The Smashing Pumpkins: Making Peace With The Immediate Past

Jun 24, 2012
Originally published on June 24, 2012 8:45 pm

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Siamese Dream, the second album by The Smashing Pumpkins and the one, along with 1995's Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, that broke the band into the mainstream and spawned its most lasting hits.

In the years since, the group has split and reformed, with frontman Billy Corgan as the only constant member. It has also continued to release music at a steady pace (the new Oceania is the band's ninth full-length), often taking hard stylistic turns from album to album. Speaking with NPR's Guy Raz, Corgan says distancing himself from his immediate past is a habit he's finally beginning to grow out of.

"I used to think like that," Corgan says. "That was part of The Smashing Pumpkins business model, was to change and evolve and essentially break and destroy what we'd created. Our most popular styles, which were created in '93 and '95, we immediately turned around and broke the mold — which is business suicide. As long as we were successful on the next subsequent record, that made sense to everybody around us; the minute that stopped working, I was dubbed an idiot."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BULLET WITH BUTTERFLY WINGS")

THE SMASHING PUMPKINS: (Singing) Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.

RAZ: It's not a stretch to say that this band, The Smashing Pumpkins, owned alternative rock for a period in the mid-1990s. And for much of that time, their front man, Billy Corgan, was at the center of it all, for better and for worse. He came off as cantankerous, egotistical and impossible to work with. By the late 1990s, the original band split up.

But Billy Corgan is also widely acknowledged as among his generation's most gifted musicians. He's kept The Smashing Pumpkins going with new band members. Their new record is called "Oceania." And nowadays, at age 45, Billy Corgan is a little more reflective, a little less angry and back to making music that he loves.

BILLY CORGAN: If you make something really exciting, it's sort of like a field of dreams will show up. You're never sure who's going to show up, but you know somebody will. So you kind of go more into a personal journey of trying to find something that really is thrilling.

RAZ: When somebody who is a fan of Smashing Pumpkins puts this CD into their CD player or turns it on, the first thing you think of, it's just natural, right, instinctive, you say: Does this sound like "Siamese Dream"? Does this sound like Smashing Pumpkins stuff?

And some of it to me does, and some of it doesn't, and I wonder when you go into write a record and to write music, do you think: I've got to make this sound not like Smashing Pumpkins.

CORGAN: I used to think like that. And that was part of The Smashing Pumpkins' business model, was to change the model and essentially break and destroy what we created. Our most popular selves, which were created in, say, '93 and '95, we immediately turned around and broke the mold, which is business suicide. As long as we were successful on the next subsequent record, that made sense to everybody around us. The minute that stopped working, I was dubbed an idiot and a fool.

RAZ: Do you feel that way, that you are seen that way? I mean, you know, your - you've written records that are, I mean, seminal records. I mean, Rolling Stone called "Siamese Dream" one of the best records of...

CORGAN: And Rolling Stone also gave "Siamese Dream" three stars when it came out. They also gave "Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," our most successful record, two-and-a-half stars when it came out. And they've given "Oceania" three stars again. I found it's really hard to get people to wind up on where I'm at in any given time, but I think that goes to the visionary aspect, which is if you actually make something that's beyond the time and the culture, people default to, I don't like it.

The funny thing about "Oceania" is the general person on the street seems to really, really like it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUASAR")

PUMPKINS: (Singing) Please allow me to say hello to you. Yes, I understand. Yes, I know my will. Yes, I am a man. Yes, I. Yes, I.

RAZ: I read a recent review of "Oceania." It really struck me because the critic hailed you as a songwriting giant. That's what he said: Boundary pushing innovator. But then he wrote: Very few musicians get in their own way more often than Billy Corgan. What do you make of that?

CORGAN: I would agree with that. I have gotten in my own way. But I think that speaks to a couple of things. One, it speaks to a pathology, which is for the therapist out there to help me get through. But also, I think it speaks to an artistic process. I'm willing, and have always been willing, to play those dramas and personal issues out in public.

I've made that part of my mantle. When you deal with rock and roll, you know, it sort of played itself out, you know? You can't play any faster. You can't play any louder. You can't be any crazier than Iggy Pop or Jim Morrison or, you know, Kurt Cobain. You pick your guy or your girl, right?

So what ends up happening is it gets kind of staid and safe, even though it appears to continue to be dangerous and everybody looks dangerous - nobody's really dangerous, and they know that. So when you actually push a button in rock and roll, even if it's your own, you're actually accomplishing something pretty incredible because that's really all there is left to do is find those spaces that haven't been trod over.

RAZ: Is that what you aspire to?

CORGAN: Yes. My compulsion is to be a visionary mystic. And music has been, of course, my most successful form of communication. But I've also communicated through video, poetry and just being a public pain in the rear. That's part of my function.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Billy Corgan of the band Smashing Pumpkins. Their new record is called "Oceania." Billy, it's amazing to - I mean, your life's journey is amazing because you grew up outside a suburb of Chicago in a rough way. I mean, your parents divorced when you were 3 or so, I understand. I mean...

CORGAN: Yeah.

RAZ: And you did not grow up in an Ozzie and Harriet style household by any means. Tell me about how you grew up.

CORGAN: I grew up, you know, lower middle class, had three families, essentially, step family and then the blood families. All three sides of that picture were immigrant class. So I grew up with, you know, let's call it fear-based consciousness: must work, must save or die. People had been through all sorts of horrible things, particularly the Great Depression.

When I was 6, I was tested for a 12-year-old reading level. When I was 7, I was tested for savant level music aptitude, yet I got very little support from my family or even the culture around me, the school culture around me. So I kind of had this, you know, vibrant curiosity and creativity and had nowhere to put it. So I inverted it like many people would. Add to that then abuse, people dying along the way, a special needs brother, who I helped to raise. It's a bit like a Dostoevsky novel the way it all came out.

RAZ: But clearly, you were driven. I mean, you went to Chicago, and you eventually formed what became one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

CORGAN: Yeah. Pretty wild.

(LAUGHTER)

CORGAN: But I think, again, that's the drivenness of somebody who wants to get out. I didn't have an aspirational thing like: Oh, someday, I want to be Andy Warhol. I thought: Let me get the heck out of here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY")

PUMPKINS: (Singing) Today is the greatest day I've ever known. You live for tomorrow. Tomorrow's much too long.

RAZ: Next year, Billy, marks 20 years since the release of "Siamese Dream." It was a breakthrough record. You were just 26 when that album came out. What do you remember about that time?

CORGAN: Well, I do remember that our first album had come out, and it was quite successful. At the time, it was the biggest selling independent album ever. And we thought we were doing pretty good. We were just kind of sitting back, and then suddenly, a band called Nirvana comes along and sells a gazillion copies.

Then Pearl Jam comes along and sells a gazillion copies. And suddenly, this laser eye fixes on us and says, OK, you're next. And I realize, wait a second. I don't have the skill set to do this. I'm not geared for pop music. But I was wise enough to know that that was the game I was in, intertwined with a eight-month-long suicidal depression, which culminated in me either deciding to jump out a window or commit to the process of the next album. And I wrote two of the most famous songs I ever had. So very crazy, intense time.

RAZ: What were those songs?

CORGAN: "Today" and "Disarm."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISARM")

PUMPKINS: (Singing) Disarm you with a smile. Cut you like you want me to. Cut that little child.

RAZ: How did you break out of that?

CORGAN: Well, here's the funny thing about the journey. I wrote these songs from the depths of my, you know, freak-out. And next thing you know, I'm making millions of dollars, and I'm being hailed as a sub-genius. It fed every infantile fantasy that I was important and that I meant something.

And suddenly then, my family turned around and was patting me on the back and said: Wow. I'll give you an example. I'd given my first album to my father who said something really snide - one sentence, which isn't worth repeating because the context probably wouldn't make much sense - but I took it very hard.

So when I finished my second record, he called me and said: Can you send me the record? My dad was an incredible musician, so you can imagine I looked up to him. So I sent him the record. And I just held my breath because I thought, OK, here it comes. You know, here comes the hammer.

And he called me a week later, and he said: This is an incredible record. You've just blown my mind. And he said: I didn't know that this person was inside of you. And I was like, wow.

RAZ: Do you still think you're going through that now?

CORGAN: You know, I think we all go through little moments where we see things that circle back, certain triggers. But I think I've kind of walked out of the flames of the whole thing. And the funny thing is I've never cared less about the music business than I do right now, and it's all coming back to me because I just have found something for myself. And I think that's the attracting point.

And I've lived long enough in public life to know that it's really, at the end of the day, not even about me. And so that's a different kind of power too.

RAZ: That's Smashing Pumpkins founder and front man Billy Corgan. Their new record is called "Oceania." Billy Corgan, thank you so much for joining us. This was a pleasure.

CORGAN: Thank you, Guy. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIOLET RAYS")

PUMPKINS: (Singing) Faithless moors, pulling up your oars from rivers I have crossed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.