Being Billy: Inside the mind of Smashing Pumpkins’ misunderstood genius
Billy Corgan is a busy man. Hectic. Rushed off his feet. Even with touring off and lockdowns on, The Smashing Pumpkins have been industrious. Next Friday (November 27), the band release Cyr, the 20-song double-album follow-up to 2018’s Shiny And Oh So Bright Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun., the first to feature a Billy Corgan/James Iha/Jimmy Chamberlin line-up in almost two decades. On top of that, in his own studio, there’s work going on for a sequel to 1995’s immense Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. At one point, he had more than 40 songs on the boil at the same time. And, once that’s done, he then gets to wade through another 40-odd tracks for a 20th anniversary edition of Machina/The Machines Of God.
You can forgive him, then, for going AWOL for his scheduled Zoom call with Kerrang!. Although, actually, the hold-up is down to his even bigger priorities. “Sorry I’m late, I was dealing with kid stuff,” he apologises with a chuckle when he eventually appears. “There’s your headline: ‘Corgan Blames Children For All This.’”
Wrapping himself in a hoodie as he settles at his laptop in his Chicago home, he’s in a good mood. Great, even. The extra time with his family this year has been a boon. And even with all this, work continues apace, but that’s a good thing. “I think if I wasn’t busy I’d be going pretty crazy right now,” he tells us, although this is in perspective. “My family fought in World War II and Korea, and people have been through much, much worse. For us in this generation, I don’t think there’s ever been anything we’ve faced like this that’s made us have to stop for more than five minutes and think about what’s happening and where this all goes.”
Still, being “a gypsy type”, staying put for too long has never been Billy’s way. Even Cyr is something of a turned corner from Shiny And Oh So Bright… That album was eight tracks that weaved through a dreamy, psychedelic world with the occasional glance back at the alt.rock of the Pumpkins’ early-’90s face. This time, it’s a mammoth feast of largely synth-based electronic music that spreads itself over two discs, where guitars make a subtle mark, if at all. Billy smiles and says that, as well as being a vote of confidence in the band’s reunion, after the in-and-out speed of its predecessor (where famously unfussy producer Rick Rubin “didn’t give us time to get our heads in it”), it’s also been the first time since 1999 where “we can make a Smashing Pumpkins album the traditional way – which takes fucking forever. We’re always trying to be the band we’ve never been before.
“People don’t always like what we do, but we’re proud,” he states, reflecting on this perpetual forward motion. “We’re more proud that we’ve done something new than whether or not people like it.”
Whether people get this or not – “Our history would dictate that they don’t get it more than they get it,” the frontman states, dryly – is not Billy’s concern. Never has been. Early on, at the band’s first shows in Chicago, people didn’t get it. When Mellon Collie… made them one of the biggest bands in America, people didn’t get it. These days, some people still don’t get it. “If we’d worried like that, we’d never have made it out of Chicago,” he shrugs.
People don’t always get Billy, either, to the point that the accepted idea of him has become that of a grouchy, overly-serious pseud, prickly in the press, a no-fun zone with whom conversation is difficult, and connection even more so. That man is not here today. When he talks, he is energetic and enthusiastic. He laughs often and, at one point, tells us that, “You and me could talk for hours about metal – Ozzy, Judas Priest, Sabbath, whatever rabbit hole you want to go down,” before revealing that one of ex-Priest axeman KK Downing’s ’80s amps now resides in his studio. But perhaps best of all, he is honest and open. Because Billy Corgan truly doesn’t give a fuck what you think. Or, he’s actually trying to test what you think, in a way.
A recent example: Smashing Pumpkins’ last tour featured a set-piece that left some fans wondering what exactly they were seeing. Having started the shows in a sober, sombre fashion by playing Disarm alone, with pictures of himself montaged on a video screen, at around the two-hour mark, the vibe was so different it could have been in another language. First: why were the band covering Stairway To Heaven? Second: is that a giant Billy Corgan being carried through the crowd like a mighty religious icon?
“I had people write me after and say, ‘You think you’re fucking God, what the fuck’s wrong with you?’” he says. “You’ve got a little boy, and then you’ve got this guy up there singing Stairway To Heaven, probably the greatest and most bloated rock song of all time. As we’re doing that there’s this religious icon of me being pushed around the arena. How do you put those two data points together? You can’t! You see, that’s the whole point. What happened to that little kid that may have him thinking down the road that he’s God? Or a god. Or could be a god?”
Hear Billy Corgan discuss growth and change as a human being
You can try to digest this, and you might get it right away, or you might struggle. But then, as Billy says, that’s half the point: “When you’re dealing in pop-art, it’s basically hit and run. What people think they know or what they think they believe is not accurate, because actually, nothing is accurate. Occasionally you need to knock fans about to let them know that it is a dream world and it’s okay to play with these things.
“I find it fascinating how people come to cement themselves with a particular identity,” he explains. “I’m sure you’ve got a picture somewhere in your life where you go, ‘What was I on about there?’ Does that mean you weren’t being yourself, or you weren’t being real at that point? No. It’s just that’s who you were then and today you’re different. Like, today I’m a dad, but 25 years ago I was an LSD-taking freak! Which is more true? Neither. They can all be true at the same time and they also all can not be true at the same time.”
This truth has been engrained in The Smashing Pumpkins since the beginning. A push from being on the outside, to embodying it. If we’re the weirdos, they thought, then let’s be the weirdest weirdos.
“When I was younger I was so worried about writing great songs that I literally couldn’t just be myself,” Billy admits. “I think if I was 20 years old in this world, I would have a much better chance of being myself. When we stood on a stage in 1990, me being somewhat androgynous, with a high, almost-female voice, playing the kind of music we played… People weren’t like, ‘Oh man, that band’s gonna be huge.’ It was like, ‘What the fuck is this? What are you trying to say? What is the point of this?’ And then they would get to weird stuff like, ‘Why’s there a girl [original bassist D’arcy Wretzky]? Why’s there an Asian?’ So somehow we had to find something in ourselves that made us feel supernatural or superhero-ish. And it was by wrapping ourselves in the things we loved, and in some ways the things we hated, that seemed to kind of forge our identity.”
This wasn’t just a band thing, though. As a kid, people “messed with” Billy. People had messed with his father, too (“Maybe it’s in our genes or something”). Rather than withdraw, though, Billy messed with them back. “It’s a Chicago thing,” he says. As he became an adult, and then a famous adult, this became part of how the frontman would deal with the music business. “If a journalist wanted to have a go, I’d just go at them harder,” he admits. “I wasn’t thinking about tomorrow, I just didn’t give a fuck. So we were like, ‘Okay, fuck you back.’ When you’re in a band that has more often than not got bad reviews for everything you’ve ever done, what attitude would you have? You have come to a conception that it is personal.
“A lot of my reaction to the world when I was young was to be like, ‘Well, if you’re not gonna accept me as I am, then I’m gonna irritate you with who I’m not,’” he continues. “If you’ve ever had a crush on someone and they let you know that they don’t really like you, your response is to kind of pick on them a bit – ‘You’re not so great.’ That’s how I felt about a lot of the world. I looked around at a lot of the bands who were being celebrated and I thought, ‘Well you’re not so great.’ I looked at the journalists who were trying to tell me who I was and who I wasn’t and thought, ‘You’re not so great.’ And it built this attitude in me that was probably a bit childish, but it allowed me a freedom I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I didn’t have the courage to be that guy.”
Whether or not Billy regrets this is moot, and he doesn’t think it couldn’t have happened any other way. But that’s life. What’s important is what you learned and took from things to bring you to the now.
“Now that I have children, I wish I had the background in my life and the confidence to just be whoever I was, because I think that person is actually quite nice, and is talented,” he says. “But I didn’t have that. I didn’t have that support in my life. I didn’t have it in my family. I didn’t have it oftentimes even in my own band. So my reaction was to be kind of this creature of reaction. I was willing to let Billy Corgan be destroyed and become an instrument of destruction and ridicule and mockery. I think there’s been a lot of interesting artistic things that happened from that, but at the bottom of that, that’s a sad story. But do I think – and I’m not being personal to you – people like you would have accepted me as I was in 1992?”
Listen to Billy discuss how his attitude to the outside world was shaped by what he saw around him
Such a question is impossible to answer in 2020. But talking to Billy about this way of working, it becomes clear that it’s been both a blessing and a curse. The freedom of repeatedly watching “the scarecrow of Billy Corgan burn” at the hands of journalists and confused fans has resulted in “opening up creativity and inspiration for music which I wouldn’t have found otherwise”. But he wryly observes that it has also been “bad for business”.
Rock’n’roll is, he says, “a silly make-up game”. A great, wonderful one, but a game nevertheless, and one which is “not real”. There are characters, himself and what he puts out there being one. He admits to the Pumpkins taking the piss because they thought it was funny (“The press wanted a line like, ‘Smashing Pumpkins Blew Each Other Up’, so we gave it to them”), but that’s all part of the game, too. “It was good sport!” he hoots. But he also admits that, “My journey overall has not been pleasant.”
“I made the decision myself when I was a young man that that was the way I was going to navigate the waters, and that’s what I did,” he says. “I could tell you that was a cool artistic thing, but personally for me it was not a good idea (laughs). It was very hard on me. There are times when I would walk into an interview with a cup of tea and just want to have a nice chat with somebody, and they start having a go at me about something.”
This is one thing, but when it affects what’s within the band as well as that on the outside, life becomes a lot harder, because they’re the people who actually know you. But when life imitates art and things do begin to break down, Billy discovered it’s a much lonelier place than just laughing at bad reviews.
“The public, you can always kind of say, ‘Well, they’re insane, they don’t understand me,’” he chuckles. “But when people around you lose faith in your work, it’s very hard to go back to the same thing you found solace in. So that’s where the whole contrivance of different personalities and artistic contrivance in the public sphere don’t really protect you from the personal hurt, when you feel the people around you no longer believe in your ability to make something magical.”
When the band – or, at least, the Billy/James/D’arcy/Jimmy iteration – splintered, it didn’t end. Billy continued to make Smashing Pumpkins albums and do Smashing Pumpkins shows as the want took him. Fans remained, but there was also a sense that this was now a Billy show. By his own admission, in his contrary way Billy couldn’t see what fans were getting at calling for a reunion, almost putting himself down. He’d seen his heroes Black Sabbath and Judas Priest come back together with their classic line-ups, but “in my own situation I was very dismissive of it”.
“I thought, ‘You’re way over playing this,’” he remembers. “I think it took the last few years for me to realise how important it really is. When you’re standing there with your brothers and you see the faces of the crowd, you go, ‘Okay, now I get it.’”
As well as understanding why this was so important to fans, it also unlocked an understanding of why it’s so important to him. Something bigger than music or who wrote what or winding up journalists. This was where that strange young man had actually found a place in the world, with other equally strange people searching for the same thing.
“The true story of the band is of a family,” Billy says now. “I think having had such a hard time as a child with my own family, I tried to create my own version of a family in the band. And that was successful to the extent that I was able to be successful with that family. The pain then became when you didn’t feel you got back from the family what you thought you deserved, or they of course told you where they had a problem with you in return.
“The real victory of this crazy journey that we’ve all been on is that we were able to make peace within our own little kingdom,” he continues. “So many of our fans came from dysfunctional families as well, and I think watching us fall apart and get back together and fall apart again, I think that hurt them too. I think there’s something sort of beautiful in [the idea that] if you hang in there long enough, you can put the pieces back together. And I know it’s not complete, but at least it tells a story. The real beauty of this story is, yes, we’re able to make very strong music and maintain some level of popularity after 30 years – which alone is miraculous – but the real story is we’ve been able to heal some of the relationships behind the scenes to the point where that component, the foundation which everything else was built on, is at least solid again.
Hear Billy discuss the ups, downs and recent reconciliation of the Pumpkins
In some ways, you don’t want to totally solve the mystery of Billy Corgan. But it’s more in the sense that you’d rather meet Alice Cooper than Vincent Furnier, or get your picture taken with Gene Simmons in full outfit, not when he’s dressed for a day at the board meeting. And, actually, there is much to love about the Billy who plays games with the press and allows himself to be “Public Enemy Number One”. But the honesty and kindness of the man sat in Chicago today is also refreshing and wonderful: Billy Corgan is a really, really nice guy. It’s easy to “get” him. He’s enthusiastic about music, both his own and as a fan. He thanks Kerrang! for continuing to fly the flag for the rock’n’roll he loves so much. When he downplays things (at one point, when we put it to him that he had the last laugh, he snorts and smiles, “I don’t know about that”) there is a coy vulnerability to it that’s quite endearing.
And when he talks about the band coming back together as a family, you can hear that in Cyr. Not in that they sound like they did writing songs like Today, but that they’re comfortable enough to take the risks again. Big ones. And they sound confident in that.
“I think Cyr is the result of us getting our confidence back that we can do whatever we want to do, and we’re not beholden to a certain style or idiomatic approach,” he says. “As long as we pick a lane we’re excited by, good stuff will come out of it. I’m working on a song right now that sounds like it could have been written in 1993. And if we recorded it that way people would be, like, ‘They’re back!’ No, we never went away… But if you were to sit in a room with Jimmy and I for 12 hours, our discussion is always, ‘How do we get to the next bus stop?’ That’s all we ever focus on.”
Mainly, you feel happy for Billy. There’s a quote from a 1995 Kerrang! interview where he bluntly states, “I have kind of a big chip on my shoulder.” Today, however, his vibe is one of settled contentment. With his band, he’s mended something he didn’t appreciate how much he needed. At home, his real family are superb, too. And as a man who’s often surprised and shaken up people’s perceptions, this is the most welcome surprise of all.
“It’s all good. Life is good,” he smiles. “My priorities are my kids and my music. So I cannot complain. I couldn’t complain about one thing. I feel blessed and I appreciate people like yourself being interested, and really that’s it for me. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that, and I think that’s the victory. It’s to get to a place of understanding, clarity, confidence and… it’s just what it’s meant to be.
“It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.”
Smashing Pumpkins’ Cyr is released on November 27 via Sumerian Records.
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