Rock and Roll
Smashing Pumpkins Frontman Billy Corgan: What I Learned as a Rock Star
The Smashing Pumpkins frontman tells Chris Lee what it takes and how to last in the ‘murderous business’ of music.
Billy Corgan has seen a million faces and rocked them all. As frontman and primary songwriter for the alterna-rock group Smashing Pumpkins, he has presided over a multiplatinum-selling, arena-rocking string of successes since 1988. And now eight albums in, with an ambitious 44-track “song cycle” called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope in the offing, Corgan remains the last original Pumpkin on the lineup—“the survivor” as he prefers to think of himself.
Not content to sit back on past accomplishments, though, the Pumpkins have a new CD, Oceania, which debuted at No. 4 on the national album chart last month and is being greeted as the best thing the band has done since 1995’s Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which became a cultural touchstone, selling nearly 10 million copies.
But then, as a former boyfriend of Courtney Love (and as someone who managed to utterly befuddle celeb-watchers by dating Jessica Simpson in 2009), Corgan has sailed the seas of cultural indifference with his various side projects, and now takes the existential condition of rock stardom with utmost seriousness. In particular, he has choice words for the too-cool-for-school indie-rock community and its snarling mouthpiece, the Pitchfork music blog.
The 45-year Corgan shared some of his accrued rock-star wisdom with The Daily Beast:
A “murderous business”
Rock ’n’ roll is a murderous business.
To paraphrase a conversation I once had with Pete Townshend: When you get it right, they show up, and when you don’t, they don’t give a fuck.
Somewhere along the way, I decided my interest was in that causal relationship between pushing the button and seeing what happens. In pre-YouTube days, I’d be standing on the stage with the band. Things would be going horrible. I’d say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re having a really terrible gig tonight.” I’d see my band mates stiffen up like they wanted to punch me. “We’re very sorry. We’re not going to give you your money back. But we promise from this moment forward to make it more interesting.” You’d hear them go, “Uuurghhh!” Like mob mentality settling in.
But the interesting thing about putting that energy out there, those concerts ended up being some of the greatest we ever played. It was all about the willingness to get off the train track.
That’s where the juice of artistic joy is. If it was about being formulaic in a Bon Jovi sense, you hire somebody who’s a really smart producer, spend the money. You shit out that one hit song, and you’re back on top. But we don’t come from that. We want the whole starship: the full album, the full experience.
The assumption is always that you’re just going to do the same kind of music you made before. We’ve never done that. But you feel the weight of that expectation. Setting off to record new music six-plus years ago, we looked at it like, “Can we take what we used to do and recontextualize it?”
But when we put that music out—2007’s Zeitgeist—all we heard was, “Oh, it’s not what I want.” It’s the sort of impressionistic version of what you’re supposed to sound like: the greatest-hits version of your sound. We got this weird, negative reaction, this chorus of, “Well, if you guys were smart, you’d just update the sound of one of your classic albums.”
Then touring was a dark thing with people getting really pissed off and screaming. Coming off of that, I went back to the sandbox and decided I’m just going to go back to what I do, start over, and take my lumps along the way.
So in the process of trial and error, we started to dial in the things we were interested in doing and getting to where the hot spot was in terms of energy. And that wasn’t just doing classic Smashing Pumpkins music again. We knew where we were going to go.
Meanwhile we’re getting reams of bad press. We recorded our album in total seclusion knowing that we had found something within. And since then, the reaction has been pretty equal to what we knew about it.
Letter to a young rock ’n’ roll contrarian
If you’re 20 years old and you aspire to be like me or Kurt Cobain or Courtney Love or Trent Reznor, you’re not going to make it that way. You won’t succeed. Let’s say you are the next Kurt Cobain. You will be appropriated on your first album by the Pitchfork community. Your record company will rally around that idea because that’s your marketing platform. But the minute you’re in that world, you’re frozen.
Those Pitchfork people are very much about social codes, very much about whether or not you’re wearing the right T-shirt. That orthodoxy is no different than the rigidity of the football team at school. You can’t break the social order if you’re preaching to the choir. And the choir already all has cool haircuts!
You’ve got to want to subvert the social order of the high school. That’s why Nirvana was so fucking dangerous. They had the jocks listening to them. Kurt Cobain used to talk about how weird it was to be performing and look out into the crowd to see the people who used to beat him up cheering along.
Guns N’ Roses did it. The Beatles did it. That’s where the critical mass of subversion comes in. Now you have a big enough indie culture to support itself. But it’s kind of like when you walk into the cool coffee house and you don’t belong and everybody looks at you funny. It becomes a scene unto itself.
This is the culture that told me I was done five years ago.
The last Pumpkin
Circa ’93, the name Smashing Pumpkins, in and of itself, made people go, “Aw, I fucking hate that band.” Or, “I fucking love that band!” The name still has a charge in it. It hasn’t been gentrified.
If it had broken up in 2000 and never come back, the name would be pretty shiny right now. But when I tapped back into it, all those old grudges came back to haunt. I’ve been taking them on one at a time like the Chicago guy I am. Guys and girls lining up and I’m like, “Let’s fucking go for it.”
But it’s not a fight mentality. I believe in the rightness of it, and I believe I have a right to it. By taking on the negative charge of “you can’t do that,” there’s a transformational aspect that’s possible if you’re willing to accept the truth in it. So when people say, “You shouldn’t be touring under the name,” I say, ‘That’s a really good point.” I get it.
The name of the band means more than who’s in it. I have to be there. But maybe there comes a point like KISS where KISS is going to continue on without Gene [Simmons] and Paul [Stanley]. Maybe there’ll come a point in Smashing Pumpkins history where this band will continue on without me. I’ll just write songs.
On being a “pain in the ass”
Where’s the rebellion right now? There is almost no music about what’s going on politically—which is crazy, because this is the craziest political time I’ve ever lived in. I’m talking big picture: where are the cultural markers? Where are the bands of dissent? Where has the pushback gone?
When I’m treated like a weirdo for the pushback I give, I go, “Wait a minute. I’ve been doing this for 25 fucking years!”
I’m not in this to just sell things. I’m in it for the joy of finding some new, untapped energy. It’s that moment of identifying—zoom, wham!—that’s what I’m in it for. The retirement plan in rock ’n’ roll is: “You’ve had that moment. Move on. Take the check.” Listen, I’ve left a lot on the table by being a pain in the ass. I like the blood sport of it. And when I’m done, I’ll walk away.
On rock ’n’ roll longevity:
If you’re really talented, you should be able to run until the end. Just like Neil Young or Johnny Cash.
All these [indie-rock] kids are going to wake up and realize they’ve been used. That’s where my heart hurts for them. When they go, “Wait, what happened to the circus that used to love me?” Well, your second record’s not good enough and they’re on to the next thing. You gotta have enough self-preservation or go with the wrong crowd into your doom.
That’s all I’m saying: be wise enough. Use whoever you’ve got to use but have some self-preservation. Rock ’n’ roll is a survivor’s game.
—As told to and condensed by Newsweek/Daily Beast senior entertainment writer Chris Lee.