Q&A With Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan (Part 1 of 3)

In preparation for my recent Smashing Pumpkins feature for Rock On Magazine, I had the chance to go deep in conversation with Billy Corgan. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the best of what didn’t make it into that feature.

Musoscribe: The ideas at the root of Atum seem to have been kicking around for a very long time. When you made Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness some 28 years ago, did you have any sense at the time that it might eventually become part of a larger narrative?

Billy Corgan: No, not at all. Because I think that they would have kind of frowned on the intellectual overlay, so I just kind of kept it to myself. I certainly confided to Flood, my co-producer friend, that there was a conceptual thing going on, that I was looking to kind of create a 24-hour cycle day-to-night. Because he obviously had an influence on how it would be sequenced and expressed. But, no, the band really didn’t have an idea.

Was Mellon Collie a concept from its very beginning, or was it a matter of you starting to write songs, and then the songs revealing themselves to you as connected?

Yes. I was intrigued by the concept that you could make kind of an aural movie. Though I certainly saw The Wall, the movie, and Quadrophenia the movie, and even then there seemed to be a disconnect between the work and the visual representation.

Because you specifically mentioned Quadrophenia and The Wall, did you ever have or do you now have ambitions to have a silver screen component to any of these things?

Oh, yeah. I certainly would love to see it. But oversimplifying, the minute you get into translating a vision which is very particular and in the control of your own world, the minute you start bringing in other cooks into the kitchen, it gets into a totally different process. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

When I look at something like Atum, you know, I think the only way to really get it the way I see it would be something where it would be animated. You wouldn’t have to cut any corners; it wouldn’t be a conversation like, ‘Hey, you know, that spaceship’s really expensive to build; can we just build half a spaceship?’

But, when I think of Mellon Collie, I would love for it to be a Broadway type of thing. I think that in particular would translate really well, and I would be very open to the adaptation of it for the stage. I think there’s lots of wonderful songs that could easily be modified and recontextualized for a modern audience; there’s so much variance in the music in the way it flows.

At one point in the ‘90s, you made an announcement to the effect that Smashing Pumpkins would no longer release albums. Instead, you’d release singles. You weren’t the only high profile artist to make such an announcement. What led you down that particular path of thinking that that’s where you were going to go?

I think it was probably a reaction. I can’t particularly remember just sitting here in the space of it. I think it was a reaction to the coming kind of pop-ization of the world. I mean, of course, U2 released that album, Pop, and there was an awareness that the market was swinging irrevocably towards the singles market. Now that we’ve had, you know, 20-plus years of data, I think we realized that’s pretty much where we are in terms of the global culture.

But, I think as rock music as a whole – and I’m very much talking about younger generations – have figured out that they have very few opportunities at ‘the top of the charts,’ which are dominated by the most banal, horrifically empty music. I think rock tends to turn back inward and start working on its own culture, and what I’m seeing particularly at these festivals that we’ve done here in Australia and also in Mexico City, all the young bands are playing rock again. They’ve just decided, ‘Well, I’m not going to get my record on the charts, so I’m just going to make music for people like me.’

And I’m starting to feel that that movement is growing real ground again, for the first time probably in 20 years that I can tell. Of course, whenever I say anything like that, people take umbrage with it, but I’m talking about the tension between the global charts and underground culture. Because certainly, underground rap is able to find its way from Soundcloud to the charts, but if you’re a rock band, there’s almost no pathway to get on the charts. Like, zero.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think that by and large, rock does better when it just worries about what it cares about, which is depth and expression of something new. Even if it’s a repetition, every generation has a way of making it their own.

Before we came down here, I was hearing about this band, Amyl and The Sniffers, which is a very well known band in Australia. I kept hearing that Amy, the lead singer, was… you hear this reductionist thing like, ‘Oh, she’s the female Iggy Pop.’ And that’s all I heard, right? So, of course, I went out of my way to see this female.

First of all, I could see the comparison, but she’s wholly her own entity. And like a true rock star, there’s only one of her. I’ve never seen anyone like her. Just who she is, what she’s singing about, the way she sings, who she is as a person. And this is where rock really has always an advantage on pop, because you can manufacture – I don’t want to use any pop name, but we know the names – you can’t manufacture an Amy or a Kurt Cobain or an Iggy Pop. You just can’t. They come from the wrong places, and they say all the wrong things, and that’s why people love them.

And that’s where rock gains ground on a global, cultural scale, because there are many people out in the world who understand that this culture has nothing to do with them, doesn’t care about them, isn’t interested in the things that they’re worried about or care about, and is in fact focused on many other things which they know are patently shallow. So, rock does well when it has to go back to ground and kind of rebuild itself. And I think that right now is a really fun time.

Click to continue to Part 2