CHICAGO — Billy Corgan calls “Oceania,” the Smashing Pumpkins’ first studio album since 2007, “an anti-mid-life crisis album.”
Whatever it’s called, the new album due out Tuesday represents Corgan’s best work since the ‘90s, when the Pumpkins were among the most successful bands of their time. The band broke up in 2000, and to hear Corgan tell it, he’s spent most of the last decade figuring out how to create fresh music out from under the shadow of that legacy without fully letting go of it.
He says that after reuniting with original Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in 2005, he realized that he was holding on to an idea of the band caught between unrealistic expectations (repeating the success and sound of the Pumpkins 1993 breakthrough, “Siamese Dream”) and his own nostalgia-loathing intentions.
He’s in the midst of writing what he describes as a “spiritual memoir,” and it’s causing him to “dredge up stuff from the past I wish I had forgotten. This album is basically my way of saying I don’t want to carry this stuff anymore. I don’t want to carry (original Pumpkins members Chamberlin, James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky) forward anymore. It’s done. I couldn’t have made ‘Oceania’ if I didn’t let go of that band.”
Chamberlin and Corgan parted ways in 2009, soon after a tumultuous tour that found the singer verbally tussling with his audience. For a 20th anniversary Pumpkins tour, many fans were expecting a greatest-hits retrospective. Corgan instead presented a deep dive into his music, in which the beloved ‘90s singles were balanced by deep cuts and plenty of new tracks. The often-hostile reaction led him to “blow up the band” so that he could start fresh.
Corgan rebuilt the Pumpkins with young guns: guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne. The imperative was not only to re-energize the audience, but “to reconnect with that part of me that made me want to make music in the first place.” In an interview, he described the process:
Q: A few years ago, you said the album was dead, and you begin releasing your music song by song online. What changed your mind?
A: We did a radio tour, one of those b.s. things — if you go play a radio station’s party with seven other terrible bands, they’ll play your record. We’re playing and we’re looking out at 18- and 20-year-olds and they don’t care. What is this? How do you win this? You don’t. We basically sat down and said, ‘This is it. This is boring.’ So what do we do to actually change this? Only thing that made sense was to make an album. Can you make an album that is so strong that it reignites the flame within you and the audience? Is that even culturally possible? We went to Sedona (a studio in Sedona, Ariz., with longtime producer and engineer Bjorn Thorsrud) for a while to work. It was small steps. I can write songs, I can always write songs. That’s been part of the problem. Maybe I write too many songs and put them out loosey goosey. So let’s get down to it and challenge ourselves. It takes so much psychic energy to do this. I did this album for a year, 12 hours a day. I understand how it gets tough for people when they reach a certain age and you just don’t want to work that hard because it’s easier not to. We could’ve made a lot of money playing the nostalgia shows. I cut that road off. It was do it this way or die.
Q: So you want to get the feeling of 1995 back, but you want it to do it with new music?
A: I want the new feeling. Picasso did some of his best work in his 90s. Neil Young is making some of his best music now. I don’t want to be 25 again. There are people out there who are older who are cool. I want that. Music is your guide. At the heart of Jimmy Page is the 14-year-old playing skiffle and trying to figure out Scotty Moore licks in his bedroom. The year 1995 for me was miserable in some ways. I just dream of having a voice in the conversation. Not being written off by the bloggers as some grandpa who keeps showing up at the buffet table.
Q: How’d you rediscover that feeling?
A: I’ve found peacefulness in myself where I found I didn’t have to be more than or less than. Be yourself moment to moment. Go left, right, and in between. You like keyboards, guitars, loud stuff, quiet stuff. Just go with it. Stop overthinking it. It’s very similar to the way I worked in the ‘90s.
Q: So you’re saying you lost that in the last decade? Why?
A: I got away from that to teach myself a few things. I’m a bit weird. I’m the guy who would be bored with two on two basketball, so I’d play against four guys to make it interesting. I’ve done a lot of that in (2005 solo album) “The Future Embrace,” (2003 band project ) Zwan — working within concepts of limitation. Can I box my way out of this corner? I think this is the first time I’ve made a record where I didn’t box myself in. If it sounds like Frank Zappa one minute and Vangelis the next, OK.
Q: How were your earlier records boxed in? Whatever people say about them, the Pumpkins were definitely their own thing through much of the ‘90s.
A: I said this to the current band the other day. The “Siamese Dream” band didn’t exist. I created that band and then we learned how to be that band after the record. I expressed to (producer Butch Vig) an idealized vision. A beautiful, silver version of the Smashing Pumpkins that did not exist. It was a movie. The videos, the success enhanced and filled in the gaps. (The 1995 album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”) is a much more accurate portrayal, it’s the band as we really were — mean, dark. (The 1991 album “gish”) is me trying to be somebody, “Siamese Dream” is me trying to create something, “Mellon Collie” is the band unvarnished. “Siamese Dream” was me working within my own and Butch’s straitjacket. (Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain) went through it, with the idealized version of Nirvana on “Nevermind” and the unvarnished version on “In Utero” with (Steve) Albini. Finally you reach a point where it’s over, the game doesn’t work, Smashing Pumpkins is dead. I couldn’t just flip the switch and be great. So is there nothing in this for me? You walk away or try to make it for you. The difference for me is that at 45 I feel I have to deliver or you don’t get another chance. Our axiom for “Oceania” was you have one chance. Don’t expect anyone to listen seven times. They’ll listen one time if you’re lucky.
Q: When things are working, great artists say they reflect their audience. Do you feel you’re still in touch with your audience?
A: I feel I’m reflecting the part of the audience we don’t hear from. There are a lot of people out there who love music but don’t have a place in music culture as it exists. I meet these people all the time. Soccer mom, 34, has good taste in music. They are your average rock fan who isn’t part of the Pitchfork culture. They don’t follow the train. They’re the difference between 40,000 sales and 400,000. We’ve disenfranchised that part of the culture by playing to the (snobby, snarky) crowd. The Internet has swelled that (expletive) crowd. The crowd that trashes what you do instantly and writes you off. It’s like the ‘90s indie-rock crowd all over again: Don’t look this way, don’t dress this way, don’t play long guitar solos, whatever. But there are people out there in their teens who found Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they don’t care that those bands don’t exist anymore. They exist in their computer. They’re finding this other value system that isn’t contemporary. It’s a wider scope. The unspoken audience, the stragglers, and this new audience who isn’t snarky or cares much about modern record business, that’s our audience.
Q: You spent a lot of time in the last decade working to get a band up to speed. But people feel it’s you who call all the shots. How much a part of this album is the band?
A: The album tells the best version of the story. People have a general misunderstanding of what I do, like I’m standing in the back directing things. The behind the scenes pace of the way we work is different. It’s hard to translate. But they’re playing on the album. This is not one of those things where in 10 years I’m going to say I actually played all the instruments (laughs).
Q: What’s the main difference between this album and (2007 Pumpkins comeback album) “Zeitgeist”?
A: “Zeitgeist,” in retrospect, is the death album — the last album of the Smashing Pumpkins era. It just took seven years to come out. I went in with a very naive idea. Everyone wants me to make “Siamese Dream” again, which equated in my mind to a bunch of loud guitars, with that as a transition into a new era. It was like “Indiana Jones” Part 3. You play to an expectation. The smart move when we got back together would’ve been to do a greatest hits album, a greatest hits money tour, then do a new album. I didn’t do that — much to the consternation of Jimmy (Chamberlin) and my management, because I left millions of dollars on the table. But my plan didn’t work either. When I made “Siamese Dream,” I was taking LSD, crashing on people’s couches, broken-hearted over a girl who later became my wife. You can’t be that again. It’s disrespectful to your own past to think you can relive your own past. I kept saying to Jimmy, where is the psychedelia? Because I always felt that was the heart of our sound. So I got rid of things, until it became this very primal music, one angry guitar and one angry drummer. I tried to build on that. But my relationship with Jimmy was broken. I didn’t want to admit it. He would’ve been happy to keep it going and I had the blinders on and was marching forward. I just stepped in the wrong mudhole. But I learned some things. I came across an apathetic audience, and it ignited something in me. It brought back that old “(expletive) you.”
Q: Things got hostile during that 2008 tour. You were pretty abusive toward the audience, and some people still haven’t forgotten that or forgiven you. It reminded me of some weird, uncomfortable Andy Kaufman skit.
A: It’s (pro) wrestling (laughs). I’m in character. Even Jimmy Chamberlin believed it. All he saw was money going down the drain. I’m a weirdo like Wayne (Coyne) from the Flaming Lips. He’ll be the guy in the bubble floating above the audience and I’ll be the guy in the black dress on stage. There’s a saying in wrestling where you start to live your gimmick. On the road, I’m in character, at home I’m with my cats playing Xbox. Is it smart? No. Is it compelling? At times. But I needed to do it.
Q: It was your way of blowing it up?
A: It’s an unconscious expression. I still remember standing on that stage in Chicago (in 2008). The band and the audience are getting more uncomfortable, and there’s little Billy in the center with his microphone. I want to be in the moment. If that had been a super warm crowd I wouldn’t have reacted like that. The show we did at the Riviera last year, that was one of the warmest crowds I’ve ever played for in 25 years. It’s irksome for me as an artist for my life to be reduced to a song, or a moment, a performance. That’s not me. I’ve left a lot of money on the table by being a weirdo, but I’m still here.
Q: There’s inherent tension between the guy who’s weird, the outsider willing to alienate your audience, and the one who also wants to be part of the conversation, at the center of the culture. How do you resolve that?
A: I wanted to be from the normal “Leave it to Beaver” family and wasn’t. I was being singled out about my birth mark, I was too tall, too weird. From the start I was on the outside. Maybe everyone goes through it. But I turned it into a narrative that is in my DNA. All the local bands were talking (expletive) about us when we started to get big. We were very isolated. We go to New York for the first time in 1990, it’s Sonic Youth land. Again we don’t fit. We go in with an adaptable sense of if we don’t belong, we’re going to storm your stage. You really want to be accepted, but you do this pose to get through.
Q: So how do you measure this album, whether it’s successful or not? Through sales, or something else?
A: “Oceania” I think is going to turn the corner, and we’re going to be positive for a while. I have to fight the temptation to blow it up. Maybe it’s self-destructive. But if reaction so far can be a gauge, we’ve done something good. Hard core hater fans are liking it. People default to what they know when you don’t give them something powerful. But if you give them something powerful, they all crawl back. We’re all going through this collective identity crisis. We’re online forming new personalities. The systems of things we used to count on, are breaking down, and it’s a free for all. Success is how do we survive that. Success isn’t record sales, it’s street cachet. The temperature of the Pumpkins right now is pretty good. Six months ago, not so good. Two years ago, it was down the tubes. With this group we’ve rebuilt the credibility with the fan base. People were hearing the songs on YouTube a year ago, and I would get messages from fans, “Don’t (mess) it up, Billy.” They liked the songs and were worried I was going to mess up a good thing.
Q: You’ve decided to release the album through a major label, EMI, even though you’ve long said the traditional record-industry model is broken and beyond repair. What happened?
A: I still think that. But I thought naively that by becoming an entrepreneur and putting out my own music, that my fans would rally and help me market it. They didn’t. I got, “This is the worst, retire,” from some blogger. As a music fan of artists with a certain longevity like Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Neil Young, I want to hear all of it. The good, the not so good, everything. They’ve earned it. But that’s not the way our country works. We’re the absolute worst at appreciating that sort of thing.
Q: So social media is not the democracy we thought it was?
A: It’s just allowed the most narcissistic among us to amass more power. But a lot of people in my generation are avoiding it. It’s just not interesting. Chat boards chase away people who want to be positive, and they get shot down, so they retreat from it.
Q: So at what point did “Oceania” take shape as an album? Was there a turning point song or moment?
A: I’m in Sedona, the band is taking a break (in February 2011). I’m there by myself working with Bjorn. There is a message from the ex-wife of (former Electric Prunes bassist and recent Corgan collaborator) Mark Tulin. She’s crying, he’s dead of a heart attack, just 62 years old. I’d seen him two days before. His death hit me hard. It made me think, “What am I doing?” There were 400 people at his funeral. It was a joyous, joke-filled dinner, because that was his spirit. I went back to Sedona and went through all our music. We’d done 30 demos. I heard his bass parts and would cry. The band was in limbo. And it hit me, “If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do it right.” Stop (messing) around. You’re 44 at the time, get off your pity party. You know how to make records, stop being a baby, just do it. It was like, I had a sense of purpose. I went into my old mode. I was ruthless in the ‘90s. I did whatever I had to do to get the band where it needed to be. There was one destination. It had to be big. And when I got there I realized it wasn’t so great. The band went boom. I didn’t have any more bullets in the round. I didn’t want to have to justify anything. I had to let go of the band, the legacy, a new chapter. Better suit up. I got very sober, serious, very deliberate. I’m much kinder than I used to be, but I’m still ruthless. … For a while there, I didn’t want to be at the center of every decision when I was making records. But the best music I ever made I was at the center of every decision. I don’t make any apologies about that anymore. I don’t want to be in a windowless room poring over musical details. But that’s the lesson I learned. I wasn’t going to fail because I didn’t go for it. (Chicago Cubs slugger) Dave Kingman was my idol as a kid. He was a .220 hitter. He struck out a lot. But when he hit the ball, it went way over the fence and through the window across the street.