Gary GraffNew York Times Syndicate
I had to get out of the paternalistic relationship with the record company. I’d make a record and then cross my fingers when it was done that somebody in an office somewhere was going to say, ‘Good job, little Billy. We’re really going to get behind this.’”
Last Year’s 20THanniversary of the Smashing Pumpkins’ first album caught Billy Corgan, the band’s sole remaining original member, by surprise.
“It certainly feels like more than 10,” the 45-year-old singer says, “but it doesn’t feel like 20. It certainly seems to have gone by faster than I would have guessed.
“You know, I’ve got a drummer in my band now who’s 21 years old,” Corgan adds, referring to Mike Byrne, “and we were sitting in the studio the other day, listening to something, and I said, ‘That was done 22 years ago.’ And he looked at me and I realised, ‘(Heck), that’s older than you.’”
One of the leading lights of the 1990s alternative-rock revolution, the Smashing Pumpkins have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide, won two Grammy Awards and scored radio hits such as Cherub Rock (1993), Today (1993), Bullet with Butterfly Wings (1995), 1979 (1996) and Tonight, Tonight (1996). The band has quite a past – and, despite past doubts on the subject, a future as well.
Having resurrected the Pumpkins name in 2006, after a hiatus of nearly six years, Corgan is preparing for the June 18 release of Oceania, the group’s first album since 2007. It comes in the midst of a larger-scale project called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, which consists of 44 songs being released individually or in small groups online. Meanwhile Corgan also is overseeing an ongoing catalogue-reissue programme that started in 2011 and ultimately will conclude in 2013 with expanded repackagings of the band’s entire discography.
“Before I started this process, I would’ve thought, ‘This is going to be a little uncomfortable, because I’m trying to make this new point at the same time that I’m trying to make an old point,’” Corgan admits, speaking by telephone from his home in Chicago. “But it’s actually been the opposite experience. I’ve found that it’s brought a sort of peace to me, because it reminds me of my journey.
“It’s like I look at an old photo and I don’t go ‘Ugh,’” he explains. “I look at the old photo and go, ‘That’s good I did that. That’s good I went there. That’s good I took those chances,’ and I can feel compassion for when I did something stupid or said something stupid because I believed in something.”
Some of that passion got lost in the latter days of the original Pumpkins. That group, which included Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D’arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, was fractious, with much of the tension stemming from Corgan’s obsessive control as leader, which at times included playing most or all of the instruments in the studio. The Pumpkins also soldiered through romantic breakups, Corgan’s depression and Chamberlin’s substance abuse before finally closing down in 2000.
Though Corgan recruited Chamberlin when he restarted the band in 2006, he says that today he has “no relationship at all” with any of his former bandmates.
“It’s unfortunate,” he says, “but, without going into the details, they’ve sort of put me in a position where that’s the way it is.”
And hearing him talk about the Pumpkins’ current lineup – Byrne, Corgan, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and guitarist Jeff Schroeder – speaks volumes about what Corgan feels the old Pumpkins lacked.
“It’s a very shockingly mature and kind group of people,” the singer says. “Everyone’s very respectful of each other. It’s the only band I’ve ever been in where there’s no backbiting, where there’s no talking (garbage) when the other person’s out of the room or where this person doesn’t like that person. It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a band where there’s equal respect. I’ve never experienced that.”
This version of the Pumpkins works differently than its predecessors did.
“I would say that we’re probably more of a studio band now than a rehearsal band,” Corgan says. “The old band was more rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and you’d hammer out a vision and then go into the studio. I think this band benefits a little more from the intellectual process of making a record. Now it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got these songs,’ and we go in and start throwing stuff at the wall in the studio and everybody puts their two cents into where it’s going, and I think that’s successful.
“I think on (Oceania) people will hear the contribution of this band and why I’ve stuck with this band.”
As recently as two years ago, Corgan had no intention of making any new album of any kind. After the middling showing of the comeback album Zeitgeist (2007), he had decided to step away from the music industry.
“I think it was necessary to me,” he says. “I had to get out of the paternalistic relationship with the record company. I’d make a record and then cross my fingers when it was done that somebody in an office somewhere was going to say, ‘Good job, little Billy. We’re really going to get behind this.’
“It creates a weird dynamic at some point, as a grown man. I just wanted to get away from that sticky feeling that I had to impress somebody that didn’t know me.”
Taking note of the changing trends in music consumption and the growth of digital distribution, Corgan conceived Teargarden by Kaleidyscope as a way to put out as much music as he wanted, when he wanted. Starting with A Song for a Son in December 2009, the Pumpkins began putting out songs through their website and social media, with a dozen released so far. Subsequent physical EPs of five songs each have repackaged the same material.
Sales and reception have been underwhelming, however.
“I reached a point where I saw that the one-song-at-a-time idea had maxed itself out,” Corgan says. “I just saw that we weren’t getting the penetration into everybody that I would have hoped. I mean, we have 1.3 million followers on our Facebook page, right? So you think that you put (a song) up and 1.3 million people are going to see it – but only if they’re looking at the exact moment it goes up. They’re not necessarily searching, and their friends aren’t necessarily going to tell them about it. It’s very mercurial.
“I just saw that we weren’t reaching the sort of casual person who still gets their information from traditional sources,” he concludes. “So I thought, ‘What do I need to do?’ And then I thought, ‘OK, I’ll go back to making an album.’”
Hence the 13-track Oceania, which will be distributed by EMI, which handles the Pumpkins’ back catalogue.
“It’s some of the most melodic work I’ve ever done,” Corgan says, “but somehow it rocks pretty hard too. It’s probably the most open-sounding album I’ve ever made. The general description I’ve heard from people who have heard it is that it reminds them of the Pumpkins in the way they like the Pumpkins, but somehow it sounds new.
“So there’s a familiarity, but everybody says, ‘OK, it does sound new. It doesn’t sound like they went back to their old sound.’”
Meanwhile the Pumpkins’ catalogue campaign continues, with the original albums bolstered by demos, alternative takes and other rarities, including DVDs of live concerts from the periods. Corgan has also found “tonnes of weird, crazy stuff that we’re going to just give away for free,” he says, most likely online.
“We have so much stuff,” Corgan gushes. “I have complete access to all the archives, and we can do whatever we want. It’s crazy. And it’s stunning, the quality level. It really recasts it in a different light. It’s a real massive upgrade in terms of the quality of the albums, sonically. That was shocking.”
He’s quick to add that fans shouldn’t expect buried treasures.
“Because we released so many of our extra songs,” Corgan says, “we’re not sitting on some magic treasure trove of great songs that no one’s ever heard. We never made the great lost record or anything like that. It’s more an insight into the process, or a different take on something.”
He admits, however, that he did find “a couple of half-written songs and things like that where I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t finish this idea.’”
More new Pumpkins music, then?
“We’ll see,” Corgan says. “It could be cool, under the right circumstances, to maybe finish those, to complete the idea with this band I have now and kind of put the two sensibilities together. That would be interesting, to say the least.”