Smashing Pumpkins: Beginnings and Future

Frontman and founder Billy Corgan gets philosophical about music and his career.

Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins
© Marv Watson/Red Bull Media House

Last weekend, The Smashing Pumpkins embarked on a yet another world tour that will take them through Europe, Britain, Japan and the United States in support of their latest mammoth double album, 'Oceania.' Led by frontman and co-founder Billy Corgan, the band has thrived under several iterations. They recently headlined the final night of Red Bull Sound Select's 120 Hours in Austin, closing five nights of music from bands like Best Coast and Deer Tick and promising up-and-comers. Red Bull Sound Select is about fostering emerging musical artists, and just before going on stage, Corgan spoke to the Red Bulletin editor Andreas Tzortzis about his beginnings and what he’s learned looking back on his long career.

Smashing Pumpkins rocks the crowd at SXSW Austin
Crowd watches as Smashing Pumpkins rock the stage© Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Content Pool

Red Bull: Tell me about the first couple of gigs you played. What was important about that process for you? What did you learn?

Billy Corgan: Actually, before I was in the Smashing Pumpkins, I was in a band called The Marked and before that I was in a cover band. I don’t remember the name of it, but I was 18. So that was when I started playing my first professional gigs. And you play these divey bars on weekends and people were just out to have fun. When I really think about the beginning of my musical life, professionally, I was trying to find that place between what the audience is interested in -- why you’re standing there, what the point is in the 16 minutes or 30 minutes that you’re playing. And then when you start to speak with your own voice, whether or not you can actually get people’s attention. Obviously, when you play somebody else’s song, a Tom Petty song, everybody jumps up and down because they know the song. But play your own song and try to get them to jump up and down – that process of going from point A to B to C, that’s a very long and winding process, but I learned so much.

Most people don’t like to think of music as a populist type of thing. They like to think of the brilliance and then people come and gather around the diamond. But I don’t think it’s like that. I think there’s a relationship that goes on between artist and listener that has to do with sort of in a way listening to each other. If you play what you want to play, more than likely people aren’t going to listen because you’re not listening to them. That’s really powerful, and when you do and particularly when it’s with your own music, then it’s super powerful.

Did it take you time to learn how to interact with the fans?

I have a very poor track record interacting with fans. I’m generally speaking from an existential or absurdist school, which is that the difference between the artist and the audience is false, you know what they call in theater the Fourth Wall… I think it’s a bunk. There is an artificiality to getting on stage and what you’re wearing and then there’s the pose that you create and whether that creates a synergistic curiosity from the audience. But at the end of the day, I think breaking the Fourth Wall is just as interesting. And often times through my musical life when I have broken the Fourth Wall, whether I’ve joked about somebody’s hockey team or something, it’s very interesting to us the reactions that we’ll get because it’s not that what we’re saying is so offensive that they wouldn’t hear from the guy at the gas station. It’s the fact that we’re saying it because we’re not living up to some sort of fantasy ideal of what they think they need to see. They would laugh all night long if we were talking about doing cocaine off of hookers’ asses. But if we joke about their hockey team, that sort of seems to be anti-rock ‘n’ roll. We actually think that’s what Smashing Pumpkins represents. It doesn’t represent anything. In that there’s freedom and freedom of expression is really the thing that the band is about.

Some of the greatest moments of my musical life, there was no audience, there was no award waiting anywhere. Those are nice but that’s some sort of weird end that you can’t predict.

Any memorable fan reactions over the years?

Honestly I think that there’s a beauty to compliment. There’s a beauty to “I listened to your song and I didn’t jump off the roof.” But in a way if you become attached to the positive aspect you’re almost setting yourself up to be attached to the negative aspect. And I think what we all collectively learned as we go along as individuals, it’s really about what we think. As long as I have (the band's) respect, I don’t really care what anyone thinks of this because if we think what we’re doing is good, we know that it’s good. And really that’s what a band’s about. It’s about trusting one another’s inner vote, if that makes any sense.

How many albums have come out that 20 years after they’ve come out it was like “Oh, that was really brilliant.” Or after somebody dies, “Oh, he was so great.” I can tell you that in many ways I have more fun with the band in rehearsal than I do on stage. That’s a job and yes, I like doing it and there are great nights and there are terrible nights. But we always have fun together. And I think that’s what we bring to the audience that can’t be manufactured. That’s why a band – the idea of a band – is still important. It can’t be – a cellphone company or whoever can’t manufacture a band, they can’t manufacture these relationships. As my old bandmate D’arcy Wretzky used to say, "Being in a band is like being married to three people all at once that you don’t necessarily like." But the beauty is the musical conversation, whether or not we’re funny is beside the point. But the fact that we communicate with each other musically in ways that surprises the four of us – I think that’s what people pay to see. So we don’t necessarily predicate ourselves on what people think. I mean, if they don’t like it, we’re screwed. I mean, that’s pretty simple. I play music that people come back later and say, “Oh, that was great.” And I play music that people thought was great at the time and now they don’t pay any attention to it at all, so my experience is that you really can’t trust the vibe out there. I mean look at what most people pay attention to…

Smashing Pumpkins performs at SXSW in Austin
Smashing Pumpkins rockin the stage© Jeremy Deputat/Red Bull Media House

When was the point where you felt you had arrived?

There are certainly moments in the cultural zeigeist where you think, OK, a number one album, which I’ve experienced. Cover of the biggest magazine, which I’ve experienced. Cover of the second biggest magazine, the third biggest and on and on and on. And being in the tabloids. The question of arrival is, I think, falsely thought of, and here’s why. It’s really in the act of creation that we define who we are, playing a lot of music that we spent – or I spent – thousands of hours learning how to play, learning how to write a song, thinking about it, do we add this, do we subtract that? So this is just sort of the end result.

The fact that people will applaud and say that it was great it’s not as significant as what happens when we’re in a very quiet room and we go, "OK, now what?" To me, the question of arrival means you’re working toward an end and there is no end to a musical life. I would point to a great artist, like Johnny Cash or a Waylon Jennings or a Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, where they lived lives of music and they played and they recorded and they recontexualized. They never stopped working. I come from Chicago, and it is working class, and often times in rock ‘n’ roll the use of the word work is a dirty word. People are addicted to the idea of the genius who rolls out of bed. I don’t think that – of course there are those people – is as noble as somebody who gets up every day and says, “What can I do different? How can I make this work?”

Some of the greatest moments of my musical life, there was no audience, there was no award waiting anywhere. Those are nice but that’s some sort of weird end that you can’t predict. I’ve have great musical moments in my life between 2001, the reformation of the band, and 2007 – I’ve had incredible musical moments. I did an interview with a major music magazine and the headline was ‘His 10 Years in Exile.’ I remember somebody once talking to Prince about comebacks – he was having a big moment – and he said, “When did I ever go away?” A real musician like Prince, whom I respect tremendously, plays and works because the beauty of music is not this part out front. It’s really what goes on in the conversation – and no criticism or acclaim can take away your experience. It’s like standing on a corner and watching two people walk by holding hands – and you think... Love. How can you understand what draws those two people together? I have no idea what draws the four of us together. I mean, 20s, 30s, 40s. I mean, what do we have in common? But that’s the beauty of it. And music is the guide in that – not egos, not trend, not culture. No blogger can tell us what that it. Because no blogger came to my house in 1987 – before I met James Iha – and said, “Yeah, this is the way to go.” I had to sit there and listen to my Electric Prunes records and my Kraftwerk records and we figured it out.

You’ve seen so much in the last decade with the Idol type shows and stuff – which are fine – but you've seen how rock ‘n’ roll has become about the destination and not the experience. I’m sorry but if you take any great musician – Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Thom Yorke, Kurt Cobain – it’s watching them go from here to here to here to here that’s really fascinating. Anybody can stop along the way and go, “Well, I like that movie. And I like that movie.” But what about the movie that wasn’t so great but that person learned something and that’s why they’re still there 20 years later.

I’d been saying for probably 15 years that the future of rock ‘n’ rock has to do with using technology in new ways, particularly in the visual medium. If I was 15 and starting over I wouldn’t bother with two-dimensional rock ‘n’ roll.

 

Do you think you’re a member of the shrinking demographic?

I think the new generation is figuring out how technology can interact with their creativity. And so it wouldn’t surprise me that (21-year-old drummer Mike Byrne’s) generation or the next generation won’t care about rock ‘n’ roll because honestly rock ‘n’ roll is too slow and too boring in many, many ways. I’d been saying for probably 15 years that the future of rock ‘n’ rock has to do with using technology in new ways, particularly in the visual medium. If I was 15 and starting over I wouldn’t bother with two-dimensional rock ‘n’ roll. I’d be trying to figure out how to merge picture and sound because that to me is an untapped vista, which has – outside of Quadrophenia, The Wall and Hard Days Night – there’s really not that much information that combines visual and music that has a deeper meaning beyond a four-minute video. My point is that there’s a great untapped thing there and the technology is waiting. And meanwhile we’re still rummaging around wondering whether to use tape or Pro Tools – I think that’s done. I don’t think that our destination, which is still sort of current – if there is a destination, this isn’t the destination anymore. We can morph our relationship to that medium no problem.

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