Interview

Inside Baseball With Billy Corgan: The Smashing Pumpkins Head On Adore, MACHINA, And The End Of Teargarden

STEREOGUM: One of the other questions I was going to ask you, and this might be different relative to the career narrative in the late ’90s vs. what you just said about it sounding very contemporary, but do you regret any of the extreme aesthetic decisions you made between Mellon Collie and Adore?

CORGAN: Oh, yeah. I really think, I mean, if we’re talking about it strictly on the ambition tangent, it was a huge mistake. If we were talking about it like The Art Of War, right, I basically ceded my position in the world. I surrendered my position in the world willingly without any real plan of how I was going to get back to it if I wanted to. I burned a bridge so hard. I ran around, I did stupid stuff. I would do interviews with like, Howard Stern, and I’d go on and I’d say “Rock is dead.” I was being quite dramatic about the whole thing, you know? Because I really wanted to make this statement. Which was silly because in essence, once I burned the bridge, there was no going back. And on that level, it wasn’t very wise. Because the way the music business works — and this is inside baseball stuff — but the way the music business works is, the minute they perceive that you’re done, like D-O-N-E done, I mean, everybody but everybody stops answering your phone call. And in context, I had six or seven years where they couldn’t answer my phone call fast enough. So I went from having a lot of latitude as an artist, a lot of resources as an artist, to literally I cut off almost every version of it and put myself in a very dire position, put the band in a very adversarial position, and then you look like you’re fighting shadows on the wall. You look kind of dumb.

STEREOGUM: In terms of the more aesthetic end of it and what you were saying about it being more contemporary, I remember you once commented on the mixture of folk and electronic music, and the idea that it was supposed to sound “ancient and futuristic” at the same time, and I was wondering if you thought that’s what was successful about Adore, if that part still holds true.

CORGAN: I think that’s the part that forever works.

STEREOGUM: When you talk about using this re-release to shine a new light on the album, are those the qualities you think translate well to today?

CORGAN: A lot of it was rooted in folk music. And folk music has kind of a spooky timelessness to it, and I think that probably more than the production keeps it … it doesn’t grow too old. I listen to Mellon Collie sometimes and I think, “Wow, some of that stuff’s so dated,” because it was so of its time. I think Adore’s sort of past-futurism kind of works. It’s strange. It’s hard to say because ten years from now I might say the exact opposite.

STEREOGUM: Do you feel MACHINA has a similar quality as a sidelined Pumpkins album that might wind up having a more out of time quality?

CORGAN: I think when I finish putting it back together, I think I’ll be able to pull that out of it. I don’t think as it exists, in the current frame, the raw MACHINA II and the quote-unquote “finished” MACHINA I, I don’t think people would get that. The funny thing is, musicians get it. I mean, and maybe you do too. But most people, it’s too strange for them. They can’t grasp it. It’s too dark, too alien. And I hear that more now than I did in 2000 when I was like, “What the fuck? Why don’t people understand? I’m an artist! This is what I do.” Blah blah blah. I get it now. There’s a certain thing in pop, that you’ve kinda gotta lead people to the water a bit, and MACHINA definitely — in the context in which it exists now — it doesn’t do that. It doesn’t really invite you in. It kind of punches you in the face and expects you to sit and listen for two hours. And I think that that was unwise.

STEREOGUM: What I’m curious about there is whether you think Adore was the outlier in the original lineup output in the sense that, you know, it doesn’t sound of its time necessarily.

CORGAN: I feel they’re all outliers, they’re just judged on their success. And I literally, if I’m being hubris-filled about it, I would say, when I cared about being successful, to make sure that the communication level on the first three albums was clear, I had a lot of success, and when I didn’t care as much on the fourth and the fifth albums, I kind of got what I paid for. I thought I had enough juice to carry through, to have people listen to the album twenty times. And to give it some cultural context of the times, there were other more edgy, arty bands coming out at that time that were getting that kind of audience, who were listening to records twenty times, so it was strange to me that we weren’t able to get that. Even our own friends were rejecting albums like Adore and MACHINA after one listen, which was really strange to me, and then they’d turn around and tell me how some other band, they couldn’t stop listening to them. So there was a cultural confusion there for me at the time. But again, I blame myself. I think I, more than anybody, offered something that was too hard to follow. Too confusing to follow. And when I think about the Adore box set, I think it leads you a little bit easier to that well, and of course, time has helped too. But MACHINA, I think it’s really going to behoove me to figure out how to do that so that it will finally get heard in the same context of the others, because, I mean, this is a really strange thing, we’ll even get stuff from the record label that will talk about the band’s reissues, and they won’t include MACHINA. The album’s treated like it never even came out.

STEREOGUM: Yeah that is the odd thing about that one. People almost talk about it like it was some online fan-club release that didn’t count as part of the canon.

CORGAN: I feel the same way. It’s this weird thing, it’s almost like I only made four albums with the original lineup or whatever variation of it, and we made five. I guess, if I’m being a propagandist, my hope here is that by the time this reissue campaign ends, all five albums will be taken in the same light of studiousness. Because all five were tremendous efforts, which I drew from different sources to make, and which I think all stand up in the test of time. I mean, every album has its pluses and minuses, but I see them as all equal levels of work in terms of commitment, and it’s cool because I see this weird thing happening with musicians of this generation — I don’t know what to call them anymore, we’re running out of letters. Is it Generation A again? But this generation in particular really responds to MACHINA, which is pretty cool, particularly the musicians. That tells me that the work is there and I’ve just gotta clarify it. I like old movies, and yesterday I was watching this Gloria Swanson movie called Queen Kelly, which is one of these weird films that was never finished. They pulled the money. So you can buy this reissue, which is this incredibly expensive, elaborate, half-finished movie that has no ending. And it’s obvious they spent gobs of money. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think of something like MACHINA. It’s this expensive, unfinished movie that I’ve gotta figure out in an economical way, way past its due date, how to finish. I’m really up for the challenge to see if I can.

STEREOGUM: Where did the bonus disc titles for the Adore reissue come from? Do they have any roots in the original sessions?

CORGAN: Those are just inside Pumpkins jokes. People come and say, “For identification purposes, can you give these extra discs titles?” And it’s kind of like, “Uh, OK.” They’re kind of inside winks to old Pumpkins jokes.

STEREOGUM: Amongst the band and your crew, or the fan community?

CORGAN: The fan community. There was a certain mentality I used to approach those things with, so it’s like putting on the old hat one more time.

STEREOGUM: Did digging back into this era of your career influence what you were currently working on?

CORGAN: No, not really. As a general comment, the one thing I’ll say about the reissue campaign, because I’ve been on it I guess now about four years. So this stuff is kind of constantly up in my face, I have to constantly deal with issues involved in these reissues. It makes me really appreciate how hard we worked, and it kind of kicks me in the pants that, if I’m going to do another album, I have to work just as hard. I can’t work one ounce less, if that makes any sense. It’s like, if you’re going to do this, you have to do this. That’s what album commitment looks like. In essence, don’t use the excuse of low record sales in this era or your own personal bummer trip about the way the culture has responded to music in general. Don’t use those as excuses.

STEREOGUM: OK, cool. If you’re open to talking about them yet, I was also curious about the two albums you have coming out next year.

CORGAN: Actually, the first one, Monuments To An Elegy, has been bumped up to, at this moment, December 9th. It’s funny, I put some of that information on a weekend post … it’s interesting how the internet works. I put that on a weekend post and nobody picked up on it.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, I’m surprised I hadn’t heard about that. So this is the one that’s nine songs, right?

CORGAN: Yeah, it’s nine songs. I actually got to play the unmixed but finished version the other night for Tommy Lee when he was in town. I played it for him after the Mötley Crüe concert here in Chicago.

STEREOGUM: What was it like working with Tommy Lee?

CORGAN: It was an awesome experience. He really reminded me of what I loved about his work with the Crüe. He plays with a real passion and a real sense of moment, and not every drummer plays like that. It’s a real unique gift he has. It’s hard to put into words, but when he plays on these songs, they feel like they just sparkle to life. I mean, obviously, he’s a great drummer and he’s a super heavy-hitter and all that stuff, that’s no surprise to anybody. The surprise to me working with him up close in the studio was the way he captures a moment. And he does it so effortlessly, it’s almost hard to believe. But he just does it, it’s in him. And we’ve gotten to be a little bit close in the process, and we’ve kept in touch afterwards, which is really nice. I really treasure him as a friend, I love him as a person. You don’t have that connection with every musician you work with. We just really hit it off, so I hope to work with him more.

STEREOGUM: Do you want to have him tour with the Pumpkins?

CORGAN: You know, I wouldn’t put that on him. [laughs] He’s on this massive tour, this last Crüe tour. Let’s say he wasn’t, I don’t know, that’s a different vibe. At the end of the day, Pumpkins is very much my world, and the last thing Tommy needs is to deal with me. I’d rather keep him on the side of the fence of buddy and confidante. Right now the only person quote-unquote “in the band” is Jeff Schroeder. And that’s a relationship we built over eight years. It’s taken time to find the right balance between all those forces — my world, his world — to where he feels super motivated and comfortable and has really taken on this leadership role in the band to push me back to a place of complete dedication. It’s not as simple as adding someone to the mix and expecting it all to balance out. And Tommy’s had a lot of experience, you know, and so … I just can’t even imagine asking him to be in that situation. Now, a gig here and there, or have him join us for a few songs, that would be really fun. I would love to do that. But the idea of going on a tour, that’s a huge commitment that you really have to consider the whys and wherefores. That’s why I laugh. I wouldn’t put that on a friend.

STEREOGUM: How would you describe Monuments To An Elegy sonically?

CORGAN: It sort of sounds like all the records at the same time, but it doesn’t sound like any other record I’ve made. Other people have said that too. It feels up in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s very much alive. Tommy has a real role in that. I don’t know, when you get into qualifiers … and this is a more general comment — when you say rock ‘n’ roll these days, what does that even mean? When pop acts — pure pop, not crossover — when pop bands use guitars like we used them in the ’90s and people yawn because it doesn’t mean anything anymore, what does it mean to say, “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll album.” What does it mean to say it’s a pop album? Pop is what? All those beautiful women singing in unbelievably high registers about love and loss? I don’t even know how to quantify the music other than to say: it sounds like Pumpkins music. And that’s the one bit of feedback I could tell you that I’ve gotten from other people. When they hear it they’re like, typical dude talk, “Fuck yeah, it’s a Pumpkins album!” Somehow Tommy being in that mix sparkles back to life that thing that reminds you not of the past, but reminds you of why the Pumpkins are different than other bands.

STEREOGUM: Do you feel like that wasn’t present on Oceania?

CORGAN: I think it was and it wasn’t. Oceania was very much about, for me personally, reconciling with the past in the way I made peace with it. To glom it to another artist’s journey for a second. I’m a huge Neil Young fan. There was a moment in the late ’80s where Neil Young made peace with Neil Young. He went back to the way he played guitar before, and he started kind of writing not the same songs but Neil Young-type songs, and everyone was like, “Oh, he’s back to being Neil Young.” Whatever that meant. And then he had this tremendous amount of success which now, in hindsight, you realize it didn’t really sound like his old music. But yet, in his making peace with what he’d done, he’d sort of rekindled something both within himself and within the public. Oceania was, for me, a similar journey. It was like, “OK, I’m not going to avoid this guitar sound because it reminds people of Album 2.” I’d been in that headspace for a long time. It was almost like, “I’m not going to give you what you want because I know you want it. If I give you what you want it’s almost like I’m admitting defeat and I’m not going to admit defeat, so fuck you!” [laughs] Oceania was like, I’m just going to do my thing. If it works, great. If it reminds you of the past, cool. I’m not going to worry about it. I’m just going to do my trip and be cool with it.