It's a perfect L.A. summer morning and a well-rested, fit Billy Corgan receives us in his frequent SoCal home base, a dream guesthouse deep in the very affluent yet bohemian canyons above Beverly Hills. The breakfast of grunge champions these days seems to be Rice Dream and cereal. Corgan surely needs the creature comforts: Right after the interview a town car will drive him to the airport on his way to Mexico City, where his custom-built, revamped Smashing Pumpkins will be playing a massive MTV-sponsored festival, before returning to Los Angeles to headline the Sunset Strip Music Festival on Saturday, August 28.
At 43, Corgan is riding another wave of success, and this time he's determined to enjoy it. After the March 2009 departure of drummer (and last of the original bandmates standing) Jimmy Chamberlin, Corgan redefined the Pumpkins as a sui generis personal project, following his revitalized muse into a series of strange recordings he's releasing for free on his Web site, and as a series of limited-edition EPs under the umbrella title Teargarden by Kaleidyscope.
Corgan has always had an interest in strange ideas and aesthetics, and the current version of the Smashing Pumpkins seems particularly influenced by its leader's spiritual and philosophical quests. Though the singer keeps a residence in his hardened, working-class hometown of Chicago, these days he seems much more at home in the lotus-eater-friendly atmosphere of L.A. Thus, we decided to begin the interview by asking him about his friendship with the late psychedelic musician Sky Saxon, leader of '60s band the Seeds (and Corgan collaborator in 2008), and their common interest in the Hollywood Hills spiritual commune the Source Family.
When did you first hear about the Source Family?
I was in Bodhi Tree [bookstore] and I saw the Source Family book [Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian's The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wha 13, and The Source Family, published by Process Books]. I remember looking at it thinking, "I can't buy this. This is too weird," 'cause I get very influenced by things. So I put it down. Then a week later I was with my friend Kerry and I said, "You buy it." And by that night, he had already found Sky Saxon on MySpace, and within three days Sky Saxon was here recording.
I'd never heard of the Source Family. I mean, I certainly had heard and knew of Sky.
So you hadn't heard of the God and Hair box set [the legendary 13-CD compilation of psychedelic recordings by the Source Family's leader, Father Yod, and his communal rock band Ya Ho Wha 13, curated by Sky Saxon in 1998]?
No. Didn't know who Ya Ho Wha was. Djinn [Aquarian], the guitar player from Ya Ho Wha, is from Chicago, but in all my years in Chicago I had never heard of Ya Ho Wha or Djinn.
I heard your current recordings are influenced by the teachings of the Source Family.
No, that's not true. I've been on a spiritual path for about 13 years and I saw meeting Sky and the Ya Ho Wha guys as a deeper step. What I really learned from Sky and the Ya Ho Wha guys, I guess, would be sort of a musician's way of looking at spirituality.
In terms of the Source Family and Father Yod, a lot of what they believed, stood for, practiced is not that far away from my own consciousness, but I don't think it's influenced me in any way that I wasn't already prepared to be influenced by, if that makes any sense. It didn't change anything, it sort of reminded me of things. I think a spiritual journey is not so much a journey of discovery. It's a journey of recovery. It's a journey of uncovering your own inner nature. It's already there.
Sky particularly had a sort of living mysticism, you know. If you looked at him as a human being, as a person in the world, I mean, half of the time he was kind of a mess. But as someone who had completely committed to a musical mystical journey — sort of like, "Where is this gonna take me next," "Where is this gonna take me next," or "I'm gonna get in a car with these people," "I'm gonna drive across town" — it made total sense to him that we would have contacted him on MySpace and three days later he would be here recording.
He was prepared for that level of journey. He didn't show up and say, "Well, how are we gonna share songwriting credits?" For him it was just one big journey and he was just on it.
And right after your experiences with Sky Saxon you toured briefly with the Spirits in the Sky band in the summer of 2009.