As Smashing Pumpkins prepare to release their new album, Monuments To An Elegy, on Monday (December 15), we delve back into the Uncut archives (October 2013, Take 197) to hear Billy Corgan reveal all about his tortuous, and torturous, journey to rock stardom, from Gish to Mellon Collie and Oceania… Interview: Nick Hasted
Since forming the Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan’s career has often been overshadowed by bursts of hubris and rampant egomania. But Corgan’s extraordinary ambition for his band has prevailed – they’ve sold over 30 million albums since the original quartet of Corgan, James Iha (guitar), D’Arcy Wretzky (bass) and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums) convened in Chicago in 1988. Now the sole original member of the band, Corgan looks back on his work to date. “It’s a weird thing to have people cherry-pick and go, ‘Between here and here, yeah, but between here and here, no…’” he tells us. “Like any life, there are good and bad years. But I would point to Buster Keaton, or Tarkovsky – I’m in that mode, targeting something that only I understand. And in that way I’m an idiot to even play the pop game. I just do it because I’m sort of a sick fuck who enjoys it.”
Recorded at Butch Vig’s Smart Studios, just months after Nirvana recorded Nevermind there, the Pumpkins’ debut sold 450,000 copies…
We felt that songwriting-wise, we had a long way to go. But our focus at that time was getting noticed in clubs. A lot of that music had been played for a while before it was recorded, which is why it has a sort of compact density. We were playing to 300, 500 people, in working-class Chicago or Milwaukee on a Thursday, and if people are there, they’re drinking and they’re talking, and the music has to be really focused. We knew we had to make an impact with the record, too. So with Butch Vig we said, “Can you make this have a kind of kinetic power?” Jimmy and I would drive up from Chicago and stay with these people for a week, and we’d work 12 or 14 hours a day. Mostly me. Butch Vig is a very exacting producer, and suddenly I’m singing a song eight hours in a row. Reactions to the record were visceral. People loved it, or hated it. Actually in hindsight, the music of Gish is quite quaint. Outside of a little bit of strings right at the end, it’s basically two guitars, bass, drums. But its success was explosive. We’d come into one town and there’d be 100 people and you’d be super-bummed, we’d go to the next town and there’d be 800 and they were climbing off the walls. So something was happening, and when you’re caught in that tidal wave, it’s like an upsweep. You can feel it coming, this earth-rumbling thing. It was heady days.
Corgan controversially sidelines Wretzsky and Iha, playing everything bar drums. Hit singles such as “Disarm” distance them from their grunge peers, and the album sells six million copies.
What affected Siamese Dream was, you’d better sell a lot of records. Because you’re facing a world with “indie” bands selling 10 million copies. If you don’t approximate those numbers, you’re facing oblivion. I’ve never felt pressure like that in my life. Butch and I would say to them: “You’ve had years to prepare yourself for this moment. You’ve got two people in the band who can do it, and two who can’t.” James and D’Arcy were there every day. They were in the other room. In terms of the physical recording, Siamese Dream is 98% me and Jimmy. I was so focused on not wanting to go back to the record store and being a nobody. Making it about drove me crazy. Made me deaf, because all the guitars were with fuzz, and fuck, hours of fuzz will kill your ears. I would go home nauseous from the volume. So we literally had to make the album at conversational level. In the middle of that, Jimmy disappeared. You’ve got the label guy going, “When are you guys going to finish this thing?” You’d play it to him and he’d go, “OK, keep going.” Then a month later he’s back complaining about the money again [laughs].
MELLON COLLIE AND THE INFINITE SADNESS
Corgan gambles the farm on an ambitious, 28-song double-album supposedly describing a 15-year-old’s mood swings, from the epic yearning of “Tonight, Tonight” to the heavy “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”. A US No 1.
The record was so ambitious. It has a lot to do with having Flood as a producer. He’d teach you to confront your own fears of why you won’t go into something. So he’d say, “Let’s go try this song like it’s a reggae song,” and we’d go, “Wha-at?” He’d get you to confront these internal biases of what is cool and what isn’t. He’d say, “What is this ’70s shit you guys are playing?” And we’d go, “Well, it’s like the fill the guy plays in ‘Love Is Like Oxygen’ by Sweet…” and he’s like, “Jesus Christ!” It was that kind of dynamic. He’d come at us straight, and he was able to expand the vision of the band to this much more epic scope.
I think I threw around a lot of conceptual language about the record because it was sort of convenient. But when I listen to it now, I don’t see it that way. I see it as a willingness to talk about everything I was seeing. So many of those lyrics were written so fast and on the fly, I couldn’t even tell you what I was thinking. I’d been non-stop for four years. And now we were back in the solitude of the studio. We decided not to be in a regular recording studio, so we had our own space, which we cutely called Pumpkinland. So we’re in Pumpkinland, and it’s our table, it’s our TV. That created a kind of familial, communal atmosphere. It was a bit more homey, and it felt like, ‘This is our world, and OK, that’s what we’re going to make.’
The record company had a fucking conniption: “Double-albums don’t sell…” “You’re going to kill yourself.” I fought them five to seven times. Then it went to No 1 in America. I mean, that’s a weird feeling. Because, to speak like an American, you can’t fuck with No 1! I was raised in a home where nothing was ever good enough, and when I got to the top, I expected that finally it’d be like, “OK, Billy, you’re in the club.” But it doesn’t work like that. A very common review for Mellon Collie was, “The most unlikely rock star. How did this guy get here?” It was like being in a Kafka book. I kept thinking, “When does this get good?” Psychologically, it was devastating.
THE AEROPLANE FLIES HIGH
You want more? Here comes a collection of five Mellon Collie B-sides.
The simple tag-line is, you show me anyone who’s insane enough to do 28 songs for an album, and then follow it up with 28 B-sides. [Laughs] It’s me waving the flag of insanity! I sacrificed a lot of my personal life at the time to do it, because I was hell-bent on proving whatever point it was that I wanted to prove. And I did. I mean, it sold, it’s very successful. I was willing to let it be a little more warts and all, because of the constraints it was made under. I was working three days and then going straight back out on tour. But there’s a beauty in its honesty. I was thumbing my nose at everybody. There was a hubris, and it was like, you cannot follow me. I don’t care how goth you think you are, I’ve gone to a deeper, darker place than all of you. Once I realised that the triangle of band, fans and media was not going to align for the Smashing Pumpkins, there’s a point where you go, “Fuck you all,” because if you’re not going to give it to me now, when are you going to give it to me? Like I’ve done all this, and now what do I do? It feels kind of hollow, I didn’t get out of it what I wanted. I’m going to a therapist twice a week going, “How do you keep me from jumping off a roof?” Because the thing I thought should happen now isn’t going to happen, and that sets the stage for everything that follows.
A mournful synth-rock album recorded in tragic circumstances. Touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin dies from an overdose; Chamberlin also overdoses and is sacked, and Corgan’s mother dies of cancer.
Did Jimmy being sacked cripple the band? Oh, absolutely. I should’ve quit right then. Instead, I doubled-down on a bad situation, and it got worse. The band went into a Cold War vibe. People stopped talking. And with walking away from rock stylistically, I was burning my bridges. What is so obvious now is, because I wouldn’t deal with my mother’s death, and then deal with Jimmy’s departure, I made a record that tiptoes around what I was feeling. If I allowed myself to feel, I would’ve stopped. Instead I did something to keep me busy. So the record is rife with this desperation of somebody who needs to take a break mentally, spiritually. I just hear a lot of loss in the music. My argument at the time was, “I’ve made some good music, it’s futuristic.” But what I didn’t realise was that the album also lacks joy. What you’re hearing is basically a funerary march, and usually people only want to listen to those when they’re at a funeral. Then, boom, here come the shit reviews, it’s not selling, and the label’s bailing on the band. I felt burned and spurned. Without Jimmy, I was lacking the other resource that I needed to make it work. I didn’t try to replace him on most of the tracks, and it gives the album this weird hollow feeling.
MACHINA/THE MACHINES OF GOD
D’Arcy quits, replaced by Hole’s Melissa Auf der Maur, as Corgan sets course for a final voyage into a black hole of relentless heavy rock.
It gets darker! The key with the Machina period is that I finished Adore and went, “Right, I want off this sinking ship.” I was determined to sink it my way. So I reached out to Jimmy, we hadn’t spoken in – three years? I said, “I’d like you to return to the band for one album. Let’s get the four of us in a room, make a good album, tour, and then put it to bed.” He was open to it, the others weren’t so keen. We started doing it, and D’Arcy left. So my perfect plan blew up. So now this album also becomes about the sorrow of who’s not there. You’ve got two albums in a row now about death, loss, the end of the band. Plus the production was so dense. I think people scratched their heads, like, “What trip are you on?” So by the time Melissa joins, it was like, how do we get to the finish line? I was just looking at a calendar going, “Can I make it nine more months?” When it was done, I was like, “Good, it’s over.” The depression kicked in a couple of months later. “Wow, I don’t know where I am, because my whole adult life has been this band. Now what do I do?”
MARY STAR OF THE SEA
Billy, Chamberlin, David Pajo and Matt Sweeney jam – a new band forms. Though not for long…
First of all, I started making a solo album in Salt Lake City, which I have some tracks for which have never been bootlegged, so I have half a solo album somewhere. Then Jimmy flew out to hang out with me, and we started working. Next thing you know we’re talking about having a band, it starts to take shape, and the thing I’m noticing is – I’m having fun. I haven’t had fun for years. Like, you just sit together with a couple of buddies and play. So it was like, “Maybe I should have a band where I can have fun. It’ll be low-stress, I can write some good pop music.” I was listening to a lot of folk music at the time, and for me the best Zwan music was more folk-based and acoustic anyway. What Zwan should have been was a band that got together for a couple of gigs, and that was it. Or like The Basement Tapes. Once it became a serious endeavour, that was the fatal error. You can’t take indie musicians and expect them to stop acting like indie musicians. I grew up playing sports, I want to win and get to the highest level. I was taking three people who aren’t like that into a much larger spotlight, and their reaction was, “We think it’s kind of not-cool.” I was like, “That’s all fine and good, but why are you ordering lobster every night? And why am I paying for it?”
A solo album flops, then the Pumpkins return – or at least Billy and Chamberlin do.
I’d made my solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, where I was willing to take an observational role, which is why the music has a certain coldness to it. Then reforming the Pumpkins came from a combination of forces. I think the Trojan Horse argument holds up. Because here I am with my solo album and it’s treated completely differently. Plus, I could see the apathy within the music business and rock’n’roll, and I thought the edge of the Pumpkins’ spear still had some bite to it. Especially looking at the Pitchfork, snotty world, I thought, the Pumpkins are like poison to those people. With Zeitgeist, I thought, ‘I’ll just reintroduce this, with a cleaner, simpler, more direct, metallic musical statement, and then we’ll begin a new journey.’ I thought there was some good work on there. All you heard was, “Oh. It’s not Siamese Dream. Next.” I was like, “Huh?” Because in seven years away from that higher level, I didn’t realise the culture had turned into Greatest Hits land. I didn’t think it’d happen to us. Zeitgeist was my last album with Jimmy. Is he my only musical soulmate? You could argue that, yeah. We played like we were on fire, we broke each other, we broke everything near us, so the audience can sit in a comfortable chair and go, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting. Look at those two boys setting themselves on fire.” I didn’t have to explain myself to him.
Billy goes back to basics with yet another Pumpkins lineup for the abrasive Teargarden
By Kaleidyscope EPs, which leads to Oceania’s synth-folk album, his most prettily approachable music since Mellon Collie. I thought, ‘Let’s go back to the beginning, record some music with my friends on a four-track machine, and see if it still means anything.’ What was most illustrative about the beginning of the Teargarden By Kaleidyscope process was not the music I was making – which was decent, not great – but the reaction to it. Because I put out pretty good songs that the average Pumpkins fan should have loved, and they were just shitting all over it. I thought, “OK, now I see your game. You want me to go back to something.” Pick your fantasy – that the original band’s gonna reform, that Billy’s going to make Siamese Dream-type melancholy music. Either I’m going to sell out everything I’ve ever stood for to satisfy you, or I’m going to break this hypnosis. Teargarden became about that. Once I’d done that, then I was able to make Oceania. You see, the funny thing is, if people would just let me do what I want to without giving me shit all the time, they’d probably get more out of me that they liked, and familiarity. It’s just the way I’m wired. So with Oceania I’ve relaxed and gone, you know what, I don’t have to play to any crowd any more that I don’t want. You see that attitude in people like Keith Richards. You put your foot in the ocean and let the waves hit it, and you can make music another day. Then you’re free.
Photo: Paul Elledge