POP MUSIC CRITIC - 2005-06-19
Embrace the Future
(lookup on archive.org)
As one of the most driven, visionary and obsessive artists in alternative rock, Billy Corgan always produced intensely personal music, whether he was recording under the group identity of the Smashing Pumpkins, or moving into the new millennium as leader of the short-lived Zwan.
Beyond the superficial difference of this being Corgan's first official solo album, there is remarkable evidence of a songwriter who's grown far beyond even the Pumpkins' best and most revealing effort, "Adore" (1998), to produce sounds that stand with the most creative from his past while speaking with a new maturity and emotional honesty.
"Who needs pain to survive? I need pain to change my life," the man who spent much of the '90s whining "woe is me" sings in his new song, "The Camera Eye."
As the album's title indicates, "The Future Embrace" introduces an artist who is proud to be a survivor. He may not know exactly where he's going, but he welcomes the journey.
"I think I'm old enough and comfortable enough now to say that I really don't know who Billy Corgan is," the guitarist and vocalist said a few weeks ago as we chatted in the backyard of his new home overlooking the North Shore of Lake Michigan.
The 38-year-old Corgan has a bit of a New Age aura these days, evidence of a spiritual journey that has progressed since the pseudo-Christian imagery of Zwan's only album, 2003's "Mary Star of the Sea." As part of the media blitz to launch his new disc, he even did an interview with Conscious Choice magazine. But if some of his more "hippie/mystical" comments might seem ponderous coming from another artist, they're welcome from Corgan, who's been painfully self-critical since the teenage years when he first turned to music as a weapon to battle the cool kids who mocked him at Glenbard North High School."I don't think I've hit the sweet spot. I've been so reactive through the years — and insecurities and all these other things drove my decisions so much — that I feel like this is the time to be kind of critical. I still don't feel like I have found my own total space, but I'm working towards it. It could be the type of thing where I may not find it until I'm 50, but when I find it, it will have a nice run."
At first, the most obvious difference on the new album is a digital approach heavy on sequenced keyboards and drum machines and owing a debt to Corgan's heroes in New Order. But listen closer and you'll also notice a return to his roots as a guitarist enamored of English "shoegazer" bands such as Ride and My Bloody Valentine.
"I love the shoegazer stuff," Corgan said. "It's really funny, because one of the guitar magazines turned down an interview with me saying, 'There's no guitar on the record.' They don't realize that it's some of the most inventive stuff I've done. It's more of the way I played in the beginning, when I was 16 to 20, with a lot of effects. It didn't feel sentimental to go back there, it just felt like I went to a point where that stopped, and now I've picked it up again."
Corgan spent a little more than a year working on the disc, starting in the Smashing Pumpkins' now-abandoned rehearsal space and recording studio off Elston Avenue, and moving to the Chicago Recording Company. The project was interrupted only by a monthlong vacation and another month spent in the spring of 2003 recording his acoustic "Chicago song cycle."
The artist is still in the process of sorting through those recordings — he has as many as 28 takes of some songs on video and audio tape — and he's still uncertain about how they will be released. "With iTunes, they're talking about doing video downloading, so I could maybe see doing a video version of the album" as an Internet release, he said.
Fans who attended the acoustic performances may be surprised that there is no evidence of that mode on "The Future Embrace." Corgan said he was determined to create a sustained mood and sound on this album, avoiding the "Billy's Junk Shop" approach of collecting unrelated musical ideas.
"I felt like I had kind of done the 'We're going to do the acoustic song, then we're going to do the big metal song' thing. I thought of albums in the '70s and '80s by the Cars or the Buzzcocks, where you put the record on, and it had one vibe. If you love the vibe, you love the album, and if you didn't like the vibe, you just didn't like the album."
The collaborators on his solo bow — producer Bjorn Thorsrud, keyboardist and computer programmer Bon Harris (Nitzer Ebb), keyboardist Brian Liesegang (Filter) and drummer Matt Walker (Filter and, briefly, the Pumpkins) — joined the project one by one as the songwriter felt the need for additional input and other perspectives.
"In the beginning, it was just me and Bjorn," Corgan said. "Then I thought, 'I'm in over my head' — kind of like with 'Adore' — 'I'm messing with keyboards but I don't really know what I'm doing; I really need Bon.' He had been studying orchestral scoring under some guy who used to do charts for Charlie Parker, and like a jazz guy, he would chart the songs into parts, so I got this other kind of feedback — more tonal.
"That was a big turning point on the record. Then we reached a point where the three of us started to burn out on each other." Enter Liesegang and Walker. "They had none of the baggage that we had. We were at a point where we were over-thinking, and it was nice to have people come in and go, 'That rocks!'" Finally, veteran shoegazer and Pumpkins producer Alan Moulder came in to sort it all out in the mix.
When I told the notorious perfectionist that he still seemed to be struggling with his tendency to overcook things in the studio, he laughed.
"Hold me to this: My plan on making my next record is to spend a lot of time writing, but to record it really quickly," Corgan said. "We're talking about using a lot of musicians, sort of Beach Boys-style, and doing the stuff live. Put 14 people in a room, and because you know it costs a lot of money, and the clock's running, you've got to do it. [Snaps his fingers] Hold me to that, all right?"
A live ork-pop album is just one of several plans Corgan has for the future. He would also like to raise a family — "I really want five or six kids," he said — but first he has to find a mate. "I'm ready, ready for love," he plaintively croons in "I'm Ready," a song his collaborators wanted to keep off the album. Corgan said it's his favorite.
"I finally severed, for good, this nine-year relationship with my ex-girlfriend [model Yelena Yemchuk] that really ended two years before that, but there was still all this drama," Corgan said. "I kept saying to Bjorn, 'I don't want write about breaking up with my girlfriend, that's so lame.' I would write the lyrics and go, 'Oh, those are pretty good, I like the way they feel.' Then I would sing the song and think, 'It's another f—ing break-up song!'"
So instead of dwelling on a failed relationship, I asked, you decided to consider what might come next?
"I know what comes next," Corgan said. "But I lack the confidence to believe that I'm actually going to get it. As my therapist says, 'You have to stop believing that every woman is going to fail you.' I can see what a great relationship for me would now be, but until I actually see it, feel it and trust it, I still have that feeling that it's just a bomb waiting to go off."
In the meantime, Corgan has the distraction of the limited but ambitious tour supporting "The Future Embrace." When he performs two sold-out shows July 5-6 at the Vic Theatre, he'll be accompanied by Liesegang and Walker, a mix of live instrumentation and recorded backing tracks and a cutting-edge light and video show. The new technology is hard to explain, he said. "But it's going to be very energetic, and like nothing you've ever seen before."
The one thing fans should not expect is Smashing Pumpkins songs.
"What's unfortunate about what we would call a second act of a career is that if you don't continue to exploit your past or let them knock you around and turn you into what they think you should be, they basically stick their boot in the back of your neck," Corgan said.
"I'd like to climb up to the Neil Young rung. This is going to sound like a quotable cliche, but I'd like to be the Neil Young of the digital age. I think if Neil was my age now, he would be doing some of the things I'm about to do: the free music, the ability to interact in the way that the technology is now going to allow. Just as much as he pioneered an auteur rock star, I think I can pioneer a sort of auteur digital rock star."
Source: Jim DeRogatis