Inside Baseball With Billy Corgan: The Smashing Pumpkins Head On Adore, MACHINA, And The End Of Teargarden
Back around the time the Smashing Pumpkins were conquering the world in the mid ’90s, I’m not sure anyone would’ve guessed that Billy Corgan would approach middle age and his second decade as a public artist quite as he has. Of all the artists from America’s ’90s alt-boom, Corgan remains the most relevant and vital — even if the road to this point has been uneven, it still feels totally plausible that Corgan has another masterwork in him. And part of that vitality comes from his willingness to just do a bunch of kinda crazy things and just ride with them to see how they play out. That includes the ambitious initial concept for the Teargarden By Kaleidyscope project (the most opaque title Corgan’s offered in a career full of them), but it also includes improvisational synth performances, posing with his cats, writing a “spiritual memoir,” and starting an indie pro wrestling league and then deciding maybe that it’d be cool to have a reality show about said wrestling league. With all his various interests, it’s somewhat surprising Corgan still has time to write Smashing Pumpkins music, but he’s got two records on the way. This is in addition to having spent the last several years preparing a massive, exhaustive reissue of 1998’s misunderstood Adore. (If I could rewrite my Smashing Pumpkins list from last year, I have a feeling I’d rank it above Gish and Pisces Iscariot — aside from Zwan, it is perhaps the most underrated and wrongfully maligned work of Corgan’s career.) Corgan’s been considered many things in his career, but no matter your stance, you couldn’t say the man is anything short of magnanimous with his creative output and activity. I found him to be the same in conversation — far more affable than his old reputation would suggest, never offering an answer that didn’t feel as brutally honest as it was exactingly thought-through. We spoke for twice as long as we were supposed to, digging into the past as well as discussing what’s on the table for the future of the Smashing Pumpkins.
STEREOGUM: Hey Billy, how are you doing today?
CORGAN: Good, I’m almost halfway [through] my book, which has been a monumental effort. So, about one more day and I think I’m at the official halfway point, which is really exciting because I started like four years ago. It doesn’t mean it took me four years to get halfway, it took me [four years] to where I could finish halfway.
STEREOGUM: I was going to ask you about the book a little later, but since you brought it up, let’s talk about it now. I saw it described as a “spiritual memoir,” and I was wondering if you’d tell me a little bit more about that, or about the style of the writing.
CORGAN: Of course, I’ve never written a book before, so it’s sort of an evolving process, but the reason I sort of qualified it as a spiritual memoir is I wanted people to know up front that I’m not writing the book from the perspective of, you know, a “celebrity life.” Because I feel like I’ve read those books, and actually I do like reading some of those books, particularly old ones from the ’30s and ’40s, but I just didn’t want it to be that book, because it’s not really about naming names. It’s more about a spiritual journey a la Siddhartha, where you start one place and you end up somewhere else and you kind of just chart the process. And of course it involves all sorts of things I “believe” — in quotations — happened, but, you know, life being a dream, can’t say they happened for sure.
STEREOGUM: So it’s not going to strictly be an autobiography then. It sounds like it’d be a little more interpretive?
CORGAN: I wanted it to be emotionally honest without having to be honest to the truth, and what I mean by that is — having been in bands, having been in long-term relationships, everybody has their version of what happened, and rather than try to write something that was a constant defense of my position, I’ve just written it from the standpoint of, this is what I feel I’ve experienced. What is my sensory recall, and then I guess you could say part of what the book explores is that our perception of memory changes vis-à-vis our own place and our own spirituality. Just how a person can look at a tragedy in a spiritual light as a positive experience as opposed to a negative one. And being in a very material life — which, public life is ultimately very material — it’s hard to quantify the experience without going into some sort of version of the dream because it literally is like a dream. I will look up stuff that happened to me and my memory of it is probably as clear as a dream. So I write about it almost like it was a dream, because in a way it is a dream. It’s hard to explain any further than that, because at the end of the day, it’s still storytelling, and ultimately I’d say the book is a work of fiction and is more like a fable than a “here’s what happened,” like a court of law transcript. I just think there’s no way to do that with as much as I’ve experienced. And I’m not interested in writing that book. Luckily I found a publisher who understood that that was the book I wanted to write. I had no interest in writing the book that most people write.
STEREOGUM: The title is going to be God Is Everywhere From Here To There, right?
CORGAN: It changes, but as of right now it’s back to that title. [laughs] I lopped off the “God” for a while but somehow it came back. It’s back to God Is Everywhere From Here To There.
STEREOGUM: Do you mean “God” in an abstract spiritual way or in a more defined religious sense?
CORGAN: Well, I start from this, which is that I think God is imbued in everything. And I qualify — when you talk about God in public, people automatically flash into their own belief system or they start rejecting the one they think you have. I’m ultimately a pagan, I don’t really subscribe to any particular religious dogma, so when I say “God,” I can replace it with the word “Truth” or “Love.” I basically see God as an absolute, by which you can contrast your position. And then by extension, the world’s position. So when the United States does something and cites God, it’s hard for me to measure that, because in the absolute, I don’t see how the absolute would condone using drones to kill somebody. So it gets into that kind of qualifier for me, and the book does kind of document that sort of transitional space of how I began to process this vast material life that I entered into thinking I was going to have a spiritual payoff. Which gets into the classic rock ‘n’ roll stuff of the Faustian bargain. You sign a deal with a devil and somehow you think it’s all going to work out for you in the end, and there are very few rock ‘n’ roll tales that end where that works. Most end exactly as you imagine they would.
STEREOGUM: So you’re about to release the Adore reissue, and you’re also working on one for MACHINA, correct?
CORGAN: Yeah, we’ve just now started to dive into the deep end of the pool on that one. But the plan there is to actually … the record was written as a pseudo-rock-opera type deal, and when the band completely fell apart in the middle, the album never really got finished in the way I’d written it, so I view it as kind of an unfinished album. So the idea is to still present it in its original form, MACHINA I and MACHINA II, kind of like the other [reissued Smashing Pumpkins] albums, but at the same time present it in what we would call a finished form.
STEREOGUM: So what spurred on the decision to do that and Adore? Because there’s no real anniversary moment or anything like that. So why did you want to return to those albums right now?
CORGAN: It’s a really long story, but essentially, at different times we’ve discussed with then EMI, now Universal Music Group, the notion of a reissue campaign, and there was a lot of back and forth on what that meant. I refused to do the typical run and dump, you know, throw a couple extra tracks on an album and call it a reissue. I wanted something much more comprehensive, and then in the middle of all that, which was an extensive negotiation with what was then the old label, then the two ex-band members de facto sued the label, who in turn sued me. Which threw this massive wrench in the works, and then that had to be sorted out. So by the time this all finished and everything was tied up with a bow, I got a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do, so this is a really direct reflection of what I planned to do for years and years, but the amount of work involved has been way more intense than I ever would’ve imagined.
STEREOGUM: In what sense? Just the digging back through all the old material? Or getting to the point where you were even able to start the project because of the legal stuff?
CORGAN: It’s more just like … you say something simple like, “Hey, where’s that reel?” and then somebody comes back and goes, “It’s missing.” [laughs] And you don’t know, because you haven’t looked for it in fifteen years, you don’t know where it went. Currently, on MACHINA, I think there’s about seven reels missing. As in “probably stolen.” So you’re trying to create sessions from old Pro Tools files. It’s a lot of stuff people don’t need to hear about, but it becomes a lot of detective work. And then by the time you get stuff compiled, it gets into, same subject, your memory vs. reality. You thought some track was great, and then you listen to it and you realize you never finished the vocal. So do you put it out half-cocked? Or do you say, well, it’s a document like any other, and I still think it’s interesting if you’re a fan of this album because it shows something that was a dead end. And then there’s other stuff where fans come up and say, “Gosh, I can’t believe you didn’t put that out,” and it was something that was finished, and I go, “Eh, I don’t think it held up over time. I think we can live without that particular one.” So it’s a bit of decision-making on stuff that you think would go on, that it would be a no-brainer, that you leave off because in your eyes it doesn’t really add value to the package. And then looking for stuff that is illuminating. My general approach being, if you’re a fan of a particular album, not only would you be reminded of why the album was good, but then you’d sort of feel the big moat around the album that maybe illuminates the process in and out of the album in a way that would also make you appreciate the album more.
STEREOGUM: There were a lot of different things going on in your life and in the band at the time, and I know dreamlike memory could kind of make it hard to qualify now, but how were you approaching or thinking about music differently at that time relative to the other Pumpkins records? I’m interested in how the process was different for you on a personal level than the albums that bookended it.
CORGAN: We had actually discussed taking a more radical approach before we did Mellon Collie. And in a rare moment of democracy, we actually voted to make one more quote-unquote “rock record,” which became the Mellon Collie record. Because I was ready to jump more into the experimental end in ’94. So now fast-forward to ’97, Jimmy’s out of the group, the band relationships are in a different place, obviously the band’s coming off the massive run of Mellon Collie. Now I felt like, now I’ve got both the musical opportunity, because the band’s no longer intact, and secondarily — and I use this word jokingly — kind of a mandate from the public. Like, “Oh, we like your experimentation,” because obviously “1979” had been a big hit song, which was more electronic. “Eye,” which came out before Adore if memory serves me correctly, was also a hit song — which was also electronic, which I’d basically done on my own. So I had this, uh … a little bit of swagger, like, “Oh, I can pull this off. I can transition the band out of a traditional rock band into something more experimental.” And even though you wouldn’t hear it in the record, I was thinking like, you know, what the Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper’s. Why can’t we make a really different type of record? So that was my thinking going into it.
STEREOGUM: Given the time elapsed and hindsight, what kind of position does the album occupy for you now in the grand scheme of the Pumpkins discography?
CORGAN: I think it’s probably the most important album, and what I mean by that was: the first three Pumpkins albums were very much about, “Gotta get on MTV, gotta win, gotta beat the other bands.” It was very ambitiously minded. And, that Faustian bargain, we got everything we bargained for. We got the good and the bad and that path, which is well-documented, pretty much blew the band up internally. So Adore is kind of the moment where I decide, “Right, if I’m going to keep doing this, I’ve gotta do it in a way that’s more personal to me.” I don’t mean personal like personal songwriting, I mean personal to how I would dream of making an album. How I would like to work. What I would like to hear at the end of the day. It’s a really big leap into the abyss of, “OK, let’s see where that takes me.” Of course, I didn’t think it through. I was so in my mind at that point that I thought there was no way that I could fail, so when the album quote-unquote “failed” on a public level — and, by the way, ha ha, only went platinum, which when you consider the numbers people do these days … that was a massive disappointment to our label. I mean, massive. They basically, from that point on, went off the band.
STEREOGUM: And that’s why they wouldn’t release MACHINA the way you wanted, right?
CORGAN: That’s a longer story, but sort of yes and no. And probably better told when that album [reissue] comes out. There’s also an element there of, no one really saw that the music business was about to take a nosedive. Those were early indications of those things, but we thought we were just caught up in a bigger wheel. Now you can look back and realize that there were other tidal forces that were kicking in, etc. etc. But in this moment, you’re coming off this massive success, and you know, there are those personal moments where you invite your management in to hear the album, you’re halfway through, and they walk out looking like they’ve seen a ghost, because there goes the mega-tour, there goes the easy opportunities. And sometimes people forget that, you know, essentially all I needed to do was make Mellon Collie More and I would’ve been totally fine. As you see today, bands continue to make the same record, and they’re sort of rewarded for it. This was a huge risk to take, I was sure I was going to pull it off, and I really didn’t. The only thing I would say in the positive about it — in the context of the conversation we’re having — is the album sounds amazingly contemporary now. Which is really funny. So in a weird way, maybe now, with this particular spotlight, we’ll find the right kind of audience, for it because it actually does sound — in terms of production, space, approach — it’s much more commensurate to what’s going on in music today than it was in 1998.