There's no doubt that Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan founder Billy Corgan will be inducted into the Alternative-Rock Hall Of Fame in his first year of eligibility. But Corgan isn't interested in reliving the past—at least, not his own. His recent solo debut, TheFutureEmbrace, contains references to the '60s, '70s, and especially the '80s, but he's gone out of his way to avoid the decade in which he helped define alt-rock. The 12-song set is equally restrained, reactionary, and retro—it's easy to pick up references to Corgan influences like New Order, David Bowie, and Robert Smith (who appears on the Bee Gees cover "To Love Somebody")—but it's just as easy to accept TheFutureEmbrace as a well-crafted entry in a long line of engaging, melodically pleasing Corgan albums.
In addition to his sonic surprises, Corgan has been shocking fans and rubberneckers alike with the vitriol he's aimed at his former Zwan bandmates in recent interviews, as well as his highly personal online-journal entries, including a post that blamed the Pumpkins' breakup on band member James Iha. Chicagoans were also probably a bit surprised in 2004 when Corgan became WXRT-FM's "Cubs Correspondent," though anyone who caught him screaming "Let's get some runs!" during game seven of the 2003 NLCS knew how much he cared about the team. Corgan threw another curveball with 2004's bestselling poetry collection Blinking With Fists, but he saved his biggest bombshell for last week: A full-page ad in The Chicago Tribune announced that Corgan has "made plans to renew and revive The Smashing Pumpkins. I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams."
Corgan—whose entire Pumpkins output, including 114 non-album tracks, was made available digitally in April—is currently in the middle of a world tour behind TheFutureEmbrace. During an off day in Cologne, Germany—nine days before the Pumpkins revelation—The A.V. Club caught up with him to discuss his musical past and future, how he honors his influences, and how alternative rock tried to change the world.
The Onion: With the exception of the time he was kicked out of Smashing Pumpkins, Jimmy Chamberlin has always been your drummer. Is there a reason why he's not playing with you now?
Billy Corgan: The way we look at it is, me and him together, it's Pumpkins. We were the bulk of all the recording for the Pumpkins, except for Adore, and even trying to be in Zwan, it became almost like a farce, where other band members would be saying, "That sounds like the Pumpkins." And we'd be like "No shit." We were spending energy trying not to sound like we sound. So we've kind of just come to the conclusion, if we're going to work together, it's Pumpkins. Because that's the sound. When you hear us play together, that's the sound.
O: You've had some pretty tumultuous relationships with other band members in the past. Do you think you'll ever be in a band again?
BC: It's pretty simple for me—if I'm ever going to be in a band concept again, it would be Pumpkins. As far as running the show: People can imagine what it's like, me running things. It's nowhere near as crazy as people would picture. But that being said, I pretty much always run the show anyway, so it's not tremendously different. Ultimately, running a band is about the relationships you have with people. Most of my arguments with musicians through the years have had more to do with their attitude about music, or their attitude about their own lives, or their personal responsibility. Music has never really been the big centerpiece of the fight.
O: But now that you're working under your own name, you have the freedom to record and perform with whomever you want.
BC: Yeah, that's what's somewhat frustrating about being in a band. If you have a different vision, you kind of—at one point, I had gone to James Iha and said, "You know, there's just so much guitar work going on. What do you think about bringing out another guitar player on the road, not to be in the band, just to add to some of the guitar-playing?" And he was like, "No way." So we spent a lot of time, just me and him, trying to figure out how to carry the load of like 50 guitar overdubs between the two of us. So yeah, you get into the politics of, like, if somebody can't do something, or there's something you want to do, what are you supposed to do? I tried to stay pretty faithful to that when I was in the Pumpkins, and that was frustrating at times.
O: Now that you've had time to look back on Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan, do you see any recurring themes behind the breakups? Do you blame yourself at all?
BC: If you can sort of sit and look evenly at both the Zwan experience and the Pumpkins experience, when the relationships in Zwan started to break down for the right reasons—because people were lying and there were drugs involved and there were total falsehoods presented—I got out. In the Pumpkins, when I reached that crossroads, I just covered it up. I think if you can see both situations evenly, I was dealing in both cases with extremely dysfunctional people, but the difference in the situations is that in the second case, I chose not to deal with it; in the first case, by choosing to deal with it, I created a whole other host of problems. For example, if you've read any of my online biography stuff, we at different times tried to deal with Jimmy's drug issues in different ways. At certain points we put our foot down and we said, "You gotta get help, or you're going to get fired." At other points, we just looked the other way, because we were in the middle of a tour, and it was just like, "Let's just get to the next city and to the next show." When those problems reared their head in Zwan, I said, "I'm outta here." Since this article is about me, if you wanted to draw anything from me about it, it's that I put myself in situations with people who are highly talented but highly dysfunctional, and I think that says something about me. But at the end of the day, I've been the rocket fuel. It's been my songs, it's been my pushing. At times I pushed for good reasons, and at times I pushed for bad reasons. But I still felt no matter what the situation, at least my focus was music. I produced the music. And you can look at anybody else that I've worked with, and there's just not that consistency there, you know?
O: As for the people you've been working with recently, have you consciously steered clear of the things that caused problems with others in the past?
BC: Everybody I'm working with now is a friend. And I would be very, very remiss to work with anybody in the future who has not shown me who they really are. Like in Zwan, I took people's words for people's characters, and that really burned me bad. At least with James and D'arcy [Wretzky] and Jimmy, despite whatever their issues were—and mine included—we got to know each other in a van and we got to know who we were over time, long before the band ever blew up and got big. So at least I knew who they were, and I knew what their boundaries were, or lack of boundaries were. But with Zwan, it was like, "Hello!" Jack-in-the-box shit. "Hi, I am a junkie." "Oh really? Didn't know."
O: It sounds like you could see yourself going back with the Pumpkins.
BC: No, I think the relationships with James and D'arcy are pretty poor. I haven't spoken to D'arcy in over six years. And James, I don't think I've spoken to him in almost four. So I wouldn't be counting them in on the reunion tour anytime soon.
O: How did you approach the writing and production of TheFutureEmbrace, compared to your previous records?
BC: The same. I think long and hard about what it is I'm actually trying to do, and then I kind of have to narrow my focus into that. If I don't, I'm too all over the place. So in this one, it was pretty simple—it was like, "I'm not going to do alternative guitar rock because I've been there. If I do that, it sounds like Smashing Pumpkins, and I don't feel strongly about that particular way of doing business right now." So it was like, "I want to force myself out of my comfort zone into new territory, and I just have to deal."
O: TheFutureEmbrace has a very strong electronic element, which you explored with the Pumpkins to a lesser extent. What attracts you to electronic sounds?
BC: It's just like colors. I like this sound of the color, or the color of the sound—I like the feelings that they evoke. The fact that it gets political, that doesn't interest me, but in terms of a sonic painting, I really like the choices.
O: What do you mean by "political"?
BC: Well, I'm known as a guitar-rock guy, you know? You're not supposed to play with synthesizers. This is not in the rulebook. And if you are, you're supposed to kind of stay simple.
O: When Adore came out, didn't you say something about the guitar dying?
BC: No, what I was trying to say—and maybe I said it poorly at the time—is that the notion of using the guitar as a dangerous, evocative statement was sort of running out of gas, that it was becoming a stock, parcel, go-to move. When we were playing loud in 1989, and the Sub Pop bands and stuff, that was shocking. There was a shocking quality to young, alternative people with funny haircuts playing as loud as any heavy-metal band, you know? It was shocking to see Nirvana play, because it was like, "Here's this little guy with a monster-guitar sound." And it was heavier than Black Sabbath. That was shocking.
And around the mid-'90s, it stopped being shocking, as every hair guy who would have been in a hair-metal band got his tattoos and suddenly decided he was alternative. It just became like a thing. So what I was saying was, it's becoming a thing, and from the alternative world, the alternative mindset, if you want to move forward, you're gonna have to figure out a way to move beyond this thing. And you know, you've seen some people do it with post-rock—the devotees of Neu!, the Tortoise kind of crews, and stuff like that—doing their kind of stripped-down thing. Now you see kids coming back around shoegazing stuff—My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive and all that. You slowly see people finding the guitar in a new way that's not like Limp Bizkit seventh generation down, and I just draw that distinction because, unfortunately, the media doesn't anymore. "Alternative" is like any band with tattoos, and the bad hair, and the sound is alternative. It's no longer defined by who is actually on the cutting edge of alternative, so this is the problem that I have.
O: How did Bjorn Thorsrud and Bon Harris' production work influence the sound of TheFutureEmbrace?
BC: We kind of fell into basic roles—Bjorn's job was to figure out how to sonically represent what I was looking for, and him and Bon worked very closely to do that. Bon's job was to handle the electronic-manipulating part of things, and also to kind of contribute—he's been studying classical scoring for, like, the last four years, and so we worked this different way where he would take pieces and sort of adapt them, and then give them back to me, and we'd work from that point of view. So he did the electronics and sort of the re-adaptation of the pieces, and then my job was to be the front-end guy and the back-end guy. I generate the material, kind of leave it to them to muck around with, and go off and write some more. Then they'd present me something halfway down the line, I'd make some suggestions, and then we'd go from there. We'd either kill it, or we'd readapt it, or—it was a bit clinical, but it was pretty effective.
O: By leaving alternative guitar rock off TheFutureEmbrace, you avoided a genre that you more or less defined in the '90s. Do you want to avoid that period for now?
BC: Oh, no, I'm very proud of not only what we did, but what a lot of the bands of my peerage did. I'm really proud of the work of Alice In Chains and Soundgarden and Nirvana and Hole, and even Nine Inch Nails. I'm very proud of that generation. I'm still critical of how people are kind of continuing on, and I still think we have a lot to offer, so I'm looking forward, hopefully, to different people stepping up and getting it done. But I'm very proud, very glad to be associated with that time. I think it was a special time.
O: The Pumpkins headlined Lollapalooza in 1994, which was one of the last times that alt-rock still felt important, powerful, and promising. Was that summer a daunting time for you?
BC: Yes, totally overwhelming. Particularly, Lollapalooza was very difficult for me, because I was sort of still on the idealism that the world was going to change, however naïve that was. And playing in front of 42 crowds on that tour and realizing that the mainstream was just going to pervert this thing for what they wanted it for. It was a temporary flirtation. I think it was similar for the people of the '60s—I don't think '90s music was as significant as '60s music in terms of changing the world, but it was significant, and I think it was similarly disillusioning when you realize the mainstream just views it as like a curiosity. They're not really getting it. They're there with their khakis and their beer, and they want to hear the hit—that's really not about changing things. That was very hard for me to see, and I think I dealt with that period of my life pretty poorly, because it pissed me off. I thought, "Wow, here's a great chance, and it's just the same shit." And it's proven pretty much to be true. Alternative music has been co-opted by the mainstream; it's now used in commercials, and everybody's got their cuddly, cute, funny looks. It's what the mainstream does—they absorb things and they blunt the power of it. And so the next generation and the next generation has to become more shocking and more provocative in order to get any rise out of anybody.
O: How do you feel about all the Pumpkins imitators?
BC: The musical part of it doesn't bother me. What bothers me more is the social and cultural part of it. What bothers me is when music becomes entertainment. Of course, music is supposed to be entertaining, but go back to any period of time—music had a cultural significance on different levels, whether it was folk music, it was the news of the village, or it had to do with the rites of passage. Music is supposed to be interwoven into the fabric of society; it is not supposed to be a plaything that is there to serve the population's titillation of the moment. And when, particularly, alternative music—which is supposed to be the standard-bearer of where white rock is headed—becomes either too cute or too manufactured, that's just really not good. And there seems to be almost kind of a blasé, "Well, that's just the way that it is now." It's like a shrugging of the shoulders: "Well, we used to believe in Sonic Youth and all that promise, but, well, gee, it's not going to happen." I don't buy that. Whether it's the social activism of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or Jimi Hendrix's race-bending blues, or whatever, that's what it's there for: it's supposed to be entertaining and challenging, and when it just becomes entertaining, it's like, "Whoa, that's scary." Because music saved my life, you know, and I've had many people tell me that my music and other bands have saved their lives, and when it loses that social import, when it stops being this important thing and it just literally becomes about box-office returns, that's fucked-up. I'm not comfortable with that. And it was that summer of '94 that it hit me—it was like, "Fuck, this is not going to work."
O: When you say that you felt that the alternative nation was going to change the world, what exactly did that mean to you?
BC: I think that the hope is that when you present people with things from the heart and from the soul, they make better choices: They make better choices about their bodies, they make better choices about their partners, they make better choices about the environment. It should have a tumbling-down effect. And here we are: If Nirvana's "Teen Spirit" was the moment of epiphany for mass culture about alternative rock, and 14 years later we're looking at a completely right-wing society, that didn't really fulfill that promise. I do feel in hindsight that we did change the world—ultimately, maybe we changed more the other parts of the world, and America just kind of absorbed us into their dumb story. But I see the effects of what we did in Europe, and it's changing the way people are making music in India and China, and so it has a touchstone there. But America seems to take everything pure and turn it into some sort of fucked-up simulacrum.
O: Is that why you've decided not to play any old songs?
BC: The reason I don't play any of the old songs is because I really honor my old band, and I think that those songs are best served within the context of that band. That doesn't mean I'll never play those songs again, and it doesn't mean I have to have four Pumpkins onstage—the last two albums of the Pumpkins, we only had three Pumpkins onstage at any given time, except for one brief period. This is me resisting other people's definition of what my music, my life in music, and my songs, should be.
There comes a point where being overly identified with [a certain period of time] becomes a noose around your neck, and people don't want you to grow up, they don't want you to change, they don't want you to evolve. But how do they think I became that guy in the first place? I evolved out of—I mean, I was playing heavy metal when I was 18. I had to evolve out of that into an alternative consciousness about what it meant to change the way I played guitar, and the kind of songs, and the subject matter, and singing about child abuse, and all this stuff. I had to come from somewhere, and I had to take chances to do that. So it's very hard for someone to tell me, "Hey, stop, don't move forward." Moving forward is how I got somewhere, and it's how I'm going to get to the next destination. At the end of the day, it might just be a big circle—I might just be going through all this stuff to come back around and go, "You know what? I just want to play my thing." I have not played my style of rock literally since 1997. So I've spent the last eight years down in a diamond mine trying to figure out a different way to do this. And I think I've finally figured it out. And it doesn't mean that what I'm doing on TheFutureEmbrace is the thing, is the blueprint, but it sort of shows me different ways to see sunshine.
So in terms of the live-concert experience, if I'm not willing to fully walk out on that pier and be totally in the moment of what I'm doing now, it becomes about service, it becomes about being servile to something that's not even of my own creation. I mean, yeah, I created it, but it's the other people's impression of what that should be. Let's say I wanted to get up onstage tomorrow and play Smashing Pumpkins songs, but I wanted to play three obscure songs that no one had ever heard 'cause they were on B-sides. Everyone would be yelling at me that I wasn't playing "those songs," so you just draw a hard line in the sand and you say, "No. Not now." And you deal with it. You deal with it in terms of you don't sell as many tickets maybe in this particular place, maybe you don't sell as many T-shirts, maybe some fan leaves the concert and says, "Fuck you, I'm never listening again." That's the chance I'm willing to take, because I believe that when I get to where I want to be, it'll be strong enough that they'll come back around. That's how I made those records in the first place—taking that chance. So just because I'm 38, and just because everybody's out doing their reunion tours and all, and it's got a formula—I'm not that guy. They asked me on MTV, "What about a Pumpkins reunion?" And I said it pretty simple: "If you ever see it, it ain't gonna be like what you think it's gonna be. It ain't gonna be those lighters in the air and everybody la-la-la-ing along." I was in a dangerous band, and I liked being in a dangerous band, and I never thought I wouldn't be in that dangerous band. So if I ever go back to it, it's gonna be dangerous. It's not going to be gingerbread cookies and milk.
O: You admit that TheFutureEmbrace was influenced by everyone from David Bowie to Echo & The Bunnymen to Joy Division. As an established artist, is it easier to talk about your influences and incorporate them into what you're doing now?
BC: Yeah. And I think it's important—I really think it's a white, bourgeois idea to pretend that you don't have influences. It seems to be the obsession strictly of white people in college. Like, "You know, I just rolled out of bed and I had this idea." It's wonderful to read interviews by old blues guys—they talk about all their influences, they talk about who taught them how to play, and who they saw, and how they were determined to play that way. Why is it this weird white problem that we must pretend we are the genius? I really feel like I'm standing on the shoulders of some pretty big giants, and I'm really happy that I'm at that point in my life where I'm totally willing to cop to whatever. Because it is homage, because I do know how to make my own sound, so if I choose to sort of tip my cap to somebody else, that's because it's choice, it's not because I don't have a choice.
O: "Mina Loy (M.O.H.)" was inspired by your fear about a dirty bomb hitting Chicago. Do you think about that kind of thing a lot?
BC: All the time. I was in New York on 9/11—I was 10 blocks away, so I heard that plane going over. I was up in my living room reading a self-help book, and until you've heard a 747—or whatever it was, a 767—go over your head... I mean, it was right over the building, 'cause it was so low. And to have been there and heard that sound, know that those people were in there, and heard the plane crash, and seen the damage, and seeing people screaming in the streets covered in ash, to have witnessed that personally, I don't think that ever leaves you. And my experience was tangential—I wasn't standing there. I didn't lose anybody.
It makes me crazy to think that somebody might attack my city or any other city. It used to be like, "Well, they'd have to get in a plane or they'd have to launch a missile, and if they launched a missile, we'd blow them up and the whole world would blow up." This idea that there's some jerk-off sneaking around with a dirty bomb somewhere freaks me out. Because I know how stupid people can be. I've played in front of 5,000 people that bought a ticket to my concert, and some guy who's bought a ticket decides he's going to throw a bottle at my head. That's a simple act of stupidity. That's not even defiance. And when you think of how many whackos there are out in the world, it's frightening to me that we may end up in these really unbelievable situations that I think we can't even mentally reconcile.
O: As you're getting older and playing a young man's game, how do you avoid losing your edge?
BC: That's a good question, and I'm not avoiding it, but I would say it's this simple: Change the game. The game as it's billed, as it's commonly understood, is a young man's game for a reason: because that's the age that people are exploited, exploitable, and they're easily manipulated. The problem with me is, you can't manipulate me anymore. I've seen it, I know it, I've been there. And that's partially why, particularly in America, you see issues with artists as they get older. And they like to keep it a young man's game. Because that's how they can fudge around with the rules. So my thing now is, I'm gonna change the game, and I am changing the game. It may not be obvious at this point, and it may be more obvious in a couple years, but I'm gonna change this game.