BY AMBER MEREDITH
Transcribed by Simon Coyle
Billy Corgan is standing on a chair in the middle of a makeshift lounge in his band's Chicago rehearsal space. Cans of cashews litter the table, beside half-empty bottles of Perrier and butt-congested ashtrays. At over six feet tall in his socks, Corgan is positively huge from his perch on the seat of an old kitchen chair. The other members of his band, management staff, and record company all make their way around him, ignoring his Jesus Christ pose. We are talking about goths.
"Yeah, the goth society sent me an invitation to one of their parties [during the recent Convergence festival in Chicago]," he remembers. "And you know, I considered going...I owe the early goths a lot. But then, the day came around and I thought about it, and I just couldn't get up the energy to go." In true goth fashion, I remark. Corgan grins down from his perch. "You've got a bit of goth in you too!" Somebody else in the room breaks in with some other business, but he's not listening. "At least," he says quietly, "I've kept one souvenir from my goth past." And he rolls up his shirtsleeve to show me a long, thin scar that runs up his right forearm. He stares at it for a few moments, touches it gingerly, then jumps off the chair and wanders off to grab another handful of cashews.
I am somewhere between nowhere and Idaho, in a run-down section of the northwestern Chicago suburbs, getting to know a few of this band's scars, physical and otherwise. Here, in the space the Smashing Pumpkins have called home away from home for over ten months while hammering away at their double-disc release, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, it feels a lot farther than a fifteen-dollar cab ride from the downtown core of Chicago skyscrapers and the harbourfront, or the nouvelle bohème district with its see-and-be-seen street culture.
Up here, the only street action you might see is all-round good guy and band babysitter Gooch grabbing a bagel fix for the band up the block. Down the block (or anywhere around for that matter) you'll see the same post-industrial strip-mall sprawl: a maze of warehouses, railway tracks and grim coffee shops. Gooch tells me that he's friends with the guy who heads the biggest gang in this neighborhood, and so the first time that somebody tagged the back door of the Pumpkins' space with spray paint, a few phone calls got made, and Gooch's buddy laid down the law: the next time that happens, someone gets hurt. The next day the warehouse door was freshly painted over - and it's stayed clean ever since.
The Pumpkins like it here, Gooch says. And his job is to look after what they like. Unfortunately, he can't do much about the inevitable interview grind to promote the group's latest release, except warn the uninitiated what not to ask. Top of the list? "Anything to do with Courtney Love," he grins. "And yeah--don't ask them if the band members hate each other or if they still don't get along. I mean, what kind of band would have stayed together and made this record if they hated each other?"
Perhaps only a band led by someone as iconoclastic and compelling as Billy Corgan. He sinks into a chair next to me around the kitchen table, and the first thing he does is to sneak my notebook out from under my elbow and start reading my prepared questions. Then he checks my tape recorder, to make sure no mechanical failure will force him to repeat himself more than necessary. Do you ever know when an edit-conscious writer alters your answers from a taped transcript, I ask the band? "I know when I'm being edited," Billy says flatly. "I know the cadence of my own voice, and certain stuff, when I read it back, I know I didn't say it that way. And the other side of that is, [writers] who have been really cruel and put in every 'you know' I've said....I have a bad habit of saying 'you know' in sentences, and I've literally seen interviews with 55 'you know's in them." "Or my like's," adds D'arcy from the end of the table, where she's studiously applying powder to the morning-after-the-night-before bags under her eyes for a later television shoot. Guitarist James Iha sits silent under his blond-streaked bangs. (Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin is home, apparently nursing the flu.)
"So the moral of the story is?" wonders Billy aloud.
"Don't do interviews," D'arcy snaps back. The band laughs, grimly. It doesn't seem like they're quite ready to be back in the spotlight yet. I'm quite prepared not to mention anything about Ms. Love or band chemistry, but I am curious: the group emerged from a 10-month recording stint with a full double album's worth of material. Honed down from 35 songs to 28 and clocking in at over 100 minutes, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (a wordy and somewhat ironic title) presents a tough call for a first single pick to say hello again to all those fans who still have the doorbell chimes of "Disarm" ringing in their heads.
"Like...picks?" Billy asks half-jokingly, doing an air-guitar imitation.
No, like choices, I smile.
"Is that your first question?" he innocently asks.
"That's one of them," I shoot back.
The lead single, as it happens, is "Bullet with Butterfly Wings", a roaring, guitar-crunched anthem with lyrics that focus on a tension between the animal and the spiritual, and a chorus hinged on the line, "despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage". It was a tough call, by Corgan's account. "I felt that 'Bullet' was the absolute obvious choice," explains Billy, "which is kind of why I didn't want it to be the first single. You know, in Pumpkinland, we don't really like to do the obvious thing." He chuckles. "I felt really close to 'Jellybelly' because it sounds to me like a classic Pumpkins song from a third album. It sounds to me like the manifestation of everything we've ever done on a third album, whereas 'Cherub Rock' sounded to me like a second album single. But 'Bullet's one of those songs where, you know, it's easy to sing along to and [he affects a drawl] ya gotta sell them records."
On the other hand, making a double album that even dips its toes into the "conceptual" pond isn't exactly a savvy sell-them-records move for a band on its third release (not counting last year's odds-and-sods compilation, Pisces Iscariot). It could have been easy to go back to the studio and record another "Today", to pick ten listener-friendly songs instead of 28, to dress it up nice and sell another million records. But then again, welcome to Pumpkinland. "We live in a very insulated world." Corgan admits. "We never really went out that much in Chicago in the first place, so when we came back to Chicago, we just got to working. We're not really hanging out--we didn't get 'the heat off the street', if you know what I mean. Since we're not in the constant flux of media, of people coming into town or other bands, we don't really have a sense of [the public expectation]. It was such a very big surprise that Pisces Iscariot sold as much as it did. It said a lot about how many people really do like the band." Did Lollapalooza help that?
"Hell, Lollapalooza probably cost us records," Billy laughs. "I think people probably returned the ones they had after those shows." Billy's onstage rants during the Pumpkins' headlining shows about everything from the crappy P.A. to the state of the world at large became a notorious downer for the fans, who had just finished moshing to the sunnyside-up sounds of the Beastie Boys. With a year to let the politics cool, I wonder if the band would consider joining the (in)famous festival again. "Right now I'd say no fucking way," he answers. "But we'd also never gone through anything like that. I think if we were going to go through something like that again, we would know how to prepare for it, what arrangements to make to accommodate us along the way. We had a lot of problems with that behind-the-scenes crap that just amplified the problems that just being on a big-scale tour caused us anyway."
So, the band licked its wounds and came back to the rehearsal space cocoon to craft an album: a project separated into two halves, titled "From Dawn to Dusk" and "From Twilight to Starlight" respectively. The first ten songs of the "daylight disc" have what Billy calls "a real summer Van Halen sound", and while that may be a wee hyberbolic, there is a subtle thematic shift to a deeper shade of gloom as the listener wades through the dense, rich melancholy. Some might argue that the first ten songs show what kind of album the Pumpkins could have made; the other 18 are a sample of some of the other things Billy Corgan has in his head, directions that often compete for a different perception of one of the world's biggest alt-rock bands.
"I didn't want one album to be a lamer version of the other," Billy explains. "The more obvious material we decided to put on the first record, and the darker, more subversive stuff we put on the second. I think [placement] is absolutely critical to the success of the thing as a whole. Let me put it this way: there aren't going to be a huge number of people who sit down and listen to the album all at once. There's going to be a larger percentage of people who listen to each album independently on its own. So with that all in mind, we wanted to make sure it worked on all levels: for the sporadic listener, for the person who would take the time to actually get into one CD and then potentially move onto the other, or even the person who didn't make it past the first CD. I've met people who didn't even make it past 'Disarm' on Siamese Dream. That's obvious when we play the songs live. So, there will probably be a bunch of people who won't make it past song seven on the first album. But God bless them for listening at all." And, in fact, that's all you may get to do, because seeing the band perform live in the near future is barely a dim possibility.
"We just finished canceling a tour where we were going to play 1500 [seater venues]," Billy sighs."Those are the kinds of shows we wanted to play, and there was so much pressure on is to go for more money that we just got fed up and canceled the whole thing. Pressure from everybody. It's this big golden ring, when you know you can go out and make fucking piles of money, and it kind of clouds everybody's ability to see what's more important than the immediate economic benefits."
"If I had my way, we'd play in places that held just a few hundred," D'arcy adds. "But even the difference between 1500 and 10,000 is huge, because you just feel like you're out there...alone in that big of a crowd. I don't think we really translate that well in a big arena venue. It's not like we have big dancers, or..." "Well, we've got big guitar picks and big drums, but that's about the only stuff we do big," James jokes, almost inaudibly. The band concedes that eventually they'll have to tour, but no one's holding their breath. And, incidentally, no one's talking about fanning the Ticketmaster fires.
"I don't know how Pearl Jam can be going on and on about Ticketmaster when they have one of the highest ticket prices of any alternative band," Billy wonders. "And they don't have a big light show; it's ain't Pink Floyd, where you have to inflate the pig, you know? If you really want to make an impact on the people who are supporting you, the Ticketmaster fight was a fight ill-served. It's a small fish in a much bigger ocean of problems. "I remember having a conversation with Pearl Jam before their second album came out, and they were sitting, and they were all freaked out at the size of the band, and I said (and this is me being the preacher), 'you guys can make a huge difference on the music business. You have the power to do it, but you have to be pro-active. You can't not tour, and hide out in your mansions, and then expect things to change. You have to make them change.' And it's a difficult position to be in; I sympathize with them on a lot of levels. But the Ticketmaster thing was, in hindsight, a really silly thing to get involved in.
"We've always tried to keep the prices of everything reasonable, to keep the experience as good as it can be for the fan under the constraints of the circumstances--even at Lollapalooza. And it's not something we go around and toot our horn about. So we're not perceived as some band with this banner of integrity. But the truth is in the living it."
Perhaps, I venture, Eddie Vedder waving his banner of integrity and complaining how hard it is to be a rock star was just asking for a backlash. "Well, I've gotten a lot of the same rap," Billy says sombrly. "You know, success doesn't necessarily change your common opinion. My opinions are the same as they were when I didn't have any money.
Unfortunately, people have a hard time connecting success with earnestness. They don't see the two as going together. And that's too bad, because it's people like Eddie Vedder who can actually make a decided difference upon rock and roll."
It's also people like Billy Corgan--but at 28 years old, he seems a little tired of wearing his heart on his sleeve for this band. The two years ahead will be the time for this album to run its course; at the end of two years, Corgan will be 30. He, for one, sees that as a watershed.
"I think what is more compelling than looking at the next two years [with this record] is contemplating what comes after. Basically, as a band, we've backed ourselves into a corner, where there is either no future for the band, or there is a new future. That's a difficult position, because you're basically killing the golden cow. But I think it was an important decision to make before we approached this record. It was a very moving experience to try and complete what we had started, and I think [the record] is a fitting end to that period of time. And it's something that we can still represent gracefully. But I knew that two years down the, we couldn't really be that rock band any more. It's just too demanding. Both emotionally and technically, it just takes too much out of us. And we're still suffering from Lollapalooza. I don't know if we'll ever recover from that."
So is this the end of Pumpkinland as we know it?
"Oh yeah," affirms Billy. "I've said it. This is it. We're at the height of what this band was meant to be. For better or for worse, this is the last Smashing Pumpkins album." There's a small silence in the room, as Billy stops for breath and some more cashews. D'arcy's eyes open wide and scared--she has no idea what she'll be doing in two years. James looks at his feet and frowns, slightly. He'll probably put out a solo record someday--possibly several. Gooch tells me Jimmy is taking up boxing.
And Billy? Well, if it's the end of his world as he knows it, he seems fine. (Thanks for asking.)
Return to the Band's Page