Billy Corgan Breaks Out the Acoustics for His New Album, 'Ogilala'

Billy Corgan with his signature Yamaha LJ16BC

Billy Corgan with his signature Yamaha LJ16BC (Image credit: Alpha Pan)

In 2005, Billy Corgan celebrated the release of his first solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, with a bold and unique self-promotion move that no doubt confounded—and possibly delighted—the marketing staff at his record label by taking out full-page ads in his two hometown papers, the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, and stating his intention to not be a solo artist.

“For a year now I have walked around with a secret, a secret I chose to keep,” he wrote. “But now I want you to be among the first to know that I have made plans to renew and revive the Smashing Pumpkins. I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams. In this desire I feel I have come home again.”

While Corgan did make good on those plans, the resulting Smashing Pumpkins reunion wasn’t the full-scale reformation many, and perhaps Corgan himself, hoped it would be: Only drummer Jimmy Chamberlin from the original group took part, with guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky opting out.

Throughout the next decade, Corgan recorded and toured with a number of Smashing Pumpkins lineups, with Chamberlin and guitarist Jeff Schroeder serving as the most stable band members (Chamberlin stayed from 2006 to 2009, rejoining in 2015, and Schroeder has been with the fold since 2007).

Twelve years after TheFutureEmbrace, Corgan, billing himself as William Patrick Corgan, is issuing his second solo album, Ogilala, and once again he’s hinting—haltingly so—that a possible original band reunion could be in the works. “I think the best news is that there’s peace in the kingdom, which wasn’t the case for a long time,” he says. “I’m very, very personally pleased that we’ve worked out our ‘differences’—I put that in light quotations—so there’s communication, which again, there wasn’t for a very long time. If anything musical comes out of it, that would be the best-case scenario. Personally, I would like to see us go back to working and making music.”

Until then, there is Ogilala. Musically, it’s as far and away from the electronica-laden TheFutureEmbrace—and much of the Pumpkins’ overdriven rock guitar tumult—as one could imagine. Working with uber-producer Rick Rubin, Corgan has crafted a collection of stirring and stately songs in which his distinctive nasal rasp is set against minimalist acoustic guitar and piano backings, with tasteful string and symphonic flourishes occasionally mixing with the main colors.

Tracks like “Aeronaut” and “Archer” find the guitarist in a somber, contemplative mood, but on numbers like “Processional” and “Half-Life of an Autodidact” he sounds both wistful and hopeful. One might speculate that recent personal developments—Corgan turned 50 back in March, and in 2015 he and his girlfriend, Chloe Mandel, welcomed their first child, Augustus Juppiter Corgan—had something to do with the album’s light touch.

At first he dismisses such a notion, saying, “I didn’t notice any discernible difference in my attitude when I was writing the music.” But then he pauses, perhaps thinking better of it, and elaborates: “Looking back at the record, I guess there might be some influence, with my son being around. However, turning 50 did cause me to make a promise to myself, sort of like a New Year’s resolution. I decided that I wouldn’t allow myself to repeat things that I knew wouldn’t work. I had enough comparable information to know now that certain patterns of behavior weren’t going to work post 50.”

As we all know, the album format isn’t the cultural force as it once was. How does that affect your drive to make new full-length records?
I’ve had to divorce myself from the machinations of the business, because overall, they’re not artist-positive. I’ve complained vociferously about it in the past, and nobody listened to me. Nothing’s changed, so the complaining is done. What I did do, however, was make an internal decision: “Are you still interested in music, and if you are, how are you interested in how people perceive that?”

I appreciate the album as an organizing factor. It pulls together certain songs at a specific period of time, and it allows an artist to pick a lane. It’s like editing a motion picture: You could probably edit it seven different ways, and you’d wind up with seven slightly different movies. That’s how it feels when you’re doing an album. You have to kind of pick a lane.

Still, there’s sometimes a resistance from audiences to new music from established artists. You go to a show, and you hear those dreaded words: “We’re going to play a new song…”
Yeah, that’s a tricky thing. I can appreciate why a certain batch of songs has gotten an artist the opportunity, and the honor, to perform for people. That said, no amount of me playing my most famous songs, or not playing them, has changed anything about where I sit in the business.

At the end of the day, the only thing that’s really going to change anything for me is to write new material that would engender the same response as the old stuff. And I still have the motivational hold to want to write new stuff that goes over like the old material. That said, I’m not somebody who likes to live in sort of a delusional half-dream—you know, the resemblance to the movie Sunset Boulevard.

TheFutureEmbrace was bathed in electronics. This album is radically different—mostly piano and acoustic guitar. What led to the decision to unplug?
Well, I was making a Smashing Pumpkins album that was sort of futuristic, but I got bored and uninspired, so I ditched it. Then I found myself with nothing to do, and I thought, Okay, if you wanted to do something, what would you do? And I was attracted to playing acoustic music. So I wrote a batch of songs and I thought, Right. I need to find somebody to record these.

I called Rick Rubin and asked him to recommend a producer—I thought he would appreciate the vibe of what I was doing—and he said, “Well, I’d actually be interested in doing this.” And I was totally shocked. I wasn’t calling upon him to impose. He’s a super-busy guy and he’s probably the most sought-after producer in the world. He’s just a friend of mine, and I was trying to get some advice. The whole thing grew from there. I sent him more songs, and eventually he said, “Do you want to record?”

Because Ogilala doesn’t have the blazing rock gestalt of your other records, do you feel like you’re asking more from listeners? They really have to give themselves up to it.
It’s hard for me to respond to that. You know, during my twenties I was very focused on the audience, and then came a time in my life when I was very focused on myself. Obviously, when I focused more on the audience I had better results. But I had to go through that soul searching and focus on myself—I just needed to. Having come full circle, all I can say is that I feel like I can only do my best, and I can’t assume anything about the audience.

Truth is, when you make an assumption about the audience, you really cheat people of their own experience. In that sense, you become sort of overly calculating. Even going back to the question about what songs you play live, as a listener myself sometimes my favorite song on an album isn’t the one on the radio. So at this point in my life, it’s not up to me to decide what’s worthwhile. I don’t wag my finger and say, “You must give me 40 minutes of your time, or else.” I would be happy with three minutes! [laughs]

Playing-wise, is your relation to the acoustic guitar different from the electric?
It is. I don’t really put the time into the acoustic. To be a really proficient acoustic player, you have to have a good fingerpicking game, and I just don’t have that. I’m much better at getting what I want out of the instrument on the electric side of things. It’s frustrating at times, because there are times I wish I could break into a solo on an acoustic like a jazz guitar player could. It’s just a different level of proficiency.

I did notice there are no real solos on the record. Do you feel as if you’re an awkward acoustic soloist?
No, not at all. It just didn’t feel right. This is where people might want to throw tomatoes at me, but soloing on a guitar just feels slightly out of time at the point in the world we’re in. Don’t get me wrong—there’s people who solo really beautifully—but right now there’s something about the solo sound of the guitar that isn’t as inspiring as it was maybe a generation ago. I just don’t feel as attracted to soloing as I did in those times when I was standing in the shadow of Eddie Van Halen.

I do like listening to certain people. I was listening to Zakk Wylde recently, and he’s just incredible. I went to one of those “night of guitars” concerts—there was Steve Vai and Nuno Bettencourt, and I think it was Yngwie, too. All these great guitarists. And you know, as a guitar player, it was incredible watching these masters play. At the same time, it just doesn’t strike me, the voice of the guitar right now in our culture—it doesn’t feel as distinctive as it once was. Maybe I’m not enough of a guitar player to know how to fix it.

Do you write differently on an acoustic than on an electric?
No, and in fact, most of my famous rock songs—“Today,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”—almost all them were either written on an acoustic or at a piano. It’s funny: The best songs didn’t tend to come from playing electric; they came from figuring them out in an acoustic form and then translating them to electric.

There is some electric guitar on the record, like those Fifties-sounding licks on “Shiloh.”
And there’s an E-bow solo on “Spaniards,” but you just can’t tell. The bit on “Shiloh” was actually a tribute to Glen Campbell. The song reminded me of one of those Glen Campbell songs that Jimmy Webb wrote—it was my tip of my hat to them. I love the music that they made together—“Galveston” and stuff like that. At first I looked at Rick and said, “Is this too obvious?” And he was like, “But I like it.” So we left it in. We got out the Fender VI and made that sound. We tried some electric guitar on a few things, but it just didn’t feel right.

What were your main acoustics for the record?
I have an early Sixties Guild Texan that records unbelievably. It’s probably the loudest acoustic I have. That was probably my primary recording guitar. I used a Sixties Gibson Tortoise on one song, I think, but it was mostly the Texan. I brought a number of guitars to California, and then we did kind of blind taste tests. Whatever sounded best is what we used.

You’re going to do an acoustic tour for Ogilala. Are you thinking that you might plug back in soon after?
I don’t know. There’s obviously been a lot of chatter about the band, but nothing’s been worked out. Everything’s up in the air. One day I think, Yeah, okay, and another day I think, I’m not so sure. The vibe is very good with everybody, but as far as the possibility of something happening, I don’t know. I sort of don’t know what to think of anything anymore.

Over the last 10 years, I sort of set myself adrift. I obviously refused to do what people wanted me to do, and I charted my own course. There’s been some great things, and there’s been a lot of not-so-great things. The thing I would say is, once you set yourself adrift, there really is no going back. You can look very soberly at the idea of playing rock and roll again, but it doesn’t fire the same sequence it used to, which was like, “We’ll get together, we’ll write some songs, we’ll make a record, and we’ll tour.” Or “We’ll get together and then we’ll tour.” It doesn’t work that way anymore.

So now I sort of say, “I’m open to the muse of the universe, and wherever it takes me, it takes me.” I would love to play electric guitar again. I would love to rock out on the biggest stages in the world. But I look around in our culture, and I don’t see a lot of representation of that type of music. Loud guitars aren’t necessarily rooted in alternative anymore. They’re more rooted in hard rock and heavy metal, and whatever the 10,000 subgenres are—grindcore and all that type of stuff.

I drive around in my car and I listen to Ozzy’s Boneyard on Sirius, and I hear all this great music. It still makes me want to crank an amp up to where it’s ready to explode, but I also don’t assume that anybody would meet my passion with an equal level of interest. What I figured out is just do the thing that feels most exciting next, and hopefully that will be met by somebody else who’s just as interested. But I can no longer assume that just because I put on an electric guitar and plug in a fuzz pedal that anybody’s going to pay much attention. The good news is that if I do pick it up, it’s because I really feel good about doing it and I’m really motivated, and I feel like it’s going to take me somewhere and that other people will enjoy the ride.

Any more you can add on the future of the band?
Obviously, there’s plenty of healthy interest for us to play shows, but I’m much more interested in that if it includes us working again as a creative unit. It’s pretty obvious that I’ve had my best success as a rock musician with that lineup in some form, and I think it has a lot to do with when and how we came together. Whether we could recreate that magic in any form remains to be seen, but it would be nice to try.

And to be clear, we are talking about the original members, right?
Well, you never know, because everybody’s got their own lives now. It’s not like people are sitting at home waiting by the telephone. I mean, Jimmy is super-involved in tech. James is a successful producer and does his own soundtracks. D’arcy is living a very private life. It’s not as simple to say, “Oh, let’s all go meet on Main Street on Tuesday.” I think there’s lots of other factors that also include children, schedules and stuff like that.

But again, speaking personally, my interest is just to be creative. It’s great to play the old songs, but it’s not really a creative endeavor unless you talk about the staging and the lights. At the end of the day, you’re still doing something that’s already been done, and my heart lies in doing something that hasn’t been done. So we’ll see.

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.