Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan has a thousand stories to tell. The group's only remaining original member helped found the Pumpkins in 1988 after relocating to his native Chicago from none other than St. Petersburg, Florida. He'd moved to the Sunshine State briefly in '85 after graduating from high school because he was fearful of the Windy City's reception to his goth band at the time, the Marked. After playing a little more than a dozen shows in our beloved state, bassist Dale Meiners suddenly quit, and Corgan moved back to Chi-Town and started Smashing Pumpkins soon after.
Florida still figures in, though. Corgan visits family in Coconut Creek regularly, and there's a sold-out crowd awaiting him Tuesday at Revolution, a stop on the Smashing Pumpkins' latest tour. He's scaling back, playing only small shows for his biggest fans and signaling SP's return to heavy guitar rock. If the tour kickoff at Los Angeles' Viper Room June 30 is any testament, a lot of the band's early songs will figure in, and a handful of the first people in line could be rewarded with a more intimate performance at sound check before the show. New Times chatted with Corgan about his 20-plus years in the music industry; the inspiration behind his latest effort, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Vol. 1: Songs for a Sailor; and why he's releasing his latest music track by track only.
New Times: What's it like to know you're playing to a sold-out show again?
Billy Corgan: You mean a sold-out show of 200 people? [laughs].
Well, it's still a sold-out show.
You know, for now, I'm just gonna hold shows that have like 50 people and just sell them all out for the rest of my life. I have to say this from a prideful point of view: Sellouts always feel good, no matter what the size of the place is [laughs].
So what inspired you to do a small-venues tour?
We got two new members of the band, and it takes a little while to get your feet underneath you as a unit. I thought it would be good to not throw ourselves in the deep end of the pool right away. Because you can intellectualize sets and what you wanna play and what you think the audience wants to hear, but till you go out there... because you know audiences shift, things shift. Over the past five to six years, some of my more gothy material has become more popular, like the Batman song ["The End Is the Beginning Is the End"]. Now gothy songs are not a concert killer, where ten years ago, they would've been.
What's it like to be a part of something that's had such longevity?
First, things start to kick in that you can't anticipate. Positive number one: Now we're getting to that place where we're getting the kids of fans. So we'll meet the 16-year-old, and he's like, "Yeah, my dad was totally into you guys, and I'm so excited 'cause this is my first chance to see you." You get people that have been fans for so long that they don't wanna hear anything new. They're just totally over it. They just wanna hear only songs between the years 1990 and 1995, and fuck all the rest. When you're playing in 1997, you can never imagine getting to that place where your audience wouldn't wanna hear what you were doing new. All of a sudden, you've got this guy who's mad because you only played four songs from Siamese Dream and not 11 and could give a fuck-all about the new album.
Oddly enough, your newer stuff sounds really similar to your much earlier albums.
Oh, that's interesting. Spiritually, I feel a real affinity for the new songs with the first couple of albums. I think the new stuff even more so will remind you of those early years. It's not because I'm trying to do that musically, but I just kind of come back around to wanting to play like that.
What inspired the songs on your new album, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope?
The Teargarden concept is that there's four stages in the journey of life. There's childlike innocence when you just don't really know anything in the world and it all seems sort of big and magical; then there's the part that's maybe the teen aware but not really liking what's going on; then the third person that's cynical, where you get kind of bitter because you feel so small and there's all these things that are sort of happening and there's not much you can do about it. And life constantly tells you to just suck it up and deal with it — like everybody likes to talk about how broken our political system is, but not everybody wants to do something about it. The fourth stage out of that would be finding a sort of spiritual place within yourself where you can live in reality, you can see it for what it is, but maybe you can find a deeper source of inspiration and peace. And of course, things dovetail. Just because I feel spiritual now, it doesn't mean the cynical person doesn't get involved or the child doesn't get involved.
So then the band as a whole is at the last stage now.
I call it white-light space. Old Pumpkins was drawing on a dark space. It doesn't mean we weren't trying to get to a light space, but in order to get there, we had to be very honest about the dark space. [Friedrich] Nietzsche once said, "Be careful if you peer into the darkness, because it may peer back into you." That's part of what went on in the '90s for us. We went so into the darkness and into these really difficult territories emotionally and spiritually that it sort of had a lot to do with why the whole thing blew up. So I've had plenty of time to sort of look through that and think about that. The only way I can play music now is if it comes from light, joy, or truth. It doesn't mean there's no darkness; it just means it isn't what it's about.
You're having a lot of light if there are 44 songs lined up for this album so far.
Yeah [laughs]. The funny thing is, at this point, I think I've written over 60. But not all of them are really good; some of them are just good. But the nice thing is just trying to do that and trying to find maybe a bigger message in what I'm trying to do. That part's been really fun. I dunno if a lot of that stuff will ever come out, but basically what I'm doing is just writing new songs.
What about collaborations? I heard rumors that Jessica Simpson was working with you on the album. Is she on any of the tracks?
No. That's just like [laughs]. That's like insanity [laughs]. No.
When I heard that she might be on the new album, I got a little worried, because I pictured her voice with traditional Smashing Pumpkins guitar riffs.
No, no, no. [laughs]. No. She's... No. So far there's been no collaborations, but at some point, I'd like to. It just hasn't worked out that way yet because I've just been so busy.
Well, technically you kind of had a collaboration when you had former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur playing with you for a little bit.
Yeah, but she didn't ever play on any records.
Did you have any backlash from Courtney Love for that?
Not that I can think of. Plenty of backlash over other things [laughs].
How have you dealt with so many changes and you being the sole remaining original member?
Honestly, I'm really happy. Very happy with the people I'm playing with. It feels really balanced.
It almost sounds just like the original band.
Yeah. I write music a certain way, and I play music a certain way, so it doesn't surprise me that it would be familiar, you know what I mean? I'm at a point in my life where I'm not trying to make it not sound like Smashing Pumpkins. And there was a point in my life — and the Machina album is an example — where I didn't want it to sound like Smashing Pumpkins. Not the Smashing Pumpkins that people think of when they think of "Today" or "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" or something like that. I'm actually at a point in my life where I want to play that kind of music again, and I'm really excited by that kind of music.
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