Q&A: Billy Corgan on Smashing Pumpkins' Early Years, Free Music, and the Rotating Lineup
The New Times is only so big. As much as we'd like to temporarily convert it into the Smashing Pumpkins New Times in honor of their sold out show at Revolution on July 20, we can't (hey, believe me, I tried!).
Instead, here's a preview of some of the stuff Billy Corgan had to say that didn't make it to print, about the early years of touring with Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, why he's decided to release his music for free, track by track, and getting back into loud guitars. Oh, and in case you want a preview of what the July 20 show will be like, we found two videos of his first small venues show at the Viper Room in Hollywood. We're good like that.
New Times: What were you going for with the new stuff?
Billy Corgan: I'm very into production and recording and stuff like that, but I think at some point you can get so lost in that that you lose sort of the let's just call it the groove or the underneath feel that makes someone wanna shake their hips kind of thing. Like the Rolling Stones have always been good at that. They always have that kind of feel in their music. So I kind of just wanted to get back to that kind of just that basic feeling. And sometimes I sacrifice maybe a little bit of production or song or whatever to get that feeling. For me it was just a place to start where I could feel the rhythmic pulse of the music more then let's call it the intellectual pulse of the music.
Smashing Pumpkins was never really like "hip shaking" kind of band, though. I felt like it was more of a jumping up and down kind of band.
Well this is my white suburban version of hip shaking, you understand [laughs]. It's not the same as James Brown, let's put it that way.
So then if you're doing it this way where you're releasing all the songs for free, did you get the inspiration behind Radiohead's In Rainbows?
We actually put out an album for free in 2000, Machina 2. Not sure if you know that situation. We put out a second version of that album [Machina] with different songs. Now we released that for free in 2000. Generally speaking, people consider it the first big free album. So I went through that experience in 2000 and what it was like to put out music for free, and there were good things about it and bad things about it. And of course I watched what happened when Radiohead did that. For me it's a personal decision based on how I want to live my life. It's really confusing to me when someone says they're a fan and they own four albums, but they don't want to buy the new album, you know what I mean?
So why release each album track by track? Any idea on when the full album will be released?
Umm... No, because I'm basically going to put out the songs as they come. The track by track thing for me was I just got sick of putting all of this energy making an album, then working with the record company, having them put out one single. And when the single didn't do what they wanted it to do... In our case, generally speaking, our singles would be successful, they just wouldn't be successful enough, then the record company would abandon them. So we'd be sort of sitting there with a whole album, the songs weren't getting played on the radio, we couldn't get any money for a video, so what are we supposed to do? I got sick of that. I got sick of some sort of angry dad telling me what I could and couldn't do. So for me it's about being in a place where all the choices are mine. I used to get really frustrated with fans and when stuff would come up and they'd ask me certain questions like, "Why'd you do this?" And I'd just say, "Oh, man, you just don't understand how fucked up the record business is. You're giving me shit about some dumb thing over here, you don't know what I've gotta go through even just to get this music out." So I got sick of that conversation. So I thought, "Right, I'm just gonna get rid of that." So now when a fan comes up and complains, they're coming up to the person to complain to.
A lot of times I think it has to do with loyalty. They're just so attached to the original lineup that they're scared of listening to the new members. They're scared that they won't do the band justice.
Yeah, well, I dunno. I'm just a different person. Like I'm a fan of Neil Young, right? So anything Neil Young puts out, I buy. And sometimes I listen to it and I don't understand it, and I just set it aside and I come back to it three years later. But I buy it because I'm a fan of the artist. I don't understand fans who have four albums and come to 14 shows but won't buy the new album, because to me they're making a pretty big decision over 15 dollars, like they'll pay five dollars for a latte. But I had to get away from that. Now there's no excuse. If you want to hear the new music, you just go get it, there it is for free. And if you don't like it, then that's okay. But I'm counting on the fact that the more people hear it, they'll like it because they know that it's good. So I'm gonna go with that for now.
Yeah, 'cause you're doing it the way you want to do it.
Right, but what I'm saying is if they don't like the way I'm doing something, then at least I'm saying, "Yeah, well I did it for this reason," or "you and I just disagree about what that means." It's not like I'm sitting there feeling like frustrated because they fucked me on this side over here and the fan doesn't understand.
This has nothing to do with me, but this is just like a funny story. We're on a tour in 1992 I believe it was. It was Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam's album had just come out, and they put out their first song, which was "Alive," and it was doing okay but it wasn't doing amazing. It was doing okay. And I walked into their dressing room at some point or something and they all had sad faces on. And I said, "What's going on?" And they were like, "We just found out that the record company is gonna pull all our money and we may even have to cancel the rest of the dates on the tour for us." And this was a successful tour. Chili Peppers had "Under the Bridge" and it went on to be a very big album for them. And it was a lot of energy, the tour was very exciting. And I was like, "Wow, that's incredible" and they were like, "Yeah, we don't know what to do." And of course like a week later, MTV added "Alive" and it became a massive hit. But I actually saw it happen with another band which obviously went on to be very successful. Of them sitting there going, "What the fuck are we gonna do?" And that's the part that a normal fan... it's not their problem, but a normal fan doesn't understand those moments in a musician's life where you put yourself in a situation because you don't have the resources, you don't have the access to the media or whatever, and you're counting on somebody to really follow through, and you put your best into it, you made a good album, and they decide for whatever fucked up reason they're into that day that they're gonna put their money into a dance band or something. That's the part that success doesn't always measure is the opportunities that you have or don't have within the record system. So for me, getting out of the record system has taken me back to being a happier person, and I think that'll have a positive effect on the way that the fans, the concerts, the music will come across. Because I'm not in that space of feeling like somebody's got a gun pointed to my head half the time.
Of course because -- for lack of a better word -- you're not waiting for "the man" to decide what you're gonna do next.
That's exactly what it was like from 1990 to 2008 for me. So for 18 or 19 years I literally felt like I was waiting for the man or a man or a woman to decide -- depending on what side of the bed they got up on that day -- whether or not they were gonna support my band or what I was doing. That starts to drive you crazy. That starts to drive you fucking nuts.
Barring that, I think you guys were still really successful. Especially with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, that you guys had so many big singles out of it.
No, no, it's... we were able to work within the system, but we always felt really uncomfortable with it. I'm not saying we would've done better without it, I'm just saying we felt uncomfortable with the compromises that were being asked of us.
What inspired the change for you reflected in Adore that you're sort of straying away from now?
Yeah, well it was a very difficult period in my life. The biggest thing that happened was my mom died. And I just didn't feel... I wasn't in any hurry to play loud guitar, you know what I mean? It just didn't feel right to me. I always see playing loud guitar as a fun thing. I grew up on heavy metal and stuff, so for me I associate playing loud guitar with heavy metal and having fun and playing solos and jumping around. After my mom died, I just wasn't in that mood.
I feel like your music had a big change aesthetically after you took that 2 year break after Jonathan passed away. And you did Adore. It was a much softer vibe from the Pumpkins.
Yeah, I mean. I've always tried to go after what I feel is best at the time and I'm sort of obsessive in that. I'm totally into it, and then when I'm done I want to get away from it. Right now I'm very much into guitar rock. Loud guitar... I'm having a great time playing loud guitars again.
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