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 WORLDTheFutureEmbrace 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.

GWMellon 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.

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.

GW Did you have any overall approach to the music on TheFutureEmbrace?

CORGAN The main goal was to avoid all the things that I know how to do, because we know where that will go. That means drums and rock and roll guitars were out. The songwriter comes first with me, and the style of guitar playing I did in the Pumpkins has been so copied and so overdone by this point that it’s a dead end from a songwriting point of view. The question was how to be reinvigorated by the guitar; the only way was to take away all of the things I knew how to do: doubled vocals, big walls of guitar, intense drumming—which means no Jimmy—and when you take all of that off the table, what are you left with? You are left with this other palette of stuff that I’ve only dabbled in but don’t know how to integrate into a vision. I spent four months just getting the sonics right, doing guitar tests, electronics tests…it was like being in a laboratory for a long time. I felt we needed a primary set of tools—specific sounds and tones—that we could always go back to so that we wouldn’t get lost in the wilderness of production and knob turning. Once I had our tools, I could go from there.

I also learned a whole new way to write songs, which I won’t divulge; it’s a good secret. That yielded different results, too—a different production result, a different sonic result. Slowly, a new picture started to emerge from all of this, largely because I had yet to record the guitar parts. I wanted to make songs work without any guitar, and then put a single essential guitar part into each of them based on what was already there. On every song but the last, there is just one guitar track; the last song has no guitar at all.

Guitarwise, this record contains some of my most challenging guitar playing, because I had to approach it as if I was a hired guitarist. Using a “Jimi Hendrix live” analogy, I wanted to be able to say everything in a single, well-conceived guitar part. When people dig into these guitar parts, it’s going to fuck them up. Can I pull all of this off live? I’ll have to, because I can’t imagine anyone else playing my guitar parts.

GW This is really the opposite of the way you worked in the Pumpkins, where everything in the songs stemmed from your guitar playing.

CORGAN Right. But once I got this whole new process straight in my head, then I went back to writing songs the way I used to, and they were different. I had learned a new approach to the songwriting craft. Good examples of the results are “The Hybrid,” “Walking Shade”—which is the single—“Dia,” “I’m Ready”… These were all of the last songs written for the record.

GW There is something in the feeling of the song “Dia” that reminds me of “Perfect” [Adore].

CORGAN Really? Hey, no fucking way! [laughs] When you get up to the point where you’ve written about 350 songs, you always think, Have I written this one before? With Zwan, the band members were self conscious about the music sounding at all like the Pumpkins. But Jimmy and I were there—the two guys that defined the sound of the Pumpkins—and we were trying not to do what we do naturally; it was weird. It became a negative thing: Why am I listening to a band called Zwan if it sounds like the Smashing Pumpkins? It made me realize that unless I made a clear musical statement that could stand on its own, I would continue to hear this type of criticism. I feel like I’ve accomplished this now, but it wasn’t easy. In the process, I was able to realize a side of my musicality that was only hinted at before.

GW Any artist who has achieved a high level of success has to compete with his past.

CORGAN That used to feel like an albatross around my neck, because the success of the Pumpkins set the bar so high. But now I am really grateful for the experience. I am all for personal resolve, but when you mix it with fear and insecurity, it’s a recipe for disaster. You can get tweaked way too high. There are some insane contradictions when success brings you new cars, a new house. You are making money faster than you could spend it, but you are still trying to get blood out of the same stone, creativity-wise. There is actually something of a letdown when you hit Number One, because then there is no one left to beat. Who do you set your sights on next? Yourself. And once you get there, it’s hard to keep the band pulling together in the same direction. The drug issues in the band seem the most obvious things to point to, but they were really just one element in the overall picture. When things start to unravel, it’s no longer about being the best band in the world; it’s about survival. But I’m not a victim of my former self; I have a personal vision of my life now that is strong, and that’s where I take solace.

GWTheFutureEmbrace features a cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” with the Cure’s Robert Smith. An interesting twist is that you transposed the song to a minor key, which completely changes the vibe.

CORGAN It’s definitely a postmodern take on the tune, one that seems pretty appropriate at the moment. [laughs] I always loved the song. I tried the Motown technique of flipping the bass line to a minor key while keeping the chords major, and suddenly it was a different song. I had been speaking with Robert about being on the record, because we are old friends, and it seemed like the right tune. But when I called him and suggested it, there was an incredibly long transatlantic pause on the line before he responded, “The Bee Gees? Are you sure?”

GWTheFutureEmbrace depicts what you have described as the “beautiful coldness” in the music of Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen and David Bowie’s Low. Can you elaborate further on what you mean?

CORGANThere is a warmth to the metal of Black Sabbath. Tony Iommi achieved a massively heavy sound that was also inviting. In contrast, Joy Division had a colder sound, even though they were a metal band influenced by Black Sabbath. Space and repetition were critical components in what they did, but there is a groove in the mechanical nature of it. There is a way to achieve warmth over what is generally conceived as a cold feeling, and that is appealing to me.

GW Did you use a specific guitar for most of this record?

CORGAN Yes. Reverend made me a custom C-scale instrument, which means that it has a longer scale and sounds two whole steps lower without tuning down. I also used a one-of-akind Fender Jaguar that I bought in New York, and I also used a Gibson 335 from the Seventies.

GW You use a very distressed, distorted guitar sound in the echoed guitar solo on “To Love Somebody” and on “Walking Shade.”

CORGAN Yes, extremely distressed! If you remove the guitar track, the songs sound much smaller; the guitar creates the impression of size. It may seem to be mostly synths and effects, but the tracks are really very guitar-driven.

GW I said earlier that “Dia” reminds me of “Perfect,” but in fact I hear similarities to Adore all over the new CD.

CORGANAdore was the most “solo” of the Pumpkins albums, in terms of what I was trying to accomplish and the participation of the other band members on the songs and the sound of the record, overall. At the time, Darcy was in fact very upset; she felt I should have released it as a solo album.

GW The Adore track “For Martha,” dedicated to your mother, is thick with atmosphere in a way that is akin to the sound of your solo album.

CORGAN Yeah, I see what you mean. For me, going into this territory reinvigorates my approach to heavier rock music. Metal was my favorite music when I was a kid, but I was bored with it by the time I was 17. The music of the Cure is what really got me into playing the guitar. So I brought the heavier rock stuff into the mix afterward, and I always go back to that approach in order to find who I am.

Sometimes I turn on the radio and hear all these different guys doing my trip, and I think, Well, what am I supposed to do? All my moves have been copied and I get no credit whatsoever from any of these new bands.

GW It’s been 10 years since the release of Mellon Collie, and, as you say, its influence is obvious in the music of many new emo-rock bands, both sonically and lyrically. A perfect example is “1979,” which was a huge hit.

CORGAN You can still hear the influence of that track. I was bitter about it for a while because I felt we had been uncredited, simply because every new band over the last 10 years would claim Nirvana as their prime influence. That was silly to me, because Butch Vig, who worked with us on Gish, took our sound and brought it to Nirvana for Nevermind, and the truth is that sound originates with the Smashing Pumpkins. So for years I felt the credit hadn’t been given to us.

But now there’s a whole new generation of bands that are crediting us, because it’s not a political issue anymore. They grew up on the Pumpkins, Zeppelin and Nirvana, and these are the bands that inspired them to play. At the end of the day, it’s turned out to be fine and wonderful. I took what I could from my heroes—Hendrix, Blackmore, Iommi—and I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I would never in my wildest dreams put myself in their league.

GW What accounts for the enduring appeal of Mellon Collie?

CORGAN It was a really beautiful time, because the band was in sync, the practice space sounded amazing, we had the best producer in the world in Flood, and we were just flying at 1,000 miles an hour; I couldn’t write songs fast enough to keep up with the passion of the band. There are such extremes on the album: “X.Y.U.” is total Pumpkins brutality—seven minutes about death and fucking—and “1979” is a Sonic Youth/New Order take on bittersweet adolescent life. And then there’s “33,” a gentle, open-G tuned acoustic piece with a beautiful lilting melody.

GW Because of the expansiveness of Mellon Collie, are there tracks that you feel may have been overlooked?

CORGAN There are a few songs that, on a different record, would have been singles. There were seven singles from Mellon Collie, which is a lot. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken about four songs off and put them on the next album. In that way, some of the songs that I thought were the best of all didn’t get much attention. We spent much more time working on the crap songs, trying to make them good enough to be on the album. I fought the band on “Thru the Eyes of Ruby.” We worked on it for six months before I felt it was good enough to be included.

GW What are your feelings about the Smashing Pumpkins today?

CORGAN I am still wrestling to the ground the concept of the Smashing Pumpkins. It’s so hard to explain, because it sounds improper in the public forum, but to me, I am a Smashing Pumpkin. It doesn’t matter to me that there is no band. It is so much a part of my identity.

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