Billy Corgan: “I don’t play any songs I don’t want to play. I don’t care if they’re classic or not”

Smashing Pumpkins hit the UK this week for their massive arena tour with Weezer. Billy Corgan tells us about their new guitarist Kiki Wong, learning to balance the old and the new, and avoiding the nostalgia trap…

Billy Corgan: “I don’t play any songs I don’t want to play. I don’t care if they’re classic or not”
Nick Ruskell
Paul Elledge, Jason Renaud

"The UK is one of the greatest musical cultures in the world, if not the greatest musical culture in the world," says Billy Corgan.

Thanks very much. The Smashing Pumpkins leader may add with a smile that he hates "the way the media treats things", and "Can't stand the snobbishness – it's a bit much for us as Americans," but in his long time coming over here to play, he's found something special about our grey, unpleasant land.

"There's something about the pressure of the music culture in the UK that produces these incredible moments," he continues. "And hated it when I first went there because I felt like we weren't being favoured. And then when we were favoured, we were kind of treated like, 'Yeah, we're still not really sure about you.'

"But somehow, in the last 10 years, way before the rest of the world figured it out, the UK figured out that I had some value that was beyond my years. That I somehow graduated into the other class of respect. Now when I come, I really look forward to it because it's such a great audience."

This is good, because this week Billy and Smashing Pumpkins return to the UK for their first gig here since Download 2019, and first full tour in even longer than that. With Weezer in tow, and the chance to see the band with new touring guitarist Kiki Wong, following an exhausting call-out that yielded thousands of applications, it's going to be awesome.

It's not, though, going to be a ’90s nostalgia extravaganza. Taking a break from working on their new album in Chicago, Billy tells us about balancing setlists, his hopes for the new line-up, still being the odd band out from time to time, and how keeping an emotional connection to what they choose to play helps avoid becoming "just karaoke".

You're still in the studio right this minute. Again. Are you looking forward to putting that down and getting out on tour?
“Yes. It's not healthy, but I've gotten used to it through the years. Almost all the Pumpkins albums were made on deadline, like, ‘Hey, you're going on tour on this date, you must be done.’ You get used to sort of balancing out your time. It's probably because you can tinker on the album forever, especially with Pro Tools. You can always go back in and fix that one little thing, where in the past, you would just have to live with it. We've been working on this album for, I think, almost two years now. It's very much a rock, guitar record, old school. I think the old-school fans will be happy, for once (laughs).”

They seemed pretty happy with the last one…
“Oh, they were still complaining. They hear a synthesiser anywhere in that mix and they throw up their hands, you know (laughs). It seemed interesting to me, after coming off of Atum, with all that expanse, to have a singular focus, which is: let's just make a guitar record. So it's been a lot of fun, and it brought up a lot of memories.”

You've just found your new guitarist, Kiki Wong. How’s she fitting in?
“We haven’t played a show yet. We're all in preparation mode. It's a two-hour show, so it's a lot to learn, especially for her. I was following her on social media, so I totally knew who she was. We put out this call for a guitar player, and we got 10,000 emails from 10,000 different people. When we whittled down that list to, let's say, people with some form of professional pedigree, I saw Kiki's name was on the list, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is great. I know who this person is.’ It was kind of a weird thing, I wondered if she would fit in, because I knew her as more of a metal guitarist. So, we talked to her on Zoom – she's such a nice person, and so engaging – then we invited her out to audition. I think we auditioned nine guitar players that day. What was interesting about her being first in the day was we had such a good feeling about her. And then it wasn't that other people weren't as good, but there was something about Kiki's presence and personality and sweetness that we just were really attracted to. She just felt like a real breath of fresh air. We love that it's great opportunity for her. But we also think she's the right person.”

Your tour this week is your first here since 2018, and first UK gig since Download in 2019. Been a minute…
“I can’t believe it, because that last tour we did was a great tour. When James [Iha, guitar] came back to the band, we just kind of assumed that things would get easier for us in certain parts of the world. And when it came to Europe, it just didn't. In 2018 we did a massive tour in America, 40-something shows, and I think we did two in Europe, something like that, which was mind-boggling to us, because there just wasn't the appetite for us to come over. And obviously I'm putting that more on the promoters. Fans would be writing us like, ‘When are you coming back to Paris?’ And then in 2019, we felt like, finally, things are starting to loosen up, we did a bigger tour, we did some festival shows and stuff like that. And right about the time there seem to be getting some momentum going, then, of course, we entered in this pandemic era. And that seemed to just push everything back. And so how it got to be five years is crazy to me.

“I remember Download – Download was a weird gig. It's funny, there's a lot of bands, alternative bands, that play these heavier, guitar-type music festivals, and somehow we don't normally get included in those, even though what we play is in many ways heavier than a lot of the alternative bands. So it was almost like we were treated like a weird curiosity to play Download. But the audience was great. We had a good time. But it's this weird thing where it's like, ‘Here comes the band from another planet.’”

You’ve got Weezer with you for this tour. You’re not a fan of nostalgia – is it hard to resist just going, ‘Sod it, this is a total ’90s lookback, isn’t it?’
“Well, when Jimmy [Chamberlin, drums] and I brought the band back in 2007, we resisted the nostalgia thing. And we got basically beaten up constantly over it, including by the fans. But the good part of that was it kind of broke the spell of, like, ‘Look, if you only want to see us because you want to see our old music, well, that's just not going to work.’ It took me years to figure out, let's call it ‘the balance’, that's necessary.

“It's hard to explain unless you've lived it. Because there’s the classic thing where there's a devil on one shoulder and angel on the other, and the devil goes, ‘Hey, man, if you just write in these extra five songs that people want to hear, you're going to have a really easy night, and no-one's going to be mad at you.’ But that's not why you're up there. And you have to remember that there's this other part of the audience that wants to see you today. I'm not talking about you play a whole show of new songs – they want to see where you're at today. They don't want some ageing relic, they want somebody who's really emotionally engaged in their music.

“So, the key is finding out the old and the new songs that you feel very emotionally engaged in, so that when you play, the audience is like, ‘Wow, this band still care. This band still plays with some fire.’ That's the key to that. So, what I do is, I don't play any songs I don't want to play. I don't care if they're a classic or not. If I don't want to play it, I just don't play it. I don't put that on the audience like, ‘Well, I've got to play this one for you.’ I think that's kind of cheese.”

On the other hand, does having had that reaction early on mean you’ve already had the criticism, so whatever happens, it can’t be any worse?
“No, you know what it is? It takes a hot second to understand the difference between, ‘Hey, I really love what you do. I'm here out of respect, I've paid my money, I've gotten my babysitter. And I'm looking for something, can you give it to me? Because I really love that music, and I love that period of my life,’ and then an artist feeling like they have to serve something that they don't want to serve. Like they're chained to a past or a legacy. By putting myself in the audience and trying to understand what I would want to see from a band from the audience’s perspective, that allowed me to soften up and realise that maybe my position was a little too… arty.

“Here's the best way I would say it: the best show for me would be, you're a fan that really is mostly focused on the older music. You come and you hear those songs you think, ‘Wow, those sound great, band sounds great. The voice is still there.’ You feel good about your decision to come to the show. But then you might hear five, six, seven other songs, and you find yourself going, ‘I don't know this one,’ so you look up one, and go, ‘Oh, that was a deep cut from 1996. I didn't know that one. It was some B-side. That's interesting.’ And then someone making the same discovery about your new stuff, but thinking it was old. I'm not talking about causing confusion. I'm talking about having the person be curious about that. They're enjoying what they don't understand and wanting to find something, like they’ve been missing out. You put them in the position of feeling like it's theirs to chase. You're not preaching down – ‘Here's our new song, you better like it or you're not a fan.’ It’s really on the band to just play great. That's the thing that fixes it all.

“It comes from a good thing, which is that people really love your music, you know what I mean? It's not a bad thing that they want to hear songs that they love. But you can't live in the past. It's the death of any artist. And particularly in America, you know, we have a whole cottage industry here of people living in the past. And there is something to be said for when times are really tough, economically, politically, people tend to reach for nostalgia. So there's even more pressure right now on artists to be nostalgic.”

How do you go about choosing a setlist the represents all that?
“It's really about execution. And that was something we've even talked to Kiki about, that the band strives to play at a high level of proficiency. But ultimately, it's all about emotional interpretation. This is something that Jimmy Chamberlin is really very focused on. Jimmy could play these songs in his sleep. I mean, he's so good. He doesn't have to warm up to play those songs, right, but Jimmy will warm up for an hour before the show because he wants to execute at such a high level. So that in that moment, in the middle of Jellybelly, his drums are flailing, if he feels emotionally that the song needs to take a darker or lighter turn it's there in his heart to be able to do it. That's why Jimmy Chamberlin is such a great musician. And he leads us in that way, which is that if the band can’t emotionally interpret night in night out, then we're not a band. We're just… karaoke.

“And it's amazing, because we'll play one night and a song will feel very kind of bittersweet-happy. And the next night, I’ll feel like I want to cry. It's hard to explain, because it’s the same song, same chords. It's all into the interpretation.”

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