The Smashing Pumpkins
Quite a Journey:
Billy Corgan Reflects on Over 30 Years of Smashing Pumpkins, and the Extracurricular Endeavors That Occupy His Time
The Smashing Pumpkins released their eleventh studio album, Cyr, on November 27 – but frontman Billy Corgan almost decided it wasn’t the right time to put out anything at all. “I was a little bit like, ‘Hey, I know there’s a pandemic and I know you’re worried about losing your relatives, but can you listen to my new song?’ It felt weird at first,” he says via a Zoom chat from his Chicago home.
Now, though, Corgan is glad he proceeded with Cyr. “Fans wrote me [and] said, ‘Thank God you’re doing something that makes me feel good and takes my mind off of my troubles.’ They helped me reframe the experience,” he says. “Now I’m totally cool with it. I know I can’t fix the pandemic, but I want to be part of keeping people in the game. It feels good to be a little bit of a team captain here: ‘Let’s keep positive. Life is good. Enjoy the good times. Celebrate.’ That message feels really good right now.”
In truth, though, this is nothing new: Corgan has been an outspoken mental health advocate for years, sometimes to his own detriment. “When I first started talking about mental health issues, I was attacked,” he says. “I was called weak. People said I was using it as a marketing ploy. People wrote articles accusing me of making up a life story that wasn’t true. I mean, that was crazy to me. I didn’t want my life story to be my life story. I would rather have had somebody else’s.
“So through the years as the culture has shifted, people are starting to take people’s mental health much more seriously,” Corgan continues. “So in that way, I have credibility because I’ve talked about it for so long.” It’s a role he’s taking even more seriously during this pandemic. “I get so many messages on Instagram from people who are depressed and really struggling ten times more than normal, so you know there’s a looming mental health crisis going on everywhere.”
Fans craving new Pumpkins music should be happy to know that Corgan made Cyr a double album. “Generating ideas is easy. Generating good ideas is hard,” he says, “but in this case, there just seem to be a lot of strong ideas. For a while, I debated whether to make it sixteen songs or twenty, but twenty just felt right to me.”
Longtime fans will probably also be pleased to know that these new songs come courtesy of much of the “classic” Smashing Pumpkins lineup of Corgan, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, (as well as guitarist Jeff Schroeder). Cyr is the second album that they’ve recorded together since reuniting after nearly twenty years apart (they released Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past, No Future, No Sun in 2018), but Corgan isn’t overly sentimental about it.
“I know people want the romantic part of it,” Corgan says, “but for me, it always feels the same because, generally speaking, I have to generate most of the ideas in the beginning.” Also, he adds, “When it comes to working with James and Jimmy, it’s very comfortable – but there’s a danger when you’re overly familiar with each other because you make too many assumptions. So you have to go out of your way to create a certain level of discomfort with one another so that you’re forcing each other to go into spaces you wouldn’t normally go, so that you have something new to say.”
Deliberately distancing himself from what comes the easiest is something Corgan says he’s done since his earliest days as a musician. “When I was young, I would play stuff and I would think, ‘Oh God, it’s not distinctive enough.’ Friends would come over and say, ‘It sounds like Pink Floyd’ or ‘It sounds like Sisters of Mercy,’ and I hated that. I don’t want to sound like my heroes. I want to sound like myself. So I think I was overly sensitive to the idea. I would go out of my way to hide influences. I think that was just born of insecurity. It was a weird thing with me. So I think I probably overachieved in that area.”
One thing has always been distinctive about Corgan’s work: his voice, which he wryly describes as “a caterwaul thing. There’s not much I can do about it.” In the band’s early days, he says, “It was a real struggle for me because people would always make fun of my voice. Almost every review was, ‘His voice, his voice, his voice.’ And you’re an insecure young person. It took me a real long time to realize it was probably the greatest thing that ever happened, especially in alt world, to stick out and be a freak.”
Originally, Corgan hadn’t even planned to be a singer at all. “I wanted to be a guitar player,” he says. “I spent thousands of hours listening to Eddie Van Halen. When I would watch a band on TV, I would watch the guitar player. I wasn’t watching the lead singer. In fact, I always thought the lead singer was too poncey. So I didn’t want anything to do with being a singer.”
Things changed when Corgan was in his first group. “The watershed moment for me was, I had this band before the Pumpkins called The Marked. The bass player, whose name was Dale, was a very good singer. And I had written this song, it was my little confessional moment, and I asked him to sing my song. He said, ‘Fuck you – I’m not singing your song. You sing your song.’ He made me so mad – I felt he was being disrespectful. But he was doing me the greatest favor in the world, because I was like, ‘Fine – not only will I sing my own song, I’ll write better songs than you, even if I can’t sing better than you.’ And that started this thing that we’re still going on. So all praise to Dale.”
After The Marked, Corgan formed The Smashing Pumpkins with James Iha, initially playing as a duo with a drum machine. By their 1991 debut album, Gish, the lineup had expanded, and with their second album, 1993’s Siamese Dream, they broke through to enormous worldwide success. This led to a long list of hit singles throughout the years: “Cherub Rock,” “Today,” “Disarm,” “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” “1979,” “Zero” and “Perfect,” among others. Even after such massive success, though, Corgan says he and the band are still striving.
“Much of the Pumpkins story is born of the fact that we just felt people didn’t believe in us,” Corgan says, “And so we got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. And I would say that that chip still exists, even though it probably shouldn’t. It doesn’t feel fueled by negativity, like, ‘Nobody loves us so we have to do something.’ It’s more feeling like, ‘Okay, there’s still something left to prove.’ And that’s not a bad thing. Being doubted can push you in a good way.”
Now, several Pumpkins albums are regarded as classics within the alternative rock genre – including their multiplatinum-selling Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which hit its 25th anniversary this year. “At some point, somebody goes, ‘This is a pretty significant anniversary – do you want to do anything [for it]?’” Corgan says. “I threw out there that I’ve been thinking about the sequel album for a while.” He’s referring to a planned 33-track sequel to Mellon Collie (and the band’s 2000 album Machina/The Machines of God), thus completing a trilogy that’s been 25 years in the making. The album (title TBA) is set to come out in late 2021.
There had been plans to celebrate Mellon Collie’s anniversary with an extensive world tour this fall – but COVID-19 restrictions forced those dates to be reset to next year. Instead, the band did a livestreamed Q&A on October 23, the actual anniversary of the album’s release. “It was a really beautiful day,” Corgan says. “I haven’t had a lot of those days where I really just stop and reflect on something that happened that was quite important. I can still see me sitting in my office at my old house the day they rang me and said, ‘Your album is going to be number one,’ and looking out the window and thinking, ‘This can’t be happening.’”
Corgan is finding non-band ways to stay busy during this time when he’d originally expected to be on the road. He has created and written a five-part animated series, In Ashes, which also features Smashing Pumpkins songs. He compares In Ashes to “a dystopic Scooby-Doo.”
He’s also keeping busy running Madame Zuzu’s, a vegan tea shop in Chicago, along with his partner, Chloe Mendell (with whom he has two small children). He admits running a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic is frustrating and difficult, though. “People are allowed to come in and shop and do take out, but they can’t sit down. We have four thousand square feet. We have plenty of room – you could have one person here and somebody twenty feet away, but you’re not allowed to do that. What can you do? I’m no health expert. I can just follow the law.”
Another of Corgan’s business ventures that’s suffering a serious hit this year is his involvement in the pro wresting world. After serving in various capacities in that industry, he is currently the owner and president of the National Wresting Alliance. “Wrestling tends to run right on the margins of profit and loss, so anything that adds to the encumbrance of putting on a show…” he says, trailing off with a sigh. “And on top of that, no live audience, which, [wrestling] is designed literally to interact with a live audience, so it’s very difficult. I remain hopeful but it’s been very challenging.” Prior to COVID-19, the NWA had been taping its matches in Atlanta – several of them with Corgan in attendance.
But Corgan says he feels optimistic about the future – and he’s proud of his past accomplishments, too (both personally and with Smashing Pumpkins). “When you take the arc of everything that happened – all the bad things, all the good things, having children and the failed relationships – it’s a total mind warp. It’s been quite a journey.”