Billy Corgan on Monuments to an Elegy, the new Smashing Pumpkins, the relevance of music critics today and what he should be remembered for.
Photography by Eleonora C. Collini
Whether you love him or hate him, there is no denying that Billy Corgan belongs to the ‘90s music Olympus. Showcasing a densely layered, guitar-heavy sound, which combines alternative rock with heavy metal, gothic rock, dream pop and electronica in later works, his band, the Smashing Pumpkins, broke into mainstream with their second album, 1993’s Siamese Dream. Reaching deity status with their follow-up Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the band released two more records before breaking up in 2000.
Corgan consequently put out an album with supergroup Zwan, a collection of poetry and a solo record, to then reunite the Pumpkins for 2007’s Zeitgeist. Over the last few years he kept himself busy opening the suburban Chicago tea shop Madame ZuZu’s, releasing the experimental LP AEGEA, working on Resistance Pro Wrestling promotion (which he co-launched in 2011, then left last month) and writing his spiritual memoir, God is Everywhere from Here to There. Thankfully he also managed to find the time to make a new Smashing Pumpkins record.
Preceded by two EP's (Songs for a Sailor and The Solstice Bare, both released in 2010) and full-length Oceania (2012), Monuments to an Elegy is part of Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, the ongoing project Corgan has been working on since the departure of Jimmy Chamberlin (the original Pumpkins’ drummer that played in the band on and off since the late ‘80s).
Produced by Howard Willing (who first collaborated with the Pumpkins on Adore), Corgan and Jeff Schroeder (the band guitarist since the 2007's reunion), and featuring Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee on drums, Monuments to an Elegy is a powerful, straightforward rock album and frankly the best Corgan has made since the ‘90s.
We met up in London before the Pumpkins played a rare intimate show at KOKO, and we discussed the new record, the current lineup as well as the relevance of music critics today and what he should be remembered for.
Eleonora Collini: How was working with Howard Willing again?
Billy Corgan: Really good. It was nice to have a friend that could help me navigate the record.
Was Monuments to an Elegy recorded as a combination of analog tape and Pro Tools like your last few records?
No, only Pro Tools. I gave up recording on tapes for The Smashing Pumpkins as it just takes too much time.
What’s the concept behind the album cover? Is it a photograph of yours, right?
I was just looking for something that could sum up the title, so initially, as the title is plural, I wanted something with multiple things, but I ended up with that single image. I liked it because it seemed to go with the feeling of the record.
Monuments to an Elegy is part of your ongoing project Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, which, lyrically, is loosely based on The Fool’s Journey, the Tarot’s Major Arcana. At what stage of the journey would you place the new record?
The start, because the start is about self-actualization. In essence you are becoming your own start, then you are no longer looking towards the start and you are thinking that you can be something, so you become something.
There is one more record from the project, Day for Night, yet to be released. What is its status? Have you done writing it yet?
It’s still finishing. I am probably half done with writing. Recording doesn’t take that long once it is written, so the plan is to release it by Fall 2015.
And then are you planning to eventually release all the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope’s records as a box set?
I talked to our current record company [BMG] about it and I don’t know if it will make sense to do that sooner or later, but at some point yes, I want to put out a big set together. My guess is that it will probably be later, meaning ten years from now or something.
When describing the new songs you said it’s all about epic guitars, and when talking about the whole Teargarden by Kaleidyscope a while back, you mentioned a return to the Pumpkins psychedelic roots. Can you elaborate that?
Honestly, I just say those things so that people have simple things to hold on to, as if I said the opposite like that I want to do future music people would be “oh no, synthesizers!” so I said it would be guitars. It’s like saying that it will be an action movie or something, it’s over-simplification to keep people in a certain consciousness of what I am going to do, because if they think I am doing something else they are already turning off their mind.
Earlier on I was talking to the roadie who has been working with you for twenty-two years, and he told me that with Brad Wilk on drums and Mark Stoermer on bass, this is the tightest Smashing Pumpkins lineup he has ever seen, it is almost surreal! Can you feel that too?
We don’t feel it that way. We think it’s pretty good, but there are still things we could improve. The reaction is so strong though, which makes us think we must be doing something right. I believe it’s just the way we play together, it’s a natural sympatico. I feel like everyone is listening to each other, which is very rare for four people.
When you said reaction, did you mean the audience’s reaction?
People in the business too. We did a show for BBC 6Music earlier today and there was this woman from the press who said that was the best gig she had ever seen and couldn’t believe it. But it’s not something I am conscious of. It’s like when you are listening to Led Zeppelin or Cream: there is a certain way they play together and can make their music seem so big, but it’s difficult to say why. For instance Cream is just guitar, bass and drums, so nobody can explain how only three people can make this bigger sound. And it’s probably something similar for the new Smashing Pumpkins: whatever is happening with us, I don’t know what it is, but it’s very powerful.
You also write poems. As there is a thin line between lyrics and poems, how do you differentiate the impulse that draws you to write lyrics from the one that draws you to write poems?
Not every word sounds good in the mouth so lyrics are limited by the rhythm, the onomatopoeia and the singability, whereas in poetry there is no limitation. But I think in the act of writing it’s all the same. To me a word is like a sound or something, so I don’t really differentiate. Words can be very dangerous and powerful, and trying to squeeze them in any particular box is almost pointless. When you say a word there is the meaning of the word, then there is the secret meaning of the word, and then there is what someone hears in the word, which can be different from what you mean as people react differently.
How is your spiritual memoir going? The last update I got was that so far you had written 200,000 words and were not even halfway through …..
Now it’s actually 370,000 words … it’s very long. I usually write two hours a day, not on tour, but when I am at home. It’s so long I can’t believe it!
So do you have to discipline yourself to write it on a daily basis?
Yes, I try to write between 9 and 11am, then I take a shower and go to the studio.
What legacy do you think you will leave behind you?
I believe that what I will be remembered for is not what people think now, which is a strange feeling. I see myself in the tradition of surrealists or the avant-guarde performance artists, like Pierrot the Clown. I am a “ghost in the machine” or something. I always say to people close to me that the work I make is the product of the real work I am doing, which is this breaking of the machines whatever that is that exists and keeps people hypnotized and repressed by a system which has nothing to do with humanity, heart and love. And that’s since the darkness invaded our culture, the darkness that convinces people to go on war and hate their neighbours or someone because they just don’t like the colour of their skin or whatever. I think I am like an astronaut that goes into all these places breaking all these things, but nobody knows that I am breaking them.
To me, back in the ‘90s it seemed somehow easier for musicians to breakthrough, or at least once they made it, it was easier for them to keep their credibility. It was the last decade when some bands really changed the music history. Today music tends to be all samey and repetitive, and though in a way it’s easier for bands to make themselves known thanks to the Internet culture, it’s harder to stand out or become influential because of the constant competition.
I agree. It’s also hard because earlier on the kids have so much pressure to fall into a certain category, genre or style, and the people that usually write the reviews and make their opinions tend to be stupid. Today there is a huge pressure we didn’t have at the beginning.
Yeah but on the other hand, I think back in the days media had a much bigger influence on people’s opinion than now, probably because there were fewer and journalists were generally more qualified.
Absolutely. Maybe I have to update my opinion on what a review means, as you are right, they don’t mean what they used to. Currently I am unhappy with some of the reviews of Monuments to an Elegy, because they are saying it’s an average record, but nobody I know believes it’s an average record. People I talk to say this is the best record I have made in twenty years, and then you come here in the UK and people start writing all these reviews saying it’s just OK. What will I have to do to get a good review?
I think when critics have an opinion on someone it’s quite difficult for them to admit they have changed it. So it probably takes a lot for reviewers to admit this is actually a pretty good record, because, as I am sure you are aware, you have always generated strong reactions and people have always had strong opinions on you… since the beginning it has always been either love or hate.
No that was just hate. Especially at the beginning…..
Maybe I am wrong but all things considered, the reviews I have read so far weren’t actually that bad…
Here in UK it has been either 3 out of 5 or 7 out of 10, which means good record but nothing special. But there is no way this is an average record. I have been making records for a long time and I know when I make a pretty good one. So it’s a bit strange, but like you said, it just tells me it’s an irrelevancy. They really believe they hold the keys to the gates, but they don’t anymore. The people hold the keys to the gates, as it should be. So it doesn’t really matter anymore, that’s why I am not even that upset.
Ahead of the album release, you have been playing just a handful of very intimate shows in Europe. How much stronger do you think the interaction with the audience is when you play club shows in comparison with big venues and festivals?
I think it’s actually the same. Twenty years ago people coming to a club wanted to see something unique whereas the festival audience wanted to hear the greatest hits. Now strangely, both festival and club crowds want to hear the greatest hits and see the same show, so the reaction of the audience is almost the same. It’s just smaller in a club but it’s the same.
In 2012 you opened a tea house and art studio in Highland Park, IL. Unfortunately I haven’t been there yet, but I spent a bit of time browsing the website, and I love the concept, and as a vegetarian I appreciate the vegan menu as well as the arty twist you have given to the whole thing. How did you come up with the idea to open it? Was it more a commercial choice or a personal goal?
It was totally a personal thing. I originally wanted to open a performance place, but then it only made sense as a tea shop as you need a business. Most people open a performance place and art gallery, but to me that was a little too boring. Whereas having a tea house is a nice local business but you can also sell good products and combine them into artistic goals. We are still working on the artistic goals but the teas are very good!
Monuments to an Elegy is out now on BMG
Originally published on The 405