At the age of 52, Billy Corgan has grown up.
Part of the reason that he’s released his second solo record under his full name – William Patrick Corgan – is because he felt it suited a man of his years better than Billy. Perhaps he’d also started to think that the idea of being in a band at this stage of his life was unbecoming also, because he’s parked Smashing Pumpkins for the foreseeable – there’ll be no more music made under the name the way it has been for the past decade, with him as the sole member of the classic lineup and the chief creative force overseeing an outfit that was very much operating a revolving door policy. Unless, of course, he was to reunite with James Iha, D’Arcy Wretzky, and Jimmy Chamberlin, and bring back the band that the fans have clamoured for ever since they last played together, more or less two decades ago. He very well might, but more on that later.
Iha reconciled with Corgan recently after years of animosity and even joined him a couple of times on the Pumpkins’ In Plainsong tour in 2016, which saw the band’s material presented in stripped-back, acoustic fashion. Now, Corgan’s back with Ogilala, an album that’s much in that same sonic vein (and one that Iha contributed to). He cut it in Malibu with Rick Rubin, and those with long memories might recall that the so-called super-producer once made his name with a sparse recording style, before he established himself as the first contact in every huge artist’s phone book. Corgan wrote much of Ogilala, meanwhile, during a trip he took across rural USA, aiming to reconnect with his roots and eschew what he sees as the liberal elitism of the country’s urbane centres. There, in flyover country, he got the sense of a yawning chasm between two Americas, and of a gathering storm. Donald Trump’s electoral victory did not take him by surprise.
The journey had him looking backwards at his homeland’s history: two songs on Ogilala, ‘Antietam’ and ‘Shiloh’, share their names with Civil War battles. He ruminated on his family’s story, too, especially given that he became a father in late 2015 - his son, Augustus, appears on the album’s cover. Opener ‘Zowie’, meanwhile, is apparently named after the child of another rock star; the song was inspired by the death of David Bowie. None of the eleven tracks feature very much at all in the way of embellishment; there’s acoustic guitar, piano, the occasional flutter of strings, and not a great deal else – save, of course, for Corgan’s unmistakable vocals. It is a world away from his last LP under his own name, 2005’s electronic misstep TheFutureEmbrace, and represents his finest collection under any name since the Pumpkins reformed in 2007. He’s older and acknowledging it, but one of alternative rock’s most fascinating characters remains no less complex.
DiS: When did you realise this group of songs were destined for a solo record, rather than a Smashing Pumpkins one?
Billy Corgan: It was a bit of a strange process. I was working on a Pumpkins album, but I became sort of disgusted with the whole thing, so I quit it. I wrote another group of songs, listened to them back, and thought, “OK, I want to do something with these”. I also made up my own mind, at that point, that I wasn’t going to do any more Pumpkins records. That’s when I started moving down this road, and really, I could have called it anything: I could have put it out under a different name entirely. I didn’t give that part too much thought. The whole process really began when Rick Rubin said he was interested in being involved; that’s when it became a serious thing, and the next thing I knew, I was out recording it at his studio in beautiful Malibu.
Once you’d sworn off the Pumpkins, did you figure that the next bunch of songs would be a kick against the sound of the band? This is such a sparse record.
It looks that way, but it didn’t feel that way. I think I’d gotten about as far in one direction with the band as I could go, so for me, it was like going back to the start – it wasn’t a reaction as much as it was that when you make rock music or pop music, you spend a lot of time looking at what’s going on in the world and thinking about whether or not you have anything to add to the conversation, or if it’s just that you want to stomp on something. That was my initial impetus for getting into music – I wanted to stomp all over what I was seeing, whereas this time, I’m trying to contribute to the conversation. I felt like I needed to go back to being a songwriter to make sense of what was going on in my brain.
I read that you called Rick Rubin to ask him to recommend a producer. Why not just ask him to do it himself?
I totally didn’t think it would be on his radar. For a start, I didn’t even know what I was doing at that point. I didn’t know which direction the songs were heading in, but he does these massive projects, so the idea that he would want to be part of this acoustic solo record...I didn’t think it’d even be in the same zip code as what he normally works on.
He always had a reputation for stripping things back earlier in his career, though. Were the songs like that when you took them to him, or was that his influence?
He told me he liked the feeling of the demos that I sent him, so he just wanted to start there and see where it led us. He didn’t have a destination in mind, I don’t think - he said he wanted to let the record make itself, so it wasn’t like when we were recording, we knew what would and wouldn’t be the final version. We were open to anything, and I trusted him to take it to wherever it’d have some energy behind it. I said from the beginning that I was happy to follow his lead.
The instrumental palette primarily involves piano and acoustic guitar, which is a long way away from what springs to mind when people think about the Pumpkins.
Yeah, but I’ve still done a lot of work like that in the past, so it’s not as unfamiliar as it might seem. I mean, a lot of Mellon Collie has that kind of stuff on it; in fact, if you take away the drums from that record, there’s a lot of that kind of production on it. I came in with literally just voice-and-guitar demos and, like I said, if Rick had suggested putting a sixty-piece orchestra on them, or flying to India to record them in the lotus position, I was ready to follow that. Left to my own devices, I probably would’ve added far more layers.
Do you think your sensibilities have changed over the years in terms of production?
You know, that was kind of a weird backdrop to this record. For a long time, I’ve had fans come up to me and say that they didn’t like a certain song when they first heard them, and that it took them twenty listens to realise that actually, it was a great song – it was just that they didn’t like the production, so why did I fuck it up by putting sitars on it or something? I’ve heard that a lot down the years, and I don’t take offence at it because the production is just a version, just the way you interpret the song at the time – the song itself is sacrosanct. Oftentimes, it’s something that’s influenced by what’s going on in your own life, or going on in the culture around you. That’s where all the big snare drums came from in the eighties, when even Eric Clapton had them on his records. You’re influenced by the tastes of the time, but the really good songs tend to last regardless.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the last Pumpkins tour was the stripped-back In Plainsong tour, and then the next record you’ve made is so similar in style to the reinterpretations of those old songs. What made you want to tour the Pumpkins acoustically in the first place?
I guess the best way for me to answer your question faithfully is that there seemed to be an organic interest in my songwriting and my singing in that kind of stripped-down form, and that interest just wasn’t there for an electric tour. You do the math. I don’t know why it turned out that way. The core of the band for the last few years has been myself and Jeff Schroeder, and we’d sit around saying, “Well, we don’t why this is working, but we’re not going to argue”. We’d had so much difficulty with the other version of the band.
What was the issue with playing electric shows?
We’d go out with various lineups and play really good shows, playing a lot of songs that people knew, and they were just never happy. It was like it didn’t matter what you did – we could’ve stood on our heads and played every possible greatest hit, and the audiences still wouldn’t have been satisfied, whether it was because certain people weren’t there, or because they didn’t like the way I was standing, or because I’d grown older. There was always something.
Suddenly, we sort of stumbled accidentally into playing acoustic, and everybody was patting us on the back and saying, “Wow, you sound great!” I was almost suspicious about it, because I hadn’t had that level of positivity around me since probably 1997. We sold a lot of tickets and were playing to happy, smiling faces – nobody was giving us the finger and telling us to fuck off. I don’t know how we got there, but I was cool with it. We sort of fumbled our way into it, because we weren’t getting a lot of positive signals from the culture, that was for sure.
The first track on Ogilala, ‘Zowie’ - you wrote that after David Bowie died, right?
You knew and worked with him a little bit - what did he mean to you?
Well, I think that he made a commitment early on, circa 1972, that he was going to chart this very singular path, and I think he was true to it. That’s pretty inspiring, because we’re talking about a legend who did everything from Ziggy Stardust to ‘Let’s Dance’. The amount of amazing songs was just mind-boggling. So, you had this A-level talent who could have been anything – he could’ve been the next Frank Sinatra, if he’d wanted – but he chose to be a space alien. He had good times and bad times, but he never deviated from his inner faith that his vision was important. He stuck with it all the way to the end. As an artist, you’ve always got people in your ear, whispering “If only you could [insert compromise here]”. If you look at David’s path, or Neil Young’s path, you see that it’s still possible to grind out a vision that means something, and that’ll grow in time. I love those artists who knew it wasn’t a popularity contest; if you look at the arc of David’s work, there were popular times and not-so-popular times, but there was very good work in all those times.
Have you had that whisper in the ear yourself down the years?
Quite a bit, yeah. It wasn’t too long ago that I was at a wrestling show in England, and I was stood backstage with a promoter, and they were asking me why I won’t play my old albums in full. Because I don’t fucking want to play my old albums! That’s the music business’ way of telling you you’re dead. People were joking to me, “Hey, even U2 are doing it now!” Yeah, but to a fucking stadium. It’s not like anybody’s saying, “Hey, play Siamese Dream in order and we’ll come see you at the football stadium,” even if that’d be a temptation that I’d like to have.
I was wondering about the two trips you took across America, and how they informed the record. Was Ogilala written along the way?
Some of this record was written on the first trip, last year. I wrote another album on the second trip, but I haven’t recorded it yet. It’s sitting there waiting.
What inspired you take the trips and document them in the first place?
America’s this vast, confusing country, and if you stick your feet in the soil and get out on the open road, you start remembering Chuck Berry and Route 66 and the whole story of America being interwoven with rock and roll. As the country begins to move towards a more urbane focus, in terms of technologies and things like that, there’s still a lot of stories that aren’t being told, that aren’t about Elon Musk and his tunnel thing or whatever. I was raised an hour outside of Chicago, but I might as well have been 500 miles away – as far as I knew, the city was just this place way in the distance that I visited occasionally. That part of the world is one I feel I understand a little better, and when I get out there, it centres me. There’s a lot of people there that don’t care about the latest tabloid scandal, you know? It clicks me back into a bigger perspective, and a lot of my most famous songs were written about suburbia. I think that’s why they connected with a lot of people, because a lot of people live in the shadow of the big city, but you’re not there, you’re not hanging with the cool people, the people that are giving you a bad vibe because they see you as too dumb or too slow. There’s something there, in that strip mall thing, that worked for me.
Do you feel as if you’ve kept in touch with those places over the years, even as you’ve toured so many big cities and experienced a degree of fame?
I think I have, but the two things are growing apart now more than ever. You get caught up in the urbanity propaganda, which is that “We’re cooler, we’re faster, we have new phones.” As you’ve seen in the political situation here, a lot of people have suddenly stepped forward to say, “Well, actually, there’s this whole other world out here, and we don’t necessarily think in lockstep with your ideals.” It helps to remember that there’s a much bigger story. You’ve had it in the UK with Brexit. The technocracy that’s in place through these media conglomerates have shoved this message down our throats about globalism, and how we’re all going to hold hands in a big circle, and that someday we’ll all live in peace, like the past never happened.
You don’t think it’s going to go down that way?
No, I just don’t, and that doesn’t mean it has to be awful – more that you have to take it as read that not everybody is at the table. When you do, at least for me, I click into a bigger version of America which is way messier and way louder, but also has a cooler, funkier history. There’s a lot to be ashamed of, and a lot to be proud of, and if you’re willing to confront both sides of the coin, you’ll understand more about the country. I’ve always had that attitude, of not wanting to be censored or sanitised. That was true even with alternative rock, with the band. We didn’t want to be part of somebody’s perfect little indie army. We found that really distasteful.
The second trip you took, in January, was right around the time that Trump was inaugurated. Was that a coincidence, that you were going out into the sort of places that swung the election for him and talking to the people living there?
It was probably a coincidence, but that was what I was talking about all of last year. I literally would sit around tables with friends who were in the general liberal frame of mind and they would laugh at what was happening. They were missing the much bigger story going on. Call it what you want – populism, nationalism, cult of personality – these are big shifts, and they don’t come along every season. I’ll give you a perfect example; I was just in the UK doing press, and I was having a drink with a guy I’m friendly with. He said that there wasn’t one person in his social circle that voted for Brexit, and that it frightened him – you know, “How can I be living in such a bubble that I don’t know that this other population exists?” Surely that’s dangerous for democracy. On these trips, and all through the presidential election campaigns, I was seeing that there was a disconnect between media messaging and the ground reality. I’m a person who would rather know the ground reality, even if I don’t like it.
I remember on the first trip you were looking for fans to help connect you to people in those areas that might have a story to tell. How did that go?
I spoke to a lot of people. I was going to do a documentary. I put a mic in front of so many different faces, and I’d ask them what their version of the American dream was, and so many of them would say that there isn’t one. One fan set me up with his uncle, who was, like, eighty and had run a business. When somebody’s eighty years old and they’re telling you there’s no American dream, you have to respect that – how did they arrive at that perspective? I got to people from every background, because I wanted to know. I’m not saying I’m a reporter, but writing songs is a form of reportage that goes all the way back to Leadbelly singing about the flood, you know? All the way through to Dylan doing it, and Neil Young doing it.
Did becoming a father have you thinking about your roots, too?
Well, yeah. Everybody from the older generations is gone now – my mother, my father, my grandparents. My grandmother just died around three years ago, at 102. They say a lot of things when you’re a kid that you don’t understand, and suddenly, one day, you wake up and you’ve got your own kid, and you realise that you have to try and figure out what it was they were trying to tell you, because it’s valuable. Particularly in America, because we’re not as in touch with our own history here. The Chicago that I grew up in had a lot of immigrant families that lived in three generation homes; grandma’s upstairs, the kids are in the basement. That’s kind of fallen apart, and when you have this diapora of families spread all over the place, when you put your grandparents in a retirement home, you lose that sense of living history. I don’t want to forget my history – I want to be able to pass on an active family story to my son.
Are you still living in Chicago?
Yeah, and I was thinking about that a lot, too. That dovetails with the American dream, and my place within it as an artist. I can walk my own streets and feel like a bit of a ghost – I get more love in London or Tokyo than I do in my own town. So, there’s this thing of, “Why am I still here?” Am I hanging on to some ancestral idea of where home is, when it’s irrelevant? All of this stuff about America seeped into the consciousness, and the writing, but how those forces play, and how they flip into the unconscious language of music...you got me. If I knew how to do it, I’d do it all the time. Why am I singing about Civil War battles? I don’t fucking know! So it’s weird, but at least I can trace some of the influence.
‘Processional’ is the first time you’ve recorded with James Iha since he was last a part of the Pumpkins. Why was that the track to have him chip in on?
He came to visit me when I was demoing some of the songs, just to hang out, and because he was sitting there I thought, well, fuck, I’m going to play some of them to him and get some feedback. He was very encouraging, and that encounter stuck with me, so when the record was almost done, and as Rick was saying that it was my last chance to add anything else, I sent James the whole album and told him to pick whatever he wanted, so that it’d be about what he was attracted to. He picked ‘Processional’ and one other song that didn’t make the album. I love the work he did, it’s so cool.
Now that you’re on good terms with everybody from that classic lineup of the Pumpkins, is just maintaining those friendships the most important thing, before you start talking about maybe playing together again?
Well, the simple math for me is that when our personal relationships were good, we had a very effective musical one. Our disintegration was never over music, it was personal, so when those friendships fell apart, so did the band. So, the math then would be that if we ever wanted to make good music again together, you would hope that we wouldn’t make the same mistake to think that we can do that without having peace with each other. That would be the intention. Whether or not it gets there, in the way that people like to romantically draw it up in their minds – I mean, I would love to be a part of that, but I don’t have control over all the forces in play, and nor do I want to. Twenty years ago, I would’ve been trying to mash this thing forwards, because it sounded big and exciting, and now I just think, if it happens, it happens. I’m all for it, but I’m not going to make the same mistake of dictating terms.
I’m guessing any reunion would need to revolve around new music, then? It wouldn’t just be the Siamese Dream stadium tour?
[laughs] Well, first of all, we should be so lucky, and secondarily, that’s what interests me – that we go back to being a working band. I’m not into the Madame Tussauds version of the band. I’d like to go back to being in a working band, and if that meant one record every five years, great. If it meant one record every ten years, great. At least we’d be making music, and doing so for the right reasons. I’d just like to go back to being a working organisation, and if it was just about flipping one switch, I’d flip it, but there’s other things that need to happen.
What about the future for Ogilala? Do you plan to tour it for a while?
I don’t know. I mean, European promoters have been really unfriendly with me in the past few years. Everything I’ve pushed forward has had literally no interest. Hopefully, the record will be well enough received that there would be a demand. Rock and roll works best when it’s an easy conversation, when you don’t have to twist somebody’s arm to get shows booked, you know? I’ve played so few shows in the UK in particular in the last few years, it’s not even funny. I think it’s one show in four years. It’s strange that there’s been no interest after that amount of time...maybe you can put in a good word.
Ogilala is out now via BMG. For more information about Billy Corgan, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit his official website.