Billy Corgan doesn't know exactly where he is right now, but it's somewhere outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Smashing Pumpkins frontman recently began work on a film project that has him traveling back roads along the old Route 66 and hanging out with the everyday Americans he encounters. "I'm still figuring it out, but I'm hoping to get it made into a series," he says. "I'm trying to rekindle my understanding and appreciation for the core American value."
Corgan is also gearing up for the Pumpkins' In Plainsong Tour, where they'll play stripped-down versions of tunes from their entire catalog. "We've organically stumbled into a new way to play," Corgan says. "Although I know that no matter how many interviews I give where I explain it, there will be some guy in the back of the room going, 'Why are they not playing "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" real loud?'"
What's the Smashing Pumpkins lineup going to be on this summer's tour?
Me, Jeff Schroeder and Jimmy Chamberlin. And then we're being helped out by Sierra Swan and Katie Cole, who are both singer-songwriters. The shows tend to lean more towards vocal arrangements and stuff like that, so I need other people to help on that.
Is Jimmy back in the band full-time now?
I don't really get into all that stuff anymore. One of the sources of tension always was, "Who's and who's out?" I run sort of an open-door policy now. There really are no band members. And if anybody's in the band, it's Jeff. With this, I asked Jimmy to be involved and he was very enthusiastic about it, and so I said, "Great, let's do it." I think we're long past the point of trying to define what the band is. It's gone through so many iterations and been delved into over and over again. There's no straight answer and nobody seems satisfied with whatever answer I give, so I just don't care anymore. It's an open door.
Are there any songs in your catalog that just don't work on a tour like this?
No, everything's fair game. It's literally a chance to sit and look through every song I've ever put out and ask, "Will it fit in this version of the tour for this moment?" It changes because my mood changes a lot, so this lineup of songs is different than the ones from last year.
On your tour with Marilyn Manson last summer, you surprised a lot of people by just playing most of Pumpkins' hits from the 1990s.
I said to myself, "Look, we're going to be playing to mainstream American crowds, many of which haven't seen the band for a few years. Let's just keep it simple." The old arguments over who is in the band — all those arguments — they just got really old after a while, and I just wanted to have a good, fun month hanging out with my buddy on tour. We had a great, successful tour. What's weird to me is that I've played so many difficult shows [set-list-wise], so that when I did that, it was treated as some sort of weird capitulation as opposed to a balancing act where you say, "OK, this is the time not to be that."
How did Liz Phair wind up on this tour? It'll be great to see her since she hasn't played much in recent years.
Very early on in discussions about the tour, her name came up, and I said "yes" instantly. I'm a big fan of Liz. She truly represents the kind of independent spirit I'm out here trying to find. She's also a real groundbreaking artist, which I think is a perfect fit for us.
Might she perform with you guys at any point during the tour?
I have invited her to join us on some of the stuff because, like I said, it's very vocal-heavy as far as group singing and stuff, so I would love to have her involved. We haven't had a discussion yet on what that might be. I'm not sure she wants to do it, but I'm hopeful.
You quit Twitter last year. Do you find it refreshing to be free from that?
I'm not a big fan of social-media models that take a lot from people who have notoriety and don't give a lot in return. I think Twitter, in particular, has been a really poor model in terms of return.
But you used it for years.
Yeah, I would argue to my detriment.
It must be nice to not have random people just taking shots at you all day long. Things get so toxic on there.
I agree with that, but you can make that argument across the entire social-media spectrum. I think ultimately artists are gonna figure out how to take advantage of the opportunity to talk people in a very direct way without having to deal with this empowerment of the mob. And then even worse, you work for an esteemed publication, allegedly, and then you have the troll puppets sit around and literally comb through everything you do and then run an article about the size of Manson's penis. I don't know if you saw that headline. That was my favorite recent one.
I remember seeing that one.
Yeah, I did a video with a friend of mine who works for a wrestling company I work with. We did a funny little video where he was talking about the size of his penis, and I jokingly said that Manson's was bigger. It's obviously a spoof video and we were just joking around, but there were literally headlines of "Billy Corgan Talks About the Size of Marilyn Manson's Penis."
But back to Twitter, they actually called me. They called me on the phone after I quit and said, "We wanna know what's going on. Can we help?" So I appreciated that, but I basically said, "There's no return on what you guys are doing. You're building this massive IPO" — well, now their stock is falling — "but what do we get in return?" In wrestling terms, they take all the stars' heat and the stars don't necessarily get the heat back in terms of return. But there are a few models you could argue that maybe give a return. I think the jury's still out on that. But a model like Twitter has really ultimately been anti-celebrity.
But take someone like Kanye West. He reaches 20 million people, without any media filter, without paying a dime. Isn't that a return for him?
Here would be my argument, and I'm not personalizing it about anybody: I think it works for a very, very select group of people who tend to say really edgy things in order to go viral, kind of like, "Can you believe what he or she said?" You have to be over the edge. If that edge is part of who you are in public and the public celebrates you for being over the edge, fine. At this point in my life, where I'm a father now and I've obviously spent a lot of time rebuilding my musical life to something that I'm proud of, getting on there and getting into Twitter fights just seems beneath my position.
Are you gonna see Guns N' Roses on their reunion tour?
I hope so, yeah.
Are you surprised it's happening?
No. I said five years ago it'll definitely happen. It'll just be when and where.
Why were you so confident?
I just think the band, however you want to quantify it, broke up, or the original lineup didn't endure past a certain point, and the world has changed a lot since then. The band is so great and the music is so great, and the chemistry is such a part of what people love — including me — as a fan. It would seem a crime to not be able to enjoy and appreciate the accomplishment in this era.
Watch our mini-doc on Billy Corgan's passion for pro wrestling below:
I guess my fear is that a show performed by people that don't really like each other might not be very good.
Well, listen, I've been on the other side of this coin, where I've had people demand that I get onstage with, you name it, any number of ex-bandmates because that's what they want and they couldn't care less whether or not you share Christmas cards. And I've staunchly said — much to my own detriment — that the only way that would happen is if we were in a place of love and appreciation for one another. I've taken a lot of shit for that as if somehow I'm ruining somebody's generational memory, but to me, it's true of the value system of the band in that we only did what we truly believed in, even when tons of people told us they didn't like what we were doing.
What's the status of the memoir you've been working on?
I've been working on that for about four years. It's so long. It's like going to the end of the world. I don't know. Some years it's easier; some years it's hard. This year, so far, it's been hard. Having a kid and trying to get a new album together, it seems a little bit on the back burner. I wish it wasn't, but as you know from writing, it takes such a high level of concentration.
They keep adding shows to this tour. It must be gratifying to see people are digging this concept so much.
Yeah, the band is going through a resurgence. All the indicators are that people who love the band and new fans that are coming to the band, they love the band's music and they love the band's depth. The more we go into that, the more response we get. They don't want the band compromised. They don't want us to be one of those bands that just keeps going around playing the same 10 songs. They fans over and over again say, "We want you to play your catalog. We want you to take us on a new journey every year." So it's so gratifying to do something like the In Plainsong tour and see such a great reaction.
I'm not pinching myself, but it feels like maybe we're getting back to the place where music is the preeminent thing in my life. That's the way people are starting to treat me again and that's the way it should be. The less I talk about it, the better.
You do seem to be on a smoother path now. When you first came back, it seems like you were saddled with a lot of baggage. That does all seem to be mostly gone now.
The one thing I'll say in my defense was when we came back, I knew that people were not gonna jump on board. What I didn't account for was people sort of separating my past from my present, meaning it was like they were treating me like I wasn't the guy that wrote those albums. So it was really weird. I would read about myself and they would almost talk like I was the guy who inherited the mantle and somehow the other guy had disappeared or died. That's a really weird place to be. But, again, I was a little slow on the uptake to the way that social media was changing the way that people interrelate to music and the way they view people. I was kinda slow to understand that if somebody's into you from 1994 and you exist on their computer vis-a-vis videos, music, pictures, whatever, the person that you are today, to them, is an alien.
I think people had a certain template for band reunions, and it was like the Pixies where it was every original member and nothing but old songs. People were confused and upset you were doing something different.
Look, I'm a contentious soul and I knew that was gonna be an issue. What I didn't account for was people basically giving us no ground to stand on. If you've accomplished the highest heights of the business that you're in, it's a strange thing to understand how people can literally erase from you the thing that you've done and treat you as if you're an interloper in a story that you didn't write. And look, we see it in the social-justice movement all the time. Somebody says one wrong word and every good thing they've ever done is wiped out.
I'm not complaining because that's just the world we live in now. It took me a long time to understand that the person you are today, if somebody decides you have no relation to that person you were or the person you think you still are, there's nothing you can do about that. That is the little fantasy that they're living in and you can either play into it or you can build something that they'll eventually come to like a moth to a flame. Once I figured that out, I went back to rebuilding it from the ground up from a musical point of view. And I think now the fruits of that are finally coming due, and at least the one thing I've learned is to just keep my mouth shut as much as I can.