In part two of my interview with Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, we delve into the ongoing series of Smashing Pumpkins album reissues and discuss the future of rock and roll in the social media era. Billy Corgan performs a rare solo set Saturday night at Ravinia...
(If you missed part one of this interview, click HERE)
In advance of a solo performance Saturday night at Ravinia, alongside Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder, part two of my interview with Billy Corgan delves deeper into the ongoing series of Smashing Pumpkins album reissues - particularly 1998's Adore album. Plus, we examine the role of the artist in a continually changing music landscape as well as the future of rock and roll in the social media era...
Q. I think what I like so much about the projects you’re involved with now is that there’s so many different types of projects. I feel like it has to be hard for an artist to mature creatively in the public eye and to navigate a career that’s rewarding, not just financially but spiritually and artistically, once you’ve had the incredible, major, worldwide success that you’ve had. And from a rock standpoint, the alternative bands in the nineties – your peers – it seems like that’s going to be the last group to connect on that type of major level of success as the industry continues to change. Does that make it harder for you as an artist to continually try and push against your comfort level and do all these different projects?
Billy Corgan: I think it was for awhile because… How could I put this? I had the data maybe sooner than the media did. So I’d do an interview maybe circa 2007 and the guy would go, “So… You know, you’re not playing the arena anymore. So… you’re not going to sell ten-gazillion records…” And you’d go, “Um… By the way, pretty much nobody is playing the arena. Pretty much nobody is selling a gazillion records.” It was like you were being compared to data that was no longer relevant.
And now, of course – that was 2007, so here we are six or seven years later – now we have even clearer data that says success is even harder to quantify because you can have these YouTube sensations that don’t sell records. And then you have people that do sell records and you go, “Who the hell is that?” And God bless him, Weird Al with a number one! You know what I mean? All this crazy s--t that’s like, “Ok. Who knew?” I mean, I’m a Weird Al fan but I didn’t know there was another 100,000 of us!
My point being, everybody has kind of relaxed on how to kind of judge quote unquote “big” or “success.” And I think, what I tell young artists and what I try to harp on in the media here and there, is that ultimately success, I think, going forward into the twenty-first century will be whether or not you can create your own world and then… dot dot dot… sustain it. And that is the D.I.Y. punk ethic of tomorrow. And that’s why I said on the A.P. Awards, “There’s no shame in selling t-shirts. There’s no shame in sustaining yourself.” These young bands really need to know that it’s OK – that they don’t have to sell out to “the man.” Better they “sell out” to themselves. Better they start their own website and build it and have fans coming to them for peer-to-peer commerce so they’re selling t-shirts direct. So they can make enough money to live. So they can put out that next album.
Somebody told me recently that the average budget on an indie album these days, I think, is $25,000. To put that in context, the budget on Gish was $30,000. And that was 1990!
Q. How about once you had that success? How about Siamese Dream?
BC: I think Siamese was $350,000. But that was over budget. They were very mad about that.
And you, of course, followed that up with a double album…
BC: Mellon Collie… You know? I honestly couldn’t tell you. It wasn’t that bad. We worked on it for eight months. It pales in comparison to some other legendary excesses in terms of record spending.
Q. Talking about the reissues – and we just mentioned Gish and Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie – but Adore, in particular, I’m kind of intrigued by [and that’s next in this reissue campaign]. It’s pretty well documented what a personal album that was for you at the time when it was released in 1998. I would think diving back into that, to the tune of 107 tracks on this reissue, has to be a pretty all-encompassing process. What’s it like for you now to go back to that particular point in time?
BC: You know, somebody asked me a similar question the other day and I was surprised by my answer because sometimes I don’t think about these things until I’m asked. For me, it’s more like, almost clinical. I don’t have as much emotional connection to the tracks in that mindset. Meaning: My number one goal is, can I put something together that’s really quality so that if someone puts their hard earned money down, they feel good about it? Because I’m a big… I buy all the box sets from people I love. I’ll buy people’s box sets you can’t believe I’d buy. And I know what it’s like to feel burned by that. You know what I mean? You look and you go, “Oh, it’s got twenty extra tracks!” And you listen and it’s just total drek.
Like they’re just putting something together to justify putting out a box set…
BC: Well, and you, often times, don’t feel the artist’s hand in it. You don’t feel like they’re guiding the process. [It’s] like somebody was given a job like, “Hey, Joe – Go figure that out.”
Put this together so we can charge a hundred bucks for it…
BC: And there’s a coldness to it. And I kind of approach it like… When I was a kid, I used to make mixtapes, you know? So I take that kind of mixtape approach... Which is, like, if I gave this to a friend, would they be like, “Oh, that was cool! When did you do that demo?” Or, “That’s weird! What were you thinking when you did that?”
I want that conversation which is why I leave off stuff that’s no-brainer. Some fans will complain like, “I can’t believe you didn’t put on…” And I’m like, “Eh, it’s not that good…”
Go find it on YouTube…
BC: Yeah! It’s not meant to be, I guess – and I know it sounds funny – but it’s not meant to be a completist thing. There’s probably another thirty Gish or Adore tracks – remixes by big DJ’s – And I didn’t put any of that stuff on. I just didn’t feel it was relevant to what I was trying to say with this.
So for me it’s very personal in the sense – but I have to be clinical from the standpoint of, “Does this belong on here?” Because, obviously, I generate a lot of work product. And there’s all sorts of rough mixes and alternate vocals but a lot of it’s just not very good, you know? I mean, I could put it out and call it “unreleased” but it doesn’t really mean anything. So I have to be really kind of detached.
And there’s a lot of detective work. (Laughs) Missing tapes and bad memories and mislabeled boxes… We get that sometimes.
Q. When it comes to the reissue campaign – regardless of which album – when you were putting these together, was there anything that, when you were going back through the archives, you found that you completely forgot about and were completely blown away by when you found it?
BC: Not in terms of tracks because I’m pretty familiar with the material.
I think, if I could give you something different… It amazes me how fast we worked. The original four of us… We were a band for about two and a half years I think before we did Gish. And once that process kicked in – around ’90 when we started touring like the Sub Pop single and all that stuff – we were together almost non-stop for ten years or eleven or whatever. And for whatever reason – the way we communicated, the way we worked together – we worked really fast.
Jimmy Chamberlin in particular has, if he doesn’t have a photographic memory, he’s got a near photographic memory. And we had really high expectations which was like, if we worked on this song and we changed a bunch of stuff, you were kind of expected to come in the next day and pick up where you left off. And we were able to do that. I don’t know how. Because sometimes I’m like, “Wow! It’s so crazy.”
Here’s a really good example. When we got towards the end of making Mellon Collie, we had this board – I have a picture of it somewhere, it’s kind of funny – we had this board with little check marks of, like, what we needed to finish. The song “X.Y.U.” was basically rehearsed and basically ready to be recorded. When we got around to recording it, [Mellon Collie producer] Flood was like, “Aw, man… This is gonna be a f---ing hassle.” Because it was all these stops and starts and tempo changes. To try to make it tight – like in the old way, not the Pro Tools way – takes time.
So he goes, “What about recording it live in the studio?” And I’m like, “You’d do that?” And he’s like, “Of course.”
So [Mellon Collie producers] Flood and Alan [Moulder] – we were at CRC [Chicago Recording Company] downtown – and him and Alan set us up in this little room and we brought in a P.A. and we played it at full volume. It was deafening.
Ok. So I knew in the back of my mind like, “Oh, ok. We’re gonna do this reissue. I know there were other full takes.” Because I was singing live too. So you look at this sheet and there’s nine or ten other takes, I don’t even remember. And you go, “One of these has gotta be good enough to release.” So I put on take one: it’s thirty BPM’s slower. The arrangement is different. I’m like, “What the f—k?” And you listen to every take – and of course this all happened in less than three hours. So in less than three hours the song completely evolved to what is the released version.
Being in the moment, I didn’t even think of it. It was like, that’s just what we did. But standing back twenty years later and listening, I was like, “Wow! This is crazy.”
We would literally do a take and I’d go, “Change this, change this, change this, change this” and we’d do another take. And that was very common. We would even do stuff where we’d be walking onstage and I’d go, “Hey, you know in the second chorus on this song, can you hold that one part a little longer so that I can do this and you’ll do that…” And everyone would go, “Ok.” And we’d go out and do it. No rehearsal.
So, for whatever reason, that kind of shocked me coming back, just how fast that band worked.
Well, you guys rehearsed… I mean, you guys rehearsed legendarily…
BC: (Laughs) Yeah. You know, no one believes me – of course – but we never argued about music. And I think that shows in the output. We kind of agreed in the idea of being restless in the exploration and they were cool to follow me on this mad journey that I set up. All the other stuff was… all the other stuff. But when it came to music, we were all business.
Q. So we’ve talked about all of your current projects and some more than others, especially lately, are probably more artistically satisfying for you personally – like the eight hour performances at your teashop. There’s a corner of the internet – and I’d say the national music media kind of loves to fuel it – that says ridiculous things like “Billy Corgan has lost his mind.” Something along those lines.
I’ve wanted to ask you this since 2008 when you took a lot of heat for the Smashing Pumpkins tour where there was a portion of the show that people classified as “antagonizing” the fans… and I say that with air quotes. Is there an element to a lot of these statements that you make, or those type of performances, where you’re essentially playing the classic wrestling heel, the wrestling bad guy: creating a character and trying to see what kind of reactions you can get?
Because I remember in 2008, reading the reviews after the Chicago Theatre shows, and going, “Well this is hilarious. This is rock and roll. He’s doing a wrestling thing. How is nobody getting this?!”
BC: Right. Great question. “Yes” is the answer to the question. That said, I don’t do that anymore. So everything I do now, I do because I want to do it.
But… Basically between the years of 1985 and, I guess, 2008ish, I was willing to use myself as a battering ram to allow people to project on me their ideas of what rock and roll was and what rock and roll wasn’t. And obviously I bit off more than I could chew because, like a mad Frankenstein, often times those things would spin out of control. You know, if you’re insecure – like most people are – you try to control it and it only makes it worse. And I created monsters… Hence things like Machina where I was playing, literally, the cartoon version of the person people thought I was. And I was saying the things they wanted me to say. I mean, it got crazy.
But that said, I’m really proud of it. Because I think that was an incredible education in public awareness and how the world thinks of art. How fragile the act of making art is. How honorable it is to be an artist – because on some level, you’re always sacrificing something. If you get up there and you put on a smile when you don’t feel like it, that’s just as much of an act as me playing the antagonist. So I was willing to kind of blow past the normal, “Hey, Cleveland! How’s it going?” and go into it way, way deeper. And I’m proud of that.
And I think that, kind of like I was saying before, when all is said and done it will all kind of make a weird sense. Because intuitively – and maybe I’m giving myself too much credit – I think I anticipated what was coming.
Q. How so?
BC: Now that we look at the last ten to fifteen years of pop and that incredible fake, facile version of music making from children’s channels on up, we see now what our willingness to tolerate half-fakery has gotten us. Now, we have industries built on fakery and generations growing up thinking that fakery is real.
I would argue that social media is fakery… of the worst kind.
BC: Sure. And that’s why I’m saying I think, intuitively, I was, on some level, anticipating what was coming and I was reacting to it. We rose to fame during, certainly, either the peak MTV era or the second peak MTV era – or both… if that makes any sense.
Possibly the last…
BC: So I was dealing with, behind the scenes, how phony of a world that was. And I’ve said things like this before… I’d get the call from MTV and, “Hey, dude. They don’t want to play your video because when the kid is running down the aisle in the ‘1979’ video, he knocks over the toilet paper and that’s gonna inspire kids to do stuff like that so they want it cut from the video.” And I go, “Uh, what about the video you’re playing right now where the guy is holding the gun?” And we actually got it through – that moment in the video – because they were afraid that I was gonna expose their double standard. Of course later, then, they banned all that stuff and got on their high horse and said, “We don’t promote…” Total bullsh-t.
So when you’re living behind the wizard’s curtain and you’re seeing all of that… I was the rare person who was willing to step forward and go, “Do you realize what’s going on back here?”
If there’s a way to sum up what I’m trying to saying – and I’m rambling about it – Most people don’t want to know. That’s the lesson I had to learn. Most people don’t want their fantasy poked.
See, that bothers me though…
BC: You know what? I have to say – and I say this in all humility – I don’t blame them. And here’s why: Life’s hard, you know? You put your fifty bucks, you put your eighty bucks, you put your hundred bucks down and you go to a concert. You’ve got your girl on your arm, or whatever, and you just want to have a good time. You don’t necessarily want your head drilled, you know? There are those times and there are those moments. I was so slow to realize when I had kind of taken it too far and by then it was like... I was in a tar pit and I was just wallowing around in the tar pit.
And… I don’t know, I could go on about it forever because I think it’s a fascinating subject . And not about me – even though it’s about me… And that’s what I would say as a caveat to that crowd that screams everytime I do something, like, “Oy! Here he goes again.” The definition of an artist is, in my eyes, somebody who is willing to take something that exists and turn it upside down in different ways so you go, “Oh, that’s interesting…” Because most artists don’t really create anything new. They’re just recontextualizers or they’re collagists. They’re taking well-worn images and they’re using your own pathological connection or attraction to an image against you. Which is why somebody like GG Allin could get up in people’s face and have them react the way they did. Or Karen Finley. Or Iggy Pop.
BC: Right. What was it about that thing in that moment that pushed somebody’s button? Last little thing about it… Most people really don’t believe they can have their buttons pushed. So when you push them, right, when they believe they can’t be pushed, there is a violent reaction.
And there is no more violent reaction to having their button pushed then a hipster. Because a hipster thinks they already know everything. In fact, they’re sure of it. Because they’ve already assimilated the culture and have already decided this is the cool beer, this isn’t the cool beer. This is the cool mustache, this isn’t a cool mustache. So their hypocrisy, in general, - or the hypocrisy of the hipster generations, multiple – is so easy to poke into because they’re so certain of their assuredness in the world. They think they’ve got it figured out and they think that you’re dumb. They think that you’re dumb and that you’re not smart enough to know what you’re doing and that you’re actually an idiot who’s fumbling into their button.
And that is the great joke of my musical life and/or career because I have continually kicked in that button and played like either I didn’t know what I was doing or let them think I didn’t know what I was doing. And here we are. And I’m still laughing. Because now the music is there. The pranks are forgotten… mostly. And now you have a new generation coming in that doesn’t care about any of that and all they know is they like the Pumpkins a lot more than they like a lot of those other bands because a lot of those other bands have only got one song.
As someone who occasionally pushes buttons, I might be predisposed to recognizing these things. Anyway… People like to say, “Rock is dead.” That’s been a very popular phrase the past few years…
BC: I said it. I was ahead of my time. I said it in 1998.
Q. I tend to think it’s not dead, it’s just boring and predictable… That it’s cyclical and it will be good again someday – I hope. But, in your opinion, is that insertion of rebelliousness and unpredictability – what, to me, rock and roll was kind of born out of – is that going to be a key element in bringing rock back?
BC: I have a hard time believing that in America we can have a genuine moment… Because of the way that we communicate through social media and interpersonally.
Part of the shock and awe of Elvis or Nirvana was, “Where the f—k did this come from?” And let’s not forget: those things took time to develop. They didn’t have a microscope on them. The first time Elvis went into Sun Records, there wasn’t an Instagram of him on the microphone. So when America heard him on “Jailhouse Rock,” or whatever, they were like, “Who the f—k is this guy?!” Of course, people – the hipsters of the time – were like, “Oh, I’ve been listening for years…” You know what I mean?
Same thing with Nirvana. I mean, I saw Nirvana on the first couple tours – you know, Bleach and all that. So when I was talking to the guy I went to high school with and he was like, “So… What’s with this Nirvana?” I couldn’t tell him about how I had seen them at the Metro with the other drummer... because they didn’t care! For all they knew, the band had dropped out of the sky. I don’t think – in America – you’re going to have that drop out of the sky moment. I have a really hard time believing that.
And… if you’re that artist… let’s pretend that the next rock sensation is a woman. The minute that white light hits them, how do they not become calculated? Or, how does somebody not show up on their side and start telling them how to be calculating?
Q. When you said you don’t think we’re capable of having that moment anymore, I’m not sure if I agree or disagree. But, the closest I’ve gotten to it in a long time at a concert was – at of all places – Lollapalooza. Lorde’s set a couple of weeks ago there… I was really swept up in it! I was kind of neither here nor there about her music going into it but nobody was standing there during that set looking at an iPad or fleeing to catch another act or go get another beer. It was a really collective experience and that kind of shocked me. But, getting to what you were just saying, in terms of her being a female, that performance felt really authentic. It didn’t feel forced or guided or…
BC: Well, maybe she’s talented enough to where she can turn that corner and shirk off the expectations.
I hope so. We’ll see I guess…
BC: If I was guessing person – and nothing against her or any other artist – it’s gonna come from a place that’s never had that moment. Ala, the next Elvis will come from India. The next Lorde – from an indie perspective – would come from China. Because it will be that innocence and enthusiasm of a culture that’s never been through it. Because, at the end of the day, if you’re not really shocking the culture – and, again, nothing against anybody – but tell me what internationally known artist right now is shocking the culture. Truly.
I’d be hard pressed to come up with someone off the top of my head… which probably says a lot.
BC: That’s what I’m saying. They have to send, literally, like a lightning bolt through the culture. Because it has to make people second guess – not just music – but their clothes, their thinking… And the great stars of our lifetime do that. And I just don’t see where the media systems – of this country in particular – are able to be supple enough to deal with that innocently.
Where, if you had Elvis in India, they would be like, “What the f—k?!” Right? Because they’ve never had that! Imagine if the next Beatles came from India… 1.3 billion people and half the country is under thirty. Imagine that energy! As opposed to sixty thousand people standing in a field with an artist that’s loved by the pop world, loved by the media world, considered good looking or attractive – and you could say that about fifty artists. I’m not pointing out anybody in particular - I’m just saying it has to have a sense of danger to it, of real rebellion. And that’s not to say anything about these artists. That’s why I’m trying to be so careful with what I mean. It’s not their fault that they’re coming on the tail end of something that’s sort of really been explored.
In terms of general rock and roll culture, it really starts with Elvis – although there were other people before that. Louis Armstrong you can argue was the first true rock star.
That’s interesting… I never really thought of him in that way.
BC: I mean, he was the first true avant-garde, groundbreaking artist that destroyed everything in his path. Because he was that good and he was that groundbreaking. He was that much of a person unto himself.
I just don’t see… Let’s say you take my way of putting it… If it starts with Louis Armstrong – so that’s 1928 or whatever – and let’s say it kind of ended in 2000 – the death of whatever that era was. Ok, that’s a lot of time to reflect, dissect, put him in the movies, make fun of him – Oh, now he’s fat! – to be dismissive of the person and then find that the public won’t let them go because they’re so beloved: All of these things that we’ve been through as a nation with our rock stars. Now take that into a country… Nigeria maybe had Fela [Kuti] but they haven’t had the Beatles, you know? India maybe had Ravi Shankar but, I mean, they haven’t had Nirvana. I’d like to see that. That, to me, would be mind blowing.
I think, if I’m really trying to dig down into your question, that’s where I go. You’ve got to go somewhere where they haven’t had that experience collectively.
- Jim Ryan
** For part one of this interview, click HERE **
(Details on Saturday's Billy Corgan show at Ravinia below)
Never miss a story or interview! Simply enter your email address and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.
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