Billy Corgan: The Rolling Stone Interview
On “Siamese Dream,” you relieved Iha and D’Arcy of their guitar and bass duties and played most of those parts yourself. Do you regret that decision now?
If I had to do it all over again, I would do basically what I’m doing with this record, which is create the opportunity to either do it or not do it. But not snatch it away, assume it away. Musicianship and technical vision are fine and good. But at some point you cross a line. No matter how good an album you’ve got, you’ve cut away the gut of your band. It’s pretty hard to go over this old ground. [Very long pause.] Things were so fucked up that it’s hard to say what anyone was thinking. I mean, we were cast into a really difficult set of circumstances. We out out Gish. It was a huge success. We were on tour, selling out everywhere we go. Everything went cool, fine, dandy. Suddenly, boom, Nirvana. We went from being seen as future stars almost to has-beens, people saying, “Well, if you were so good, this would have happened to you.” I think the external pressure of that, the internal pressure of not really having toured before…. Before Gish came out, the most we’d been together on the road was 10 days. And suddenly we’re on the road for four months. We were pinching pennies, arguing about who was going to order what at breakfast because it was expensive. It was really down to dumb, dumb shit. So by the time we rolled around to Siamese Dream, all those insecurities put immense pressure on the band. And couple that with my severe depression. I don’t mean to make light of it, but I was really in a bad way. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it different. I really would. But it is what it is, and we’ve come out the other side.
How authoritarian are you about a new sons when you brine it to the band?
That’s really the wrong word to use. The basic rule we’ve always had–which obviously sounds self-serving–is if it’s your song, it’s your call. You understand better what works and what doesn’t. It’s a tough thing. Because if I’m writing 90 percent of the material in some way, shape or form, my agenda is going to take a certain precedence. But there are some B-sides that James did that are really good. They just don’t fit in the context of the album. And part of me feels bad. But over the seven years we’ve been together, the least uptight part of the band has been the music. Maybe I’m blind; maybe I don’t see things. But I’m a pretty objective person, and I’ve tried to be somewhat sensitive. Four years ago I wasn’t as sensitive. But I also had other things at issue. I was dying to get us out of Chicago. Chicago was like the graveyard of all bands. There was the whole thing of James still being at school; D’Arcy was still working. And I was trying to convince everybody: “We can do this. We just have to really focus on it.” I’m sure during that period I was more of a dick. But if they really explored their feelings, I think that’s what they wanted, too.
What was the plan when you started the band with Iha? To play your songs?
The initial thing was much more even. He was writing a lot of music then, as was I. I was working in a used-record store, living with my dad and basically being the four-track-cassette-making geek. That’s basically how it started–me, James and a drum machine. We played a show in this bad Chicago Polish bar–this real ethnic bar–and here we were playing this geeky, gloomy art rock with a drum machine and me on bass. Then I met D’Arcy.
The story goes that you met her in front of a club, where you got into an argument with her. What was it about?
The Dan Reed Network [a late-’80s AOR band]. She thought they were good. I thought they were OK, but they were such an MTV-prepped band that it disgusted me. I heard her say to somebody, “But they’re really good.” And I said, “You’re full of crap. They’re so phony.” And she’s like “Who the fuck do you think you are?” To think about it now, it’s the symbolic genesis of our relationship. We see eye to eye but never quite totally in sync. It just started like that. The first time she came over to my house, she was so nervous that she couldn’t even play. Her hands were shaking so bad, she couldn’t hold the instrument. But I thought she was nice and such an interesting person that, hey, whatever, we’ll worry about the rest later.
Jimmy is in symbolic and real terms the power. He’s just a visceral character.
What was the Chicago scene like when the Pumpkins started?
It was a sub-Minneapolis, post-Hüsker Dü/Replacements thing. That Midwestern pop sound with a bit of edge. But it was still dumb girl-boy songs. Our attitude was not only we can do this, but we can out do this. The band wasn’t really congealed when we started playing, so we were pretty much dismissed at that time. We got this very early chip on our shoulder–of not being accepted. But we very quickly went up the little Chicago ladder of success; our fourth show, we opened for Jane’s Addiction. We went from nobody to somebody. It created this kind of jealousy. But it just made us try harder. No one was patting us on the back. We didn’t have any indie credentials, we weren’t friends with anybody. We didn’t have anybody talking about us. Then Nirvana happened. Before Nirvana we were considered a retro band. After Nirvana we were considered a riding-the-coattails band. So we went from ripping off the past to ripping off the future. Whatever. We’ve never been very good at spin control.
How did you feel about that swipe at the Pumpkins in Pavement’s “Range Life” [“Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins…. They don’t have no function/I don’t understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck”]?
How about let’s start with jealousy? There’s always been flak we’ve gotten from certain bands–the Mudhoneys and Pavements of this world–that somehow we cheated our way to the top, that we deceived the public to get where we’re at. We have our own level of integrity that we’ve kept to, and we’re not going away. So I think it’s rooted in jealousy, the kind where someone is looking at a picture and saying, “This is where I belong, and I don’t understand why I’m not there.” It shows true pettiness. And on top of that, Pavement started a rumor that I kicked them off Lollapalooza [in 1994], which was totally untrue. I had no problem with Pavement. When I met the guys from Nick Cave’s band, they said they were told that I’d tried to kick them off the bill, too. I’m totally a Nick Cave fan. That was astounding to me; maybe Pavement didn’t start the rumor. Maybe it was some industry insider: “Blame it on Billy.” But stuff like that is really pathetic. It’s as if the commercial success of alternative rock has created this exclusionary mentality in the underground regarding issues of purity and motive. It’s like high school all over again. You have the football team, except the football team is the guys in Pavement and Mudhoney. And they’re all patting themselves on the back for how cool they are instead of healthily challenging themselves to greater heights. A lot of these bands have spent a lot more time worrying about what they look like in public, what their stature is than doing what they’re supposed to be doing, what their fans would want them to do. Which is be the best band they can be.
What was it like headlining Lollapalooza? For an alternative band like the Pumpkins, it’s the ultimate measure of enormity.
That was absolutely, positively the most draining experience of my life. I think that videos and overexposure have put bands in an unwinnable situation. Add to that the fact that part of the reason people like alternative music is that it’s become quote-unquote classic-rock music, kowtowing to “put your hands in the air.” The Spinal Tap vibe: “Hello, Cleveland!” Right. There we are, following the Beastie Boys, who are a very crowd-pleasing type of band. Then here comes us, the doom-and-gloom machine. We went with this monstrosity light show, but we did not back down from being the Smashing Pumpkins. We would come out and do all our known songs, the first five songs. It was like throwing down the gauntlet: Are you gonna hang, or you gonna go? What was insidious was, I took a lot of flak not only from external sources like the media but from people and other bands on Lollapalooza for rippling the water. And I thought, “You bunch of fucking pussies.” Here’s Nick Cave playing to empty auditoriums, and he’s not bending a hair off his head. He’s fucking being Nick Cave. Fuck if we were going to go up there and go, “Hello, Cleveland!”