Juice Magazine Article (Aug 96)
The gaggle of 13-year-old girls leaning over the side of the pier whisper and giggle and blush. They point excitedly at the four people who are having their photo taken on Santa Monica beach and nudge each other. One wonders aloud if, perhaps, they are models. After several minutes, another takes a deep breath and shouts out: "Hey! Are you guys the Smashing Pumpkins?" None of the four figures, who are now shuffling around uneasily on the shoreline, responds. A few more minutes pass. Finally, summoning up bravado for a moment, three of the teenagers run back along the pier and stumble down the beach. "You are the Smashing Pumpkins!" one of the girls shrieks, clutching a throwaway camera.
His manager holds out his arm to stop them but Billy Corgan looks up, smiles sweetly and waves the girls forward. He shakes their hands, puts his arm round each to have his photo taken and signs bits of paper. He says he's glad to meet them. Flushed with teen passion, they humbly thank him for his time and walk back towards the pier squealing excitedly, turning around every few seconds to make sure that the mirage is still there.
Billy - tall and awkward, with angelic, boyish looks, grasping the sleeves of his garish orange and red jumper in his palms - waits until they're out of earshot then shouts after them: "Hey! Where are you staying?" And he knows that if any of them had heard him, they'd trip each other up in the sand in a desperate attempt to be the first, the only, to give Billy Pumpkin their home number and an inviting look.
While Billy may mock his pale skin - he hasn't been out in the sun for five years - or lift a purple velvet trouser leg to show how hairless he is, he is still desirable. Desirable to those are attracted by his introspective, confessional lyrics, by his sensual, feminine voice and, most of all, by his rock star status. He may be obsessed with the fact that he is not a pin-up, but Corgan knows that, above almost anything else, fame is an aphrodisiac.
Billy Corgan thinks that everything in the music business revolves too heavily around pin-ups, sex and cheap imitations. Because of this, he feels cheated. As much as he can't quite accept that he cares so much about it, image is something he's felt strongly about for a long time. He has talked in the past about the lyrics on "Soma" (a track from the Pumpkins' 1993 multi-million selling Siamese Dream album) exploring the rock & roll fantasy turning sour: "For so long 1 wanted to be a rock star, and 1 wanted to look beautiful, and at some point 1 just gave up on all that. 1 had to realize that it wasn't going to go the way 1 dreamt it would be when 1 was 14." When he talks about it now, Billy still sounds resigned, but hints that the success of the Chicago group's double album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, will supersede all the artifice.
"Of course image is important: It's part of why we've missed out, though I have to say that I don't think my big mouth has helped either. Okay, what's the opinion of a band like Bush in England? Nobody cares. In America, they're the newest young hit-makers. They're being sold as part of the new British wave, whatever the fuck that is, and they're being sold as sex symbols because the guy's cute enough to be one. This is how it feels for us: we're sitting here, our band rocks ten times harder, it's an original band, and yet every time you turn MTV on all you see on rotation is this band who are not only phoney post-Nirvana but phoney British, pretending to be from Seattle.
"Bands who are basically making a simplified Smashing Pumpkins sound are now having hits in England and America. There's the famous Stiltskin story where Levi's approached us to do a commercial and when we turned it down, they hired a band to imitate 'Today' and it was a hit. What are you supposed to do? Imitate yourself. We just shrug our shoulders. We can't go backwards. We're compelled to go forwards. We are compelled to be the Smashing Pumpkins times ten."
The Smashing Pumpkins recorded Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness over seven months in 1995, working six or seven days a week. They turned their Chicago rehearsal room into a recording studio, flew noted producers Flood and Alan Moulder in from London, told them they wanted to record each basic song live for a more urgent feeling, and then presented the two producers with around 65 songs. Between the six of them, they managed to dump some of the tracks between recording in Chicago and mixing in Los Angeles. The result was still a sprawling double album which some critics have described as self-indulgent, a criticism that continues to bother Billy.
"There are two points I'd like to make," he counters. "One: people already call us pretentious assholes. Two: we really wanted to create an atmosphere of freedom in which we could work. And by not limiting ourselves to the idea of a single album, songs that in the past would have been in direct competition can survive in their own right. We could experiment with the songs and know that the worst thing would be one of them ending up in the garbage. It was really a freeing process and it's opened a lot of new avenues." He pauses, takes a breath and continues with conviction. "I'm sure it's gonna be hard for a lot of people to understand, but to me it's the ultimate point of why you're in a band - you should do what you want to do and not worry about the commercial ramifications. The other thing is that we have reached a point, especially here in America, where we can't get any bigger without a hit song. So whether it's on a double or single album is of no consequence. We are as big as bands who have hits, without having had one. Which is not to say that we crave a hit; the band has never been geared towards writing the ultimate pop song."
But "Today" was that elusive thing, a perfect pop song.
"Yeah, but people told us it was too heavy. While at the same time they were playing 'Heart-Shaped Box.' We've always been portrayed as being Nirvana, or the sweet guys who can do no wrong, or the terrible infants, but it's just got to the point where we know this much: make good records and we fucking rock and if you come to see us play and listen to our records, then we feel like you're going to get it, you're going to enjoy it.
"It was a weird position to be in, because the world was telling us to make Siamese Dream Part II. But, as I say, we're compelled to be the Smashing Pumpkins times ten. Put it this way: this new album rocks harder than any record we've done, it's more crazy, it covers more ground. You couldn't make much more of a big fucking statement than the double record."
The concept of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is daunting, if only for the title alone (Bill claims he was thinking of Sad and Sadder as an alternative name). But the reality is simple. It is a glorious, triumphant, epic record. Of course it is grandiose and self-important, but also fragile, tender and considered. Melancholic and introspective, for sure, but also fired-up and compassionate. The songs move from the graceful dream popscape of "Cupid" to the soothing lullaby of "Sleep." From "33," the Rolling Stones song Primal Scream wish they'd written, to "XYU," the closest the Pumpkins have ever got to being Iron Maiden, although the band smirk and argue that Judas Priest is their preferred reference point here.
The mood changes drastically from track to track, with Billy's schizophrenic voice moving from a metal screech to its more familiar, luxurious, feminine tones. So he sounds spiteful and vengeful on "Fuck You," overwhelmed with love on "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" and full of self-loathing as he sings, "While 1 try to love myself/1 feet the same, 1 feet nothing ... holding back the fool 1 am," half-way through "To Forgive." It is, inevitably, a serious album for the most part, but one not without humor. "Lily," a quirky, bluesy track with cello and piano, is the most frivolous song the Pumpkins have yet written: "Silly, 1 know I'm silly/ 'Cos I'm hanging in this tree/In the hope that she'll catch a glimpse of me/Through her window shade... Lily, my one and only."
Billy has always been cagey and vague about his lyrics. Indecipherable scribbles were printed on the inner sleeve of Siamese Dream and those who wanted a lyric sheet had to send a dollar to a post office box in Chicago. This time, though, he decided to be brave and include neatly typed lyrics with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. "I think they're the best I've done," says Billy, letting a smile sneak up on him. "But then 1 think everything is better: the band, the music, the depth of the words."There's always been an emotional, sensitive feel to the Pumpkins, partly because of the way the music can so effortlessly take you from thrashing power rock to serene space pop in an instant, but also because of Billy's confessional lyrics. Some of the Pumpkins' charm lies in the way Billy can capture Nirvana-style angst and frustration while expressing the intense humane intimacy of, say, R.E.M. circa Automatic for the People. "People always say 'confessional' or 'intimate' when they talk about the way I write," sighs Billy. "But that's the way I've always been, so I don't feel as though I'm confessing anything because I'm not hiding any-thing. The lyrics are pretty much in proportion to where I am."
So you never worry about revealing too much?
"All I will say is: why worry about it? Reveal too much for whom? If art is expression, I'm expressing myself to the limits of my capabilities. There is a personal level where, yeah, you give too much away and it's scrutinized then thrown back in your face. But that simply makes me question the world and the world's interpretation. On an artistic level, I want to go as far as possible and be as bold as I can be. It's just that the world can't necessarily deal with something that strikes a chord, that it doesn't want to know about. That's why we are fascinated with beautiful young rock stars, because they are a reflection of something idealistic and not necessarily true... And we've always been a reflection of what's true, so we get hammered for being 'ugly.' We're not presenting the gleaming version of rock & roll, what we're doing is more fucking real."
Despite the fact that he went into therapy when making Siamese Dream - the band were getting on notoriously badly, constantly quarrelling and fighting and splitting up - Billy insists that writing personal songs is not a form of exorcism. He will admit they're a direct extension of him, but will only talk about them in the most abstract of ways.
"Explaining songs has always been such a bad idea," he shrugs. "I say the true meaning and it just gets distorted and filtered through some kind of cultural, generational spin: 'What's he trying to say to the masses?' No offence, but it's totally useless. The whole song is bigger and more powerful, so for me to explain the words is to demystify the song. It's not like I'm trying to be cryptic, because I think a lot of the meanings will be pretty obvious, especially with the lyric sheet. And knowing a year and a half ago that I was putting the lyrics in plain view forced me to write better lyrics. There's no way I can mumble, 'I'm a bumble bee... mayonnaise... mustard... cream cheese'."
Billy Corgan has often been portrayed as a mini-dictator. Since the release of Mellon Collie, the Pumpkins have been trying to show that things are different now, that they're at that point where all musicians appear to arrive after a couple of albums - they want to be seen as a band. It's hard to tell if they really have resolved their differences since making Siamese Dream. Their public show displays a measure of camaraderie, but then there are constant asides - which could be taken as playful or bitchy - and a certain physical tension between each of them.
Although Billy denies that it was an intentional show of the band's newly discovered special friendship, the words "Masonic Temple" were engraved in stone above the brightly-painted studio doors where Mellon Collie was made. Ultimately, it's more revealing to sit in the presence of the quartet and watch their efforts to interact.
Guitarist James lha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain are the first to arrive at the band's rehearsal space and they both head straight for the games room, where they spend 20 minutes shouting "fuck you" and "motherfucker" at each other as they play a kickboxing computer game. They look ridiculous - James is all sensitive indie boy with his skinny frame, pony tail, Morrissey glasses and sensible shoes, while jimmy is pumped-up and tattooed - but they appear to be enjoying their virtual combat. Yet when Billy turns up and sits down for the interview, James and jimmy sit at far corners of the room, both from each other and their singer. And when bassist D'Arcy turns up a few minutes later, she looks sulky, says she's bored with talking in interviews and never being quoted, and sits between James and jimmy.
Billy laughs, slightly self-consciously, and says they're sitting too far away from the Walkman to be recorded. They silently pull up their chairs. A few minutes into the interview, they are making jokes but loaded references to what they describe as now healthy intra-band relationships.
When Billy asserts there have been no arguments, no screaming, no nothing," D'Arcy mutters: "No, not this year." Jimmy adds that they had to put themselves through the agonies of making a double album because if they weren't busy hating one another, they had to suffer in some other way.
When Billy was finishing the album's production in mid '95, the other three were already rehearsing for the world tour, conscious of matching Corgan's excruciatingly high technical standards. James claims that they had a cardboard cut-out of their frontman, which they kicked out occasionally.
"Yeah, one with a hunchback to make it real," responds Billy, with only a glimmer of a smile.
Ask Billy how big his ego is and when he replies "not that big," he looks immediately at the others and they all almost fall off their chairs laughing. "It depends on what you consider big," he continues. "I read these things about what Oasis say and 1 think, 'Well, my ego's not that big.' But I don't think I'm crap either. What's the thin line between confident and arrogant? I'm sure I teeter on it. But then, it's typical: you're a lead singer so you're gonna fucking stand up there and tell the world what you have to say and feel that what you're emoting is important.
Is that ego or some kind of twisted reality? "Some people call it mojo - you've gotta have that fucking mojo. I'm not the Messiah, I'm just some dumb mid-west guy. We're not influencing Hitler Youth, we just want people to rock."
Are the Pumpkins still very much your band, or, can you let go?
"I have always chosen to carry the weight in terms ' of songwriting, but the door is always open for people to write. James has written some tracks on this album. No one could say there wasn't the opportunity. On another level," and here Billy takes a breath and raises his voice so significantly that he makes the others jump, "there is no fucking way that this band could continue without one of us. We are a fucking band. We have always operated and lived as a band. I have always said that if one person leaves, that's the end of the band. I'm not going to carry on with a faux Jimmy or faux D'Arcy. There's no fucking way."
Billy may be handing out some songwriting work but he can't really let go, not on any level. He was the only one in the group who didn't know what to do with himself when the band took a, break after relentlessly promoting Siamese Dream. Jimmy says it takes time to wind down but he can discipline himself to do it, while D'Arcy went through a period of acute agoraphobia and was unable to leave her apartment when she came home from a tour. "But you can't live that way," she sighs. "Now I'm a farmer. You may laugh, but it's true."
James sits up and adopts a deadpan tone: "I hold concerts in my house all the time. I sit with my guitar on the porch and wave to the kids: 'Come on, you know this song'." Billy hiccups with laughter as James continues. "I can't stop rocking. If the band's not there, lha will be rocking."
As Billy is wiping tears from the corner of his eyes, someone brings in an armful of bagels and carrot juice. He tears off a chunk of pumpkin seed bagel and starts talking with his mouth full. "I'm the worst. I can't imagine what the fuck to do. I go crazy when I'm not in the studio or on the road. I write more songs."
Can't you even relax with your wife?
"I think the question should be: can she have a good time with me? Ha ha. I can't let go. How the fuck does somebody write over 40 songs in six months?"
With "Mellon Collie' exceeding the sales of Siamese Dream, and no sign of slowing down as their world tour progresses, the Smashing Pumpkins find themselves having to deal with fame on a massive scale. Billy says that if he could change any part of being in the Pumpkins, it'd be the stress and trauma part. He displays a similar tortured and sensitive artist persona to Kurt Cobain - does the responsibility of fame and the potential intensity of the media spotlight worry him? 'It has already damaged the band. Even at the level we're at, it's been a problem." James raises an eyebrow, D'Arcy shakes her head, Jimmy wanders around the room, looking for an ashtray. "But it's as simple as this," Billy continues. 'If you don't want the problem, just stop. You have to keep that in mind; that is the perspective.
No one is forcing you to be in a rock band or to be a rock star. We definitely could stop. We have enough money. We have our own lives. We don't need the band - we're in it because we want to be. That's an important distinction. We are not tied to rock & roll till death do us part, that's for damn sure."
Does that mean you think Kurt took the coward's way out by committing suicide rather than just facing up to reality?
Billy shakes his head vigorously. "No. 1 don't think you can ever analyse it like that. What goes on between a person and himself and the universe is their own damned business." His voice cracks and tears well up in his eyes. "There is no way we could ever cheapen it..."
D'Arcy leans forward and speaks quietly and carefully. "There is no way we could ever think to judge it. It's just such a mindfuck, the whole thing. 1 have found the best way of dealing with it is to pretend that it's not even there, because it's not real."
Billy clears his throat and continues. "It seems to be about you, but it's really not about you. You're a lucky participant, you're actually lucky to be in a position where people will give two fucks about you either way. Ultimately it's not really about you, but the idea of you - if you weren't there, it'd be someone else. People will not be Smashing Pumpkins fans till the day they die; they'll ebb and flow and move onto Neil Diamond."
Back on the beach, the sun has almost set and the Pumpkins are enjoying themselves. In his determination to "show some unity," Billy has insisted that they want to have their photos taken together, but they look so uncomfortable standing in a group for longer than a minute at a time that they pose for single shots as well. They stand around on the beach chatting with each other. Billy shouts abuse at jimmy for keeping his sunglasses on when it's dusk and they all laugh at James as he rejects rock star posturing in favor of supermodel pouts.
Billy jumps around on the spot, complaining that it's too cold to have his photo taken. After hitching a trouser leg, he yanks down his jumper to show anyone who happens to be looking his pale, hairless skin. He then suddenly points at his head and says it's the most important part of his body.
When Billy is having his photo taken, James looks at him and frowns. He says he doesn't know why Billy spent over half an hour in the studio changing in and out of lurid shirts only to appear in a jumper and some old pants.
With the photos done, the manager starts to get nervous about time being lost and tries to usher everyone back to the car, but his fatherly tones prove hopeless as the band pass by the sideshows on the pier. After being on the tour treadmill for so long they start behaving like kids let out of detention early, like prisoners suddenly granted bail. Jimmy grabs a rifle, shoots violently at a cardboard sheet, wins a miniature teddy bear and punches the air; James wins the same by hitting a piece of metal and catapulting a frog onto a plastic lily. He cheers so loudly that he distracts Billy from shooting a basketball.
After 15 minutes of trying to win more cuddly toys, they head for the car park but are distracted once more by four coin-operated toy vehicles which they clamber onto. A couple of the 13-year-old girls are still lingering in the shadows, wary of interfering. They stare saucer-eyed in wonder at the familiar squealing noises their heroes are making. James hugs his bear to his chest and closes his eyes in mock ecstasy; jimmy makes vroom-vroom noises and D'Arcy can't find a quarter to make hers go. Billy can't quite believe what he's doing. He tries to affect a cool pose but as his horse rocks gently back and forth, he can't resist it. He looks back at his band mates, throws his head back, and laughs.
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