Exclaim.ca Interview, July 3rd 2012
Q & A with Billy Corgan by Scott A. Gray
It’s been a long road to Oceania, the seventh LP (eighth, if you count the first free internet release by a major artist, 2000′s Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music) by the Smashing Pumpkins. After reviving the alternative rock juggernaut for 2007′s Zeitgeist with only drum deity Jimmy Chamberlin remaining from the classic line-up, mastermind Billy Corgan was met with a lot of scepticism for heading the only group among his ’90s contemporaries to reform with the express purpose of creating new music. “If we don’t lead with new music, we don’t lead with anything,” Corgan says. “We’ve had to go out of our way, and in many ways have suffered to paint that picture. Then you deal with this blog crowd that think you haven’t written a good song since 1995.” Corgan laments. “That’s a strange position to be in, but I think we’ve persevered and Oceania is the beneficiary of our collective will to continue to push forward no matter what.” With a revamped group of tremendous players comprising a new incarnation of the Pumpkins since the launch of the wildly ambitious 44-song Teargarden by Kaleidyscope (of which Oceania is a part), Corgan has reached another period of peak song creation within the framework of epic, progressive space-rock, or what used to be simply referred to as “alternative music.”
What are your current fixations?
Don’t really have any. I think that’s the point of my life at this point. I’m getting rid of all the fixations. If there’s any left I’d say it’s just music.
Why do you live where you do?
[Laughs] I live in Chicago and I’ve tried to get out of here a bunch of times and I always seem to come back home. I don’t know what it is about the combination of bad weather and the working class that seems to work for me artistically, but it seems to do well work. Music work. I guess home is home.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art.
That’s interesting. I would say the original version of Solaris by the Russian filmmaker [Andrei] Tarkovsky. That’s definitely one of those movies that when you come out the other end of it, you certainly feel different. I thought Steven Soderbergh’s version was the good Hollywood version of it, but part of what attracted me to the original was the sort of meditative power of it. It’s still a fascinating concept.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig?
I remember seeing U2 play probably only about six months after 9/11, and I was in New York during 9/11, I was living about ten blocks away from where the towers were. So, the wounds were still pretty fresh for everybody, and you know Bono, as only he can, seemed to sum up the moment on that tour. I can’t remember what they were playing but they did this thing where they scrolled all the names behind them as they played and it was just one of those moments where it was like: “Okay, this is why rock and roll still means something to me.” It’s not about the politics, it’s not about the B.S. and who’s on top, it really is about when a band can seize a moment and take you somewhere. I’ve had a lot of those moments, but that one really jumps out.
What have been your career highs and lows?
I think I’d have a slightly different perspective than people would imagine. I think the highs have been when I’ve had a highly functioning band that could very quickly and readily turn new songs around into music that we could play. I would say the lows have been when alternative music was sort of swamped in by the changes in the music business combined with the shift into what I would call a precocious niche culture. Alternative music has always been niche culture and will continue to be in its truest definition but now we’ve broken down into ten thousand sub-genres with everybody competing for who’s cooler or who’s dumber and that’s really sapped a lot of the power, the collective power, of an alternative band or artist to marshal forces around them ? which maybe are more in support of their ideology than their music ? that can push them and their ideas and the expansiveness of what they’re bringing into the mainstream culture.
What I see is that you have this very fractionalized thing, that now those bands can’t get enough steam behind them to launch into the mainstream. I think that’s really sapped alternative music of its true effective power, which is to mess things up. It’s basically messing things up for people who like things messed up so it’s giving rise to this very safe rock and roll. I was reading an article by Chuck Klosterman about how he’d gone to see Creed and Nickleback on the same night in New York, asking “Why do people hate these bands and yet there are audiences fist pumping and singing along to every word?” It’s the dichotomy of the mainstream’s music and the alternative music and yet now, never the twain shall meet. We’ve had a few of those moments, with the Byrds singing “Eight Miles High” and having a hit with it, and Sly and the Family Stone doing this very sublime soul music. There’s something that happened. There are still dangerous elements in straight-up pop. There are very radical producers doing stuff like Nicki Minaj. But it doesn’t seem to be crossing over from the alternative ranks like it used to and like it had done for 50 or 60 years, and that, to me, is very suspicious, because now it’s like everyone’s just going to exist in their own bubble and a self-justifying bubble ? see isn’t our bubble better than your bubble? And that’s something I’ve always been against, no matter what era I lived in. It’s shocking to me as someone who came of age in the ’90s with the barriers we were able to break down collectively, that it’s just turned into some other weird thing. Part of what we took pride in was introducing fans to stuff like Electric Light Orchestra and Mudhoney. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re not supposed to just glorify your own subculture. That, to me, is very, very strange, but that’s what we live in now.
What should everyone shut up about?
Themselves. Including me. It’s become a “me” times a thousand world. And if you look at the economic situations that are developing in the western world, we’re going to have to learn to work a little bit… better, and nicer, collectively. Ultimately, maturity as a culture and a civilization is going to be a collective mentality. Meaning, if we work together, we all get more but if we only take care of ourselves, we all get a lot less.
What traits do you most like and dislike about yourself?
I’m a good friend. I’m the type of friend that’s really there when somebody needs me, and I don’t hide behind my silly life to avoid those types of situations. Dislike, I’d say, I’m a workaholic and I don’t enjoy my life the way that I should. There’s a point where it’s taken away from the quality of life I should’ve had by this point. That still needs to be sorted.
What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Antique shopping, watching baseball and hanging out with my friends and my animals: couldn’t be any better.
What advice should you have taken but did not?
I viewed my public personality in the ’90s as part of the experiment, and I was willing to toy with the way people perceived me, even if I was, in essence, playing a character. There were people around me who tried to warn me that those were short-term artistic gains in a long-term, bigger problem. I think if I had kept my mouth shut ? easier said than done ? more and let the music do the talking, I’d probably be in a better place today musically. Not internal musically ? in the way the music is perceived. Often times my big mouth has overshadowed the accomplishments of my bands, but it’s a little late for that now. Having gone that route, I can say that it is an amazing tool to reveal hypocrisy. The critical class often, especially now, has no pedigree. They’re clever writers. Maybe they went to college. They haven’t busted their dues; you know, eight years on a leading newspaper staff and dealt with the reality of the politics. So, it’s easy to judge what a person in my position has done politically or not politically when you don’t have to deal with politics. But it is funny when those bloggers try to transition into the mainstream world and they eventually come across the same glass ceilings we all do. Which is, opinions are free and ultimately if all you have is an opinion you actually make yourself redundant.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I’m always impressed by the collective spirit of the people of Canada. Overall, very earth conscious, ecology conscious and certainly seem to live a bit better than Americans in terms of health and seem more politically engaged on a deeper level than the American social classes. That always strikes me when I come in contact with friends who are Canadian or I spend time in Canada. You feel a little more clarity about what the country is trying to get out of itself.
What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
Meet the Beatles. Age five. Vinyl.
What was your most memorable day job?
Pizza delivery. I delivered pizza (laughs).
How do you spoil yourself?
Well, back in the day I used to blow copious amounts of cash on really fast toys. Now, I let myself buy whatever antiques I want to buy. But we’re talking like, $20 kind of stuff.
If you weren’t playing music, what else might you be doing?
It’s hard to say. It would have been a different answer before the band. I don’t see me not playing music now. If I’d never taken up a career in music I probably would have been a history professor or a psychologist.
What do you fear most?
I think fear is not real. If you acknowledge fear then in essence you make it real. There are things I’m afraid of but I don’t think they’re real, if that makes sense.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
One night that leaps to mind…I was in a room with Howard Stern, Marilyn Mason, Jenna Jameson, Sherman Hemsley, Flavor Flav and Conan O’Brien. Now there’s a party mix in the seventh ring of hell.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
John Lennon’s probably one of my great heroes. So, John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix, and I’d serve them the one thing I can make, which is beef stew. Hope you like it, John and Jimi.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
That’s a good question. Probably one of my own. I’m going out putting myself over. I don’t know what song I’d pick…probably something incredibly ironic, like “Today”. There he is lying in the casket, “today is the greatest day.” [Chuckles].