The Smashing Pumpkins Grow Up - 1998-06-??
Addicted to Noise
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The Smashing Pumpkins Grow Up
Billy Corgan, leader of the American rock combo the Smashing Pumpkins, is cradling a small, gray poodle in his arms. "Drake," he says, as he stands in the lobby of Pumpkinland, a warehouse-turned-rehearsal/recording studio that is the group's base of operations. Drake is the poodle's name. It is, frankly, a strange sight. Almost freakish. Corgan, with his smooth, freshly-shaved head and just a wisp of moustache and goatee, dressed all in black, holding this … poodle? The man, who has screamed "despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage" (a lyric from "Bullet With Butterfly Wings"), whispers gently to his pet. Corgan, who has slimmed down and looks, well, quite the rock star in his black leather pants (and who can see a man in black leather pants and not think Jim Morrison?), cradling Drake.
Five years ago, when Corgan's rage coursed through the teenage wasteland, when every rock 'n' roll kid was blasting 1993′s breakthrough hit album, Siamese Dream, real loud (so that the whiney edge in the chief Pumpkin's voice would drive their parents nuts), one might have expected him to be out kicking stray dogs, not caring for one with a pedigree. Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss. Billy Corgan is now 31 years old. And this older Corgan is also a wiser Corgan. His maturity is reflected in his words and his art.
The Pumpkins' new album, Adore (which clocks in at more than 72 minutes), is a radical, wildly-adventurous work. Corgan has set timeless melodies to music that, for the most part, sounds like the work of soulful aliens. With the exception of the acoustic guitar that opens the first track, "To Sheila," and the piano that dominates a few tracks, there is hardly a conventional sound on the album. Instead, drum machines, samples, treated drums, treated samples, synths and all manners of odd noise have been used to create an intensely-intimate, powerfully-revealing work. Guitars, traditionally a mainstay of the group's old sound, are practically nonexistent.
But just as impressive as the fresh, technofied sound are the sentiments Corgan expresses in the lyrics. This time out, he is dealing in heavy themes such as love, loss and faith. This is not kid stuff, and Corgan knows it. "I'm not talking to teen-agers anymore," he says firmly. "I'm talking to everybody now. the Whole world, you know."
James Iha yawns. It is a familiar sight. When I interviewed Iha at Pumpkinland in 1995, he was practically nodding off. For the Pumpkins' handsome guitarist, interviews are a chore. He seems like he'd rather be anywhere else than sitting on the couch, listening to his bandmate talk on and on about Pumpkins this and Pumpkins that.
"James, are you even paying attention?" bassist D'Arcy Wretzky asks at one point.
"Yeah, I'm paying attention," Iha says, looking over.
Another yawn. This is a man who likes playing music, not talking about it.
The Pumpkins, of course, are a band. They have always been a band. And so, even though Corgan writes the songs, produces the tracks and crafts the music, when it is time to do interviews they all partake. Even if Corgan does most of the talking. "They may not use big words but they kind of feel the same way," he jokes.
It is easy to think that it's just a pose. That this is really just Corgan's trip. Until, halfway through the interview, I mention that one of the lines in the song "Appels and Oranjes" really hit home with me.
At which point Corgan says matter-of-factly that if not for D'Arcy, the song wouldn't be on the album. "D'Arcy gets a lot of credit for that one," he says. "That song was on the way out for a long time."
"Beat him over the head to keep it, not throw it away," says D'Arcy, picking at a salad.
"I was gonna change [some of the lyrics] because I thought they were too stupid, too plain," he admits. "And she felt very strongly that it would be a big mistake."
Thanks to D'Arcy, the song — one of the album's best (with the original lyrics) — made it onto Adore.
In fact, this trio exudes a kind of Three Musketeers-like camaraderie. They are stubborn perfectionists.
Sitting with them in late April, it becomes clear how important D'Arcy's bullheadedness is. She is as tough as she is beautiful. That toughness has served this band well. They have, most assuredly, done it their way.
What comes through when one talks to them is that the Smashing Pumpkins are, as Corgan says, 100 percent committed to doing things differently, committed to evolving their sound.
"We would rather break up the band than repeat ourselves," says Corgan. "That's like a built-in dogma. There's no room for any of that."
Addicted To Noise: Basically, you pretty much reinvented the Pumpkins sound with your new album, Adore. Tell me about that.
Billy Corgan: [laughs] Well.
D'Arcy Wretzky: Take a deep breath.
James Iha: Take out one drummer. Take out the guitars.
Wretzky: Get another drummer.
Corgan: That's it. Add some keyboards. Play some lame- ass tunes.
ATN: When I interviewed you here in '95, you said: "Any way you look at it, it's pretty much the end of the band as far as people would know the Smashing Pumpkins, because we're going to move on musically anyway and take a much different tack." And in fact, you followed through on that.
Corgan: We're good to our word.
Wretzky: But we've always done everything we said we would do. So why do people doubt us suddenly?
Corgan: They've always doubted us.
Wretzky: Every step of the way.
ATN: It's easy to talk about …
ATN: … about making changes …
Corgan: It's a little more difficult to do, I'll say that.
ATN: You've actually made them, and given the success that Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness had, it seems like making such a different album is a risky thing to do.
Corgan: Well, I guess maybe we knew in the back of our heads if this was a complete failure for us, we would just go on to whatever.
ATN: Did you think about doing a more traditional Pumpkins album?
Corgan: No. That was never considered.
Corgan: It was a non-rock album from the start. We started off trying to define it in a simpler way. Piano, acoustic guitar, kind of simple songs. But we got bored with that real fast. So then it was just a matter of trying to go into weird territory, so we could achieve a different feeling or a different impression with the music. On one hand, the songs are simpler songs, not as overly-arranged as stuff we've done in the past. But on the other hand, it's a more textural production.
ATN: How do you feel about less guitars on this album?
Iha: Fine. One of the big differences is that we didn't have our regular drummer and just didn't rehearse the songs to death like we used to.
Wretzky: Have you heard James' solo record? There aren't many overt guitars on that record. So it probably made him happy.
Iha: The songs that Billy wrote on this record are not very riff-oriented. It never really occurred to me to bring up the wall of Pumpkins guitar sounds that's kind of been our trademark. If it doesn't suit the songs, then it's dumb to do it.
ATN: So what's important is what fits the song?
Corgan: I think we've always done that, but for us it was trying to take the guitar in different directions.
Wretzky: I'd say that's always been Billy's motto. Anything to serve the song. Whatever it takes to serve the song, you know. If he has to make me stand on my head while I'm playing kazoo, so be it. If he's gonna like, have to sing while he …
Iha: And play bass too.
Wretzky: Yeah. Whatever. Whoever doing whatever.
Corgan: It's more like opening the parameters. It's not so much a philosophical change as it is saying these things are not taboo: synthetic noises and loops and whatever else. It's like throwing the doors wide open and saying, "OK, it doesn't matter what we do just as long as we do something. Different." So if a guitar was part of that choice, then it was. It wasn't a political decision, you know.
Wretzky: Everything's cool as long as you do it with good taste.
Corgan: That's why she's eating salad.
ATN: What are some of the things that you went through between the completion of Mellon Collie and recording this album that you feel had a strong impact on the songs and the sound of the album?
Corgan: Well, Jimmy's departure is the biggest, #1 thing. And then I would say just the general decision to let go of the rock sound, even before Jimmy [Chamberlin] left the band. So I would say those are the two major things. As far as things that went on in our lives, I think James summed it up a little bit. There's a certain kind of mental pounding that goes on when you're playing arena rock and loud music. There's kind of an almost innate desire to want to move to the other end of the spectrum just to achieve a new feeling. I think we naturally gravitated toward something a little quieter and something a little more textured. Now that we've done that, we're ready to rock again.
Corgan: Which of course can be amazing, because if this album does really well, then everyone will question our return to rock. [laughs]
Iha: I love it! 'Why are you rocking when you made such a nice last record?'
Wretzky: 'But you said rock is dead!' Iha: Yeah. 'Why are you going back to rock?'
Corgan: Ooh la la.
Iha: Why don't we do the interview for the next album? Right now!
ATN: We'll get to that in a minute. A fair amount of this album is about love and loss. Do you think that that's accurate?
Corgan: That's a really, really, really simple umbrella way to put it, but yeah. There's a lot of other issues in there. But those seem to be the two main things that people are focusing on. There's a lot more subtext to it, so when I think of the album, I don't think of it in terms of just love and loss.
ATN: I'm asking you to elaborate a little bit.
Corgan: I don't tend to talk too much about what things are about because I find it just mucks up the water. I've learned to keep my mouth shut on one particular subject, and that's pretty much what the music and the songs are about. I go on about everything else but …
ATN: Can you talk about some of the things that inspired particular songs? Like "Tear," for example?
Corgan: No. Honestly, I'm being serious. I usually don't talk about what went into songs, what songs are about, what I was trying to say. Those are the three taboos.
ATN: You want people to figure it out themselves or to interpret it themselves?
Corgan: Well, that's a general way to put it, but at the same time, I found that when I would explain … Like, I had a song on Siamese Dream called "Space Boy" that's about my brother. So, for a year and a half, every article mentioned that I had a … And then it gets changed. My brother's not Mongoloid, but he has a chromosomal disorder. So then it turned into he's Mongoloid. 'Here's a song about his Mongoloid brother.'
So when I said it in Rolling Stone or something, then a year later, you're reading about 'Billy and his Mongoloid brother.' It's so far removed from what I originally said. So if you don't give the original thing and there's no echo to echo off of, so … I'm not trying to play any games with people's heads. I'm just saying, I don't like what comes of it.
ATN: Well, overall, it seems like maybe some of the themes on this album are more mature than some of the themes in the past.
ATN: And you said regarding the last album that you felt you could still connect with a "teenage heart," but that you were concerned about growing older and no longer being able to do that.
Corgan: I'm not talking to teenagers anymore. I'm talking to everybody now. the Whole world, you know. My parameters are much wider. It's a wider dialogue. I'm talking to people who are older than me and younger than me, and our generation as well.
ATN: Who do you think will actually connect with it?
Corgan: I have no idea. I have no idea.
ATN: What do you guys think?
Wretzky: You mean with this record specifically?
Wretzky: I don't know. Our music has always had a really broad spectrum of people who listen to it. I mean, I get people telling me, people who are old enough to be my grandmother to 4-year-old kids, and [Chicago critic] Greg Kot was just in here talking about his 2-year- old daughter who is really into this new record. We've been really lucky that way.
Corgan: We come from a generation where our music was originally focused solely on that generation. But at some point you have to realize that you're more a band of the world, and that there's other things going on besides your little area of politics and generational concerns, so the album's more about things that are important to human beings. It's not just about, 'Hey, it must be hard having pimples or something.' I'm past all that. And I don't think there's really much else I can say on certain subjects. I think I've probably exhausted them.
ATN: This is the natural evolution of somebody getting older. At one point, someone's whole world is their high school class.
Corgan: Certainly. I agree with that. I think it's inevitable. What are you gonna do? I think the worst thing is to continue to try to be a teen-ager. You see these awful pictures of like 50-year-old men in 25-year-old clothes. They're not looking so good. I don't wanna be that. I'm not interested in that.
Wretzky: I'm gonna be that.
ATN: When you're 50, you'll still be an artist. You'll still be making music.
Corgan: I think there's a graceful way to be. I think that life is about living in the present, so if you see people who are obviously living in the past, then it seems to me they're missing the point. Because at the same time they're living in the past, they're almost asking the audience to live in the past with them. I don't agree with that as an artist. That's why I think someone like Neil Young is such an amazing artist because he's not living in the past. He's living in the present.
ATN: It's a very difficult thing for a band, once they have a history of success, to do.
Corgan: I think we're in a very rare position in that we've had a sustained kind of success. And I think the Beatles, the Who, all our great bands … Can you imagine the Who? 'I hope I die before I get old …' I can't imagine what the interviews were like when they were 30, you know? 'Well, now you're getting old. How does it feel?' Do you know what I mean?
I think everybody has to turn some sort of corner at some point. Whether we want to or not, we're turning a corner, both based on our maturity, the things that have happened to us, to the musical choices we've made, and just the way things are headed. Grunge rock, alt rock, whatever, is basically a passe thing. I'm not gonna be out there hamboning up something that I don't believe in anymore. I believed in it when I believed in it, and I still love it. But we can't go out and pretend that we feel the same way we felt when we were 23 years old about playing fucking Godzilla riffs. It's not the same thing. You have to play music [about which you have conviction] and if you don't have conviction, that's it.
ATN: There's not a lot of bands other than the Beatles that kept evolving, and that had audiences that were still there for them through all that. So far you've been able to pull that off.
Corgan: Well, we haven't put this album out yet so …
ATN: Well, the last album was no repeat of Siamese Dream. That was a big departure in a lot of ways, too.
Corgan: People don't give it the credit though. I'm just saying at the head level, most people don't give it the credit because they focus on the obvious stuff. That's my gut feeling.
ATN: But as a band, it seems like there's this real commitment to do that.
Corgan: Total! Total commitment. One hundred percent commitment. We would break up the band rather than repeat ourselves. That's like a built-in dogma. There's no room for any of that.
ATN: Have you always felt that way? When you got started, which is like 10 years ago now?
Wretzky: It's just part of the band. It's an integral part of the band. Another part of that is trying not to do things that other people have done.
ATN: And is that hard?
Corgan: Yeah, especially when you're aware of rock history. We don't live in a bubble. We grew up listening to records. We know what people listen to. So you're not just trying to do your own thing. You're also trying to say, well, this has already been covered. There's no point in going back over this territory.
Wretzky: It's really so hard, too. Like if things work their way into your brain. You don't know it. I don't know if I should …
Corgan: No, no, no. Be careful.
Corgan: Be careful. I don't know what you're gonna say, but when you get that laugh, I know something's gonna piss me off.
Wretzky: It wouldn't piss you off. It might piss James off though.
Corgan: I really don't want you to say it then.
Wretzky: James, are you even paying attention?
Iha: Yeah, I'm paying attention.
Corgan: Next question.
Wretzky: Are you awake over there?
ATN: But what you're saying is that something is in your subconscious and — is this what you're saying? — you don't even realize it.
Wretzky: Yeah, you write this song …
Corgan: Right. You really like it.
Wretzky: It sounds exactly like so-and-so. Puff Daddy or whatever. And you're like, 'Shit!' Now you have to just can it, throw it away.
Corgan: We've thrown away a lot of songs because you just unconsciously do things that you think is intuitive and then you realize you're aping Boston.
Wretzky: I don't think most people would do that. Most people would be like, 'I don't care, it's a great song. Let's put it on the album.'
Corgan: There's two, three songs I've heard in the past two months on the radio that are like pretty much just straight rip-offs of Pumpkins songs. It's kind of flattering in a way, but at the same time I know that they know that they're ripping us off. It's undeniable. We found ourselves in that position plenty of times. We just can it. Don't even go there. It's not worth your own personal integrity to do something because it makes sense or something, or you justify it because it's a hit. Who the fuck cares?
Wretzky: A formula.
ATN: Has success brought happiness?
Corgan: No, no, it's not like that.
Wretzky: It's not that it's made us miserable.
Corgan: I think success has taught us a lot — good and bad — about the world. And I think it's probably gonna unlock doors to how to have personal happiness. You learn to find out what's really important.
Wretzky: It's like an accelerator.
Corgan: Yeah, it makes you grow up faster.
Wretzky: If you can deal with that.
Iha: Or you get burned.
Wretzky: Some people just can't.
Corgan: You learn things, like that the band is more important than any fan, critic — you know what I'm saying? Anything outside your world is not as important as what you feel about each other. The music that you make is more important than what anybody thinks about it. The way you are, the way you lead your life. You know what I'm saying? You learn a value system that's very, very real because it's tested almost every day. But it's not like I sit home and gloat. It's not about that. Then what would be the reverse question? If this album's a failure, does that mean we're gonna be miserable people? I don't think so. When I think about happiness with the band, I think about all these great concerts and writing great songs. I don't think about a pile of money. It's not really that important to me.
Wretzky: We don't have time to spend it anyway.
Corgan: Yeah, right.
ATN: What has success brought? What has being in the position that you're in now, which is a relatively unique one, brought?
Iha: Freedom, I think.
Corgan: I don't know about that.
Wretzky: In a sense. But in another sense, no.
Iha: Well, for me, we can go out, we can buy a guitar if we like it. Or we can buy a keyboard or a computer system. Be able to afford to make this kind of record [Adore] — literally afford to. Whereas I think if we were a beginning band — not that we would make this kind of record — but we wouldn't be able to. It just wouldn't be in our realm of thought to even have this kind of stuff at our disposal to experiment with. In that sense, I think it's a freedom.
Wretzky: I don't know, sort of the same thing James was saying and the same thing we were talking about before. Just the accelerated everything, teaching you so much, learning so much. I feel like you can just deal and take care of yourself in any situation.
Corgan: It's like going to college for 10 years.
Wretzky: And then getting the job for 10 more.
Corgan: Yeah, right.
Iha: I don't have to sleep on bass amps anymore. I'm happy about that.
Iha: I'm happy about that.
Iha: I was just thinking about that. We used to have this van, we'd put this piece of plywood in and somebody would sleep on the plywood. I just always remember looking at the ceiling. It was right above my head. I'd just look at all the different parts.
Corgan: Then fall asleep.
Iha: Then I'd fall asleep. And then I'd wake up and be like, 'Where are we?' Then I'd look back at the ceiling and fall asleep.
ATN: Does that seem like a million years away?
Wretzky: No. Not far enough.
Corgan: You feel like you've lived a million years, but when you talk about something like that, it's not that far away.
Wretzky: Seems like it was too close for comfort.
Corgan: Brings you right back.
ATN: What are the things that motivate or inspire you?
Wretzky: Riding on the amp in back of the van. We don't want to do that anymore.
Corgan: There's the key motivation.
Wretzky: So we'll do anything we have to not to have to do that anymore. [laughs]
Corgan: What are the things that motivate us to do what? To write?
ATN: Yeah, or just what gets you out of bed in the morning?
Iha: The dog.
Corgan: I think for us it's like trying to provide consistent challenges for ourselves. You know, when we first started, it was our goal to play Cabaret Metro, which is like 1,000 people, and where Dinosaur Jr would play or something. That was the goal. To even play there.
So we've set different goals, and as we've grown and changed, the goals have become deeper — like, let's make an uncompromising artistic album that goes against what people would expect from us. These are great challenges to take on. I think that's what gets my juices going.
I think doing the obvious and doing the expected is so boring, 'cause then you're just a puppet for everybody else. It's like it takes you being yourself to even get in the game. And then once you get in the game, then you just become a puppet like everybody else. I mean, part of the reason we even got in the game was because we were so sick of the way that everybody was a fucking puppet. So that's kind of what motivates us to be our own people.
We've succeeded despite what anybody thinks, you know. We've made a real visceral connection with … your normal person on the street actually listens to our music and cares, you know. We're not a band that's puffed up in the media but doesn't really have any substance with real people. We've made real inroads to be part of the world that we live in. That's a great thing to do.
So as we get older, the challenges get more specific and interesting. Like, we're playing in Europe in a couple of weeks, we're playing at Tivoli Gardens or we're playing in front of the Guggenheim. It's just cool, weird shit, you know? We've done most of all the other stuff that you're supposed to do, you know? We've been on the cover of this and we headlined that and we've …
Iha: Been on "The Simpsons."
Corgan: Been on "The Simpsons."
ATN: Did you see that story in the New York Times maybe a month or so ago? This guy made this case that the album was dead.
Corgan: He's probably right.
Wretzky: I believe that, yeah.
Corgan: I agree to a certain extent. I think that, ultimately, people are gonna get to the point where they're gonna start releasing more of an EP form. Rather than wait every two years to get an album from your favorite artist, you get something every year that will have six or eight songs on it, and remixes or something. So there will be more consistency in what you'll hear from your favorite bands. Kind of extended singles or something, you know. Then the work would be compiled every two or three years, or something. It just takes too much time in the modern era to make an album, tour an album, promote an album and everything. That's kind of what we're reacting against as well. That's why we're starting another album in September.