Billy Corgan was midway through recording the Smashing Pumpkins' follow-up to their 2014 LP Monuments to an Elegy when he was hit with a strange sensation. "I felt like I had exhausted the idea [of the band] on my own," he says. "That doesn't mean I haven't had help, but I think my interest in working on just the name Smashing Pumpkins is not as interesting to me without original people involved. It doesn't seem to have the same resonant energy for me. I like to think that if I do any work in the future it would be with them, if possible."
He then did something he'd never done at any point in his career by putting the unfinished album on the shelf and completely walking away from it. To clear his head, he began writing a series of tender, acoustic songs. Unsure of how he wanted to record them, he reached out to Rick Rubin to see if he had any ideas for a producer. "I thought he'd recommend some guy in the Valley that was like some wizard," says Corgan. "But he told me to send him some stuff. About a month later he said, 'I love this. Write more. I want to produce it.' I was totally shocked."
They got together last year at Rubin's Shangri La studios in Malibu, California. Corgan was under the impression they were going to add drums and bass to his stripped-down tunes, but Rubin loved the raw demos and wanted to replicate their vibe on the album. Most of the songs feature little more than Corgan on piano or acoustic guitar. "I had no idea we'd do that," says Corgan. "But I really grew to love it. Rick has a special, almost spectral-like quality of getting to the heart of a song in a way that's really, really unique."
The LP, Ogilala, kicks off with "Zowie," a tribute to David Bowie. "It was written around the time that David had passed and I was thinking about him a lot," says Corgan. "I was lucky that I got to work with him a little bit. I was really struck by his passing. You almost have to take a step back and be like, 'OK, that's the end of a journey. What does it mean? How do we evaluate this artist now that there's no more?' It sort of closes the circle."
The songs "Shiloh" and "Antietam" share the names of two extremely bloody Civil War battles, but Corgan insists the titles merely came from his travels across America. "There's a lot of subconscious language stuff that comes up in my explorations," he says. "A lot of my research on this was just traveling around the country and just having impressions of things, particularly in fly-over-country."
Many of the songs are infused with a strong sense of melancholia and sound unlike anything else in his vast catalog. It was an intentional effort to craft something completely different. "This is a terrible analogy," says Corgan. "But I'd say it's akin to someone who is a good chef and can create a great Mexican meal or great Italian meal. I get very into the aesthetic. The only process I've ever read about that reminds me of my process is Stanley Kubrick. He'd get super into an aesthetic, like exhaustively, read a lot of books about it, do whatever he was going to do, and then move onto something else."
The only person to play on the record outside of Corgan and a string quartet is original Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, who appears on "The Processional." It marks his first time on a song with Corgan since the 2000 Smashing Pumpkins LP Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music. They were estranged for many years following the dissolution of the original Pumpkins that year, but in March 2016 they shocked fans when they performed a series of songs from Siamese Dream at a handful of shows on the Pumpkins' In Plainsong tour. "I sent him some [songs] and said to him, 'I feel like this is right up your alley' as far as the kind of music he likes to work on," says Corgan. "He picked out two songs, though one will likely be a B side."
Iha's appearance is likely to fuel persistent rumors that the original Pumpkins will reunite in the near future. Just a few years ago, Corgan was estranged from every member of the 1990s lineup. But drummer Jimmy Chamberlin returned to the band in 2015, and the next year Corgan smoothed things over with Iha and even reestablished a relationship with reclusive bassist D'arcy Wretzky. "I talk to D'arcy all the time," says Corgan. "We reconnected, I guess, about a year and half ago. We talk really regularly. I'm really happy to have her back in my life."
Corgan is thrilled they are finally all on good terms after years of talking primarily through the press. "Communicating solely through the fog of media is obviously not the best way to communicate in the era of fake news," Corgan says with a laugh. "Often times I would try to explain to people that the issues were more familial than they were musical. People just don't believe you. Maybe because they don't want to since it's not as interesting."
He blames the tension that ultimately erupted in the band to their relentless work schedule in the 1990s. "We were in a pressure cooker for 13, 14 years," he says. "We were literally together almost non-stop for a long time. We did a lot of work and we put ourselves through some crazy shit. When the family thing broke, it was one of those things like, 'Hey, have you talked to your cousin?' 'Eh, I love him, but you know, whatever.' So it was like that for a long time, and now that that's over, and the family thing is resolved, it's awesome."
That doesn't mean a reunion tour of any sort is anywhere near a definite thing. Iha has commitments with his band A Perfect Circle through the end of the year and Corgan is going to support Ogilala with a solo tour. Even when both projects wind down next year, they're in no hurry. "[A reunion tour] has been knocked about," says Corgan. "There's certainly gears that turn and things get waved around, but until it's inked, I'm in the dark as much as anybody … But I'll say this and I mean it: If we never play a note together again, that's OK. I'm way, way more interested in the fact that we have peace with each other. I've reached the point in my life where I'm not in a hurry to get to anything. If it's there, great. If it's not, cool."
Whatever happens going forward, Corgan's focus now is the Ogilala tour. It kicks off October 14th at the Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn, New York and wraps up November 11th at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. He's going to be the only performer on the stage. Each night will open with the new album and then get into his back catalog after a set break. "The second set is literally like a walk through every era of my musical life, which is pretty wild, for me, even to play," he says. "It's like, a lot of fucking crazy music."
The name "Billy" isn't appearing on the Ogilala album cover or tickets to the shows. Instead, fans are meeting someone with the moniker "William Patrick Corgan." "At some point, 'Billy' just gets kind of weird," says Corgan. "First of all, I'm 50 years old. In my youth I was always 'Bill' or 'Little Bill' because my dad was Billy. Then I turned 18 and was like, 'I'm gonna be Billy because I never liked being called Bill.' But nobody ever called me by my real name, which is William, which I actually prefer. I was obviously Billy in the band, but now I feel like that is somebody else. It's hard to explain other than it's like sometimes you just want to change up the wallpaper."
So why did he say "Hey, this is Billy Corgan" when he called Rolling Stone? "Call me whatever you like," he says with a big laugh. "Just as long as you call me."