The Smashing Pumpkins leader reflects on a polarizing alt-rock legacy, a generational shift and the digital divide
By Litsa Dremousis
Special to MSN Music
A week before alt-legends the Smashing Pumpkins release their seventh studio album, "Oceania," Billy Corgan calls at the appointed time. The Pumpkins' singer, songwriter, guitarist and notoriously opinionated frontman laughs and says, "I think it's funny that people laugh when I say, 'Hi, it's Billy.' But I'm too old to be dealing with the publicity bulls---. Why not just call you myself?"
And with that, the band's sole original member sums up his place in the rock pantheon. The driving force behind three '90s classics, "Gish," "Siamese Dream" and "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," plus the acclaimed but lesser-selling "Adore," Corgan is perfectly aware of his enduring influence and, also, that he's no longer the buck who commandeered airwaves for most of a decade. He's proud of the simultaneously melodic and clanging 13-song "Oceania" and of the band's current lineup (guitarist Jeff Schroeder, drummer Mike Byrne and bassist-vocalist Nicole Fiorentino), but knows his catalog is both venerated and mocked. And he has much to say on each count.
MSN Music: This isn't a musical term, but "Oceania" zigs where the listener thinks it's going to zag. It sounds like a Smashing Pumpkins record, but it doesn't. I mean that in the best sense. You're not just rehashing your previous work or cashing in on '90s nostalgia. What surprised you most about recording it?
Billy Corgan: Figuring out the different languaging. And once you figure out the different musical languaging and template, you have a new space to create in. We created a new language among ourselves, and fresh ideas. It's all come full circle. I can now be accused of ripping off myself, both my older songs and, also, bands who are influenced by us. And, obviously, I don't want to do that. There are bands who are influenced by our older records, and that's great, but I don't want to sound like them, because I want to always be creating something new.
Influence can start to fold in upon itself.
Right. It's like when someone says U2 is ripping off Coldplay. What? It becomes like a mirror and the reflections bounce off of one another. In some ways, all of this is like going through a breakup with someone. If you get back together but you behave the same way you did before and don't make changes, you will break up all over again. So, we've developed our own language just amongst one another. I'm working with a set of fresh ideas I don't recognize. Or if I do, they're really obscure. I don't know how to play games within it. I'm sorry, I always over-answer the question. [Laughs.]
Which is vastly superior to one-word answers. [Laughs.] Why did you choose to release "Oceania" as a Pumpkins record and not as a solo project, given that you're the only original member?
The Smashing Pumpkins has always been a concept, an adaptable concept. This lineup takes on the Pumpkins ethos. It's like [the Hindu god] Shiva, the inhaler and the destroyer. The Pumpkins are constantly inhaling and creating, but also destroying. And that's why I want to be in the Pumpkins, that ethos. And if I was doing a solo record, I've got to call Eric Clapton and ask him, "Hey, will you play a solo?" [Laughs.] So, this record is very much part of the Pumpkins legacy. America, right now, is in love with retro-mania. I'm 45 years old and I'm not ready to phone it in. I'm not ready to go, "I'll take my check now." To the generation I grew up in, that's, "F--- you."
More on Bing: Smashing Pumpkins
There's now a crop of kids who weren't even born when "Gish" came out. I hate to use these generalities, but here goes: Do you think there's a delineation between Gen X and the indie Gen Y millennials that came afterward? Gen X was much more "F--- you!" and [Gen Y millennials] seem to want to hug everyone.
Yes. They want to appropriate our language without appropriating our commitment. Here's an example: It's 1984 and I'm at a bus stop and it's the middle of the night and I've got my Robert Smith haircut and I nearly got my ass kicked. [Laughs.] There was a sacrifice we had to make. The indie generations are more upper-middle class, college-educated, no one has a drug problem. They're not like anyone I knew growing up. Now you've got some 16-year-old who posts a video on Tumblr and that's his way of creating an identity, "This is who I am." And, of course, there's the Pitchfork ethos. Pitchfork celebrates the narcissist, the know-it-all. I have a bad attitude about this. Bob Dylan has always been very articulate about it, that if you don't appreciate where you come from, you just turn into one of them.
The Pumpkins and you in particular embraced the Internet before a lot of bands who came up with you. You learned to harness it early on. Gen X is the last generation to come of age as full-fledged adults before the Internet. So there are all these subsequent bands that know nothing but the Internet. And you're one of the few musicians who will skewer Pitchfork on the record. When I interview musicians, almost everyone skewers Pitchfork and then asks me to take it out. And I never ask about it. By and large, I've found musicians hate Pitchfork, but everyone is terrified. And I don't get it. There's this disproportionate weight, that it can make or break you.
[Pitchfork] is a bullying power. And that's a politically loaded word now and I'm using it deliberately. On what authority do they get their power? Here's the thing with the Internet: Because everyone's opinion matters, nobody's opinion matters. There's a culture of appropriation. Pitchfork celebrates the narcissist, the know-it-all. But some version of that is always going to be there and I would argue it needs to be there. It's part of the conversation. But eventually, everyone successful has to figure out how they're going to contend with mainstream culture, to make decisions about mainstream culture. And Pitchfork has to do that. Being an a--hole isn't novel. Maybe Pitchfork gets the glory for being first in that particular genre. But if you're so free, why do you have to keep saying you're free? Everyone's got to find their own f---ing path. At some point, you have to think about what you're going to be and apply your own ethos.
Amanda Palmer is an outstanding example of an artist who does just that. She creates and succeeds on her own terms. If you're a super-talented 20-year-old, if you create something valuable, they will come. And you'll have to make some decisions. Neither the major label nor the indie system in themselves can get you where you want to go. Whatever you do, don't subscribe yourself out of your system. But I'm still here and I'm still passionate about what I'm doing, about what we're doing next. If you're a baseball player, you want to be in the major leagues. If you're a hockey player, you want to play in the NHL. But if you're a musician, you're not supposed to want that. Why not? Unless you're U2. They're grandfathered in. But I'm not supposed to want that. Why not?
The hypocrisy of it is, artists who are genuinely talented usually want their work exposed to as many different listeners, readers, viewers as possible.
But the artist can now establish their own value system and have their own direct relationship with the fans. They're now going to hear it from both sides. The artist now has the opportunity to communicate directly, and that's key. It doesn't matter what I think or Pitchfork thinks or Rolling Stone thinks. It matters what you think. Don't subscribe to any system that's going to limit you. I'm 45; I'm going to still make music and stay relevant. I have a lot to say and a lot of experiences to share.
What are you looking forward to?
My group! I feel like we're just getting started. Jeff came up with this idea, that even though we had a keyboardist in the studio, he suggested that we just have the four of us in the band onstage. So, we have to switch instruments throughout the show. At some point, everyone is playing keyboards. We're like Rush up there, with all the pedals, running back and forth. [Laughs.]
Litsa Dremousis' work also appears in The Believer, Esquire, Jezebel, Huffington Post, McSweeney's, New York Magazine, The Onion's A.V. Club, Slate on KUOW, NPR, and in sundry other venues. She is completing her first novel. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis.