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Cover Story: The Smashing Pumpkins

| November 30, 2020 | 0 Comments

Oh, that irascible old Billy Corgan. Even in a foreboding, energy-sapping, pandemic Plague Year, you just can’t take him ANYWHERE.

It was a solid, thought-provoking opening question, intended to kick-start our recent interview with the man about CYR! The remarkably-assured new double-record set from Smashing Pumpkins, its 11th, featuring the mostly-original lineup of James Iha on guitar, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, and longtime Corgan collaborator Jeff Schroeder on bass: What a brilliant stroke of advertising genius it was for Walgreen’s pharmacy to co-opt Dire Straits’ ebullient “Walk of Life” for its recent comforting COVID-19 campaign since just hearing the first bouncy notes of said tune can brighten your darkest day. But Corgan — true to contrarian form — hastily blasts the concept out of the sky with skeet-shooting aplomb. Yes, he agrees; music CAN change your mood in a heartbeat. “But I NEVER liked that song — that’s the problem,” he snaps. But you’ve got to hand it to him — ever since the band’s challenging Gish debut in 1991, he’s always been honest and forthright about his opinions and never once shied away from expressing them.

If not Mark Knopfler, what has Corgan been listening to instead in these grim coronavirus times? “I’ve got this crazy collection of jazz and psych-folk, so I just sit down and listen to a bunch of stuff I’ve never heard before,” he’s proud to relate. “I got so burned out on all the stuff that I love, so I can’t listen to it as much as I used to. Now I just listen to a bunch of obscure stuff, just hoping to catch a wave on something.” Then he rhapsodizes at length about his latest unearthed gem, the first eponymous 1972 solo album from Moby Grape guitarist Bob Mosley, a musician who proved adept at mastering many different styles. Perhaps it reminded the Prime Pumpkin of his own genre-jumping approach since Gish, which includes Zwan, a more formal solo career as William Patrick Corgan, several band reunions with varying lineups, plus side pursuits as an author, wrestling promoter, and restaurateur, with his own hometown teahouse, Madame ZuZu’s, recently reopening after lockdown lifted.

Now, he’s pushing the parameters again with the ambitious CYR, and its slew of inspired anthems, like the handclap-buttressed “Wrath,” a propulsive “The Colour of Love,” the ethereal tumbler “Birch Grove,” and the sinister synth-rocking title track, all complemented by a dystopian animated series called In Ashes. Toss in the fact that the band’s last two-disc experiment, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, is celebrating its (gasp!) 25th anniversary this year (with a truly stunning line of promotional HUF merchandise available). You’ve got a full-blown Corgan Renaissance kicking off — the last things his fans might have expected from him this year. But, at 53, he is — just by despising the universally-loved “Walk of Life” alone — still good at unveiling against-the-grain surprises.

IE:  I just watched The Elephant Man on Criterion, and it still holds up. And there are some works of art — like, say Mellon Collie — that really stand the test of time.

BILLY CORGAN:  Yeah. I find that the stuff that sticks with me personally — or “posthumously” — captures the time in a holographic way. Like, I recently went through and watched all the Fellini films again, and he really captured that creative zeitgeist of the ‘60s, going into Satyricon in the ‘70s. And there’s a certain — and I’m using the Francis Bacon use of the word — there’s a certain violence in it. Francis Bacon, the painter, talked a lot about the violence underneath the paint. People would say to him, “Why can’t you just paint a painting of somebody?” And he would say, “But I want to paint them the way they feel in real life.” So that’s why his paintings have this kind of dissociative violence to them because that’s what he perceived — the animalism lurking under the skin. So that’s what I get when I view a certain piece of art or hear some specific music — it doesn’t just take me into the time; it takes me holographically into the time until I can literally smell the Coney Island dog. I pick up on the scent in the air and what they believed, even if what they believed was false. There was such a beautiful idealism in The Beatles at their nadir, and they’re moments in time, because — not only did they believe it — but you know what came afterward. So you have the full ability to not only experience what they were experiencing, but you also have this sanguine distance to be able to go, “Now that didn’t really work out, did it?”

IE:  I’ve been watching A Hard Day’s Night a lot, and it just has this ephemeral quality, with these young, whip-smart kids just having fun with the fame that was coming their way.

BC:  That and (Bob Dylan’s) Don’t Look Back really are windows into a particular moment in time that can never be recaptured. I mean, you can have a new version of that joy. But you can never get that one back. And that’s what’s so beautiful about it.

IE:  What have you tried to capture with this record, in particular?

BC:  You know, my thing was pretty simple. I just want to go back to making exciting music, and I don’t give a fuck what I’ve got to do to get there. That was my thinking. And there are times to navigate your own personal…thing. Like when I did Oceania in 2011, it was like, “Okay — I’m gonna wrap my hands around this Pumpkin language of the guitar — I’m gonna let it happen, I’m not gonna fight it, and I’m gonna see if there’s anything left in it. Because everyone keeps telling me that there’s something there, so I’m gonna go down that road and see if they’re right and I’m wrong.” It’s a particular folly. Like, “I’m getting back to the 1992 version of me, where I’m just gonna make exciting music, and I don’t care what anybody thinks.” And I can only line up in that space occasionally — it’s not something I can do with every album. But on this one, I felt it—every day.

IE:  There’s just something about you, Iha, and Chamberlin — with Jeff Schroeder on bass — that has this combustible mix, firing on all six.

BC:  I don’t know what it is in our DNA, but we seem to inspire a certain confidence in one another that I don’t think we have otherwise.

IE:  You talk about beliefs on the album, too, with even some Wiccan allusions, almost. What do you believe now?

BC:  Aw, I’m just an old pagan. I’m a Christian in the sense that I believe in the saints, and I pray to Jesus, literally, when I lay my head down on my pillow each night. You’ve got to believe in somebody, and I do believe in Him, with a capital H. But I’m basically a pagan. And I’m different in that I don’t see the world as being organized under a particular religion — I just see man scrambling to explain the unexplainable. Until, in a reductionist way, we can put it in a box that makes us feel like we have some kind of order. I’m a big proponent of ‘God is everywhere,’ and it’s actually not a big deal. It’s a man who squanders the opportunity for simplicity by putting some kind of intellectual overlay over it. And I love rituals. I love the Pope in his fish hat, and I love Wagner’s opera. I love rituals. I love Sturm und Drang — I’m all about it it, and that’s what I do for a living. But it’s all pretty simple to me.

IE:  Speaking of the Teutonic, you dropped in another classic German term, “Schadenfreude,” experiencing pleasure over another’s pain. Which seems to be running rampant in society right now.

BC:  Yeah, Only yesterday, I was dealing with online bullying, this kind of weird gang stuff. And it’s happened to me a few times. A group of people will come in, and I’ll get a bunch of messages from ten different accounts, but they’ll all have the same message, which creates an interesting effect, psychologically. And I don’t need to get into details, but imagine if you opened a message and it’s, “Hey — you’ve got a pimple on the end of your nose.” And you opened another message, and it’s, “You’ve got a pimple on the end of your nose.” And they’re said just differently enough and posited just differently enough that it comes off as a collective, but you’re not really sure if it’s just one person. So, on the one hand, you’ve taken a little aback by the energy of it because it’s so stupid, the thing that’s happening. But it’s like one of those ‘60s movies where the gang terrorizes the woman in her house — there’s a sort of gang mentality there. And I think it’s kind of a new phenomenon. I talked to some fans yesterday online, and they said that this something they see a lot of. And it’s not bots — these are people messaging. And then when I started going after the people, other people — and I put “other” in quotations — started messaging me, saying, “Calm down — it’s just a joke.” And I’m friends with these people, and I’ll talk to them if suddenly there’s a mediator. But then, suddenly, you’re engaged in some sort of mediation with strangers about something that you don’t have anything to do with, and at the same time, they’re telling you that you’re overreacting. It was very strange. So I kind of went public about it yesterday — I posted a bunch of stuff on my Instagram about it, and I got a ton of responses from fans who have been bullied and cyberstalked. It kind of seemed to open the doors to this whole wealth of information that’s lying there because, by and large, the social media companies don’t care, and they won’t do anything. They know that their portals are being used for harm, but they won’t do anything about it, and they hide behind the fact that they can’t unless it’s criminal. But even then, I’ve had threats and sent them in, and nobody does anything about it.

IE:  You’re in a tough position where social media is now part of the process, and when you carve out a piece of your soul on record or otherwise, the public then has the right, or the obligation to parse it, instead of being grateful that you bothered to share.

BC:  I don’t think the general public sees the exchange in those terms. And that’s fine — that’s their right to do that. But I think the difficulty is when you, as an artist, go in hoping for that and wind up more times than not disappointed. Disappointed that the exchange is not as valuable to them as it is to you. So I’ve kind of shifted away from the moment, like, “Is this moment valuable?” To “The whole THING is valuable,” and that’s allowed me to find my footing. I don’t really get hung up on whether or not anybody likes what I’m doing today. I’m more focused on the fact that I’m a long-term artist who has proven his worth in the marketplace, I have value, and I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing. So you pick up and put down the narrative where you like.

IE:  During some of our interviews over the years, you were periodically really getting dragged down by all the negativity out there. How did you finally get over it?

BC:  I had to go through a set of psychological losses. One was, I had to mourn the band that would never be again. One was, I had to mourn the peer-to-peer relationship with bands that I at one point thought was possible, but then I realized was impossible, given the power disparity. And third, was realizing that I didn’t have anything more to say in this particular realm and that I had to be okay with that. And if that meant that I would never again write a song, or move in a particular direction, then I was going to have to accept that. And going through those series of losses over time — it wasn’t just one day, it was a sequence of things that led to a certain set of realizations — when I came out the end of that, I thought, “Okay — I’m on the other side of this now. So whatever the next decision I make is, it’ll be the best decision, and I’ll be fine. Even if it means I’ll just sit here, staring out the window.” And in that time frame was literally when James Iha showed up.

IE:  But it’s inescapable that you’re a synthesis of everything you’ve grown up listening to, from AC/DC to Joy Division. And it all comes boomeranging back in CYR, which feels decidedly OMD-vintage but with a totally modern edge.

BC:  Well, I think people have long underestimated our ability to move. They became fixated on what they considered to be our music, in general. They became fixated on the moments they considered to be our apotheosis or our apex. But that’s just not how we operate. We’re a peaks-and-valleys band, always have been. So when we feel a peak coming, we’ll surf harder. But when we sense a valley, we’re totally cool with that. Anybody who saw us play in the ‘90s when we would do those shows that were super-uncomfortable and I was going after the audience — it was almost a living gestalt theatre, almost like performance art — anybody who saw those shows would understand that this was a group that was totally fine with the valleys. It was very freeing for us, as a band, after experiencing so much pressure in the early ‘90s, to stand on a stage and go, “This sucks. Literally, this sucks — this place sucks, you suck, we suck, this sucks.” There was something about it that broke the Sammy Davis, Jr. showbiz tradition, like, “I bought my ticket, and here’s what’s gonna happen, and you’re gonna tell me how great and wonderful this night is.” But No, tonight’s not magical at all! In fact, we’re going to drag you straight down to hell with us! Some of the greatest shows I’ve ever played was because we were literally willing just to explode onstage and throw the whole thing in the trash can. It was amazing. So people who don’t understand how we work, DNA-wise, get kind of surprised by an album like CYR. But that ability to pivot has always been there. But they just don’t like that empirical evidence because it goes against their inner narrative. And for years, their inner narrative was “Grunge band, had some good songs, lead singer’s kind of weird, and once they fall apart, they’ll never get it back together again.” Then it becomes more about me, and me flailing around in my never-ending loop to recapture the past.

IE:  You’re a dad now. Are you and the missus still together?

BC:  Oh yeah — the marriage is good. And my kids are nuts. They’re Corgan’s, you know? They’re bouncing off the wall. And I see flashes of music interest in them, but they’re still five and two, so it’s still a bit early. But I’ll catch ‘em singing, and they definitely have the voice. But put it this way — they’ve got rock star names. My kids’ names are Augustus Jupiter and Philomena Clementine, so I gave them great stage names to start with.

IE:  What does CYR mean, anyway?

BC:  Ya know, I dunno. I’m big on onomatopoeia, and I just liked the sound of the word. But once I kind of fixated on the word, I went back and did some research and found its mythological context, and there’s some connection to the minotaur, I think. And I’ve had experiences where I’ll have a feeling about a word, and then I’ll use the word, and I kind of have a sense of what I think it means. But then I’ll do research, and I’ll find out that it’s fairly accurate. I don’t know if that’s intuition or the fact that I’ve just read so much; I’ve absorbed a lot more than I thought I did.

IE:  How did the pandemic come into play on CYR, if at all?

BC:  Not at all — it was done. It was mixed literally as the pandemic was kicking in. And I live in a conspiracy world, so I kept telling everybody, “It’s coming.” And they said, “Oh, it’s not gonna be a big deal.” And I said, “No. It. Is. Coming.” So I was pretty prepared.

IE:  One final question — as a small business owner, how is your teahouse going?

B:  It’s going great, actually. Except that we can’t have indoor dining. But it’s still great, totally fine. I just can’t do all the artistic stuff I wanna do in there because you literally can’t have any crowds.

– Tom Lanham

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