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Cover Story: Billy Corgan

| February 1, 2010 | 23 Comments

It’s Only Just Begun

If the adage holds true – that “rich is the examined life” – then it’s about time for society, as a whole, to grab its pipe and slippers, curl up in its comfiest recliner, and have a long, hard thoughtful stare into the ice-cold mirror. Chances are, Snow White’s unforgiving Maleficent might just be gazing back. What have we become in this Tiger-Woods, guilty-until-proven-innocent, media-controlled schadenfreude era? Look no further than Billy Corgan, people. The 42-year-old Smashing Pumpkins leader has lots to talk about at this surreal point in time. But do you want the ho-hum news or the real salacious dirt? Think carefully – once you’ve bitten into that poison apple, you’re a card-carrying part of the decadent problem.

Appearing: February 18th at LaSalle Power Co. in Chicago.

Corgan would love for all his fans to be aware of “A Song For A Son,” the first guitar-squealing single from his proposed 44-track set, Teargarden By Kaleidyscope. Especially since each track will be released online at www.smashingpumpkins.com, no strings attached, before being anthologized in 11 four-song EPs, and finally a deluxe box set for the serious collector. He’s also launching his own vanity imprint, with a kickoff signing already lined up: The Electric Prunes, with whose bassist Corgan recently worked as Spirits In The Sky, in tribute concerts to late Seeds stalwart Sky Saxon (with whom he was recording a comeback album; “And there’s some really interesting, beautiful unreleased music there,” Corgan promises).

The next composition to see release will be “Widow Wake My Mind,” a jagged-chorded, keyboard-buttressed ballad, followed by “Astral Planes” and “A Stitch In Time.” And the self-sufficient Svengali is playing/recording almost everything himself, aided in-studio by his longtime production cohort (and Catherine member) Kerry Brown and new drummer Mike Byrne, with provisional Pumpkins Jeff Schroeder (guitar) and Ginger Reyes (bass) hopping back on board for an upcoming tour. Original on/off band drummer Jimmy Chamberlin departed again last year, after ’07’s Zeitgeist album and ’08’s American Gothic EP. Additionally, Corgan just launched his own spiritual-themed blog, “Everything From Here To There,” in which he does, indeed, pore over his own existence. Often microscopically so. Which ought to be enough, relevant-fact-wise, right?

Not in this gossipy, 24-hour-news-channel age. At this writing, the latest issue of the photo-driven Us magazine has just hit the stands, with a Corgan-related story filed under “Hot Stuff.” Seems the quiet, privacy-seeking rocker has now become tabloid fodder by the simple act of dating pop star Jessica Simpson, 29 (who’s been run ragged by the paparazzi over the past few turbulent years). Several unnamed sources dish the trashy lowdown on the couple, who are “officially an item!” But why the exclamation point? Why, in fact, does society need to know any of these details at all? Some have speculated that our obsession with celebrity storylines are the one thing that unites America, rich and poor, and that as each yarn unspools to its often tragic climax, everyone keeping track around their watercoolers at work feels at one with a bigger picture: a hive mentality, with individual drones no longer able to form their own media-free opinion.

So therein hangs the tale. How does a King Bee like Corgan, who’s proven himself over 20-multi-platinum-selling years, make deeper music in a time that, a la Mike Judge’s brilliant Idiocracy, focuses squarely on the shiny surface? And who knows? By the time you read this, his relationship with Simpson already may be over, killed, perhaps, by the same nosy reporters and photographers who once trumpeted it with celebratory punctuation. And this breakup, if and when it occurs, will be excruciatingly documented, even televised, as if Giuliana Rancic and Ryan Seacrest truly feel empathy for any pain the lovers might be suffering. What happened to humanity’s innate grace and dignity? “Gone,” Corgan sighs, resigned to his Don Quixote quest of bringing intelligent art to the increasingly stupid masses. “It’s gone and it ain’t coming back.”

IE: What were you doing up in Northern California over Christmas?
Billy Corgan:
Uhhh . . . girlfriend things. My girlfriend’s family lives up there.

IE: Jessica?
BC:
Heh heh heh. Let’s just skip all that.

IE: Well, several entertainment sites promise to tell us who you’re dating. It’s sad that you’ve now turned into prey for tabloid predators. Even reality-TV shows all feature cutthroat people competing for some sleazy prize. What’s gone wrong, as you see it?
BC:
I think we’re in a sort of exponential, continually accelerating sort of . . . self-examination? And one that’s probably unprecedented in human history. And technology, of course, is facilitating that. And there are interesting upsides. Like, for example, now people are their own media server. I don’t need anyone to print my quote – I can print my own quote, and if people wanna pick it up, they do. Which is interesting, because sometimes I say things that I think are pretty edgy, and nobody gives a shit. And then I’ll say something that’s really benign, and people pick up on it and suddenly it’s on somebody else’s Web site. But then you get into the whole Andy Warhol thing, where we’re now counting down to four minutes, 59 seconds. And it’s a fascinating insight into the human psyche in that everybody, in some sort of way, really wants to be famous. And you can’t say they’re wrong to want to be famous, because there’s something about being famous that feeds the inner child and makes you feel special. And when we’re around children, we always say “You’re special,” because we want them to grow up to be special. But this is like a short-cut to “special” that seems to not quite care about the consequences of how you get there. And in our world – and I’m sure you’ve seen this – there’s been a breakdown in what I would call “critical media,” where there’s no separation of church and state anymore. There was a time when a Nirvana album was reviewed differently than, let’s say, a Monkees record. But now everybody’s on the same playing field, and they’re supposed to adhere to the same sets of rules. And the indie world, the Pitchfork world, will pretend that it’s a different set of rules, but not really. Everybody follows the same rules, because might is right, and even the indie world’s reaction to might is a complete overreaction.

IE: Well, Britain just watched Simon Cowell get livid when his latest “X Factor” winner didn’t secure the usual No. 1 Christmas week. Rage Against The Machine did, after an online anti-Cowell campaign.
BC:
I saw that. And there’s been an erosion of . . . let’s call it “the credentials.” And one needs to look no further than what gets played on alternative radio these days. If you would’ve gone back in a time machine and visited one of the leading alternative stations, and told them that in 10 or 15 years they’d be playing popularity-contest winners and people who had no alternative-music pedigree, they’d go “Nah! That’ll never happen! Because our whole station’s image is based on the idea that we’re playing music that comes from the streets!” So we’ve basically had everything co-opted, hijacked, and popped out, and it goes back to the Warhol premise, which is that the obsession with being famous has been disconnected from the need to actually do something to be famous. And from my point of view, and where it gets really weird is, it inverts on itself now, where oftentimes I get more attention for things that have nothing to do with music than I do my music. And it puts me in a weird position, because, on some level, I do have to get people to listen to my music. So the jerk in the audience goes, “Yeah, but if you did better music, maybe they’d pay attention!” But c’mon. It’s not that simple. I run into people who are fans, they own six of my albums, they’ve been to five shows over nine years, and they don’t even know you have a new song out. Because they’re just not in contact with your form of media. So you can look at who’s listening and say, “Oh, not enough people are listening.” But you can’t be sure in this day and age that anybody is even coming in contact with what you’ve done. So it’s really hard to gauge what real value is.

IE: But yet everyone’s seen photographs of you and Jessica together. Print media is being replaced by visual, which only accelerates ignorance.
BC:
Well, I say now to my friends, “Music’s just not enough.” Look at our culture, look who’s succeeding, and it’s usually not music-driven anymore. Or it’s music-driven, with some other angle: I won something; there’s a backstory; I did something controversial. And when I look at somebody like Adam Lambert – whom I don’t know but who I think is talented – he’s come up through a system that’s told him already, “Hey – you’re gonna get more attention by being provocative than being talented!” Does that mean that’s why he’s done what he has? No. But the feedback is there. What’s popular these days are the things that satisfy the most. You no longer have an artistically driven culture that can ride people to the mainstream. And I would say that ours was the last generation that was able to do that in an effective manner. I mean, taking street-level music and crossing it over? It’s happened in rap culture, so I can’t say that it hasn’t happened. But from a culture that was continually doing that, from Elvis and Louis Armstrong on back? It no longer seems to be able to do it, just on the incendiary sexual nature of the music. Now it has to basically have sex on top of it. And that’s when you get into the pelvis-shoving-in-the-camera stuff [on many contemporary rock videos from female artists].

IE: I think Idiocracy got it right.
BC:
In a beautiful stroke of synchronicity, that’s one of the new Pumpkins drummer Mike Byrne’s favorite movies. So that shows you where his head’s at. But is humanity over with? I have a slightly different take. I tend to look at from a more spiritual perspective, which is that things need to break, or get broken enough, and then people will find their inner reserve and wanna fix them. I see signs of light, but I think it’s gonna get a lot darker, as in it’s always darkest before the dawn. But I do think that we’re headed the wrong way, and we’ve been heading the wrong way for awhile. And it’s accelerating, like that moment in Willy Wonka where they’re in the tunnel, it’s getting faster and everyone’s getting more freaked out. I think we’re testing our own tolerance for just how weird and creepy it can get.

IE: Advertising is partially to blame. As in “I shop, therefore I am!”
BC:
I think it’s deeper than that. My personal beliefs are that there are forces that are purposely eroding the middle class and the intellectual structure of this country to allow it to be basically taken over by a fascist sort of framework. And I believe it’s pretty obvious that it’s already happening. Whoever the people are in charge of this world? They do an interesting thing – they run out voices to make you think you’re being heard, understood, or recognized. And it’s not just for ratings, like Glenn Beck – it’s a way to control the debate. If you say to me, “Hey! There are little green men in my backyard!” I can go, “Hey! I’ve seen ’em, too!” So there’s nothing to fight if I’m already agreeing with you. There’s only one problem – [Beck] is on the network that helps create part of the scenario that we’re in. He’s not an “independent voice.” Independent voices don’t take commercial breaks.

IE: It’s kinda like that scene in They Live, where Rowdy Roddy Piper finally puts on the sunglasses and sees the “Consume!” ads everywhere.
BC:
But the funny thing is, it’s not even subliminal anymore. Whatever that is, you don’t have to put on the sunglasses – it’s right in front of your face. We are living in an age of overt propaganda – it’s not even hidden anymore. Watch a political debate, and the pundits won’t debate the veracity of what’s being said – they’ll debate how well the person manipulated their weaknesses to appear as strengths. They’ll basically give points for, “Well, I know he’s totally full of shit. But he did a good job of convincing us that he isn’t!” If you went back to [Walter] Cronkite days, they weren’t saying that stuff.

IE: It was clear after those first few Bush/Gore debates – intelligence has now become a liability in America.
BC:
Hey, it’s been a liability in my musical life! It’s been a liability all along! And I’ve had a few journalists who say, “They don’t like it if you’re smarter than them. Or even if you think you’re smarter.” But I’ve never been very good at playing the dumb genius.

IE: It seems like you’re going through a metamorphosis right now. How did you finally tap into your spiritual side?
BC:
I think I just got to the point where I had to take an inventory of how I got where I got, for better or worse. I was able to look back on 20 years of my life and say, “O.K., where has this worked? And where has it not worked?” And where it worked was always where I trusted myself, no matter what anybody said or thought around me. I just trusted my instincts. And every time it had not gone well, it’s where I didn’t listen to my instincts and I betrayed my own inner common sense. And I realized that a lot of what I thought was good in my life was more in alignment with . . . let’s call ’em “basic spiritual principles,” more than what I would call “basic material principles.” So there are good ways to make money and there are bad ways, and it’s not always an easy call, ya know? I got hammered for selling songs to commercials, when only five years ago I was bragging how I’d never sold any of the Pumpkins songs to commercials and how they’d been kept pure. Then I sold “Today” to Visa, but the person who really changed my mind on that was Pete Townshend. I’d read an interview – and I know him a little bit, so I’ve even talked to him about it – where he basically said, “Who gives a fuck if they lost their virginity in the back seat of a car to ‘My Generation’? I don’t give a shit. I put it out there to fucking be heard and sold, and I don’t care how they fucking do it!” And why is Bob Dylan doing corporate gigs? At some point, if my heroes aren’t holding to something, why the fuck am I? And I looked around and thought, “Well, no one in Alternativeland will claim me – they’ll piss on me, but they won’t claim me, even though I helped invent the genre. So where do I make this right?” And I’m not saying God came down and told me “Sell your song to Visa!” I’m saying a person, a man, has to be O.K. with who he is. So I found more solace, more peace on every level – in my musical life, my personal life, my internal life – by subscribing to spiritual principles, and about five, seven years ago I started paying more attention. And the more attention I paid, the better I felt, the less crazy I felt. And here I am, 20 years later, still able to sell records and all that stuff, so I must be here for a reason. And it’s not to annoy people, even though I’ve done a good job of that. So I started finding a deeper connected purpose with spiritual ideas about what it means to help others, serve others, and in that way serve yourself. And that led me to a place where I was comfortable enough to start talking about it. Even though I know it’s a career-killer, I don’t care, because I think it’s more punk rock to be righteously angry and spiritually forward than it is to continually wear the leather jacket with the tattoos, as if that’s somehow dangerous. That’s not dangerous anymore – they use those guys on commercials now! And as an artist, I’m attracted to the dangerous part. As someone who grew up in alternative rock, starting with Cheap Trick, I’m attracted to where it’s like, “Whoa! I don’t know how I feel about this!”

IE: I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t gone to edge of the abyss and stared in.
BC:
Yeah. That’s the Nietzsche quote: “Be careful, because it’ll stare back into you!” I mean, look – Blondie was provocative in 1978. So Lady Gaga will never be as provocative as Blondie was, or Madonna was. That stuff’s been tapped out. So even just as a human being, I’m like, “Where does this feel edgy again? Where does this feel like I’m into something I’m just not sure about?” And to me, God is the third rail of public life. You just don’t really touch it unless you’re giving your Grammy speech, going “I wanna thank Jesus Christ for giving me a hit record!” So for me, it just happened – I just started falling down that hill, until I woke up one day thinking, “I must be religious! And I’ve probably been religious all along – I just didn’t know how to put it into any kind of box.”

IE: You’re revolving Teargarden around four Tarot cards – the Child, the Fool, the Skeptic and the Mystic. Was the idea to give the songs away based in your new spiritual mindset?
BC:
Well, there is a spiritual principle and there of course is a marketing principle in place. But for me, on a personal level, what I’m trying to do is rekindle the flames in me that make me wanna get up every day and do this. And I find the Tarot fascinating. But I’m also pretty keen, historically, on why some of the greatest musicians and writers burn out at some point. I won’t name names, but you don’t have to look far for people who wrote unbelievable songs between the ages of 20 and 30, who never again even came close to writing anything on that level. So is that karma? Does God sorta take it away? Or has it got something to do with the system? And my opinion is that there’s something in that system that inverts itself, because when you get so known for doing something and you don’t wanna betray the audience, you kinda get locked into a philosophy. But as you get older and life changes, you don’t have the same impulses, so if you’re suddenly into reggae, you can’t play reggae because your audience isn’t gonna like it. And something dies in the artist, that joy of discovery. So over the last few years, I’ve really come to watch my . . . internal self-interest. I mean, I’m a skilled person – I can write you a song if I don’t fucking care. But the best songs come from a place of caring, of commitment and excitement. And I have this contentious relationship with my audience – they just keep getting mad at me because I don’t wave the white flag and become whatever it is I’m supposed to become now. Like some middle-aged statesman of “Gee, weren’t the ’90s great?” But they weren’t that fucking great. And that song wasn’t that good – I’m sorry. And even though the overall reaction to “Song For A Son” has been very positive, part of that positivity was that it was familiar. And, back to Pete Townshend, he said something to me personally that applies, he said, “You have to understand that for one moment in their life, you said exactly what they wanted to hear. And unfortunately, they’re just not interested in anything else you have to say. So get used to it.” But I’m not ready to throw in that towel yet.

IE: There was a nice quote on your “Everywhere” site, saying how you now strive to combine the enthusiasm of a child with the grace of an adult.
BC:
Well, that’s all I have left to do. I’ve already done Angry Young Man. Already done “Gee, I almost killed myself but now I’m back.” And I’ve already done the “I hate you all!” art trip. The only thing left for me to do is just be happy and be excited and try and make great music.

— Tom Lanham

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  1. Something that’s really benign « Hipsters United | February 21, 2010
  1. Beth says:

    Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful article.

  2. Brian says:

    I still like this guy. Thanks

  3. rina says:

    very good interview, thought provoking and confirming what I’ve been thinking/feeling at the same time.

  4. Chad says:

    Great interview. Interesting to see where BC is coming from. I for one, have enjoyed the significant majority of his music including everyting from the last 10 years!

  5. Joe says:

    Great interview…thank you very much! I not only admire the music this man has penned…but also his consciousness, honesty and willing to STAY alternative!

  6. Fernando says:

    Great! Really great!

  7. David says:

    Great? This is the same self serving nonsense Corgan’s been spewing for years. What a superior, self-deluded clown.

  8. Phil who thinks David sucks and should get a life says:

    Fuck you David. Let him be.

  9. Flava Flav says:

    I thought it was a great interview but it’s important not to generalize and lose focus. There are many who do, yes still do, think for themselves. Sometimes it’s hard to believe this but there is still hope. I don’t really see how this can all be fixed but I agree with Billy, times are getting darker and something will knock us on our asses – it’s just a matter of time.

  10. Phil who thinks David sucks and should get a life says:

    @Flava Flav

    I totally agree with you. Not a very popular topic amongst my friends so I usually keep that for myself but I tend to feel that way too.

  11. David says:

    @Phil…

    Jessica Simpson’s boyfriend and commercial pitchman Billy Corgan proclaims himself the inventor of alternative rock and then trashes alternative rock radio stations for playing manufactured and commercialized versions of that music.

    But, i’m the a–hole??

  12. Marcus says:

    People who trash Billy Corgan’s opinions or his music obviously do not understand the creative processes involved in music.. Simple as that.

    Just put the book down if you’re not enjoying it anymore.. Leave it be. Re-read the first few chapters if they excited you.

  13. Kary says:

    We live in a world where people can say something stupid, and think they are “judging” someone. But they forgot that judging involves analysing and knowing well what they judge. Phil, I totally agree with you.

    And I wish I had half of Corgan’s vision of the world.

  14. Dave says:

    The most political stuff i’ve read coming from Corgan. Sorta frustrating that it has to get interjected into the Smashing Pumpkins so sloppily. IE is clearly far-left biased. I think that the right is 50% of the problem (and Fox is on that side) but shouldn’t the network that goes around declaring people as “the worst person in the world” get some credit too? BTW, horrible meandering interview. Although, great job getting Billy Corgan to talk about what is obviously on YOUR mind (eye roll).

  15. doug says:

    interesting read…

  16. Jason Pruitt says:

    Great article!

  17. Steve says:

    I thank Billy for telling it like it is.
    We all should be thankful that an artist is doing his own thing and not pumping out corperate machine crap. And he is giving us FREE SONGS! He DID help define a generation of music and in the same, if not a more important way, is standing out from the rest of the vast music machine world letting everyone see the real thing verses the mind-numbing apathetic acquiescence of the pop culture monster machine that is going on. To that attempt at awakening the masses, I say, “Billy, Thank you!”
    Please stay true to yourself. Be happy. Know that there are many that understand and deeply appreciate all you’ve done and continue to do. :)

  18. Paul says:

    “You have to understand that for one moment in their life, you said exactly what they wanted to hear. And unfortunately, they’re just not interested in anything else you have to say. So get used to it.”
    Pete Townshend

    SWEET!

    Great Read!

  19. GrantV says:

    David said, “What a superior, self-deluded clown.”

    I think the term “superior” is interesting. We can say that Billy Corgan has a superior attitude, as if making that observation proves that he’s self-deluded. But I think (and I say this as a “competing” musician) that Billy Corgan is objectively superior to the great majority of people. What’s the use of self-improvement if someone can’t ever look back and see that they really have become better, or superior, to how they used to be (and to how many people still are)?

    Anyways, here’s an essay I wrote about Corgan: http://shoestringcentury.com/2010/01/27/one-of-many-more-to-come/

  20. David says:

    To GrantV

    Ah, semantics!

    “Superior”, “self-deluded”, “objectively”, “better”, etc. I think my meaning was pretty clear.

    Superior – meaning, the guy’s arrogance is unreal!

    “Objectively superior”?? He’s also OBJECTIVELY an egomaniac!

    Self-deluded – even the true greats of rock & roll never carried on like this!

    The Pumpkins were a mainstream rock act who scored a few hit singles in the post-Nirvana music industry. That’s it.

    I don’t agree with your essay but you clearly put some work into it. Good stuff.

  21. GrantV says:

    Thank you for reading the essay.

    What you’re saying about Billy’s ego (which I would call “well-deserved pride”) may be true on one level, but, speaking as a music fan, don’t you WANT to hear music made by arrogant maniacs? I do. Why? Because it will be more interesting on the whole… more passionate, more imaginative, more ambitious. Who wants to listen to an album made by some humble fellow who pumps gas?

  22. Paul says:

    To GranV

    Yeah, or like an old humble postman like

    STEVE EARLE me thats who!!!!

    Foolish statement Grant.

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