Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan: "If the music wasn't decent, I'd be a footnote at this point."
E.E. Cummings said, "To destroy is always the first step in any creation." For Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, destruction and creation have been among the most consistent events of his life. "A good artist is willing to die many times over," Corgan said during our recent phone interview. "What's funny is, I've died so many times."
The lead Pumpkin spoke to us from his home in the affluent Chicago suburb of Hyde Park. He was wordy and well spoken; most notably, however, he was open - there was no topic we couldn't broach, he informed us. The conversation's only pauses were brief moments when he tossed toys to his cats.
Corgan has garnered some grief since the 2000 break-up of the Smashing Pumpkins. He's particularly been criticized for his 2007 decision to resurrect the defunct band - but into an unrecognizable form. He is now the only remaining original Pumpkin in the band.
"Sometimes," Corgan says, "I'll interview with a journalist who's obviously not a fan, and they just look at me, like, 'Wow, you're still fucking here!'"
"But," he adds, "If the music wasn't decent, I'd be a footnote at this point."
Since no subject was off limits, we dove straight into '90s Pumpkins territory, and explored Corgan's reasons for wanting to resurrect a band that had been so definitively laid to rest.
As he speaks of his former band Corgan sounds as if he's recalling time with an ex-lover. His voice fills with yearning, love, and simultaneous scorn.
"When I made the decision with Jimmy (Chamberlin) to bring the band back, it wasn't dissimilar from when you think, 'I'm going to get back together with somebody.'"
"But it wasn't that easy," he admits, "To return to a place where I even understood what it was about being in the Smashing Pumpkins that I liked."
In 2009, Chamberlin left the band.
Determined to endure, Corgan formed yet another lineup to record this year's Oceania, including bassist Nicole Fiorentino, drummer Mike Byrne, and Zeitgeist guitarist Jeff Schroeder.
"The press has referred to them as 'rent-a-band,'" he says of his new band, ruefully. "These are people with indie musical backgrounds; they're not L.A. giggers with full-sleeve tattoos!"
"To re-embrace what I once loved about music has been a warming process for me, because it's a good, earned feeling now."
Corgan's "good feeling" comes thanks in part to forming a functional band.
"When you actually like each other," he says, "it translates to the music. The difference with Oceania is, I've found harmony again."
Harmonious the new outfit may be, Corgan admits the Pumpkins' original lineup carries an irreplaceable mystique.
"There was certainly something about the original lineup that had chemistry."
But chemistry didn't necessarily equal function.
"There's no way to properly convey what it was like to be in that band," he says. "And the fucked up stuff is ten times more fucked up than what the world knows."
"I was in love with the Smashing Pumpkins," he says, wistfully. "I really believed in what we were doing. But I idealized the band - which overlooked their incredibly flawed human personas, and which now bites me in the ass, as they rear their heads for lawsuits."
His point turned from emotive longing to bitter resentment in just a few seconds. This seems to be a trend as he speaks of his former band. Those curious for deeper dirt are in luck, as Corgan is currently writing a tell-all type book about his days in the Smashing Pumpkins.
"You're in a band 24 hours a day," he explains. "You've gotta deal with someone's meltdown, someone's overdose, and someone's freak-out about the deli tray! The music was the end result of that madness."
But why divulge the dirt now? It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the Pumpkins formed, and twelve years since their demise. "The validity of talking about this stuff at a late date is, I think it's remarkable that even with all the fucked up stuff that happened, we were still able to make great music together."
As our conversation wraps, he becomes reflective. A guy known for his tough talk, Corgan suddenly seems defenseless, presumably reflective of the memories our conversation stirred - memories of great success, and the greater demise of and most intense love affair of his life - his band.
"It's been a long, weird journey," he reflects. "If somebody would have told me 15 years ago that at 45 I'd be living in a big house with two dogs and two cats, with no wife and no girlfriend, I wouldn't have believed them. My life did not turn out the way I'd planned it," he reveals, emphatically. "Not even close."
The air in our conversation lightens. For, admittedly, the first time ever, we see Corgan as so unequivocally human.
"But," he continues, "Being healthy, humbled by God, musically engaged, and surrounded by good people - those are the moments I'm OK with, because maybe this was the way it was meant to be all along."
Still, Corgan swears he pockets a plan. "There's an old saying: 'There's a method to my madness.' I stick by that."
Smashing Pumpkins play Roy Wilkins Auditorium on Saturday, October 20, along with opening act, Anberlin. Showtime is 7:30, and tickets can be purchased here.
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