The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan on being a reformed control freak: “I drove myself with my insecurities”

The visionary frontman on the iconic rockers' poptastic 11th album, why they were never a '90s band and how he learned to relinquish creative control (a little)

2020 has been quite the year for Billy Corgan and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Having just unleashed their first synth-pop double album ‘CYR’ with original band members James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin, the enigmatic frontman is currently in the thick of piecing together the follow-up to the Pumpkins’ pivotal 1995 LP ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ and a mammoth reissue of 2000’s ‘Machina/The Machines of God’. Plus he already has eyes on the final chapter of the band’s ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright’ trilogy. We spoke to the Pumpkins mastermind over a Zoom call from his home in Illinois to hear how he’s been doing it all.

Hello Billy! It seems like you’ve been very busy with The Smashing Pumpkins during the pandemic?

“Yeah – we’ve got 46 songs processed, I feel a bit crazy doing it, but then I feel crazy going through this pandemic. I don’t know what’s worse – crazy with work or crazy with the world. I’ll take crazy with work obviously. I’m in Illinois right now and they just locked everything back down again. You just feel like, ‘Well, why did we go through all this the first time round?’

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“It’s strange. There was a [Black] plague when Shakespeare was at his peak and it even killed one of his children. It literally went on for years and it was part of the reason why a lot of his work was dark, they [historians] think.”

Despite the pandemic, you seem happier and more content than you’ve been for a while?

(Laughs.) “I didn’t feel that way yesterday but I’ll play along. No, seriously my life is really good. I worked hard but I also built a good life for myself, much better than my parents’ families. I have nothing to complain about and I realise I went around a lot of years moping about whatever and now I’m on the other side and think, ‘I’ve had a great life and I’ve been really lucky’. I’m happy the band is somewhat intact and there’s work to do and music to make and I just try to stay on that side of it. If you wanna call it maturity, fine. I don’t know what it is but something clicked in me finally.”

Do you feel like you’ve come full circle?

“I made a curious decision, which was I drove myself with my insecurities [when I was younger]. I whipped myself to work harder and do more. So it worked but that’s a weird thing when you’re using a negative to create a positive because even when you achieve the positive, which we did, it doesn’t feel quite right. It doesn’t feel good. There was something that felt power-related to me and I think that was more the relationship with myself.

“When I started to try and heal that stuff in myself, according to some people, my music lost some edge to it. They might be right, they might be wrong. But I needed to do that to survive. I couldn’t go on like I was doing. So to use your analogy: have we come full circle? It’s been an incredible journey: 30 years of making music and playing and still being able to headline festivals and all that stuff. I kind of look at it and say, ‘OK, this has been a pretty good ride; stay off this side of the street and stay positive’.”

Your new album is one of the most pop-driven you’ve made. Why is that?

“I got sick of making music that people kept telling me didn’t sound contemporary. In my mind, I’m in a contemporary band. I’m a contemporary artist. And, by the way, not to point any fingers but there are other members of my generation that make music that was very much like the music they made in the ’90s, but somehow that doesn’t get dismissed as being non-contemporary. Now the positive thing there is I frame myself as a progressive musician. So I took that on and thought, ‘OK I’m gonna make contemporary music; I don’t care what it takes’. I told the band ‘this is what we’re gonna do’ and everybody said, ‘OK fine’. I don’t think they really knew what it meant other than, ‘He’s gonna go on about whatever he’s gonna go on about and as long as it’s good, we’re cool with it.’ So that’s what we did.”

Were you influenced by synth bands when you were growing up? I’m thinking New Order and Depeche Mode…

“Oh yeah, but then you’ve gotta look at the synth work in bands like The Cure. Their music always always had a synth presence, too. But it was more the [Chicago indie label launched in the late ’70s and big in the ’80s and ’90s, whose roster included the likes of Underworld and The KLF] Wax Trax! Records stuff that influenced us. We grew up on all that stuff. So to us it’s not a big deal [that we’ve gone in a synth direction]. But people say to me in interviews, ‘It sounds very 80s’, and I’m like, ‘Yeah we started in 1987; we’re an 80s band’. You’ve somehow got us stuck in the ’90s in your head all the time. That’s not really who we are.”

Do you get frustrated by critics that won’t let you get away from the ’90s?

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“I think what that really says is, you just haven’t conquered the last memory. It’s up to you to conquer the last memory. Pete Townshend once told me it’s up to you to do that. The audience isn’t gonna tell you what to do; you have to tell them what to hear. And he’s right, it’s kind of on you [to get people to move on].”

Smashing Pumpkins in 1995, the year that ‘Mellon Collie…’ was released. Credit: Getty

Unlike most double albums, which often come in two parts, ‘CYR’ almost feels like one complete album. Would you agree with that?

“Yeah there’s a certain vibe there. I think it has a lot to do with the way I approach recording and making music. At some point it was 24 songs. (Laughs) This is the boiled down version. There’s a 16-song version, which may be better, but I settled with 20.”

You recently said you were good “pop assassins”. Did you mean that you’re good at making pop music?

“Yeah. Here’s the thing that always drove the critics crazy. We don’t slot in well as an alternative band in the classic sense. We never wore the right T-shirt. We weren’t a critics’ band but we belonged in the alternative world. Now, if we hadn’t had hits they would have just dismissed us and we would have gone on our merry way. But the fact that we had a lot of hits – we had in many cases more hits than our contemporaries – drove the critics crazy because they had to deal with us.

“There’s an alternative version of the hero’s journey – a young Kurt Cobain or a young Grimes rolls out of bed and makes a series of decisions and they end up talking to someone like the NME someday, right? We were successful and suddenly [critics] were going, ‘No no, this is somehow different’. I was like ‘What do you mean it’s different? We literally did all the same things that all these other people did’. We were sort of disqualified somehow, so our greatest revenge was to go out and make pop music.”

Why did you decide to do a follow-up to ‘Mellon Collie…’?

“It’s a conceptual thing that I had in mind that was never resolved when the band ended so it was laying there as an idea. I was gonna do it on my own at first. I always loved the way Roger Waters was able to conceptualise things like [Pink Floyd‘s iconic 1979 album] ‘The Wall’ into a stage show. So when ‘Mellon Collie’ came out I used to say it was our version of ‘The Wall’. So I’m trying to finish the story. It helps me write songs, it helps me focus on a set of narratives, less indulgent in a way for me personally and more indulgent musically because I get to do a wider swab of things. It’s as simple as that. It felt like time.”

The Smashing Pumpkins.

Does it sound like the original?

(Laughs.) “I doubt it. A few people have asked that and I’m not saying I find it weird, but it’s not the point of it. It’s more a set of thematics. It akin to when they made the new Star Wars [films]; they don’t try to make them like the old Star Wars. We’re doing new Star Wars. In the case of ‘Mellon Collie…’, it’s 25 years later so things have changed – not only for the band but the people in play. It’s not meant to go back. It’s actually a way to go forward. The band has never had a problem with wrestling with its own shadow. It’s part of the band’s DNA. So what better way to wrestle with the shadow than go right at the heart of the problem. We have 33 songs written so far and demoed out. We’re likely to see the first single at the end of next year.”

‘Mellon Collie…’ was such a big album. Is that something you’re quite proud of?

“I don’t know… Not too long ago when I was in Europe I remember going into some record shop and it wasn’t even in there. They had all the Oasis albums but they didn’t have ‘Mellon Collie’. It seems to have fallen off the radar in certain places, which is weird ’cause it’s such a big album. The legacy of that record is still being figured out I think.”

Smashing Pumpkins
Smashing Pumkpins. CREDIT: Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

What do you remember of that period in the ’90s?

“It’s a fucking blur. No, I tell you what sticks out in my mind was when we headlined the Reading Festival in 1995. We played it in 1992 and we were just awful. It was one of the worst gigs we ever had. One of our band members completely melted down on stage and couldn’t remember the songs. It was not like us as a group. We were just really bad and felt the pressure. So we came back a few years later and headlined it and it was one of the best gigs the band had ever played – which, in that setting, was a great triumph. There’s a few gigs in the world if you pull the gig off, it changes something and Reading Festival was one of those. It’s one of those gigs if you prove yourself there, something shifts. You become more accepted and more supported.”

Weirdly, you’ve only played Glastonbury once…

“Yeah – in 2013, and here’s a funny story. This is classic rock’n’roll. Our manager at the time told me, ‘You’re gonna be on The Other Stage – you’re headlining it, but like a lot of festivals there’s an electronic band on after’. So we thought that was the DJ or whatever. I get to the festival on the day and look at the piece of paper and The xx are on after us. So my manager lied. I got pissed. I wasn’t pissed at The xx, I was pissed that I was lied to. But I also thought if you’re a band and you wanna follow a band like the Pumpkins and you’re cool with that, then you take your chances.

“Usually I play what I want to play, but this time, I completely loaded the set list. I threw every punch I had that day including bringing on Uli Jon Roth, the great guitar player from the Scorpions, on stage. When we started the gig there was only about 30,000 people in the field and as we were playing I saw people running. We were playing such a good set, people must have been texting people, because by the end the field was packed. So God bless The xx for following The Smashing Pumpkins.”

What are your thoughts on the recent US presidential election?

“You can’t talk about politics over here, man. People have lost their mind over here. You’re talking about families breaking up, friendships ending. Politics for whatever reason has taken over rock’n’roll in Hollywood as everyone’s favourite gossip sport. And they’re so wrapped up in it, it’s like Man City and Man U. It’s like some other shit right? You can’t have a normal discussion. You can’t say you like something, but you don’t like something. If you say you like it, then you love it. If you’re on the side somebody doesn’t like… You can’t talk about anything. I’m out.”

Do you think Joe Biden can heal America’s divisions?

“With Biden coming in, this is the problem: [the election] has been set up as a divided thing so no matter who wins, the other side has to lose. And if the other side is losing, they’re not gonna accept the candidate. Trump got 74 million votes, so those are 74 million people who are pissed off. They don’t give a fuck who the President is. We’ve lost the civil part of the discourse. It’s just anger. Trust me: the minute you pop your head up, you get attacked. It’s like, ‘Who are you a dumb musician, to talk about these things?

“All I want is just for everybody to get along. America, like the UK, works best when everyone is moving in the same direction. The division is not helping anybody.”

– The Smashing Pumpkins’ 11th studio album ‘CYR’ is out now

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