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Q&A: Billy Corgan Looks Back on the Smashing Pumpkins' 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness'

'We made something that was more about capturing the spirit of the times than worrying about making a perfect record'

Billy Corgan
Victor Chavez/WireImage
November 19, 2012 1:20 PM ET

"It's really the end of an era," Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan told Rolling Stone in 1995, shortly after the band released its double-disc, era-defining epic Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It would be the last album the original Pumpkins lineup – Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D'arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin – made as a collective unit, rendering their leader's words even more prophetic.

Nearly two decades after Mellon Collie's release, the Pumpkins are releasing a deluxe re-mastered edition of the LP on December 3rd – complete with 64 bonus tracks and a live DVD – as part of a massive reissue project encompassing all of the band's albums and B-sides from 1991-2000. "In many ways it's beautiful that we were able to make something so grand as kind of a final statement of solvency of that group together," says Corgan. "But that was pretty much it. That was as good as it was going to get for the four of those people together."

Readers' Poll: The Best Smashing Pumpkins Songs of All Time

When was the last time you listened to Mellon Collie all the way through?
Fairly recently. Because I had to approve the mastering. I think when I listen to old records, it puts me back in the atmosphere of what it felt like to make the record and who was there and what the room looked like. It's more a sensory memory. If I go deeper than that I start to remember the funny stories. When we were recording we had a rehearsal space we called Pumpkinland. [Album co-producer] Flood wanted to record Mellon Collie in there, which really surprised us. He liked the way we played in there. He thought we would be more comfortable. We're working in there and I think [co-producer] Alan Moulder and I were in the other room, and all of a sudden one of the pipes burst. And suddenly, this massive amount of water is coming out of the floor and was flooding the entire floor. We were trying to throw all the equipment in a corner where it hadn't flooded. We're all laughing 'cause it's so absurd. But meanwhile there's gallons of water coming out of this pipe and you don't know when it's going to stop. You remember these funny little memories when you listen.

After the massive success of 1993's Siamese Dream, you could have played it safer, but instead you went with the dark sprawl that is Mellon Collie.
What surprises me is that it's a very dark album. And that such a dark album was so successful. People always say, "Oh, it's dark," and I would think, "Eh, it's not dark to me." But now I listen to it years later and I think, "Wow, there's some pretty dark tones. There's some pretty dark themes." A song like "X.Y.U." and "Tales of a Scorched Earth," those are pretty dark. There's something about the darkness of it all that really resonated: the tonality of the thing. The production is fairly stark in many places. You listen to say, "Cherub Rock," which is very layered and nuanced, and then you listen to something like "X.Y.U.," which is the band live in the studio. Those are completely different contrasts. So the fact that we were willing to go from one extreme to the other in such a short period of time surprises me.

You told Rolling Stone in '95 that you viewed Mellon Collie as "the end of an era." What did you mean?
I think you could argue that in many ways it really was the last album for that lineup. That lineup never really managed to record together ever again with any consistency. It really was the last time the four of us worked together in earnest. And maybe I picked up on that; maybe I sensed that and maybe that had something to do with the sort of the desperation and the approach to try and get as much as possible out of it. I wrote something like over 50 songs and we recorded this entire pile of stuff. As the reissue shows, there is a lot of other stuff that was there, work product that was interesting because you can hear the transitions of some of the work. So yeah, I probably think it was the last album. There were other albums that came afterwards that had to do with what was left. And in many ways Oceania is the first new album, if that makes sense. And everything in between is what's happened in between the shipwreck.

Did you have a sense that things were coming apart at the seams for the original lineup?
If you talk to somebody's who's been married they'd say, "Oh, I didn't know what marriage was like until I got married." And if you've ever talked to someone who's lost a parent they'd say, "Oh, I didn't know what it was like to lose a parent until I lost mine." Because you can't imagine what it feels like. Well, when you're in a band and you're together that much and you're going along at that speed, you really can't imagine what it's like to disintegrate until it happens. In your mind you think you know, but you don't really know. Because you don't understand the ramifications. When Jimmy left the band we didn't truly understand the ramifications it was going to have on the way we operated with one another. We didn't totally understand the way it was going to affect the live show. It looks really obvious to me that we were going to hit a reef; the warning signs were all there in so many ways. In many ways it's beautiful that we were able to make something so grand as kind of a final statement of solvency of that group together. But that was pretty much it. That was as good as it was going to get for the four of those people together.

You've hesitated somewhat to indulge fans with the band's material from that era.
I think you have to look at the dynamics that exist today in 2012. There is a fan base that is melded to a particular era and that's never going to change. Even if I made an album better than any album I've ever made, those are their albums: Gish, Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie, Adore. You're not going to supersede them. So that becomes part of the dynamic. But the reality is every day, I'm out playing for young kids who really don't care about the past. They want music for their time, their generation. So they like Oceania because it seems to connect with them today. And the fact that the Pumpkins have a past is kind of novel to them. And of course they know a few of the songs. We notice that when we play for a very young crowd, if we play something like "By Starlight" off of Mellon Collie, they don't know the song. It shows you the generational shift is wider than people think.

Back in 1995, you said that the future of rock music was "bleak." What do you think about the state of rock now?
It's strange. I don't really know. Overall it seems to have lost its progressive step in the mainstream. I mean there's certainly a lot of progressive rock and metal that exists at the underground level, which has its own vitality, as it should. But it seems to have lost its ability to really charge up the hill. The grunge era was the last era where a whole host of people were able to charge up the hill together. Because they didn't like one another. It was sort of a collective thing. I can't really think of another time with a sustained sense that something was happened. You had the late Nineties with Korn and Limp Bizkit, they did some really great work. But it seems like that was the last era where it seemed like there was this bigger thing happening beyond the music. Rock in the mainstream culture has lost a lot of its mojo. It might have something to do with laptop rock. It might have something to do with people are no longer interested in bands trying to get on the charts.

Mellon Collie debuted atop the Billboard charts, a rare feat for a double album.
When we made Mellon Collie we were like, "We need to get on the radio. We need to get on MTV." It didn't affect our thinking to the point we compromised. The production on "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" is so dark I can't believe that was a big hit song. It felt like we shined it up. But we went for it, which is different. We went for it just like Mötley Crüe went for it in the Eighties. We didn't shy away from it. We didn't play games with it. I guess that's maybe more of what's changed. That sense of people going for it. Maybe once people see that that they can't take things that are too avant-garde into the mainstream, maybe they just figure, "Fuck it." We were lucky that we could do really dark stuff and get away with it. I don't think you could turn in a "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" to a record company today and they'd say, "Great, let's put it on the radio." They'd think it's too weird. They'd want you to shine it up or overproduce it. You can imagine what that song would sound like if it was recorded today. It would need a DJ breakdown.

How do you think Mellon Collie has held up over the past 17 years?
I think it's held up really well. I think it's ultimately down to the songwriting. There's some really great songs. There's stuff on there that I kind of go, "Ehh . . . if I did it again I'd take that one off." I never felt it was perfect but I think it's perfectly imperfect. We made something that was more about capturing the spirit of the times than worrying about making a perfect record. We could have made a perfect record; they would have given us the budget to make a perfect record. We wanted to capture something that we saw and felt. In that way it's perfect. It's perfect that way as Dark Side of the Moon is perfect for its time. It was a messed-up generation; it was a messed-up time. And now in hindsight, we can see even moreso how messed up it was. Mellon Collie is weird in that it's a combination of nihilism, sentimentality and epic hope. That was where the generation was at that moment.

How did the Pumpkins set themselves apart?
We actually believed in the hope. We actually believed we were changing something and we actually believed it could be changed. I think that's something that you can't recreate. It would only be a few years later, and of course we had our own troubles, where all that optimism and hope went right out the window.

Do you see that same sense of hope when looking out at audiences on your current tour behind Oceania?
Something's happening. I've played a lot of shows and you know when it's going up and you know when it's going down and you know when it's going nowhere. It's definitely going up. People are really excited about the band again. Oceania is really the turning point. It's really just turned a key that many people said could never be turned again. An album like Mellon Collie gave me the confidence that I could do what I wanted to do, and if I did it really well there would be an audience for it. It really connects those legacies together. To be able to put your arms around 24 years of music, it's really fun.  Yesterday I literally played songs from 1988 all the way up to 2012. It's pretty crazy.

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