Q&A: Billy Corgan Reveals Biggest Regret, Weighs Indie Versus Corporate Rock Ahead of Tonight's Show at Revolution
For those of you just catching up, we've broken down my lengthy interview with Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan into themed sections: The early years, talk of their new album, and now, he touches upon his South Florida connections, the lasting quality of the Pumpkins, and how he feels about the indie scene.
Though several SP fanatics criticized my mentioning Radiohead in the previous Q&A in the comments section (here's another segment, as well) -- which, by the way, was my objective way of trying to have Corgan bring up the digital Machina 2 digital release -- I think they'll be happy to know that Corgan's hung up his dress and now just wants to be known as the guy in the T-shirt. In this Q&A, Corgan talks recording with old school methods and his love/hate relationship with pretension.
New Times: I've been to three of your shows, and they've always been at big venues, like massive arenas. So even if I you have good seats, you still don't get the same feel you would at a small venue.
Billy Corgan: I love playing... about a thousand people is like to me the ideal place. 'Cause you can see everybody, you can feel everybody. If they shout something, you can hear them. It's sort of got the best combination of things. Unfortunately it's just economics of the business are so bad that if you tour that well now, you basically lose money [laughs]. You can't really do a successful tour that well now, which is really a shame.
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I've been following the Smashing Pumpkins since I was a kid... like you were my first real favorite band. I own all the albums and box set, and I used to walk around wearing the "world is a vampire" beanie everywhere in the steaming South Florida heat when I was a kid.
Wow. That's hardcore. Where in Florida?
I grew up in Miami, actually.
Oh man. My brother lives in Coconut Creek.
That's up north in Broward, not too far up.
I'm down there a lot to see the family.
What's it like to be a part of something that's had such longevity?
You know, it's weird because first things start to kick in that you can't anticipate. So like let's say 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 that; then you get the thing of like people that have been fans for so long that they don't wanna hear anything new. They're over it. 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, which is sort of like completely counter to why you play. It's weird 'cause 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, you know? And you're like, "Whoa, that's really weird."
I don't think it's that they don't give a fuck about your new stuff necessarily; I think it's just that your old stuff had such an empowering feeling for so many people that it's hard for people to go see you and not experience all of that.
Yeah. But I think, umm... And I don't disagree with you, I just think that an artist is always empowered with the need to sort of find what makes sense in the moment that they're in, and sentimentality is a really dangerous thing when it comes to art. With a band that's been... we're now 20-something years plus, at least in terms of since we started. There's going to be a level of sentimentality; it's just part of the game. But if that's the foundation of why you play or what you're doing... I just refuse to do that.
I agree; I feel like every album you've done, you've sort of changed a little bit, but not in a bad way.
Yeah, changed too much [laughs].
Not in a bad way, I mean like little by little to sort of accommodate the newer generations.
Yeah, I'm influenced just by what's going on in the air. I don't always listen to everything, but you can just sort of like feel it. Even just the way music is made now with more computers, it's just totally changed the way people create music. I mean, the way I create music is really anacronystic at this point; it's really like a dinosaur way.
You still create it the old-school way, then?
Yeah. We still use tape. We still have band practice. All the normal things.
Yeah, but every band has band practice, I'd think. Recording the old-fashioned way -- that's crazy.
I know, weird, right? [laughs].
So after Adore, you slowly started to go back into your original groove.
We'd decided as a group that we'd make one more album. I had this whole concept in mind that never really kind of got worked out. But the whole Machina album was more to be like a play, and my hope was that we were gonna be able to play it like a play, almost like a theater-type thing.
Like in a musical?
Yeah, all the songs were written to be in a musical. So it really confused people even more, 'cause they were like "What the fuck is this?"
Yeah, that makes a lot more sense in retrospect.
Yeah, the whole idea was that the band would go out and pretend... it's really convoluted, but the simple version was the band had become such cartoon characters at that point in the way we were portrayed in the media, the idea was that we would sort of go out and pretend we were the cartoon characters.
Sort of like how Gorillaz has created the fake cartoon versions of themselves?
Yeah, but our fake personas would be the people that they thought we were. We would be caricatures of who we really were. So that's why I didn't explain it when we came out because we were supposed to be sort of imitating ourselves, but like the silly version, the way-over-the-top version of ourselves.
Yeah, like how you guys came off on the live videos and stuff.
Exactly. Because it wasn't explained, everybody just thought we were off on some weird trip.
And you guys were supposed to do an animated version too, right?
Yeah, actually Sony at the time had picked up an animated version of the concept, and it was supposed to be made into a cartoon. And they actually made some episodes, and it never came out unfortunately; the whole thing went out of business.
I heard little bits and pieces were leaked.
Yeah, I think you can find a few bits and pieces, but it never got finished unfortunately. That would've at least explained what the fuck I was trying to do [laughs]. I'm not even sure now what I was trying to do. But I was trying to do something.
That answers a lot, because there were a lot of fans that were on the fence about Machina because they didn't really know what was going on.
It was a really dark album. If you liked the Mellon Collie/Gish version of the Smashing Pumpkins, I can see why people were like, "What is this? This is so weird." It's a very hard album to get into, but the people that get into it get really into it. What's nice is that bands that are popular now come up to me and talk about that album because they found that album sort of like a puzzle. So it's had an influence on some of the music that's been made in the past five, six years, so that's been cool. Right now, I sort of don't understand that album, so I'm a bit confused by it.
Now you're confused by it.
Oh yeah. 'Cause the person who I am today, I wouldn't make those same choices, so I kind of don't understand why I made some of those choices, 'cause they seem kind of silly to me now. But at the time, they made total sense to me.
You're such an opinionated person, between your old blog, your poetry book, all of your songs, and even your Twitter account, I'm sure you could probably trace back through all of it and see what you were trying to get at.
Yeah, I dunno. I dunno if I wanna play in that playground, you know what I mean? [laughs]. You know, sometimes you see somebody you used to go out with and you think, "Oh, fuck. What was I thinking?" It's a little bit like that.
I've actually read a lot of the stuff that you've done back then and even now. I feel like it never seems to get boring. Why are you so verbal about everything?
I was really encouraged when I was a child to read a lot and to speak my mind, you know? I didn't realize that that wasn't a popular thing to do in the world [laughs].
Not that it's not popular, but a lot of times musicians get yelled at for being too verbal.
Yeah, I dunno. Look, if I had to do it all over again, I'd probably keep my mouth shut.
Yeah, 'cause I think it's really done a disservice to my music.
I don't think so. I feel like it's helped your fans get to know you better.
Yeah, but a lot of my fans don't like me [laughs]. They don't understand me, you know what I mean? Look, I love music, and I've been fans of tons of people, and I can't tell you how many times I thought I knew how somebody was gonna be and then I met them behind the scenes and got to know them as a person and I was totally wrong. But I know why I thought... like if I thought somebody was difficult or hard to get along with, and then I'll get to know them in real life and they weren't like that at all, I'll understand why they came off the way I did. I have lots of friends, and I mean they all think I'm opinionated, but they don't think I'm the person I'm portrayed to be in the world. But once you become portrayed like that, it sort of becomes more about that. Like most interviews that I do, 50 percent of questions have to do with me, my mouth, and the things I said and not so much about music. It's obviously part of who I am, and I'm not trying to change that -- nothing's gonna change that. But the musician in me feels a bit like sometimes the music's been overlooked because of me and my big mouth.
I've actually discussed this with other opinionated bands before, and they feel like music is a part of their lives, but it's not really as big of a part of their personal lives in the grander scheme of things. It's just like a smaller part to the whole.
But music is a huge part of my personal life, so maybe that's where I'm different. Music to me is like 75 percent of my life. So when 25 percent of my life overshadows the 75 percent, you can understand why it's a weird feeling.
I feel like that's all helped people see a softer side to you, though. I just looked at your Twitter account a couple of days ago, and I cracked up at some of your observations.
Yeah, I dunno. We live in a different world. Celebrity is a strange thing at this point. We have people who are just famous for being famous at this point.
So then how do you feel about the indie scene? I've noticed you've poked a bit of fun of it on your Twitter account.
You know, I love that there's an indie scene. I love that there's indie bands; I love that there's people trying to do new things with music. I don't like the world that surrounds it that tries to make it out to be something that it isn't.
Sort of like the underlying pretension?
It's... Look, art on its own is pretentious. I'm pretentious at times. It's OK; pretentiousness is not a bad word. The core word of pretentiousness is pretend; it means you're pretending something. I don't mind pretension. I don't mind that there's a subculture or 40 subcultures and DJs. I think it's fantastic. I think that is the ground that most good ideas come from, and I love that young people are excited about music and doing their own version of it, and just like me, they wanna kill their idols. I think that's totally fine. I don't like it when it becomes a kind of narcissistic, negative culture that self-justifies itself. Because let's face it: 95 percent of those bands that are considered indie bands couldn't succeed at a mainstream level. Now they would probably all tell you "We don't want to," and that's fine; I understand that. But there are people in the world who have different types of talent that resonate for different reasons. No indie art band is ever going to be as cool in my eyes as the Cure. Because the Cure is a revolutionary band that set up a whole set of different types of musical influences that a lot of those bands benefit from.
And I think even a lot of subcultures.
Right. So for me, it doesn't take anything away from the Cure's artistic legacy that they went on to be a very popular band. So to me, that whole indie versus corporate versus sellout and all that stuff -- I just think it's all a dumb game. I think it doesn't even mean anything anymore, but people continue to do it because it's good for their website or blog, but it doesn't really have anything to do with reality. When an indie band says, "We don't wanna do that; we're gonna do it this way, and we're only gonna release cassette copies" and stuff like that I think, "Great, that's what you should do." You should do what you wanna do. I'm doing what I wanna do. But somehow, when it's implied that me doing what I wanna do or people like me doing what we wanna do, somehow we're less than or idiotic or we lack. I think they're really missing the point.
I feel like you've changed so much in music, and even men's fashion. It was kind revolutionary when you decided to wear a dress. What inspired that?
I dunno. We had a guy design... he's actually a very famous clothing designer now, Olivier Theyskens; he's from Belgium. He designed the clothes for the whole Machina look. For that, he designed this whole dress-like structure for me, and at first I thought, "Well, that's really weird" but I tried it on and thought it looked really cool. For whatever reason, I thought it worked with my vampire look. And so when I came back in 2007, I wasn't wearing those types of clothes, but at some point I thought, "Well that's just better," so I kind of went back to it.
Are you going to be wearing any of that kind of stuff for the small-venues tour? Or are you scaling it back?
No, no. I'm just going to be the guy in the T-shirt.
Smashing Pumpkins, with Kill Hannah and Bad City. 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 20, at Revolution, 200 W. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $44. Call 954-727-0950, or click here.
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