Are rock bands meant to last 20 years?
“No, no, they’re not,” Billy Corgan said backstage last week at the Auditorium Theatre. Which sounds a little odd coming from someone whose band, the Smashing Pumpkins, had just completed its 20th-anniversary tour with a triumphant performance short on hits but long on drama and daring.
The tour was never smooth, with Corgan baiting his fans as much as sating them with a handful of Pumpkins oldies. When the Pumpkins opened a series of homecoming shows a few weeks ago, the 41-year-old suburban Chicago native finished off the opening night at the Chicago Theatre with a combination rant/comedic monologue that angered many in his audience. “What do you want from us?” Corgan said with mock exasperation while fans booed or streamed toward the exits.
But last Monday the Pumpkins embraced delicate ballads, scorched-earth rockers and expansive psychedelia with authority. Corgan was in an affable mood, and the band ended the show by reaching into a coffin and tossing Christmas presents to the cheering fans.
It was a final joke from an artist who has always taken his work very, very seriously - to the point of self-destructiveness. The 20th-anniversary tour and Corgan’s confrontational onstage antics are merely the latest examples of the band’s polarizing impact.
Musically, the Pumpkins can still swing the heavy lumber. Only Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin, the master drummer, remain from the original band. James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky are long gone. The Pumpkins broke up in 2000, and Corgan says the “door was left open” for Iha and Wretzky to return when the band reassembled in 2005. But things didn’t work out, and Jeff Schroeder and Ginger Reyes were enlisted to take their places.
The band’s 2007 comeback album, “Zeitgeist,” sank without a trace, but the retooled Pumpkins have developed a chemistry and power on the road since then.
Corgan, wrapped in a bathrobe and towels while chowing down on a post-concert steak, was upbeat and combatively optimistic about the future of Pumpkins Mach II. His message: We’re not a nostalgia band. “It’s not old band versus new band,” he says. “It’s new band or no band.”
“Calling it a 20th-anniversary tour, people expected greatest hits,” he says. “The casual fan who comes in and just wants to see the hits, they were not having it. But we’ve seen a real reactivation in the hard-core fan base.”
Q. Did the hostility of some of the audiences bother you?
A. No, what bothers me is the notion that we’re done. We didn’t come back for the cash; we came back to be great again. It made me mad that people thought we’re done, that we don’t have a future. Get out. We don’t want you. We’ve never been that band. That happy band. We picked up where we left off. We’re not the retirement band playing our old hits. ... I don’t give a (expletive) that most of my heroes got lame when they turned 40. I spent most of the last decade thinking about that. Why do they go from this insanely high level of work to diminished echoes of the past? And I think it’s a coziness thing. You do something amazing, and you don’t want to lose the crowd that tells you that’s amazing. You’re out in the cold. Well, we like to be out in the cold. We’re done with the record business, so we’re free to do whatever I want.
Q. So “Zeitgeist” was the last album?
A. We’re done with that. There is no point. People don’t even listen to it all. They put it on their iPod, they drag over the two singles and skip over the rest. The listening patterns have changed, so why are we killing ourselves to do albums, to create balance and do the arty track to set up the single? It’s done.
Q. People are still talking about that show you did a few weeks ago at the Chicago Theatre.
A. Energy we can do something with. Apathy we can’t work with. Who’s above us? Who’s lighting the culture on fire? Nobody. We don’t have to live in that world. We have the biggest manager (Irving Azoff) in the world. He tells us we can get there, we will get there. We will crack the egg like we did in ‘92, without doing something embarrassing like working with Timbaland. We will find how to do our thing and make it work. I can write songs. We’re big boys. We’ll do it. Last time I talked with you, I said we’re going to come back and make a better album. The album we made surprised us. We kept going back to this primitive thing. We wanted to do “Siamese Dream II.” Elaborate, orchestrated, but it wasn’t coming from me. It put us back in this organic process, and in this position of fighting back to why we do what we do.
Q. Why’d you break up the Pumpkins in 2000?
A. The real story was Iha was driving me out of my mind. He was so negative. The guy literally drove me insane. When I walked out of that band, I didn’t know what to do anymore. I didn’t have a direction, a central focus. I wandered through different things, but I couldn’t find that central thing. As soon as I got back in the band my brain started working again. I was engaged again.
Q. Did you make a sincere attempt to invite back Iha and Wretzky?
A. Sincere in the sense that we have to allow them the opportunity. They have the right to at least have the conversation. We said the door’s open. We were met with complete indifference. D’Arcy doesn’t care. And James, it was a money thing.
Q. But why call it the Pumpkins? It gives people a chance to doubt the band’s legitimacy and your motives.
A, It’s my band. Anyone who doubts the legitimacy of this band can go (expletive) themselves. That’s old thinking about bands. Show me any band that lasts for any tenure, they don’t have the original members. This world doesn’t care about that. They just want to hear the songs. They got karaoke singers now fronting big bands.
Q. You said a few years ago that you were going to try and keep your mouth shut and let the music be the story. But that hasn’t been the case.
A. I tried that for a while, and it wasn’t working. I’m cemented in an image. I have to move to France to change that. I’m not a humble musician, but I am a humble human being. I have perspective; I have God in my life. (In the band) we talk a lot about spirituality and about why God made us musicians and why we’re here to do what we do. And we have decided in our estimation that God put us here to try new things, and be innovators. With all that’s going on in the world, is that the worst thing?
Q, That would seem to be the artist’s role.
A. Let me be blunt. When Bruce Springsteen puts out a new album, I pay attention. Same with Neil Young. Because they’re major artists who have something to say. I consider us in that category. When we do something it should be taken seriously, even when we’re off. If we’re marginalized by the culture, we’re not going to play dead and say thank you for our B-plus status. I poured my blood into my songs. I’ve had a bad marriage and seven bad girlfriends in a row. I make sacrifices to do my work. That’s not victim talk; that’s nobody’s fault; that’s a choice I made for me.