The L.A. Weekly Interview: Billy Corgan
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.
After Sky died, we did a memorial show, just one show [in July 2009]. And it was very emotional because we didn't really know how to respond to the way he died. It was sort of sudden. I mean, he had health issues, but all of a sudden it was like, "What? He's dead?" It was also the same day Michael Jackson died, so it was a weird time, everyone was thinking about death, you know? So we did this one show and then a couple of months later I wanted to play some of my new songs that I'd written but I didn't want to do it under Pumpkins, and things were really disorganized. Jimmy was out of the group, so I was kind of like, "What should we do?" And I don't remember who suggested it, but we said, "Well, maybe we should just play shows under that name, maybe treat it like a side thing." And next thing we know, Dave Navarro was involved, and also everybody just wanted to play, so we had, like, nine people playing!
Did the Spirits in the Sky shows influence your current take on the Pumpkins?
Yeah. In the early days of the Pumpkins, the shows were really fun. And when the band got really huge and there was all that pressure, it got kind of dark, you know? The band was dark, the vibe was dark.
It was also a time of great transition in the world. We also existed during the end of "the grunge era," just like after the '60s, there's an era that comes in of disillusionment. You have this incredible buildup, which, in my eyes, you can say started even in the late '70s, but for my estimation it sort of started in the '80s, with alternative culture sort of building momentum in different cities, bands, and there's punk over here and ska over there, and all these influences just kind of building, building, building pressure ... so you had this moment — Nirvana was the keystone moment of "Wow, all this could really work at this level," and there was this big wave of hope and new power and new rules, new no-rules.
And suddenly we were running the labels, the labels weren't running us, and we were getting away with things that in 50 years nobody had gotten away with in rock & roll. All of a sudden everything was different.
And then in come the posers, and everything kind of collapses back in on itself, and greed and drugs and da da da, and then you're standing there in the smoking ruin of what, just a couple of years before, had been really optimistic.
So it'd been a long, long time since I had just stood on a stage and said, "I'm playing music, and I'm having fun, I'm with my friends, I like them, they like me, we eat together, we joke together." Everybody was pitching in to help — we only had one person to help us, so we had no roadies. We're moving around gear. It's back to the basic of "I wanna play."
So that had an influence on me saying, "OK, if I'm gonna do Pumpkins again, this is how I'm gonna do it." I'm not gonna go back into that dark place again. I'm gonna be with the light. I want people to see me happy. I wanna be happy and I want people to see me happy. I don't wanna play this kind of cartoon character anymore.
Speaking of spirituality, now the concept "Smashing Pumpkins" is no longer the original quartet but you, people you want to play with, plus your unconditional fan base, which is willing to follow you in your personal and artistic journeys. Judging from comments on the Internet, your followers seem to get into a lot of silly fights about what "true" Pumpkins music is. Do you ever feel like the reluctant messiah in Monty Python's Life of Brian?
I do feel like that [laughs, rolls his eyes]. I had to go through my own spiritual journey about fans and/or, let's call it, "the projection of the world."
You have the disinterested, who are only gonna raise their heads off the pillow if you're blowing yourself to pieces. You have the culturally interested, who are always gonna ride the wave, and so by that very nature you become redundant at some point just because you aren't that anymore, you aren't "the new thing to fuck."
Then you have people who invest really heavily on what you did, so much so that they cannot move on. You become like Gilligan — you can't get off the fucking island, no matter what you do. Then you have a world who kind of sets up in opposition to you: You represent that thing they don't like, so you become like, "I like this, and I don't like that." So suddenly you find yourself in the middle of this energy and you have to kind of process it and realize it's all kind of the same. Compliments and criticism are all ultimately based on some form of projection.
The only thing that you can do as an artist is be in the moment. Because somebody is always either trying to take you into the future, or the past, and the only time they care about you in the present is if you're really, really good.
When a fan comes up to me and is heavily invested in 1993, I'm honored by that because it means, "OK, I've communicated," but at some point they start to try to convince me that I have no future. So, can't I just go back to the crowd and sort of ride around in Siamese Dream land, you know? That irks me — the people who don't like what I've done to this point, who assume I'm never gonna do anything they'd like again.
So at some point you just have to say, "None of this has anything to do with me." I think the person who has best understood that on an energetic and ideological level is Bob Dylan.
Do you imagine yourself aging like Dylan, doing "1979" well into your 60s and playing weird arrangements of it?
I do, if that's what I want to do.
Right now I'm in a very unique position because I'm standing right at this kind of crossroads where I've done the impossible. I've managed to put a band onstage that people are accepting, when you're not supposed to be able to do that. People are actually enjoying the shows, even more so than two years ago. I'm having new success when I'm not supposed to be having new success. So, we're right at this sort of beautiful moment when it's like, "There's still energy here, what's going on, curiosity, media, fans, concerts," and it's sort of a beautiful honeymoon moment — that won't last.
And I've already told the band, internally, "This is about a year." A year from now the difference will be, "Do we stand on our own in this moment with the new music that I'm going to write?" It's a nice balance right now of honoring the past, honoring the present, and indications of a bright future. But ultimately the clock is ticking on that and I feel we got about a year. Basically, in the next year I need to prove that I have a whole 'nother — something to say.
But what you say about concentrating your music in the present best applies to playing live. What about records? Those are the counterpoint to your theory, where the recorded past can be re-created in the present. Were you ever a record collector yourself?
I was. I'm of the archetype that wants to know everything. So, by 8 years old I was listening to [Black] Sabbath, Queen, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Cheap Trick ... Al Green, Stevie Wonder.
Were you acquisitive? Did you have to own records?
Well, we were poor, so all I had were my uncle's records and stuff. I used to go over to friends' houses and make tapes from their record collections. Then, when I was in high school, I had an alternative girlfriend who would make me tapes of Joy Division, Bauhaus — always listening and compiling in my brain.
And then probably the most pivotal moment was around 20 years old, I started working in a used-record store and so I sat there all day and I had nothing to do but listen to John Coltrane, or Muddy Waters, or ... Julie London. I remember sitting there and people would ask for certain records and fawn over an artist that I had never heard of, and I would think [makes disapproving face], it didn't speak to me. But the inquisitive part of my nature would say, "Why is there so much energy behind what their passion is?" So I would try to listen to that artist not from a personal point of view of, "Do I like it?" I would try to understand what was brilliant about the artist even if it didn't touch me personally.
What [the record store] taught me was that rock & roll is more of an elemental game. The media and the public focus more on aesthetics, but to me what makes rock & roll work, and where Dylan's so brilliant, John Lennon was brilliant, Neil Young is brilliant, Tom Waits is, they understand it's more of an elemental force.
It's almost mythological and related to nature. That's why the blues is the ultimate sublime language, because it's so simple but it says so much in its simplicity. Zep, Led Zeppelin, understood that you can take these elements and break it down so simply and create this even grander aesthetic. So, I learned a lot from those things and it really shows up once you get to the Mellon Collie era of my life, '95, it blows up in all these different genres and things, because I was just playing in the sandbox. I was having a lot of fun with, "Well, I'll just try a new-wave song. Can I do that?"
I was lucky that I was at a time that sort of supported that opportunity. Now, you're so typecast, I don't think I can have hits now with some of the songs I had hits with then because in my world I'm branded as sort of [mimes a riff and makes guitar face] rrrrrock, or whatever.
At that point the Smashing Pumpkins videos also became part of who you were as an artist, right?
There was a system in place that allowed you to do that. Now there's not a system in place. You can be huge on YouTube and get a zillion hits and no one would buy your record. There's no system. At least then, even though it was corrupt, there was a system. MTV played your video, you sold records. The label said, well, we need to give you money to get your video on MTV. It fed itself. You had the opportunity to work with really talented people, spend money. It's a different system now.
Your current release strategy is very idiosyncratic. Are you the pioneer of a new system?
It's organically based in the sense that I'm somewhere between adhering to the rules of the artist heart, which is, "I wanna do what I wanna do when I wanna do it," and then the marketplace, which is moving very fast and you have to be adaptable. You cannot plan for two years.
Look at someone who's a brilliant and talented person: Christina Aguilera. Two years away, does the big buildup for the record, record comes out, critics pan it, "Oh, it's like Lady Gaga," and everything's blown up for her — overnight.
You can't make that kind of investment as an artist anymore. I think it's too much, as we say in the business, downside. I can't ride the Twitter wave, is what I'm saying.
Are you still interested in having a strong visual component in your music?
Oh, yes! I just don't have the money. And even if I had the money — let's say I decide to blow my own money. It doesn't do what it used to do. You don't get your return on your investment, you know what I mean?
And you wouldn't want to do it just as a statement?
No, I'm not interested in statements anymore. I made plenty of statements [laughs].
I do talk all the time about visual components — I think everything I do from now should have a visual component. The problem is right now all my energetic focus is in the music. I'm trying to summon, like a native dance, you know when they're starving and they're trying to get that shamanic energy. I'm trying to re–jack up that shamanic energy around me so I can do what I used to do at that same experiential and energetic level.
In the past I was able to ride an energetic wave — I was young, I was motivated, I was ambitious, I was poor. I had a zillion reasons to succeed, including insecurity.
My reasons are different now. It's gotta come from here [points between his chest and his gut], it's like a very deep, you know, orgasm of fucking ... you know what I mean? I'm trying to generate that energy as somebody who's not impressed, someone who's not easily impressed, I don't buy the rock & roll mythology, I don't buy the mystical culture of death that continues to surround rock & roll, which is really passé. I don't buy any of it.
I'm part of a new ideological and energetic construct of what rock & roll is supposed to be about. It's more communal, less proprietary, and less projection and less rock god.
Is this change related to the Smashing Pumpkins now being essentially your project, as opposed to before, when you and your former bandmates were coming up together through the ranks?
Actually, I was always pulling a lot of weight, and the problem was that in the old version of the band, I was insecure and I really wanted their approval, and they figured out along the way that the way to control and manipulate me was to not give me their approval.
The real, true internal story of the Smashing Pumpkins is actually a little bit like Cinderella [laughs]. I know it sounds a little strange, but I would write these really successful songs and their reaction to them was, "Meh," and then they would complain about their flights or something like that. Because I sort of pseudo-managed the band, I dealt with all the band's affairs: scheduling, contracts. They dealt with none of that stuff; I dealt with everything.
So they'd just sit there and complain, like the wicked stepsisters, "I don't like this" and "I don't like that." I'd go and sit in the three-hour meetings with the labels — me, the manager — and I'd deal with all the details, and labels would even offer me deals on the side, give me more money to do what I wanted to do, and I'd say, "No, I don't wanna do that because it would fuck my bandmates." I would sort of put myself as the protector of the family, and then I'd go home to the family and they'd just fucking hate me. It was a really weird, bad co-dependent relationship.
The only difference for me now is that I'm OK with who I am. I'm OK with my power, I'm OK with my ability, I don't need to inflate who I am to make myself feel better. I know I'm a good songwriter, but I know I'm a shit tennis player. I don't have to pretend I'm something. I don't have to go in the public and brag. I don't have to grandstand. I don't have to draw attention to myself — I seem to do a good job of that without trying, falling down, collapsing onstage ... [laughs]
It just comes a point as a man when you have to be comfortable with your power. Like I love old movies — do you know Robert Mitchum?
Like Robert Mitchum always struck me, at least how he came across as an actor, he was a man who was comfortable with both his grace and his darkness. If John Wayne was the hero version of that, Robert Mitchum is the darker version of that. He's the darker hero. He's the guy who's not sure whether he wants to fuck the chick or go home to his wife. He's gotta sit there and smoke a cigarette and think about it, you know what I mean? He's closer to my archetype of being conflicted by the forces of the world but really wanting to make the best of it.
I think that's just a part of becoming mature, it's being OK with who you are, knowing that you can't please everybody and being OK with that; knowing that, as they say, a man is measured by his works. I'll leave that part to God: I'll let God judge my record collection.
I've gotten out of thinking about whether this person or that person, or even my friend, or even the bandmate, whether they really understand what I'm doing. I'm OK with what I'm doing. At some point I just have to look in the mirror and say, "I'm still here, and there must be a reason I'm still here." I didn't kill me, the press didn't kill me, the fans didn't kill me, and whatever role I play, whatever archetypal role I play, whether it's prankster, or idiot, or boy-genius, or whatever, fading star, it doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter as long as I'm having a good time. And that's the key thing for me: I'm having a good time in a way I haven't had a good time for a lo-o-ong time.
When you go onstage right now, what are the defining thoughts or feelings that characterize your work? Can you define the Smashing Pumpkins music of this present in three words?
I think the most important thing an artist needs to do is to be in the moment. Those are my three words: "in the moment."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.