Led by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins are in the midst of an ambitious release cycle. The band from Chicago’s latest and 12th studio release is Atum, and it’s such a sprawling work that it has been split into equal parts, each featuring 11 songs. Act One was released in November 2022; the second part was released in January of this year; Act Three was released in May. And if all that weren’t enough, the album (full title: Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts) isn’t merely a rock opera, its the third part of a conceptual trilogy. Because with Smashing Pumpkins, everything is connected.
The alternative rock heroes who got their start in 1988 released their debut album, Gish, in 1991. Right from the start, Smashing Pumpkins’ music was a signature mix of personal, angst-filled and often confessional lyrics (by Corgan) and a melange of styles including art rock, shoegaze, goth and progressive rock. Determinedly hard to pin down, the group made waves with critics and fans alike. Their second album, Siamese Dream (1993) was a breakthrough success, selling nearly 5 million copies and earning a 4X Platinum designation.
Corgan, who was born in 1967, came of age during an era in which many classic concept albums were created. Those records inspired and perplexed him in equal measure. “I was confused by things like Quadrophenia [by The Who] and [Pink Floyd’s] The Wall when I was a kid,” he admits. “I couldn’t understand: ‘If this is supposed to be a movie, how come it doesn’t give me what a movie gives me?’” Nonetheless, he felt moved to create similarly ambitious works. “I thought, ‘I need to do something like that, because it’s the only way I can get at whatever it is I’m after,’” he explains.
So taking a page from the careers of iconic artists like Neil Young, Todd Rundgren and Bob Dylan, the band confounded those who would have preferred more-of-the-same with each album release. By the group’s third album, Smashing Pumpkins had taken a turn somewhat uncharacteristic in the alternarock world. Released in 1995, the highly regarded Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was a double album (two CDs; an eventual if hard-to-find vinyl edition takes up three LPs). And its songs are thematically linked, all exploring dimensions of sorrow.
With the benefit of hindsight, though, Corgan admits that when his band made Mellon Collie, its underlying character was a secret. “At the time,” he reveals, “I didn’t even tell the band it was conceptual!” He says that he was concerned that his band mates might have frowned upon what he calls the album’s “intellectual overlay.” Corgan says that the songwriting for the record simply took on a narrative form, and that the album’s 28 songs represent “a private way of dealing with whatever I was going through.” Yet merely a few years into his recording career with the group, Corgan was just getting started.
But first there would be some setbacks. Despite being made by a band with a conventional instrumental lineup, 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God is electronic in character; its arrangements scale back the roaring guitars that had characterized the group’s earlier work. The change mystified some fans; by the band’s previous standard, sales were meager (though it did sell nearly 700,000 copies, going Gold in the process).
Corgan, who sang and played nearly everything on demos and often the final recordings, was initially joined by guitarist James Iha, bassist D’arcy Wretsky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. But by the time of 1998’s industrial-tinged Adore, Chamberlin was gone in the wake of a heroin overdose. He would return in time for 2000’s Machine/The Machines of God, but shortly after its release, the band called it quits.
But the album shares an important quality with the smash hit Mellon Collie: it, too is a concept album. At some point, Corgan had a moment of self-discovery. “What I realized in poking around on Machina was that all my work from the beginning had been conceptual; I just hadn’t admitted it to myself.” In fact, he explains, Machina is a continuation of the narrative begun on the group’s 1995 release. “As we were making the record, I knew that the band was going to break up,” he says. “The band had agreed to this idea that we were all going to play characters in public based on the [Machina] musical. They all agreed to it, and we even had clothes made.”
Yet as soon as the tour in support of the album began, Corgan says that his band mates abandoned the idea. “So I was the only one doing the narrative,” he says with a laugh. “Which made me seem like I was particularly crazy at the time.”
While he willingly dives deep into the world of conceptual works, Corgan admits that he often tires of them soon after they’re complete. “It’s no secret that I’m writing everything for the band, I’m producing and I’m playing a lot of the music,” he says. “By the time I get to the end of the journey, I’m exhausted with the subject; I’m sick of what I’ve done.”
But creating an album isn’t the same thing as touring in support of it. Corgan really enjoys playing live “Oh, that’s the fun part of it,” he says with enthusiasm. “Because you get to cherry-pick what’s going to work.” And he explains that the live reading of any given song is colored significantly by the mood he’s in that particular night. “One night it might be the ‘angry version’ of the song,” he explains. The next night, that song’s performance might be built upon a completely different emotional undercurrent.
Save for a live album (Earphoria) and compilation releases, nothing would be heard from Smashing Pumpkins for nearly six years. When the group resurfaced, only Corgan and Chamberlin returned from before. Between 2007’s Zeitgeist and 2020’s Cyr, members came, went, returned and left again; at one point bassist Mark Tulin (of psychedelic heroes the Electric Prunes) was a member, as was acclaimed pianist and David Bowie sideman Mike Garson. Along the way, a long-gestating and eventually abandoned project, Teargarden by Kaidyscope was conceived as yet another conceptual work.
Remarkably for a band that has been through so many changes, by 2018, Smashing Pumpkins’ lineup featured three of its original members: Corgan and Chamberlin would be joined by longtime associate James Iha. Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Schroeder has been with the group since its 2006 reformation. This lineup is proving the be the group’s most stable; augmented by another multi-instrumentalist, Katie Cole, the current configuration of Smashing Pumpkins has made three albums, including the sprawling Atum, the group’s most ambitious work to date.
Longtime fans of the band will be pleased to know that while the new three-act set takes the band in some new musical directions, the core characteristics of angst and melody are ever-present. And while Atum has its own conceptual theme (the protagonist making his way through a mixture of real world and fantasy), that central character is the same one – much older now – who appeared in Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Machina/The Machines of God.
And even with the wide palette of expression with which he works in making albums, Billy Corgan seems nowhere near exhausting his creative ideas. Some even involve returning to past themes. “I’ve had everything from discussions with Broadway producers to do Mellon Collie to poking around on the idea of what it would take to make Atum a visual narrative,” he says.
On that score, Corgan considers himself in good company. “I’ve heard for years that Roger [Waters] was going to put The Wall on Broadway, and it still hasn’t happened,” he says with a chuckle. And while he’s interested in reviving and expanding past works in visual form, at present Corgan is most excited in making the most of Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts. “If it were ever done in this modern world,” he says, “Atum is likely to be done as an animated project.” Stay tuned.
(and stay tuned for lots of bonus material from this interview…)