The Pumpkin King by Andy Aledort
All hail Billy Corgan, leader of Smashing Pumpkins and the new lord of Lollapalooza!
"YOU DON'T CHOOSE TO WRITE A SONG ABOUT PAIN. It just happens," says Billy Corgan. "Should I ignore what I feel and go out and sing Gerry and the Pacemakers songs, because that's what people want to hear? Screw everybody. I'm going to stand up and sing my blues, and if I'm gonna go down, I'm going down with my own songs."
Obviously, success hasn't mellowed the leader of the Smashing Pumpkins patch. Corgan is just as outspoken as before the double- platinum Siamese Dream catapulted his band, in less than half a year, from a marginally acknowledged alternative outfit to one of the world's biggest and most successful bands. He's garnered massive amounts of press for both the power of highly original music and the highly combustible melodrama of the Pumpkins' inter-relationships. But instead of being torn apart at the seams by its successes, The Smashing Pumpkins have been revitalized, and are ready to push the envelope and take rock into new, uncharted territories.
"We now have an opportunity to convince people that we're real," says Corgan. "We've built up a solid fan base, and I think it's strong enough that if we put out a really strange album, people will go out and buy it, maybe even to listen to it just once. We make our own little brand of music, and the more 'out' we go, the more people seem to respond. I don't think our fans want us to be like everybody else. I really think our uniqueness is appreciated and respected, and in a way, it's my responsibility to continue to cultivate that, and not homogenize it."
In the following interview, Billy talks about his headlining position in Lollapalooza '94 and what the last 12 months of heavy touring has taught him. Plus, he gives us a very special preview of the much-anticipated follow-up to Siamese Dream.
GUITAR SCHOOL: Is the band rehearsing for the Lollapalooza tour?
BILLY CORGAN: No. I'm retired now. [laughs] I'm kidding. Besides getting ready for Lollapalooza, we've just finished a complete remastering of Gish [Smashing Pumpkins' 1991 debut].
GS: You're re-releasing the album?
CORGAN: Yes. We're not going to make a big deal about it, but it really does sound way better. The original album was mastered off of DAT's, but when I went back and listened to the analog tapes, the analogs sounded better to me. It's most noticeable at the bottom end of the rhythm guitar. We're not trying to rip people off, saying, "Hey, it's remastered!," but I really did take the opportunity to upgrade the sound quality.
GS: With the success of Siamese Dream, I'm sure many people are going back to Gish and checking it out, many for the first time.
CORGAN: A few months ago I went back and listened to it for the first time in a couple of years, and was surprised at how good it was! [laughs] It's kind of an artistic thing to dismiss everything you've done before so that you can move on, and I really did that after Gish. I also forgot about all of the head traumas I was going through at the time.
GS: What kind of problems did you have?
CORGAN: Your typical "Pumpkin" turmoil, which I must point out is now a thing of the past. Back then, part of the strain was that I never had the opportunity to spend much time in the studio. Before Gish, the longest I'd worked in a studio was maybe four or five hours in a row. Suddenly, I was putting in 12-, 13-hour days.
GS: How long did it take to record Gish?
CORGAN: All told, about 45 days. We were under budget constraints, unlike Siamese Dream, which was like a "forever" thing.
GS: Are there any advantages to being under a time or budget constraint?
CORGAN: Oh yeah, definitely. It forces you to make decisions. For example, you have to realize that you're never going to play the perfect solo. Things that are timeless aren't necessarily that way because they were meticulously constructed. Sometimes it's either there or it isn't. We will try to quicken the pace when we do the next album - not for budget reasons, but because I don't want to spend too much time sucking the life out of things by overworking them. The only thing I didn't like about Gish has to do with "I Am One." In hindsight, it was really the first true Pumpkins song - it really seemed to click us into another gear. We recorded it for a seven-inch at least a year before recording Gish. I'm disappointed that I didn't take advantage of the chance to re-record the song for the album.
GS: Is there anything else you regret not doing on Gish?
CORGAN: It's easy to get confused - you get older and a little wiser, and you think, "I was dumb then." But under the circumstances, I think Gish is a pretty good album. I'm not proud of it in some ways - I think I could have been a little more original in places - but in term of some things, the guitars, for example, I think it's pretty cool. It definitely defined our band's sound.
GS: Gish has a very particular sound. Was it a conscious effort to make it that way?
CORGAN: I often get accused of being overly conscious, but I was very conscious of what I was doing at the time of Gish. I really felt that I could sense where music was headed; I knew where I wanted to be, and I knew where I wanted the band to be.
GS: Did you have moments of doubt when you wondered whether people were going to relate to your conception?
CORGAN: It's hard to explain. People would say to me, "You write such pretty songs. Why do you bother with dumb rock?" My answer is, "Because I like it! It's fun!" There's something very visceral about playing rock music that's unexplainable. Some of the greatest songs in the world are easy enough for anybody to play. It's not about riffs or complexity or any of that. It either rocks you, or it doesn't. For years I've sworn that we'd never play "I Am One" again, because it's got to be the stupidest riff ever. But it rocks, and it works.
GS: You remind me of Pete Townshend. He's argued that rock is both the greatest thing that ever happened and pretty much worthless as music.
CORGAN: Well, it is! [laughs] I'm definitely both ally and traitor. I feel like many people don't grasp where the band is coming from, especially in live situations. We're smart enough to realize the cliches in rock 'n' roll, but there's a certain kind of truth to some of those cliches. For example, when you end a song with a big bang, you get more applause than if you end the song without a big bang. So, end songs with big bangs, and you'll make people think they're having a good time! There's plenty of stupid things like that. We recognize the cliches, and we kind of reject and embrace them all at the same time.
GS: That kind of awareness seems to have everything to do with where rock is right now.
CORGAN: It's very '90s, yeah. The other thing is that most 12- to 19- year olds don't care and don't know jack shit about the history of rock 'n' roll, so all of this intellectualizing doesn't make any difference to them. All they know is that Rage Against The Machine, or Tool, or whoever they're watching, is moving them from the groin. I try not to lose sight of that, but I'm always at war inside myself, trying to make peace with both sides. Pete Townshend is not a bad analogy for me in that sense, because I've over-intellectualized rock 'n' roll to the point of being negative, yet I'm still doing it.
GS: When you're writing one of your larger pieces of music, like "Soma" [Siamese Dream], is it hard to balance your different roles of songwriter, singer and guitarist?
CORGAN: I just keep switching hats. Literally, I'll say to myself, "Let's look at it from the singing point of view: Are there enough vocal hooks? Is the vocal line carrying the song?" Ultimately, it's the vocal line that carries the song. Then I'll switch to guitar: "There's four bars between these two vocal parts; can I fit a cool guitar part in there? Does it need to modulate?" Then I'll switch and look at it from just a listening point of view: "Is this boring?" We have a rule in the band, which is called "more fun to play than to listen to." We try to keep in mind that, once the music is out of our hands, it's the listeners who have to deal with it. Some bands pretend that they don't take that element into consideration, but I think if people were truly that way, they wouldn't even bother to write songs - they'd just jam and make stuff up.
GS: So you don't want the music to be more fun to play than to listen to?
CORGAN: Right. There's a lot of stuff that's really fun to play, but... When we're bored at practice, we down-tune our guitars and play like Soundgarden for 20 minutes. It's fun. I certainly don't mean that as a negative statement about Soundgarden; I'm just saying that there's a lot of things that really don't hit home in the way we'd like them to. A great rock riff gets you about 60 seconds, and then you've got to have everything else to back it up. Montrose is a good example of that [laughs]: They always had a great opening riff, but Sammy [Hagar] could never deliver!
GS: Do you ever rearrange or restructure songs just for playing them live, or just for the sake of trying them in different incarnations?
CORGAN: We've tried three different versions of the song "Disarm," from playing it just like the record to playing the same arrangement in a very stripped-down fashion - just voice and guitar, with the drums entering halfway through. Then we did a totally heavy version for a TV show in England. It was the exact same arrangement, but the approach was different. As the tours went on, I continually dicked with the arrangements of the songs from Gish. With Siamese Dream, we haven't changed one single arrangement, but we have changed the way we attack the songs.
GS: How would you compare Gish and Siamese Dream?
CORGAN: Gish, right off the top, is a heavier record, which appeals to the teenager in me. I really struggled with the record that Siamese Dream was going to be because it's just easier to make a rock record. Some people would say, "You're crazy! It is a rock record!" But I think of it more an "everything" record. There's a part of me that's disappointed that Siamese Dream was not heavier, or had more heavy songs, which will come out as B-sides, but I didn't think they were good enough to be on the album. The idea with the next album is to make two albums; it'll be a double record, and one will be really heavy and the other will be really spacey.
GS: Each record will have a totally separate concept?
CORGAN: Right. But we're also returning to what I would call "Gish- like" dynamics - which means the shit will be all over the place. "Geek USA" is the only song on Siamese Dream that to me is an extension of what Gish was, whereas "Cherub Rock" and "Quiet," which are a step forward in terms of melodicism and construction, are also a step backwards in terms of dynamics. After Lollapalooza ends in September, I'll begin working really hard on writing, and then we'll go in the studio in February of '95. I think we've got one more rock record in us before we peter out.
GS: Why do you say that?
CORGAN: On some level, I'm still uncomfortable with playing rock music live. To me, it's more pretentious than any other kind of music [laughs]. I don't know if that's just "Spinal Tap" awareness or what, but it's just hard to rock, and rock hard, without being and doing certain things. But we're geared back up to rock hard. We've been working on some stuff that's pretty heavy.
GS: Some of those time-honored conventions that rock bands use can become like parlor tricks, and they lose their potency.
CORGAN: Yeah, like a card trick or something, like doing the stop-start thing, or whatever. We've used up most of those old tricks by now, so I'm trying to come up with new ones.
GS: You can try them out on Lollapalooza.
CORGAN: We're really going to try to give people a different kind of show. Lollapalooza is easy to get inspired about because you're not in direct competition with any other band, but you compete for attention, and you compete for, like, who are they going to be talking about when they walk out of there? It's great to be in the spot we're in [as headliners], and terrifying all at the same time.
GS: What do you think of the whole Lollapalooza concept?
CORGAN: In its original conception, I think it was a really great idea, and its time in America was long overdue. This type of thing has been pulled off in Europe for years. We've done shows over there with Bryan Adams and Lou Reed. Looking at the bill, you might think that it would never work. But when you look into the audience, they're just out in the sun, having a good time. Music is music, and all that political stuff doesn't matter. If they don't like you over there, they throw mud! Lollapalooza is not an original idea, but the basic idea of the traveling circus type of thing is really cool, and is something that benefits everyone.
In hindsight, it's definitely helped bands like Nine Inch Nails and Rollins Band move up the ladder in terms of people knowing about them. But it becomes political, and you see bands on the bill for the wrong reasons. That's not good. It's happened in the past and it was a major concern of mine this year when the Lollapalooza people approached us. I begged them to put aside the politics and put together a bill that was just entertaining. L7 is a good example. Whether you don't like girl bands, or grunge bands, or whatever the 80 reasons might be not to like L7, you can't say that they're not a good band, and you can't say that they're not entertaining. L7 is not going to put anybody to sleep, and the kids aren't going to run for the hotdog stand when they're playing. I think they've done a really good job of putting together a great bill this year, and even if you don't like all of the music, you'll stick around and watch a lot of the bands for the entertainment value.
GS: Do you have any favorites, as far as the bands that are on this year's bill?
CORGAN: That's not something that I like to talk about. [laughs] Let me just say that I like all of the bands.
GS: Do you have any feelings about the abundance of women on the bill?
CORGAN: I think, as an issue, it's finally asserted itself. Having played in a band for the last six years with a woman, you get over the issue of male/female really quick. It's just human beings - everybody gets sick, everybody has feelings. I don't know if people mean it maliciously, but pointing it out in itself can be something of a put- down. I think that, as in all things, the balance is finally being achieved, and, over the next 10 years, we'll probably see less male artists and more female artists - not because there's less male artists, but because the talent will balance out between male and female. It won't even be a big deal that a band will have two boys and two girls. I think that anything that distracts from the pure listening of music is negative. People sometimes focus on me and my personal problems, so I'm not sure they're listening to our music with an open heart.
I know a lot of people that purposely resisted listening to my music because of the things that they have read, and that's kind of hard to deal with. To me, that's no different from saying, "You're black, so I didn't want to listen to your music, but I heard it by accident and I like it."
GS: It's a type of prejudice.
CORGAN: In the sense that you're singling people out one way or the other. It's not an ideal world, but I'd rather have it be a horse race based purely on band ability. I mean, it's like whether or not you're cute [laughs]. Some people are at disadvantage because they're not what might be considered photogenic.
GS: I think that someone like Johnny Winter has been a victim of that, solely because he does look different. CORGAN: It's funny that you mentioned Johnny Winter, because we have a Johnny Winter tribute song that we're going to record for the next album. It sounds like Rick Derringer-era Johnny Winter, like the "Rock 'n' Roll, Hoochie Koo" days. I'm really into his Robert Johnson stuff, that whole trip, like the song "Dallas" from his first album. And there's a really beautiful song called "Cheap Tequila" [Still Alive And Well]. I love that song! The tribute song is mostly an instrumental, and then every once in a while I go [screams in a Johnny Winter voice], "Oh yeah!!!" You have to hear it; I wonder how many people will get the reference.
GS: Why don't you record something with Johnny, or have him play with you live?
CORGAN: Oh, god. I'd be so intimidated by a pure guitar player like him. I'm pretty aware of my deficiencies as a guitarist, and I'd end up babbling on about how I wish I practiced more or something.
GS: As a fan of both Smashing Pumpkins and Johnny Winter, it's totally cool to imagine Johnny walking out and playing live with you guys, and I can see it as kind of making sense, too.
CORGAN: Yeah, right, like, "Hey Johnny, learn 'Cherub Rock', would ya?" [laughs] All I know is, when I watched the Bob Dylan tribute, the only part that smoked me was when Johnny came out and did "Highway 61." He was unbelievable. Even James Iha, who could give two shits about Johnny Winter, had his mouth hanging open. We'll record that tribute and put it out somehow, someway, and we'll just call it "Tribute To Johnny" so you'll know. I have that underdog thing. I look at someone like him, who is so amazing, and has had an interesting, strange career, and I'm more apt to root for him. Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix don't need any more rooting for them. If anything, they've had too much hype.
GS: It seems like you have a healthy respect for people who do things differently...just like your fans!
CORGAN: We make our own little brand of music, and the more "out" we go, the more people seem to respond. I don't think our fans want us to be like everybody else. I really feel like our uniqueness is appreciated and respected, and in a way, it's my responsibility to continue to cultivate that, and not homogenize it. Believe me, in one week I could write 10 songs that sound like Smashing Pumpkins, but I don't think that's the precedent the band has set. I'm 27; by the time the next album comes out, I'll be 28, and by the time the next one comes out, I'll be 30. These are the prime years of my rocking life - I'm not going to blow it by being lame.
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