Gothamist Interview - 2012-09-13
(lookup on archive.org)
If you were stuck on a desert island with a really persistant and annoying interviewer, and you had to answer one question to get a canoe, would it be about Courtney Love, James Iha, or Steve Albini?" I was planning on asking Billy Corgan this question at the end of our interview, with the idea being that I'd then ask him a question about one of those people… but I decided not to. The Smashing Pumpkins frontman often gets lambasted for saying things—saying things about old bandmates, old rivals, or saying things like: "The fact of the matter is that I've written more hit songs than just about anybody in my generation." But, the fact of the matter is, he really did write so many of the great songs of his generation. And, the fact of the matter is, he doesn't really need to talk about them anymore. And, the fact of the matter is, he probably doesn't want to be asked about people he's had personal issues with in the past. Below he talks about sentimentalism, his late friend Florence, and, of course, the music.
We'll start off with Art Shay. He's actually a contributor for us at Chicagoist—he does a weekly post with his old photos and tells stories and stuff. So last week his post was about (his late wife) Florence and in it he referred to her as a substitute mother for you. Is that how you saw her?
Yeah, she definitely kind of took that role in my life. More like a Grande Dame. Someone I would listen to and be willing to contemplate the wisdom of what she was saying to me. She would be very vociferous about who I should be dating, not dating.
She seemed very young for 90. There's a photo of you playing piano that Art took and she's dancing next to you. It's really nice.
You know the funny thing about Florence is that I met her almost ten years ago and up until she got ill, I thought she was in her mid-60s. I had her pegged for 20 years younger than she actually was. She looked so good and her spirit was like a 65-year-old person. I was so shocked when I found out that she was near-90 you could have picked my jaw up off the floor.
What first connected you to the Shays?
Well Florence had this bookshop and when I moved up here to Highland Park, I just wandered in one day. She was the type of person, she'd sort of peg you a certain way and when you bought books that didn't match the way she pegged you she'd start asking you questions. So invariably that led to, "What do you do?" Of course, I figured most people 60 plus don't know of the band or they may have heard of it because their grandkid listens to the band. She had no idea. And so it wasn't probably until three or four visits in—I'd stop in every four months or sixth months—she must have talked to somebody in the family and said, "You never told me you were a big star!" [laughs] She just thought I was some local musician.
I think you said that Oceania is an anti-mid-life crisis album.
[laughs] That's funny because I'm having a mid-life crisis right about now. Well that's for the next album I guess.
So if this was the anti-mid-life crisis album, what would you call Siamese Dream and Gish and Mellon Collie?
Oh I don't know, I don't know. It was such a strange time. I'm writing a book and I'm still trying to grapple with what it all means.
I didn't know you were writing a book.
It's like a spiritual memoir. I was recently reading a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald.
The one called Zelda? I've read that.
Yeah, by Nancy Milford? It made me realize how much more autobiographical his (F. Scott Fitzgerald's) books were. Then I was reading The Beautiful and the Damned. It's that weird thing… I once had a very contentious interview with some bearded jerko, ya know? He came up here to basically assassinate me in print—in the article admitted as such—but then he ended up liking me despite his own thinking of my work. The point was, the guy said to me, "What is it about you guys that don't get out of the way?" I said, "You don't understand." It's not like you're trying to get back to the past, you're trying to get back to a place where you just keep rolling the dice and coming up with the right number. You don't even realize it at the time. So of course later, when you have people focused so squarely on a particular period, you of course end up assessing it differently than you did at the time because everyone keeps telling you that it's valuable. So what was it about me in 1992 that I had something going on? You try to get back to that mercurial place where everything seems to work. And there's that beautiful communication between the breadth of your ideas and the engagement of the audience, who keep saying, "More! More! More!" Then one day that stops and you find yourself going, "Why is this stopping? Why are people still asking me about a period of my life 20 years ago?" I'm not saying it cattily. If you stare at something and try to find meaning where there isn't any…
You can't spend your whole life moving backwards and re-evaluating all of that stuff.
Well there's a business model that will reward you for doing so! [laughs] Over and over again. Obviously I'm not that interested in that business model. I do try to understand it but I don't really know. One of my co-workers always tells me "Nostalgia is death," because I'm a huge nostalgist. I don't know why, I'm trying to overcome that. You seem to have a similar view point…
I think I said, "Sentimentality is death." I look at it as the difference between going on a blind date and going on a blind date when you've seen the girl's picture and you know she's really hot. There's something kind of pre-approved about nostalgia that makes it easier to embrace it without the fear of rejection. Subcultures operate on that. People start going, "Oh do you like this weird thing? Me too!"
Everything that's old becomes new again, trends.
You can never cross the same threshold that those people did at the time.
As a listener of music… it's a familiar thing to go back and listen to your old albums or whoever I was listening to in high school or college.
Oh I do all the time…
Who's your Smashing Pumpkins? Who do you go back and listen to as a comfort band?
Black Sabbath, The Beatles, Cheap Trick.
When they come out with new music do you listen to it?
I try to put my money where my mouth is. I buy everything. Whether I listen to it or listen to it more than once that's between me and the artist. But I try to be supportive.
I don't think that in 1971 anyone went to see Led Zeppelin and said, "Oh god, this is one of those new songs from Zeppelin IV let's take a bathroom break." I think all those albums were really great, to me, and…
I've got a bunch of Led Zeppelin bootlegs where Robert Plant's complaining that people just want them to play the blues. When they were in their super Physical Graffiti advanced stage and he's up there complaining, "People just keep wanting us to play the blues and they don't understand." He was kind of complaining about the critics. Because they were such a powerful blues bands and some people were critical of them getting too arty and losing their visceral power. Of course, now we can appreciate that they were a band that went from visceral power to a sublime power and of course those things often get lost in the flow of the time and the trend. That's why I think an artist needs to trust themselves more than anybody because if I took every opinion that I get in any particular time—including Siamese Dream, including Mellon Collie—about 90% was wrong.
With the tour… I guess you guys are playing the full album [Oceania]. I'm really looking forward to that. I'm usually a person who wants to hear the old songs with every band but I think for me, you guys are a band that has transcended that stuff. I want to hear everything you're putting out. With this album, I've started to listen to it now more than Siamese Dream. What do you think your key to musical longevity is?
Well you have to stop being sentimental and you really have to listen to where you're at at the time. Where it's weird is, in order to create something great you must take a risk. That risk requires a really deep fear that comes up. What if I fail? Because the fear of failure is always equal to the level of the risk.The idea that a decade later or 20 years later you're going to be willing to make the same risk you can see where most artists shy from that. So what they end up doing is couching their language between something that's already been approved and a new language. In my case, I think I had to be okay with accepting what I liked about the old language and not try to reinvent the wheel, while at the same time listening to what I wanted to do today, which is why I think people really like the balance in Oceania. There are some familiar things but it never feels like it's pandering to something or trying too hard. I think that was where I just kind of flowed in the energy of, "Okay I'm just going to pick up whatever feels good." If I want to pick up an old-school guitar sound I'm not gonna fight myself on it and try to invent some new sound when the old sound will work just fine. I'm going to focus that energy on progressing things that need progressing, and that's what worked for me.
So you are okay with being a guitar man in a house music world.
You know, it's sort of like butter on bread. It has a way of making certain things just work better.
Do you have a take on the current state of music?
There are a few bands I really love but…Who are the bands you love? I'm just curious.
I love Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear…
That's funny because my drummer loves Grizzly Bear and my guitar player loves the Projectors. So I've heard about those bands.
They're both really good… Do you have any favorite new bands?
No. I've tried, I've tried. I don't wanna say that it's because it's not good, I'm sure it is good, it's just not speaking to me. That's a better way to put it. I don't hear anyone speaking to me. It's been a while since anyone has spoken to me. It's just because I'm a weirdo, and it's just too late.
Well you're in a position where you can create your own stuff.
There was a time there when I stopped paying attention to culture so I could go deeper into what I was interested in. It's self-absorbed but in a way that's necessary. You've almost got to be oblivious because then you're not trendy. I mean, Gish, Siamese and Mellon Collie were very aware of trend. I listen to those albums—they're working on the re-issues—I just roll my eyes and think, "Oh god. I really was listening to this record at that time." I can really hear it and it embarrasses me because I'm obviously being trendy.
And not true to what you might have wanted to do…
Yeah. Nothing exists in a bubble but there are certain levels of purity of where things come from.
I'm not a Doors fan, really, but I read a book of poetry that Jim Morrison wrote… and I think in the intro he wrote that he had all these previous lyrics and poetry and he burned it because it was too derivative of things that existed already and got into his head.
Yeah. The truly great pop artists have a way of being derivative in a way that you can celebrate their derivativeness. It is funny how the true greats figured that out somehow.
You recorded this album in Sedona, Arizona, right?
No, not true. We started working on it, as far as doing the musical sketches of it all, in Sedona, but it was recorded in Chicago.
When I was in college a friend gave me a postcard from Sedona. She didn't go there she just sort of had it and gave it to me and said we would eventually go there. The draw was, at that time, that we kept hearing that Sedona was this magical, healing place. Did you have an experience like that while you were there?
It is. You'd have to look up this whole thing with vortex spots and stuff, I don't know if you know anything about that. It's sort of… I don't even know what you could say. It's some kind of phenomenon, and it is real, because they won't fly planes in and out of the airport at night because it messes with the compasses. There are five spots on the planet that are heavy vortex spots. There's something about the magnetic spin in those places that seems to amplify healing. The Native Americans believed it helped send the prayers up better. If you have a prayer, it goes up to heaven sort of faster. It is a healing place for sure.
Well I will have to go there eventually. Moving on to your tea shop, is that opening this week in Chicago?
How did you get into that business, the tea business?
That's an idea I had for ten years and I finally decided to do it. Now it's been dealing with the reality of that ever since. The design and the city and the permits and the code and the thing in the bathroom and the ugh.
Yeah, it's a lot… I think I read that you were only doing vegan food there?
Vegan dessert. Sugar-free vegan dessert.
Are you a vegan?
No, I really want to be but I'm also anaemic so it's really difficult for me to be vegan. I just get so weary.
I think Jonathan Ames once said, "In my heart I'm a vegan but my mouth lacks discipline" or something like that.
[laughs] I really want to stop being a carnivore. I really, honestly would like to get to a place where I'm not having any negative impact on the animal kingdom. But I don't know how to survive, especially on tour.
Veganism is hard. I've been a vegetarian for 20 years but I could never be vegan.
Vegan in Germany is like, are you kidding me? They look at you like, "What?"
I grew up… my family is German, it was all meat and wursts, and I became a vegetarian so young… they were horrified.
[laughs] Right? There's even meat in things you don't expect…ya know? "What's in the sauce?" "Well it's a meat sauce?" Well, why?
I think I saw a Tweet, and you may have been joking, but are you going to write a jingle for the tea shop?
[laughs] It is kind of funny. It would be a good commercial for it.
You're going to play in Brooklyn. Have you played Brooklyn before?
I don't think so.
Did you have a choice over MSG or Barclays? Did you want to play Brooklyn? Because everyone is playing Barclays now…
I think the thing I heard was there's an attraction to a new building, that it would be good for a variety of reasons. The thing at MSG always is that it's really expensive to play there. They make you pay to play there. I'm not saying you can't make your money but playing MSG versus playing the United Center in Chicago, the costs are significantly higher in New York. And let me tell you, if you want to film anything there, psh. You've gotta pay some crazy fee in order to say "Live From Madison Square Garden." Then there's the whole union thing where you can't touch your amp.
Yeah I got yelled at once for trying to move a speaker cabinet an inch. A man bellowed out of the wings, "DON'T TOUCH THAT!" I'm looking around like, "Don't touch my own amp?" Legendary stories from there.
Do you want to tell some?
I just watched your Howard Stern appearance and it terrified me as an interviewer. Howard… you have a trust established with him that there's no way any other interviewer could have. And it made me not want to be the person asking you the… annoying questions…
Oh go ahead! It's funny because I've gotten a lot of compliments on that interview and I really do have to praise him because I wouldn't… half of that interview only he could have gotten out of me. I'm not saying he's my BFF but I know him as a man and I know what he's really asking me. I know he's not going to set me up. Most people at that level I'd be very guarded.