"I know it looks anal," Billy Corgan says with an embarrassed smile, looking up from the sheet of paper on his lap as the sound of holocaust guitars and Corgan's raw, enraged singing voice fills the control room of a second-floor studio at the Village Recorder, in Los Angeles. Corgan listens intently to his own nihilist howl – "My reflection, dirty mirror/There's no connection to myself" – before turning his attention back to the piece of paper on which he makes a series of small check marks.
Corgan and his co-producer Flood are playing one of Corgan's several vocal takes of "Zero," a searing number from the Smashing Pumpkins' new epic double album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Corgan and Flood are "comping vocals" – comparing Corgan's performances for timing, melody and delivery to determine which parts of which takes they want to edit into a composite master. To an outsider the apparent variations are somewhere in the frequency range of dog whistles. But to Corgan – the 28-year-old singer, guitarist, songwriter and obsessive sonic conscience of the Pumpkins – this is serious shit.
"It is a means to an end," Corgan says wearily the next day during a break from mixing another Mellon Collie firecracker, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings." "It's not the best means to an end. It's not the shortest distance between two points. But it is a means to an end."
"In a weird kind of way," Corgan says, "music has afforded me an idealism and perfectionism that I could never attain as me."
It is sometimes hard to tell how much Corgan truly enjoys his work. Surprisingly tall and broad shouldered, he walks with a gangly, elastic stride, his head bowed in a slight hunch as if he were wearing some great, invisible yoke around his neck. Corgan's hair, cut short and dyed jet black, gives his boyish, porcelain-white features an even more ghostly pallor. And when he joins the album's other co-producer, Alan Moulder, behind the board to work on "Bullet," Corgan's face goes dead blank as he loses himself in the song's tidal roar.
But when Corgan speaks of what he and the other Pumpkins – guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin – have accomplished on Mellon Collie, he does so with pride and relief rather than exhaustion. "It's really the end of an era," he says of the 28-song follow-up to the band's 1993 triple-platinum smash, Siamese Dream, and last year's B-sides collection, Pisces Iscariot. "Most people don't know us except for Siamese Dream. In their minds this is our second album. But for me, it's seven years of playing in dubs, dragging your equipment upstairs, dealing with my dad, all those doubts, people writing stuff about us, the band almost falling apart – you look at all those things, and you can't help but go, 'We fucking did it.'"
"We finally managed to manifest everything I always thought we could do," Corgan says brightly. "Somehow we managed to get a lot of blood out of the stone."
A lot of blood was spilled on the ground during the last few years. Much to their chagrin, the Pumpkins have seen their commercial success nearly eclipsed by their reputation as the poster band for dysfunctional America. The Pumpkins have been disarmingly open in the past about the raw nerves that were exposed and agitated by the success of Siamese Dream: Iha and D'Arcy's breakup as a couple during the grueling tour behind the group's debut album, Gish; Chamberlin's bouts with drugs and alcohol; Corgan's nervous breakdown just before making Siamese Dream and his decision (ill considered, he now says) to play most of the guitar and bass parts himself.
Corgan has also talked about his difficult adolescence – his parents' divorce; the way he was shuttled back and forth among various relatives; his still-evolving relationship with his father, a professional blues-rock guitarist. Yet even if you hadn't seen all the press clippings, you could hear the brittle ripple of angst underlining the power-fuzz glow of Siamese Dream's big-ballad hit, "Today."
"I'd reached a point where there was a direct conflict between what I was trying to be and who I really was," Corgan says, recalling the song's genesis. "I was trying to be this person who is cool, eternally rocking. Yet here I was, writing a dumb song like 'Today.' I'd reached a fork in the road. Do I throw this in the garbage and try to pursue some kind of ideal that I can't live up to or accept what I am, which is a corny boy from fucking Chicago?"
"In a weird way, accepting myself on that level has made my life all that more powerful," Corgan says. "The song resonates from a place of truth."
So does Mellon Collie. While Corgan is a little more quote shy than he used to be (he declined to comment during this interview on rumors about the shaky state of his marriage), on the album he is brutally confessional about emotional attachment, entanglement and the solitary urgency that sometimes drives him to extremes. "If you're giving in," Corgan sings in "Where Is No Why," "then you're giving up."
The album's fluid sprawl – from the sunburst orchestration of "Tonight, Tonight" and the fairy-dust sprinkle of the synthesized harp on "Cupid de Locke" to the vicious propulsion of "Where Boys Fear to Tread" and the soft-step art pop of "1979" – shows how the Pumpkins have dramatically evolved from the cruder pleasures of their 1990 indie singles "I Am One" and "Tristessa." Despite whatever else might ail them, the Smashing Pumpkins are a formidable future-pop unit.
"We've talked about it as a band," Corgan says proudly of the record. "It's a pretty amazing war horse, a great accomplishment. Fuck, nobody can take this away."
During the two days I was with you in the studio, you spent the entire time obsessing over the mix for one song. Did you ever think you weren't going to finish this album?
We literally worked 20-hour days, three days in a row, to try and make the deadline. It was totally ridiculous. I was out of my mind.
Then you went right out on tour in Europe. What condition were you in?
I was on another planet, from total isolation-tank environment to the other extreme [makes big rock-show-crowd noise] – "To-o-oday!" What a weird fucking vibe. It was like going from zero to 60 in a day. Crazy. But fun. It was better than coming home from the studio and sitting there going, "I hate myself, I hate my album." But I always go through that. There's no getting around it. You go home, you listen to it. You get mad at God, you hate yourself, you eat a lot of ravioli and sleep a lot. I swear, that's how it works. Then after a week, you start to return to earth.
Has "Mellon Collie" turned out the way you envisioned it?
Yeah. There's a part of me that cannot describe what it feels like, because how the fuck do you do something like this? It's such a mountain. It was literally more than double the work. There was no cutting corners. Comparing how I felt exhaustionwise after Gish and Siamese Dream, I was like "I can't believe it." People were going, "How are you still standing?" And I'm still going now. Shows, interviews. Maybe one day I'll just die [laughs]. But it won't be glamorous or mythological. I'll have a Twinkie in my hand, take a bite and fall over.
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