, you’re not going against it because it’s not good. You’re going against it because you don’t agree or you don’t like it, that’s different. It’s hard to be a great band. But when you get it right, the results are just incredibly satisfying because you kind of can’t fuck with that.
By Steve Baltin