Billy Corgan On The State Of The Alternative Community
Late last year I spoke to Billy Corgan for a Progress Report regarding the new Smashing Pumpkins record, Oceania. At the time of our interview the new album was still a couple of months away from being released, and Billy and Co. were in Europe for a string of Smashing Pumpkins live dates. Despite his reputation as a cranky interview subject, I found him to really nice guy. As someone who interviews lots of people who have clearly been media-trained to always be blandly diplomatic when it comes to discussing their peers and their own work, it’s really fun to talk to someone who just clearly does not give a single fuck about what people think — for better or worse. For that reason (and because I think Oceania is a lot better than people are giving it credit for), I jumped at the chance to talk to Corgan again about the reception to the record and the band’s upcoming string of tour dates. Not surprisingly, our conversation had a lot to do with Corgan’s feelings about the music business and his place in it. Whether or not you agree with his assessment of today’s musical landscape (or his continued disdain of Pavement), it’s hard not to find Corgan engaging. We also talked about wrestling. And KISS.
Corgan: First of all, what does the “T” in your name stand for?
Corgan: Thurman or Thurmond?
Corgan: Oh, that’s not a bad name. I like old-fashioned names. Thurman is very judicial-sounding.
Stereogum: Well, thank you. I hated it when I was a kid, but now I like it. Thanks also for taking the time to chat with me again. The last time we spoke, Oceania had yet to be released. Now that the record is out and people are more familiar with the material, how does it feel to be out there playing these songs?
Corgan: It’s been good. We feel it’s sort of opened up the door — musically, to go to a different place, so we see where we want to go now, with more clarity, having opened that door. And then secondarily, it’s pleasurable to play music that people want to hear in the present, because that creates a sort of circular loop that feeds back into the confidence of the band. And of course I’ve been through that, and I understand the good and the bad in it, but my bandmates haven’t been through that. So to see them going through that and to see their confidence lifting, and their sense of accomplishment becoming part of who they are as people and musicians, that’s nice too.
Stereogum: I remember seeing you play — I’m not sure what year it was, but you were touring for Zeitgeist — and it seeming like a really frustrating time. You seemed really annoyed. How is that experience different from how it feels now touring on this record?
Corgan: Well, look. There is the 1990 version of playing a song somebody doesn’t want to hear, and they put their fingers in their ears, and you think, “Fuck you. Good.” And then there’s the 2008 version, where you’re like, “Oh man, they’re just waiting for me to play … fill in the blank.” That’s a different feeling. I remember opening for the Buzzcocks in Paris. I think it was ’92. Weird room, didn’t sound very good, we didn’t get a sound check. We go out there, and the crowd is pretty old — mid-30s, early-40s. They were not interested in our brand of psychedelia, particularly in Paris. And we played — I’ve got the cassette somewhere — I told the band, “Just jam, fuck it.” Because literally we would stop and would be met by silence or the derisive whistle of European football fans. So we played six songs for 45 minutes, which means we played every song for about nine minutes. Even ones that weren’t supposed to be played that long, we just noodled. But we took great pleasure in being annoying. There’s a certain power in that. When you’re 40 years old, and the person’s standing there going, “Why doesn’t he play ’33’? I love that song. Why has he gotta play this 25-minute Pink Floyd song?” — it’s not the same feeling. On the Zeitgeist tour we’d play “Set The Controls To The Heart Of The Sun,” and we did this bit where we’d break down and we had little birds that we bought — they’re Audubon birds, where they actually have samples of the bird’s call. So we would walk up to the microphone and play our little bird calls, and people would boo the birds. And we’d laugh. We were like, “They’re booing bird calls.” Of course people are shouting, “Play some music!” OK, what are we playing? It’s totally a different experience, because what do you bond around? And then you read the review: “Ugh, Corgan. He wouldn’t play any of his hits.” And then I’d look at the set list and I would have played nine “hit” songs. So then you start thinking, “What’s the magic number?” And then you realize, there isn’t one. Twenty-four hits isn’t enough, because then you didn’t play _____. And then the punk-rock guy kicks in, and then of course I took it deeper and darker, and it got weirder and weirder. I drove Jimmy Chamberlain insane with how dark it all got. And that’s saying something.
Stereogum: It was interesting to me — so much of our previous conversation was about your feelings about reclaiming the name of the band and this record being a way to do that. We talked about your being able to embrace the legacy of the band, and also move forward and feel good about it. With Oceania now out in the world — around the same time as the various reissues of the old SP records — does it put you in a better place in regards to balancing the old with the new?
Corgan: No. Because the myth of the past is perfect. I’m not Dorian Gray, right? I mean, I’ve lived pretty good and gotten away with looking young for a while. To me, I’m looking and I see wrinkles, and of course I look at my father and what he looks like and it’s like, “Yeah, that’s where I’m going.” There comes a point where you’re not a kid anymore. You can’t play the kid anymore, you can’t pretend to be a kid. The past is fine. I always say to fans, “It’s all there.” And now with the reissues there’s even more there. I don’t know what more you want from me. I see sometimes where people write about me as if I’m oblivious. They don’t understand that I just choose to be oblivious because I can’t live in that energy. I can’t live in the energy of walking on stage and thinking, “All right. If I don’t play 10 hit songs tonight, a certain way, they all leave mad and they hit Twitter.” I’m not that guy. Because I’ve had those experiences. Here’s one little funny thing, right: at the very end of the Siamese Dream tour, I think our very last date was in Sweden. And of course we were bored — we’d been on tour for 14 months. So I said to the band backstage, “Hey I’ve got an idea — let’s play Siamese Dream, the album, all the way through.” This was 1994. And they said, “OK.” And so we went out and played Siamese Dream and the audience hated it. Because it wasn’t exciting. Because they wanted a mosh pit, and there’s a bunch of ballads on the record. Just because you think something was going to work, it doesn’t mean it works. I’ve seen where the thing you’re not supposed to do works. Prime example: Have a band, one original member, one member that wasn’t even born when the band started, and make it work. Once you’ve done that, you just think “Oh I can just keep doing it.” It doesn’t mean it always works — you just stupidly think, “Oh I can keep doing this.” Every time I walk on stage I think, “Oh I can make this work.” Most of the time, I think it does.
Stereogum: I’ve been looking at performances online and looking at the set lists. How does it feel playing Oceania all the way through?
Corgan: It’s interesting. It has sort of three sections. It’s sort of bright and moves along briskly in the first third, and then it gets super-dark, at least emotionally, so by the time you hit “Pale Horse” you’re like “Oh my God, we’re just going down and down and down.” And once it hits “Chimera,” it kind of seems to cruise on this other frequency till the end. So it’s nice. It feels like a play in three acts and then once we’re out of there and go into “Space Oddity” and “XYU,” then it opens up into the sort of darker waters of the band’s catalogue, and then it feels right. Then the past feels right. It’s like walking through an attic or something, but with the lights off. “XYU” in that context feels dangerous, whereas if it was in a normal greatest hits act, it feels like, “And here’s one more!” you know, Lawrence Welk shit. What I don’t understand is why more people aren’t on my side of the fence. Why everyone’s just sort of co-opted back into, like, “Yeah, the past is fun. Have some fun. Yeah I saw so-and-so play their album, and then I went over to the DJ tent. Glowsticks and stuff.” I don’t understand the lack of rebellious spirit or taking people to task for phoning it in. It’s become very weird to me how it’s become very comfortable. And I’m uncomfortable with how comfortable it is.
Stereogum: It’s interesting — I’ve had the same conversation with a lot of different bands that are more or less at the same level as you. A lot of conversations about people feeling like they’re always competing with their back catalogue and this frustration that comes with, “Here’s this new thing I made,” and people are like, “Yeah, but we want to hear that old thing you made.” And there are also people that are totally comfortable going out there and playing their hit album and enjoying the moment and going home. It’s a difficult position to be in, especially if you’ve been doing this for well over a decade. People seem to be warming up to your new band setup now, it’s just taken a while.
Corgan: For whatever reason, it’s registering now, where it didn’t register in the last five years. So hopefully for this upcoming tour, people will be there and we can give them the experience when they leave they think, “OK good. I’m back into it. I want to know what he’s doing next.” We don’t want one and done. We’re hopeful that we can engage a new era of the band, particularly in America, and have a good time with it. There are so many opportunities out there, and without a long dissertation on the business, there are people out there who are getting opportunities with half the song catalogue that I have, because they’re more willing to play that game. And that’s frustrating because it does impact certain things we don’t want impacted. I don’t need to play the EnormoDome, I just need to play the level that my work and my legacy should afford me. And when I’m punished for being a contrarian in ways that don’t make business-sense, that gets frustrating.
Stereogum: How does that manifest itself? You can’t book an arena instead of a ballroom because they know you’re not doing a greatest hits show?
Corgan: You get into self-fulfilling prophecies where people don’t believe you can play certain places because they don’t believe you’ll be playing what their constituency, for lack of a better word, will be looking for. It’s like, “Yeah you just headlined a festival in Europe, you played after Linkin Park to 60,000 people in the rain, the crowd stayed till the end and the reviews were incredible, but we’re not sure you can play here at our Kentucky Rose fest.”
Stereogum: That’s depressing.
Corgan: It’s more perceptional than reality, but at a certain point you know the reality has to connect. There are business things that are frustrating. I don’t think it’s going to last. I don’t want to use the word “unstoppable,” but we have a momentum that’s kind of rare. It’s an organic momentum. It’s not fostered by a movement, it’s not fostered by a record label, it’s not fostered even by a lot of cash. It’s just an organic thing that my music and my artistic intentions with this group of people, whom I trust, which is at the core of the whole thing, is working.
Stereogum: I can imagine it might be frustrating at a lot of levels, but it also must be satisfying to know that you’re doing it the way you want to do it, and it’s working.
Corgan: I can’t do it another way, so it’s not as satisfying as you would think, because I do have to sit there and listen to all these other fucking conversations about what I could have done or should have done. But I really am a one-lane type of thinker. I look back at certain albums that I did and I just scratch my head and think, “What were you thinking?” But I had to go through that thing. It’s just what I needed to go through. I really loved once when I was talking to Jimmy Chamberlin about regret and he said, “Well, I’m really happy now. I’m happily married, and I have two beautiful children, so I really can’t regret too much of what’s happened because it’s made me who I am today.” That’s a really good way to look at it. Oceania wouldn’t have been possible without the frustration of Zeitgeist. I could be making lukewarm, Siamese Dream-ish type of music and I’m sure in many ways I’d probably be more rewarded — but not me personally. I guess rewarded is probably the better sense of it. Sticking with your belief in yourself ultimately pays the greater dividend.
Stereogum: I know you’ve mentioned before that people always want to talk about you being this terrible contrarian. I don’t think of you in that way. I think it’s just that you are honest in ways that other people aren’t — at least not publicly. As someone who interviews a ton of bands, it’s refreshing when people say, “No, actually that sucks.” It’s just honest. I interview a lot of actors too, and actors are often so media-trained that no matter how horrible an experience is, they’ll say, “Oh it was really interesting. It was great to work with them.” It’s just sort of how they’re conditioned to talk to people. Whether or not people agree with you, I don’t think it’s necessarily “contrary” of you to express annoyance or regret about your career. It does, however, make you very quotable. I know that any time you say anything about another band or say something about Pitchfork, those quotes get picked up and reprinted a million times in a way that paints you as being a bitch, but I get the feeling that there are plenty of people who feel the same way — other bands, in particular — who just won’t ever say it.
Corgan: I think two things. One is: No one remembers if you sing the National Anthem well. They only remember if you were bad. Once I entered the world of honesty, circa 1992, there was sort of no going back. It’s a nice fantasy to think if someone got me some media training, I would have avoided a lot of these controversies that are really meaningless and continue to be meaningless. Secondarily, I think there’s something to be said for being principled. Like I think of Lou Reed as being principled. I think of Neil Young as being principled. There are those actors in the world for whom the principles they live their life by, in the long run, mean something. And I think that the principles that I live my life by do mean something and will look better in hindsight. Because when I was at South By Southwest … first of all, in alternative rock music, generally speaking, there have been very few bands in the past 10 years that have made OK Computer-level records. I guess you could say Arcade Fire made one, but there’s been a real scarcity in great, A-level work that crosses over into the mainstream. That’s very interesting, because I don’t think it’s a lack of talent. And if anything, you could say that technology should afford the ability to make ideal records even more easily than we used to be able to make when we had to do it all on tape. Secondarily, the main alternative voice for at least seven years now, and you could argue possibly longer, has been Pitchfork. And they have not produced the level of movement commensurate to their power. So what does that say to me? That system doesn’t work. Now it might work for the kids down in Wicker Park or Echo Park. It might work for the guy with the handlebar mustache. But it doesn’t work overall in the way that the Stooges work, the way that the Velvet Underground worked, or the Cure worked, or Depeche Mode, or pick your fucking any band that made it across the divide from being underground to being iconic. I think there’s something to be said for having made it across that chasm years ago, and standing on the other side, and saying, “If you’re going to lambast me for refusing to live by anybody’s rule but my own, I’m going to point out the hypocrisy of your message.” I don’t have any problem with alternative culture; in fact I’ve championed alternative culture for twenty-five years because I am part of alternative culture. But isn’t it funny how alternative culture likes to turn its back on those they don’t consider attractive. There is a narcissistic subtext to alternative culture that runs through its veins. Why do most people turn to alternative culture? Because they grow up in a family system or community system that doesn’t recognize their specialness or sensitivity or uniqueness, and they find that there are voices in the alternative community that represent them — whether they’re gay or lesbian or the pretty, overweight goth girl, or the outcast or whatever. They look at alternative culture and they say, “That’s the land of lost toys, there’s the place for me.” And we’ve seen this thing happen over the last 25 years — afforded by the Internet — where that narcissistic streak has become a business model. And for every Pitchfork, there are 400 bearded bloggers that are writing the same shit, if not worse. But it doesn’t work. Or the Pitchfork Festival will draw 60,000 people and not 12. It doesn’t work because you’re not going to be able to take Coachella and run that everywhere. You’re still leaving out a huge portion of the audience that isn’t so hung up on Sally’s haircut. There are a lot of people who grow up with no access to common alternative culture. They probably know the girl who works at the vegan place and that’s their exposure, and she goes, “Oh check this band out.” They’re not on some website, they’re not down at the club, but those are the people that we need to draw in, and those are the people that turn away at the gates because of the negative tone and dispossession. That’s why people like me make sense to people like that, because I’m in a nether land between those worlds. But why am I here? It’s like what I said in the Rush documentary. Why are 8,000 people going to show up and hear me play knowing that I’m a pain in the fucking ass? Well, maybe it’s because I’m a pain in the fucking ass.
Stereogum: No I think you’re right. The cycles for the way culture operates now are so much shorter. I feel bad — I often will interview a band, say a bunch of British guys who are 20, and it’s their first record, and they’re really excited. And then three years later they’ve put out their second or third album, and no one cares anymore, not necessarily because their album’s terrible but because it isn’t new.
Corgan: That feeds into the narcissistic strain. Why is that narcissistic strain there? Back in the day, I would run into Kim and Thurston backstage at a festival, and Thurston would talk to me about guitars and Kim would walk right past me. Why did Kim Gordon feel the need to walk past me? Why was I such a threat to Kim Gordon? I was a huge Sonic Youth fan. I saw Sonic Youth in ’87 at the Metro. I had every Sonic Youth album. I looked up to Kim Gordon. Why didn’t Kim Gordon walk past me in the hallway and mumble, “Hello?” Because what I represented was some sort of weird threat to their beautiful world that they were able to bubble around in for so many years.
Stereogum: Do you think so much of the time it just boils down to the fact that it’s just a perception of cool? Even back in the Lollapalooza days, Smashing Pumpkins were somehow already too popular to be cool in the same way Sonic Youth was.
Corgan: But the minute you codify cool, it’s not cool anymore. Now it’s a business model. Cool is a business model. Wicker Park, Echo Park, Silverlake — it’s a business model. Look, I like going down to the cool clothing store where the kids have painted skulls on the back of the flannel shirt or whatever, but don’t tell me that that’s all there is. It’s like the whole Radiohead quote: Don’t raise one guy up in exclusion of Richie Blackmoore. Don’t lift this guy up in one hand and put this girl down in the other. We don’t need to do that. You want to live in your little bubble, then live in your bubble. Why do I have to be the anti-hero to alternative culture when I helped create modern alternative culture as it exists through MTV? Why don’t I get to be in that club anymore? I love when the super-bloggy indie writer takes me to task for not playing the hits. How’s that for a contradiction in terms? Or, “He hasn’t done anything good since Siamese Dream.” Well, at least they admit I did something good. In wrestling, they teach you that if you really want to put down your opponent effectively, you praise them. You say, “You used to be a good champion, but you’re old now and I’m the new guy and get out of my way.” That’s because praising the other party gives them legitimacy to be in the fight. If you just come out and say, “You suck, you don’t belong here,” it’s like you don’t want to be in the fight. The amount of energy that I get from that world shows my legitimacy — they just don’t want to admit it. Why not just ignore me? I actually thought about this, and I’m not joking: About three years ago I thought about writing a letter and saying, “Dear you all, of this community. I’m going to ask you for a favor. Those of you who don’t like me, those who never liked me, those who will never like me, never write about me again. Just pretend I don’t exist. Shun me, don’t write about me.” They write about me because people click on it. Why do they click on it? Is it because I’m terrible? No, because at some point somebody recognized some form of legitimacy, so the argument is not my legitimacy, the argument is over my decision-making. But isn’t my decision-making more in line with an alternative artist than a mainstream artist? That’s where the hypocrisy and the double standard doesn’t make sense. I enjoy playing with these ideas because I realize that they’re all full of shit. They’re all phony. The idea of Smashing Pumpkins is just as phony as the idea of Pitchfork. It’s a dress-up game. My thing is if we’re all at a dress-up game, what comes out of it? If Pitchfork or Stereogum or whatever builds a stronger community that encourages creativity, and a stronger business model for young artists to engage in, great. If that’s the legacy of that, then great. That’s what I wanted when I was 20. We had to actually build it. So somebody runs around in that thing we helped build and tells us we don’t belong in it? That’s a fun one. I don’t even get my own memorial wing. It doesn’t mean anything unless it adds up to something. Sorry. Now I bet you wish I’d never called you!
Stereogum: Ha! No. It’s fun to talk about this stuff. I have these thoughts all the time. I’m 37 years old. I came of age in the era of 120 Minutes. Seeing you guys play at Lollapalooza — that entire “Alternative Nation” era — was a very formative time in my life. It’s why I do this for a living now. That being said, I am a part of this machine now, working as a music journalist for both print and online publications, and I think it’s important to talk about stuff like this. I don’t think it’s all negative. As long as I don’t read the comments sections on the website, I generally feel pretty good about what I do.
Corgan: I see it as the maturation of the alternative community. Because the alternative community is here to stay. It’s all these clothing companies and website builders and people who want to do things with some flare, and some style, and some panache. This is the maturation of the community. Don’t punish me for wanting to be an entrepreneur, don’t punish me for wanting to be independent. If you think it’s bourgeois that I talk about business, well sorry, but I’ve gotta fucking pay the bills. Would you rather have me exploited by a record label, and be sent back in by some asshole behind a door and say, “Make it more like Siamese Dream.” I hear those stories all the time, and I’m sure you hear them too. So don’t castigate somebody for trying to make the new models. Don’t castigate somebody for trying to survive. Don’t castigate somebody who wants to just do weird music the way he wants to do it. Don’t have fickle rules for one guy and don’t apply them to me. I mean, where was the outcry when Malkmus went on his money-run? I mean, he should have been slayed by the indie community. Absolutely slayed, and they didn’t say a fucking peep. You know why? Because they all wanted to go. They all ranked that record high, and they wanted to go. They said that was money well spent. Total hypocrisy.
Stereogum: Obviously you’ve been dealing with these sorts of issues for years.
Corgan: I’ve been dealing with it for years. I’ve been dealing with it since ’94 when that shit came out of Malkmus’s mouth. He made it like I was the one. He made me the target.
Stereogum: What was the origin of that? Was it that you represented something that he perceived as disingenuous?
Corgan: It’s easy to pick on the geek. He’s nerdy. My clothes are too tight, I’m always 10 pounds overweight, I’ve got crooked teeth, one of my eyes is bigger than the other one, I’ve got no hair, I sing with a funny voice. It’s easy to pick on the geek. They didn’t pick on Kurt because they all wanted to be Kurt. They all wanted to be Beck, they all want to be Thom Yorke. Thom Yorke’s okay because he’s “the right look” funny. I’m not “the right look” funny, I’m 6’4″, I’ve got my mother’s hips, people are like, “Who is this guy?” I wouldn’t be up there if I weren’t talented, you know? And music saved my life. Music is a sacred thing to me, and I jump up and down about it, get silly about it, but I obviously have a holy reverence for it I don’t get where it gets to be so strange. I mean to me, look, if the tongue is in the cheek on both sides, let’s have some fun. A good debate. I’ll make fun of your handlebar mustache, your Freddie Mercury look, you know what I mean? And you can make fun of my ill-fitting Gap pants. But then when it gets to be truly invective and you see that the source of the invective is because it’s a new business model, it’s just dumb. Let’s destroy this to build this. Let’s celebrate the exclusion of that. Let’s celebrate the kid in his basement, and the next year let’s pretend that the kid in his basement sucks, and let’s celebrate the new kid in his basement. Just call it for what it is — it’s a dumb game, and nobody’s winning. Where’s this starship of movement? Where are the record sales? I mean there’s a lot of festivals, there’s a lot of bands, but in to address it in wrestling language, I don’t see anybody getting over.
Stereogum: Yeah people have a weird misconception that simply being talked about means that you’re making money or you’re selling music, and it doesn’t.
Corgan: No, most of these bands can’t even survive, they have shitty day jobs, and they can’t focus on the music. It’s a shame.
Stereogum: I mean obviously this is always going to be a topic that people want to talk about with you and is something that has weighed heavy with your career. Has all the shit-talking and industry bullshit ever affected your ability to enjoy making music or enjoy being a musician?
Corgan: No, I think it affected my decision-making in terms of reacting against things. And to my credit, at least I fully invested in the reaction. So when you say, “I saw you up there frustrated,” I’m fully invested in the frustration. I’m not trying to hide it. I’m going with it. I’m throwing back at the audience what I think they’re giving me. I’m throwing back at the indie community what I think they’re giving me. If you want to make me to be agent zero, fine, I’ll go with it. Fact of the matter is that everybody who has talked about me has probably bought one of my records. So, who’s won? At least I’ve won one round out of 47. So the point being is, to me it’s at a tipping point and my guess, my personal guess, is it’s only going to get worse. A logical person would say, “Why bother getting into it?” and that goes back to the principal point. I’d like to think if a biographer decides to investigate the grunge movement and its aftermath in 40 years, and he looks at the quotes and who did what, at least I’ll come out looking like a true champion in it, as opposed to somebody who just cowered and licked somebody else’s boot. And history does judge, and God judges in terms of karma. I don’t think I’d be able to have this time in my life if I hadn’t done some of the right things that were considered the wrong things. Making the album Adore was the beginning of that. For me, I think it’s a broken thing, and I’m looking to get out of it basically. Which is why I’ve been saying I think the band has got about four or five more years, and then we’ll morph. We’ll get off this hamster wheel, because the indie community is just going to continue to grow sideways, not upwards, and it will continue to be self-reverential, which is the worst thing. It’s uber-trendy — again, the worst thing. If I meet one more record critic who wants to talk about the weird guy in the basement, and you look through their record collection and they listen to Boston … I think it’s time to bring everybody under the same tent. The reason I’m saying that is that’s the old model. And in the new model, you should be able to find people who relate to you where you can say, “You know what? I like Pavement, I like Boston, I like Lou Reed, I like a little bit of Television, I’m secretly a Blondie fan, and my guilty pleasure is I love Nicki Minaj.” And it’s OK. You don’t have to say good pop star, bad pop star, good alternative artist, bad alternative artist. Just like who you like, find like-minded people through Facebook or whatever, and just get on with it. Celebrate and support the artists in a way that they’ll continue to be able to make music. You need the big bands to drive the little bands. That’s the way it works in wrestling. People say, “Who was the greatest wrestler of all time?” And some people say Hulk Hogan — well he wasn’t a great wrestler, but he was the biggest draw ever. Everybody that wrestled with Hogan got to be bigger and made a lot of money. So some people say Hogan’s number one. Not because he was a great physical wrestler but because of what he did for the business. And ultimately, because wrestling is fake, the money drawn is how you should rate the wrestler. So there’s a whole crowd that says that Hulk Hogan is number one, no matter what anyone else thinks in the indie wrestling world, because somebody could do a flip or whatever better. The same thing is true with rock and roll. We should celebrate those artists that bring along the other artists. I learned about Nietzsche from reading about Jim Morrison. That’s how I learned to read Nietzsche, I read a book about Jim Morrison, so at 14 I read Nietzsche.
Stereogum: Same for me. I read Camus because I listened to The Cure. There was no Internet, so I learned about things from reading music magazines. If Michael Stipe endorsed something, I’d go find it.
Corgan: That’s what I’m saying. Stop punishing the big starships because they’re the ones that drag the little ones along. There’s room for everybody.
Stereogum: Two things before we hang up. My boyfriend is a huge KISS fan, and in my experience of being with him I’ve learned more about KISS than I’d ever imagined. He was super excited that you’ve been playing “Black Diamond” in your sets lately. There’s no question there. I just like that if you really love something intensely and specifically, all paths will lead back to it if you want them to. I mentioned Smashing Pumpkins and somehow it lead immediately back to KISS.
Corgan: I’ve gotta tell you one story. Last time I saw Gene Simmons was backstage at a Judas Priest show or something. And I introduced a friend of mine to Gene, and in the course of the conversation, Gene asked my friend, “Does your penis have a name?” And he said, “No.” And so when we left, I said, “Oh that’s cool, you got to meet Gene Simmons.” And he said, “Well I’m a little freaked out. I’ve met him before, and both times I met him he asked me if my penis had a name.”
Stereogum: From Gene Simmons’s point of view, I wonder what that question is the barometer for? Like, does he view other men in terms of “men who name their penis” and “men who don’t name their penis”?
Corgan: You can’t get into the mind of Gene. It’s too vast. Your boyfriend will tell you that.
Stereogum: You mentioned wrestling. I wanted to ask. I know you’re still very involved with Resistance Pro Wrestling. How is that going?
Corgan: Yeah. We’re coming up on our one-year anniversary, which is very exciting, and we have a show on the 14th. I got my brother involved now, which is pretty cool — my special-needs brother. It’s great to have him involved. So it’s rolling. We’re still working on getting a reality show made about it. Lots of opportunities, and the goal is to eventually get it to be a TV product. It’s really fun. It’s very much like a theater troupe. It’s fun to get together with everyone — everyone behind the scenes tends to be pretty nice. It’s a good community to belong in. I feel much more a part of something with the wrestling than I do in rock and roll.
Stereogum: As a kid, were you always super into wrestling?
Corgan: I was into it a lot when I was a kid, and then when I hit 15 I went, “Oh that’s kid stuff,” and I started to get weird and gothy. I didn’t watch again until the late-’90s and I came across some different stuff on television, and just kind of got sucked back in. Once you meet a few wrestlers, and you realize there’s this behind-the-scenes world that you can check into, it gets really crazy. There are things called dirt sheets, and they’re the ones that spill all the behind-the-scenes stuff like who’s mad at who, and the politics, and who’s getting paid what, and who’s furious at who because they botched a move. It gets really crazy. So being part of that and getting let inside that world over time, and now being a part of it, it’s just even weirder.
Stereogum: I’m always fascinated by how all things have their own culture. Unless you just happen to be involved with it, you would have no idea.
Corgan: It’s a vast, vast subculture. All sorts of stuff that you’ve got to dig inside to even get it. And of course, it came out of a carnival, so there’s a whole language that wrestling people speak, and if you don’t speak the language, they’re not going to tell you. It’s pretty wild. I work with a 20-year-old wrestler who’s not a fan of my music at all. He has no idea about it. Of course they know who I am, but they’re not impressed, because they wrestling people — they don’t care about music. Our relationship is strictly: How do I help them become a bigger star? So I have to speak their language to figure out how we can work together. It’s fascinating. If you have more interest, there’s an incredible documentary called Beyond The Mat. I actually just saw one of the wrestlers in that — Mick Foley, who was doing comedy out in L.A. He said the number one question he gets asked is, “Did it hurt when Undertaker threw you off the cage?” That’s the number one question he gets asked.
Stereogum: That’s cool. It must be great also to have something totally separate from your music life to focus on.
Corgan: Yeah. I think what it does for me is it helps me assess my value as a person in a way that music can’t. I’m valuable to my wrestling company as somebody who feeds, as somebody who brings people together, as somebody who helps make other people famous, and I get a different sense of value. Where in music, it’s always wrapped up in a lot of other things that I can’t control — including the negative opinion that has been created and that I’ve helped foster, which is of course part of the vapor trail behind anything I do. It’s like this [cat noise], I mean it just goes with the voice. But yeah, it’s a nice … I don’t want to say it’s a clean start. It’s not like I moved to Mongolia and no one speaks English, but it’s enough of a clean start that I can have a different experience in life, and it’s actually very rewarding. I’m very appreciative of the people I work with.
Stereogum: I assume that the next year of your life will be spent on the road?
Corgan: Nah, touring is too weird now. We used to be able to string together a lot of dates just to hold the tour together between the major cities, and as the economy has gotten worse, it’s really wreaking havoc on those kind of plans. It’s difficult, I feel bad, of course every day on Twitter somebody writes, “Why don’t you come to our town?” And I feel really bad because I used to go to those places all the time, and I don’t know how to write somebody back and say, “I’d love to come but I don’t want to play in front of 473 people when I deserve to play in front of 4,000 people.” And the reason that I can’t play in front of 4,000 is that in your world, I don’t exist. Your local radio station won’t play me, and your local paper is gonna write about what a weirdo I am. And it’s hard because you don’t want to punish those 473 people but you can’t come in with the whole show and the lights and everything. It’s just the economics of it all. It’s a shame because the philosophy for the first 20 years of my musical life was, “If they want us to play, we’ll go there,” and generally the crowds were there to meet us. But that’s the way it goes.
Stereogum: I saw that you’re playing at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, which was where I saw many shows as a kid.
Corgan: Yeah, I’m a big Bob Wills fan, so it’s pretty cool playing that ballroom, considering the history of the room and the connection to him. They booked a few days in Mexico for us, and the tour didn’t start again until we were in Canada, like eight or nine days later, and I said to the powers that be, “What are we supposed to do in this week off?” We hate the time off because it’s hard to remember everything, and we get rusty, so we said we’d just put up some shows through the middle of America and rock our way up North. And so I’m glad they put in the date like that, because that’s a cool place to play. Can’t fit the entire stage setup in there though. It’s pretty cool when you play Cain’s and you look up and see all those pictures on the wall. All these amazing artists who spent years on the road. To me, that’s the real tradition. Even though that’s not the tradition that people talk about now. Those guys and those girls up on the wall — that’s the tradition that I consider myself a part of. It’s a real thrill.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ Oceania is out now. They will be on tour throughout the fall.