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

Continued from Part Two…

We’ve briefly discussed Quadrophenia. You’ve mentioned that The Who inspired you in other ways. Tell me more about that.

Something Pete Townshend once told me in conversation really affected me. We were talking about setlists, and he told me, ‘We always rehearsed whatever set we were going to play, and we never changed it.’ My jaw literally fell open, because this is one of the great improvisational bands in the history of rock, right?

He explained, ‘The way we looked at it was we wanted maximum impact, and we wanted to know that we were in control of every second of what we were doing, so then we could lean into every moment knowing, “This moment goes here, and then it’s going to go here,” like a movie.’

And I was like, ‘Well fuck, if you guys can do it, then I can do that too!’ It gave me a weird permission in my kiddy head that there was no shame in playing the same set every night and figuring out how to create maximum impact for the audience. You go into a performative state which is, ‘Okay, when I’m at this point of the show, I’m in this kind of mood, and I’m expressing the lyric in this particular way,’ and then you learn to find real pleasure from achieving consistency.

People will pull us aside that we’ve known for 30 years and say, ‘Best the band’s ever been, and I saw you at every era.’ People are really shocked and pleasantly surprised at how good we are at this point in our lives, and that means a lot to me, because that comes from what Pete was trying to tell me.

Can you name someone or something outside the sphere of music that has influenced your art?

If I was going to start really early, it would be Kerouac, Burrows, and Nietzsche. And what it did very early on was told me, ‘Hey, the way you feel about the world is true, and the things you’re being told are not true. So, start there. Go.’ And then, I could understand, ‘Okay, now when I’m listening to Jim Morrison John Lennon or Bob Dylan, I feel like now I’m standing on their side of the telescope.

If you go back and watch Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker film of Dylan, there’s the famous scene where he’s excoriating the Times, I think it’s the Times reporter. Dylan is just running circles around the guy. There’s another press conference from around that time. He’s smoking a cigarette, and he’s just toying with the press like a cat playing with a mouse, right? And you’ve got to remember, like at this point, Dylan’s, what, 23? 24? How did Bob Dylan know that everything that he was presented in this post-Kennedy assassination world, that it was totally fake?

I’ve never met Bob, but it blows my mind that he had the prescience to understand that the world that was coming was completely fraudulent. He had enough savvy and grace to kind of play it in a public exhibition type of way. You learn a lot from stuff like that.

So what do you do with that influence? Okay, fast forward to 1990. I’m in some band that nobody’s ever heard of, in a room with some hipster reporter who just got out of college. And the first question he says is, ‘So, you guys are from Seattle, and this grunge thing is really starting to cook.’ We’re like, ‘Uh, we’re not from Seattle.’

I went into the mode of ‘I can try to be the friendly guy and virtue signal that I’m in his world, and we’re all together, and we’re all part of a revolution.’ Or I could tell this guy, ‘I think you’re full of shit, because you didn’t even spend five minutes reading the press release to understand we’re not from fucking Seattle! In fact, we’re from Chicago, and we’re proud we’re from Chicago. Also, don’t call us fucking grunge.’

So we went into this kind of combative art performative approach of playing with reporters, which I’m still hearing about. But if there’s any pride in it, and it goes back to Kerouac and Burrows and Nietzsche. It’s like, ‘Who are you really if, in every step, you are not defying the thing that you know that oppresses you?’

I’ve met many, many a rock star who does a fantastic job of playing the contrarian in front of the camera and in front of the audience, who is a total sellout behind the scenes, and the world would be shocked at the degree of sellout. It is not my job or responsibility to point out who these people are, but I’ve gone through life, I’ve seen behind all the wizards’ curtains, and I feel quite comfortable that if you look at the narrative of my life in a meta sense, if that’s even a fair thing to say, that you will see a consistent, however jagged musical journey.

You can see a consistent voice that is signaling all along the way. I confront things that are ultimately anti-human because at my core, I’m a humanist. This is too long an answer, but I think this is why a lot of young people are coming towards the band now. We’re seeing this sudden rise of interest in us from young people.

And I think it’s because we represent something that you can’t quantify. We’ve lived beyond the boundary for so long; you don’t know what it is, but you know that it exists. When I look at Amy from Amyl and The Sniffers, she represents the future of that idea and that resistance. We represent… let’s not call it not the past, but the living representation of what it looks like. Oftentimes it’s very blurry, uncomfortable, not easily put in a box.

What do you believe your responsibility as an artist is to your fans or listeners?

I don’t believe I have any particular responsibility, honestly. It goes back to the humanist thing; I think I have a responsibility to the planet. I know that’s a bit grand, and I know not everybody’s into a religious frame of mind here in the 21st century. But I think you’d be hard pressed to not wonder in your mortality why God made you the way God made you.

I’m a very flawed human being, but God gave me a particular talent, and I don’t run around claiming to be an Olympic swimmer. But I am good at music, and I’ve obviously been able to connect with people. So I guess in my eyes, my responsibility is to express whatever God gave me to the best of my ability. And hopefully when it’s all done, having left nothing on the table.

I think that’s patently expressed in the amount of work that I’ve done. I feel very grateful to have had this opportunity, and it’s always really weird to me when people in the music business try to talk me out of making music: ‘If you would just stick with the easy stuff, this would all go a lot better.’ I’m like, ‘You know, I don’t think you understand. This is an act of devotion.’