The Smashing Pumpkins: The Great Pumpkin
GW When I was at your house in Chicago back in ’94, while you were in the midst of recording Mellon Collie, you had your “one-man army” workstation of an eight-track recorder, a few synths and a bunch of MIDI patches. On the Mellon Collie track “Here Is No Why,” you sing, “In your sad machines, you will always be,” the sad machines being your pet name for your home demo station. Your new solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, has the very personal and diarylike vibe of intense home demos forged by one person.
CORGAN Yeah, I’m back in “sad machine” land. [laughs] I know that not everyone will understand this, but to me, I am still in the Smashing Pumpkins, and it really doesn’t matter that the band is broken up. Every piece of work I do is about the Smashing Pumpkins, or the absence of the Smashing Pumpkins, or growing to learn to live without the Smashing Pumpkins. This has everything to do with the concept of family, because that was my musical family, complete with all of the analogies to a real family: approval from “dad,” a structured hierarchy, et cetera. Everything I understand in this world is through the prism of that band, including my own life, which is pretty heavy. On some level, I am trying to prove to my old bandmates that I can do it without them, and you can hear where I am and you can also hear where I am not. I’m not trying to hide anything.
GW A bunch of songs on Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie were recorded by you and Jimmy, with you playing all of the guitar and bass parts and doing all of the singing, and Jimmy supplying the drum track.
CORGAN Yeah, totally. The true picture of how those records were done is worse than anyone could ever imagine. [laughs] Mellon Collie was the last album on which you could get some sense of how Smashing Pumpkins sounded as a band.
GW You could easily have made a solo album that gives the image of a full-blown band.
CORGAN Sure. Me and Jimmy know how to make Smashing Pumpkins records; I could have used Jimmy, called it Billy Corgan and done the rock band thing.
When the Pumpkins were together, I wrote for the personality of the band, and that was a very negative personality. People thought that I was the negative guy because I was writing most of the songs. But I was writing through the prism of the band, and the band had an ability to go all the way into hell and come back up. Not every band can do that; it was a special talent. You have to be willing to stay in the heat of hell when you go down there. When we played concerts and people threw shit at us, we did not flinch. We stood there and took it, and we threw it right back at them. That revealed the soul that we had as a core unit. It was a military thing: when the guns are blazing, you have to be willing to sit and wait for your shot. That was us: we’d take only so much and then we’d fucking pummel you. Without that collective vibe, you can hear that I am really not that uptight a guy.
GW That reminds me of the time the Pumpkins played in New York at a place called Academy, right at the release of Mellon Collie. Out of nowhere you suddenly jumped into the audience…
CORGAN …and I clocked a kid in the face! He was making “gun” gestures toward me, like he wanted to shoot me. It was during the song “1979.” Jimmy likes to tell that story, because, as he always says, his gig is about watching my ass, literally and figuratively; he had to learn how to read my body language from behind. He could tell whether I was happy, unhappy, didn’t like the tempo, et cetera. That night, he could tell halfway through “1979” that there was a problem, but he couldn’t see my face. He did see the rigidity in my body. When he hit the last cymbal crash in the song, I dropped the guitar and dove off the stage, into the audience and on top of that guy!
GW Yeah. What a great show!
CORGAN Thank you! [laughs] Those were different days, different times. That was a great moment for the band. We had it; it was all under our fingertips, and then—blam!—it was gone.
GW How has the massive success of the Smashing Pumpkins had an impact on your creative process as a solo artist?
CORGAN The only analogy I can make is that it’s like going to a great college, and then those experiences carry over into your adult life. All of the experiences I had with the band define my view of the world today. When I have moments of self doubt, I think, No way; I’ve stood up in front of 100,000 people and played my music. It’s a relative experiential issue. The fatal flaw in the Pumpkins was that I was never able to win over the love of the band members, to keep Jimmy off drugs, make James like me, make D’Arcy focus— whatever our weird thing was. I am still trying to prove something to them, way off to the side, that my independence has value.
GW There was always great musical communication between you and Jimmy, akin to the musical sparring of Pete Townshend and Keith Moon in the Who.
CORGAN I agree. All our conflicts were over drugs, never music. On a musical wavelength, we are beyond sympatico; it’s psychic. When he did his solo record, Life Begins Again [credited to Jimmy Chamberlin Project and released early 2005], I helped out from afar, and then he helped me with mine similarly.