The Guitar Magazine

To rock or not to rock? To take guitar to new extremes or to give it up all together? These are the question troubling Billy Corgan, The Smashing Pumpkins' crown prince of alternative/prog angst. TGM collars the indie Eddie Van Halen in Frankfurt and finds him in pensive mood. 'I play guitar like an idiot,' he claims, 'but there's nothing I can do about it...

Most guitar magazines still ignore bands like The Smashing Pumpkins,' coos Billy Corgan, acknowledging the presence of the TGM tap recorder in front of him. 'They concentrate on the "traditional" players- Vai, Satriani - instead which is just so ironic to me. The Smashing Pumpkins put out records that sells millions and Steve Vai puts out records that sells 50,000. Sure, those 50,000 people might be obsessed with the exact technicalities of what Steve Vai does but by pure percentages we're gonna win out every time. So if we're ignored, it's kind of absurd. People like me, Kurt Cobain and Billy Joe from Green day are ultimately going to have a much profound effect on guitar playing than most of other guys you traditionally see in guitar magazines.'

Billy Corgan's a whining big head. A hostile, awkward interview. That's what everyone says. And when he fires an opening gambit like the above, with TGM barely having to ask a question, you might get the feeling he's believed too much of his own bad press and is ready to play to the crowd. In reality , Corgan isn't necessarily a big head. Nor is he the poker-face ogre of press legend. What he is though, and he knows it, is influential.

The Smashing Pumpkins last album, the 28-track double cd Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, is nudging six-million sales and, in the States particularly, Corgan has been canonized as Alternative Rock Prince no.1. The reasons for the King Pumpkin's elevation are many writing lyrics like those of Zero, a Gen X/complaint rock blueprint if ever there was one, certainly helps, but for musicians Corgan scores on two basic points: a) he patented That Pumpkins Guitar Sound, a brick hard chordal wall since swiped by everyone from Bush to Levi Strauss & co.- and b) he's made outrageous ambition and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-production cool again.

One listen to the kaleidoscope Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and you realize that 'alternative' is too narrow a label for The Pumpkins.One minute their guitars out-grunge Soundgarden, the next they'll know they'll throw accentuated Brian May guitar orchestration into an industrial-esque Killing Joke rhythm, the next again they'll caress your ears with the whisper of delicately fingered baroque'n'roll. Like their leaders faves Queen,The Pumpkins are often ridiculous, but you can't help but admire their audacity. As Corgan once deadpanned when accused of being prog-rock; 'that denies the 80 other things we're capable of doing.'

So, self-assured? Definitely. Confident? Check. And bigheaded? Possibly, but perhaps it'd be better to just say that the thoughts in Billy Corgan's head are big...

"The basic point is,' he says, warming to his theme, "is people like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page were great innovators on the guitar but also innovators within the constructs of great music. That's why the interest holds in them and that's what we're trying to make. Great music. When you listen to Led Zeppelin it doesn't really have anything to do with great guitar playing, nor Hendrix in some ways 'cos he was also a great, great songwriter. The song is king. That's why someone like Eric Clapton has staying power. He's certainly not my favorite guitar player in the world but if you don't like the guitar playing it doesn't really matter 'cos he's got song- you can't really argue with something like Layla. People like Steve Vai just don't write songs. He does nothing new.'

'New' is Billy Corgan's benchmark. He judges his own output on the basis of whether it offers 'anything new'; he'll lambaste other people's records because they're 'ripping stuff off.' His respect for the past runs deep, and - no matter how punk rock the Pumpkins might have once appeared - Corgan doesn't really want to destroy anything...

'I think our lack of respect, on a generational level, for musicians who've come before us will only suffocate us artistically,' he says of his peer group, 'and I think if you look at the current music scene - especially in Europe - it's music for infatuation's sake. It's disco all over again. For example, people are talking a lot at the moment about the Prodigy song, Firestarter, but as a piece of music it's not much. Could that stack up against Howlin' Wolf? I don't think so. It's not what I understand music to be about - it's the difference between a visceral, emotive connection, and going' into the amusement park and riding a rollercoaster ride. Once you've ridden the rollercoaster five times, you've seen it all. Unfortunately, that's what our culture is all about at the moment - tastes are based on immediate fascination and we're not looking beyond the surface context. In a round about way, I'm saying that if you don't know what's gone before, then you can't really haul yourself up to a high standard and say "what do I have to do to go beyond this?"

Surely, rock'n'roll doesn't have to 'go 'beyond' though. The likes of Oasis can simply take a '60s recipe, put a '90s spin on it and still make an utterly thrilling noise. That's enough, surely?

'I'm 29 years old and I know I sound like an old fuddy-duddy but I believe in the saying: "those who don't know about history are doomed to repeat it." All I see around me is repeating history, not the creation of new history.

Blimey. As some bloke once said, 'it's only rock'n'roll...'

"You wouldn't be surprised by what I admire. I think my influences are all pretty noticeable. There's no-one that I could pull out of a bag that you'd say, "woah, i never would have considered that."

TGM raises an eyebrow.

'Okay...this isn't a surprise, but let's pick Led Zeppelin. My attitude is, if the pumpkins are gonna rock this is something we've got to try and out-do, or at least compete with on some current context level. That's my benchmark. Hence the sick, ridiculous dynamics of many pumpkins songs. But if I sit here and discuss that influence in detail, which songs I tried to inject that into, then people just sit around going, "Oh yeah!" (sneers) I can really hear that in the Pumpkins music."

'If I had to cite influences in the most direct way, all I would have to say is; they kicked...my...ass...Take Jimi Hendrix. Technically he played with amazing proficiency, both chordally and solo-wise. But then, on top of that, he had the ability to translate pure, pure emotion in his soloing. It's unparalleled. Especially on the later records; his soloing on the band of Gypsies record is absolutely stunning. The voice that that man could put through his guitar blows my fucking mind! When I heard that record, at 18 or whatever, I just knew I've got to do more than just play flash scaled. On one level it made me sit down and practice real hard: on another level, I just though "Shit, I'm never going to be this type of soloist." So I started writing songs.

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