SIMPLY SMASHING or SMASHING THE ILLUSIONS or BUILDING A BETTER PUMPKIN
Guitar School's September '94
by Andy Aledort
"Lyrically, I am trying to get around to some point of hope and renewal, but if you're not willing to scratch beyond the surface, there's a problem. As an artist, I can't really do anything about that." Billy Corgan pauses briefly, and then leans right back into it. "I'm singing my blues and my reds and my greens, and if you don't want to listen to it, don't listen to it. I'm not holding a gun to your head. Change the channel. You don't choose, like, let's write a song about pain! It's just there. Should I ignore it and instead go out and sing Gerry and the Pacemakers songs, because that's what people want to hear? Fuck 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 song."
Has success mellowed Smashing Pumpkins' leader of the patch Billy Corgan? I think not. In the wake of the double-platinum success of Siamese Dream, Smashing Pumpkins blossomed, in less than half a year, from a marginally acknowledged alternative band to one of the biggest and most successful bands in the world, garnering massive amounts of press for both the power of their highly original music and the highly combustible melodrama of the band's inter-relationships. Instead of being torn apart at the seams, Smashing Pumpkins have emerged revitalized, and are ready to push the envelope and take rock into new, uncharted territories. In Billy's words, the success of Siamese Dream has, "made me really aggressive. On the positive side, we've got a really successful album, and we've got an opportunity here to convince people that we're real. I feel like we've built up a solid fan base that's strong enough that, if we put out a really strange album, those people will go out and buy it, maybe even to just listen to it one time. We make our own little brand of music, and the more 'out' we go, the more people seem to respond to the difference. I don't think our fans want us to be like everybody else. I really think the 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 ten songs that sound like Smashing Pumpkins, but I don't think that's what people want. These are the prime years of my rocking life--I'm not going to blow it by being lame."
In the following interview, Billy expounds in his typical, brutally honest fashion about a myriad of subjects, from the band's position as headliners of Lollapalooza '94, to what the last 12 months of heavy touring has taught him, to what's in store for the much-anticipated follow-up to Siamese Dream. Plus, Billy gives us an in-depth view and analysis of the Pumpkins' 1991 debut, Gish.
GUITAR SCHOOL: Are you guys rehearsing now for the Lollapalooza tour?
BILLY CORGAN: No, because I'm retired now [laughs]. I've worked hard for it. No, I'm kidding. Besides getting ready for Lollapalooza, we've just finished doing a complete remastering of Gish [Smashing Pumpkins' 1991 debut-Ed.]. We're not going to make a big deal about it, but it really sounds way better. The original record is mastered off of DAT's, and when I went back and listened to the analog tapes, the analogs sounded better to me. It's most noticeable in the bottom end of the rhythm guitar; it sounds a lot stronger now. 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 I was surprised at how good it was [laughs], if you know what I mean. 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, really hard, after that album. When I went back to listen to it, I forgot about all of the head traumas I went through at the time.
GS: Was there all kinds of turmoil going on then?
CORGAN: There was your typical "Pumpkin" turmoil, which I must point out is now a thing of the past. We had different priorities...it's all such old news. Back then, part of the strain was that I never had the opportunity to spend so much time in the studio. The longest I had worked in the studio before that 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 make 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 a budget constraint?
CORGAN: Oh yeah, definitely. It forces you to make decisions. You're never going to play the perfect solo, and if you get into that mode, you can get lost in it. Things that are timeless aren't necessarily that way because they were meticulously constructed. Sometimes it's either there or it isn't. You can end up going down avenues that waste a lot of time. We're consciously going to try to quicken up the pace when we do the next record, not for budget reasons, but because I don't want to spend too much time sucking the life out of things by overworking it. The only thing I didn't like about Gish has to do with "I Am One." In hindsight, that was really the first true Pumpkins song. We'd done other stuff before that, but that song seemed to click us into some other gear. We recorded it at least a year before we did Gish, and put it out on a seven-inch. What disappointed me was that I didn't take advantage of the chance to re-record the song for the album. The two versions are virtually identical; in fact, I've had guys come up to me in bars and say that the solo on the seven-inch is better that the one on the record. I'm sure they have a point, because the seven-inch solo was a one take deal. But with everything else, I was pretty pleased. It' s easy to get confused--you get older and a little wiser, and you think, I was dumb then, things like that. But when I think back to those days, under the circumstances, it's a pretty good album. I'm not proud of it in some ways, like I think I could have been a little more original in places, but in terms of some things--guitar-wise, for example--I think it's pretty cool. It definitely defines the sound of the band.
GS: It certainly introduced the world to the "Smashing Pumpkins" sound.
CORGAN: It's funny, because if I go out and see bands now that try to do things that are even remotely in that territory, it usually ends up sounding like us. We staked out our little corner of the world, but it's not like I was the first one to do it, anyway.
GS: I think bands often become successful because they assimilate certain sounds and styles and put it all together in a way that makes sense, and naturally reflects the direction rock music seems to be going.
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, and wonder at all 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 this dumb rock? And my answer was, because I like it! It's fun! You can be a pseudo- intellectual rocker, but the two often clash. There's something very visceral about playing rock music that's kind of unexplainable. Some of the greatest songs in the world, anybody can play. It's not about riffs or complexity or any of that. It either rocks you or it doesn't, you know? 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. I tend to over-intellectualize, thinking, I've written better-constructed songs, etc., etc.
GS: That point about over-intellectualizing reminds me of Pete Townshend. He's argued both sides, one being that rock is the greatest thing that ever happened, and the other is that rock is an insidious piece of shit.
CORGAN: Well, it is! [laughs]
GS: But, in a way, I think that dichotomy is part of the music, and playing both sides can make for really good music.
CORGAN: I'm definitely both ally and traitor [laughs]. I feel like a lot of people don't really 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 the cliches. Like, 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 give a fuck 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 have over-intellectualized rock'n'roll to the point of being negative, but yet I'm still doing it.
GS: When you're writing one of your larger pieces of music, like "Soma" [Siamese Dream] for example, is it hard to balance the different perspectives of songwriter, singer and guitarist? In most bands, there might be three or four different people fighting from each of those standpoints.
CORGAN: That's what happens, but it's all going on inside my head. 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 around and go, is the guitar work interesting? 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 fucking boring? We have a rule in the band, which is "more fun to play than to listen to." We try to keep in mind that, once it's out of our hands, it's the people who listen to it that will be dealing with it. Some bands pretend that they aren't taking that element into mind, 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, and 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 hit home. 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]. Always with the great opening riff, but Sammy [Hagar] could never deliver! So I just keep switching perspectives, which is why it takes me a long time to write a song. I run through all of these different processes until I think, O.K., that's about as far as it's going to go. The first day we started working on "Soma," I said to James [Iha, second guitarist], this is going to be a long song, so let's try to make it shorter. After we'd turned it into a short song, it didn't feel complete, so then we
started hacking out new parts. By the time we got to the studio, the song was probably about a minute and a half longer that it ended up, so we cut out a bunch of stuff at the last minute. Here's a good example of the "anal" me: I had this riff that went A-C- G-F, and I wanted to do this thing that my dad showed me, which is, when you get to the F, modulate down one half step and then start the riff again, which then forms E-G-D-C. This part comes right after the lead, after which we modulate back into the chorus and back into a B. But I wanted to carry that modulation idea through seven times, so we recorded it that way, and even though it was fun to do, it sounded fucking boring as shit [laughs]. Ultimately, we cut all those other modulations out and only modulated once, which ended up as the best decision I could have made. Up until that point, one part of me was taking the song somewhere, and it took this other part of me to say, hey, that's fucking lame.
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 but in a very stripped-down fashion--just voice and guitar, with the drums entering halfway through. For this TV show in England, we did a totally heavy version. It was the exact same arrangement, but the approach was different. With the songs from Gish, as the tours went on I continually dicked with the arrangements because the songs weren't on as solid a ground. If a part went eight times on the record, I may have found that, live, it worked better to play it four times. 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 overall?
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 fucking crazy; it is a rock record, but I think of it more as an "everything" record. There was a part of me that was disappointed that Siamese Dream was not heavier, or had more heavy songs. I actually had written 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 fucking heavy and the other will be really spacey.
GS: Each record will have a totally separate concept?
CORGAN: Right, but we're definitely 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. They're simpler, but I knew what I was doing at the time, and I certainly didn't do it thinking that we were going to sell a million records. It just seemed right, and to force the Gish thing on those songs didn't seem right at the time. Now I'm feeling that way again, so everything we're writing now is more like Gish, and is getting all crazy again. 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: I think many of those things become cliches because they really do work, and are cool on a certain level.
CORGAN: Yeah, but you can become a victim of your own creation. The master/servant relationship, you know? Like, who's really the master? I mean, if somebody's serving you, then you're just serving them.
GS: There's another Townshend connection in terms of this stuff, because, on the Quadrophenia tour in '74, Pete had a bit of an emotional breakdown over the fact that he began to feel like a trained animal in a circus act, jumping or breaking his guitar on the audience's command. His grand design had been reduced to mere meaningless behavior.
CORGAN: The information eventually comes back around to you. For example, we're sick of playing "I Am One," right? So I came up with this idea: in the original version there is a bass break and then the band kicks back in, so instead of that, we just keep the groove going, the guitars drop out, and I wanted to do this spoken word thing. I had no idea what I was going to do. Over the course of a few weeks, I came up with kind of a running/singing dialogue that was a little bit of commentary, a little bit of whatever, keeping in line with what the song is about. For a month or two, that rap meant something, but after two months, the rap ceases to mean anything. It becomes as predictable as some solo that you'd play. It's no longer an inspired rap about how you feel, and becomes just another change in the song. Especially when people are seeing you for the second time, it's like, wow, he's saying the same shit--the first time I saw him, it seemed like it was coming from the heart, but now I know it's rehearsed! [laughs] I purposely try to change the attack of the band every six months the best I can. It can be a difficult thing to do.
GS: It may not be easy to pin down what it is exactly that creates the vibe of the band.
CORGAN: That's true. With us, it often comes out in how we play our set. When we went to Australia, we'd been touring for about 6 or 7 months, and we were pretty sick of the songs. So I decided, when we get to Australia--because the sets are a little shorter--let's cut out the songs we're sick of playing. Just from doing that, it changed the dynamic of the band. In some cases, we might not have been as heavy as we needed to be, because we were playing in front of 20,000 people, but at least the band felt more comfortable, and was enjoying playing more, and that translated in some other way. When we got back to touring in the US, we got back to playing those songs that we'd dropped, and then those songs meant something again for a while. Then, four or five weeks later, you're right back in the same rut. It's really your own commercialism doing you in. On the positive side, it's like, you've got a really successful album, and you've got an opportunity here to convince people that you are real. But what's negative is trying to fit it into some kind of time frame that is not real, and trying to play so many dates--I don't even know how many since the album came out. It ceases to be spontaneous. So, we try to keep revamping the formula, whatever the formula is at the moment, and hopefully, at least 25% of the show will be new. That's all you can hope for. We're putting together a home video thing, which will be for commercial release, so I've been going through some live video tapes. It's really a painful thing to watch, because there are gigs where it's obvious that the band is just not in the building. But when it's real, when it works, it's great.
GS: Part of what makes it a valid art form is that it can't be completely worked out; it's got to have spontaneity.
CORGAN: Yeah, but it always has to be defined as pop art, just like any type of popular music. It's a popular art form. That's why everybody who is trying to play this pretentious game and is putting out three minute songs is full of shit. I don't think people would hold themselves down to pop art formats and forms if they didn't have one ear leaned towards what the world was doing. If you have 100 things to assess, you can look at the live thing and think, this is kind of a bummer and I don't want to do this anymore, and I don't want to not enjoy what I'm doing, and I have mixed feelings about going out in front of people when I'm not at my best. Just the physical wear and tear--I'm not singing as well as I should be, and the energy level is not as high. But on the other hand, now I get to make a double record, one that will be received on this mass cultural level because of our previous success. I get the opportunity to make a really heavy statement to my generation, and to the one behind it, too. Whether anyone notices comes down to how good the record is, but at least I'm afforded the opportunity, which is a really unique thing. The point I'm trying to make is that I try to look for things that inspire me, and the idea of making this double record inspires me.
GS: How do you feel about the Lollapalooza tour?
CORGAN: Lollapalooza is easy to get inspired about because you're not in direct competition, but you're competing for attention, and you're competing 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. As we watch droves head for the hills! [laughs] We're really going to try to give people a different kind of show.
GS: What do you think of the whole Lollapalooza concept?
CORGAN: In it's original conception, I think it was a really great idea, and it's time in America was long overdue. This type of thing has been pulled off in Europe for years. We've done shows over there playing with Bryan Adams and Lou Reed, and, 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 immensely. In
hindsight, it's definitely helped bands like Nine Inch Nails and the Henry Rollins Band move up the ladder in terms of people knowing about them. When it becomes political, and you see bands being put on the bill for the wrong reasons, it's not good. I think that stuff happened in the past. That was of major concern to me this year when the Lollapalooza people approached us about doing it. I begged them to put aside the politics and put together a bill that was entertaining. L7 is a good example. No matter 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 hot-dog stand. 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 still stick around and watch a lot of the bands just for the entertainment value.
GS: Do you have any favorites of 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 in rock today?
CORGAN: I think, as an issue, it's finally asserted itself to its rightful place; it's there if somebody wants it. Having played in a band for the last six years with a woman, you get over the issue of male/female really fast. It's just human beings--everybody gets sick, everybody has feelings. I may have had a more
progressive perspective on it for a while now. 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 I think that, over the next ten 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. Anything that distracts from the pure listening to the music is negative. People sometimes focus on me and my personal problems, and 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 had read, and that's kind of heard 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 liked 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]. That comes into play, too. Some people are at a 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.
GS: Are you a fan of the Johnny Winter And studio album?
CORGAN: Yeah, I am, but 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 would get the reference.
GS: Why don't you record something with Johnny, or have him play with you live?
CORGAN: Oh, god. I would be so intimidated by a pure guitar player like him. I've never met him, but my dad met him and Edgar [Winter] once, back in 1969 in Texas somewhere. In terms of playing with other guitar players, like how Slash goes around and plays on other people's records, I don't concentrate enough energy in that area so that I would feel comfortable. 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, some way, 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: Let's get back to Gish for a minute. What does the title of the song "Siva" refer to?
CORGAN: One of the three Hindu figurehead gods. It's really just an example of my typical free association.
GS: That song is reminiscent in some ways of Cream, in particular the song "Swlabr" from Disraeli Gears.
CORGAN: No one's every pointed that out, but I see what you mean totally. The guitar tone on the breaks is like early Cream. I couldn't even tell you what guitar I was using, but that's probably the only spot on Gish where I used the Big Muff, and six months later I was using it on everything. I love that liquid tone. "Siva" always secretly reminded me of a tune I don't want to mention, because I don't want to get sued. Someday I'll come up with a riff that doesn't remind me of anything! [laughs] To make yet another reference to the Who, lately we've been going for more of a stripped down tone, guitar-wise. The sound isn't as saturated, but it may be even meatier in kind of a different way.
GS: Will you be doing as much overdubbing and doubling parts as you did on Siamese Dream?
CORGAN: I'm not sure. It's possible that one song will be filled with overdubs and the next song will sound like vintage Who. At this point, I have no constraints at all on what I want to do.
GS: Looking back on the variety of guitar sounds on Siamese Dream, are there things you want to carry over or change when you record the new album?
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