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Billy Corgan's Solo Album - 2005-06-12
Julianne Shepherd
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Billy Corgan's The Future Embrace is technically his first solo album, but anyone who's followed his career knows he's been writing all the music (and playing all the instruments in the studio) since he started soft-focus alt-rockers Smashing Pumpkins in 1988. The album– all Billy, all the time– is cloaked in reverb and flange, a bit industrial and compressed like a smashed aluminum can, blown up again with studio fireworks, dotted with glitch and the occasional ballad. It's heavily processed, but Corgan's lyrics are as simple and literal as the poetry in his book Blinking With Fists; all the impressionistic musings and parables that made up the bulk of SP lyrics are cleared away for blunt language up in the confessional: "We can change the world," he promises on "All Things Change". It marks the change in his life: Free of the terrible weight of Zwan– his flopped and troubled rock band with Matt Sweeney, Paz Lenchantin and Dave Pajo– heavy into spirituality and trying to evolve, Corgan is an early entrée in the running for most emo (not emo) rock star in 2005.

Billy Corgan is publishing his autobiography on his website, with the Buddhist-sounding agenda to promote "loving compassion." It's an interesting way to both strip himself of his celebrity and perpetuate it– in Buddhism, letting go is akin to self-empowerment; the less you have, the less you have to lose. He's opening the door on his honeymoon, divorce, his band demise, making good on the strange megaphonic intimacy of the internet, and baring his entire life in the most public media form ever– a concept, incidentally, popularized by his ex and colleague Courtney Love back in the 1990s, through her proto-livejournal emails and confessional newsgroup posts. Corgan's wounds are riding the crest of This Moment in Emo. But he invented this moment, too; Smashing Pumpkins, the soul-baring arena rockers, set the stage for today's SoundScan-topping emo bands as much as the Cure or Weezer did.

I meet Cowboy Bill at 10 in the morning, so I'm jacked on coffee, and his pale bald head looks particularly soft and fragile.

Pitchfork: You've been doing this for close to 20 years. Do you ever get sick of interviews?

Billy Corgan: Yeah. Because you're either talking about somebody else's reference points, or they're talking about yours. If they're talking about mine, I'm really interested 'cause there are all sorts of variations and ideas; if they're talking about theirs, it's really kind of narrow and overdone.

Pitchfork: Well, what do you mean? What are your reference points?

BC: Okay, your basic person wants to talk about material culture, internet culture, you know, "What do you think of this band?" I think about God, cats, nature. You know what I mean?

Pitchfork: I was actually gonna ask you about God. [Your publicist] Brian and I were actually just talking about astrology…we were talking about going through our Saturn Return.

BC: How old are you?

Pitchfork: I'm 29.

BC: Oh, that's the tough one. Twenty-eight to 31 is the tough period.

Pitchfork: Really? Great.

BC: You have to be really careful because it's so cataclysmic, so life-altering. People do really dramatic things like get married, or they'll get divorced. Your chances of committing suicide go way up. It's basically psychic death. You see the signs of it around 27, and you're still on the out-end of it around 31. Everyone I've talked to who's gone through that and come out the other side walks out of it like, "MY LIFE IS GREAT."

Pitchfork: Like a molting process.

BC: Absolutely, but it's really beautiful. And you see people who don't go through their Saturn Return properly– my ex-bandmate D'Arcy is a classic example– and they're like, trapped in hell. They're like in a suspended state; they freeze, because they won't go through the act. They'll do anything to avoid the psychic death. But you have to go through it.

That's why 14 and 15 are such terrible times. Saturn Return is just the return of your planets to their original position.

Pitchfork: Then it happens again when you're 56.

BC: Yeah, midlife crisis. I'm happy to have gone through that, but it was really terrible. In my Saturn Return period, my mom died and I got a divorce.

Pitchfork: It seems like it's been harder for the men I know, honestly.

BC: It could have something to do with the fact that women are sort of more emotional beings while men are kind of like, still working out the, "Well, do I fuck lots of girls, or do I get committed?" They're still on the fundamental primal concepts, while I think women are more apt to deal with those things early.

Pitchfork: So what happened with yours?

BC: Mine occurred at the absolute peak of my career. Smashing Pumpkins were running around playing 200 concerts a year– making money, lotta babes– and there was the irony of the high with the low.

Pitchfork: So you were just like, dealing with your psychic turmoil while all this stuff was happening?

BC: Well, I didn't deal with it; that was sort of the problem. Like any form of death, at some point you just have to get up and say yeah I'll take it, whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen and sorta chop your head off. It's easy to avoid all that…there's always another moment, another girl, another high, another drug, there's always something to distract you.

My mom's death was the big head-crusher, because I could no longer deny what was going on…symbolically, it was the moment.

Pitchfork: You had to face your life.

BC: Well yeah, 'cause I didn't grow up with my mother, and so losing her for real was like, some sort of latent childhood, some sort of unresolved issue. When she left for real, it was sort of like, I was done. We were playing two shows at the Anaheim Pond. We played one show, and when we came off stage, I could see in everybody's body language they were sort of braced, and they said, "Your mom died." She was ill, so it wasn't unexpected, it was like, "Okay." Very calm. They just looked at me. I played the next night, and after we were done I got on a plane, flew to Chicago, went to the funeral, and then was just back on tour. Didn't take a week off, didn't breathe, just suspended it. So the remedial…it kind of hit me later.

And I've always been spiritual but I've never had a proper context, and it took me awhile to find the proper context. It's hard to realize you can have any kind of relationship with God you want…and so I now have a punk rock relationship with God.

Pitchfork: What do you mean?

BC: It's like how I approach music fundamentally for my own end; like, I was into Black Sabbath and it just wasn't cool, but I didn't give a shit, my band was going to sound like Black Sabbath because I fucking wanted it to and I didn't give a shit what some idiot fuck thought. You know, that kind of thing. So it took me a long time to realize that wow, I can have that same kind of relationship with God. I don't have to play by these rules or do these things…I can actually have my own kind of version of it. And that's been great.

Pitchfork: Were you raised to believe you had to be rigid about religion?

BC: Well, I was brought up Roman Catholic. That's very like, "You're going to hell" and you don't do this and you don't do that and I was like, "I'm already like, 400 sins past that," so do I keep going? I'm not even baptized, by the way.

Pitchfork: Dios mio! Oh my goodness! [laughter]

BC: Yeah, totally! [Makes sound effect to mimic lightning striking from above.]

This is sort of an apocryphal tale, but I walked away from going to church when I was eight. Just turned to my stepmother and said, "I don't want to go," and she said OK. So I didn't set foot in another church until I was 28.

Pitchfork: Why'd you return?

BC: I'm the type of person who's like, if I have resistance to something, it means there's something wrong. It's the classic thing, when you're talking about religion with someone and they go, "Fuck Christianity, fuck, fuck my parents, fuck fuck." The resistance to me is a sign of fear. Whereas someone who doesn't have a problem will go, "Yeah, you know, my parents are into that; it's really not my thing." It's the energy of the resistance.

So for me to sort of not go into a church means there's something there that I'm afraid of. So to me, I would just say, "Ok I'm going into a church and I'm gonna make my peace with it, so it's not this thing of all oh yeah, I don't go into churches. I hate people like that. What difference does it make if you do or you don't? I try to go head first into things I have resistance to because I find out that I'm hiding from something or there's something that needs to be resolved, or I just don't give a shit and maybe I'm just on some old idea.

Pitchfork: Along those lines, on your website you wrote something about not wanting to obscure meaning or emotion in your music anymore. Does that relate?

BC: I think it relates in the sense where we've all been in the position where, let's say we really love somebody, and we wanna tell them but we just can't. We're not capable of fully going into the emotion because of fear of being rejected. So I think I kind of approached music with this sort of, like, weird thing where I kinda set myself up where I could kinda be myself but not really. I kinda had a backdoor out. So if you criticized me, I kinda had my defenses working. And the problem is that some people seize on that as inauthenticity, which is understandable. So that's painful because it's not that you're being inauthentic…there's a difference between being a poseur and being someone who's so emotionally challenged they're kind of just doing their best to show you what they've got.

Pitchfork: Oh, totally.

BC: And the only transformative difference between the first [Gish] and the second album [Siamese Dream] was that after the first album, I became completely suicidal. It was an eight-month depression, give or take a month, and I was pretty suicidal for about two or three months. And I made this sort of weird fundamental choice, which was "Well, I'm kind of at the bottom and there's nothing else to live for, so I might as well make the music I really wanna make." It was the beginning of the change in my life, that's when I started writing stuff like "Disarm" and "Today", which for me were like, literally ripping my guts out. And to actually have them be successful, and to play the songs live and have four or five thousand people sing these words back…it was like, wow, it just did my head in.

Pitchfork: How did that affect you?

BC: It created a dual bind. It now sealed me to the concept that confessing and being open was where the energy was, but at the same time, it was like holding my head underwater because now I couldn't retreat. So what I did was I sort of amped up other parts of my personality as a diversionary tactic.

This interviewer said the other day, "God, you have a horrible reputation…you get on the internet and you read about you, but then I pick up your albums and read these lyrics and it's this beautiful stuff, very feminine, you know? How do I correlate these two visions?"

And I said, "Well, it's pretty simple. When you're so wide open that you can't deal with the vulnerability but you know that's where you have to be, you create a lot of smoke and shit over here." Because then they're fighting about what you said about rock and roll. And they're really not on the point. For someone who's had the level of success I've had, there's been very little critical review of my work, which is pretty fascinating.

Think about it. I mean, there are books on Radiohead, theories. As far as a theoretical point of view for my generation, I'm probably the most successful theoretician. I mean, double albums and concepts and dresses and major disasters and wonderful successes and yet you don't see the critical review of my work. Why? Because it's all focused on the persona. Billy Corgan. But I get to sort of jump in and be Billy Corgan. But then I get to sort of jump back out and be like, sensitive man in the corner.

Pitchfork: Well, that's true. There aren't really any smart books about Smashing Pumpkins as a concept.

BC: But see what I'm saying? I created a paradigm by which I could succeed, and up until recently it was the only way I could do it. I could not take the brunt of standing in the light of my own work. There was a Faustian bargain I could not make. I could have you mock me for wearing funny clothes that I could deal with. But I couldn't deal with actually standing in the light of my own musical power. That's the difference now. It's like, okay, no more of that, you're done.

Pitchfork: With your book, your blog, and the lyrics on your new record being all first-person, it seems like you're just not obscuring anything anymore.

BC: It's like, this is a horrible analogy but it's the first thing that comes to mind: Say you know a girl and you think she's cute and she's wearing lots of make-up and funny clothes, you still like her, and then one day you come over to her house early and she's wearing a t-shirt and jeans and no make-up and you think, "My god, this person's beautiful." That's kind of my whole thing. I'm tired of dressing up. It doesn't mean I never will again. But there just comes a point as a man, and as a human being, you must stand and be who you are and stop the game playing. Because the game-playing– although it's been a survival technique in a way for me to operate within the music business– has been very painful for me, because ultimately, it's taking energy away from the thing that really drives this which is the words.

It's painful to me as an artist because then you don't really get to do, so you have this crazy legion of fans who get it, and who scratch their heads and are like, what's all the smoke about, we're good with the music. And then you have this other group who's like "What is his fuckin' deal, man? We can't take that shit." You have this crazy dichotomy and somehow I've placed myself in the middle. And for years I sort of rode on the edge of that: they don't understand, you understand. But that gets boring too. Maybe this is some sort of vague new age attempt at integration. The point is, it's an old model. It's a system that no longer works for me.


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