INTERVIEW: Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins
Smashing Pumpkins never did things quite like other bands, but when Billy Corgan and co announced plans for their latest album, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, even die-hard fans probably spat coffee on their laptops. Picture it: a 44-track album, with songs recorded in batches of four and released one at a time for free online. Wha?
It’s early days yet but how is the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope concept being received by audiences?
It seems to be gathering momentum. I knew that the material I was releasing was strong material, but oftentimes music is so contextual and depending on what’s going on around what you’re doing. With Smashing Pumpkins over the last two or three years it’s been so much about ‘what does this mean?’ and not as much focus on the music. And I feel that just recently, maybe because of the strength of the band live, people are starting to focus on the music again, and a little less on the drama stuff. It seems like now there’s that healthy cyclical thing where people are going to the shows and then they’re going to listen to the songs again, and then they’re writing and they tell a friend in the next city. You start to see this kind of building momentum around the work.
What I really like about the idea is that in one way it’s a rejection of the traditional album concept, but in another way it’s a celebration of it because it forces the listener to give each track full consideration.
I like the idea that it’s my responsibility to deliver something that’s worth listening to. When I would make albums, I’d look at it like, ‘okay, I’ve got these four really catchy songs… well I want to do this really long song, and I don’t care if it takes somebody three months to figure out it’s a good song.’ Because I kinda assumed that they would listen to the album. But once I saw that people stopped listening to records – albums – in a normal fashion like we probably grew up to, then I also started seeing people not listening to that song that took two or three months to get into. As a record person, I actually found that they were some of the songs that I loved the most, at the end of the day. A song like Rain Song by Led Zeppelin comes to mind. You have those experiences where it’s like ‘This is so fucking epic.’ It describes everything you’re feeling. I realised I was really kinda back in the 1950s, where you were really gonna be judged on your latest song. And rather than get bummed about it, I took it on as a challenge. Slowly it’s evolved into, ‘Can I keep upping the ante with each release?’ And that’s exciting.
Do you have everything written already in loose form or is it being composed as you go?
I have more than enough written but I would say probably half or less than half is worth recording, because I’m still evolving with the quality level and maybe what I’m trying to say. Now that the band has really come together as a unit, I’m looking at the material in a completely different way. We’re sort of back into a dynamic rock outfit. So that opens up my mind. It brings the musicianship back into the equation in a way that maybe it hasn’t been in a while.
It’s been pretty well established that you’ve played the majority of the instruments in the studio over the years…
Has that continued with the new material?
There’s a new song and two more in the can, and those are still pretty much the traditional way, which is just me and the drummer, but the songs we’re gonna start recording probably in October, those are going to be contributed by the band as a whole. Not just who’s gonna play what but all of us working together as a team to make sure that what we’re putting out is representative of where the band is going. We’ve really come together as a unit. It’s been an organic process that’s grown on its own, and I never thought I’d be back in that situation. So it’s surprising for me that I’m actually in a place where I want to get to the ideas, because it feels good and healthy, not like I’m being forced because of an expectation that’s not realistic. It’s a really, really strong unit, and it’s weird, because if you look at – the Ramones come to mind – sometimes it’s that weird thing where it’s the sum of the parts that adds up, and you don’t necessarily know why because it’s not always about who’s the best bass player or something. It’s the way people play together, and it either clicks or it doesn’t. And for whatever reason, from the first gig we just had that thing together and people really seem to be responding. I’ll give you a small inside story. There are people who work on my crew – light, sound – that have worked with me since probably Siamese Dream. They come and go, they’re not always out on every tour, but I always have them back. So my light guy hadn’t worked with me in maybe ten years or something, and he came to a rehearsal and he was like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe it!’ I said ‘What?’ and he goes ‘You’ve reinvented it!’ and he was shocked. And after six or seven shows he pulled me aside and said ‘This is better than the old band. I don’t know how you did it, but it’s better than the old band!’ And that’s the kinda guy who’s gonna tell you what he really thinks. He’s not gonna gloss it over, I’ve known him for 17 years, we go out to dinner together. He’s not going to yank my chain. It’s a really good feeling, y’know? And that’s been consistent. We see it more if the crowd is over 30, 35 years old. They come in with the crossed arms, like, ‘I love the Pumpkins and I want to see what Billy’s up to,’ but there’s that kind of skepticism. Like, ‘Hmm, I kinda miss the old band.’ But by the end of the show they’re shaking their head and going ‘Fuck yeah! You’re pulling this shit off! I can’t believe it!’ They’re happy because they get their band band. They didn’t get the band back that they wanted to get back, but they got their band back, if that makes sense. It’s a nice thing to see, and it happens almost every night. It’s like, ‘Cool! Let’s keep rocking!’
I have kind of an interesting take on Smashing Pumpkins because I didn’t listen to you guys during the first run. I’m 32 now and when I was a teenager I was all about the shred, so I kinda felt like I couldn’t listen to you guys until the hype had died down…
Hahaha. That’s awesome. Sorry to interrupt you, but that was me at, like, 20 or 17. I stopped listening to certain bands because, like, they didn’t shred fast enough, Clapton and all that. I wanted to listen to Yngwie!
Well that’s the thing, I wanted to listen to Yngwie and I wanted to listen to Yngwie and I wanted to avoid you guys until it’d died down a bit and I could get a bit of perspective on it. And when I did, it was like, ‘Man, there’s some awesome guitar playing here. I can’t deprive myself of this!’
Haha. No, it’s all about the guitar playing. I wish we played better, but we love it. All we do is sit around and talk about guitar players!
That takes me to my next question as a guitar geek. How did your signature Fender Stratocaster come about?
[Laughs] Here’s a great rock n’roll story. I actually approached Fender around 1993, 1994 and I wanted to do a guitar because the band was really popular, and obviously we were playing big concerts full of kids. And they basically told me to fuck off. I think they said ‘We’ll sell you guitars at cost.’ They had no interest in a signature guitar, nothing, and I was really bummed out. And so, through Ginger, the last Smashing Pumpkins bass player – who had a Fender endorsement deal – I had got to meet some of the current Fender people, and I told them the same story, and they said ‘Oh all those people are long gone – we would love to do something with you. We were under the impression you wouldn’t do anything with us. That would be amazing. We were under the impression that you wouldn’t do anything with us.’ So when we sat down to have the meeting, they said ‘Look, we’ll build you whatever you want, we’ve done that with people, but what we really want is something a normal person, any kid can walk in and buy off the wall.’ It really reminded me of when I was poor… I’d go to Guitar Center and I would stand there and look at the wall and think ‘I can’t afford this stuff.’ So they said ‘Can we build a guitar that is a reasonably-priced guitar that anyone can buy?’ And I said ‘I’ll do you one better. Lets’ build a guitar that’s not just for people who play like me. Let’s build a guitar that anybody who plays hard rock or loud alternative music will want to use because it’s a versatile instrument.’ And they said ‘That would be amazing.’ So we worked on that together. It’s not a radical redesign. My whole thing is, I want a heavy guitar that sounds like a Strat. I don’t want a Fender that sounds like a Gibson, with a humbucker dropped in it. So I worked with Steve Blucher from DiMarzio pickups and got my own custom-made pickups from him. He’s a brilliant guy. And nothing makes me happier than to have a musician walk up to me and go ‘Man, I got your guitar and I fuckin’ love it.’ And I’m really proud of it for that. We just had a meeting again and we’re gonna try to do a new-new version with some of the newer technologies that are coming out. We’re really excited about that. I’m actually right now waiting to get some prototypes of the new concepts.
That’s gotta be fun.
Yeah! I’m really happy because it makes me feel good that I’m giving some people the options I wanted from Fender guitars in the 90s. Fender was putting out guitars that were very specificly for certain things, and I’d have to do all sorts of crazy stuff, or buy vintage guitars, to try to get the sound I was looking for. I felt like they didn’t think about people who were playing like me at the time. They kind of missed the boat on that whole alt-rock generation, which is why a lot of us played vintage guitars, because the current ones [in the 90s] weren’t doing it. Anyway, I’m happy, I’m really happy with my relationship with them.