By Neph Basedow
Poet e.e. cummings said, “To destroy is always the first step in any creation.” For Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, destruction and creation are a way of life. “A good artist is willing to die many times over,” Corgan says. “What's funny is, I've died so many times.”
The lead Pumpkin speaks to us from his home in the affluent Chicago suburb of Highland Park. He's wordy and well-spoken. Most notably, however, he's open — there's no topic we can't broach, he insists. The conversation's only pauses are when he tosses toys to his cats.
Corgan has garnered some criticism since the 2000 breakup of The Smashing Pumpkins, as well as for its 2007 resurrection in an unrecognizable form. He is now the only remaining original Pumpkin in the band.
“Sometimes,” Corgan says, “I'll interview with a journalist who's obviously not a fan, and they just look at me, like, 'Wow, you're still fucking here!'
“But,” he adds, “if the music wasn't decent, I'd be a footnote at this point.”
As he speaks of his former band, Corgan sounds as if he's recalling time with an ex-lover. His voice fills with yearning, love and simultaneous scorn. “When I made the decision with [drummer] Jimmy [Chamberlin] to bring the band back, it wasn't dissimilar from when you think, 'I'm going to get back together with somebody.' But it wasn't that easy … to return to a place where I even understood what it was about being in The Smashing Pumpkins that I liked.”
In 2009, Chamberlin left the band. Determined to endure, Corgan formed yet another lineup to record this year's Oceania, including bassist Nicole Fiorentino, drummer Mike Byrne and Zeitgeist guitarist Jeff Schroeder.
“The press has referred to them as 'rent-a-band,' ” he says, ruefully. “These are people with indie musical backgrounds. They're not L.A. giggers with full-sleeve tattoos! To re-embrace what I once loved about music has been a warming process for me, because it's a good, earned feeling now.
“When you actually like each other,” he continues, “it translates to the music. The difference with Oceania is, I've found harmony again.”
Yet harmonious as the new outfit may be, Corgan admits the Pumpkins' original lineup carries an irreplaceable mystique. “There was certainly something about the original lineup that had chemistry. [But] there's no way to properly convey what it was like to be in that band. … And the fucked-up stuff is 10 times more fucked up than what the world knows.
“I was in love with the Smashing Pumpkins,” he says, wistfully. “I really believed in what we were doing. But I idealized the band — which overlooked their incredibly flawed human personas, and which now bites me in the ass, as they rear their heads for lawsuits.” (In 2008, Corgan signed a deal with Virgin Records to license Smashing Pumpkins music through electronic transmissions; former Pumpkins James Iha and D'arcy Wretzky claimed they were shut out of profits made from this deal.)
Those curious for more dirt are in luck, as Corgan is currently writing a tell-all book about his days with the group. “You're in a band 24 hours a day,” he explains. “You've gotta deal with someone's meltdown, someone's overdose and someone's freak-out about the deli tray! The music was the end result of that madness.”
But why divulge all of this now? It's been nearly a quarter of a century since the Pumpkins formed, and 12 years since their demise. “The validity of talking about this stuff at a late date is, I think it's remarkable that even with all the fucked-up stuff that happened, we were still able to make great music together.”
As our conversation wraps, he becomes reflective. Known for his tough talk, Corgan suddenly seems defenseless, reflecting on memories of great success and his band's demise.
“It's been a long, weird journey. If somebody would have told me 15 years ago that at 45, I'd be living in a big house with two dogs and two cats, with no wife and no girlfriend, I wouldn't have believed them. My life did not turn out the way I'd planned it. Not even close.
“But,” he continues, “being healthy, humbled by God, musically engaged and surrounded by good people — those are the moments I'm OK with, because maybe this was the way it was meant to be all along.”
Smashing Pumpkins perform Sunday at Gibson Amphitheatre.