Billy Corgan is in particularly fine spirits when talking to us prior to the Smashing Pumpkins’ headline appearance at the KROQ Absolut Almost Acoustic Christmas 2018. James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin have rejoined the band (bassist D’arcy Wretzky remains a notable absentee) and, more important, Corgan just became a father for the second time. With Christmas fast approaching, he’s being kept busy by his new 3-month-old baby, as well as his 3-year-old son.
It’s awesome to hear him sound so positive. Corgan’s battle with depression and his advocacy work with abuse support networks has been well publicized; prior to that, he had a reputation for being very difficult to work with, something put down to him being moody and awkward. The fact that, at the tail-end of 2018, he’s practically buzzing about his family and his reformed band is inspiring.
The first fruit of the reformation, the Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. album, was released just a couple of weeks ago, and the response has been largely positive. The hardcore fans seem to be happy with it, while the reviews have been more good than bad. The reaction is deserved, too; the new album offers some of the Pumpkins’ best songs since 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness masterpiece. Understandably, Corgan is pleased.
“I mean, we’ve always gotten weird reviews,” he says. “The albums that everyone considers classics got bad reviews back in the day. So it’s always a bit of a weird process. I’ve learned through the years to just read the fan reactions. And the fan reaction on this has been a 10 out of 10. It’s unbelievable. It’s as nice a reception as we could have expected. We didn’t really expect it because we just went in to record a single, so it was a little weird putting out an album that wasn’t conceived as an album — it was more like a collection of songs that we recorded with Rick [Rubin]. But to see everybody’s response has encouraged us to dive back into the deeper end of the pool as far as writing new material.”
After a handful of albums that could be considered dreamy, ethereal and subtle, Shiny and Oh So Bright includes some bona fide bangers — songs such as “Solara,” “Marchin’ On,” and “Seek and You Shall Destroy.”
“The best way I can put it is we spent a lot of time in rehearsal and in studios developing what people often refer to as the Pumpkins wall of sound,” Corgan says. “When we stopped doing those things, or we chose not to do those things, people acted like I got hit in the head with a rock. For us to pick back up on a language that we spent a lot of time developing, and have fun with it again, it’s as easy as jumping in a pool. It’s not like we sat around a table, or Rick said that we’ve got to put the fuzz pedal back on. It’s a natural consequence. For us, it’s pushing those buttons again and seeing if there’s anything left for us to play, and we were surprised that there were new things to say so we went back to that approach. But we could just as easily not do it, then everyone would say that I’d been hit in the head with a rock again.”
Even the choice of label is interesting. Not only does the Pumpkins’ partnership with Napalm Records see the band working with an indie but it raises eyebrows due to the fact that Napalm is known for releases from harder-edged metal bands such as Kamelot, Satyricon and Alestorm. Corgan largely puts this down to the fact that major labels don’t know how to work with legacy acts.
“So the problem with dealing with an artist that’s been around is they don’t know how to exploit it, and they know you’re not going to do a bunch of dumb stuff to be exploited, so they just shrug their shoulders,” he says. “What was weird was, we took the music around to every major, and every major said it was our best work in however long. Everybody was really excited, but then it didn’t follow up with business because in their minds, they just can’t wrap their heads around how to be in our business. And I think that says a lot about the modern music business. Napalm is in the old-school record business — if you have a strong band and they have strong material they want to be in that business.”
Napalm works, Corgan says, because they don’t care about the same conceits that other indies feel compelled to care about.
“The problem with a lot of indies is they’re just as much worried about their reviews at Pitchfork or something,” he says. “So they get kind of weird. Even though they’re closet Smashing Pumpkins fans, they’re worried that us being around might taint their vaunted darlings. That’s why Napalm’s a good fit, because they just don’t care. They want to release strong music by strong bands and I’m very comfortable with that.”
This weekend’s Almost Acoustic Christmas won’t be the Pumpkins’, or Corgan’s, first and the frontman says that they’re always an interesting experience. He’s had good and bad ones, something he puts down to the changing of radio’s position in the world.
“There were a lot of years where particularly alternative radio was on shaky legs,” Corgan says. “KROQ has asserted itself and still is a dominant force, which says a lot about the leadership there, and their persistence and their vision. We’ve been in business with KROQ literally since the beginning. They obviously played our second record [Siamese Dream] a lot and helped make us the band that we were in California, and they had a lot of influence on other stations. So I’ve always been grateful that they made us the band that we were. But like in any long relationship, there’s been highs and lows. To still be getting played, new songs and old songs, on KROQ after 25, 26 years is pretty wild.”
Corgan is also delighted to see young people paying attention to alternative rock again, after a few difficult years.
“You see a lot of younger fans being really attracted to alternative rock again, because the vapid promise of pop ultimately runs out,” he says. “And they start looking for, ‘Hey, how come I’m way more attracted to the Ramones than this pop person who I realize doesn’t really care about me and is more interested in selling perfume?’ That’s always the promise of alternative music. You’re looking at people who are more real, playing more real music. There’s a lot of pride involved for everybody that alternative music has not only prospered and survived the MTV era and then obviously the decline of whatever followed that, but has reasserted itself into a new version and it’s just getting stronger again.”
Corgan says that the set list for the KROQ show will include a healthy mixture of old and new songs, as is the norm for a show in front of a radio crowd. And Corgan took advice from a high place when planning his approach to set lists for tours.
“Not to name drop, but it goes back to a conversation I had about 10 years ago with Pete Townsend, where he told me that when The Who would go on tour they would pick one set list and they would stick to it,” he says. “In his estimation, that’s what created the maximum sort of power in a show, was the band learning how to play the narrative arc of a set. For the first 25 years of my musical life, I was completely against that. I’d play different shows every night. I saw the good side of that where it would click and it would be magic, and then the next night where people were throwing stuff at me. We basically commit to a set these days and try to put our best foot forward.”
So that’s what he’s doing. And at Almost Acoustic Christmas, and as the band prepare to put out more music in the coming years, watching Smashing Pumpkins putting their best collective feet forward will be a thrill.
Smashing Pumpkins play the KROQ Absolut Almost Acoustic Christmas 2018 with Badflower, AJR, The Interrupters, Bad Religion, Greta Van Fleet, Third Eye Blind, Thirty Seconds to Mars and AFI at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Forum.