CMG New Music Interview - 1998-08-??
CMG New Music
(lookup on archive.org)
Having endured a series of deaths in the family- some spiritual, some literal- Billy Corgan has emerged with a new appreciation for life and the place the Smashing Pumpkins hold in it.
It's easy to get the wrong impression. Scan through recent Smashing Pumpkins headlines, and the news looks bleak: the heroin-overdose death of tour keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, which led to the arrest and subsequent firing of Pumpkin drummer Jimmy Chamberlin; the potential involvement, or non-involvement, of bandleader Billy Corgan in the latest Hole recording sessions; the Pumpkin's label, Virgin, suing the band for breach of contract when they announced plans to leave after delivering only three of a stipulated seven albums. The good news, such as Chamberlin undergoing court-ordered drug treatment, a feud-ending renegotiation of the Virgin deal, a slot opening for Pumpkin heroes Cheap Trick, naturally gets less play than the dishy gossip. Corgan chalks it up to an "on-line mentality- we're all on-line now, even when we're not, and the information we get is just never enough."
You can wallow in the tabloid dirt if you choose, but you'll probably miss the plaintive point of Adore. You might not notice any difference at first in, say, a song like "Once Upon A Time." While its gentle pace fulfills Corgan's promise for a new, different Pumpkins sound, it has all of the band's signature elements. Lissome, chiming guitar notes from James Iha tumble over bassist D'arcy Wretzky's supple rhythms, leaving plenty of room for Corgan's trademark nasal pneumatics, which make him one of modern rock's most identifiable voices. And so the track proceeds, lazily drifting by.
Listen closely to what Corgan is singing, however, and the honest, personal tone of his window-on-the-soul poetry becomes startling: "Mother I'm tired/Come surrender my son/Time has ravaged on my soul/No plans to leave but still I go." A sunny chorus cuts in, as crisp as an autumn school day from childhood- "Fallin' with the leaves/Fallin' out of sleep/To the last goodbyes"- and then segues into a poignant coda: "Mother I hope you know/That I miss you so." A year and a half ago, Corgan's mother passed away after a protracted illness, and now her son has used his craft, and most of Adore, to deal with the tragedy, to confront death head-on and somehow make sense of it all. It's a mature move not usually associated with the arrested-adolescent self-absorption of pop stars. But Corgan, despite a media profile he jokingly refers to as "your usual doomsayer," is not a typical pop star. No matter what the papers might say.
In the muffled, Gothic-toned "Tear," Corgan shakes his fist at the great beyond, at an imagined foe who robbed him of his loved one-"Heaven seemed insane for taking you away/'Cause heaven is to blame for taking you away." A metronome-simple backbeat and the plush, feathered piano in "Crestfallen" allow the bereaved to question the selfish motives that invariably surface with grief: "Who am I to need you now… to deserve your sympathy/You were never meant to belong to me." In the sweeping "Behold!The Nightmare," Corgan shouts into the ether "You're so cruel in all you do/But still I believe, I believe in you/So may you come with your own knives/You'll never take me alive." And finally, the eight-minute suite "For Martha" puts the issue to rest- "Your picture out of time/Left aching in my mind… If you have to go I will get by/I will follow you and see you on the other side." This is not to say, however, that Adore is one big variation on a lachrymose theme. Elsewhere, in "Pug," "Perfect," "Appels + Oranjes" and the arena-huge single "Ava Adore," Corgan – who wrote and produced or co-produced every composition- takes stock of his existence, adds up all the good things that remain, and comes to a clearheaded conclusion with the closing "Black Page."
Muse on mortality long enough and you'll emerge with some essential, and remarkably optimistic, truths. Or, as Corgan quietly puts it, "You take the opportunity to really examine what's important and what's not important. And in the big picture of life, of my life, my mother was a very important person. James, D'arcy and Jimmy are more important to me than the Smashing Pumpkins. So if you examine all these things, that's why Jimmy's no longer in the Pumpkins. And that's why my mother stood behind me all those years when I was taking a lot of shit for being a freak and gave me the courage to be myself. And this is not an attempt to trivialize her death, but in a weird kind of way, her passing told me that if you're not going to do what you really want to do with your life now, you're never going to do it. And there's no better time than now to examine what's important, what your value system is."
Outside, on the outskirts of Chicago, it's a gorgeously clear day. Inside the Smashing Pumpkins' rehearsal studio, it's curtained, dark and vaguely oppressive. It suggests the smoky drawing room of an 18th century aristocrat, complete with a pampered poodle reclining on exotic Oriental rug. On a long, comfortable couch sit a track-suited Wretzky and a shag-haired Iha, decked out in denim. Draped over a Sidney-Greenstreet-sided leather chair is the tall, spider-limbed Corgan, head cleanly shaven, wearing all black- black silk shirt, vintage black Sans-A-Belt dress trousers and black clodhopper boots. He controls the interview in much the same way it's been suggested he controls the band; naturally, he appears to have the most to say about his own cathartic input to Adore. "Once Upon A Time," he says, is not a bad starting point.
"I think as we get older, we evolve in our relationships with our parents," Corgan notes calmly, hands folded in his lap. "Where they're not so much your parents anymore. They become almost like friends. And in the case of my mother, her becoming sick, in some ways I became the parents in the situation for a brief time. And it's like I've always tried to do- I can take specific situations in my life, but I'm trying to reach a bigger frame of the picture. I can't be specific about what I was trying to say in that song, but what I am trying to say is, you have to see things for what they really are." He makes the first of several pauses to ensure that the message is getting across. "I mean, I used rock 'n' roll to crawl out of my self-perceived hole. And at the end of the day, they can bury me with the Pumpkins CD's, but it ain't gonna make a whole lot of fucking difference, if you know what I mean. And I've really started to think about what's important.
"Like, I have no problem with being a musician, with being a public person," Corgan continues. "I actually quite enjoy it. But it's what's important in that for me. And I think we, as a band, have done a pretty good job of sticking to our guns. So, if anything, my mother's death gave me the courage to stick to my guns even more. In the light of her passing, I looked at it and said, 'If you don't have the courage to just do and be what you want to, then what the fuck are you? You're not a man, that's for sure.' And there are plenty of parables in there, as well. We experienced a death on tour, even though it was somebody we weren't very close to. We experienced a death of sorts with Jimmy leaving the band, because it was basically the end of the Pumpkins as we knew the Pumpkins. And right before that, Jimmy's father had died. So we're talking about Jonathan dying, Jimmy's father dying, Jimmy leaving the band, my mother dying, and me getting a divorce, in roughly the same time period. So you're talking about a lot of death, both real and symbolic. And to be even more trite, the death of grunge, the death of a movement, the death of a time frame. Even with that, there's a certain mourning that you go through.
All of which might account for the less-urgent feel of Adore. The Pumpkin's previous double-disc, 1995′s Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, volleyed so many diffuse, disparate thoughts over the course of 28 songs that it took several listens to get any sense of cohesion. Heavy on keyboards and bubbly programming (courtest of Nitzer Ebb album Bon Harris), Adore goes a converse route. By focusing on the meanings of life and death, Corgan has scripted a diary-personal chapter in Pumpkins history that illuminates, more than its sorrowful subject matter, the personal chapter in Pumpkins history that illuminates, more than its sorrowful subject matter, the very soul of its creator. And the songs, which beam flickering light from a despairing darkness, feel almost like gospel. "I've used that word when we were recording," Corgan nods. "There's a certain kind of vibrancy that's in the music that I like a lot. But most art is born from a darkness. Some artists choose to take you to extremes and show you the worms and the maggots. Other artists try and create a contrast, and other artists, well, their darkness is a complete denial of darkness. That's what makes some of these airbrushed divas so sinister- it's like they're living some kind of space-age dream.
"But I've always tried to stand right on the Mason-Dixon line of it. And I think that's what maybe confuses people about the Pumpkins' music and the Pumpkins as people. We've always tried, musically and emotionally, to straddle the lines between good and bad, light and dark. That's where we see the truth in it. We could dress up and be scary or we could clean up our image. We could do a lot of things, but it's not who we are. It's not the lives that we've led. We've always tried to represent where we stand, and it doesn't always make for good rock star fodder. But we think it makes for compelling music." Corgan pounds his fist on the chair armrest to emphasize his words. "We're willing to basically stand here in the middle of the fire. And lose ourselves in it."
Iha clears his throat. "In the beginning of the band," he nearly whispers, "we used to travel so much and tour so much. And the more we keep traveling, the more I become aware of our mortality. The more plane trips we make, the more insane tours we do- it all makes me very aware of my own mortality. I don't know if that's paranoid or not. But you hear about so many tragic things happening every day, and it just makes you the more and more aware."
Corgan, only 30, nods in agreement with Iha and continues the thought. "But when you're 22, how many people do you know who've died that are of your generation? Now that we've gotten to this age, it's like, everywhere we turn, overdoses, suicides or spiritual deaths, where people have just basically given up. I mean, they're just dead inside. When you're 22, 23, there's a lot of idealism. And they can support that idealism because they haven't had a chance to fuck it up yet." Cut to scenes a few years down the pike, he adds, "and the world's hammered 'em down, and the fact that they were gonna be a National Geographic photographer, well, that's not really panning out and they're working at the new custom Arby's or something. The reality is setting in and you see people having to really fight against it. And just to reframe the album, that's the kinda stuff I'm trying to get at.
"And sure, there's a certain percentage of things [on Adore] seen through someone who's on a weird kind of mountain. I can't pretend that I am always of the sheep, that's not the life I lead. But I do try and speak a lot about what's important to most people. Because when you meet somebody, nothing breaks my heart more- and I've said this before, I'll say it again- than when somebody come up to me, apologizing for working in an ice cream shop. They say 'Oh, I'm just a lowly ice cream employee.' And in their mind, they're already failing. I mean, so what? Does your family love you? Are you having a good time? Are you finding something in life for you? That's all that really matters. I mean, we can play rock, we can look funny, we can digress into the seventh ring of indie heaven, but at the end of the day, it's all just a bunch of muckup. It's not what you, leave this world with. I don't think God asks you 'Hey, how was that gig in Hoboken back in '91?' You know what I mean?"
Wretzky and Iha are both chuckling softly to themselves. They know what Corgan means. In fact, they know pretty much all there is to know about the man- his foibles, his weaknesses, even his old habits of downplaying their Pumpkins roles in the press. They probably even know the secret to why he shaved his head. And they've chosen to stick with him. When it's mentioned that one of the key components of Adore is his newfound appreciation for his two cohorts, Corgan actually falters for a minute, a lump forming in his throat. "I do appreciate them," he manages.
"And you definitely pass that line with people. I mean, we've been together ten years, and we've passed the line where it seems like it's all going to go away at any minute. It kind of becomes more like, it's there because you want it to be. And I'm a little embarrassed about the whole subject, because in my mid-twenties confusion I felt the need to point arrows at myself and distinguish myself from the band in a way that was kind of childish. Which, at the time, was underestimating the situation. And we get questions all the time, especially from international journalists." Corgan adopts a hokey French accent to illustrate this: "'What iz zee ree-lay-shon-sheep? Are you zee deeek-tay-tor?' But you can never underestimate the karmic chemistry certain people have together- it doesn't matter who does what."
"Growing numb to the relationships, around you," frowns Wretzky, "is way too easy to do. It's really easy to take things for granted. And as far as money or anything material goes, well, I think that's the least important thing to all of us. We really try not to take our situation for granted."
"And to take it back to the record again," Corgan interjects, "a lot of what the record was about was an attempt to go back in what's important at a musical core and build it outward. It's hard to put it into terms that most people can understand, because people can take it so negatively. If you say, 'Okay, we're jaded,' people go, 'Yeah-I wish I had a million fuckin' dollars, too!' But you do get alienated. And the reason that you got into music is the thing that you end up being alienated from. Because the business, the politics, the life of it just starts to draw you away from the idea 'Oh yeah- we play music!' And sometimes music seems to be the least important thing in the world that surrounds you. You pick up an album review, you read about politics. You pick up an article, you read about who they're fucking. You don't read a lot about music."
A recent tabloid item identified Corgan on the arm of a certain supermodel, in line to attend a hot-ticket concert. "But they failed to mention that I was with my girlfriend of two-and-a-half years at the time," he growls. Iha reports that he got strangely similar treatment at his tenth anniversary high school reunion. Everyone knew what he did for a living, but when we inquired about his former classmates' occupations, "They'd go, 'Oh, I don't do anything.' Most of 'em were making good money with computers or they worked at some big corporation, but they just didn't think it was good enough to tell me because I have this supposedly 'glamorous lifestyle.'"
"Ha!" Wretzky guffaws. "Tell me about it! If just one of 'em could-" Corgan hastily cuts in. "No, no, nooooo. Let's not go there, or we'll be talking for hours about the 'how hard it is to be a rock star' bit."
Wretzky shrugs, admits defeat. "Yeah, yeah. You're right. Forget it." "We're 'of the people!'" Corgan cackles. "Can't you tell?"
A joke. But probably more on the money than the Pumpkins themselves have even guessed. When asked why more performers don't use their work to map out life's larger mysteries, Corgan sighs. "I think where a lot of people get tripped up is, their ego gets in the way of their kind of… of… spiritual duty." Corgan pauses, again, letting the term echo through the cavernous rehearsal studio. "This is a very unpopular way to put it, but if you believe in God and you believe that God is the entity that empowers everyone to do things, then if you're given the talent to do something on a high level, like music, and you're given the ability to reach a lot of people, you have almost a responsiblity to be a conveyor of something. It's doesn't mean you have to be a conveyor of God's message. But you have the responsibility to always recognize that you are a servant to the music, the music does not serve you. And I think that's a very important lesson for people to learn, because when you look at it that way, then everything else falls into perspective."
And yes, Corgan confesses, "Once Upon A time" and its elegiac Adore companion pieces are coping mechanisms, of a sort. "But that's the thing- the best way to deal with death is to live. If you really think about it, it's the most respectful thing you can do in somebody's memory. Curling up is not going to do any good. But living, actually living in that person's memory and in that person's spirit… well, there's really no better tribute."