Billy Corgan stands straight and still at his microphone, in a black, long-sleeved top with an image of a Hindu elephant deity on it. It is only four songs into Corgan’s show with his new band, Zwan, at the Docks, a dance hall on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany. But he can’t wait to testify.
“Jesus, I’ve taken my cross/All to leave and follow thee,” Corgan prays in a kind of choked chant over the bubbling-lava guitars of Matt Sweeney and David Pajo. The words are adapted from an antique volume of folk and gospel songs, published in 1899, that Corgan acquired a few years ago, and he sings them over and over, locked in bliss. Then drummer Jimmy Chamberlin jumps in with a violent thump, and Zwan’s three guitars, Corgan’s included, blow up in fifteen minutes of fuzz-box hosanna, until Corgan bawls his lungs raw in a final psychedelic rush: “Reborn, reborn, yeeeaaah!”
“Jesus, I” is the peak of Zwan’s debut album, Mary Star of the Sea, half of a medley with the title track. In Hamburg, “Jesus, I” is a long hot bath of ecstasy by itself: as heavy in force as anything Corgan wrote or played with the Pumpkins, but brighter in spirit. The song — and Zwan — are the sound of a burden lifted and left behind.
“Faith is the great energy — as long as one has faith, you’re willing to try, to take another chance,” Corgan says the day before the show, in a Hamburg hotel room. He doesn’t have a name for his faith. When Corgan was a boy, his father — William Sr., a guitarist — told Billy that God did not exist: “He said if God existed, the world wouldn’t be so cruel. My stepmom was very Catholic. I went to church until I was eight. I turned to her one day and said, ‘I don’t want to come anymore.’
“I had a conversation recently with a fan about this,” Corgan goes on. “I said, ‘I don’t think God really cares how you do it, just that you’re willing to do it. This is not ice skating.”‘ Corgan takes a gulp of bottled water. “God wants you to amble toward the right spot on the horizon. You might fuck up, but the idea is that you’re willing to get up and keep moving toward that light.”
Corgan, 36, did that for thirteen years with the Pumpkins, pushing them through cycles of triumph (more than 25 million albums sold) and crisis: the fatal overdose of touring member Jonathan Melvoin and Chamberlin’s temporary firing in 1996; the clouded exit of bassist D’Arcy Wretzky in 1999. Except for a wisp of beard, Corgan looks just as he did when we last spoke, the day of the Pumpkins’ final show, in Chicago in December 2000 — shaven head, black turtleneck sweater, baggy brown pants.
But there is a new cheer in Corgan’s voice. “I’m the spy who came in from the cold,” he cracks. His leap from the anxious density of the Pumpkins’ 1999 goodbye, Machina/The Machines of God, to the meaty swing and triple-guitar rain of Zwan songs such as “Honestly” is, he claims, “the difference between head and heart. Let a song be a song. It doesn’t have to move mountains.”
The Pumpkins are, he says, “a dead issue. It’s like what they do with nuclear waste: bury it underground in a concrete bunker.” Zwan — Corgan, Chamberlin, Sweeney, Pajo and bassist Paz Lenchantin — do not play Pumpkins songs in concert. “Even in rehearsal,” Chamberlin says, “I can’t remember a time when we fucked with a Pumpkins riff. We put it to bed. And we meant it.”
Still, Corgan returns to the subject and shadow of the Pumpkins with little prompting. He describes his fruitless attempt to get the band’s label, Virgin, to release the Pumpkins’ last show (all four hours and thirty-five songs) as a live album: “I kept trying to set the timetable. They wouldn’t pull the trigger.” He also runs down some of the ammo he’s got for a box set someday: two dozen demos predating the Pumpkins’ 1991 debut, Gish; 160 hours of rehearsals for the 1995 double CD Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness; fifteen unreleased songs written for the 1998 gothic opera Adore.
“It’s no great mystery that the Pumpkins were everything to me,” he says. “I was totally burnt after that last show. But after four weeks, I started writing songs. That was weird. In the Pumpkins, when we came off a tour, I’d already be writing for the next thing. This time, there was nothing to write for.”
Sweeney ran into Corgan at a Christmas party in New York at the end of 2000. The two had been friends, on and off, since meeting at a Pumpkins gig in New Jersey in 1991. Sweeney loved the Pumpkins’ long guitar solos; Corgan was a fan of Sweeney’s punk group, Skunk. “He seemed pretty bummed,” Sweeney says of Corgan’s mood at that party. “I said, ‘Congratulations on breaking up the band. It’s good to move on.’ But he didn’t seem to know what to do. He seemed adrift.”
Corgan considered retirement. He even tried it, wandering through Italy in the late winter of 2001 with his girlfriend, Yelena Yemchuk. Corgan also met with several major labels, packing what he admits was a threadbare proposal: “There’s no band, no music yet. Do you want to sign me?”
He did have a name — Zwan, which came to him in Italy — and by the spring of 2001, something to go with it, after a writing session with Sweeney and Chamberlin at a studio outside Salt Lake City. A year later, Corgan was still without a record deal but was recording Mary Star of the Sea with his own money and a pool of, by Chamberlin’s count, a hundred new songs. “It’s not too different from the way we started the Pumpkins,” Chamberlin says. “We played for two years and saved every dime we made — $30,000 — to make Gish.”
Corgan also surrounded himself with equals. Pajo was a star in his own right; he played guitar for proggrunge legends Slint. Lenchantin, the Argentine-born daughter of concert pianists, played bass in the Tool splinter group A Perfect Circle; she is also a classically trained violinist. And Sweeney, Corgan says admiringly, “can hear a Thin Lizzy song one time and play it back perfectly a year later. He can access all sorts of information on the fly.” Another token of Corgan’s esteem: When Sweeney quit his day job managing Andrew W.K. to join Zwan, Corgan advanced him money to live on while the band was getting off the ground.
“I’d heard what a tyrant Billy was,” Pajo says, acknowledging well-known tales of Corgan playing all of the guitar and bass parts on Pumpkins records. “But he never said, ‘Play this, play that.’ The hardest thing, sometimes, was Billy’s delivery. He’d say, ‘You’re playing like shit,’ when I actually was.” Pajo laughs. “But I’d be like, ‘Can you say it in more motivating words?”‘
“I really wanted to be in another band,” Corgan concedes. “I love the romance and safety of a band” — which doesn’t mean he misses the Pumpkins. Corgan says he’s had no contact, other than business exchanges, with Wretzky or guitarist James Iha since the end of that group. “I exhausted it,” he says of his former life, “and left it. Zwan is more akin to my real self, the guy who watches sports and stuff. It’s closer to me at nineteen than the guy at twenty-eight, with all of that gravity.”
If you don’t believe him, look at the band credits in the Zwan CD booklet, where Corgan lists himself as Billy Burke. Corgan grins. “Billie Burke played Glinda, the good witch, in The Wizard of Oz,” he says. “I’m tired of playing the wicked witch.” “God doesn’t care how you do it. Just do it.”