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Cover Story: William Patrick Corgan

| November 1, 2017 | 1 Comment

When the Jedi Master speaks, the humble light saber student must sit quietly at his feet and listen. And Smashing Pumpkins anchor Billy Corgan – who has recently re-dubbed himself with the more mature moniker of William Patrick Corgan, under which he just released the skeletal, Rick Rubin-produced solo set Oglilala, one of his best albums in ages – still remembers like it was yesterday his own Yoda-revealing summit meeting that occurred 14 years ago at a bustling Japanese train station.

Standing casually, waiting for the next express, the singer was stunned to look across the platform and see one of his musical heroes, Neil Young, waiting there, too. And – looking for common commiseration ground – he found himself complaining to the CSNY legend about certain record labels with which they’d both had experiences. “I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, and it was probably a very boring conversation for him,” Corgan sighs in slightly embarrassed retrospect. Young listened patiently, thoughtfully, though. “And then he just cut to the chase, as only Neil Young can,” Corgan recalls. When one encounters opposition or difficulties in show business, the man said, one should merely put one’s head down and keep walking, oblivious to such distractions. “And I knew exactly what he meant, and he told me what I really needed to hear,” he adds. “That it doesn’t matter what some guy in an office thinks of you – what matters is what you do. And he’s a sage – let’s face it. So I took that advice to heart. And there have been some really tough days where that’s the only advice I could rely on. I didn’t get advice from my father. So I took it from surrogate fathers like Neil Young and Johnny Cash. And – as an artist in kind of a wacky world – you need to find your surrogate fathers to help you get through this because I haven’t gotten a lot of pats on the back from this culture.” He chortles, with palpable defiance. ”And yet I’m still here.”

Corgan has been powering through many changes in his personal life. He just turned 50. Nearly two years ago, he became a father himself to son Augustus, with his significant other Chloe Mendel (both are prominently featured on the Oglilala album cover photograph). He has taken on other mature new responsibilities, as well, as the president and owner of the National Wrestling Alliance, a continuation of his involvement with the sport that began with Resistance Pro (which he left in 2014). And he’s been openly discussing the possibility of a founding-member Pumpkins reunion tour.

“I’d like to get together with my old mates and have some fun and play some songs, and maybe take some of the pressure off of me always having to be the Atlas over here,” he says. “And if it happens? Great. But it’s not like some career mandate. I mean, it’s just rock and roll.”And then there’s Oglilala itself, a nonsensical-titled, but decidedly serious experiment in stripped-down acoustic-based restraint that’s quite becoming for the composer at this particular age and expertise. It’s unexpected, yet strangely appropriate and brilliantly engineered by studio whiz Rubin, who gave the arrangements the wide-open space and looseness of, say, Marty Robbins’ echoey classic Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Because, that’s what these piano-and-six-string sonnets most resemble – heartwarming campfire singalongs, with a starlit Western sky framing them overhead.

One track, the eerie organ-latticed “Amarinthe,” even faintly echoes the tones of Michael Martin Murphey’s ‘70s smash “Wildfire,” and Corgan laughs at the reference. “I know what you mean,” he agrees. “But I don’t have his beard. Didn’t he always have that great Kenny Loggins-type beard? I do have all his albums, and I love that kind of stuff. But I really don’t know where that song came from – it’s an outlier, for sure. I’ve been practicing the set – basically, I play the new album first, and other songs for the second set – and I’ve been playing “Amarinthe” almost every day. And when I do, I’m like, ‘Where did this song come from?’ It’s so strange.”

With other numbers, Corgan can get more specific about his influences. Several gentle janglers, like “Shiloh,” “The Spaniards,” and “The Long Goodbye,” were rooted in his recent fascination with vintage Sons of the Pioneers recordings. “So it’s about that prairie vibe,” he explains. “And there’s a lot of space in that music, in those old country songs from the ‘30s. And one cool story I heard when I went to Hearst Castle was that Hearst used to hire Sons of the Pioneers to come play for him at the Castle. So when he’d have these big dinner parties, he’d have them over in the corner, playing. In Hearst’s weird brain, they were having their little rodeo time in this Castle, surrounded by all these antiquities but eating baked beans and listening to Sons of the Pioneers singing in the corner. And somehow, that all works in my brain, too.”

When Rubin first heard Corgan’s bare-bones demos – and learned of his plans to track them in virtually the same sparse setting – he was understandably intrigued. So he invited the Chicagoan to his L.A. studio to perform them live for him, to get a feel for what might be needed, production-wise. And Corgan still remembers one of the first numbers he strummed for him, “Processional,” which he wasn’t sure about at the time. “Rick and I say hello the first day, we talk for five minutes, and the next thing you know, I’m in front of a microphone, recording, which is classic Rick,” he says. “And as I was playing “Processional,” I was thinking, ‘Is this song too boring?’ Because it’s basically like a folk round – there are no choruses, it just does what it’s going to do and cycles back down like a Dylan song. But Rick heard it and went, ‘Yeah! You’re really on to something – this is awesome!’ And I was like, ‘Wow. Okay!’ I didn’t even know what I had!”

The album’s opening piano-and-falsetto-voiced etude “Zowie” is not a blatant genuflection to the late David Bowie, as many have assumed, although the artist’s 2016 death did hit him particularly hard. “I was writing this song, and I played a chord sequence that reminded me of a chord sequence that David would use,” he elaborates. “So then I started thinking about him – David had just passed, and I’d been to the museum exhibition with all his memorabilia – so he was just in the air, for whatever reason. So I was meditating on him while I was writing the song, and when I finished it, I thought it would be cool to tip my cap to him, and I thought the title was a cool way to do it.”

Oglilala resonates like some sort of career plateau, at least from the outside. But inside of it all, how does its creator feel? “Eh,” he responds. He still bristles at the fact that he hasn’t been invited back to the Grammys since Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream/Mellon Collie ‘90s heyday (“Well, they have invited me back to celebrate my past,” he sniffs), and that naysayers are more focused on, for instance, his controversial conspiracy theories (he just told Howard Stern that he’d seen a human being shape-shift into another creature, right in front of him) than his estimable songwriting skills, which Oglilala makes abundantly clear.

“Somebody yesterday asked me a really loaded question, which was, ‘When did you get out of the mental hospital and decide to make a good record?’” says the deep thinker, who is also writing his spiritual memoir. “And if you follow the narrative that’s been cast in the world about me over the past 10, 15 years, that question makes a lot of sense. But I said, ‘If you actually follow my movements over the last eight or nine years, song to song, album to album – which, of course, most people haven’t – this record actually makes a lot of sense.’ Because I was chipping away at something that I could only get to by chipping away at it. There was no easier or more organic way for me to get there other than to stumble, fail, get back up, stumble, fail, get up, get exasperated, give up, and then finally say, ‘Okay – I’m going to get back to doing whatever is most readily available, which is to sing and play and just get out of the chimera business.’”

With filmmaker Linda Strawberry, Corgan even wrote and co-directed a surreal silent film that syncs to the running time of the album – another step into maturity he’s undertaken. Somehow, he drifts on to the subjects of obscure rock landmarks, and how only he and perhaps a handful of other artists were championing undiscovered ‘80s classics like Electric Light Orchestra’s Time (a record just begging to be made into a Broadway musical) when they were first released. He has much to say on this topic. “But unfortunately, we’re in a commercial business where might is right,” he growls. “And we don’t have a system like the Oscars, where there’s a sense that the Little Indie Movie That Could can reach the highest heights. You don’t get that sense in rock and roll.

“So let’s take (ELO’s main man) Jeff Lynne for a second,” he continues, on a passionate roll. “When I would name-check ELO a lot during the Mellon Collie period, people all laughed, like, ‘Ugh! ELO?!’ But somehow, in the last ten years, ELO has gone back up to where they belong – you hear their music, you hear people talking about them reverentially, and it’s not unusual to be walking down the street and hear “Mr. Blue Sky” blasting out of somebody’s car window. It’s like the politics got edged out and the music came forward.

Because 20 years ago, the chances of hearing ELO anywhere other than on classic rock radio were nil. So there’s that weird thing where culture has to convulse and vomit on itself before it sort of gets around to figuring out what was valuable and not valuable.” He laughs at the absurdity of the hipster concept. “So I feel pretty good about my own odds over time. But still, it’s been a pretty weird journey through other people’s record collections, where I keep getting told that what I was doing was super-relevant, even though it wasn’t considered relevant at the time. But now they want to pretend that I was always relevant, which is weird. And they want to devalue things that are valuable, just because they don’t fit into their little scheme of winners and losers.

“So you get to a point where you just sort of shrug, a point where you end up making a record like Oglilala – you think, ‘Fuck it. Nobody’s got my back here, so I’m just going to do what I do. And if it works? Great. And if it doesn’t? I’ll just keep going my way.’ Because sometimes you need the enemy. I doubt I would have accomplished a lot of what I accomplished without that enemy. So you learn – in The Art of War mindset, or the Buddha mindset – to honor the enemy for giving you the opposition that you need to get your shit straightened out. It’s like, respect the enemy for the lesson you needed to learn, and move on. And I’ve been chasing windmills for a long time now,” he adds, with self-deprecation. “I’ve slain many a windmill!”

Corgan also has to give credit where it’s due when it comes to his calm new demeanor. The birth of his son, Augustus, changed him in ways he never expected. “He’s awesome, and he came into the world in a strong spirit,” dad purrs. “So my job is just to get out of the way and figure out how to help him. And he’s still young – he’s not quite two – but I certainly relate to how I felt, like, ‘When I felt this way, this is what the adults around me did, so I’m going to do the opposite – I’m going to make him feel that what he’s interested in is important and that his imagination is valuable.’ And that’s where I’m lucky, in that my skill set feeds right into that. The things that I am? That’s a perfect fit for where he is – he’s very creative and just a big spirit.”

The parent is now viewing the universe through child-like eyes again, he admits. “And it’s the best gift, because you suddenly think, ‘I can’t wait to go to Disneyland, just to see how he’ll react!’ You get excited all over again because you re-live it through them. The only trick is not to project that it has to be a certain way, that they’ll have to see it or feel it the way you think you saw it or felt it. Because obviously, memory has a way of tainting our own childhood.”

Speaking of Disneyland, no rundown of Corgan accomplishments – Billy, William Patrick, or otherwise – would be complete without a mention of his strange appearance on Seth MacFarlane’s still-hilarious Family Guy, in an episode where Peter Griffin, trying to process complicated facts and figures in his blurry brain, can’t stop thinking about an actual snapshot of Corgan, looking incredibly displeased, on a ride at Disneyland. “And that’s the weird world we live in,” he says, pleased that MacFarlane thought enough of him to include him in the show. “If you look at the picture, I’m sitting next to my tour manager, Doug Goodman, and I’m sort of complaining about something.

“So they caught me in a moment of complaining about, I dunno, rock and roll itself, and it got turned into a meme. But I’d had this great, wonderful day and a fun time – I rode on all the rides and took tons of pictures with fans, and I’m smiling in every one. And suddenly somebody takes a picture, and you’re cannon fodder in the meme culture wars. And the best way to deal with all that stuff is to just have a laugh and shrug. Because when Neil Young tells you to do something, you listen. So I’ve got one lane now. And it’s my own.”

-Tom Lanham

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  1. Spencer says:

    Great interview! Long time fan of Corgan’s music. You put a great piece together with some insights he hasn’t mentioned in other interviews.

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