The San Diego Union-Tribune Interview - 2010-12-09
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This is our complete Q&A interview with Smashing Pumpkins' leader Billy Corgan. He spoke with us by phone from Los Angeles last week. (To read our feature article on Corgan, click here.)
Q: Duke Ellington once was asked what inspired him to compose, and he replied: "Give me a deadline." How important are deadlines to you?
Pretty important! (laughs) I'm the type of person who will procrastinate till the end of time. Pressure is good.
Q: So how are you at imposing that deadline pressure on yourself?
Right now, not so good, because I'm running my own clock. The last time we were in the studio we had three weeks before going to South America to record songs.
Q: From our last chat, way back in 2000, I know you're a big fan of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Howlin' Wolf, to name a few. Have you ever thought about putting links up to YouTube performance clips of them on your Twitter page, the same way you have with "Plundered My Soul" by the Rolling Stones and song by The Electric Prunes?
Yeah. You know what? It's really interesting you ask that, because for a while I was running a spiritual Web site (everythingfromheretothere.com) and I wanted to figure out a way to have a hub that would turn people onto different music, so that I could pick an artist and an album, and spend energy saying why that artist is important. The challenge is giving it an integral value. The problem is that most people build a network based on salacious celebrity (stuff). The challenge is trying to find a value system to relate to people on a value-based level.
Q: Could you elaborate on how that would work?
I had a spiritual Web site for a while and wanted to morph it into something bigger, which was a challenge of how to integrate different things from a value point of thing. As a kid, I would say: 'I don't like the blues, it's too boring.' It took people who loved the blues to get me into why it's so fantastic, and then my listening to Led Zeppelin. Everything is moving so fast (technologically); I keep waiting for things to develop more integrity. The Internet can be very deceiving. We have 600,000 people on our Facebook page, it doesn't mean they'll all take notice, unless I rip Pavement a new (bottom) — then they'll pay attention.
Q: So your spiritual Web site is defunct?
It was up for maybe four or five months and was sort of a precursor to a spiritual book I'm going to write next year. I was writing blogs, five or six days a month, trying to write about how spirituality intersects with daily life and culture. I never paid any attention how many people were visiting (the site); I just tried to communicate, peer to peer, and a lot of people took it the wrong way because celebrities aren't supposed to talk about God.
Q: Did you consider doing the Web site anonymously, so people wouldn't connect it with you as a "rock star?"
I think it's a matter of context. If you come out as a celebrity talking about god, (the reaction is): 'He has he lost his mind.' Once I write the book, there will be a context.
Q: Do you have a name yet for your book?
"God is everywhere, from here to there," which is the name the Web site was spun off.
Q: I remember reading an interview with Baba Ram Dass years ago, where he said something like: 'The goal is to be nothing.' I understood what he meant, in terms of ego. But it struck me as a much easier goal for an affluent or upper-middle-class, white American than for someone in the Third World, whose immediate concern was if they and their family would be able to get food to eat that day. What is the main message in your book?
I think what a lot of us struggle with are spiritual values, meaning: How can we interpret an incredibly material world. Like, for example, when you have to eat, how can you figure out a way to eat in a spiritual way? Not everyone has opportunities (to do that). Let's say you're a bus driver– and I don't want to be singling out bus drivers. Is there a way you can appreciate your job and who you are, and approach life in a positive way?
I meet people all the time who say things like: 'I'm just an accountant.' You ask them: 'How'd you become one?' They say: 'Well I loved math and am good with numbers,' like it's some kind of a failure. But I'd agree with your point about trying not to get stuck in that white, middle-class point of view.
For example, just to take it back to rock 'n' roll for a moment, one of the biggest issues we face in rock is the white, middle-class or upper-middle- class value system that gets put on people like me, constantly, about what integrity is. I grew up in a lower-middle- class home, where we didn't have a lot.
So, survival in the old Pumpkins, including material things, was one of our focuses. It wasn't our driving focus, but we wanted to buy a nice place to live and take care of our families, because that's the way we were raised. Then you run into the snarky New York crowd and find out you're wearing the 'wrong' clothes. And you scratch your head and find out most of those people came from more affluent backgrounds
Not everybody can sit on a mountain and say: 'This is how it should be.' So, it's about: 'How can you improve your life and the perception of it?' And not feel you went to your grave not pursuing your passion. It's not (a book about) 'You should live like this.'
Q: Both my parents were born and raised in Hungary, and there's an old Hungarian saying that goes: "Tell people the truth and they kick your head in."
(Laugh uproariously). That has been my experience in life, absolutely! I'm a Pisces and we look at things from two perspectives. I get that people want rock' 'n roll to be a fantasy camp; by the same token, there's plenty of room for a divergent set of opinions. Like, Lou Reed balances David Bowie, balances Neil Young, balances (Bob) Dylan. But not everybody needs to come from the same fantasy land perspective.
"It's with great irony I look at people who criticized me in the '90s (like Pavement), and see they are playing their old albums on tour, (while) I'm trying to make new music. And I don't see anybody ripping them apart. For the snarks to rip them apart is for the snarks to reveal themselves as the poseurs they are. ?
There's an unspoken code in rock (that goes): 'Hey, I won't reveal your b.s. if you don't reveal mine.' I'm sure you've encountered people who have a very public image, but they're really actors, very sophisticated actors, because people project on them that they are 'the working man.' It's a self-perpetuating myth the media perpetrates. So, here I am, getting my ass kicked for being an honest guy and being imperfect. You definitely pay a price for telling the truth.
Q: But isn't rock, ideally, supposed to be a forum for telling the truth?
It's part of the fantasy. I talk to fans all the time, and I'll say: 'What do you think of this artist?' And they say: 'He's a good guy.' So, what they mean is: 'I'm willing to listen his b.s., because he's a good guy.'
Q: Does it matter? Pablo Picasso was, by all accounts, a total jerk who treated most people like dirt. Does that make his art less great or notable? Should we separate the art from the person who made it?
I think the art is the only thing that matters. I'm not saying the life of the artist shouldn't be examined. But to put the life of the artist as the equal of the art is coming from the audience or the 'perceiver,' not from people who really understand art.
Let's say you and I are taking a hike and I've just finished telling you what a horrible person I am. But at the end I tell you a parable that is the greatest parable you've ever heard. Does it diminish the parable because I'm a piece of (crap)? No. It might have more value because I'm a piece of (crap). The modern world is very focused on negative aspects of the artist, because it's part of some marketing campaign. When the personality is more important, you have a problem — The work will not hold up with time, but you get what you pay for.
If you need to believe that Radiohead would hang out with you at Starbucks because they're good guys – and I'm not picking on them — if that's what you need (to believe), I won't argue with it. But I don't get that. I think it's really juvenile. I'm in the Duke Ellington school of thought, that there's good music and bad music. I don't know what kind of guy Howlin' Wolf was but I know the kind of guy I think he was.
Q: Turning to the songs currently on the Smashing Pumpkins' Web site,"Spangled" sounds like it has an electric spinet; "A Stitch in Time" has a sitar-like sounding instrument; and the intro to "Tom Tom" has an instrument with a banjo-like quality. Am I imagining these instruments?
Very good. You're pretty much right on. "Spangled" has a Baldwin harpsichord with Rickenbacker guitar and "Stitch" has a choral sitar.
Q: What about the banjo?
I think you're hearing a keyboard (program) that sounds like a banjo.
Q: This might betray my age, but the opening riff on your song "Window Wake My Mind" sounds like it might be a sly homage to the opening of "25 or 6 to 4" by the band once known as Chicago Transit Authority.
(laughs) You are betraying your age! I actually thought more that it reminded me of mid-'70s Dylan, when he went real simple with the "If Not For You" type songs, where everything got real simple. That's what appealed about it to me — a good simple song, as opposed to a good complex song. People are used to me writing good complex songs and scratch their heads (when I don't).
Q: Then there are the dual guitar lines on "A Song for a Son," which evokeThe Eagles' "Hotel California." Is that accurate?
Totally. One thing I discovered in recording — and I didn't realize it until I started recording these songs — is that I was sort of interested in how a film director would shoot a scene in black-and-white or put actors in period costumes. I was interested in putting some of the songs in period costumes, although I wouldn't do it that way today, necessarily. So when I was recording, I'd say: "I want it to sound like 1975 UFO." It had something to do with reconciling an idealistic period in rock for me, when I came of age with rock when I was 10 or 11.
Q: Are you familiar with the gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama?
Yes. I have several of their albums.
Q: Well, years ago, I was interviewing the leader of the Blind Boys. The group's guitarist had recently left and they were auditioning replacements. I asked the leader what the criteria was to be the guitarist in the Blind Boys, and he said: "You have o be able to play lead and rhythm simultaneously. You have to sing harmonies really well and listen really well. But the most important thing is, you have to be able to drive."
Q: So, what's the criteria to be in Smashing Pumpkins?
I think I get really offended when the (other Pumpkin members) are referred to as a "rent-a-band." It's not the kind of music you can just hire anybody to play. Without the perspective, from the ground up, that's a key component to play this music.
Q: Is it mandatory that your bassist needs to be a woman?
No, never. I know it looks completely the opposite. But it's always been whoever seemed like the right person at the moment. In the case of Nicole Fiorentino, the band's current bassist), I'd said before that maybe it's time to look at a man for this particular job. Not in a sexist way, but maybe a man would bring a different flavor. But I saw her play and was blown away. When you see somebody, you know they're the right person.
Q: Your new drummer, Mike Byrne, was literally working at a McDonald's when you hired him. That must have been a pretty amazing transition for him, thanks to you opening such a big door of opportunity.
Yeah, I'm certainly able to appreciate he is having a rare journey in life. That being said, that was small potatoes compared to (my concern of): "Am I going to get burned by this?" — pun intended. He's a phenomenal talent. Do I pass on somebody (like him) for somebody who's an established talent? Believe me, it was more self-preservation for me.
Q: What was the worst day job you had as a kid?
Um. I worked at a Filipino restaurant for a week — that was pretty bad — cleaning the kitchen, and I got fired because I was eating too much food.
Q: Did you get a song out of it?
(laughs) No, I never got a song out of it.
Q: The guitar solos on "A Song for a Son" are pretty hot, and then there's the nice harmony guitar lines that follow. Did you play both parts on record, and then have Jeff Schroeder play in unison with you?
No, that's all me.
Q: How do you do it live?
Live, Jeff takes the first lead and me the second. At that point, I was just recording with Mike on drums and me doing everything else. Now, we're recording as a unit. It changes . Back in the '90s, when I was working with (producer) Butch (Vig), it would be (recorded) in order — the drums, then bass the rhythm guitar and lead, and vocals. These days I'll record a bunch of guitars first, then the other instruments.
Q: When we spoke 10 years ago, you expressed frustration that you were regarded as the "poster boy for "alternative rock." In the decade since then, the music world has been turned completely upside down and inside out. Does the phrase "alternative rock" have more or less resonance for you now?
I think it meant more to me then, because I realized something was lost. Looking at it 10 years later, I'm very surprised it has not been supplanted by anything. It has found life in different forms, but I'm very surprised that — after 10 years — you haven't seen that (change). Essentially, people are playing I the same forms now as in the '90s. In the '70s, '80s and '90s, there were always shifts of (musical) forms. From '65 Beatles to '75 Eagles to '85 The Cure is a huge shift.
I don't see the shift between '94 Nirvana and now. It seems like everybody fell in love with Radiohead in the late '90s and haven't gotten off it. I shake my head at that.
Q: Is the potential bright side that too much complacency will compel somebody to kick out against convention and come up with something new?
I think you've had an erosion of the value system, to the point where I don't see where the (new) value will come from.
Q: Can you elaborate on that?
Its tough to elaborate on. I know I'm being general. You've had the rise of the snark blogger culture, which takes things that would probably only go so far and elevates it to a stature the mainstream will never embrace. You have a puffed up indie world that likes to puff up its chest, but it doesn't mean anything to the mainstream because you don't have a transition. You have the mainstream system more and more detached from a value system that used to be part of rock.
You could draw links before between the Stooges, Ramones and Green Day. There was a linkage you can feel some sort of connectivity with. You've lost that now because nobody can exist in the middle anymore.
Because if any indie band tries to transition to the middle world, they'll get crucified. But then you have head-scratching moments where Pitchfork gives Kanye West's new album a 10, that's like a joke. So, Kanye is worthy of your praise, as opposed to the guy who made an album in his basement while his mom is making dinner?
Nothing can be organically generated now. Where is the organic generation going to come form? It won't come from America anymore; it will come from China or India or South America. They can generate organic moments because they don't have an overly intellectualized opinion of rock. That's where I fly in the face of things (like Pitchfork), because I'm smarter than them. And even if I'm not, I'm willing to play the fool. It's better to be a fool than to be somebody's bitch.
It's like what I said in (the recent film documentary about Rush): "How do they exist (so long)?" Somebody's going to their shows. We just played in South America, for audiences of up to 10,000 people. Somebody's coming.
Q: How does the audience reaction vary in South America from here or Europe? Do crows in different countries react differently to the same songs you play?
It used to be very different and now it's the same. I have to think it's (a result) of the Internet.
Q: Is that kind of tragic that everyone reacts the same now?
I don't know. The upside is you have inter-connectivity and access, which is beautiful, but it does seem to homogenize the experience.
Q: What is the most memorable bad gig you've ever played?
I was talking about this recently. We were playing somewhere near where there was a U.S. military base in Europe, and I started making fun of the local people and all the American service people started laughing. I said: "Hey, America is no better. Why don't you go (expletive) yourselves, too?" I managed to turn the whole audience against us. They wanted to kill us.
Q: When was this?
In the early '90s. The old Pumpkins used to have nightmare gigs where we just couldn't get it together and people would boo and throw bottles.
Q: Shakti, John McLaughlin's all-acoustic Indian classical-music-meets-jazz group, once opened a show on Long Island for Black Sabbath back in the mid-1970s. It went so bad that McLaughlin reportedly fired his booking agent the next day. Did the Pumpkins ever have any unlikely opening slots early on in the band's career?
We generally did pretty good. The most memorable one was opening for Guns N' Roses in '92 — and we were all big fans. But their fan base wasn't happening (for us). We got booed for 45 minutes straight.
It (inspired) one of my favorite lines I've ever said on stage. It was in Oklahoma City and (the audience reaction) was one nonstop boo, and it would get worse after each song ended. After about 30 minutes, I managed to shush the crowd down a little and I said: "I realize why you're all so angry, and you could hear the boos go down because they stopped to hear what I was saying. Then I said: "I realize you're all so angry because you're living on stolen Indian land." That didn't go over too well.
Q: Do you feel like you have a duty to stir things up?
Not anymore, because you become (like) the lone Japanese soldier still fighting World War II, 10 years after the fact. I haven't seen my generation — when you talk about another generation, you sound like an old, bitter guy — (but) I mean, what the (expletive) is my generation doing now? The U.S. is in two wars and tinkering with another possible one in North Korea. You have invasive government things, (like) spying on citizens and the TSA nonsense. Where's the response from my generation, a supposedly disenfranchised generation? There's a silence.
Pavement is out there playing their old hits. What do they think? Not everyone does a cash-grab (and reunites). They're an easy target, because I have issues with them. But the response of my generation (to current events) is pitiful and overwhelming, so why the (expletive) do I want to run out there with a flag? To get criticized for giving a (expletive)? I don't want to be a dead hero. I do what I can, here and there.
Q: Do you see any reason for hope?
I just saw (former Pink Floyd leader) Roger Waters' "The Wall" tour last night and it's really beautiful. It had images of the war I Iraq and was updated to a modern context that made it timely. This guy is still out there and doing it. What the (expletive) are we doing? That's what my heroes are supposed to do — stick their boots up my (behind), and say: "What the (expletive) are you doing?
I have to figure out how to do it my own way. I don't want to do it the way somebody else has. What's an appropriate artistic response (to today's problems)? Talk about an underwhelming generation. If you want to be really clear, once Kurt Cobain killed himself (in 1994), our generation has been lost trying to find anybody willing to be a point person. Who has stepped up from my generation and meant anything, to anybody other than themselves? I can't think of anybody. I've tried many times but failed.
I'm not impressed with my generation. What started off like a good idea turned into a joke. At least I have enough pride to go out and make something.
But what the (expletive) happened? Sitting and watching "The Wall," in hindsight, this appears to be a master work , especially when you see it staged. It has been 30 years since "The Wall" (debuted) and what has anybody done since then that's been close to this as a cultural critique?
Q: When all is said and done, how do you hope to be remembered?
The epitaph question! The rock 'n' roll answer is: "He gave a (expletive)." I don't know. I feel like I'm sort of finishing Part 1 of my life here. I think it will be more about what I do in Part 2. If you ask for the Part 1 epitaph, it's: "He struggled and failed." But I'd like to think Part 2 is: "He struggled and got it right."
Talk to you in (another) 10 years!
Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune