A very belated chat with Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins

Towards the end of the cataclysmic shitstorm that was 2020, a few weeks before The Smashing Pumpkins released their towering 11th album, CYR, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with the band’s notoriously enigmatic and elusive frontman, Billy Corgan. This was for the January issue of Australian Guitar (#141 – read more about that here). 

We had a 15-minute phoner booked in, and knowing Corgan’s general reluctance towards the press and tendency to give tight, concise answers, I’d fully expected it to be a quick in-and-out type situation. But much like a good chunk of their discography, our call went on for way longer than it realistically should’ve. I think I caught Corgan on a good day – he was very animated, very friendly, and happily waxed lyrical about topics I thought he’d brush off entirely. 

However, due to the pitfalls of print and the onerous word-counts we have to abide by, lest the magazine look like a crowded mess of crammed-in text, most of our chat wound up on the cutting room floor. Usually when an interview runs longer than it’s supposed to and I end up with a kilo or two of leftover copy, there are two routes I can take: I can either ditch what doesn’t make it to print (which I do when all the extra stuff is superfluous or waffly, or not interesting enough to justify bothering with), or I can scribble up a second feature to pitch to another publication.

I was really quite stoked with the 2,000 words of content I had left over from my call with Corgan, so I held on to it, my intention being to write a second article with it and sell that to a publication that didn’t have their own feature to plug CYR. And there ended up being a publication onboard to buy it! 

The only thing is, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The editor I was in contact with wanted authorisation from the Pumpkins’ publicist to run the piece, and by the time that came though, we were both on our holiday breaks, and I missed the green-light landing in my inbox. By the time I came across it, CYR had been out for over a month, it was right after Christmas, and I’d just kind of accepted that our plans for the handover had fallen through the cracks. 

I’d just been paid for the last issue of Australian Guitar, too, so I wasn’t super fussed about missing out on that extra payday. My plan was to wait until I’d started easing back into ‘writing mode’ at the start of the new year, and make this transcript the first thing I posted on my blog for 2021. But alas, thanks to the fact that I have the memory of a fucking tadpole, it ended up buried in a folder on my MacBook until five whole months later

But, like, fuck it, right? I put effort into planning this interview, studying for it, doing it, transcribing it, and cleaning that transcript up – so I’m not letting it die. 

So, in short, here is about half of a chat I had with Billy Corgan around the time The Smashing Pumpkins’ (unfairly maligned) latest album CYR came out. If you’d like to (see: please?) read the other half, you can click these few words of bold text right here to read it on the Guitar World website (or track down a copy of Australian Guitar #141 if you’re all about that physical mag life).

PS. I was honestly really surprised to see this record get slapped with such a mediocre reception. Shit bangs hard.

For a great deal of this record, it sounds like you’re using the guitar as a tool to complement the synthesisers, as opposed to vice versa. But at the same time, you’ve managed to maintain this very analogue, full-band sort of sound. How did you go about striking that balance?
It’s just a lot of layering. I don’t talk about this stuff in public a lot, but I’m a big fan of layering sounds. When people listen to the record for the first time they assume there’s no guitar in there, which is not true. There’s actually a lot of guitar on this record, but it’s kind of hidden in the layers. 

There’s a thing I call ‘masking’ – Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys used to do it a lot – where let’s say if you have a piano and a guitar, you have the guitar sound like one thing and the piano sound like another, but if you put them together in a certain way it creates a different type of instrument; you’re not quite sure what you’re hearing. That’s what I mean when I talk about layering – it’s this game of trying to put instruments together in a way that sounds unfamiliar, but tonally isn’t strange. It’s all familiar range, but you’re reacting to it differently because it’s not the typical sound you’re used to hearing. I’m really into a lot of boring stuff like that.

I’m curious about how that will translate to the live set, because there’s three guitarists in the band between James [Iha] and Jeff [Schroeder], but with a lot of these songs, you’ve got long stretches where the guitar is at most a minimal element.
Well when we play live and we do songs like that from over the band’s 30 years – songs like “1979” and “Eye” – we just use backing tapes, and we kind of play the guitar intertwined. That’s been a really effective strategy. So in essence, we kind of do a variation of the song that’s more guitar-voiced for the stage, with the backing tapes filling in the blanks. And it sounds fine.

I feel like because of how much musical ground the Smashing Pumpkins have covered over the past 32 years, you are one of those few bands that can truly get away with anything without ever seeming inauthentic. Do you feel like you have that true creative freedom to do whatever the fuck you want?
Pretty much, yeah. But it’s not been an easy thing to do, y’know? Because the music business is not set up for bands like us – the music business is set up for a band that does this and a band that does that. And those bands market those sounds, and consistently build on that marketing year after year, until people get bored. I, from the beginning, never wanted that – and it’s caused a tonne of problems. I wouldn’t change it for the world, but it’s definitely not been the easiest path to take. 

Do you still have that attitude of wanting to rebel against the music industry, or the labels you were given by people like me?
I think it’s more about rebelling against perception. I won’t include you in this, but I think throughout the years there’s been a lot of lazy takes about the Pumpkins. It’s like when people call Zeppelin a rock ’n’ roll band or Sabbath a doom band – it doesn’t really sum up all the nuance of those bands’ sounds. [The Smashing Pumpkins] is very much a product of its time, and we were always quite comfortable with being chameleonic. 

I mean, I still have snippets of reviews we got from before our first album came out, where they said we sounded like The Black Crows, REM and The Cult. I like all those bands, but that’s not even remotely close to what we were going for. But they said that because they couldn’t figure out where we were coming from, and those were the closest names to lump us with. I don’t know how many studio albums we’ve released at this point, but y’know, we’ve always been a fairly dominant musical unit, as far as our ability to generate music in a bunch of ways for a bunch of different eras. 

But the rap on the band tends to be about other stuff – mostly drama about me that isn’t reflective of who I actually am. So it’s kind of a weird thing – the best argument I can make is just to keep achieving musically; I could argue with you about how the media perceives me, but that’s kind of a losing argument because at the end of the day, you’re the one writing this article, not me. Y’know what I mean? I’m not saying this to you personally, but it’s like, I’ve lost the battle many times already – I’m not going to change anybody’s minds, especially if they already have some sort of bias against me – so the best I can do is just keep achieving musically. 

And I believe that eventually, through streaming, through new generations of fans, and through a different world which is in many ways more beneficial to my way of doing musical business, it’ll just all sort itself out. But yeah, I still have a chip on my shoulder, y’know? 

Well, I like that you’re able to approach that side of the argument with some optimism.
I feel very lucky, y’know? I feel like I’ve had a great musical life. I was even thinking about it today, before I did all these interviews, that I don’t have anything to complain about. As a musician, I’ve lived every dream I’ve had and I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do. There was one period in my life where I worked with Tony Iommi, I played a concert with David Bowie and I interviewed Eddie Van Halen. Those were all childhood heroes for me, and I got to put myself on their level. That’s an incredible life to live. 

I think I’ve been mistreated many times, sure – but I’ve also been a part of the arguing, so that’s okay. I don’t feel like a victim. I have two healthy children, a lot of great fans… The fact that someone like you is interested in what we’re doing right now is great! And there’s no “dot dot dot”, there’s no asterisk – it’s been a great thing. It’s been certainly more great than bad.

So as the next chapter in the Shiny And Oh So Bright era, how does this record continue the story that you started telling with No Past. No Future. No Sun.?
It’s a bit convoluted because when the band got back together with James, I wanted to do a musical, but there wasn’t a lot of energy in the band to do it. So I’d written some songs for the musical that ended up on No Past, and that kind of set me off on this narrative pace. It’s like the dream of the character versus the story of the character; right now, we’re working on a sequel album to Melon Collie and Machina, which is like a continuation of the characters’ stories that we explored on those albums. 

But I think the Shiny And Oh So Bright story is ultimately more about the band’s journey… It’s going to be hard to talk about it until the third volume comes out. We’re three quarters of the way done with that, and I think once it comes out, it’ll explain why I did what I did. But right now, I think it would just confuse people if I tried to explain it. 

How does the Shiny And Oh So Bright narrative continue past this album?
Well y’know, we’re doing the Machina reissue soon, and when that comes out it’ll explain the whole narrative of that project. I’ve never explained the Machina narrative. The Melon Collie one is much simpler in the sense that it’s just the rise and fall of a star – it’s pretty simple rock ’n’ roll stuff – but Machina is way more convoluted and crazy. And I think once I explain the concept behind that, it’ll become more evident where [Shiny And Oh So Bright] is going. But it’s hard to talk about that before it’s done. 

Y’know, we live in a clickbait world, so if I say one thing about it, it’ll be twisted into a million other things and everybody will expect something different to what was implied. I have a funny story about that, actually: when we were doing Adore, somebody asked me what kind of album we were making and I jokingly said, “We’re making a techno album.” Next thing you know, there were headlines all around the world like, “Pumpkins Announce Techno Album”. Then every interview was like, “So Billy, you’re making a techno album?” And I’d have to be like, “No!” I’ve been burned too many times by running my mouth early [laughs].

I suppose CYR would be the closest you’ve come to making a techno album. It just took a while!
[Laughs] That’s a good point! The BPMs are a little too slow for techno, but we’re getting there.

What is it that you like about having these bigger, more expansive conceptual projects that span several albums, like Shiny And Oh So Bright or Teargarden By Kaleidyscope?
I think it just engages my creativity at a higher level. Let’s say you’re in the band, right, and tomorrow we’re going to start a new Smashing Pumpkins album – the weight of expectation on that is too much for me to deal with. The expectations are usually in people’s minds – it’s not my version of The Smashing Pumpkins, it’s everyone else’s. So I need something to lean into that balances expectation, reality and my own creativity. 

I have to allow myself a very wide berth to express myself. And generally speaking, if people let me do that and support me in that, they’d get more of me that they like. But if I’m stuck in a computational frame where I feel like I have to limit myself, I think I end up with records that are… Not my best. It doesn’t mean they’re not good, they’re just not my best. 

Do you find that you get creatively wrapped up in those worlds like a method actor would with a specific role?
I’m bad in that I go totally into it, and then I never want to hear it again. It’s a bit whorish, but it works for me. 

Do you like when it takes a few listens for an album to really make sense?
I do. People like to tell me that they don’t really understand my records until they smoke some pot, because it allows them to hear all the layers that are in there. That’s what I was talking about earlier with tonal stacking and layering and all of that. If you look closely at a great painting, you’ll see there’s a lot of depth in the work. You can look at it for five seconds and go, “Oh, it’s a lady on a couch,” but if you really look, you’ll see shades and tones and an emotional quality – and that’s the way I perceive music. 

There should be a romantic quality that you have to peer into it to find. Unless it’s strictly primitive by design. I do like a lot of primitive music as well, but when it comes to my own music, I’m much more interested in exploring the other side of the spectrum: those highly produced, highly controlled, yet still organic atmospheres, of which I have a lot of control.

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