Guitar World Interview - 1998-06-??
(lookup on archive.org)
"Death and pestilence," says Billy Corgan.
"Death and pestilence," he obliges. "Shall we deal with them now, or later in the interview? I'd rather get them out of the way, if you don't mind."
Looking like an ultra-hip, Anne Rice-inspired version of Nosferatu, the surprisingly tall guitarist is cheekily referring to the two essential ingredients found in Adore, the Smashing Pumpkins' new release, and every other album in their catalog. But he is also alluding to the rotting corpse of the Alternative Revolution, the now-moribund movement that he and his band helped spearhead almost a decade ago.
Like a general who has survived battle, but is now forced to survey the subsequent devastation, Corgan observes what is left of his ragged and threadbare Nineties rock insurrection-and does not like what he sees.
His former brothers in arms-Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Hole, Pearl Jam-those once mighty warriors, are all either dead, defeated, defunct, demoralized or in complete disarray. Worse still are the new, fresh-faced volunteers. The starry-eyes young boys and girls so eager to fight the good alternative music fight, but never understanding the true significance of the original revolution.
The whole thing makes Billy ill.
"We blew it," says Corgan. "There was a real purity in the early nineties music scene that cut through everything like the white-hot blast of a laser gun. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Hole, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and the Pumpkins changed the rules overnight-heavy-duty fucking bites, man. But we screwed it up, because everybody got so caught up in it in the wrong way. Instead of taking over the world, we just gave it away. Kurt takes himself out. Pearl Jam doesn't tour. Soundgarden breaks up. Courtney decides she's not even going to start. I freak out on the world and have a nervous breakdown…
"Listen, I don't care if you like Pearl Jam or don't like Parl Jam. It's a shame they stopped making videos. It's a shame that Pearl Jam stopped touring and didn't get out there and let the world-not just America-see them. Don't forget, we were all ambassadors for America and American music.
"Our music should've become really, really important on a world stage. Now we're suffering the consequences. We're competing against all this schlock. We opened the doors for the disco era to come back in. And what do you think is going to happen? Who do you think is going to win?"
While Corgan leaves the question open-ended, it is clear that he is not going down without a fight. Over the last two years, the guitarist often made it a point to say that the Pumpkins didn't plan on making another album "as the band that most people know," and that "everything needs to change." Adore(Virgin), self-produced by Billy, makes good on those promises.
The band's new album is literally bursting at the seams with fresh ideas. Corgan, along with guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy, has created a brave, new Pumpkinland, where brooding industrial grooves rub shoulders with delicate folk ballads, and stark piano-driven confessionals collide with majestic, eight-minute epics.
The most surprising aspect of the album, however, is the conspicuous absence of the fuzzy, buzzy guitar bombast that defined the band's first three albums. The multi-layered guitar grunge that was so fashionably prominent a mere five years ago has been replaced with ambient synth pads, grainy drum loops and computer sequences. According to Corgan, the change was absolutely intentional.
"This album is definitely me saying goodbye to what I consider my rock and roll," says Corgan unapologetically. "Whatever our little generation's rock and roll was. I mean, it's done, there's no getting around it. You can try to recreate it, you can run it through more fuzz boxes, but it's done. It's time to move on."
In the following interview, Corgan, one of rock's most astute and honest observers, speaks at length about the past the future of alternative music, his friendship with Marilyn Manson, and the melancholy and infinite sadness of the Smashing Pumpkins' smashing new album.
GUITAR WORLD: Loud Big Muff guitars were the signature sound of the Nineties. That aspect of your music is downplayed on the new album. Is this your way of saying farewell to the grunge era?
BILLY CORGAN: That's probably a little broader than I would put it, but you're on the right track. We made our last album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, thinking that we had reached the end of the line. We didn't kid ourselves. We knew that it was the end of that particular era. There was no getting it back.
GW: What do you think of all the new bands that haven't realized that it's time to move on?
CORGAN: When you listen to a current band on the radio that does a really great Nirvana impression, you admire it, but you know it's not the real deal. I mean, there's no way that those kids can approximate the same intensity, because they had to have come from a completely different set of circumstances. They're merely distilling something. Bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the Pumpkins were distilling something as well, but we were able to go beyond our influences and take it somewhere else. Ironically, a lot of these new bands are better songwriters than many of the bands from the early Nineties. I mean, they're actually writing good hooks and good choruses and all that stuff. So, maybe somebody will break through and take it to some other level. But, as of right now, it doesn't look like it. Their music is nothing but revisionist history.
GW: You've stated that you believe that your generation squandered its opportunity to have long-term significance. Specifically, how did that happen, and what could've been done to prevent the disintegration of alternative music?
CORGAN: It's very complicated, but essentially we simply could not handle the transition out of the clubs. The idea of world fame was just too overwhelming. If we had been more supportive of each other, we might've saved ourselves by building a stronger musical community. That's how people like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan survived and ended up becoming legends. They managed to find some support and community in the music. They didn't sit there and moan about their situation, they just took the artistic freedom they were offered and put it to good use. We were handed the same opportunity, and what did we do? We rejected it, outright. The next thing you know, the kids are saying, "Gee, maybe this music isn't as cool as I thought it was. The bands themselves don't even seem to like it." And they moved on.
GW: It always struck me that many of the bands from the early Nineties got too caught up in the external issues of fame and not the actual process of being an artist.
CORGAN: Absolutely. It's odd, because we wouldn't have played the music we were playing if we had originally given a fuck about what the world thought. Granted, when you started appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and you're on MTV, and your friends are all on MTV every 20 minutes, it changes the picture. It changes the temperature in the room.
GW: Give me an example of how some bands allowed "the world" to interfere.
CORGAN: An obvious one is Pearl Jam taking on Ticketmaster. It was noble to take on corporate America. However, you cannot let politics or business kill the music. You can't let it kill your creativity. You can't let it kill your connection to people, because that's what God put you on this earth to do. You as an artist are just a messenger. It's not about you. I think they've come to realize that.
GW: I'm not trying to let anyone off the hook, but given how over-the-top the success of alternative music became in such a short time, wasn't shutting down a reasonable response to an overwhelming situation?
CORGAN: Is it emotionally reasonable to be overwhelmed and freak out? Sure. But is it smart?
GW: Can you recall a specific moment where you lost perspective? Where you let an external circumstance affect your music?
CORGAN: I remember playing Lollapalooza '94 and being completely disillusioned. I was looking into this audience and started to be concerned with whether it was the music community that I thought that I was going to play to. I saw people yawning, people looking at their fucking watches, and I couldn't believe it. I had just come from playing packed clubs, with people leaping off balconies, and then I found myself looking into 30,000 eyes, and they're looking at their fucking feet. Now, you know, I'm sure it had something to do with the face that maybe we weren't so interesting, but I kind of thought we were. [laughs] Regardless, I should've come to terms with the fact that a festival show was going to be different from a club show.
GW: Moving to the present, can you describe the genesis of Adore?
CORGAN: The first sessions for the album were held shortly after we fired Jimmy [Chamberlin, drummer] from the band. We went right in the studio and worked for about a week as a trio. Initially, we were very excited and pleased with the results. The whole point was to kind of be very spontaneous. It was literally a case of me writing songs in the morning and us recording them that day. I wanted to get away from the cerebral part of it.
During those initial sessions we wrote and recorded "To Sheila," "Ava Adore" and "Daphne Descends." It was like two or three days, boom, it's done-overdubs, everything. That sat well for a little while. But then, the initial euphoria of working so quickly started to wear off. James took some time off to finish his solo album, so I had a moment to give myself a reality check. And I started to realize that the quality level of those first sessions was not what I wanted it to be. My worst suspicions were confirmed when my friends reacted by saying things like "nice direction, interesting song, da, da, da." But I could tell that they weren't being blown away. And that's when the album officially started to take shape. I started to think about the things that the Pumpkins had accomplished, and the high standards that we've held ourselves to throughout our whole career. That led me to decide against working so quickly. I just couldn't put out an album of "demos." The Pumpkins have never been about that. You know, I think our fans would've known the difference. There wouldn't be the depth that existed in the earlier recordings. So when that was all settled, it became really apparent to me that I needed to just roll up my sleeves and get down to business. At the same time, I think I was just starting to really come to grips with the fact that Jimmy wasn't coming back and we needed to find a new way to work.
GW: Can you give me a better sense of what those early, discarded sessions sounded like?
CORGAN: The best example on the new album would be the song "Annie-Dog," which is just piano, a little bit of guitar, bass, drums and a vocal. They were very spare. Our intentions weren't bad. We weren't being lazy. The idea was to just focus on the songs-you know, "Let's sit down and just play some songs." [laughs]
GW: In other words, it was going to be like the Smashing Pumpkins' Basement Tapes.
CORGAN: Something like that. There were about 10 songs worth of that stuff, and a couple survived the gauntlet later on. Actually, it might have worked if we were better performers-if I was a better singer.
GW: So, your first grand experiment fails. What happened next? Where was your head at?
CORGAN: [laughs] It's hard to say, because I don't necessarily believe that the sting of failure is a bad thing. It gives you a certain amount of freedom to just say "fuck it." And that's what I did. I threw everything out the window and just concentrated on doing whatever I needed to do to make these songs work for me. Suddenly, I'm with a computer, a synthesizer and a drum machine. I have my guitar running through a delay pedal. And I stared hearing something new- you know, not the fourth or fifth incarnation of what I'd done previously. My creative spark became re-ignited. I didn't even know what the fuck I was doing. I didn't even know if I liked it. I was going, "Okay, let me see, hmmm, well, I'm going to run this guitar part through a blender, I'm going to chop it up, I'm going to take a loop from somewhere, chop that up…"
GW: Film director Quentin Tarantino once said something to the effect that starting a new creative project was like driving into a fog. That's a perfect analogy, because though you can't see where you're going, you have to make a leap of faith that you're heading in the right direction.
CORGAN: Right. You have to assume there's a road in front of you.
GW: One of the more controversial aspects about Adore is your embrace of synthesizers and computer technology.
CORGAN: Actually, there's a lot more technology on our last album that people probably realize. Many of the tracks on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were completely built from samples and sequenced using ProTools software. The song "1979," for example, was completely created from sampled guitar parts. But most people don't even realize that because it wasn't presented that way.
GW: Working on a computer tends to be a rather solitary activity. How did you involve the band in the creation of the album?
CORGAN: Well, it would depend on the song. I mean, one example would be that I would just get a beat going and then have the band track parts to the drum sequence. Then I would go back and start building underneath their ideas. Sometimes their parts would have to change because I would rearrange the foundation. So, then they'd have to try something different. The songs kept changing their perspective. And sometimes James and D'Arcy would be in the camera, and occasionally they would be outside the camera.
GW: For example?
CORGAN: "Appels + Oranges" is probably a good example of a case where the band created a perfectly valid arrangement, but then I ended up completely scrapping everybody's parts and changing the song from the bottom up. And while that might seem disrespectful, I fully acknowledge that I probably wouldn't have arrived at the final arrangement unless I had their original parts as a jump-off point. Even the tracks that weren't used then were important to the overall development of the album. Adore was like a ball that went back and forth. There are some songs where James probably created five different guitar parts for five different versions of the same tune. Or I took some four-bar part that he played off the cuff and made that the guitar part. It was like digging in dirt. You're just trying to mine something new. It's a rather tedious process. I mean, you may spend four or five hours just sitting there, thinking with a texture or a tone. Often, I went home at the end of the day with just a bass line and a loop, and that was my 12-hour day. It can seem a little wasteful, but…
GW: After Mellon Collie you said that you didn't plan on doing another album with the band as people knew it, that you really wanted to go to a different place. Did losing Jimmy actually help to move it into a different space?
CORGAN: Yes. I mean, I think it would have been more difficult with Jimmy because I don't think the realization level would have been the same about the music. Jimmy's such a fantastic drummer that I think we would have leaned on him more to kind of make things work and probably wouldn't have worked as hard on the songs or the textures. Having no drummer put all the emphasis on the songs and the vocals. It put pressure on places where we had never felt any before. In Pumpkinland, vocals were about as important as guitar parts were about as important as drum parts. Everything had this kind of balance. That wasn't the case on Adore. There was no drummer to lift the song when things got a little boring on this album. I had to either change the arrangement or sing something different to energize it. On the positive side, I saw and felt things in writing the songs-in trying to make the songs work-that I'd never had to deal with in my 10 or 12 years of recording experience.
GW: I imagine that Jimmy's absence eliminated a comfort factor-it probably forced the Pumpkins to become reacquainted as musicians.
CORGAN: Definitely. We're still feeling it right now in rehearsal. Everybody has this natural tendency to just fall into a familiar groove, and that's just not acceptable to me anymore. James will just fall into his rut. D'Arcy will fall into her rut. And then I start falling into my rut. It's difficult not to, because there's no one standing there telling us that it's time to move on. I mean, if anything, people are questioning why we would even change in the first place. There was comfort in a rut.
GW: Do you think you succeeded in creating something different?
CORGAN: I hope so. I hope so.
GW: Now that you've become enslaved by computer technology, will you ever rock again?
CORGAN: [laughs] That not a ridiculous question. Some people that have heard the album have already assumed that we're never going to play loud again. But to tell you the truth, I already can't wait to turn everything back up.
GW: Lyrically, this record is really strong. While it's not strictly a concept record, I noticed a number of recurring themes. The title of the album is Adore. Technically, when you "adore" something, you worship it. Unfortunately, adoration often gets confused with love.
CORGAN: My catchy way of summing up with album thematically is to say that it is not a reaction against a negative world, it's a response to a negative world. Right now I feel that the scales are tipped towards negative energy. And I think there are a lot of reasons for people's negative energy. We could sit here the entire day and contemplate on why society is apparently crumbling before our eyes. Why more people don't feel connected to their government, school, friends, lover, you know. But the most simple way to take on the entire girth of the subject is to just get back to the most simple core essence of what life is about. In my Corgan brain, I've decided it's almost as simple as "All You Need is Love." Almost.
GW: But what happens when people are not sure how to define love, or even recognize it?
CORGAN: That is an essential question of the album. I mean, what is love? How do people define it? How do people abuse it? How do people desire it? That's really what the album is about. It's about the 360 degrees of love. It's so incredibly complicated these days. But let's say you meet someone. She's this girl of your dreams. You think, "Wow, this is what I've looked for my whole life." Now you have to deal with some big issues: What kind of person am I? Can I trust what I'm seeing? Can I even have sex with this person without putting myself at risk? How do I know that she hasn't had thousands of sex partners? The purity is so hard to get to.
GW: I also noticed the recurrence of the world "crash" in several songs. Were you influenced by the J.G. Ballard book Crash, which depicts a rather frightening view of human sexuality?
CORGAN: Read the book, saw the movie, bought the coffee mug. [laughs] I didn't consciously draw from the book, but I agree that those themes are in the album. I tried to take on the subject of love with an open mind. I didn't want to idealize it, yet at the same time I wanted to respect its power and how it's the true motivating force in the universe. People do devastating things out of love and devotion. And if some guy rides a bus and blows himself up and 20 people around him because he loves God so much, it doesn't mean he's wrong or right. You can't just turn your head away from anything that you find repulsive, because in anything that has power, there has to be a devotion. Hate requires devotion. Racism requires devotion. I mean, all these things require an intensity and a devotion. I mean, you must really love what you believe in to even bother. Otherwise, you just wouldn't even bother.
GW: When did the album's theme begin emerging for you?
CORGAN: Honestly, I don't know, because it's like the intuitive part of me sets the stage, and then the cerebral part of me figures out what the play is about. There usually no epiphany. I don't suddenly wake up and decide I'm going to write an album about this or that. It's more like I wake up and try to figure out why I am doing all these things at once. You know, "Why do these certain words keep reappearing? Why am I stuck on this one chord?" I don't know why, it just happens. It just seems to happen about every year-and-a-half or so. I go in this completely different mode with different notes, words, rhythm-everything. It's like somebody unplugs a data cartridge from my back and sticks a new one in.
GW: I think this is something young players kind of miss about being a musician. It's important to have a mission. Practicing scales is important, but only if it serves a higher creative purpose.
CORGAN: And interestingly enough, it was the guitar that saved my ass on this album because every time I felt that something wasn't working, I'd reach for the guitar and it would tell me where songs needed to go. I always went back to what I know. Because it is the thing that I know, I do know. I'm never quite sure about everything else, but I know how to play guitar.
GW: The final few songs on the album are rather epic in proportion. It's almost like an album within an album.
CORGAN: I think I understand what you mean. The album moves along until, suddenly, you kind of hit this reef, and there's this whole undersea world. And I like that. There's a certain grace about the end of the album.
GW: I was struck by the face that the songs appear to deal specifically with death and the knowledge that comes with it.
CORGAN: Yes. There's plenty of death in there.
GW: You have a history of writing about extremely personal, even painful subjects. One of the songs on Adore is "For Martha," a rather moving tribute to your mother who passed away recently. How have you been dealing with her loss?
CORGAN: My mother's death, and the grace the courage with which she faced it, gave me a perspective on my life that maybe I hadn't had previously. I started to understand her connection to me at a very deep level. It's a very hard thing for me to put in any concise form. Everybody at some point thinks about what they want out of their lives. My mother's death helped me to refocus my priorities. It showed me the true value of my life, and what was the true value of her life. It kind of made me back off rock and roll in general, and place more importance on what I wanted to do artistically.
GW: How important is it to you that your ideas are understood?
CORGAN: Not that important. Art is ultimately meant to give the person that receives it their own personal experience, and it's up to them to take what they want. Artists are just energy conductors. That's all we really do. There not an idea on this album that hasn't been expressed before. Blues is a universal energy. Heavy metal is a universal energy-it's the sound of a volcano. It's rock, it's earth shattering. Somewhere in our primal being, we understand. So, just call it for what it is. A long time ago I decided, "Hey, if someone listens to 'Cherub Rock,' and decides that it really fucking rocks, and doesn't get the point of the song, so what? If they get it, if they see it, if they see the beauty in it, that's a bonus. Who am I to judge?
GW: You said that you thought this record was a real departure for the band. Was it because of the keyboards?
CORGAN: I think the keyboard aspect doesn't mean shit. If you really listen to the album, it still sounds like the Pumpkins. This is where I see the difference: the first three Pumpkins albums were built to be in your face and over the top. We were really trying to get under everybody's skin and really push the whole Pumpkins thing on people. Adore is much more subtle. I think it sounds like we're just kind of in this room and if you want to listen, go ahead. It's the first album that we've made that shrugs its shoulders and plays out. It doesn't have the same level of aggressiveness, and I don't just mean that on a song level.
GW: It's a little more ambient.
CORGAN: Right. By taking the rock out of the formula, it certainly creates a certain abrupt difference. But on a deeper level, it just sounds like it's in another place. There's a tangible connection between Gish, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. And then suddenly, Adore represents a completely different approach. I'm not saying it's not without context. But it's almost like five years have passed instead of three, you know? And really, we did live five year's worth of time in the last couple of years. So maybe it is five years.
GW: When it was rumored that you were working with synthesizers, I think most people assumed the album would feature some elements of electronica. Instead, it sounds like it was more influenced by Eighties post-punk bands like the Cure or Depeche Mode.
CORGAN: I consider that to be a compliment. Well, we've been telling everybody that the material was going to be very much akin to the stuff that we were writing before Gish. This is the king of band that we were before Gish, so in a weird kind of way, we've moved ahead by coming full circle. There have always been strains of the Eighties in our music. I mean, I still listen to Depeche Mode at least once a week. We also listen to New Order all the time. I probably listen to Joy Division more than any other band. The reason we always cited Boston, Black Sabbath and ELO as influences is because people would always get gassed about it.
GW: Depeche Mode and the Cure are, in their own way, almost as unhip as ELO. In your view, what were the virtues of those bands?
CORGAN: The Cure? Great atmosphere. Every album is totally different, certainly after their first three albums. Great guitar playing. Really interesting lyrics, really interesting singing, and they created their own world. Their totally own, self-contained world. The Cure and Depeche Mode are as self-contained as Led Zeppelin.
In fact, I think there's a lot of similarity between the Cure and the Pumpkins, with regards to how we've been accepted. If you create a self-contained world with your own language, your own sensibility, and somebody doesn't like your world, what are you going to do? Ultimately, I think this album has a lot more to do with the Fifties than the Eighties.
GW: How so?
CORGAN: It's easy to listen to our new album and spot the influences of the Cure or Depeche Mode. But honestly, the Chicago blues of the Fifties had a much bigger impact on this album. People are going to miss that part of it. But the face is that over the past three years, I've been listening to a lot of Howlin' Wolf, and I stared to realize that his music was a lot heavier than the Pumpkins or Led Zeppelin ever was.
The impact of Wolf's blues made me start asking myself, where does music's real power and energy lie? I decided it's more in the performance-that kind of crackling, tense, overloaded performance that can be found on many of those classic Chess session. [Chicago's foremost blues label during the Fifties and Sixties, Chess Records issues many of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry's greatest sides, among others. At Corgan's suggestion, the photo shoot for this feature was held at Chess' fabled recording studio.-GW Ed.]. I mean, it may not translate on this album as much as I would have liked it to, but that's what I was going for on Adore-I was aiming for that kind of purity and immediate energy.
GW: Like Howlin' Wolf and the Cure's Robert Smith, you certainly have a unique singing voice. Are you happy with it?
CORGAN: I'm going through a real struggle with my voice right now. I feel like my lack of technical ability is really holding me back. I actually started taking voice class. I haven't had as much time to pursue it as I'd like, because I'm doing the album. I don't have a problem with my voice-I accept and appreciate it. As people often point out to me, it's the distinction that makes the Pumpkins unique. But I think I'm a better songwriter than I am a singer, and sometimes our songs suffer because I can't always deliver vocally. I mean, how many people do you know with less bass in their voice than me? Not a lot. It's like a freak of nature. It's genetic. My father's voice is even higher-he sings even higher than me. But in the end, I guess it's all about the Benjamins. Right, Puffy? [laughs]
GW: Speaking of Puffy Combs, you've been spotted contributing to a number of outside projects. What is your involvement on the new Marilyn Manson album, for one, and how does that fit in with your sense that our culture is becoming increasingly negative?
CORGAN: I am interested in Marilyn Manson because they're my friends. I try to to think too much about the politics because I think that's a whole other morass. Is Manson pushing buttons? Yes. Is he doing it for artistic reasons? I'm not so sure. Is he the devil's child? Absolutely not. In fact, I could just have easily been Manson. Right before I formed the Pumpkins, I talked to some friends of mine about basically creating an alternate identity for myself, and living that identity. The idea was to be my name-the whole nine yards. But my friends said, "No, you just need to be yourself. It's not you. You couldn't sustain the character." And they were right. I wouldn't have been able to do it. I would have eventually discarded the character. Some people use something like that to empower them. And I think that's probably what Marilyn's done. Is it shocking? Maybe to some sensibilities. To mine, it's not that shocking. As to my actual involvement on their next record, I basically just listened to some of the stuff they had and gave them suggestions. Then I specifically worked on the structure of a couple songs. But my involvement was more about approach, and they kind of just took it from there. They may have gotten there on their own, I don't know. Maybe I just told them what they already wanted to hear.
GW: My take is that if they ever were able to write a song as good as Alice Cooper's "Eighteen," they would rule the world.
CORGAN: I agree with you, but don't be so sure that they're not writing it right now. I feel that there's a lot of power in their imagery and use of archetypes, but now they need to deliver on a musical level.
But, believe me, they saw the impact that "The Beautiful People" had, as opposed to some of their other material, and they're ready to take it to the next stage. I told them they really needed to try and understand what it was about that one particular song that they connected. And they're trying. I think they're really growing into a deeper musical sensibility.
GW: And what role did you play on the new Hole record?
CORGAN: That was much more involved. I was actually writing songs, and arranging-the full monty. I only went into the studio with them on a couple occasions, but that was more just like getting the whole things together to be given to a producer. Basically, I was just helping Courtney write because she was just so rusty.
GW: What makes Marilyn and Courtney special? It's not about their technical chops.
CORGAN: The answer is obvious: it's about their ideas. Most musicians suck. I have a very down opinion of musicians. Because most musicians' heads aren't on straight. It's usually about technique, when it should be about creativity. I just hate the mentality of music. I'm not saying you shouldn't be studious, or not to practice. If your lack of ability is going to hamper you from getting what you want musically, then you should practice. But I meet so many players that are all technique, and that's just missing the point.