The Smashing Pumpkins: The Great Pumpkin
Originally printed in Guitar World, September 2005
Ten years after Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, alt-rock
legend Billy Corgan reflects on the making and meaning of Smashing Pumpkins' biggest success and discusses his new solo album.
“I think Mellon Collie illustrates a complete passion for music and for the guitar,” says former Smashing Pumpkins’ leader Billy Corgan, reflecting on the group’s most successful album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. “Almost every track was written on a $60 guitar while sitting on my couch in my living room, watching TV. The album is a love affair with music, the guitar and the band. And it’s all documented in those tracks, which makes me so happy.”
It’s been 10 years since Smashing Pumpkins—Corgan, coguitarist James Iha, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin—unveiled Mellon Collie, their third and most ambitious album. Released on October 24, 1995, the double -length album featured 28 songs, many of which—including “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight” and “1979”—became hits, propelling the album to multi-Platinum status. Though some at Virgin, the group’s label, doubted the viability of a double-record set, Mellon Collie held together over its length, thanks to not only Corgan’s songwriting but also the shrewd production of Flood and Alan Moulder. What’s more, its success brought more fans into the Pumpkins’ fold. Listening to present-day emo-based rock, it’s apparent that many of its architects were among the fans in Smashing Pumpkins’ thrall, so lasting is the group’s influence.
Unfortunately, the album was the Pumpkins’ peak. Two more releases followed—1998’s Adore and 2000’s MACHINA—but each was, in large part, a Corgan-created effort. By the early part of 2001, the group had announced it was breaking up.
Corgan has remained active since the Pumpkins’ demise, albeit in a more understated fashion. In 2001, he and Chamberlin formed the short-lived group Zwan, which released just one album, 2003’s Mary Star of the Sea. Now the guitarist and songwriter has released his first-ever solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, an eclectic mix of dreamy synth pop, dark hard-edged techno and twisted rock guitar that recalls nothing so much as Adore, the first Pumpkins’ album to be, essentially, a Billy Corgan solo record.
The release of Corgan’s solo debut, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Mellon Collie’s release, seemed a timely occasion for Guitar World to catch up with the guitarist. In the following interview, Corgan discusses his new album, talks candidly about Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and reveals the truth behind Smashing Pumpkins’ white-hot rise to fame and slow, destructive descent.
GUITAR WORLD TheFutureEmbrace is the first solo album of your career. Did your approach to writing differ from when you were writing for a group?
BILLY CORGAN First of all, I never really intended to be in the position of recording and releasing a solo album. I have always envisioned my work as a rock musician within the context of a band, that band being the Smashing Pumpkins. In fact, whenever anyone would suggest that I do a solo album, I would think, Why? The Pumpkins were the outlet for my music. My motivation has never been to do a solo album outside the context of the band. The Pumpkins were my life, so full-on intensive. People do solo albums because there are things they cannot do in their bands. In my band, what weren’t we doing? It wasn’t like I was looking to make an album of Brazilian tuba music.
GW So there was no real motivation to pursue another outlet?
CORGAN I view everything within the context of a band. I have always respected solo artists, like David Bowie, for example. But I never felt that my band had held me back from pursuing any musical direction.
GW Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a great example of the musical variety inherent in the Pumpkins music. The album contains incredible diversity, from delicately quiet love songs...
CORGAN …to absolute brutality! [laughs]
GW The many trials and tribulations of the Pumpkins and the band’s ultimate demise have been well documented. Can you describe it from your perspective?
CORGAN To simplify it, the key issue came down to the disintegration of my relationship with James. James and I had started the band together; as with everything, how it starts is how it ends. The key internal relationship was between the two guitar players. We had the most variance over what happened musically. Jimmy was in or out [Chamberlin was fired from the group in 1996 and rehired in 2000], loud or quiet, but the guitar interplay between James and me really was the personality of the band. The disintegration of that relationship became the issue. As much as drugs were a problem, our relationship was really what it was about. I don’t think that was apparent on the surface, but it was the key that turned the lock. At the beginning of the band, we were best friends. As things wore on, we were both constantly reminded of the relationship we once had and that it was gone. There seem to be lot of resentments, but I feel I have done my part to try to heal the relationship, and he won’t let me in that door.
GW Did that situation force you to envision yourself as a solo artist?
CORGAN It was the reason why we went into the last Pumpkins album all in agreement that the band was going to end. The return of Jimmy Chamberlin was a way to close the circle; he wouldn’t have come back under any other circumstances than the one-shot deal. The unexpected part was that D’Arcy drifted off into drug addiction. The moment we got it back together was the moment it began to fall apart all over again.