"I needed to make peace with my past": Billy Corgan - The Music Week interview

 Today [October 13] Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan – recording under his full name William Patrick Corgan – releases his beautiful second solo album, Ogilala, via Martha’s Music/BMG. One of the greatest musicians to emerge from the vibrant 90s alternative scene, Corgan – alongside the classic Pumpkins line-up completed by guitarist James Iha, bassist Darcy Wretzky and wonder-drummer Jimmy Chamberlin – supplied modern rock music with some of its most thrilling songs and iconic music videos before the band acrimoniously imploded in 2000.

What followed was a period of creative exploration and zigzagging for Corgan, as he pursued a more optimistic-sounding take on rock via the supergroup Zwan and the electronic-tinged scope of his 2005 solo debut TheFutureEmbrace. The shadow of the Smashing Pumpkins, however, was always lurking.

After reuniting with Chamberlain, Corgan brought Pumpkins back – sans James Iha and D'arcy Wretzky – with their 2007 comeback album Zeitgeist. The second life of this revered act has subsequently been marked both with triumph and disappointment for Corgan, its most recent output being 2014’s Monuments To An Elegy, an album that contained wonderful moments despite the Pumpkins’ ranks being reduced to a line-up consisting of just himself and guitarist Jeff Schroeder. A sister-album, Day For Night, was mooted to follow soon after, yet failed to materialise. It has been AWOL ever since.

The news, then, of Corgan returning to his solo career has come as something of a surprise. Ogilala, an elegant album that sidesteps distorted, fuzzy guitars for gorgeous acoustic, string and piano passages, not only pairs him with legendary producer Rick Rubin, it also sees Corgan reunited with his estranged former Pumpkin partner James Iha on the brilliant The Processional. With all of this happening alongside Ogilala’s accompanying 40-minute silent movie named Pillbox, there was already a lot to talk about. Still, when Corgan spoke to Rolling Stone earlier in the year intimating that he wanted the original line-up of Smashing Pumpkins to reunite, there are more questions than ever surrounding the frontman.

Here, Music Week joins Corgan in the basement of London’s Blake Hotel, to discuss the past, present and future. He is not the person you necessarily expect to meet. Far from the hostile frontman he has often – by his own admission – come across as, today he is a warm, funny and extremely candid interviewee as he tells us how he is finding his place in the music industry in 2017 and beyond…

 

 

The world has been expecting the follow-up to Monuments To An Elegy for a long time, so it caught a lot of people by surprise that you’re coming back with a solo record…
Billy Corgan: “Me too. It will never come unfortunately, it's forever abandoned. The good news is that I document everything so there’ll be demoes and things like that. I can see cases in the future where I would [revisit Day For Night]. There’s some good stuff, it just was a bit too… It was going the wrong way and I just lost my heart in it.”

It’s been over a decade since your first solo album. Why was it the right time to return to your solo career now?
“It wasn’t. I had no plans to do a solo record. None. In fact, I would have been fine to never do a solo album again after TheFutureEmbrace and the way I was treated, the bad reviews: the ‘It doesn’t sound like the Pumpkins’. Then, what I didn’t expect at all, it went into this thing, like, ‘Maybe you weren’t the architect of the Pumpkins, maybe you’re not the guy you say you are!’ Almost like a conspiracy theory that I had overinflated my place in the band and that, maybe, without other people around me, I was good but not great.”

So your first solo endeavour was a negative experience?
“Oh, very negative. Not the album itself - as music has changed, as time has changed, people now really like that album because it sounds very modern. To this day, people come up to me and say, ‘When did that album come out?’ They think it was made two years ago. It’s a weird, out-of-time thing.”

Were there any lessons from that negative experience that you applied to making Ogilala?
“Nothing. It was the opposite; I was like, ‘Why be solo?’ I don’t want to blabber on about it, but if we’re talking about the time: imagine you’re in this band, you have a lot of success and, generally speaking, you do quite well. You leave and you think, ‘Okay, I should take some of that with me.’ It was the opposite. People used the album to strip me of my Pumpkins credentials and almost say, ‘You’re not who we thought you were in the band and this is proof of it.' That’s when I thought, ‘Fuck it, I may as well just go back to the band.’ Then, when I didn’t produce work under the [Pumpkins] band name to the level they thought I should be producing, it seemed to further cement the conspiracy theory that I was delusional – not realising that I was really trying to find something new. I’d done all that other work, I didn’t want to repeat myself. It embittered me in a way. That set me off on the path of the work I did between 2007 and 2015.”

And now in 2017, on Ogilala, you’re exploring another new, acoustic-led direction. What was it like working with Rick Rubin?
“It was great, really simple and effective. He gave me a confidence I didn’t have – my confidence was a bit off. I know I can write a song, but that’s only one part of the process. If writing a song is the beginning of the act, there are a lot of steps where I was a little bit shakey. It’s like an athlete: you get your swing out of whack and you start second guessing.”

So you were doubting your own abilities?
“I was doubting my own willingness to do what I needed to do to be successful. Does that make sense?”

Yes, but what was the answer to that problem?
“I needed to go back to the beginning of, ‘Can I write a good song that I like?’ I know that sounds a bit strange, but that’s what happened. I quit the album, this mythical album that will never come out, and I went home and said, ‘I’m just going to write songs for me, no-one else, and if they never come out I don’t care, I’m not going to think beyond today.' I was home a lot because of my kid, so I’d get up every morning and just work. I went on a road trip, I generated a bunch of ideas, and I started to hear a very small voice in amongst this work – a sort of hope or yearning. I’ve done this long enough to know there’s something in there. It’s very blurry, but it’s in there.”

Like an authentic writing voice?
“That’s it, thank you for saying it better than I am [laughs]. That’s true: you hear an authenticity that doesn’t have to do with the world. There’s something that wants to come out – like a plant pushing through concrete – and it’s bigger than your fucking idea of your life, who you are and where you belong. It’s like if you’ve ever been asked the question: ‘What makes you happy?’ and you go, ‘Err, errr.' It should be right on your tongue, but in modern life we don’t tend to live that way. We tend to think, ‘I’m going to do this, this and this, and then when I do all that then I’ll be happy, because then I’ll have a condo in Ibiza.' I operated on that for a long time. So here I am, I’m trying to still carry the millstone of the band and it’s kind of doing my head in. You make a series of organic choices almost out of desperation, like, ‘Okay, I can’t do this, I quit.’ Which feels like a defeat but it’s actually a victory, because you stop doing something you shouldn’t be doing. Then you make a choice, which is, ‘I’m going to pick up the guitar and I’m going to try,’ which is a victory. That goes beyond, ‘I’m somebody, of course when I pick up a guitar something magical happens!’ At that point in my life, I was wondering if anything magical would ever happen again.”

 

If you’re living in the shadow of something, and you’re conscious of that shadow, the chance of you being passionate at the level you need to be to produce great work is probably not going to happen

Billy Corgan

But Oceania and Monuments both had excellent songs on them…
“Jeff [Schroeder, Smashing Pumpkins guitarist, 2007-present] and I felt it was really strong work. We didn’t understand the disconnect. But there are a lot of parts of rock'n'roll you can’t account for. Including its diminishing place in the culture. If you qualify success on others’ terms, then the general message of industry would be: ‘You’re still making records, you still draw a good crowd, why won’t you play third on the festival bill? You can still make a good living, what’s the problem?’ But that’s not my brain. My brain is: ‘I’m not being treated like a contemporary artist, I can’t get my songs played on the radio, I’m being treated like a has-been when I’m at the peak of my powers, I’m actually moving in the right direction.' Everywhere I turn is just negative. Not negative, like, ‘Fuck you, get out of here!’ but more apathy. If you remember anything about the old band, apathy was death to the old band. Apathy is the worst thing in the world, when you get that ‘Yeah, they’re alright…’ I don’t want to be in the ‘Yeah, they’re alright' band.”

You used the word “millstone” to describe Pumpkins before – do you ever feel like you’re trying to escape some pervading memory people have of you and the Pumpkins? Like they want you to be the person you were…
“Absolutely. The funny thing is I was never that person! What I mean by that is that was only part of who I was. People forget. They say, ‘You’re the ‘Rat in a cage guy!’ Yeah, I was also the ‘1979 guy’, the ‘Tonight, Tonight guy’, and the ‘Disarm guy’ and the ‘To Shelia guy’. When did I become the ‘Rat in the cage guy’ only? That’s the weird thing. It’s this reductionist culture. It’s up to the artist to figure out how to supersede that. Pete Townshend once told me, ‘It’s not their problem, it’s yours to figure out.’ That’s very accurate.”

With Ogilala, it certainly sounds like you’re pursuing music that makes you happy…
“Yeah, but I would also say it this way: there is a causal tie between one’s passion and the level of the work. So if you’re living in the shadow of something, and you’re conscious of that shadow, the chance of you being passionate at the level you need to be to produce great work is probably not going to happen. Oceania, I think works in many ways because it’s me sort of accepting the shadow, integrating the shadow, and sort of inverting it back out – where I’m okay to play that style of guitar and have that type of song. But when I listen back to it, it’s quite good, but it’s not great. And it’s not great because it’s still too relational to something in the past. I needed to make peace with my past, which is how I got here [with Ogilala] in a weird kind of way. It’s like a form of death. Like when you finally accept that the girl you probably should have married is marrying someone else – the day finally comes when you say, ‘Well, okay, you gotta let it go.’ That was my grieving process of letting something go that I should have let go of a long time before. It’s prohibitive to making great work. You can find something new in it but you’re kind of rummaging around in an attic that’s already been rummaged around in. The best thing to do is say, ‘Fuck it.’

 

Apathy is the worst thing in the world, when you get that ‘Yeah, they’re alright…’ I don’t want to be in the ‘Yeah, they’re alright’ band

Billy Corgan


"Somehow, all my years of listening to Bert Jansch and Anne Briggs, plus Fairport Convention, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, it all clicked in my brain at the right moment. I come from the Gaelic Kentucky people, that’s my family – literally coalminers and moonshiners, that was my grandfather. I literally come from the Roscoe Holcomb world. Somehow I [musically] found my way back to my people with some sort of ancestral memory – like, ‘I’ve got to find music from the Earth – I can’t do this anymore.’ As much as it feels like a defeat, it’s also that moment where you finally let yourself fall to your knees, cry and say, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I don’t want to be that guy.’ Somebody asked me, and they weren’t being cruel, ‘Do you not like your old songs?’ I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? They were great songs, I fucking wrote them!’ These things don’t define me, they are of me. That’s the weirdest feeling, like you’re given this cloak that you made as if they’re doing you a favour like, ‘Here wrap yourself up in your past, stay warm, buddy.’ It’s like, ‘What are you talking about? I fucking made this!’ I see it happen to other people and it defeats them in a way – once bright minds get defeated by this retirement-home shit. It’s the inability to understand the artist path versus the commercial path. We’ve lost a lot of critical class who can appreciate the difference – Dylan was never a big record seller, but he won the fucking Nobel Prize for a reason. He changed the fucking world. Would he have been better if he sold more records? There’s plenty of room for people like me, but when you get to the point where your work is no longer celebrated as an important part of a cultural thing. It’s like, ‘Maybe I need to get a different job.'"

 

 

The chorus of The Spaniards on Ogilala includes the words ‘Take me as I am’ – was what you just described part of the backdrop that nspired that sentiment?
“That’s a leftover from Day For Night – you would have got the Smashing Pumpkins version of that. When I write I don’t have a consciousness, it’s weird – it’s more of an attraction to things. I have very little intellectual faculty going.”

So, lyrically, you figure out where your head was at after the fact?
“It’s more like where I’m going. It’s actually makes me feel a dissociative feeling. I’m like everybody else, wake up, shower, brush my teeth, put on my clothes, and then I listen to a song like [Half-life Of An Autodidact, from Ogilala] and it’s like, ‘Who is that person?’ [laughs] That person is not very present in my daily life. It’s strange, like something inhabits me that is able to come out under certain circumstances. The one thing I would say is that person needs safety. Which is weird. As I’ve often pointed out, what people point to as my ‘greatest’ work is when I was married. It was one of the only peaceful times in my entire life where I had some stability at home. That person needs to be in a castle with a moat around it, and I haven’t done a good job of protecting that guy. My great sin in life is that I didn’t protect that guy more.”

Have you done that now?
“No, I’m working on it. I still fear that I’m not able to hold the fort. I’m old enough now where I don’t feel the need to play some public character to protect the private character – I don’t care, it’s fine. Personally, I don’t like the way the hand’s been played, but I don’t have anybody to blame but myself. For years, obviously, I hectored journalists, I hectored the public, for not giving me a fair shot. But the truth is: it was me not giving myself a fair shot. I wanted them to give me something back that I felt I earned so it would be a little easier for me. Now I understand that it’s not going to happen that way, and that’s okay, but it’s still disconcerting because I just don’t know what’s going to happen, I can’t plan anything out.”

Specifically in relation to?
“My life. You’d think at 50 you’d have a pretty clear line.”

You’ve talked about the need for commercial success and critical respect – are you letting go of both, then?
“That’s a really good question. I don’t know if I’ll ever let go of the need for certain things because, to me, they’re critical to my personality. In essence, they’re part of what drives me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – the ‘aspirational’ part of that. But I also understand it’s not going to happen the way I want it to happen. So if it’s not going to happen the way I want it to happen, then I’ve got to let it go. I have 30 years of empirical evidence to say it’s not going to happen the way I want it to. I have no problem in the lottery of when it all shakes out, and people sit on Spotify and they listen to people’s catalogues. I’ll be just fine. I’ve got no fucking worries about that. But is it going to happen in the sequence, the order and the timeliness I want it to? It’s not going to happen.

"In a way I’m explaining it darker than it feels, so here’s how it really feels: recently, I said, 'I feel I’ve been all the way around the sun and I’m back at the beginning.’ Someone asked me, ‘What did you learn on your trip?’ I said that my read on the culture I was about to attack at 19 was true. When I was 19 and sitting in my dad’s house, which was filled with fucking roaches and mice, and me and [James] Iha are in the back bedroom writing goth songs, I looked out the window and said, ‘This world is not going to do me any fucking favours – if I want something I have to take it, no-one is going to hand it to me.’ Whatever you project into the world, you get back – like a street thug, everywhere he goes it’s a fight. I don’t think that was a wrong read. I knew at 19, ‘If you’re going to do this, it’s not going to be an easy ride.’ Every step along the way was fucking tough. We got treated like shit in Chicago, we bust out, go to New York, we get treated like shit in New York, we bust out, go to London, and we get treated like shit. Go back and read that fucking press, it’s crazy.”

 

 

The industry has obviously undergone a huge change since those days. A lot of artists say they feel depressed that an album seems to come and disappear in the streaming world in a week flat. Was releasing Ogilala with an accompanying movie just creative, or was it an attempt to give the album more life or visibility?
“Absolutely. I think you’re insane to just assume that the album will be enough. I’ve been saying that for years, and I didn’t always put my money where my mouth is. Look, we didn’t have a gazillion dollars to spend, we made this movie over four days, we had a good laugh with it, we have a bunch of friends in it, it’s silly and strange and psychedelic and it’s a good stoner, fun trip. The best thing – and I know people won’t necessarily get this – is if you watch the film, you unconsciously listen to the album, because the album is the only information you get beside the visual. It’s a weird backdoor music video to get you to listen to the record.”

Finally, you recently told Rolling Stone that while you would be fine if the original Smashing Pumpkins line-up never gets back together, you would like that to happen…
“I would prefer it, yeah.”

If that doesn’t transpire – and given you said that you feel you’ve done what you can with Pumpkins alone – what’s next?
“I don’t know. I’m just focussed on the solo album. But I do feel pretty strongly at this moment in my life that I don’t want to do Pumpkins without some version of the [original] band. I just can’t carry that anymore. I think it’s not for me alone anymore. I’ve taken it as far as I can take it on my own. Let’s say the band never reforms, never plays again, I put the band thing down and concentrate on going solo for a few years, and then seven years from now I feel inspired to do another [record] in the name Pumpkins, I can do it. I own the name. It’s up to me. It’s not like, ‘It has to be this way.’”

So it wouldn’t mean the end of Pumpkins?
“I think it’s kind of the end, but I’ve said that before. I don’t feel declarative about it. I just feel like we’ve reached a point where – and I’m saying collectively ‘we’, whoever is still interested, and me on the other side – the generational memory of the band obliterates the reality of the band. And only the band can change that. I can’t change that. I’m not powerful enough to change it. I tried, I failed. Only the band’s alchemy can change that formula. That’s it. I think it would be nice, it would be a great story. I’ll tell you one thing, James and I made our peace and I said I’d love him to come play [live] and he said he’d be interested. I sent him a rehearsal tape showing the way we were doing the songs – we were doing a Siamese [Dream, Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 classic album] set in the middle of the acoustic tour. Obviously, he knows the fucking songs – he wrote some of them – but until he came to sound check we hadn’t played together since 2000. He didn’t come to a pre-rehearsal, we’re at sound check and there’s only so much time. He plugs in and motherfucker! He starts playing, I start playing, and Jeff looks at me like, ‘There it is! There’s that fucking sound.’ I’m getting goosebumps talking to you about it – that’s fucking real, that’s that sound. Jeff was like, ‘Holy shit!’ Jeff’s a fan, Jeff saw the band back in the day, he’s played in the band for 10 years, he knows all of James’ guitar parts. He was like, ‘Wow.’ It wasn’t like [the sound] was kind of there, it was there. The beautiful story is: if this [solo album] goes well, and I’m happy, and then we reform and we’re able to make music, that’s the Cinderella story. For once I’d like it to go the way I would like it to go [laughs]!”

 

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