MUSIC RADAR INTERVIEW, JUNE 21st, 2012
Geddy Lee and Billy Corgan talk albums vs. singles BY JOE BOSSO
It’s a good time to be Geddy Lee, and it’s also a good time to be Billy Corgan. Within a week of each other, both artist’s bands, Rush and The Smashing Pumpkins, have released albums (Clockwork Angels and Oceania, respectively), that stand among their finest work.
Significantly, both albums break the mold for Music Business 101 in 2012 in that they’re concept pieces – Clockwork Angels is a self-contained narrative, while Oceania is part of the Pumpkins’ adventurous Teargarden By Kaleidyscope project. That both groups, Rush and The Smashing Pumpkins, have hit creative highs while rejecting the notion that ‘the hit single is king’ was the starting point for a discussion MusicRadar recently had with Lee and Corgan in which the two talked about how they navigate through the murky waters of the music business and rise to the challenges of what Corgan calls the “iPod era.”
It’s a fascinating conversation, and what follows is Part One of our interview:
You’ve both released albums that can be appreciated from beginning to end – that right there is a concept. Do you feel as if you’re somehow attempting to revitalize a format that others are discarding? Or is it more a way to revitalize what the band is doing?
Geddy Lee: ”I don’t think we look at it as revitalizing a thing outside of the band. To me, it’s just dependent on what ideas you have cooking and what you want to accomplish – for us, between the three of us. It seemed, at this stage, we were chomping at the bit to do something a bit more ambitious and to see if we could stretch out and tell a story in a longer form. We didn’t set out to do an album that was 66 minutes long. [laughs] That’s kind of the way it ended up.
“But it was also really important that these songs not only be a concept and tell a story in a sort of rock opera tradition, but stand out as individual songs, and that’s really the trick and that’s the tough part, to make them make sense in the context of each other but also stand as individuals. From my point of view, it’s not so much a concern for the medium as a personal kind of band goal.”
Billy Corgan: ”Yeah, well, typical me, I said I wasn’t going to do albums anymore because I was just so sick of making them, and I could just tell from the audiences, they weren’t listening to them. And, of course, the minute I complain about that, some jerk would invariably Tweet, ‘That’s ’cause you don’t make good albums anymore.’ But I saw in the culture where the interest in the form was waning.
“That said, it’s still an effective way to create some sort of message. It doesn’t have to be a message like ‘We love the album.’ It’s just a way to create a cohesive statement. And even to just put walls on yourself, to focus yourself to say, ‘Can we come up with an hour of music that’s worth listening to in an iPod era?’… You know, the minute you get to the long interlude, somebody’s going to hit the ‘next’ button.
“So we’ve kind of re-evaluated from that standpoint. I’ve been getting these softball questions where people say, ‘Do you think the album’s back?’ And I’m saying, ‘No, I think it’s kind of on its last legs.’
“I’ve been saying for a while, that what we used to think of an album as a reason to put this music together and focus everybody on the moment. I still think it has to morph into a different form with either visuals or some other multimedia aspect to get people to actually appreciate the work in it – if you want that. If you’re just going to create an album of singles, then I guess you don’t care.
“It’s hard when you deal with tone and texture and context, because oftentimes I’ll leave really good songs off an album because they just won’t fit, because you want to tell this other kind of story. Once you see that being diminished, it’s really sad because so many times those are my favorite songs.”
What about EPs? Now, Billy, you’ve had some experience with the format – do you see EPs as being a viable alternative or even a bridge between the single and the album?
Corgan: ”No. I’ve released a couple of EPs lately, and I don’t know, it’s weird. It’s like, I don’t know where the delineation point is. There’s just something psychological about the idea of an album that arouses the public interest.”
Lee: ”I would agree with that.”
Corgan: ”An EP – people almost treat it like a stopgap.”
Lee: ”Yeah, and what does it mean anyway? I agree in the sense that at least an album is an idea; it feels like a complete idea. So for purposes of discussion and purposes of maintaining your own interests as an artist, it’s something you can get your teeth around.
“But an EP’s neither here nor there. It’s still not what the public wants. I agree with Billy that the form is morphing, and we don’t know what it’s going to morph into. The general public would prefer one song at a time, I think – but that doesn’t mean we have to go along with what they want. [laughs] What the general public desires, I think it still needs to have its artists that decide what’s important for them, and that ends up shaping the way people go.”
Corgan: ”Where it’s difficult is, as the public’s interest in albums has diminished, it sort of rewards those people who can come up with the one song. You have, in essence, the wrong end of the telescope. It’s like guilt by implication. So if you come up with this one song, people think, Oh, this artist is so great!”
Lee: ”It’s always been like that. That’s the history of pop music, really, that one song. And then you’ve got other people that are trying to make a career instead of worrying about one song.”
Back in the day, there were three models: you could be a singles act only, and sometimes that made you a one-hit wonder; or you could be like the Beatles and the Stones and release singles between albums; or you could be like Led Zeppelin and reject the single mentality altogether. Obviously, the first isn’t a great option, but given the choice, which model would you prefer?
Lee: ”I think that’s kind of obvious. We’re an album band, and we still believe in that – a group of songs. The way we approached Clockwork Angels was a little bit trying to break the mold by releasing two songs two years before the album was completed. That was our way of saying, ‘Does the album itself really matter anymore?’ But as soon as we released that, we realized it feels incomplete. It just doesn’t work for us. It’s nice to do that from time to time, but it’s hard for a band like us to exist without the album as its reference point from time to time.
“I don’t think the three examples you’ve given are really historically any different. You’ve always got different genres of music. For example, look at the jazz artist. And maybe there was a rock artist that would go the way of the jazz artist, where it’s a career, it’s an artist you’re interested in and you want to see what this artist is up to in this period of time. And the rock fan will become one of many branches of that tree. That’s kind of the way it’s going; it’s a very fragmented musical world now.”
Corgan: ”Personally, I prefer the Stones/Beatles model, but I think singles in this particular moment is almost an impossible game for let’s call it a ‘career artist.’ Because the people who are singles-driven and have saturated the market, that’s all they do.
“This is not an excuse, and I’m sort of loosely including Geddy and the boys in this – to sit there and figure out your seven-minute song takes a tremendous amount of energy. We do it because we believe in it, and we think it says something about us and our bigger journey and everything. We don’t sit in the studio and work with the Pro Tools guy on the three-minute song, and we’re stealing the hook from the guy who just had the last hit single, and we’re getting the guy who just worked for 3M in the studio.
“I’ve just been dating somebody who’s in the pop world. It’s crazy how that world works. They just rotate producers and writers around, and that’s all… Not a reflection on my ex, because they were different than that, but that’s all they do. That’s all they do.” [laughs]
Lee: ”It’s true. I was working in the studio recently with someone who was recording one of the pop artists who shall remain nameless. That pop artist had four different producers on one song. It blew my mind! Someone comes in and produces the beats, someone else produces the music, someone else produces the singing. So it’s assembly line music. It’s not even the same industry that Billy and I are in.”
Corgan: ”Alternative music has been infiltrated by this consciousness, so to be somebody who’s had great success in alternative radio, and then turn around and have them say, ‘Well, your new single just doesn’t compete…’ Meanwhile, they’re still playing my old singles, so I don’t know how my new single doesn’t compete when it’s kind of same-ish. And then they’re playing this kind of robot music… I mean, that’s why we’ve veered toward let’s call it ‘the depth’ of what we do.
“And the funny thing is, we didn’t talk about singles at all on this record. We didn’t even release a single, we haven’t even worked a single, and songs are now being picked off the album and being played by the alternative radio stations because they’re strong. And for the past few years where we’ve tried to get traction with radio and tried to work with them and played their radio shows, and hired the independent radio people to work the record, all this crap that they ask you to do, we couldn’t get anywhere because it didn’t fit into their weird demographic shit.”
Lee: ”It’s kind of an ageism thing. We’ve experienced that – there’s radio stations that won’t play a song of ours even though they may love it. They’ll say, ‘Well, we can’t say your band name on our radio station. That’s an old name, and our audience doesn’t want to hear that name.’ So you listen to the stations and they’re playing songs by other bands that have been around a while, and they’re crap songs. It’s such a strange selection process, and the rules that have been written by all these consultants for these different kinds of radio stations, it’s bizarre to me. It’s not merit-based at all.”
Corgan: ”Absolutely. That’s a great way to put it.”
Let’s take another point of view here: Do you feel that we might be in some weird cultural stopgap where artists just aren’t making great albums? Is it the bands or the culture – the audience – bringing about this shift?
Lee: ”That’s a big question. [laughs] I don’t know if you can blame anyone. It’s maybe just a dull part of the cycle. I think, basically, the music industry is scattered and in a mess. I think you’ve got lots of people that are so-called ‘experts’ that have no idea where it’s headed.
“So nobody knows what to do, and nobody knows who to direct and who to listen to, so consultants are trying to create some form or another, and that’s why it keeps changing. I think you just have to cross your fingers that there’s enough artists out there that keep producing interesting work, and eventually it will form a kind of wave that will force people to pay attention to it.”
Corgan: ”To kind of answer your question a little bit differently, I see the rise of the artist-entrepreneur. Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls recently raised a million dollars on a Kickstarter campaign to self-finance her record. In a weird way, that’s why my band and Rush are having this – renaissance isn’t the right word because we haven’t gone away in that way…
“But I think people are interested in people who have their own world. The old system which said, ‘Yeah, you guys are good and all that, Rush, but where’s the single?’ [laughs] And it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re selling out every night to people who don’t give a fuck about singles! They love our song The Trees, and that’s not a single – but it could be a single if we edited it down to two minutes.’
“I think we’re seeing, to use Geddy’s words, kind of a merit-based shift, where the audience is going to start finding the artist directly, or the systems will be set up where the artists can be found directly through third parties. Maybe we’ll get back to a place where artists will be incentivized that ‘Hey, if I bust my ass and I actually stand out on my own – which, of course, is the way to be – I’m actually going to be rewarded. Because the system as it exists now… if you were 20 years old and you wanted to be Smashing Pumpkins now or Rush now, it’s almost impossible… impossible to achieve the success that we achieved.”
Lee: ”The system’s not built for it any longer.”
Back in the day, fans wrote letters to groups – you’d get them, although it could take a while. Now, artists can go online and there’s discussions about what you should and shouldn’t be doing. [Corgan laughs] The minute you announce that you’re recording an album, thousands of people are telling you what that album should be. How do you react to that?
Corgan: ”I’ll start with this one – ” [laughs]
Lee: ”Go ahead.” [laughs]
Corgan: ”‘Cause I’ve been the leading edge of… I basically tell them, to use the English term, to ‘sod off.’ I understand sentimentality; I fall into it myself, and I have to watch it in myself. But a fan will always just point back to their favorite period. There’s a whole host of reasons.
“I once had this conversation with Pete Townshend. I’m paraphrasing what Pete said: ‘I can’t re-create the situation where they were in the back of the car with their first love and they heard Substitute.’ You know what I mean? There’s a whole host of factors that cements music to our soul.
“I talk in the Rush documentary about how I was going through a very difficult period in my life, and Entre Nous by Rush, those lyrics were like, ‘Wow, this is how I feel!’ There was that melding moment, and now, every time I hear that song, I don’t really hear that song. You know what I mean? I don’t hear it from an objective perspective, I hear it from a very personal perspective. It’s almost like it was written for me.
“And so it’s hard to re-create those feelings in somebody. They’re de facto asking you to re-create the context, and you can’t. Then there’s that weird thing where you try to evolve. Rush went through this where you try to bring on new technologies, new perspectives, and people are like, ‘Oh, I don’t like that.’ They get sentimental, and they want to hang on to what they know, but the artist intuitively knows that you have to push forward. So I’ve just taken the opinion to tell people to shove it.
“A band needs to fail, you know what I mean? If we could go back in a time machine, and we could see Rush at some club in 1974, in a bored audience, and them coming off the stage and going, ‘You know what? Fuck that. We’re not gonna do that, we’re gonna do this instead.’ Those are the moments where a band sort of galvanizes themselves.
“You have to figure out who you are through the process. In this hyperstate that we’re in, I don’t see where a young band has a moment to figure that process out because everybody’s all over them from the first second. ‘Do this, don’t do that, oh I like this, I don’t like that’ – and you’re watching your numbers go up and down, you know? I know people who just watch their Twitter numbers. They literally freak out if their Twitter numbers go down!” [laughs]
Lee: [laughs] “Oh my God…”
Geddy, I don’t get the feeling that you’re watching your Twitter count.
Lee: ”I don’t have a Twitter account. I don’t have a Facebook page.”
Corgan: ”You need to get @Geddy. I’m @Billy.”
Lee: [laughs] “OK. What I do is largely stay away from the sites that talk about our band because there’s so much chatter that I don’t want to be influenced by. Our fans come to see us, and there’s a fair exchange going on in that room. I’m working my ass off for them, and they’re hearing the songs they want to hear, hopefully, and showing me some love, throwing it back up on stage to me.
“That’s the only thing that I can see as part of my job. If I start mining for opinions on hundreds of websites that have fan forums, I’ll be totally distored in my view of myself. I’ll lose myself in all that.”
Corgan: ”You’re a wise man.”
Lee: ”I don’t want to do that, and I don’t want to… I don’t want to spoil their fun by – ”
Corgan: ”I love spoiling their fun! ” [everybody laughs]
Lee: ” – stopping their conversation. They obviously need to talk to each other, but they don’t need me involved.”
Corgan: ”I love spoiling their party.” [everybody laughs]
Source: Music Radar
Part 2: Geddy Lee and Billy Corgan on concept albums, jamming, singing and more
In Part One of our extensive interview, the two posited, in eloquent and passionate terms, that music as an art form is worthy of meaningful, sustained examination. And in Part Two, presented here, they continue their dialogue forcefully, thoughtfully and with good humor.
Let’s talk about the sonic choices you have to make these days when recording an album, and really this goes into the mastering. Both of your albums have great dynamic range, something that is missing from a lot of music now that people are mastering for digital downloads.
Geddy Lee: “Yeah, mastering is a dangerous thing. You know, you go through the history of music, and mastering was a supposed to be a way to get your music onto vinyl without [the needle] skipping. And then the role of the mastering engineer took on such a distorted sense of importance. As music turned to digital and suddenly you had the possibility to make things louder than loudest, which boggles the mind but it’s true, and what you have are all kinds of different ways of distorting your music.
“Then it becomes a game of ‘this person’s record is this loud,’ so how can I possibly produce a record that is not that loud and actually has dynamics? It’s a fight. It’s a battle between record company, between producer and between mastering engineer. Because the louder you make your record in a digital process, the more dynamics are squished out of it. Nobody knows exactly what happens, but the dynamics in the performance disappear, and everything is at the same volume.
“With us, it’s always a matter of compromise. We say, ‘Yeah, you can make it loud, but at the point where I feel the dynamics are going away, then stop. Stop making it loud.’ [laughs] But you know, it’s a strange, strange part of the process now.”
Billy Corgan: “I pretty much echo everything he says. Luckily, we’ve been working with Bob Ludwig lately, and he’s got that kind of understanding of how to bring it to the modern era without compromising the values. It’s pretty amazing when you can sit with somebody like Bob and talk about Led Zeppelin, because he mastered those records. He talks about the choices he made back then and the choices he has to make now, and sort of the ‘linearity,’ if that’s even a word, of his thinking as time has progressed.
“It got pretty weird there, particularly in alternative music in the late ’90s, because all of a sudden everybody’s doing this brick wall mastering, and every band sounded like, you know, God came down and started a band. [Lee laughs] Suddenly, organically produced force didn’t sound as forceful anymore.”
Lee: “That’s right.”
Corgan: “It’s kind of weird because obviously both of us have spent a lot of time figuring out how to create that force, and then play off that force by coming down and creating interludes and things like that. Suddenly, when you have somebody that just wipes you out and you see the audience responding to this insane… I don’t even know – battering [laughs], you know, if you oversquash yourself, well, there goes why everybody likes your band. It’s kind of a weird place to be put in.”
Lee: “It makes your music relentless. With a band like us, we’re relentless enough. [laughs] We need to relent sometimes.” [everybody laughs]
Corgan: “Relent and repent!”
Let me bring up the dreaded “c” word: concept album. Both of your albums are concept pieces, but in vastly different ways. Geddy, Clockwork Angels is a self-contained concept, and Billy, Oceania is part of a bigger work – Teargarden By Kaleidyscope. How much do you let the story or the theme guide the music?
Lee: “In my case – in our case, as Rush – it was walking a fine line and using the story to propel the music, and using the settings of the story to create evocative musical atmosphere, as opposed to letting the story dominate the music. That is a trick, and it is difficult, and it comes with failure, and having done a number of concepts in the past and learning when you become a slave to the story and a slave to the lyric, and the music loses some life of its own.
“And so, for me, it’s a balancing act, and it requires a lot of discussion between the lyricist, Neil, and myself as a singer, and Alex as my co-musical writer. It’s just keeping a watchful eye that the songs have a life and a purpose as an independent spirit, as opposed to only in the context of the song before and after it. You want to be a link in the chain that’s the concept, but you don’t want the chain to be so weak on its own that it doesn’t have a statement that it’s making unto itself.”
Corgan: “I’ve definitely been guilty of letting conceptual issues weigh me down, and to echo what Geddy said, I think I’ve learned where you can kind of go too far. Where I’m at now with Oceania, I worked off sort of a set of general themes, which kind of keeps me in a certain part of the universe… and will drop certain symbols and certain musical feelings, ’cause I can get too vague at times for me…
“To answer your question, the longer range purpose of starting the Teargarden project was to document… I don’t know what the right word is – ‘rejuvenation’ sounds like a bad New Age word… The Smashing Pumpkins as an idea had sort of exhausted itself, and there I was with a 19-year-old drummer and no band to speak of. I wanted to document that journey publicly, if I could actually reclaim what I felt I’d lost in the process of the Icarus getting too close to the sun kind of stuff.
“Could I, in essence, either exorcise the ghosts of the past or would I succumb to them? I was willing to take that in a very public way. Maybe I’ve seen too many European art films – it felt almost very cinema verite. So I started from a very simple and fundamental root and was immediately attacked by my fans for putting out lesser work, and was basically declared DOA. It’s not that I needed to fail to feel that. I needed to find some musical joy again… and go back to trusting myself.
“The Pumpkins are very kind of publicly involved, basically since ’95 – the internet’s been part of the process. So, the funny thing is, and here’s where I do have to give fans credit, over the 10 or 12 Teargarden songs that were released, I felt like we were kind of dialing it in; we hadn’t felt, like, let’s call it ‘the hot spot.’ But our fans, the ones that really pay attention, started pulling me aside about a year ago and they said, ‘We know you’re on to something.’
“And it was a really good feeling, because I felt like somebody’s listening. They can actually see through the crap here and see that I’m dialing something back in that you can’t mess with. Having been through that before, and I respect this in any other band that finds that, it’s so hard to get on that roll. But once you do, it seems as if things just flow out of you, and then one day maybe it isn’t there like it was and you have to find a new game…
“Teargarden is just a way to document that process, and then of course, it brings up these other themes that come up, which is getting older, what is a band? – I get this: ‘Why call it Smashing Pumpkins?’ You know, like, ‘Why continue even under the name? What does it mean?’ I’m inviting all of these questions – it’s almost like a public exercise.”
I’d like to get your guys’ thoughts on the element of jamming. How important was jamming during the making of your new albums?
Lee: “I think jamming is the way we begin to communicate. In the old days, people actually wrote notes on paper and sent them to each other. [laughs] I guess that’s how they jammed. For us, growing up in a kind of illiterate musical microcosm, that’s how we start our musical conversation – so it’s essential. The jam becomes the way you begin the conversation, and then ideas start to spring forward and you have something to talk about.
“It’s very rare – and it does happen on occasion – where I’ll take a piece of lyric and I’ll just sit down and purposefully craft that melody around that lyric because I think the lyric is the wellspring for the song, without question. But writing music in general, it always begins with jamming for me in our little world. Having worked so rarely with outside musicians, I don’t know how it happens for others, but I’d suspect that it’s some sort of jam that starts the whole thing.”
Billy, what about you?
Corgan: “I don’t know. The two key versions of the Pumpkins were never really jam bands. I think where both versions of my bands have been successful have been sort of being able to rummage around let’s call it ‘templates.’ And I’m listening, and I’m picking up directions and vibrations, and then I have to quote-unquote write them into parts. I’ve never had a situation where it kind of falls together, but we do set up improvisation forms, and then through that everybody can express themselves. It may be a little different than jamming; it may be a little like an improv crew that has cues, and then off the cues we switch.
“We used to play, back in the day, a 45-minute song that had seven cues, and every section was improvised.”
Corgan: [laughs] “Yeah, well, when the arena was half-full. [everybody laughs] And I would be railing against the people that left.”
Lee: “But that’s very jazz, though, right? What you’re talking about…”
Corgan: “Yeah. Maybe I’ve idealized jamming, but I’ve never been in a situation where I can just play my part, and everybody just plays their part, and I go, ‘Wow, that’s great as it is.’ I’ve always felt like I had to go back and re-organize the raw data.”
Lee: “Oh, sure. That’s what I’m talking about, as well. Very rarely do we do jams that are finished things.”
Corgan: “Yeah, but I’ve idealized your band so much, I just think things come out of you like that.” [everybody laughs]
Both bands have a very recognizable sound, but it’s one that can mutate. On the new albums, how do you feel you explored and pushed the sound, and maybe even transcended it?
Corgan: “What I was trying to do was get to a place where I was organically producing music not in a reflective place of sentimentality. When we talked before, with the song Inkless, which I almost didn’t put on the album because it was sort of familiar Smashing Pumpkins territory – but I know that that came out of me organically, so I was OK with it. But if I felt like, Oh, I’ve got to do this ’cause it’s what people expect, that’s where I draw the line.
“And I’m sure Geddy knows what I’m talking about. It’s like sometimes stuff just comes out of you because it’s sort of your thing.”
Lee: “That’s right. It’s called ‘style.’”
Corgan: “Yeah, it feels good. It’s like, ‘OK, this is my thing. This is the way we do this, or the way I do it.’ I wanted to escape the consciousness where I was so aware of what the expectations were that either my mind kept rejecting things that were familiar just out of hand, even if it was stupid to do so – a good riff or a good idea – or what’s even worse is me reacting against it and feeling that I have to go in a different direction, away from what I’m comfortable with – my own style.
“I’ve had to kind of learn on the pro and the anti, and I’ve spent a lot of time on the anti, to where now that I came back to a comfortable spot – I think that’s why Oceania has a nice balance, because people say, ‘It doesn’t sort of sit anywhere.’ And I’m like, ‘Exactly.’
“I’m sort of in a place where I don’t need to avoid the past. If this makes any sense, there’s a Buddhistic idea, and I’m sure I’ll get killed by somebody for saying it wrong. There’s like the four tenets of Buddhism, which are like, ‘You must completely care, you must not care, you must understand why you need to care and you must understand why you need not to care.’”
Lee: “Well, I understand exactly what Billy is talking about. For years, we did the same thing in that anything that smelled of the past, in the smallest and most minute way, we avoided – regardless of whether we needed to avoid it, or if it should be avoided. Or, as he put it, whether it was a good idea. [laughs]
“I think then you get to a point where you’re comfortable with your own sense of yourself. In our case, we’ve got such a catalogue of ideas that it’s hard not to run over ourselves. For me, we’re in a place now where we’ll find ourselves mimicking ourselves in a way, and doing that in a kind of intentional way, but tongue in cheek – it has to have a purpose.
“For example, there’s a song on the album called Headlong Flight, and when Alex and I started jamming we realized that we had written this bit that sounded really similar to the opening of a song called Bastille Day that we wrote many years ago. You know, we kind of laughed about it and didn’t pay too much attention to it, and we created this long instrumental piece that kind of had a silly name, and we were just going to leave it at that.
“But when the lyric came along and we realized that this was a song at a point in the story where our hero is looking back on his life, reminiscing about the good and the bad, and regardless, he still wishes he could do it all again, I realized there was a real opportunity to use that bit of our past as a kind of Bastille Day Redux.”
“So we had fun with it, and it suited the story, you know, so I don’t worry so much about whether I’m treading on ground that I tread on 30 years ago. It depends on the panache with which I deliver it. I’m bringing a whole 30 years of experience to that kind of idea, and I know that I’m not going to settle for just a rehash of some old idea. It’s got to bring something fresh to the end result, and it’s got to be transformed by that new context.”
Corgan: “Beautifully said.”
In talking about sound, I have to point out that there something that both bands very much have in common: nobody can sing like either of you. Nobody sings like Geddy Lee, and nobody sings like Billy Corgan.
Lee: “Nobody wants to sing like me!” [everybody laughs]
But that’s what makes you guys interesting – in both cases.
Lee: “Well, thank goodness for that.”
Corgan: “I used to think that my voice was my biggest curse, because it’s kind of like a wild pony, the thing, you know? But now that I look back, I’m really humbled because it’s the thing that… it’s served me well, let’s put it that way. It’s helped identify and unify my music. It’s given me a whole host of opportunities that maybe if I had a voice like somebody else, I wouldn’t have had. I wish I could sing as high as Geddy.”
Lee: [laughs] “So do I.”
Corgan: [laughs] “Geddy wishes he could sing as high as Geddy. We call it like the ‘Bono note.’ All the great singers can hit that super – I don’t know if it’s an A or a B, ’cause most bands play in E, so you have to be able to hit one of those super-high notes to make the epic moment, and I’ve never been able to hit that note. So I tip my cap to any of the great singers who can hit the dude note up there.”
Lee: “I started out with a fairly coarse version of my heroes, like, Steve Marriot and Robert Plant, and I felt like I was a squeakier version of those guys. I’ve spent my life learning how to use my voice and learning how to mature my voice, and a lot of it has to do with being open and working with different producers, and having them help teach you how to sing in a different way and treat the lyrics in a different way. A lot of it has to do with just being open, being open to allow your voice to evolve, and taking chances, and taking care of the instrument.”
Corgan: “That’s true, too.”
Lee: “It’s a difficult thing. It’s a really difficult thing, and when I go on tour, I think about… if I didn’t have to sing, man, this gig would be soooo easy!” [everybody laughs]
Corgan: “I think the same damn thing! I’m so jealous of my bandmates.”
Lee: “Yeah, man. They’re just playing. Singers don’t play, they sing. That’s work. That’s the same as working really hard. And it’s the instrument that’s most susceptible to environmental conditions. Like a drummer’s musculature, those are the two toughest gigs on tour, I think. Anyway, I’m lucky that I’ve been around long enough to have enough opportunities to mature my voice and to work on my singing, because when it’s right, it’s a fantastic feeling.”
Geddy, you guys recorded Clockwork Angels in a new way, having Neil play to music fairly spontaneously without writing his parts out. Was that nerve rattling, or was it fun in a tightrope-walking sort of way?
Lee: “Well, I’m sure it was nerve rattling for him. It was fun for us to watch. [laughs] And it was fun for Nick [Raskulinecz], our producer, because he felt like ‘Top of the world, Ma! I’m telling Neil Peart how to play.’ It was great for [Neil]. It was really great for him, because he’s such a deep musician. His ability is boundless. I’ve never met a guy like that.”
“And he’s also fearless in that way that, if you give him a context where he can feel comfortable just reaching down and letting himself be spontaneous, and you see the result – I think his drum tracks sound fresh and alive, and they propel the band in a way that hasn’t happened in quite some time. I think it really only happens like that live. That was such a huge step for him. So I applaud his guts to allow himself to be put in that position.”
Billy, was there a similar aspect to recording Oceania for you? I imagine it was quite different because you were working with a fairly new band still.
Corgan: “To reverse the mirror a little bit, in my case, Mike, when he joined me, he was 19 and was working at McDonald’s. He’d never been in the studio and had never played in front of more than 50 people. So he has this incredible natural talent, blistering hand speed and a great natural groove. He’s like Kenny Aronoff level with a natural meter – it’s kind of crazy. We don’t even need to use click tracks with him because he’s a natural, consistent player.
Lee: “Wow, that’s great.”
Corgan: “It’s crazy! So you look at somebody with a natural gift and you’re like, ‘Where did this come from?’ So you take this 19-year-old kid, and you start trying to build up his mind into how to approach his drums from a writing standpoint and a support standpoint when he doesn’t have any of those contexts. At the same time, you want him to bring his own voice to the table because he’s bringing a fresh set of influences which only somebody in their teens or 20s can bring. He’s listening to all these bands that I’m never going to listen to. We laugh and call them the ‘bear’ bands – ‘bear this’ and ‘All The Bear,’ they all have bear names, I don’t know. [Lee laughs]
“We’ve been on this journey together, and on Oceania there’s these moments where’s he’s scratching his head; he doesn’t really understand what I’m looking for ’cause he’s playing his ass off. At that point, he hasn’t turned the corner where he can hear the army of guitars that’s going to go on top of it. He’s reacting simply to the information he’s been given. I’m sure it’s similar with the Rush guys, you know, you’re given some scratch tracks and you’re playing along or whatever. It’s certainly not how it’s going to end up all finished and polished up.
“So it’s hard sometimes. I was used to Jimmy Chamberlin, who had an intuitive gift at being able to hear that orchestra in his head as he played. So here’s Mike, 21 years old, and I’m going, ‘Come on, you’ve got to lift yourself up and sort of lean into the space and imagine what’s going to be there.’ He doesn’t have that experience; he’s got to kind of trust my word on it. And what’s been nice, now that the record’s done and people are reacting to it, and he’s seeing how people are reacting to his drumming and his support of the music, he’s come back to me and said, ‘Now I’m beginning to really understand.’ It’s cool to watch him go through that process.”
Lee: “That’s a great experience for him, man. That’s what it’s all about.”
Corgan: “And people get kind of crazy and try to compare him to Jimmy Chamberlin – you know, I started playing with him when he was in his mid-20s. So here’s Mike, five years younger and at the start of this journey. And I’ve had to say to a few fans, ‘Let the kid have his journey here.’ You know, we could fake him into perfectness, but that’s not what you really want. Let him have his journey, take the ride with him and watch him mature, and let him figure it out for himself.”
“That becomes part of the story. We don’t want to cover it up. That’s the mentality of the modern world, like, ‘Cover that stuff up. Hide it. Pro Tool it away.’”
Lee: “You lose the authenticity.”
Corgan: “Right. That’s what I’m saying. And look, maybe there’s one song where it doesn’t work as great as it would have if he did blah, blah, blah. But then there’s that other moment where it works on a level that none of us can understand because it is that moment, you know, where it’s fragile and it’s insecure and it’s not certain.
“There’s something exciting about watching people evolve. Geddy, when you were talking about Neil doing these spontaneous takes, when that part gets taken out of the equation, then we’re not musicians anymore. We’re something else – we’re politicians.”
Lee: “Assembly line.”
Corgan: “It’s really strange for people who grew up loving music, in awe of music, to then have somebody in a suit later on go, ‘Hey, get in line over here because we know what we’re doing.’ And what I’ve been saying in the music business, all behind close doors to these people, and I say it very forcefully, is ‘If you knew what you were doing, A) I wouldn’t be here in this meeting, and B) you would have the record sales that you think you should be having.’
“How come the album’s been diminished in the culture? Artists have been diminished in this culture. It’s been hollowed out by almost a political class in the music business – the suits have taken over and cookie-cuttered everything out. And now they’re scrambling because their business is failing, and suddenly, people like us look really valuable because we know what we’re doing. We’ve known what we’re doing all along. Even when we don’t know what we’re doing, we know what we’re doing because we trust music.”
Lee: “And it’s real, it’s authentic. People, at the end of the day, want real things. You know, you can fool somebody for a while, but in the long run, human beings need to relate to things in a human way. They want the authenticity, and the authenticity, the genuine heart in music, will show through and be the appealing factor, sooner or later.”
Lee: “Can’t stamp that out in music. Or any art. It’s what makes any art enduring.”
Source: Music Radar