This week, the Smashing Pumpkins filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against their former label, Virgin Records, alleging the band’s name was used without permission for a Pepsi promotion. Band leader Billy Corgan called up Rolling Stone from a bathroom in Australia to explain his side of the story and wound up dishing dirt on his career, explaining how the Pumpkins will release music in the future and offering an opinionated take on Amy Winehouse, Radiohead and the state of the record industry: “I don’t think the Beatles would be making an album right now.”
Tell us about your personal perspective on this lawsuit.
We’ve been treated very poorly by [Virgin] as a label for years now. Even when we were going to put the band back together, we went to them for the umpteenth time and said, look, it’s a natural thing to want to put out a best of, and they keep telling us nobody cares. And then to turn around and use us like this against our will obviously shows you how full of shit they are, because obviously you have value or they wouldn’t be trying to make money on you on the side. And in our case we actually have the right to say no to these types of things. They had to ask our permission to put our music on iTunes. So this is just them getting really sneaky trying to push stuff through, because the only place they’re going to get money now is from corporate sponsors.
And look, it’s no secret that the record labels are out of touch. They’ve lost money continuously for seven or eight years and they continue to hold on to the Titanic. This is just another indication of them thinking that they can get away with whatever because they’re the big old record business. You know, Josh Homme from Queens [of the Stone Age] came out talking about Interscope, Trent Reznor … It’s a very difficult position because whether it’s blogs or people posting on Web sites, fans can get very frustrated about what they perceive about how you do your business, not being aware of how we continually have a gun pointed at our head.
Did you approach the label with your concerns before filing the suit?
No, because it’s like talking to a brick wall. These people, they treat your music like it’s worthless and they treat you like you’re even more worthless. And that goes for our current label, Warner Bros., too. There’s no passion. There’s no love. There’s no respect. It’s just, like you’re just a number. You might as well be some cookies, or a rock. I really think it’s total arrogance on their part. I think they just thought they could get away with [using our music for the Pepsi promotion] and we wouldn’t do anything about it. And luckily enough we have the ability to do something about it.
Do you have thoughts about how to go forward with your music and how to release it?
The first thing we’re talking about doing is in essence not doing an album that has any walls. So we’ll release the album in different forms in different places. Not just one CD with twelve songs. Our next album might be forty songs. Now, to the mainstream person, that’s too many songs. So maybe you only give them one or two songs at a time. And then I think what’s cool is you can deal with different people. You can do a deal with a skater Web site or you can work with Pepsi if you choose.
The music business has sown the seeds for it’s own destruction here. So we’re not in any hurry to go back and help save them. Warner Bros. treats us like we’re from another planet. We’ve had a good record and we’ve sold records. And I haven’t spoken to the label president since 2005. Now we’re free, we’re out of our contracts. So I think that makes us really dangerous, because we really are the kind of band that’s willing to take chances. We really will work with anybody if we feel it’s a cool, fun thing. And it doesn’t have to always be about money.
Trent Reznor and Radiohead and all kinds of people have been jumping out of the major label system and doing things their own way. Can the labels survive?
Well, as long as they have young dumb bands who are willing to sign their lives away, yeah, of course. The label’s going to continue to sell them that they’re star makers. They’re not star makers. Stars are born. MTV and the labels and secret people you don’t know about don’t run the music business any more. MySpace runs the music business now. Lots of other people run the music business now.
So it’s safe to say that now that you are free of your contracts you’re not going to be rushing to sign a new deal?
Well, I think it’s kind of interesting and it’s a vulnerable thing to say: People aren’t beating our doors down to sign us, either. It’s not that we’re not desirable. We’re not dumb. They’re not going to be able to sell us their soap they’re going to sell a twenty-two-year-old. And that’s why they don’t want to do business with us.
They’re still trying to sell you on the idea that they know something that you don’t know. But if you look at the numbers, they don’t, they know less than the consumer. The consumer’s been telling them for ten years they don’t want albums. So what do they do? They continue to try to sell them albums. The consumer says that they don’t want to pay $15 for fifteen songs when they only want one song. What do they try to do? They try to shove albums down their throat.
A lot of artists love the album form or have some connection to it. Is it going to bother you to be more single-focused?
No, we’re still going to do albums. I think we’re going to do it in a different way. I can tell that our plans right now are to do an album over two or three years and put it out in pieces and then maybe eventually bring it all back together. The album doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be ten songs. Some dumb white guy somewhere doesn’t have to like it. Some old fart, out-of-touch has to decide, oh, these ten songs aren’t as good as Sgt. Pepper’s. Well, you know what? I don’t think the Beatles would be making an album right now.
Artists are finding their own ways to get paid outside of the major-label system, like the Eagles with their Wal-Mart deal, Madonna signing up with Live Nation.
I think it’s really difficult for the young artist, who doesn’t have at least some sense of a pathway. For example, if you were a kid today and you’re looking at the bands who are successful right now, you think, if you don’t sort of sell out and let somebody make you a star, go on American Idol, then you can’t be successful. Alternative culture is really critical towards introducing new ideas. We need those young bands to push old band like us, to push new boundaries. We need our butts kicked regularly. That’s where all the energy comes from, from the bottom. And when the message on Amy Winehouse is drama is better than music, and for Radiohead publicity is better than music — no disrespect to them. But I think it’s a bad message to young bands of how to make it happen. It’s almost like the evil stepchild of the rap bling-bling thing, like, the only way to make it work is I’ve got to come up with a gimmick.
Selling out has lost its negative stereotype in a sense.
We can all talk forever about how cool it is and how things are different: The power’s coming back to the artist. But sometimes it takes an oppositional force to make things work. The old music business wasn’t great but at least it kind of gave you something to kind of work with or against. Now, who do you work for and who do you work against? The great example is American Idol. I mean, who gets bigger marketing, whose TV show is bigger? And then those artists don’t sell. There’s a complete disconnect between the drama of the show, the emotional connection with the singers, and then absolutely no care for their musical career. I mean, that’s troubling.
Right, because, like you say, it’s not really about the music at the end of the day.
Right. And as an alternative artist, we’re still here because it is about the music. And anybody can point to any other 9,000 stupid things I’ve said or done. The music still trumped any of those things. So I can sit here at my rosy age and know that that’s why we’re here, because the music has held us in good stead with a lot of people around the world.
Speaking of the music, could you talk about new single “Superchrist”? Is that indicative of what you guys might be working on next?
I think that’s the band, me, whomever, back in free territory. I think, if I was a fan of the Pumpkins, the great frustration is, where’s that energy that used to be there? We made the video for $5,000. We spent our own money to record the song. We did it our own way. There was nobody standing there and there was no timetable. We just put it out when we wanted. It was great. I think that’s where the band belongs.
Coming back, we didn’t really know what to expect. It’s a weird world. I mean, we never said we were bringing the original band back. And then people were saying, oh, it’s not the original band. Well, we tried. I mean, what are we supposed to do? Stay home? You’re dealing with ideas and opinions and disappointments that aren’t yours. And there’s not much you can do about them. We’ve rebelled for years. It’s just that we’ve been quietly rebelling in a system that didn’t give us a lot of options.
Is there a moment you can pinpoint that demonstrates your mistreatment at the hands of a label?
I’ll give you my favorite line of the past three years. I was talking to the label president from Warner Bros., Tom Walley, and we were having a call. They were actually thinking about dropping us, which in retrospect probably would have been good. I was in Arizona, we were starting to write the album, and so I said things are going great. And he said, “What’s the difference between Zwan and Smashing Pumpkins?” And I was like, what do you say? What do you say to a brick wall? What’s the difference between your side band and the band that was your blood and your sweat and your heart for fourteen years? So we’re out of Purgatory. And we’re excited now.