Two hours before the Smashing Pumpkins kicked off their world tour last Tuesday at Cleveland’s House of Blues, Billy Corgan sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss the group’s new tunes and why fans’ pleas for an original-lineup reunion will never be answered. On this trek, Corgan is debuting songs and the group’s two newest members: bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne, a 20 year old whose last gig was working at McDonalds. “I knew that when me and Jimmy [Chamberlain] parted there was going to be this extra pressure on me,” Corgan says of losing the band’s other last original member. “People think I don’t have the right to do this and I have to prove that there is a reason I’m doing this.”
Why are you releasing individual tracks online as opposed to cutting an entire album?
It really harkens back to the early days of rock & roll. You’re as good as your last song and I’m kind of OK with that. Right now, everybody likes my new song, and the next one they’ll fucking hate, you know? One day I’m an idiot and one day I’m a genius. And I’ve been both and I’m probably somewhere in the middle. I’m probably just a pretty good musician.
What we’re aiming for now is just perpetual presence. I believe this is going to be the new way. From an artistic standpoint, I think it’s actually more interesting because you’re in that constant kinetic back and forth like you were when you were younger, in a club. The corporate rock thing that was imposed, particularly over the last 30 years, is very counterintuitive to creativity. You go in some dark room for a year, you’re supposed to produce some masterpiece, then go out and tour it until you exhaust every potential person who wants to see it, and then after you come off of that, you’re supposed to wring yourself out and do it all over again. That just doesn’t work.
Were you happy with the response to the last Pumpkins record?
That album sold over 500,000 copies, it went gold. But people didn’t listen to it. Now, is it the best album I’ve ever done? No. But I could tell that people weren’t listening to the album. In the past if you put out an album, people at least knew the first song. We would go out and play the first song and I could tell they had not even listened to the first song. I don’t view it as a gross disappointment. It’s disappointing to me that what I was trying to communicate didn’t get the chance to be communicated. It’s remarkable to me that things can come and go and people don’t even know they happened. When the Hoodoo Gurus had an album, at least I knew they had an album out. Now I go to the shop and I go, “Oh! This favorite band of mine put out an album?” I didn’t even fucking know! Because I didn’t look at the right website.
Do you go online to see what the fans are saying about the new tracks?
No, but I still get a vibe. If I read anything from let’s call it the “hardcore fanbase,” they are stuck in ’93. It’s 17 years [later] and I don’t know what they expect to have happen. It’s sort of beautiful because what they are saying is, “You so touched me in that moment, I want more of that.” But the thing that I find really insulting is there’s a deeper message there which is “You’ll never be better.” To try to tell a man that he’ll never improve beyond something he did when he was half-crocked on drugs or drama, that’s just not right. When I look at Johnny Cash or Neil Young or Tom Waits, those guys have proven that by remaining vital to themselves, that at some point they are able to burst through with another period.
A bunch of huge bands in the past few years have reformed without writing any new material.
I’ve been in contact with those bands, as a fan and in many cases as a peer. I say to them, “Please write new music. We need you.” When I got the Pumpkins back I made it very clear — it’s this way or no way. If I walked onstage tonight and there were 20 people out there, I [still wouldn’t] go back and like ring up anybody that used to be in the band. That’s it. It’s over. I’ll go make some kids or play the fucking ukulele. I will never, ever, be that guy. And I’ve said a lot of things that I’ve gone back on, but I can guarantee you I will never be that guy. It’s just not in my DNA.
When we broke up in 2000, there was a group of people who thought the Smashing Pumpkins were a very important band, and then there was the rest of the world. We haven’t had a Lady Gaga moment. I could put out 40 songs and they’d be saying, “Eh, not as good as Mellon Collie.” Half of those fucking jerkos would have us playing all of Siamese Dreams on this tour.
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A lot of fans are very focused on the original lineup.
In that lineup you had two people who could play with a high level of musicianship, and two people who couldn’t. And somehow that worked. James [Iha] and D’arcy and Jimmy… fascinating people. Jimmy, world class drummer. James, very creative when he wanted to be. D’arcy had a really incredible intuitive sense. But that band was not built to last. Believe me, if that band had anything left in it, not only would I do it because it would be creatively interesting, but it would be incredibly financially lucrative. People say, “Well come on, just shake hands backstage and ride in separate buses.” Part of my being and spiritual person is, I’m not gonna be in a band with people who don’t like me.
Do you think this new incarnation is built to last?
I really hope it is, and I’m remiss to say that, because I don’t know. I’ve had really weird things happen. People just up and freak out and whatever. Right now, it feels as good to me as the old band felt, in terms of our sorta emotional unity. We all seem sort of on the same page, there’s no weird anything. Everybody sort of feels like, OK, I’m in the right place.’ And I said to each of them, “We’re at the right place in the right time.”