Billy Corgan is kicking back for the first time in two years. Just a week ago his band, Smashing Pumpkins, was headlining Lollapalooza after spending 14 months on its own tour. At present he is planning the Pumpkins’ next release, a double-album opus that is bound to delight the fans who snatched up his band’s last release, Siamese Dream, just as much as it will inflame the detractors who view the Pumpkins as a pretentious ’70s knockoff. Corgan is friendly, smart and contradictory. He hates rock. He loves rock. The fans mean everything to him. The fans just don’t understand. Three days later, Corgan phones up. “I’ve been thinking,” he says. “I forgot to say thank you. I always forget that.” He pauses. “It really has been a pretty great year.”
First things first: Do you still have a band?
I can honestly say that we have not had a serious row in about a year. You have your little tiffs like “Who stole my water?” but no full-on screaming. We were playing the last show of Lollapalooza, and I thought, “I am really, really glad we’re still together.” It was really emotional.
Did going on Lollapalooza give you a good sense of musical community, or did you still feel like outsiders?
Some would say I fed into that outsider thing. I feel less and less of that. Come on, it’s 1994. Everyone’s out selling millions of records. Everyone’s making videos. The issues of integrity are really blurred.
Things changed drastically in ’91 or so . . . .
We can pretty much judge things by pre-Nirvana, post-Nirvana. At least for my generation and for my peers. That was the absolute turning point. Now it’s grown up to the point that the carpet’s not going to be yanked out, and we’re not going to go to disco any time soon. This is not born of fashion. This is not born of fads.
Are you more of a ’70s guy than your contemporaries?
Unfortunately so. I can’t tell where the Boston ends and the Bauhaus begins anymore.
You seem honest about the fact that a lot of your influences aren’t what most people would think are cool.
Yeah. Boston, ELO. If you know you’re never going to be considered cool, you might as well tell the truth.
What groups have you used as building blocks for your band?
Eight years old, I put on the Black Sabbath record, and my life is forever changed. It sounded so fucking heavy. It rattled the bones. I wanted that feeling. With Bauhaus and the Cure, it was the ability to create a mood and an atmosphere. The air gets heavier. With Jimi Hendrix, it was the ability to translate this other level of guitar. Cheap Trick — it was a vocal influence. Although Tom Petersson once told me that Rick Nielsen called us “tuneless and nonmelodic.”
Why are most rock stars today trying so hard to let everyone know that they don’t want to be rock stars?
I think what a lot of people mean by that is that they don’t want to buy into the already established system of what that means. I don’t think anybody truly wants their privacy invaded. But anybody who consciously decides “I’m going to start a band, I’m going to lead a band, I’m going to write these songs,” at some level they want that thing. Whatever that thing is.
What do you bring to this generation?
I’m certainly not a voice for political change or to pat you on the back. I’m just a heart-on-the-sleeve kind of person. But in doing so I think I push some buttons that are kind of intangible. I’ve sat in bed and thought about this, but then I think, “Wait a second, this is a ridiculously huge band. This is not an accident.”
How much did the fact that your father was a professional guitar player influence your decision to be a musician?
As far as wanting to play guitar, very little. But as far as musicianship, quite a bit. My father is a really great musician. When the whole punk-rock anti-playing thing was big, I didn’t come from that. I came from a place that really valued musicianship.
What was it about music?
I have deep convictions about why I do it. It’s a mix of craft. I want to make great songs. And as I grow older, I feel a certain responsibility to address certain issues. If you look at the lyrical conversion from first to second album, I started to tackle more intense subject matters.
Now I can address a larger subject matter but from a personal point of view. Maybe that gets into the generational thing. I now feel prepared to comment as some sort of figurehead.
What issues do you consider urgent?
It’s a very subtle difference. It’s the difference between addressing my personal ennui and my generation’s ennui, my apathy and my generation’s apathy. I’m not saying I feel a bound duty, but I have a sense of wanting to tap into something.
Do you expect your fans to grow up with you?
That is absolutely the most terrifying thought that I have at the moment.
That they won’t mature with you, or they won’t agree with you?
Not to get too much into my craziness, but it’s like for the first time I’m starting to see a real difference between me at 27 and a 15-year-old fan. There’s a true distance. It’s nobody’s fault. You lose touch with the simple, naive passion of a 15-year-old. So at some point do you say, “Look, I’m so far beyond this point that I can’t address this anymore,” and then stop? It’s pretty obvious that someone like Bruce Springsteen has made a conscious effort to stop trying to be Everyman. It’s dignified in a way.
Is there more normalcy in your life now?
I felt a deeper sorrow in this past year than I ever have. Even Kurt’s death had something to do with it. That gave me a real sadness about the world we live in.
The two of you weren’t close.
No. He did not like me. I can’t say he ever knew me. I think some people will take umbrage with this, but in a weird way, we were nemeses. We represented the yin and yang of basically the same thing. Very personal. His was taken out in this negative creep way, and mine was taken out in this spacey, love-you thing. I realize there are plenty of people that don’t consider me in that class, but there’s a certain kind of strange kinship there. Especially the growing up and isolation. People are going to say I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. But I am friends with his wife; I do have an insight into the real person.
Do you think musicians today are articulating this particular moment in time?
I think this time period will definitely be viewed as a watershed.
Can it sustain itself throughout the decade and to the year 2000?
It’s hard to say. There’s definitely a handful of people that have the talent to have a 10- or 15-year career. Whether they have the mental gumption to go through it all is another question. It’s like at some point, Chris Cornell won’t be able to be a screamer anymore. And at some point. Trent Reznor can’t be the angry guy in the fish-net stockings. But are those people still going to be doing music? They certainly possess the talent.
What will you be doing at 40?
I don’t think I’ll be alive. [Laughs] That’s a very punk-rock thing to say. I don’t know. It’s beyond my conception. You look at the Rolling Stones, and you just know they’ve lived five life-times. Maybe it’s starting to show a little bit, but they have lived five fucking lifetimes. In a weird way, the deeper you get into this game, career, idiocy, the concept of past and future doesn’t seem relevant. So the idea of what you’re doing at 40 . . . I just want to make it through the next five months.