Addicted to Noise Interview: Billy Corgan - 1995-12-??
Addicted to Noise
(lookup on archive.org)
Pumpkinland, the Chicago studio where the Smashing Pumpkins spent much of a year recording their epic new album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, is located at the center of Gang Central. "If I could get the garage door down, I could show you the symbol for the Latin Kings," says Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, as we stand out in the alley behind Pumpkinland. "The Latin Kings are in a gang war with the Simon City Royals."
The graffiti covered walls of nearby buildings attest to a territorial rivalry. "They leave us alone though," continues Chamberlain, glancing up the alley that leads to the studio's rear entrance.
"One night there was a drive by while we were eating in the restaurant across the street," Chamberlain says. "Two bullets through the studio window, but no one here got hit. Come on, let's go back inside."
The Pumpkins, of course, have been engaged in their own "gang war" of sorts since forming in 1988. According to the outspoken leader of the group, Billy Corgan, they were never accepted by the other Chicago bands. And their increasing success, first with Gish, then with Siamese Dream, only made them the target of national and international gibes. Anti-Pumpkin sentiments came to a head, perhaps, when Pavement actually dissed them in "Range Life" ("I don't understand what they mean/ And I could really give a fuck").
Nevermind. When you've sold over three million copies of an album (Siamese Dream), you can put up with the slags of less successful bands. Or can you? "I'm mad as hell," Corgan will tell me, mid-way through a conversation that takes place in the studio lounge. "All I can really say about that is that when you're young, the anger comes out in dumb ways. The anger comes out in breaking things or doing crime or whatever. And then as you get older, the anger comes out in other ways, like verbal things. The core of my anger is, I think, still intact. It's just taken a different form. It's not as viscerally surfaced but it's still in there. It's something I don't think I've ever dealt with."
Whether because of, or despite the anger, Corgan his fellow Pumpkins have followed up Siamese Dream with an incredible piece of work. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a 28 song rock masterpiece, a double album that deserves to share shelf space with the Clash's London Calling, Springsteen's The River and, yes, the Stones' Exile On Main Street. Only time will tell, but after listening off and on to the album for nearly two months, it still sounds like a classic.
At Pumpkinland, where the album was recorded with Flood and Alan Moulder sharing the role of producer, Corgan attends to a phone interview, standing atop an equipment case, pacing in circles, a portable phone glued to the side of his head. Bassist D'Arcy is having her makeup done for a photo shoot, while guitarist James Iha is hunched over a conference table, inhaling coffee in an attempt to wake up.
Chamberlain gives me a quick tour of Pumpkinland. The main, immense, brick-walled studio, still contains his drum kit, Marshall amps, synthesizers and guitar cases. Lots and lots of guitar cases. "That over there is probably the most important piece of equipment," says the drummer. He is pointing to a heater.
There is a beat up Stratocaster with a sticker that says "I Love My Mom" on it. Lyric sheets are sitting on a music stand. "I'm never coming back / I'm never giving in," reads one lyric fragment. On one wall hangs a white board listing all the songs that ended up on the album. As each band member finished their parts��bass track, drums, guitars, vocals��it would be checked off. "That was the only way we could keep track, there was so much material," Chamberlain says.
Nearby, I discover the secret of the Pumpkins' sound. There is a pile of old, analog guitar effects boxes and pedals: "Fuzz Tone," "Bassballs," "Phaser FX20," "Rat," "Maestro," "Phase 100," "Big Muff."
I spoke with Billy Corgan in the lounge at the front of the studio. Sitting rather stiffly on a couch, he answered my questions frankly, but was quick to let me know when a subject was off-limits. As we spoke, he seemed to loosen up. It was clear that he has thought long and hard about the Smashing Pumpkins' seven year journey. Clearly a control freak, Corgan is doing his best to leave nothing to chance. As you'll discover when you read this interview, which took place in late September (a month before the release of Mellon Collie), he'd already made plans for the two possible eventualities. The new album becoming: 1) a smash; or 2) a commercial failure.
Addicted To Noise: A double album is a pretty ambitious project…
Billy Corgan: In the original inception of the band, the notion was to, in a general way, push boundaries and as a live band, we've tried to do that in the song structures, we've tried to do that in our videos. So it only follows that we would make an album that would follow in that same line of thinking. The first reaction that people have is it's such a preposterous '70s kind of thing to do, why would you do that in 1995? That's exactly the point. It kind of knocks people upside the head to at least reexamine their perception of what an album is. Things like that.
ATN: The fact that someone would say something like, oh, such a '70s thing as opposed to like….when the Rolling Stones, for example, did Exile on Main Street, I don't think they cared what someone else thought. They had a lot of material. They recorded all this stuff. It was cool. Or the Beatles…bands back then didn't seem like they worried so much about what was hip at the moment.
Corgan: I don't think we had the same amount of media speculation and judgment. I think a lot of those ideas were still being formed [during the '60s]. I really reached a point in my life where I don't care what the preconceptions are about what a rock band should be because I think we've, at least in some ways, proven that it's not about sticking to any kind of rules. It's not as obviously anarchistic. You're not breaking your guitars and shouting anarchy, but it's a little more insidious, I think.
ATN: Were you thinking, well, this is something that goes completely against the grain of what's happening now? Was that a factor in deciding to do a 28-song album?
Corgan: No, it had more to do with my own malaise and trying to find a structure to work in that would be inspiring and really push me as a songwriter. Yeah, giving everybody the finger is part of the thinking, but it's not a large part of the thinking.
ATN: Change seems to be one of the themes that comes up. I haven't studied every lyric but it's definitely there in a number of different songs. Tell me about that. Why is that a theme that's in this album?
Corgan: I don't know. Life kind of goes in seven-year cycles and the band's in it's seventh year. You're kind of hitting the end of one cycle and moving on to another so there's a friction that goes on between giving up the old and moving into the new.
I think the world has changed in seven years. I've certainly changed in seven years and the band has changed in seven years. Change is kind of a frightening thing, you know. The thought of change is sometimes a lot worse than actually where you end up. But it's the fear of what the possibilities are.
ATN: Have you felt that? Have you felt afraid of change?
Corgan: Oh sure. Nobody wants to get old.
ATN: When you think about change, what are the things that you've been afraid of? Obviously getting old would be one.
Corgan: Well, simple mortality kinds of things like disconnecting from…in my case, it would be disconnecting from the audience to the point of where I can't relate anymore. That's why I thought it was important to write this album now because I can still communicate and connect with, you know, a teenage heart. I'm not sure I can connect with that heart too much longer.
ATN: So then what happens?
Corgan: I don't know. I haven't gotten there yet. I'm still on the other side.
ATN: You're 28 right now. Turning 30 used to be such a big deal back in the '60s and '70s, but is it such a big deal now to you?
Corgan: Certainly. Of course it is. Basically, we've extended the boundaries by which rock music is played by people as far as age is concerned. But let's face it, these bands that are 40+ are not really rocking anybody, you know what I mean? They're capable of being moving, but the difference between what a band like Nirvana was capable of doing in their prime versus what the Rolling Stones can now do at age 50, there's no comparison. And that's the reality of it and I think you have to see the forest from the trees. That has a lot to do with your youth, your ambition and your energy. You start getting cars and mortgages and wives and families and… It's not the same. Going out and rocking everybody is not a central part of your life. And I think as that starts to move away from the core of your existence, you have to recognize the shift in where your focus lies. Nobody wants to hear that. It's not very pretty but it's the truth.
ATN: Also, there's a tendency, it seems, that when someone is in the middle of success hitting, that it feels like it's going to be there forever. You see a lot of artists slip into this thing, selling several million copies of an album then suddenly before they know it, a few years have gone by and they're over here and the audience is over there…
Corgan: And the world has passed them by. I think that kind of consciousness that I'm talking about is a necessity to keep on that razor's edge of consciousness.
ATN: You work really hard for a long time but when it actually happens, the moment when an audience suddenly catches on is pretty quick. There are a lot of changes that happen. I wondered about some of the ways success has affected you and the band.
Corgan: Because it's happened over time, in some ways, it's been a gradual process of adjustment. You adjust to people asking you for things, whether it be autographs or pictures or people want to talk to you about something you said. You adjust to that as a normal part of your life. The hard part is things like you start to get this snipey press because you become symbolic of something, so you're an easy reference point. Things like that. People finding out where you live. It's stuff like that that's been the hardest adjustment for me. I can't speak for everyone. Everyone has their own take on it.
But as far as the adulation part of it, our feet are so firmly planted in the ground and it's always been the core essence of where the band takes its energy from that the starry-eyed part has never really taken grasp. I've seen people go through their little phases but in general, we're pretty much the same people. If you could look at our surroundings here, although it's a nice big place, it's pretty humble. We sit at that thrift store table and eat chicken and go and rehearse. It's still about the music for us and it's still about the power of it. That, in comparison to what goes on around it, it doesn't seem that important. And in some ways, if you're doing it right, it should come with it, you know.
ATN: How much is riding on this album?
Corgan: A lot. Probably everything.
ATN: What are you thinking of?
Corgan: I really believe that there are still lingering question marks about the band. As other people have kindly pointed out, a lot of people don't really realize this is our third album [fourth if you include Pisces Iscariot]. And I really think in this day and age of quick communication and the way that people are so quickly and easily dismissed, and considering the amount of years in the band and everything, I think that it's kind of a necessity that this album be very successful or it's pretty much the end of the band.
I don't want this album viewed as an artistic failure publicly. And the way that it will be viewed as an artistic failure publicly is if it doesn't sell. Because people will say if you'd just done a single album and written some hits, you would have been fine. But you had to go and do this….your self indulgent album… and look what it's done. And that is why you deserve to be beaten over the head. I'm not going to live in an environment like that and I'm not going to go out and play shows with people clucking their tongues and saying "What an idiot." I don't believe that it's an artistic failure but I'm certainly not going to allow the world to beat me up about it. No one can take away the album. But we can take away the band from getting beaten up on. I know the album is good and I hope everyone else agrees, but if you're going to go out in public, if you're going to do interviews….imagine if this album was a failure and we did another album, what would be the first or second question. "So in the wake of the last album, what are your feelings now about doing the double album?" I don't want to live with those kinds of questions because I would take great offense.
ATN: Are you saying that if this album doesn't achieve a certain amount of commercial success that the band will break up?
Corgan: 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 tact. That's already been decided. So you have three options. One is the band breaks up. Another option is the band continues on but in a totally different level of operation. We could easily go back to playing clubs that hold like a thousand people and we could do that fine and we could put out the kind of albums that we would want to put out without that kind of commercial pressure, acoustic albums, experimental albums. That's a totally different tact. And take yourself out of the top 40 ring, which we're in, you know. And the other possibility is that it's a huge success and the band goes on to bigger and better things. So those are the three possibilities. I think they're all valid and I think they're all realistic.
ATN: You said that you've already decided that no matter what happens that there's going to be a change. What's that about?
Corgan: I think, me personally, that I've certainly reached the end of a creative cycle. Five, six, seven years ago, I made up my mind about how I was going to play my music, what kind of band we were going to be��, you make those kinds of decisions. And out of those decisions have come really amazingly positive things and some negative things because of the shortsightedness of it. I think we're one of the best live bands, but we're the kind of live band that you have to follow the whole time. We're not going to hit you over the head in the first five minutes and then the rest of the show is boring. It's hard to explain but with every philosophy comes its advantages and disadvantages, and I've reached the end of this philosophical point, I guess.
You know, if you decided seven years ago that you were going to be a certain kind of writer and your slant was going to be this, this and that, and you build your career around it, you reach a point where those rules and those constrictions don't necessarily apply anymore but you're still living in the preconception of that's what you are. So I want to destroy those preconceptions by going on to something different. Also it's like casting yourself back out into the musical water and expecting yourself to come up with something new. Totally new. Not just the next extension of what you would expect from the band but something completely different.
ATN: So is it going to be the four of you?
Corgan: That's the plan but I don't know. I'm going to do it no matter what. Obviously what happens has a lot to do with it. If the band ended and I start to form a new band, then obviously that band's not going to be as big as this band. So you're operating on a different level. And there's different mind-sets to go into each situation.
ATN: So you'll just look at what happens and then you'll make your decision.
Corgan: Right. Somewhere in the back of my head as I'm writing this record I know that I have to make videos, I know that there has to be singles. You can't live with the illusion that it's not going to be that way. It has to be that way. You're living in that ring. If you take yourself out of the ring and you put yourself in the Tom Waits ring, that's a much different ring to be in. That's a freer ring but you also accept the consequences of those kinds of decisions. You may have more artistic success and less commercial success. That's all part and parcel of where you put yourself. The point is, I'm just trying to be open to all the possibilities. I want the band to continue. Make no mistake about it. I really hope that everyone loves this album and the band has a great tour and go on to bigger and better things but I think you have to be realistic. Because if you cut yourself off from the other ideas, you start behaving in a way that, well, the band has to be together and the band has to do this and this and that starts to cause a lot of resentment and problems in the band because everyone feels trapped.
ATN: There's a line in one of the songs…
Corgan: I wonder how many lines there are on this album (laughs).
ATN: …in which you sing, "Despite all my rage/ I'm still just a rat in a cage." What was your intention in that with that line?
Corgan: I don't really explain the specific things because I think if it's not apparent, I'm not doing my job. To explain it further is to demystify it and to take away from the power of what it is. It's taken me awhile to come to this conclusion but the music is it's own interpretive force and everyone's going to apply their own experiences to the interpretation of it. Me explaining it demystifies it, narrows the ability for people to enjoy it and then becomes the click phrase by which everyone says, "Well, okay, with that song 'Bullet,' you were trying to say such and such. What were you really trying to say."
People ask you questions based on what you said and it's a never-ending cycle, so I've taken myself out of the game on that one. No explanations. I'll talk about the thematic aspects of the album but I'm putting the responsibility in the hands of the journalist to ask specific questions and then I'll answer those themes. Like you asked about change so I'll talk about change. But if you asked me what the themes are in the album, I'll say…
ATN: Figure it out for yourself.
Corgan: Yeah, because there's 20 themes on the album. There's 30 themes on the album. But people are going to focus on one or the other. If I listed all the themes that are on the album, somebody would pick the two that were the most entertaining. This is my experience with the media and this is my own way of doing my own spin because I don't want to deal with the boomerangs that come back.
ATN: Neil Young, for example, writes so intuitively that it almost comes through him. It's there. He doesn't even know while he's writing what it's about and later, he may see something. But it sounds to me like you work a little differently.
Corgan: No, I work both ways. I'm a very multi-brain person. I don't know if it's my Piscean nature but I sit in a lot of different chairs. For example, a song like "Disarm" was completely intuitive. There's nothing conscious about that song. It, like, wrote itself. "Today" was an intuitive song. There's other songs where I really have to spend time to make it all glue together.
ATN: Where it's more crafting.
Corgan: Oh, "Tonight, tonight" was probably a more crafted song. You're looking for something specific. You know what you're trying to say but you've got to find the right words to say it with the right sentiments. It's obviously a well-crafted song. That took time to put all the pieces together. Stuff like that. I move back and forth.