By Alex Koenig
Picture the rock 'n' roll star archetype: Messy, unwashed hair; huffed lyrics about late-night drug binges and afternoon fornication; exaggerated claims of illustrious fame and fortune. With Billy Corgan, you'll find the opposite. As the cerebral leader of alternative rock titans the Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan sees no need to glamorize the lifestyle, priding himself on simply telling it like it is. It's almost as if he prepares for an interview with a shot of truth serum. Stereo IQ caught up with Corgan as he embarked on the Pumpkins' tour of the U.S.
Stereo IQ: You've had experience touring for over 20 years. Do you still find any surprises or new experiences when you're with the band on the road?
Billy Corgan: I think what surprises me is the necessity of continually adapting to a new environment, the expectations of an audience in '88 as opposed to 2012 are vasty different. You have to keep adapting to the times. If you kind of go with it, it can kind of fun. It's like learning a different set of skills. These days you're not just competing with the tedium, you're competing with the cellphone. There were even people holding up their iPads, so were competing against the whole world that's available to them at their fingertips. It creates a different kinetic atmosphere, you actually have to try to overcome the environment that you're in. At one point in my life, it was trying to overcome some shitty club with a shitty PA, and maybe it was more histrionics or something. These days it's above putting on a graceful show that wraps its arms around 24 years of music.
Stereo IQ: How will this tour will be different from previous tours and what type of live energy are you trying to bring to your performances?
BC: I think you have to see it in the context it's in. I mean, we start the show by playing the whole new album with a really incredible visual package designed by Sean Evans, who's been doing work with Roger Waters on The Wall, which is how we came in contact with him. So it's this really beautiful kind of lyrical and visual narrative that happens in the first half, and the the second half is more like a pretty, full over-the-top rock show. So, its almost like an act in two plays that run together, so contextually, the first half is very graceful and has some peak moments, and it's more emotional and the second half is like a heart punch.
Stereo IQ: Your recent album Oceania is the first album with the new Pumpkins lineup. Do you see this LP as a rebirth?
BC: Well, that's kind of difficult because Jeff's been in the band for six years and Mike's been in the band for three and a half years, since he was 19. So, we've been together a while. This is our first kind of together statement in public. I tend to think of the Smashing Pumpkins now more of Ringling Brothers Circus, trying to continue a particular legacy with certain ethos and aesthetic and I think that's what's more important.
You know Americans are obsessed with life and death and rebirth, that's the American Cycle. You know, awakening, tragic, horrible death and then Phoenix rising from the ashes. That's the American story, again and again. I tend to look at my life a little bit more like a European: It's a long life, there are peaks and valleys and you can savor all of them. And If you're an artist, you can translate all of them and there will be an audience that will go with you. Americans are pretty much just interested in orgasms, basically.
Stereo IQ: I guess there's no Greek god or Greek symbol for mediocrity.
BC: I would disagree, I think there's plenty of evidence in Greek mythology of the half god, half human. I think that would be a little bit closer to what the modern rock star can be. When I'm on my Twitter I'm very human and I'm talking about things i care about like whales and then when I get on stage for a couple of hours, I play the role of an epic nihilist. It's not a big deal to be able to translate in and out the of the roles.
The old thinking was you had to live your gimmick the entire time. that's a wrestling term, sorry. You had to be rock star 24 hours a day and often times when you hear people have horrible issues with addiction coming out of rock and roll and they said "I felt this strict, great pressure that everyone was looking at me and I had to live up to the image they put on me."
I'm from a lower middle class background; all my family were immigrants. I mean, I'm typical Chicago working class. I like to play dress up, and I like to be that guy for a couple hours every once in a while but then I go back to my life. And i think the new world we live in, you can be both those things, one doesn't have to be at the expense of the other. In fact, I would argue that having a real life, an integral life and friends, and opening a business and having a wrestling company have added to my ability to be a great artist. I think these are new models that are emerging out of the old cultures that demanded gods be gods and the humans be humans.
Stereo IQ: It seems like there has been a debate of authenticity. I see Lana Del Rey as an example, she embodies the whole Great Gatsby aesthetic, and then everyone finds out it's an act and gets upset even though it's just part of the show.
BC: Yeah, rather than celebrate the person's ability to even pull it off, everyone gets obsessed with "well it wasn't what i thought it was." You know, you got fake gangsters running around. You got fake kids with full sleeve tattoos who look like they're drug addicts but they couldn't find their way out of a heroin den if you shot them.
It's really funny, we're a culture that celebrates the image if it's upheld, but we actually don't want to know what's behind the image. We actually don't want to know there's a person, and of course now theres a whole business setup that actually celebrates the disintegration of the celebrity model, because there's money to be made on, you know, "Kim Kardashian fell over today, ha ha ha."
We lose sight that these are real people with their own pathology. When I was on Piers Morgan, he asked me a question about Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. I said that I celebrate them for having creating their own business model and empowering themselves. They are who they say they are. They're not trying to pretend. It's all the people in my musical culture that act like they have all this integrity and then behind the scenes I hear about all these shitty business deal they're doing. That's the gross part about rock 'n' roll, all these posers that run around. I'm a lifer, you know -- I'm in it for better for or for worse.
Stereo IQ: So, you kind of have that in common with Kardashian and Hilton, you feel you both are self-contained entities, more or less?
BC: I think so, because ultimately when you have to apply yourself to somebody else's business model you're servile to it, and I think ultimately that's always where the business goes wrong. You take someone who's got a gift, even if it's the gift of attraction, and you asked them to kowtow to a system that is ultimately more interested in selling soap or something.
In our case, it was about supporting somebody's market share in the music business and the minute we stopped doing that, it wasn't about our artistic validity, it was strictly about 'well you're not helping my market share, get the fuck out of here."
You know, we were on MTV 27 times a week and then one day I opened up the paper and we were gone and it's because we no longer suited those business models. I was, in terms of those models, I no longer had value. I had to go out in the hinterland of my own mind and create my own value. And that's why my own value, at this point, is who I am as a person and who my band is as people and how we represent the Smashing Pumpkins brand to the world,
When we do that really well and we have high artistic integrity and play great music, we're rewarded and people celebrate our independence. Where we fail, we're usually failing against somebody else's system because we're certainly not failing with one another. I mean, we still get on stage and we play music, how bad can it be? That's what I mean about the American system that measures you against things that really aren't altruistic -- they're business models. They're sort of celebrated aesthetically as how well somebody can spin the President's failure during the debate. It becomes the art of the game. Meanwhile there are real people making real things.
Stereo IQ: You've mentioned on many occasions about how you're fed up with being pigeonholed and typecast as having a one or two-dimensional persona. At the end of the day, what do you want to be known for?
BC: Just as a great songwriter, really. I'd say that's probably my greatest gift and that's fine by me. If at the end of day, they put me in the ground and they go, "Hey he was a great songwriter," that's fine by me.
BONUS: Check out lyrics and explanations to the Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness on Stereo IQ:
Smashing Pumpkins -- "1979" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Beautiful" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Bodies" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "By Starlight" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Cupid de Locke" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Farewell and Goodnight" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Galapogos" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Muzzle" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Stumbleine" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Take Me Down" Lyrics
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Tales of a Scorched Earth" Lyrics