Smashing Pumpkins singer-guitarist Billy Corgan is the only original member left in the post-punk/goth/metal band. (New members are guitarist Jeff Schroeder, drummer Mike Byrne, and bassist Nicole Fiorentino.) He's taking the restructured group on a 13-show “intimate” tour in support of Teargarden by Kaleidyscope Vol. 1: Songs for a Sailor, the first part of an evolving online project that will eventually include more than 40 new songs. The Smashing Pumpkins start their tour at House of Blues on Tuesday, July 6. We talked to Corgan about what's going on. —Jeff Niesel
I just saw you in the Rush documentary. I thought it was cool you admitted being a fan.
They’re one of my favorite bands growing up. I still love them. I’m proud of them as a band for continuing to push forward. I thought they were the most amazing thing I ever heard. They were one of the first bands that spoke to me. They were the first band that I thought was from my generation, even though they were obviously older. I particularly liked the lyrics and that influenced how I look at lyric writing. If you look at my lyrics, there’s a lot of [Rush drummer] Neil Peart in there. When we first started the Pumpkins and Jimmy Chamberlin joined and I realized he knew every Rush fill, I was like, “OK. This is great.” The prog element of the band is something that not everyone has understood, but Jimmy and I were both really into it.
I often read that the Pumpkins “disavowed their punk rock roots” in the early days. Would you say that’s accurate?
I don’t think that’s accurate. None of us were really into punk rock. I loved punk music, but I wasn’t a fan in the sense that it influenced my writing. I grew up a musician dad who was very critical of bands that couldn’t play their instruments. And part of what punk was about was that you don’t have to play well; you just have to feel right. I saw Bad Brains, 7 Seconds, and DOA. I loved them and thought they were great. But they never influenced me. There was a moment in time with Nirvana and Green Day when punk came into the mainstream. Everyone pretended to be into punk. But I didn’t want to pretend I was into the Clash because I wasn’t.
The band had such a great run in the ’90s. What led to its dissolution, which really came at the height of things?
You know, all four of us were all from dysfunctional backgrounds. [Guitarist] James [Iha] had the most normal background. But none of us were perfect people. We were not prepared for the attention. We had two people in the course of our ten years who had substance abuse issues. In addition to that, we were in band that not everyone understood what we were doing. Even though we were popular, we kept hearing that we were terrible, and that I couldn’t sing. There was always this element of negativity surrounding even the best moments we had. Our videos were the only thing that most people agreed upon as a positive. It put a tremendous amount of pressure on us to continue to be successful. We just ran out of gas with the fairy dust. We had seven magical years and since then, it’s been like, “What was that about?” I have a big mouth, and that hasn’t helped. If I had kept my mouth shut, I think things would have been easier. That being said, I’m proud of the fact that we continued to pursue a musical goal even after the band broke up. I continue to pursue the original vision, which is kind of like the Rush thing. We want to push forward and continue to find new ground. I’m only now feeling comfortable. Now, I can do this as I’ve meant to do this all along, with a happy face and a full heart and deal with the pressure.
You’re starting this tour in Cleveland as you did the last tour. I remember you were in pretty good spirits at that show and made a few cracks about Sarah Palin and how she’s a MILF. Would you say your mental health is better these days than it’s ever been?
The thing is, you can’t always split a baby in half. The musical part of me has always remained fairly true, with some stumbles along the way. I think I’ve done a good job of pushing forward. Personally, I’ve always been an uncomfortable public person. The business, particularly over the last ten years, has become more facile. It’s more about appearances than reality. Pitchfork is full of these bands that everybody loves but nobody buys. Once you cross the Rubicon or the river Styx and sell records, you can never go back to not selling records. You’ll always be in the shadow of what you used to be. You can’t go back. It’s taken me awhile to get comfortable with that. I’m not a mainstream person, but I maybe have mainstream ability. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to be myself and deal with the reality of the music business in a way that doesn’t haunt me. Being on my own is fantastic. I don’t have somebody in the back room pulling the rug out from under me after I’ve worked my ass off. Those are the things that the normal fans shouldn’t care about it. But they do play a role in the dynamics of the band. We got a lot of shit for doing different album covers on the last album, but before our record came out our label said they weren’t going to spend any money. We didn’t know how we would make it work. The management said if you give such and such retailer something different to offer, they’ll put you up front. That was the only marketing thing we could do. We got tons of bad press for that. Now, I’m laughing because Arcade Fire is putting out eight different album covers and Pitchfork is strangely silent. I feel bad that fans have to think about these things. Fans should be able to listen to the music and enjoy it. It’s not their fault. Being in a weird band has put me in a lot of weird positions. At least now, the choices are mine. I don’t have anyone to blame and I’m willing to take all the responsibility.
With the Teargarden Project you’ve expressed a commitment to doing singles. Explain your reasoning.
I got really frustrated, this happened to me four albums in a row. You work really, really hard, from a year to two years. The label comes back and says they like the record. You give them a first single and unless it goes through the roof, they vaporize into thin air. It got so bad at times, I would literally call people at the label and beg them to put a song out to radio in the middle of America just to see if people would react to it. I told them I would fly to the station and do an itnerview just to see if it got played and to see if someone reacts to the song. They would say no and what are you supposed to do. You’re out there on tour and you have no support. You drive into town and the radio station is playing a song from ten years ago. In this scenario, I’m deciding what’s going to get pushed and how I can deal with that. That’s a lot different than the unanswered question of what if. What if will drive you nuts. You know how it is. Somebody puts out an album and a year later a single catches on and everyone says what a great album it is. Wasn’t it a good album a year ago? I guess not because nothing happened the year it was sitting on the shelf. We’re going through a “white corporate rock” transformation period. The way the old white guys wanted to sell music doesn’t work anymore. But they keep pushing it. The normal 15-year-old doesn’t want it like that. They’d rather just go see it on YouTube. I was like, “Get me out of here.” But I’m still having the time of my life. For me, this has been a, dare I use the word fun, undertaking. The most exiciting part is knowing that what we record is going to come out immediately. That part has charged me back up and it’s sort of like the early days of the band when it was about self determination and making your own way in the world. That’s the spirit that I understand about that..
Do you really intend to release some 44 songs?
Yeah. I have more songs written, which is just absurd. The nice thing is that as I get some distance from them, I then realize which ones aren’t that great. The next EP comes out the day of the Cleveland show. I have four more songs ready to go and we’ll try to record some more in September and try to keep outrunning the train.
Do you get to spend a lot of time in Cleveland?
We used to more back in the early days of the band when we’d come in for two or three or days and stay at friend’s houses. I’ve always loved Cleveland and it’s always treated me well. I always look forward to playing Clevleand. It has a great tradition with rock. Rock is sort of dumb but there’s a smart side to rock. Cleveland gets the smart side of it. You go to other places and you realize when people are only into the dumb part of rock.