Billy Corgan: Smashing Pumpkins' one-man songwriting team

Guitar Player - September 1994

Billy Corgan leaves nothing to chance. With both big-picture vision and a perfectionist's eye for detail, the singer, songwriter, and co-producer, and principle guitarist of Smashing Pumpkins has crafted two-and-a-half albums of immaculate, Technicolor pop-rock. The Chicago quarded's 1991 debut, Gish and its EP afterbirth, Lull, earned the band indie icon status; their second full length album, Siamese Dream, rocketed the group into the supra-platinum stratosphere. With deep-focus production, beatific pop melodies, pulse-pummeling ultra-Zerp dynamics, and superb Stratsmanship that always serves the songs, the releases have carved out an instantly recognizable Pumpkins sound.

Corgan says he is currently completing 40 songs at once, 24 of which will appear on the two-CD set he hopes to start recording early next year after the Pumpkins finish headlining Lollapalooza '94 and begin tackling the new material. Is Billy an obsessive pop auteur in the Brian Wilson mold? "Call me what you like," he replies. "There's a method to my madness, and this is all I do."

Are your songs the result of craft or intuition?

Songwriting for me is literally like having five people living in the same body. One day I'm an insuler, childlike artist just going by emotion, the next day I'm a crass technician. The person who writes the riffs argues with the person doing the vocals. But the different personalities can work together: Sometimes my heart says, "This song needs to move," and the tactical part suggests, "Try a key change." It goes back and forth until some kind of graceful compromise is reached. But it takes me a long time to move a song through these different perceptions because I keep finding things to improve. There are songs that are born of their day, that just come to you, but I can count them on one hand. They tend to be my better-known songs because they're so immediately catchy - "Today" and "Disarm," for example.

Butch Vig, who co-produced the records, says you go into the studio with a very definite idea of how you want each song to sound.

It may seem that way to Butch because most bands walk in an say, "I dunno-it kinda goes like this." I just get this sounding my head and try to move the band towards it. My methods evolved from not having a support structure before the band existed. When I was 19 years old with no future, I took it upon myself to learn bass - not just play it, but learn why bass players play the way they do. I didn't play drums, but I learned drummers play a certain way. I learned to be a band in my own head.

Do words and music evolve simultaneously?

My musical ideas tend to come before the lyrics. I tend to get caught up in the phonetic sounds of words, which is both cool and bad. For example, I tend to find myself singing "ay" sounds at the end of cadences, thought I'm trying to break my patterns. But ultimately a songs harmonic structure and melody determine its true intent.

Your arrangements and production never seems to clash with that intent. The solos, for example...

People really miss the point on soloing. It's just another emotional expression. A fast solo is an emotional expression too; it's just like screaming or something. For a perfect example, the solo on "Geek USA" completely jacks up the song. It's not there because I wanted to play a solo, but because the song needed to kick up another notch. I use whatever works. It's always song first, band second, ego third.

Same with the focused way you use effects. They only seem to appear for overt reasons, and some passengers are disarmingly dry. The intro to "Luna" is so naked, it's almost painful to listen to.

Try recording like that - it's the biggest fucking nightmare in the studio! But the intimacy was my ultimate point. I can record rock guitars in my sleep, but clean passages like that, where the slightest unwanted pick scrape or slide can take someone out of that intimacy, can take forever. It's frighteningly intimate at times, but I like that. Anything that makes you cringe is good. Everybody relates. It goes beyond culture and what's "cool."

So you're not the type who believes little flaws add character?

That attitude ultimately comes from laziness. Sonically, we want to create a perfect picture so people will be drawn into it, and they'll stare much longer if there are no distractions. When you're a scummy, awful human being, there's a lot of attraction in having a chance to make beautiful music and leave a little postcard to yourself.

Feather-and-anvil dynamics are a big part of your sound.

My original inclinations to play both heavy and quiet music forced me to learn how to put them together, and recording those songs forced me to learn how to get the best sound out of both dynamics. I used to write mostly on acoustic, but now it's half and half because i'm starting to realize I can't write rock songs on acoustic - I just end up playing R.E.M. Now I sometimes write different sections of a song on different instruments.

Do you study other people's music?

No, I'm completely over that phase. It's not an ego/pride thing; it's just the realization that it's the biggest fucking mistake you can make. I've been down that road where you're learning on what somebody has carved out before you. I've definitely fallen into the Zepplin/Hendrix trap. That's not the worst trap to fall into, but I realized that you cannot create your own language until you escape that. It's like children eventually rejecting their parents to grow and become their own entities. At some point I had to say, "This is all flicking crap, and I can come up with a better way." You have to be able to leave behind what you understand in order to carve out new languages.

What have you learned from your two albums?

I finally got over all the hangups about what I should or shouldn't be doing. Now I just do whatever comes to me. I wouldn't have to put a song like "Today" on Gish - never would have allowed such a cheesy popsong. But now I let myself revel in that cheesiness and somehow make it mine. When you get stuck in those self-image bear traps, that's your problem - nobody imposes that on you. Also, you should always have a guitar laying around. See what comes out on it before you even have a chance to think about it. That way, it's the real you playing the song. I find that something interesting usually comes about before I have a chance to think about it. Ultimately the conscious part of your mind completely ruins everything.

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