The Star Interview - 2012-10-19
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Say what you will about Billy Corgan — and people, as Billy Corgan himself is well aware, say a lot of things — but the man is never anything but honest with his art and his opinions.
The Smashing Pumpkins bandleader's forthright nature has earned him a reputation as one of rock music's preeminent cranks, but he's really just more unguarded than most when it comes to telling it like it is. And on no subject has he been more brutally straightforward in recent years than the premature "best before" dates applied to musical acts that have been accorded the kiss of mainstream success.
The Pumpkins were among the most wildly popular bands to rise to prominence during the "alternative"-rock boom of the 1990s — their 1995 double-LP opus Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness alone has sold 10 million copies in the U.S. Yet the accepted narrative of the Chicago quartet's career was, by the turn of the millennium, one of commercial fortunes gratuitously squandered by Corgan's consistent, bloody-minded refusal to give his fans what they wanted.
At the time, that essentially boiled down to Corgan's refusal to keep cranking out variations on Mellon Collie and its epochal 1993 predecessor, Siamese Dream, in perpetuity but has, since the Smashing Pumpkins' reactivation in 2005 after a five-year hiatus and Corgan's brief, ill-received stab at a solo career, transformed into a subsequent refusal to behave like a nostalgia act on the concert stage.
For the tour that brings the 2012 edition of the Pumpkins — guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne — to the Air Canada Centre on Oct. 25, for instance, the band is playing its entire new album, Oceania, front to back. It was either do this and finally, decisively get the public back on side with what the Smashing Pumpkins are doing today, says Corgan, or call it quits once and for all.
"If I just go back to the old alchemy, I see that as a diminishing set of returns — although I would probably be rewarded in this culture which rewards sentimentality," he says. "Having had my moments of artistic indulgence where I just made music for myself, I looked at the Smashing Pumpkins as having one route and one route only: either we were going to recapture some ephemeral power or we were going to fail and I was basically gonna just pack up the whole shop. Because I am not gonna be an oldies act. It's not in my DNA.
"I think it's so f—ing insulting. I'm 45 years old. I mean, Dave Grohl gets to be a new artist, but somebody else doesn't? I don't get this. It's like the haves and the have-nots. And I understand why everybody runs scared and where it's just easier to just stay within expectations, but to me that's not the promise of alternative music or what it's about."
"That's not the promise of the bard or the troubadour or Woody Guthrie. At some point, you're either in the tradition or you're not."
Corgan became, as he points out, "one of the most successful singles artists of my generation without trying to out-and-out write hits and without being formulaic. Most of my hit songs are completely different from another."
The bitter irony of then being rejected by both a large segment of his audience and the critical intelligentsia for defying formula and expectations with not just the post-Adore Pumpkins catalogue, but also his work with the short-lived Zwan and his synth-heavy solo record, TheFutureEmbrace, is, thus, not lost on him. He puts it bluntly: "When you don't have the support of the snobby artistic class and you fall off the mainstream radar, you're basically in a perpetual hell."
With the proudly prog-ish and classic-rock-tinged Oceania, at least, Corgan and the Pumpkins appear to be having the last laugh. A wide-ranging "album within an album" that supposedly fits somehow into the ongoing, 44-track Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project the Pumpkins have been releasing online free, one cut at a time, since 2009, it's the strongest collection of songs Corgan has authored since Adore in 1998.
Reviews have been much kinder than they were for 2007's mirthless Zeitgeist, while sales — more than 100,000 copies since June — were enough to put the band back in the Billboard Top 5. The Smashing Pumpkins appear to be back on a good trajectory.
"I'm on this trajectory because I'm not on that other trajectory," says Corgan. "You have to be willing to take a chance. You have to. If not, you might as well just do what you already know how to do.
"We could sit in a lab, you and I, and say: 'What's the maximal point? A little bit Siamese Dream, a little bit Mellon Collie, a touch of Adore. Keep it simple, stupid.' But it's just not me.
"I never made music that way to begin with, obviously. So I've taken this path and lost fans and been ridiculed and suddenly I show up and I've got a good album in my pocket and it's like: 'OK, where did you come from?' Well, I've been doing this the whole time. I've just been churning away here — playing, rehearsing, working. This is a band, working."
The Smashing Pumpkins of 2012 are a very different band than the one it was during the 1990s. Original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was the only other founding member present for Zeitgeist, but he announced his departure in 2009. If Oceania is any indication, though, the present lineup has found an intra-band chemistry that could carry the Pumpkins into a second golden age.
"It's the most comfortable I've been since the mid-'90s," says Corgan. "I feel like I can trust the people and that adds up to something more musical. As strange as it sounds coming out of my mouth, I like being in a band.
"Hopefully, with Oceania we can begin a new journey and have a whole new chapter of music with new fans who want to hear whatever version of this band it is. If they wander back to the past, great.
"I just want to live in a current musical state. If I can't live in a current musical state, I've either gotta completely change my musical style or get out of music altogether and do something else. Because it's just no fun. It's boring. "OK, let's wind the time machine back one more time.' It's just not me, y'know."
Source: The Star