Smashing Pumpkins first burst onto the then-fledgling alternative rock scene in 1988. But by the time that the band released their 1993 sophomore album, Siamese Dream, they were international superstars.
The multiplatinum-selling and Grammy-winning group enjoyed a high profile and extremely successful career throughout the ‘90s, until highly publicized band in-fighting and drug abuse derailed the quartet in 2000. Main guitarist, lead vocalist and principal songwriter Billy Corgan decided to revive the act in 2005, and by 2006, the Smashing Pumpkins were back full-time. Now, with Corgan left as the only remaining original member, the band is working its way back into the rock & roll conversation. I caught up with the controversial and charismatic band leader a few hours before he headlined the recent Wrex the Halls show at Viejas Arena
Scott McDonald: How are you?
Billy Corgan: I’ve got a little bit of a cold. It sucks. It’s really hard to tour during this season. Things are flying around, you’re tired, you’re on airplanes, and people are hacking. There’s not much you can do.
SM: What first got you interested in music?
BC: My father was a musician, and I completely idolized him. But I never actually considered playing music at first, because both he and the rest of my family openly discouraged me from it. I think they thought that if I played music that I would end up just like him, and he had a lot of personal issues. So even though I showed musical ability at an early age, it just wasn’t nurtured. But despite all of that, every time I got around an instrument, I was completely fascinated. Pianos especially. And I had an aunt who had one. But she wouldn’t let me play it. I had to sneak in there when she wasn’t home.
SM: What changed?
BC: The light-bulb moment for me was when I went over to my friend’s basement where he was playing a guitar that he’d just gotten. There were two girls sitting there just staring at him, awestruck. I had this flash of lightning right then and there, and I’ve never lost it. I went against the wishes of my family, and that was difficult. But it was a weird moment where I just knew that was what I wanted to do, so I took to it.
SM: Despite the ups-and-downs, Smashing Pumpkins is moving toward its 25th year. Did you believe the band had that kind of longevity when you first started?
BC: No. At that time, we were very focused on playing what was being called alternative music, and the best you could hope for was, maybe, playing to 5,000 people. And the bands that we looked up to, like Dinosaur Jr., were playing to a thousand people. There was very little MTV play, and radio play was almost nonexistent. The goals were more about just doing something that you felt passionate about. Looking back, I can kind of understand why I was able to be successful, but at the time, I could have never imagined what it was going to turn into, both in the positive and the negative.
SM: After a six-year break working on other bands and solo projects, what was it that brought you back to the Pumpkins?
BC: I think what I found was that I built my artistic life, in many ways, around the Smashing Pumpkins. So when I tried to take that out of the center, I was pretty lost. And at first, I just wrote that off as being silly. I mean, what was the difference? I was just playing different types of music. But Smashing Pumpkins was designed, consciously or unconsciously, to be something that could encompass all of my musical interests. So when I got out, I went into a compartmentalizing mode – I’m going to do Zwan, and it’s going to be this kind of band; or I’m going to do a solo project, and it’s going to be this kind of record. But I found that something was missing. I missed the complete vision. And it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy doing different types of music. I did. I enjoyed that kind of straight-jacketing of myself. But I felt like I was making minor points, when Smashing Pumpkins was always about making major points. And once I put that back into my life, it was easier to understand what I needed to do next. And it’s been a process of rebuilding the band’s public perception -- which has actually a lot more difficult than I thought it would have been -- but it’s also been a lot about rebuilding the way that I approach music.
SM: And how is it different now?
BC: A lot of the earlier Pumpkins music was really driven from a negative point of view. Feeling overlooked and feeling unappreciated really drove me, but it also sort of hurt me at the same time. It was kind of like letting scorpions sting you so that you can get stronger. At some point, that becomes toxic. It’s just been great to try and rebuild the machine from a positive, loving and appreciative place. It’s not the easiest thing to do in this particular culture, but I feel like I’ve been successful at it. The music has come back to me in an organic wellspring without trying. And that’s a great indicator that I’m in the right place at the right time.
SM: Is this the right place and the right time?
BC: The key for me was getting back to a place where I’m really creatively engaged and excited about what we’re doing. There’s something about feeling that whatever you do, you’re already failing before you start. I know the public doesn’t like the killing of the fantasy, but when you’re in a recording studio 12 hours a day, and you’re supposed to put your whole heart and soul into it, and you’re not 22 anymore, and you’re in your 40s, and you have family and a partner that both need your attention and deserve it, you’re just making a lot of life sacrifices, and you really need to believe that you can win. I’m the type of person that when I was in the major label system, particularly with Warner Bros. over the last few years, I always felt like I was losing even before I opened my mouth or played a chord. And there’s something about that kind of mentality that is so unhealthy. Again, I know it kind of kills the rock fantasy, but I want to be healthy. I want to have a healthy mind, a healthy body and a healthy environment around me.
SM: What kind of difference is it making on the band?
BC: Where I’m really seeing the difference is in a ton of new fans -- young kids, like, 16, 20, 22 -- people who maybe passed over the Pumpkins because it wasn’t cool to their friends and now they’ve discovered this whole, rich catalog of music. It’s so exciting to engage youth culture again at the ground level. We feel like we’re getting back to a place where what we’re doing really matters. And it doesn’t just matter on a commercial level. The music industry has lost its ability to appreciate that, without the cultural impact, it can’t be successful. They’ve just turned it into a numbers game. They have these bands that, on the surface, are selling records and look very successful, but they have zero cultural impact. I mean, they couldn’t get themselves arrested outside of the major cities in America. And when rock & roll loses that ability to influence culture from the outside or within, it loses its great power of manifestation. When music is just music, that’s fine, but then I’d just rather listen to Odetta or the Gipsy Kings. If you want to just go [hear] music for music, there’s so much great stuff out there in the world that has absolutely nothing to do with selling records. If you want to go about cultural impact, then you have to look at the great artists of the past and see how they were able to synergize the cultural, spiritual and musical aspects around them into creating something bigger and how it pushed them from within to create greater work. The Stones, Dylan, Nirvana -- there’s a ton of examples out there. To me, that’s got to be the mantle by which you judge everything. The music business is just completely lost in that way.
SM: The band’s eighth “album,” Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, is 44 individual songs that you’re releasing one at a time, over the course of a few years. Why do it that way?
BC: I think what we’re doing now is a way to create a different bond between the band and the audience. Somebody asked me the question recently, “Why aren’t you selling a million records and selling out arenas?” And I just want to know with what MTV and what radio stations are you supposed to do that with? It’s like asking someone with one arm to do what you can do with two. The business is half of what it was, yet people still put all of these great expectations on it. It’s just not realistic. And for a while I was really uptight about that because I felt like we were failing because we weren’t as good. But then I realized that was misguided and went back to a place where if I can get the music right, and I can get the band right, and I can get myself right, then everything will go where its supposed to go. And that’s been true with the band rising back up to the level where it belongs and being in accordance with the current state of the business. And that’s pleasing, because that’s where we belong. We don’t have to feel like we’re one of the biggest bands in the world. Even if we were for one flashy moment, that had a lot to do with the generational moment. I’m not that delusional. But at this point, I think the band deserves to be ranked among the best in the world for a variety of reasons. And that’s what we’re working on right now: to put into the right place. Because when it gets too intellectual, too marketing-centric, too business, there’s something about it that smells fishy and it makes me feel uncomfortable. So with us, its always got to be music first.
SM: What’s most important to you moving forward?
BC: I feel like I’m a musician for life, and my biggest concern is making sure that I actually do make music for the rest of my life. There’s going to be great years and there’s going to be s--- years, but I’m the type of person who’s always willing to let people in on the journey.