Smashing Pumpkins: Disillusionment, Obsession, Confusion, Satisfaction

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Did you ever see your father play gigs when you were young?
I certainly didn't see him in his prime. He never really kept any tapes or anything. I've seen him play, and there's no doubt in my mind that he's a great musician. But I never got to see him in his element.

He never really played with successful bands. He played with people who'd been in Rufus, things like that. One of his claims to fame for me was he was invited to be in the Amboy Dukes before Ted Nugent. I said, "Why didn't you take the job?" And he said, "Because I was making more money than the Amboy Dukes were." There you go: The rock & roll train had its boxcar door open, and he could have jumped in [laughs].

Did you ever pick up your father's guitars and try to play?
We had guitars lying everywhere. Never picked one up. I think part of the vibe was, I wasn't supposed to. I opened the cases and looked at 'em. I remember seeing a nice '67 white Stratocaster, the kind Hendrix played. But it never really dawned on me.

Then I saw my friend playing in his basement, and that was it. Saved up all my birthday money, bought a guitar. I remember it was April 1, and the first day I got it I practiced for four hours. It was literally four hours a day, forever. I would take the guitar to the relatives' house and sit in the upstairs bedroom, playing away.

Did your father take any interest in your playing?
You're getting into the minefield there. There's a lot of dynamics that went on there that are kind of tricky to get in to. All I can say is that I don't think my father was as supportive as he could have been. And that extends beyond playing guitar into the band's career. I think he knows that. I don't say it to be mean and cruel. I just don't think he was as supportive as he could have been. And I think a lot of people around me thought he was, because he was a musician. But it was almost like the opposite.

I want to talk about your experiences in therapy.
I'm reluctant to talk about this subject because I feel it's been trivialized. For someone who has complained about his life as much as I have, you'd think that going to therapy would be seen as a positive attempt to improve one's life. Instead it's turned into some kind of caricature sign of what a fuckup I am.

But what has therapy done for you that playing music didn't?
That's a pretty valid question. The kind of therapy that I've gone to has its roots in Jungian therapy, but mine is more spiritually based. I think what going did is emphasize my life. The band and my music do not emphasize my life. I needed someone I could respect – who didn't need something from me, didn't want something from me – who could talk to me about me. Because everyone else around me in some sense is leaning on me or pulling or needing or asking. It's always that kind of thing: "Where's this all coming from?"

Yeah, I get paid, I get patted on the head. But I also go through a lot that in some ways is in direct opposition to having a good life. Worrying about being on the cover of Rolling Stone – in light of finding happiness and having a sense of purpose and thinking about raising a family – is not very important. But if you're in a rock band, it's a big deal. So which side of the fence are you living on?

Do you bounce back and forth over that fence?
You have to. On one side of the fence, you have a constructive life. You're a writer; I'm a musician. You've made good; I've made good. We have a reputation, people respect us.

On the other hand, you have you, the you your mother talks to. The you that sits there and eats cornflakes while you watch Geraldo. That's not in the other construct. That's just the you that's living and surviving. You think I want to be in that mixing studio 20 hours a day? No, I wanted to go lie down. I wanted to watch the O.J. trial.

But those are not ambitions. My ambitions drive me. My desires drive me but in direct opposition to what is natural. Especially if you've got a million bucks. Go buy a log cabin and live in the woods. Don't get a TV.

Have you considered the log-cabin option?
Absolutely. It's not very rock & roll, but you need to think about it. I'm not quite ready to give up the rock & roll ship.

But you envision a time when you will.
Or take myself out of the ring and accept the consequences of that. Neil Young's taken himself out of the ring, and then he puts himself back in when he wants to. I have paramount respect for him. The man who wrote "Harvest Moon" is the same man who wrote "Cinnamon Girl." And that's a great example for me to look at, that is a possibility for my future.

If you're the fuck-up misanthrope, what do you want? You want everybody to like you. You want everyone to think you're cool. So you build this grand scheme to do it. And when you actually pull it off, you're not in a grand hurry to go, "Oh, well, I didn't want it anyway." It's what you always wanted.

Yet the time will come when you're just not cool anymore.
Even at the age I'm at, I can see the forest through the trees. I'm looking and saying, "When does this shift come?" It may not come for another five to seven years, but it has to be part of the equation.

People say, "What if this new album isn't really successful?" Well, it's the end of the band. "Well, that seems kind of shallow." No, because I'm not going to have people view our double album as a complete artistic failure. I'm not going to be playing live while people are whispering in the back about what we could have been. Fuck that. The band is too good, too real, to be surrounded by this cluck-clucking of the tongue.

There comes a time. There's the ebb and flow. And you accept it.

Is there any new music out there that gives you a rush – or a sense of competition?
I swear to God, I wish there was more good music out. How can I feel any sense of competition with Rancid? It's a good band; I think the guy [Tim Armstrong] writes good songs. But it doesn't have all those 10 other factors that make you look in your drink and go, "Fuck!"

Like when I listened to early Soundgarden. It was all the fucking heavy metal power that any band could ever muster, and it wasn't dumb, and the guy [Chris Cornell] could sing his fucking ass off. You go, "My God, how do I compete with that?" And you go, "Fuck, we'll find a way. We'll find our own way." Some of the best shows the Smashing Pumpkins ever played were where we were billed with Hole. Total visceral competition – like "I'll fucking show her" [laughs].

That's what rock & roll is about. We're headed to disco again. That's all I can figure out.

Have you come to the end of the road with the standard rock & roll format: two guitars, bass and drums?
There are still people doing really valid work. The Flaming Lips are a good example. But, yeah, we're at the end of the wellspring. Then again, suddenly some 15-year-old kid will come along. It'll be another Kurt, another guy who somehow shatters all those preconceptions. It could happen. But I don't feel it. We lose our innocence so fast. We become so jaded.

OK, after the Beatles, there were a lot of sub-Beatles, and after Nirvana, a lot of sub-Nirvanas. But what's distressing is the major media. If all those sub-Beatles weren't on TV, who would care? The message being sent to bands on the way up now is that it's better to be like this than to be yourself. It's better to be like Better Than Ezra.

Maybe there will be a rebellion, kids going, "What the fuck is this crap?" But for now, the future of rock looks bleak.

[Laughs] Look, I'm whining again.

This story appeared in the November 16, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone. 

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