Gearing up for a show Saturday night in Highland Park, I spoke with Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan about what it's like to look back on his work with Smashing Pumpkins, Zwan and more over the course of the last twenty-five years as he prepares for a rare solo performance at Ravinia...
Rare is the musician in 2014 that builds upon artistic integrity and creative freedom as the core of a diverse career that's continued to grow over the past twenty-five years. But in prepping his second solo album, two new Smashing Pumpkins albums (the first since 2012's Oceania), an autobiography and a reality show (following his pro wrestling promotion Resistance Pro), Billy Corgan has managed to do exactly that - marching to his own tune all the while, critics be damned.
Having always possessed the rare ability as a forward-thinking artist to look ahead in terms of a lasting body of work and a career legacy, for perhaps the first time, looking back is suddenly a major part of that equation. Re-examining the work of the Smashing Pumpkins for an extensive, chronological reissue and box set campaign (Adore is next in that series and features a whopping 107 tracks), Corgan is also revisiting his prior work with the Pumpkins, Zwan and more as he preps a unique concert experience Saturday night alongside Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder at Ravinia.
What follows below is part one of a lengthy interview conducted over the phone last week (Part two will run this Friday)...
Q. So you and [Smashing Pumpkins guitarist] Jeff Schroeder are putting together what sounds like it's going to be a very unique concert experience for you as well as for fans. How's the process felt so far?
Billy Corgan: Really fun. I think the thing we both discovered is it’s been awhile – probably since the 2008 or 2009 type tours – where we felt like we were playing a set that was closer to what we wanted to do as opposed to the more recent Pumpkins tours where it felt kind of constrained by either playing the [Oceania] album, which was a cool thing – but I mean obviously it’s a conceptual thing, not a night to night decision.
And then, of course, in the modern festival context, if you get up there and you play anything less than something resembling the greatest hits, people just lose their minds. And then you’re painted as difficult… Which, it’s hard to imagine being painted as difficult! (Laughs) But I’m at a point in my life now where I want the Pumpkins to be a fun thing. I don’t want it to be… I don’t think it needs to be a battering ram. I think those days are over.
Q. You’ve always struck me with the projects you’ve taken on – whether it was solo or with Zwan or the Pumpkins – as a very forward thinking artist... But it sounds like this Ravinia show is revisiting just about every corner of your career. How has it been for you kind of thinking in terms of a successful catalog that now spans twenty-five years?
BC: I think the biggest thing that sticks out to me is that a lot of these songs have been neglected because they just don’t fit into the way the modern world is working. So I’m really excited about the prospect of playing more in this way. I wrote about it a bit on my blog – this weird tension between what to call it. Just by calling it my own name, it doesn’t seem to signify anything clear. And maybe that says something about how erratic my musical life has been. Nobody goes, “Oh, I know what that is.” So I’m kind of having to define it as I go, which isn’t a bad exercise actually.
So I’m kind of starting to look at whatever we’re going to call this – for now, we’re going to call it “Billy Corgan” – almost like it would be, “these are all the other songs that don’t get normally played at shows.” And there’s a lot of fans out there that want to see those shows and have been complaining for years. Like, how many times can they hear... pick your song? And, of course, I say what you’d expect: “Look… Most of the people that are here are here because of those songs.”
And I think I’ve even heard recently that Metallica was going to do a kind of an obscurities tour or something? I could probably have that wrong…
Well they get that as bad as anyone from the fans…
BC: Right. So maybe now that everyone’s gone out and played their albums… Maybe now there will be this other swing where there’ll be an attractiveness to playing other songs that wouldn’t normally get played.
And that’s kind how I’m looking at the Ravinia show: there's a lot of quality stuff that doesn’t get played. Because I just don’t have the context for it. So maybe this is a way of kind of bringing everything under the roof. And that feels really good for me. There’s a lot of songs that I’ve written that I really love and I’m like, “Wow! I haven’t played that song for ten years. That’s pretty crazy!”
Q. Is there a thought, potentially, that this Ravinia show could almost be kind of testing the waters for you and Jeff to take something like this out on the road and do more with it?
BC: We’ve talked about that. We were actually going to do more shows. There was talk of playing like New York and L.A. and stuff. And then because of the albums coming out we decided not to do it.
But, yeah. I’m hoping we can build kind of a different version of it. And if at the end of the day it has to be called “Smashing Pumpkins acoustic” for it to work…
Q. Do you think it does?
BC: I don’t know yet. I don’t know. We live in such a brand, headline world that it’s really difficult. And that’s what I’m trying to say in my own kind of personal way is that it’s strange. You put a show on sale and say “Billy Corgan.” And right away there’s this weird stress. “Well, are you gonna play Pumpkins?” It’s like, “Well, if I was just gonna play Pumpkins, I’d call it the Smashing Pumpkins.” And it’s this weird thing where it’s like, I feel like I’m living in a surreal movie. Like, when am I not me? (chuckles)
So I think I just have to do a better job of figuring out how to explain this. And maybe this is just the start of it and this is a good lesson in understanding that the general public knows you a certain way and there’s that gap between them and the people who follow everything that want to hear that seventh B-side.
So maybe this helps kind of find that balance in a way that’s not too cloistered.
Q. Like we just said, you've been kind of looking back at your collective body of work for the Ravinia show and I think the Pumpkins album reissues you’ve been working on kind of accomplish that as well. We’re at this weird point - and obviously you referenced it earlier in regards to Oceania - where a lot of the nineties bands are out there doing the whole full album performance/twentieth anniversary thing. And you’ve been very outspoken on that. From a touring standpoint, you kind of laughed at it entirely when you did the Oceania tour [by playing a new album in its entirety instead of an older one]. But is this set of album reissues kind of your way of acknowledging, in some way, that fans do seem to want that?
BC: No, no. Actually the reissue campaign was supposed to start maybe five years ago and it got all slowed down by band lawsuits and changes in ownership with the record labels. No, no… I’ve been wanting to do these reissues for a long time.
And I’m kind of past reacting to that. And honestly – if I’m reading the tea leaves – I think people are pretty burnt out on that now. I don’t think it’s popping people like it used to – so and so comes to town and plays classic album number two. I just don’t think it’s getting the charge out of the public because the public acclimates very quickly to these kind of concepts. I still believe at the end of the day that if [people aren't] coming for genuine reasons, then as an artist you need to figure out why.
I have no problem with people leaning on their past if they’ve earned it. And there’s plenty of bands and artists that have earned it. I just don’t like it when it becomes the story. And for about four years, it’s been the story in alternative music particularly with nineties-era bands. If you could go back in a time machine, can you imagine? “Hey, by the way, all you people on MTV: One day you’ll be doing the exact opposite of what you’re saying you’re gonna do.” It’s just kind of funny. You know what I mean?
And maybe I’m like the lone guy on the island waving the dumb flag but I just really think there is a thirst out there. And I do see it - particularly from young people who’ve grown up and have been just absolutely oversaturated by pop music. They want to have authentic experiences but they want their own authentic experiences.
Q. It is a bizarre landscape. I'll use Lollapalooza as an example because that just went on here a few weeks ago. I went to Lollapalooza in 1994 when your band was headlining. And I went to write about it a few weeks ago. And it's definitely a different atmosphere now. You've got fans who are there and aren't paying any attention to the music who seem like they're there just to be there. And you have pop acts now like Iggy Azalea performing. The whole festival and touring landscape has to be a very strange place for you in this day and age...
BC: Yeah. So that’s what I’m saying… If you play for twenty-five years, right? And you’re given the easy road which is, “Hey, go out and play Siamese Dream. You’ll make a bunch of money. You’ll make a bunch of people happy.” Literally, no one will complain – other than probably that it isn’t the original lineup or something, right? Or… keep doing what you’re doing and try to find what I would quantify as an authentic experience.
And I do meet young musicians, young people ages fifteen to thirty, who want to see me be me today. They get it. They can go on YouTube or whatever and look it all up. But they really want to see what made you you for real. They don’t want to see you kind of half go through the motions to sort of wink and nod at what… They want their own experience. They want their own generational claim. And they’re more than happy to claim you if you’re willing to claim them.
Phoning in a past album I don’t think really does that. That’s not their generation. That’s really their parents’ generation. So they may like it. But they don’t feel close to it. And I think that is a huge difference.
Q. I think it is a huge difference. Especially when you compare the reaction that you got when you released Zeitgeist in 2007 with the reaction you got when you toured last year, two years ago for the Oceania album. There was a lot of love around that tour: you were back in arenas, there were bigger venues. As you’re working on the two new Smashing Pumpkins albums now, what are you expecting? Have you been able to take people’s temperature at all on the internet in terms of what kind of response you’re expecting to more new music?
BC: No. No, I think I’ve just had to kind of accept that you cannot predict anymore.
Look – as a funny aside – I did this cover for Paws with my cats. The picture went viral. Somebody sent me a message and said “In twenty-four hours, we’ve had twenty million views.”
And, of course, I laugh my ass off. Because I’m in a studio every day laboring over a hot board – tra la la – and here come the cats! (Laughs) And f—k... I’d probably be better served just shooting videos with them every day!
Well, there are times when it feels like the internet is nothing but kitten videos anyway…
BC: Yeah, exactly! So my point is you can’t kind of predict what works but there is a kind of a bizarre – bazaar, b.a.z.a.a.r. – thing that happens if you find something that people genuinely want to share. The jury’s very much still out on whether that actually equals something you can commoditize and that’s where it gets really difficult.
Q. Speaking of commoditize… Obviously, it’s difficult – to say the least – in this day and age to sell records. And we could go on and on about the issues within the industry. But I think the prevailing wisdom now kind of seems to be when you release an album, give the fans something extra. Give them something that makes them feel like they have to buy it. When it comes to these reissues, you’ve really gone way above and beyond in that regard: Remastering, digging through the archives, etc. The Adore set is next and features 107 tracks. For fans, these are great packages – and sure you said it should’ve been done five years ago – but why put so much work into something like that now in an era where it’s harder than ever to sell it?
BC: I think you just have to trust that it will eventually kind of work itself out. And what I mean by that is… You put out a box set and who knows what it sells? I honestly don’t even look. I don’t want to know because I don’t want to live on that. I don’t want to go into the studio and think, “Well… only X number of people are going to buy this so I really shouldn’t care about this nineteenth song that’s gonna take another hour of my time.” Obviously, I haven’t phoned the box sets in.
I think it’s the same way with making new music. You just have to kind of trust that good things will beget good things. And who knows? The next big band that comes along that every kid loves might turn around and go, “You know what? Billy is my favorite songwriter.” And suddenly, all those fifteen year olds are paying attention in a way they [normally] wouldn’t. And you can trace that back to the fact that you connected with that musician or artist in a way that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t busted your ass to do it. You’ve just got to kind of trust it all to sort of sort itself out.
To me, if I look at the musical landscape of the world that I grew up in, by and large – there are exceptions – but, by and large, the great artists, the great musicians do get their due. It’s not always in the time that they deserve it. For example, like a Nick Drake, over time, has risen. Where other artists – and I don’t want to name any names – which were massive in the day have been kind of forgotten. But if you really look at their musical output, what they meant to future generations – all those things you could use to qualify whether somebody was a legend – the point is, generally speaking, that landscape sorts itself out.
I feel really good, and have always felt good, that the Pumpkins would sort of get its due – me in that would get my due – if things were just kind of allowed to breathe and work themselves out over time. Because the depth of the music is there. The story is there - which is good and bad. And places like YouTube and stuff allow kids particularly – other new generations – to dig around and find what they’re looking for. And I do see a growing kind of drumbeat every year.
To my advantage, really, the band was underestimated or undervalued for a long time because it didn’t fall into the hipster category and didn’t do this… And you had other people beating me over the head for reforming the band… And now that’s all kind of gone away. And now it’s just like this weird, beautiful storm coming together of the reissues, the new albums, things like Ravinia, where all the sudden it all kind of starts to make sense and people are like, “Oh yeah! This is cool!”
It feels way less stressed now. And maybe I’ve had to grow up and that and stop running my mouth so much. And all of those things needed to kind of add up to where it’s now really becoming about the music, which is honestly what I’ve always wanted. I just didn’t have the self security – or I don’t know what the new age word to use is – but I didn’t have enough confidence in myself to just let things be.
And now maybe because I’m letting things be, now maybe things are getting to be where they’re meant to be.
- Jim Ryan
(Details on Saturday's Billy Corgan show at Ravinia below)
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Billy Corgan and Jeff Schroeder
Saturday, August 30, 2014
Ravinia Festival (Highland Park, IL)
Gates open at 5:00PM
Concert starts at 7:30PM
Also performing: Katie Cole
Click HERE to purchase tickets