Q&A: Billy Corgan Disarmed

Head Pumpkin talks about upcoming album

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The year was 1991 and rock & roll needed a swift kick in the ass, something to get it back on track after U2's late-Eighties reign ended and so-called artists like Vanilla Ice and Gerardo began the Nineties on a pathetic note. Enter Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins. But if Nirvana and Pearl Jam were about angst and aggression, then the Pumpkins were those things plus atmosphere. On Gish, their semi-underground debut (they didn't become massive until '93's Siamese Dream), lead singer Billy Corgan's pain not only connected with listeners on a fundamental level, as did Cobain's and Vedder's, the band's razor-sharp guitar avalanches were given an extra lift by ornate arrangements and layers of instrumentation. Suddenly, rock & roll had its ass in gear again.

Fast-forward to present day. Corgan has been there, done that. His band has sold more than ten million records, lost keyboardist and friend Jonathan Melvoin to a heroin overdose and fired drummer Jimmy Chamberlin for his inability to kick the drug as well. Their new album, Adore, will tentatively hit stores May 26. According to Corgan, the Pumpkins are pushing the envelope sonically in much the same way they did with Gish. The recording finished, Corgan headed off to the Caribbean with current flame Yelena Yumchuk. Rolling Stone Online caught up the shiny-headed frontman at a recent literary bash thrown by David Bowie on the decidedly colder island of Manhattan.

"I've got a record coming out so I'm back to swinging my jaw," he says with a mischievous grin. He swings, we listen.

Have you read Marilyn Manson's book?

I haven't. I read excerpts while he was still writing it. It seemed very amazing. He's a brilliant mind, you know.

You have any desire to write one?

Actually, I started one and I stopped. It was about comparing rock & roll life to life in general -- trying to bridge the gap.

And what happened?

I started thinking this has to be the worst age for people talking too much about themselves. I wrote very confessional songs, so I've been through that and then I started thinking, 'Do people want to know all this other stuff that I think? No.' I started thinking that if post modernism is about people opening up all their skeletons, I'm going the other way. I don't want anyone knowing anything about me anymore.

But people are always interested in the rock & roll lifestyle ...

Yeah, but Marilyn Manson wrote a book, LeAnn Rimes is writing one. It's like the Seventies all over again. Why did Henry Winkler write a book at the height of Happy Days? I feel like it's that all over again. I'm not interested in pop art.

So tell me about Adore ...

I'm really excited about it. I just finished it, and I think it's really going to confound a lot of people. I think it's really the first true post-grunge record.

Meaning?

Well, I'm actually trying to say, 'O.K. we're coming from this [grunge] and we're going into this [Adore]. It embraces a lot of things and I think it's a very ahead-of-its-time record. I'm happy to be back at that point, because as much as I've enjoyed all the success we've had, I feel like we were still riding a wave that hadn't quite run out yet. I feel like I'm very much back to where we were when we put out our first records and people are going to scratch their heads and be like, 'I don't know what this is, I don't like it, I love it.'

How did you go about tearing yourself away from your roots?

I thought, 'What are the seven Pumpkin cliches?' and I took all those away from myself.

What are the seven Pumpkin cliches?

Gee, I don't want to get into that because people are going to start looking for them.

Hey, you said it, not me ...

I tried really hard to just drop my own little rule book this time. It's a lot more song-y than in the past and a lot more structured, probably a lot more traditional in a song structure sense. Production-wise I think it's very ahead of its time. I felt like our first record was way ahead of its time in terms of guitar orchestration. Radiohead and Our Lady Peace are doing the seven layers of guitar, and I kind of jumped on that before anyone else did.

Now I feel that I've kind of taken this texture of hip-hop and a lot of other things and have embraced it. I don't know, it's hard to explain but someone will come up with the words. I'm afraid to say things -- every time I do say something it tends to narrow the record. I keep telling people it's kind of acoustic-y but it's not ... and if you use the "e" word [electronica], everyone thinks you're putting out a Prodigy record.

So just say it like it is ...

It's really a breakthrough for what I want to do which is to stay ahead of everybody musically. I feel much more comfortable at the forefront of things than feeling I'm in the middle of something.

What's up with the sporadic facial hair?

I just came back from vacation, this is just laziness. I look like a rat.

Where did you go?

To the Caribbean, although I'm hardly a tanner. I just look at the ocean, that's about it.