Interview: Catching Up With Billy Corgan

By Jessica Mlinaric in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 15, 2014 4:00PM


Photo Credit: Art Shay, published with permission.

Billy Corgan has no shortage of surprises up his sleeve. After releasing a solo experimental album, AEGEA this spring, the prolific artist and Smashing Pumpkins frontman is working on multiple new and remastered Pumpkins releases, developing a pro wrestling series with AMC, and writing a spiritual memoir, all while purveying uncommon teas and vinyl at Madame ZuZu’s. Corgan was also recently awarded the Alternative Press Vanguard Award at the AP Music Awards last month.

On Aug. 30, the Highland Park resident will play an acoustic concert—practically in his backyard—at Ravinia Festival. The event promises to be an intimate performance of Corgan’s favorite songs spanning his career, with a setlist that he opened up to fan suggestions via a contest on his website. An avid animal lover, Corgan is offering two free tickets to the Ravinia show to anyone who applies and is approved to foster an animal from the PAWS no-kill humane animal shelter before Aug. 27.

Chicagoist caught up with Corgan to discuss the upcoming acoustic show, collaborating with Tommy Lee on the new Smashing Pumpkins album, and the unwritten future of the Smashing Pumpkins.

"You have to still play enough familiar material that they’re going to recognize, and if you’re not going to play familiar material it has to be strong enough emotionally or musically to keep interest for 100 minutes. "
CHICAGOIST: Well you’re having a busy year.

BILLY CORGAN: [Laughs] It doesn’t feel busy because I’m only playing one show. That’s the weird thing.

C: One show, but you’re preparing to release two new albums worth of material and two reissues and plenty of other projects. What's the motivation for the Ravinia show revisiting the breadth of your catalogue?

BILLY CORGAN: You know I think it’s a cool opportunity to play a lot of the material I normally don’t get to play in a different setting which, in essence, is kind of built for the other side of my music. That was really attractive to me. Not to play an acoustic concert per se, I can do that at the teahouse if I want. (Corgan owns Madame Zu Zu's Tea House in Highland Park—Ed.) It’s more trying to play a larger venue with that vibe.

C: How is the process of preparing for an acoustic format at a venue of this scale different than, say something at the teahouse?

BILLY CORGAN: At the teahouse I assume that many of the people showing up are more of the idiosyncratic crowd who know every b-side. They can appreciate if I play something that’s never been played or something like that. This is a different audience where it’s like you’re still going to draw a fairly mainstream crowd so the general rules apply. You have to still play enough familiar material that they’re going to recognize, and if you’re not going to play familiar material it has to be strong enough emotionally or musically to keep interest for 100 minutes.

Funnily enough, there’s a fan site that lists every song I’ve ever played, or put out, or anything that’s been bootlegged. I kind of go there and sift through this massive list of songs and I start going, “Well that one would be good. No that one wouldn’t be.” Then I compile a list beginning with maybe a hundred songs. Through trial and error we whittle them down, and I think we’re down now to maybe 27 or 28 songs.

C: It’s exciting that the ChicagoKid material is fair game for this set, especially for a hometown concert. Do you have any current plans for those tracks?

BILLY CORGAN: I do. Actually the show pretty much opens and ends with some ChicagoKid stuff, so I’m very excited about that.

C: Can we look forward to the possibility of hearing any of the new [Smashing Pumpkins] material at Ravinia?

BILLY CORGAN: No, Jeff [Schroeder] and I talked about it and we decided it was best not to play it because the album is so jacked up with Tommy on the drums that we still thought at the end of the day it would be best for people to hear it within the context that it was made. The album is probably going to be out in December, so it’s not that much longer. If it was going to be six months then we probably would have played something.

C: On your website you sponsored a contest encouraging people to submit their dream Billy Corgan setlist. What have been the most surprising suggestions so far?

BILLY CORGAN: You know I haven’t looked yet. I just looked this morning to see how many we had and we had over 700 already. We fucked up and actually announced that the contest was over, then fans started writing and said actually it ends Thursday. [Laughs] So we had to put a correction up. If it’s up until Thursday, there’s probably going to be over a thousand submissions.

It’s a lot to wade through. I flipped through a few and there’s the typical fan that just wrote his favorite song 24 times [laughs]. That’s always one of my favorites.

C: The fans are the first to let you know when you fuck up.

BILLY CORGAN: Oh…hey [laughs].

C: Well everyone is definitely curious to hear Monuments to an Elegy due in no small part to Tommy Lee’s presence behind the kit. You’ve said that it’s one of the most pleasurable albums you’ve made and that Tommy, along with Jimmy [Chamberlain], are some of the most intuitive musicians that you’ve worked with. What did you and Tommy learn from each other during the recording process?

BILLY CORGAN: You know, the great thing about Tommy is that he just has so much enthusiasm and love for music. I can be a bit cynical at times about things and he’s not a cynical person. You know what I mean? So it’s great to see that in somebody I really love and respect. It teaches me something, because he doesn’t let any of his experiences in life diminish his passion for music. I’m not saying something that he told me here, I’m saying something that I feel looking at him - it’s like it’s his island. Maybe I haven’t always done a good job of keeping that island to myself.

As far as me, I don’t know. I think he probably thinks I’m insane [laughs]. I know he likes working with me. I have so much experience, particularly from working with Jimmy Chamberlain, of how to kind of work through what’s called a “drummer’s dilemma.” That’s how to figure out what they want to lay versus serving the song. I think Tommy was surprised at how much I knew in terms of drum language from having worked with Jimmy and having learned so much from Jimmy.

It was kind of funny, we were doing something and he was like, “Wow you understand” [laughs]. Usually, people are like, “Can’t you play louder?” It’s not that simple, you know. You learn from talking to drummers that louder doesn’t always equal “hit harder.” Stuff like that. So my ability to talk the drummer’s language probably surprised him a lot.

2014_08_14_corganandlee.jpg
Credit: Kristin Burns, used with permission.

C: Any word on who will take over the drumming duty on Day for Night?

BILLY CORGAN: Um, no. I don’t think we’ve really decided yet. Day for Night is definitely going to be more experimental in that way. We may take a more loop-based or, I don’t want to say drum machine approach because that doesn’t even mean anything anymore. Most of the music you hear on the radio it’s not a live person playing. So when I say that, we’re basically talking about maybe making the album in a more contemporary frame in terms of how people make music these days.

That said, we have talked to Tommy about working on it in some capacity, even though he’s really busy. So no, the answer I should have just said is no [laughs].

"I can be a bit cynical at times about things and (Tommy Lee is) not a cynical person."
C: Do the two new albums have distinctly different concepts? What’s the incentive for splitting up the material?

BILLY CORGAN: I think it’s just trying to pick an arch, kind of like a movie and its sequel or something. It’s like trying to have the movie and the sequel in a short period. I’m not sure yet what I’m trying to say with the second one, and until you really make the sequel I’m not sure you really know what you’re trying to say in the first. Emotionally, I feel like whatever I started when I reformed the band in 2005 or 2006 this is bringing that all to the end. The future of the Pumpkins is sort of unwritten. This arc of albums sort of resolves what started in 1990.

If you were to listen to every Smashing Pumpkins album, if you could bear it, from 1991 through what will be Day for Night it will tell a story. I feel like that story will end with Day for Night.

C: Let’s hope it doesn’t end.

BILLY CORGAN: I’ve said this before, I think it would be dumb to end the Pumpkins ever again because the Pumpkins live without me anyway. So I might as well just let it be and pick it up whenever I feel I should. The past few years I’ve wanted to pick it up a lot and I’ve felt good about that. But I think you look for points of resolution. Like we knew Mellon Collie as an album was a resolution point and then that opened up the door to an out like Machina and we were willing to go down in a different direction. I think that we’re at that point with the idea of what the band means.

Music has changed so much. The way people process music and receive music has changed so much. I’ve had to really change my expectations, and of course at some point you really look at the band in quotation, at the name “Smashing Pumpkins” and wonder does this even have value in this world anymore? If it does, is it only an oldies act? Is it only a point of irritation? No matter what you do, is it always going to kind of run up somebody’s back or maybe put that all on me? So I think at some point you have to kind of look for that [point] and I think Day for Night is that [point].

C: Touching on charting a different direction after Mellon Collie, you’ve got the Adore reissue coming out next month. We’ve already heard the Rick Rubin production of “Let Me Give the World to You.” What are you excited for fans to explore on the rest of the release?

BILLY CORGAN: Gosh, that’s a great question. Funnily, I don’t even really think about it like that. My whole focus when I’m putting together the reissues is to make sure that the quality level is really high, that the story that the boxed set tells is a good story. That there’s dead ends and that there’s avenues that could have been gone down, and there’s other ways to look at the music.

I am struck at how contemporary the album sounds. I think that will strike a lot of people who maybe aren’t familiar with the record that maybe would listen to it because it’s come out as a reissue, and I’m excited by that. I feel really good about it as a period of written music, and I think over time people realize it’s a stronger period of my writing than maybe people would have thought at the time. So that feels good too.

"I think it would be dumb to end the Pumpkins ever again because the Pumpkins live without me anyway."
C: I guess the flip side of that is for the Machina reissue, you’ve said that you want to release it the way it was intended. What does that entail or sound like?

BILLY CORGAN: Right. It was originally written as a sort of rock opera double album and the internal band politics being what it was at the time and the way the record company was acting, I just kind of bailed on that. I just put out what was Machina I, which was a compromise, almost like a compilation of the ideas which unfortunately didn’t even feature the best ideas of the two albums. It was almost like if you were making two movies and then in the middle you were like, “Fuck it” and cut one movie out of the footage. Then later you went, “Well why did I leave that scene out?” It kind of makes sense without making any sense to me.

I think I reacted to the situation internally and externally poorly. I feel the album was in some ways a reflection of that. It had a lot of confusion around it. I didn’t do a good job of dealing with what I was dealing with emotionally as far as what was going on with the band.

So the idea is that we kind of finish the album, as best as can be said. To add a little bit of context to that, I think I’m going to try to finish the album as if I was finishing it today, not as if I was trying to finish it in 2000. I’m not going to try to finish a point that probably wasn’t worth making in 2000, but with hindsight, new technologies, and different ways of cutting things up and stitching it all together I think I’ll be able to make kind of a new director’s cut of the album. That’s probably the best way to explain it. Both albums together.

C: So that will include Machina II as well?

BILLY CORGAN: Yeah. The Machina II album that was put on the internet through fans, those are all just rough mixes. Every one of those mixes took like an hour, they didn’t get any kind of star treatment. In some ways fans have complained over the years that Machina I is overproduced, which is a fair argument, and that Machina II is decidedly underproduced. So maybe with technology being what it is today we can find a balancing point between the two ideas and the murkiness of the whole project can become clearer. That’s my intention.


Photo Credit: Art Shay, published with permission.

C: Speaking of underproduction, you announced plans to release some of your pre-Pumpkins demos. Why the inclination to share those with fans and what does it feel like to listen to those recordings now?

BILLY CORGAN: Well I’ll start with the latter. I definitely kind of go, “God what was I thinking?” There’s a lot of those [laughs]. Some of the friends who have heard a few of these things are like, “Wow that’s pretty crazy weird.”

I think it’s like charting a journey. I know the people that are interested in that journey are very, very limited. That’s why through ZuZu’s, which is the way we’ve been releasing vinyl, is the perfect setting. It will be an interesting, curious listen to 300 to 1000 people around the world probably. Of course they’ll share some of it on the internet, but the point is it’s really not for everybody. It’s like if I invited you over and showed you a bunch of old pictures of me in bad clothes or whatever. It’s got that effect.

Schroeder said there are those moments that you hear in a certain piece or way of playing guitar and you go, “Ah, I can hear it coming.” That part is cool. I’ll even hear stuff that I was doing at like 18 that is on Oceania. Personally, I find that cool because I think wow I had enough of a voice at 18 - not singing, I mean artistically—that it’s still intact all these years later. It’s a bit like bird watching through music, mostly instrumental. I’m probably over explaining it, but did I answer your question?

C: Absolutely, but you’ve got something like 800 demos lying around. How do you even go about deciding what you want to share?

BILLY CORGAN: [Laughs] Yeah, well think it’s pretty simple. You just use the stuff that still has some value in terms of being listened to. There’s some stuff that’s completely unlistenable. When I say 800 things, well some of them last for 30 seconds. Like I would just jot down an idea and I don’t even remember what I was thinking.

There’s one cool thing in there, I have to dig it out, it’s like I tried to make a concept album. There’s all these little weird, disconnected pieces of music that float one into another and it lasts maybe 30 minutes. I can’t even remember if I gave it a title. Stuff like that is like, “Whoa what was I trying to do there?” It’s almost like listening to somebody who has very low skill trying to meet what were concepts that stuck with me later on when I did have skill. It’s almost like watching somebody juggle who doesn’t know how to juggle but has some talent.

I’m way over explaining this, but partially because I really want to lower expectations. It’s nothing that I think is for the general public consumption. I probably wouldn’t even promote it beyond putting it on the website.

C: In the spirit of over explaining, how is your memoir coming along?

"I know the people that are interested in that journey are very, very limited."
BILLY CORGAN: Today is fortuitous, I’m at the half-way point today.

C: Congratulations.

BILLY CORGAN: I think I’m currently at 265,000 words. As a writer, you’ll understand what that means.

C: My goodness. Well I’m curious about your format because I actually just finished a music autobiography where the author stopped his story at the point where he left music. You’re obviously still very much involved in music, but will your memoir follow your whole life or different sections? How is the structure flowing so far?

BILLY CORGAN: Yeah, it’s my whole life and it’s kind of told like a dream. I start from the assumption that nothing is real, that memory is flawed, and that life is a dream so it’s represented as such. It’s not written in dream language, it’s only represented as I’m going from whatever I recall processed through whatever version of myself I was in at the time. So in that way it’s fiction. It’s broken into four sections and it’s not written linearly, so it’s like chunks of time zero to four, that’s one section. So of everything I want to talk about I’m halfway done. As you can imagine that’s 265,000 words at halfway, that’s unedited. At the end of the day when you edit it down the book is going to be somewhere near half a million words. It’s just insane.

C: That’s going to rival the Mark Twain autobiography.

BILLY CORGAN: He’s a better writer than I, so hopefully mine will be as colorful [laughs].

C: Well among your other projects you have a foray into television coming up. Will we be seeing you in the ring at all?

BILLY CORGAN: I do get in the ring to talk but I do not engage in violence. I suspend myself from that role.

C: What is it that appeals to you about the world of wrestling?

BILLY CORGAN: I think it’s one of the few in fact subcultures left in the world. It’s something that came out of the 1800’s and the circuses and stuff like that and it still exists in a fairly similar form. I don’t think you can say that about much of anything except maybe people on trapeze or something. It’s a very codified, mercurial, and utterly fascinating subculture that I realize is not for everybody. But if you’re into it, it kind of goes forever and is meant to go forever. It’s designed to always be at the sociological edge of things. Hence, the guys that I grew up with were marching around in Nazi uniforms. Somehow that made sense, they were Nazis and they were in the ring. It wouldn’t work today, but there was a time when that drew money.

C: Yeah I was an Undertaker fan as a kid. Rest in peace Paul Bearer.

BILLY CORGAN: See, so you understand. It’s a fun kind of crazy, wacky world. It doesn’t really need explanation and maybe its best we don’t try to.

C: I’ve seen a lot of old timey Victorian-style boxing pop up at events recently.

BILLY CORGAN: Sounds like a hipster thing. We’ll get the hipsters to come around to this eventually.

C: To wrestling?

BILLY CORGAN: Oh yeah, they never miss a party.

C: Well I know you just worked with Ex Cops on their new album. Are there any other artists you’re mentoring or producing outside of your own work?

BILLY CORGAN: Actually the Ex Cops are going to appear with me at the Ravinia show. They’re going to be part of my show, not performing on their own. I’m really excited about that.

There’s some discussions ongoing about all sorts of different things. In this crazy pop world they’re scouring for songwriters. When you see Wayne Coyne working with Miley Cyrus I’m guessing my number won’t be far behind.

C: I actually think that pairing strangely makes a lot of sense.

BILLY CORGAN: Yeah I’m starting to get those kinds of calls about other similar pairings. I don’t mind it, I just draw the line at ambition. I’m not interested in working with people who are not ambitious. The indie world has this weird, built-in pretend non-ambition thing and I don’t roll with that. That goes for the Pumpkins too; we didn’t roll with that and I don’t. You want to write a good song? Great. You want to conquer the world? Call it for what it is. Don’t spend energy pretending you’re not trying to conquer the world when you really want to conquer the world. I don’t have time for that.

C: I think you’ve always been up-front about conquering the world.

BILLY CORGAN: Yeah, unfortunately what would it mean to conquer the world now? [Laughs] I’m not sure I want to conquer the world anymore if this is the world we live in.

C: Going back to your memoir, what has the process of reflecting on your past experiences been like? Pinpointing the pivotal and trivial moments.

BILLY CORGAN: Honestly it’s been really hard on me. I won’t lie about that. Ultimately it’s very easy to write a book that says, “Hey you, you did this and then this happened.” It’s another thing to write a book that has to do with accountability. I would say that 90% of the bad things that have happened to me in my life are my fault, or my responsibility, or I didn’t have enough courage or strength to walk out of the room when bad thing number 800 was happening. In fact, I was writing about something like that today.

I’m trying to write a spiritual book, and if you’re going to be spiritual you have to be accountable. To be accountable means you have to be willing to look at yourself in a way that’s usually fairly uncomfortable.

It’s very easy for me to now talk about the ‘90s within the context of my ambition, which was limitless. Of course I could go into the psychology of what fed my ambition, which was a very Pollyanna childish belief that if I was famous I would stop feeling so bad about myself or something. In essence, fame was going to solve my problems. Of course I got fame, realized it wasn’t going to solve my problems and then I went really crazy, which is well documented. That’s easy for me to talk about now because I’ve had time to reflect on that process and I’ve had to reflect on that process in order to have Smashing Pumpkins in 2014, and not be a victim, and not moan about the old days which is unattractive. Then there’s all sorts of things in my life that nobody knows anything about, particularly when it comes to all sorts of excesses. In order to put all the other things in context I have to talk about those things, and of course that gets into a lot of territory that’s very in the shadows.

"Ultimately it’s very easy to write a book that says, “Hey you, you did this and then this happened.” It’s another thing to write a book that has to do with accountability."
C: Is there anything else you want to share regarding your upcoming Ravinia show?

BILLY CORGAN: It’s kind of broken into five acts and covers a lot of ground. I really love the selection of songs. I really should have named the show “My Favorite Songs,” because I think that’s a better way to understand what I’m doing. Just putting my name on the marquee hasn’t really explained what I’m doing, because fortunately or unfortunately I’m so confusing that nobody really knows who Billy Corgan is or they think they know who he is [laughs]. Armed with an acoustic guitar, that doesn’t necessarily strike up an army, so I’d say it’s more of a show about my favorite songs or songs that I really feel close to. All strung together they do tell kind of a cool story. I think it’s going to be a really beautiful, memorable night. I feel pretty confident that it’s going to be one of those shows that people are going to look back and wish they had gone to, because although I’ll do more of these shows I don’t think they’re going to have as much focus internally as this one does. Because it’s our only show this year we’re pulling out all of the stops.

C: It certainly sounds memorable. I wanted to close by saying that I know you’re a friend of the Shays and Art contributes to Chicagoist. We’re fans of all of his work and we’ve definitely enjoyed Art’s stories about you through his lens.

BILLY CORGAN: [Laughs] It’s funny I was just talking about Art yesterday because I’m thinking about starting an interview series, like conversations at ZuZu’s or something. I wouldn’t be the only host. It would be like, have you ever seen those old PBS things where it would be just two people talking?

C: I watch tons of old PBS.

BILLY CORGAN: Right? I really miss that now. The idea of two people just talking and having a very interesting conversation, so I kind of want to do that at ZuZu’s. Art was one of the first people I thought of to do that with, because it doesn’t take much to get Art going and just letting him talk for an hour and knowing him as well as I do and what questions to ask I think it would be a fascinating conversation. He’s had this incredible life that’s spanned so many eras and he’s intersected with so many fascinating people. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more venues in the world to take advantage of that knowledge. So my idea is to start tapping into some of those kinds of people around here who can share those types of stories, just like what you and I would watch on old PBS to sit and hear people have a good conversation.

Billy Corgan plays Ravinia on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 7:30 p.m. Lawn and Pavilion tickets are still available online.