“You show me in this culture where I've ever been celebrated to the breadth of what I've accomplished... it's never happened.” Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman, founder member and sole-survivor Billy Corgan is in fighting form, rallying against his detractors. And with good reason.
Above all other things, right now he is confident: His band's new album, Monuments For An Elegy (sort of their ninth LP, depending on how you count them) is a brilliant, thumping, low-frill, high-thrill rock record. It’s the sort of thing he’s always been able to pull out the bag, though often he’s deliberately, even obstinately decided not to, preferring instead to create art-for-arts-sake melancholic prog odysseys, or cyber-metal epics. In a 25+ year career that’s taken in well over 300 songs, 13 albums (two of them double concept records) and dabblings in everything from folk to psychedelic rock to synth-pop, making a 33 minute disc of immediate pop-rock songs is something of a conceptual left-turn. It works too - Monuments… does everything it intends to do; it is immediate, it is sharp, it’s all brilliant hooks and synthy little stings. It is, in essence, ace.
Corgan, it has to be said, is a little defensive. It’s easy to see why: he cops a lot of shit from critics and fans alike who seem, from his perspective, weirdly resentful of this strange habit of his of writing and releasing forward-thinking new music rather than taking the Greatest Hits payola. Across the hour we spend together I get the impression Corgan feels he’s at something of a crossroads, aware that to survive as a relevant musician in the modern landscape requires certain attitudes and that he needs to create music in a certain way, keep an eye on the market place, and that essentially he needs to be mindful of the business world in which he operates. At the same time he needs to be creatively fulfilled. Once upon a time he made albums that were both artistically adventurous and commercially successful, and clearly feels he’s not given credit for that achievement, or his genuine desire to continue to do so.
The last Pumpkins album, 2012’s well-received Oceania, was supposed to be in that mould. Mixing dreamy pop songs and proggy epics it was created by Corgan and a younger, rejuvenated band, all making their own creative contributions. That line-up toured the whole record, presenting it as a solid piece of art that should be consumed as such, even releasing it as a live album. Press copies were sent out with all 60 minutes as one unbroken track just to emphasise the point. Monuments… seems a direct reaction to that: a collection of short, punchy songs for short, punchy attention spans. It’s almost as if Corgan, one of the more complex figures in the pantheon of alt-rock greats, is reminding us that the pop writer was always there, so can we please stop moaning about it? This tougher, more direct musical vision from Corgan seems to come from a place of contradiction. On the one hand he’s saying Monuments…, and its planned sequel Day For Night, are a necessary reaction to a culture that has created audiences with no attention span - that he had to adapt or die. On the other hand he’s saying that an artist shouldn’t have to style their music purely “because some punter out there doesn't get his fucking rocks off if you don't”. Those contradictions run right through our conversation. In person Corgan is friendly, but also frank, at turns spiky, fascinating and occasionally a little maddening. Really, as a long-term fan, you’d want it no other way...
DiS: Monuments... has a very specific identity that feels quite distanced from Oceania, much sharper and crisper. And much shorter- was that the intention from the start?
Billy Corgan: I'd agree with that. We didn't go in intending that, we just kept cutting. At one point it was 36 minutes and we started laughing saying "that's short" and then it was down to 34, 33... we just kept cutting. The mentality was, this has to be urgent. The world is telling us again and again and again, it has no time, it has no patience, so why can't we attack that? The normal position of an older artist is that you get grumpy, like "I remember when..." so I was just, I'm going to go straight at this.
With Oceania it felt more like you were saying "no-one listens to whole albums so I'm going to write one- here's a whole piece of art, listen to it beginning to end." Have you moved on from that idea again?
I think the problem with that is that there's still a level of sentimentalism there. Oceania was 60 minutes and it's fine, it's good, but we played it and I'd see the audience just wander off. In this age we're living in it wasn't enough to hold them-hold them. At some point sentimentalism is just not good for business. You're up there poncing about with something that's good, not great. Vital, not critical... why? What flag am I waving? Do I want to bring back Yes and prog rock? Do I want to bring back the days when I could play a 30 minute song in front of an audience that would maybe listen? I just realised I wasn't waving any flag. I didn't give a shit.
You sound like you're making artistic decisions that are reacting to the audience- As an artist, don’t you want to do it the other way around? To say “fuck what people think they want, this is what I want to make?”
You're right. You do. But you have to be really on point to pull that off. For example, when the Pumpkins did Mellon Collie, a double album with three hour concerts, by that point we'd had seven years to dial that in. We didn't dial that in in six months, that was seven years of calculating and changing so when you make that leap across the chasm you're going to make it, or else it's suicide. It's hard to generate that same level of force in this market place, because it changes every month. Not even every year- every month.
Monuments… definitely feels like it’s done the job you intended: These are very instant, punchy songs that you ‘get’ straight away, in a way that’s not necessarily always true of your work…
I think you've got to make up your mind to do it. It's like you walk past a room every day and you think 'I gotta clean that room up', and you keep thinking it, and then one day you clap your hands and say 'okay, today's the day' you make up your mind. Once you make up your mind to do it, you just do it. The difficulty for me sometimes is that I can feel that sense in the public or the media that they don't think I can do it. That's when I get prickly: "Fuck everybody, I'll prove it, let's go." Now we're on the other side of that, this is where it gets interesting- let's see what happens. Normally speaking I wouldn't want to be that calculated. Normally speaking I wouldn't want to be that overt about what I'm doing. The record is overt, it's nine shiny songs. It's not an intellectual thing, there's no hidden trick. The trick is that the depth is in the pop song.
Did you want to remind people that ‘pop songs’ is something you’ve always been able to do? It’s not something you’ve really focused on for a while...
I didn't ever feel like I lost it, I just didn't feel I had the same reasons to write them. At the end of the day there's a part of me that feels that making pop music is a bit dirty, a bit cheap. It's like trying to pick someone up in the bar and just trying to find the right line to get them home. I feel like it's a little bit beneath me, you know?
Which is interesting considering you were the guy that, back in 1998 was parachuted in to add the hooks and the pop shine onto Hole and Marilyn Manson records…
I actually like doing that for other people, because then there's nothing to it, do you know what I mean? You're sitting there with Courtney [Love] and she's, like, "write me a single" and you say "okay", "you got a hook?" "okay." I'm not saying it's easy cos you have to have a gift for it, but I know how to do it and I never stopped knowing how to do it. I have a problem with the way pop music works at times. It's all a bit boring now, because everything is so pop it's not even worth talking about. Having someone like Mike Byrne [former drummer, who joined when he was 21] in the band, you occasionally say "what you listening to?" and he plays it and it's pop, and they think it's so different because the guy's using a fucking marimba or some shit, or they're playing in some weird time signature and you listen and it's pop, it's pop music! They pretend it's not the Thompson Twins, but it is! It's the Thompson Twins! They're making overt pop music but they dress it up with ukuleles and African drums and convince themselves it's something different, but it's not... it's pop music.
There’s another record [Day For Night] coming next year… how does this all relate to that album? The easy narrative is to say "Monuments... is the pop record, that'll be the avant-garde record. It that true?"
In many ways that record is going to be even more pop, we're not going to prove the other point, although it already has more depth and darkness to it. For Monuments... we lopped off the shinier stuff and used that, so in essence the stuff that's left over is that fucking amazing, longer songs or the song that would unwind over five minutes. I've got those, and I think we're going to approach them from the same mentality which is “time is money, how long you going to go on with this bit?”
Is that stuff like 'Burnt Orange Black', which you’ve been playing live?
That one kind of goes back and forth, because that could have been written at any time. That could have been a Mellon Collie song. The chords are similar to 'Porcelina'... which is basically ripped off 'Cortez The Killer' by Neil Young. I'm not sure if we can bring anything new to it, which would be my thing. But somebody like Howard [Willing, co-producer] would just say "just do it, it's a great song." I get off on quasi-intellectual arguments like that.
I always feel a bit guilty when I hear a new Pumpkins song and I like it because it reminds me of old Pumpkins, which happened with stuff like 'A Song For A Son.'
You should feel guilty! I think what I would key-off of is "Is the artist comfortable?" Like when Neil Young made the decision to re-embrace ‘Neil Young’, on Harvest Moon and all that. He reclaimed his sound and his power and his way of making music with real force. He didn't say "well I've kind of got to go back to that, because this new stuff isn't working." I feel like I'm reclaiming my stuff with force. Some guy said to me in an interview the other day that something on the album reminded him of an old Pumpkins song, so I said "okay, tell me what" and he told me "it's the way you play guitar and the way you sing", and I thought "fuck, dude! What do you want me to do?!" I play guitar the way I play guitar and I sing the way I sing, what do you want me to do- sing through a megaphone? Would that make it better? The point is, if you're reclaiming your elemental power then you have the right to reclaim your shit, especially if you've gone out into the hinterland and found new things, and found ways of combining new things with your stuff. I'll give you an example: When we were doing Zwan [Corgan’s 2001 Pumpkins-on-hiatus project] it was, “okay, new band, I'm going to get more into folk music writing and da-da-da.” So Jimmy [Chamberlin, former Pumpkins/Zwan drummer] and I are going along and we're trying this and that, and I find myself creeping back toward Pumpkins stuff, and I pulled Jimmy aside and said "I feel a little bit weird because I told myself I wasn't going to do this" because basically the ship had sailed and I was going to go another way, and I said "you know why we're creeping back toward our old shit?" and he said "I don't know, why?" and I said "because it works". We made those decisions because they work. With Jimmy's drumming style we decided busier drums sound better than simple drums. Tommy Lee, on this record, sounds better with simple drums, Jimmy sounds better with busy drums, and they're both great drummers and they both bring something different to the table. You make those decisions for a reason- you sing in certain keys for a reason, you play guitar for a reason. The way I play guitar was born of all those years listening to everything from Neil Young to Tony Iommi and Rick Nielsen, it forms in your brain. It's like a piece of steel- you can bend it, but it is what it is. Once you go "okay I'm going to do my thing" it's fine, it's when you feel like you have to do it, or you should do it because some punter out there doesn't get his fucking rocks off if you don't.
It’s not like there’s not development either - there's an increasing synth direction with the past couple of records…
Well nobody likes the guitar any more. We're just giving the kids what they want. I feel like every year that goes by the political argument of guitar or synth is pointless, the audience wants to be excited so it's about whatever excites them. But you're dealing with a different kind of audience now, because you meet the fifteen year old and say "what are you listening to?" and they say Muse and Led Zeppelin, "how do you listen to Led Zeppelin?" "I go on YouTube." They're living in this era-less music, their playlists represents 70s, 60s, 90s, new, so production to them is no different than the difference in video quality on Youtube clips. You watch someones shitty phone video, and then you go over to a pro-shot video, to some video that's shot in '72 that's all grainy. The public has reached the stage where production styles don't phase them anymore, which is why you can even have an album like Monuments... where the production style is all over the place. In essence it sounds more like the production feel of a greatest hits, it's not an in-period production style, it's basically all production styles all the time. That's how I feel.
I wanted to talk a little about song-writing and about how you write songs has changed. My interpretation has always been that, obviously you write the songs, and it's well known that you play most of the parts on records and always have, but I always wondered if the arrangements came from a full band, and people writing their own parts in the rehearsal room?
Even with Oceania? You said just two years ago that was a full-band effort?
Um.. Nicole [Fiorentino, former Pumpkins bass player] wrote her own parts with a lot of input from me, but I don't want to take anything away from her, she did a great job on that record. With Mike, I had a lot more input in how the parts came out than you would think, as I did with the drums in the old days. I learned in the old days to create the impression of a band arrangement, and I can still do it. I just don't care to right now.
I felt like this album was more a studio creation, like Adore or your solo album, rather than something that came out of the rehearsal room, which is where I always thought something like Siamese Dream and Oceania came from. Are you saying that all of your records were creatively speaking, studio fabrications all along?
I understand what you're asking, but I think I'm trying to pop the balloon of your idea. I'm either creating the impression of a band, or creating the impression of not a band, but at the end of the day I'm the one creating the impression. It's hard to explain that without going into a very long winded answer, that I think probably explains too much. What I'd say in addendum to that is that I could have done the same thing on this album if I believed it would excite people. For example, I listen to Muse and that's a 'band', and I hear a 'band' type arrangement coming at me, I know what that feels like, I know what it's like to stand in those shoes. I don't feel the Pumpkins needs to present a band-type collective energy anymore. I'm more interested in the idealised state, because I believe that's what everyone is listening to anyway. I believe the rappers of the world and the EDM artists of the world are kicking rock bands asses because while we're worrying about what the drum fill is, they're over there tweaking some knob and moving more quickly through the dynamic range of a four minute composition than a rock band ever can. In that sense, it's not worth spending the amount of time mining out the additional data of a bands inner-communications. Nobody cares. And I know there are people who will vociferously disagree with that- Rush fans. And Muse fans. And they wouldn't be wrong... but I know that I'm right. If you look at the charts and look at what people want to listen to, they are not interested in that conversation anymore. They're interested in an idealised conversation, which is very different.
So was that a specific decision with this record? "I'm not going to worry about making this sound like a band?"
You figure it out as you go. It takes a lot of time to create the band thing. Jimmy and I worked fucking forever on that stuff, and part of the reason it went as well as it did is because Jimmy has a photographic memory, so you could do all this crazy tweaking then you could go back the next day and pick up right where we left off, but Jimmy will tell you the exact same thing- those were creations. We created something that wasn't there, then we'd go out and play it, evolve through it, and pick up where we left off at the next record. But that's the thing about the Pumpkins that I'm harping on about. Every album I have my little personal harp, and my harp here is that when people beat me over the head for not sounding like the Pumpkins when I left the band, in essence stripping me of my achievement with the Pumpkins. What do they say now when I've created the Pumpkins without the Pumpkins? I obviously had more to do with it than people thought. And I think there's more of a particular kind of latitude than people think within the range of a recording studio, to create both the impression of a band and the impression of not a band. Most people don't understand that I'm more of a theatre director- if you were in the Pumpkins I'd figure out what you do well, I'd create an idealised version of what you do, I'd cast you in a particular role, I'd make you seem real good, sound real good, and as long as you're willing to work within that role I'll make you look great, I'll make me look great and everybody moves on. Which is why a lot of times, when you see people away from me you don't see so much idealisation in their voices because they don't have me writing the part for them. People have a really hard time with that because ultimately they have to point the credit at me, and they don't want to give me that kind of credit because they've spent seven to ten years trying to take that credit from me and saying "there's no way that guy did that, it must have been Butch Vig, it must have been this, it must have been that..." that's not how it worked.
On a personal level it's stunning to me. You see it with sport. People get cast in a certain role: he's this type of player, and then when something contradictory happens they can't accept the contradiction, so they have to create a new narrative. We're on the fifth or sixth narrative of me in public life - I was a tyrant, I wouldn't let my bandmates play on the album blah blah blah blah blah. No amount of me explaining that ever changes it, the only way I can change it is if I keep trumping the creation. Oceania was the first flicker that there was still something in that machine that was there. It connected people to some life force from before that they couldn't understand. There was a flame and the flame went out, but with Oceania there was a flicker, there was enough there. But let's face it, if I'd made Oceania II with the same line up it would have been falling into a genteel role, "oh he's still around, I still like the old records better." That's not me, man. I'm not doing that. Which has a lot to do with the direction we went with- if you want idealisation I'll give it to you, I'll fucking shoot you in the head with it. All day. Honestly, idealised records are easier to make than those other kind of records, and that's what people sit around telling me they want to hear. They want to hear Siamese Dream II? No they don't. Show me in the culture where someone wants to hear Siamese Dream II and I'll make it in a second. And I'll fucking shoot you in the head with that. Does that make sense?
It's more of an aggressive, conceptual kind of fuck-with-the-consensus philosophy that the Pumpkins was born into, rather than "we want to be loved and liked" that's what people can't relate to, because if fame is the great arbiter of American life why wouldn't you do the thing that would make you most famous? Or in the hipster world, the most cool. The Pumpkins existed to break that divide.
There seems to be the kind of tension here between, on the one hand, you saying "fuck you, I'll do the thing you don't expect, I'll make the record I want to make" and on the other hand "what is it people want? Let's try that." You seem to do both of those things. You're saying that if someone really wanted Siamese Dream II you'd do it, yet you also say you’re not interested in doing that regardless of what people say. With this record you're making creative decisions based on what you've seen from the stage and perceived from the audience, rather than making the record you’d make instinctively if it existed in isolation... So is it pure creative drive? Or trying to second guess what people will buy or at least respect? Its it both?
What I'm saying is that it's the tension between those two poles where you find the most energy. That's what I'm interested in- the tension point between the two. When you're a kid and somebody tells you "hey, you're stupid, you can't do that" and you do it, there's kind of a fuck-you moment. I'm eighteen years old, I'm living with my Father and he says "you can't sing", the band starts playing in Chicago and people say "you guys will never get out of here," we get all these rejection letters, "you'll never sell records." Every time you trump that you bring with you a certain kind of wound or scar, you don't ever forget that. Just because you win the game it doesn't mean you forgot what it took to win the game. Just because someone pats you on the head and tells you how great you are, and there were years I lived a lot of that patting on the head, you don't forget. And maybe that's a psychological, neurosis thing you're carrying forth. You show me in this culture where I've ever been celebrated to the breadth of what I've accomplished - it's never happened.
Now if I'm creating that, or that's a true reflection of the way I'm viewed it really make no difference, because that's been my experience. The reason I'm saying all that is because if that's what you're given, if that's what the world is giving you... you do a shoot for NME or Melody Maker in 92 and the first thing they do is push you in the back because you're not good looking enough, you don't forget all that. If the world gives you lemons, make lemonade? This is my lemonade. I'm going to find the divide point between hypocrisies of both sides, because nobody can tell anybody that they can't do something and really know it for certain. There are absolutes, like I'm not gonna play in the NBA, but when it comes to artistic contrivances you have a whole class of people, growing daily, that are the authority between me and the gift. That tell me what I've done, what I haven't done, what I'm gonna do, what I'm capable of, but they have nothing to do with any part of that process. So you exist in this sour-ful twilight. They imagine Robert Smith with the candle-flickering playing the one chord. On the other hand you have this brutal world, and the minute you step out into the world it's going to punch you in the fucking head and tell you "no. No. No. No. No." So what do you do with that? If your precocious then you're some fucking indie artist who makes records for nobody, and if you're a careerist then you're out there flogging what you can. "it's the Siamese Dream Tour! Featuring Melissa Auf der Maur! She was in the original line up, don't you remember?!" Here we are in the most uncomfortable position - the middle. I'd argue that the middle is the most uncomfortable part in modern life. In America we have totally gross commercialism, people literally getting into porn for music videos. Porn. People rubbing their butts up against one-another. It's porn. And on the other side moustaches, beards, t-shirts, ukuleles. You can see why I go to the middle. Unfortunately the commercial aspect rotates in and out depending on what year you're in.
Is there an echo here of Adore in 1998? Back then people assumed you followed a creative hunch rather than an obviously commercial one, and it underperformed, but at the time music was getting darker, rock was on the wane so actually it seemed to make sense. Again, you were in the middle point?
I did feel at the time that it had more commercial acuity than it was given credit for and I was surprised by the reaction, particularly because we'd had 'Eye' and '1979' which had had some success in the charts, but then that's my typical misread of the American public in general which, when they vote collectively is far larger than the hipster collective.
Does that relate to where you are now? No-one seems to know what's happening, what will sell…
I do think there's a parallel, even in numerological terms. You tend to get seven year cycles in music, so here we are in another cycle. But even when that was going on there was still a lot of excitement for when, for example, Kid A was coming out. Now? Does anybody really feel like rock's going to have a resurgence? I don't. So people will be confused by that because I'm still making Rock n' Roll records but... what's the alternative?
Maybe we're living post-genre now? You look at a band like Haim who are the age that never had a genre to lock into, so they sound like everything.
That's what I'm saying about Monuments... why would I exist in a particular era if nobody else is? Why do I have to live by the same rule I've had to live by for 25 years when nobody else is. My ability to translate the Pumpkin vision into something more universal and fleet of foot is easy. All I had to do was get out of my own fucking way and stop thinking that making Siamese Dream II on some level would get it done. I kept telling people it wouldn't get it done, but nobody would fucking believe me. Now they're starting to believe me. But I had to listen to this shit for seven fucking years of people telling me Siamese Dream II would get it done, and I look around my culture and say "you show me where that's getting it done anywhere." For seven years they've been walking around like fucking zombies saying there's going to be some sort of grunge resurgence if only people would tune their guitars the same way. It's a fucking joke, and it's embarrassing for the grunge generation to even walk that road- and they're out their walking it. I'm glad I flew the flag early and said "get me the fuck off this island."
Monuments To An Elegy is out now.
Photo by Scarlett Page.