BIG-O Interview With Billy - March '96

Interviewer: In the last interview that we did, you said an interesting thing. You said :"We're really committed to trying to push the perimeters of rock. The goal of the band has never been to be a big band. And if you're amazing , then you will be big." Well, now it seems that you're an international phenomenon. From Gish to Siamese Dream to Mellon Collie, you've gone through quite a lot of transitions, and I'm primarily interested in what's been going through your mind in the last three years since we last met.

BC: Yeah . I don't know.(pauses). Well, the first thing that came to mind when you said that was if we're not the best band - because there are so many different criteria for what is the best band - we feel like we *are* one of the best bands. Just because we try to tackle new territory, we are ourselves, and those kinds of things. But the world right now is so infatuated with bands that have the ability to write three-minute pop songs regardless of where they're coming from, whether they're ripping it off or copying, that it's a weird world to live in right now.

So, on one hand, we're extremely appreciative of the success that we've had and we like we're doing exactly what we were meant to do, but at the same time there's a fatigue factor in having to constantly sell yourself. You know, it's like, how may times can you say, "Don't you understand we're the Smashing Pumpkins?" I mean at some point you get tired of hearing yourself say that. It's like, here we are, sitting here with Oasis (points to back issue of BigO with Oasis on the cover). And I actually think that Oasis is a very good band, but when people seem to be fixating on something like that, it gets kind of disheartening and you really start to question why you bother doing it. It certainly strengthens your resolve for why we are who we are. We long ago decided we are what we continue to be, whatever that is. If that makes any sense.

I: Well, it's ironic, don't you think, that Time magazine, of all people, voted Mellon Collie its Album of the Year for 1995?

BC: It's certainly valid at some level. The other thing we found ironic was that we didn't get many critics' polls, but we basically won every readers' poll. That, to us, speaks more than the critics' polls because that's who's really listening. It's an amazing thing because we're in a unique position, which is we're a band that has enormous popularity and a really strong core audience but doesn't have necessarily the public personas to match. I think we've taken on an unpopular artistic realm, which is almost more of a people's realm. It's an interesting position to be in, because we never can quite fit in one place. One day we're playing to all those people and it's amazing experience, and the next day you're arguing with somebody because they don't believe you're big enough to be on the cover of their magazine. So you're constantly dealing with the perception of what you are and what you're not. It's a pretty wild life.

I: In terms of your own perception of what success is, how successful do you feel now? Would you say that you are indeed successful? Or would you say you still have a ways to go?

BC: I think the band can still go further. I don't think we've reached everybody that we're capable of reaching yet.

I: Will you know where that point is when you've reached it?

BC: I think we'll know when people stop asking us where we're going (laughs). I'm being snide.

I: You're very good at that. (Billy laughs). Well, let's try this one. You recently inducted Pink Floyd in to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Now, what's your recollection of that event?

BC: I don't know whose decision it was to ask me. But I thought it was kinda cool. I'm a Pink Floyd fan, and I think pretty much we are, the whole band, are. They got respect without hit songs. I mean hit singles. Well, they obviously had the biggest selling album of all time (Dark Side of the Moon) but you don't think of singles when you think of Pink Floyd. You think of albums and pigs.

I: I didn't think Mellon Collie was going to have a single like 1979 when I first heard about it. Do you know what I mean?

BC: Yeah. Well, I knew going in that it would have to have singles or it wouldn't sell. I knew it wouldn't sell in the sheer force of it being a double album. I knew that having singles was a way to get people to listen to the entire album.

I: Which brings me to my next point. You seem very shrewd at looking at the marketing angle and the way that you have to sell the band as a business and not just as a musical entity. Am I correct?

BC: Yeah. You're correct, but it's something I don't really like. It's a part of the business that I hate to even have to think about. The necessary evil is we're a pain in the ass. We're a pain in the ass to describe, we're a pain in the ass to talk to, we're so specific and distinctive that it causes a lot of problems. So we have to use whatever tools or whatever access we have to make connections.

I: I wondered about that when I heard BWBW, in which you write " Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage"

BC: Yeah.

I: Was that informed by any particular incident?

BC: Can you say Lollapalooza?(we all laugh) I mean, I'm not blaming Lollapalooza but the thing is this : Your own ambition puts you in a situation where you think " I'm finally getting what I want" And then you get what you want, and you realize that you're not really equipped to completely deal with it. Then you have to fight all those feelings. And then it just became a larger parable for life, you know, like you have a some shit job and you hate it and you want to kill everyone but you never say it.

I: But Lollapalooza is a symbol of where this generation is at, in terms of mass marketing of alternative music.

BC: And the kids solidify it. They come thinking it's supposed to be some kind of entertainment package. They're not being educated because there's nothing to educate them, to say "This is alternative music," Head to toe. Basically, it's alternative music but it could be anybody. I mean, yeah, they got the piercing booth but the fact of the matter is it that's where you can really make your point. But I don't think people are intent on making that point. We seem to be the only ones.

I: Well, you also said in an interview with Vox magazine in England, and I quote you :"You could ask' Is it worth preaching to the converted?' and my answer is 'Yes', because if the converted are willing to go with you, you can take them further and further. When I was in high school, two of my favorite bands were R.E.M and U2, and I felt that U2 moved more towards their audience, whereas R.E.M continued to lead theirs and see who followed. That's what I'm more concerned with doing, and I need to find the confidence in myself to push further out. " Now, isn't Lollapalooza a vehicle for doing that because, in that sense, you are preaching to the converted?

BC: Right, but we've met with a lot of resistance. A lot of kids, they didn't get it. Because it sure wasn't like what they'd seen on MTV. I mean, it's cool. I don't know if it's like I'm getting older or what, but I'm just much more accepting of things in the sense of it's the way that it is. And it's not a matter of right or wrong. It's just a matter of, like, all you can do is meet people with intelligence and strength and heart. That's what we bring. And, hopefully, in the end that wins. We're going to lose some of the battles but, you know, if I had to make a choice between being today's sensation and being a band that people will respect 20 years from now for being a real band, I think I'd rather be the band that gets the respect in the end.

I: Do you have a fear of being misunderstood?

BC: (chuckles) It's a fear that manifests itself daily. My whole thing is , really, I come up like a curmudgeon but the fact of the matter is I really care. I really care. I really want these kids to have a good life, a good time, and I want them to know that it's important. It's not dismissable. We have a relationship and a responsibility to out audience beyond the fact that it facilitates us being assholes or rock stars. And by taking that responsibility, we open ourselves up to criticism and whatever, but deep down, I mean, we're really good people. We just want everybody to have a good time. But we won't compromise who we are to do that, you know. That's what I'm saying. I mean, there are people that you would hate up and down, but at least you respect them because they believe in what they believe in. And I think there are too many people these days who waffle back and forth due to public opinion or what's politically correct. Meanwhile, they're in their bedroom mumbling racist comments. You know what I mean? So, whatever, you know. At least we're real, and we gain and lose for being that.

Interviewer: Given the length and scope of Mellon Collie, was it a deliberate attempt on your part to subvert the fame and acclaim you had received from Siamese Dream?

Billy: All I remember thinking was that it was like a mantra or something, you know, it was like , "Just do what you want to do, just do what you want to do." I think the answer to your question is that, it's subversive because we just did what we were going to do. But I really wasn't thinking in terms of being reactionary. Siamese Dream was a weird album in the sense that half of it was me trying to outdo myself and the other half of it was, like, over the top. This new album was done with a complete acceptance of all those things. So there was no fight. I wasn't reacting to Siamese Dream or anything.

I: I understand there are still 20 songs left over from the Mellon Collie recording sessions. That's pretty staggering.

B: Yeah, they're all coming out on B-sides.

I: How does it feel, actually, to be in this part of the world compared to, say, Europe? Does it matter where you play at all?

B: I'll tell you, I like it here a lot better than Europe. Personally, I feel that this part of the world seems a little more harmoniously adjusted. The nature of the culture, the nature of people's religious beliefs and stuff, seems to be a little more organic to me. I feel a little more at peace with people here. That may just be my inability to understand it at deeper levels. People here may be just as shitty as people everywhere else in the world, but I wouldn't know because I can't read them the same. My vibe is basically good.

I really feel like we're a world band. We've never really been "an American band," People always say, " You're kind of between England and America." But we've incorporated a lot of rhythms from, obviously, other parts of the world. I'm not going to go into the whole Hindu trip, but you know what I mean. We think that the world is quickly emerging into a multi-cultural place. The fact that you can sit here in Singapore and watch CNN alone brings the world closer together.

I: I remember Pete Townshend talking about religion and how rock and roll can be a religion in it's own way. I think a lot of people are looking to you now, actually. You're almost like the Pete Townshend of your era.

B: I feel that way sometimes. And I think it's a very flattering comparison. I think certainly it's not accepting rock at face value, music at face value. It's always about trying to get to that other step, and I think that's what art is supposed to give out. Art is not supposed to be comfortable. The very nature of art is to express the non-obvious. Or to express the thing that a normal person can't express.

One of the greatest compliments I get is when somebody says to me : "You say exactly what I wish I could say. You say the things that, if I could articulate and put my thoughts together, that's how I would say it." That's a great compliment, and I think that personally I've had a willingness to go into territory that most people would never go into. We take our lumps for it, but I'm proud that I've had that balls to do it. I wouldn't have it any other way, you know. It's hard sometimes, because I get sick of talking about why I am the way I am. The simple answer is I don't know. I was always this way.

I: Do you think you're a difficult person?

B: I think I'm a difficult person by the world's standards. I think to know me is to not really know a difficult person. I'm really not that difficult a person. I believe in what I believe in, and I believe it to the point that I'm willing to fight for it and go down in my ship for it. And luckily I've found and had the pleasure of being with three people who have stood by me. Not believe in, like, lock-step one hundred percent of the time, but in the end supported me not because it's what I believed in but because we all believe it's the right thing.

We can intellectualize till the end of time but there are certain common truths. And there's an integrity that you know, when you go to bed. My base of integrity is when I go to bed, do I lie in bed questioning what I did? Do I lie in bed thinking, "I'm such an idiot. Why did I do that? Why did I sell myself out there?" Most nights I go to bed feeling pretty damn good, because at least I go to bed with a clear conscience.

I: Well, for the sake of argument, you're not as difficult as someone like, say, Bob Dylan.

B: But Bob Dylan is blessed with such enormous talent that he may lack the ability to see past it. I think there's a weird thing with people who are so talented that they can't understand why everyone else is not that way. So there's almost like a weird arrogance and a weird kind of craziness that goes with it, because God has blessed them with such enormous talent. Look at a great star athlete. I mean, they don't understand why everyone can't see the play they see. Michael Jordan, he doesn't understand why everyone can't jump like him. That's a genius, in a way.

I: There's the public perception of you as a representative of this disenfranchised generation of young kids, the kids who form your core audience. The kids who get educated but their education doesn't get them jobs, and there's a cry for leadership and for role models. And they turn to artists such as yourself to show them the light, as it were, which is a role that artists do play. And I just wondered if there are any pressures that come to bear, as you lie in bed at night, thinking about, "Oh my God, am

I-as Michael Stipe once put it in an R.E.M song - World Leader Pretend."

B: No, because I don't believe it to be anything more than it is.

I: Which is what? Just rock and roll? As in, like the Rolling Stones have it, "It's only rock and roll but I like it"?

B: No, it exists somewhere between just music and something of importance. It certainly plays a factor and influence their lives from the ages 14 to 18, and maybe you play some sort of indirect role model. But beyond that, I don't think so. I know exactly what it is, I know how important it is, I have the ability of being a 28-year-old looking at a 16-year-old who thinks I'm the world, knowing that sooner or later they're going to realize that there're other things like husbands and wives and cats and dogs.

So I have a perspective. And there's a huge responsibility, on a personal level, to not turn it into something it's not. To not give it a greater importance than it really has. I mean, not to sound too philosophical, with or without it the sun's going to rise tomorrow, the planet will continue. the waves will still move. There's a whole subtext of life that goes on regardless of who's on the planet. So, I think, it's cool to be doing what we're doing, we're still young enough to kick some ass. We just made a silly, crazy double album. Things are not so bad.

I: So does that explain your haircut, or the lack of one? You made a comment, in one recent interview, that you shaved your head to "de-emphasize my vanity."

B: Well, I'm basically down to, like, there's not much left. (We laugh) It's like, no hair, same clothes. There's very little room for interpretation. ZERO shirt, silver pants. And I mean this in all respect because I've known a couple of monks. . . It's like you strip away what you feel comfortable with and you gain a different freedom in that. I've taken away my freedom to choose what I wear on stage. I've taken away the freedom to comb my hair a new wave style, and I feel a different freedom in my life.

It's weird sometimes because you don't have comfortable things to hold on to, but I also walk around not thinking about stuff I used to think about. I don't stand on stage wondering if the shirt that I picked goes with what James is wearing. Or whether James found a better shirt. I think it's just human, you know. (laughs) Certainly my pictures prove that I'm not really clothes-obsessed. If anything, I lack any direct sense of style.

I: But wearing ZERO on your chest, as you do on stage, isn't that a statement too?

B: Well, you know, if I shit on this table, now, that's a statement too. (laughs) It's all art. Every single bit of it. Down to the nose picking and coughing and the screaming. It's all art. We live and learn. And forget. And live and learn and forget again.

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