“I know it looks anal,” Billy Corgan says with an embarrassed smile, looking up from the sheet of paper on his lap as the sound of holocaust guitars and Corgan’s raw, enraged singing voice fills the control room of a second-floor studio at the Village Recorder, in Los Angeles. Corgan listens intently to his own nihilist howl – “My reflection, dirty mirror/There’s no connection to myself” – before turning his attention back to the piece of paper on which he makes a series of small check marks.
Corgan and his co-producer Flood are playing one of Corgan’s several vocal takes of “Zero,” a searing number from the Smashing Pumpkins‘ new epic double album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Corgan and Flood are “comping vocals” – comparing Corgan’s performances for timing, melody and delivery to determine which parts of which takes they want to edit into a composite master. To an outsider the apparent variations are somewhere in the frequency range of dog whistles. But to Corgan – the 28-year-old singer, guitarist, songwriter and obsessive sonic conscience of the Pumpkins – this is serious shit.
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“It is a means to an end,” Corgan says wearily the next day during a break from mixing another Mellon Collie firecracker, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” “It’s not the best means to an end. It’s not the shortest distance between two points. But it is a means to an end.”
“In a weird kind of way,” Corgan says, “music has afforded me an idealism and perfectionism that I could never attain as me.”
It is sometimes hard to tell how much Corgan truly enjoys his work. Surprisingly tall and broad shouldered, he walks with a gangly, elastic stride, his head bowed in a slight hunch as if he were wearing some great, invisible yoke around his neck. Corgan’s hair, cut short and dyed jet black, gives his boyish, porcelain-white features an even more ghostly pallor. And when he joins the album’s other co-producer, Alan Moulder, behind the board to work on “Bullet,” Corgan’s face goes dead blank as he loses himself in the song’s tidal roar.
But when Corgan speaks of what he and the other Pumpkins – guitarist James Iha, bassist D’Arcy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin – have accomplished on Mellon Collie, he does so with pride and relief rather than exhaustion. “It’s really the end of an era,” he says of the 28-song follow-up to the band’s 1993 triple-platinum smash, Siamese Dream, and last year’s B-sides collection, Pisces Iscariot. “Most people don’t know us except for Siamese Dream. In their minds this is our second album. But for me, it’s seven years of playing in dubs, dragging your equipment upstairs, dealing with my dad, all those doubts, people writing stuff about us, the band almost falling apart – you look at all those things, and you can’t help but go, ‘We fucking did it.'”
“We finally managed to manifest everything I always thought we could do,” Corgan says brightly. “Somehow we managed to get a lot of blood out of the stone.”
A lot of blood was spilled on the ground during the last few years. Much to their chagrin, the Pumpkins have seen their commercial success nearly eclipsed by their reputation as the poster band for dysfunctional America. The Pumpkins have been disarmingly open in the past about the raw nerves that were exposed and agitated by the success of Siamese Dream: Iha and D’Arcy’s breakup as a couple during the grueling tour behind the group’s debut album, Gish; Chamberlin’s bouts with drugs and alcohol; Corgan’s nervous breakdown just before making Siamese Dream and his decision (ill considered, he now says) to play most of the guitar and bass parts himself.
Corgan has also talked about his difficult adolescence – his parents’ divorce; the way he was shuttled back and forth among various relatives; his still-evolving relationship with his father, a professional blues-rock guitarist. Yet even if you hadn’t seen all the press clippings, you could hear the brittle ripple of angst underlining the power-fuzz glow of Siamese Dream‘s big-ballad hit, “Today.”
“I’d reached a point where there was a direct conflict between what I was trying to be and who I really was,” Corgan says, recalling the song’s genesis. “I was trying to be this person who is cool, eternally rocking. Yet here I was, writing a dumb song like ‘Today.’ I’d reached a fork in the road. Do I throw this in the garbage and try to pursue some kind of ideal that I can’t live up to or accept what I am, which is a corny boy from fucking Chicago?”
“In a weird way, accepting myself on that level has made my life all that more powerful,” Corgan says. “The song resonates from a place of truth.”
So does Mellon Collie. While Corgan is a little more quote shy than he used to be (he declined to comment during this interview on rumors about the shaky state of his marriage), on the album he is brutally confessional about emotional attachment, entanglement and the solitary urgency that sometimes drives him to extremes. “If you’re giving in,” Corgan sings in “Where Is No Why,” “then you’re giving up.”
The album’s fluid sprawl – from the sunburst orchestration of “Tonight, Tonight” and the fairy-dust sprinkle of the synthesized harp on “Cupid de Locke” to the vicious propulsion of “Where Boys Fear to Tread” and the soft-step art pop of “1979” – shows how the Pumpkins have dramatically evolved from the cruder pleasures of their 1990 indie singles “I Am One” and “Tristessa.” Despite whatever else might ail them, the Smashing Pumpkins are a formidable future-pop unit.
“We’ve talked about it as a band,” Corgan says proudly of the record. “It’s a pretty amazing war horse, a great accomplishment. Fuck, nobody can take this away.”
During the two days I was with you in the studio, you spent the entire time obsessing over the mix for one song. Did you ever think you weren’t going to finish this album?
We literally worked 20-hour days, three days in a row, to try and make the deadline. It was totally ridiculous. I was out of my mind.
Then you went right out on tour in Europe. What condition were you in?
I was on another planet, from total isolation-tank environment to the other extreme [makes big rock-show-crowd noise] – “To-o-oday!” What a weird fucking vibe. It was like going from zero to 60 in a day. Crazy. But fun. It was better than coming home from the studio and sitting there going, “I hate myself, I hate my album.” But I always go through that. There’s no getting around it. You go home, you listen to it. You get mad at God, you hate yourself, you eat a lot of ravioli and sleep a lot. I swear, that’s how it works. Then after a week, you start to return to earth.
Has “Mellon Collie” turned out the way you envisioned it?
Yeah. There’s a part of me that cannot describe what it feels like, because how the fuck do you do something like this? It’s such a mountain. It was literally more than double the work. There was no cutting corners. Comparing how I felt exhaustionwise after Gish and Siamese Dream, I was like “I can’t believe it.” People were going, “How are you still standing?” And I’m still going now. Shows, interviews. Maybe one day I’ll just die [laughs]. But it won’t be glamorous or mythological. I’ll have a Twinkie in my hand, take a bite and fall over.
Why a double album?
After Siamese Dream, I really felt that we had no future, that it was the end of the line as far as the band went, emotionally and creatively. I felt that I had completely stretched my abilities beyond the beyond. Also, I started to feel my age. And I could sense other band members starting to root down. You start to lose just that little bit of edge. I think about the attack posture that the band had in the early days, the hunger, and then you see people getting more worried about mortgages and stuff like that.
The third thing was that we were reaching the end of a creative cycle. Or at least I was, where the basic format of up-and-down rock guitars, pounding drums – all these elements that are classic Smashing Pumpkins was reaching its end point. It’s become such a formulaic thing and not just by us. People don’t even bat an eye anymore. You start to lose at your own game just from sheer imitation.
So I said, “Let’s approach this like it’s our last album.” Because it either will be our last album, or it will be our last album as people know the Smashing Pumpkins. And it was a very freeing decision to make. It was just a matter of pushing it as far as we could go – in harmony.
“Harmony” is not the first word that comes to mind when people think of the Pumpkins.
People who know us find it hard to believe that we are a band: “You guys don’t have the weird glue that other bands have.” But somehow within the context of that, we’ve found a way to be a band. We’ve been able to turn that weakness into a strength.
For example, how does D’Arcy add to that strength?
She’s the most rooted person in the band. I think D’Arcy has more to do with the band staying together than anybody else because D’Arcy has a weird strength. She’s been the bridge of communication between me and James. Because me and James formed the band, it was the problem in that relationship more than any other that really jeopardized any future we had.
The band was formed out of naiveté: “OK, we’re going to make this super-rock, this fucking heavy-duty music. But we’re not going to assume the posturing.” People want their rock stars to be beautiful and perfect, drug addled and mysterious. They don’t want the reflection of normal people. And we’ve insisted on being normal – to the point of probably hurting ourselves and then getting beat over the head for it.
The reality is, you write nearly all the songs, and you’re the sonic doctor in the studio. In a band of equals, you’re far more equal than the others.
It’s an agreed-upon way of doing things. I’m not taking anything from anybody, and no one is giving me anything grudgingly. To an outsider it looks incredibly uneven. But D’Arcy would probably tell you that she doesn’t understand why I spend two days on a mix. I’m not assuming responsibilities that I’ve taken away from someone else.
How well do you take criticism?
Not well [laughs]. That goes with the control-freak image.
I’m a really honest person. I know what I can and can’t do. People criticized Siamese Dream for being long-windy. That’s a criticism I completely agreed with. And I responded to it in some way with this record by trying to keep the sound a little leaner. On the other hand, you have malicious criticism. It attacks my music through me. It’s the kind of criticism I can’t handle. I wouldn’t be putting out this music if I didn’t have some belief in it. And I often don’t respect the source of the criticism – because they haven’t walked in these shoes.
There’s certainly been criticism of my demeanor, which I have very mixed feelings on. Like somebody said yesterday, “The word I see most associated with you is whining.” And I thought, yeah, I could understand that. But every person I’ve ever met in a rock band talks just like I do. But is the mistake in that I’m whining or is the mistake in me not being sophisticated enough to do it at the right times?
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 put 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 song when you bring 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 outdo this.
The band wasn’t really congealed when we started playing, so we were pretty much dismissed at that tune. 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 tipping 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!”
You just shared the bill with Hole at the Reading Festival, in England, where Courtney Love caused a ruckus during your set by marching into the photo pit with an army of photographers. Did that piss you off?
Didn’t see her. [Laughs.] Honestly. Swear to God. Didn’t know she was there. Because the Reading stage was like 50 feet high. So I really did not see her. I did speak to her the next day, because we were on the same bill at the next festival, in Belgium. It was probably the first time we’d spoken in a year.
What did you talk about?
We talked about babies, things like that. I’ve known her for a long time. We’ve been over a lot of ground together. I don’t really know what to say about it. It’s as personal as two friends can be.
But she is very vocal about you and her relationship with you.
But there’s this other side to her that I know and most people wouldn’t know. That’s where we communicate. What do you say about her that hasn’t been said? I could say nice things, but people wouldn’t believe me.
I feel no responsibility to be her champion anymore. She’s on her own. What do you say about her? She’s an enigma. When I met her in 1990, it was obvious she was an enigma. I have plenty of good things to say and plenty of bad things to say. But it’s kind of pointless.
Everyone’s always trying to dissect. It’s entertaining, but it’s my life. There is a point where I want to separate something. I want to have some kind of sacred space.
When did all the songs on Mellon Collie start pouring out?
The only thing that kept me going through all the touring for Siamese Dream was making another record. It was like setting myself some kind of weird goal. It sounds crazy: “When you get done with all this work, here’s more work.”
I came home from Lollapalooza, I took three days off, and then I started. It was literally six days a week, at least four to five hours a day. Which doesn’t sound like a lot of time. But in terms of emotional time, it’s a lot.
How much of you is in “the death-rock boy” of “Here Is No Why”?
There’s a lot of me in that lyric. There’s certainly an acknowledgment of that self-absorbed woe-is-me thing. The chorus says a lot: “In your sad machines you’ll forever stay.” It’s a wink back at the overly dramatic 18-year-old me.
How overly dramatic were you at 18?
If you can imagine, I was more emotional than I am now – with nowhere to put it [laughs]. Imagine that same kind of twisted heart locked in this 18-year-old body with nothing to do. It wasn’t pretty.
Who is the “you” in the song “Fuck You”? The subtitle [“An Ode to No One”] seems like an attempt to throw us off the scent.
The basic thing is just fuck everybody. It’s that feeling where no one understands: “Who the fuck are my friends? Fuck you. Fuck everybody. Fuck everything.” It’s just that thought – pure frustration.
The tendency of most people is to be lazy and not pursue their dreams, to let life slip by. That’s why people freak out when they’re 40 and start buying Porsches. That’s pretty indicative of what’s wrong with everything. How can you live your life like that? It doesn’t mean, “Form a rock band.” It just means do something. Stop living vicariously through something else. Although I suppose if everybody did that, I’d be out of a job.
Based on many of the songs on Mellon Collie, you seem to have very mixed feelings on the concept of love. For example, “Muzzle” has a strong sense of ending to it – resignation, acceptance, farewell. But a muzzle is also an instrument of restraint. You put it on somebody to shut ’em up.
I’m a confused person. It’s that simple. I’m certainly battling my own idealism. With love, there’s a lot of issues: respect, intuitive love, attraction, shifts in nature. It’s such a complicated thing, I don’t know what to make of it. And what complicates it even more is that the goals two people have are not always common ones. You end up dealing with these hidden agendas.
Do you think if you’d had a more stable family environment as a child that you would be less confused about what love is?
Yes. If you don’t have good examples, you don’t know what you’re shooting for. That’s why I deal with idealism, because I don’t have real solid examples to work from. I grew up with my stepmother. My parents were nowhere to be found. There’s no getting around that. It definitely makes you go, “What is love?” They say they love me; love me means don’t live with me. I don’t understand.
It’s not the complete excuse, because I’m old enough now to understand certain things that maybe I couldn’t before. But I’m still having trouble getting it to sit in the right place. I’m sure I’m a big part of the problem.
Are you cynical?
I think that’s an element of it. I still spend a lot of time thinking about what a 15-year-old must be thinking right now. Because that is the predominant audience that you’re going to be relating to. And there are still a lot of issues from that time of my life that are unresolved.
I don’t trust people for shit. It’s a sad thing to reach a point where people genuinely like you, approve of you, are coming to your concerts and basically reinforcing what you’re doing – and you can’t feel it. There’s no way to penetrate it. You’re looking for the absurd, the anomaly, to prove something to yourself. Real-life affirmation is that you’re a good person, but that isn’t enough. You need bigger, grandiose ways.
How much of that do you trace back to your childhood?
A lot. Not all. There are a lot of issues that would have been there no matter who I grew up with. But it exacerbated it. I’ll say this: I did not know how to protect myself from the world. I went out in the world, made some good, shot my mouth off and got my head beaten in. If you’re a desperate person, an insecure person, and go to such great lengths as to have a rock band to satiate those insecurities, something is not right.
A lot of that stuff is resolving in me now. I hope you don’t misunderstand. I’m so much more positive than I used to be. I’m just saying that we’re living in a world that is projecting fantasy at every step of the way, and the sad thing is that the fall from that is a lot harsher than the reality itself.
You’ve talked a lot about your parents’ divorce, the way you were shuffled around among relatives. But do you remember anything good about growing up?
I remember a lot of freedom. The lack of the family structure certainly gave me a lot of freedom. I did have responsibilities. I did have to take care of my little brother. But within that, I could just do whatever I wanted to do. I remember reading a lot, playing a lot, doing a lot of dumb things.
What did you read?
I read Rudyard Kipling, escapist kinds of things: The Jungle Book, The Diary of Anne Frank. Books on philosophy, Nietzsche. I read a lot of crazy shit. Maybe it was some kind of weird preparation to take on the world [laughs].
It’s hard for me to talk about those times because it’s like they almost don’t exist. I’ve negated them. It’s very painful.
What was the first record you bought?
The first one I can remember buying was Meet the Beatles! at a garage sale for 5 cents. We had other records lying around when I was 5 or 6. Having a Rave Up With the Yardbirds, [Stevie Wonder‘s] Songs in the Key of Life, Jimi Hendrix albums. And weird stuff like the Delfonics. Al Green.
I was never into punk rock. I liked Blondie, but all that other New York stuff like Talking Heads never rang true for me. I grew up on ’70s radio. Cheap Trick were the ultimate band. I think the Pumpkins just picked up from where that left off. The retro tag has always been way off to me. I want to punch people.
You’ve also cited Black Sabbath as an influence.
That’s the sonic obsession. Those are some of the best-sounding records ever made. You can argue about the ethics behind them, but that doesn’t matter. Masters of Reality sounded pretty awesome to my wee ears, with the doubled Ozzy vocals. Right there you pretty much have the Pumpkins’ sound: that voice cutting through the thick guitars.
Did you ever see your father play gigs when you were young?
I certainly didn’t see him in his prime. He never really kept any tapes or anything. I’ve seen him play, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a great musician. But I never got to see him in his element.
He never really played with successful bands. He played with people who’d been in Rufus, things like that. One of his claims to fame for me was he was invited to be in the Amboy Dukes before Ted Nugent. I said, “Why didn’t you take the job?” And he said, “Because I was making more money than the Amboy Dukes were.” There you go: The rock & roll train had its boxcar door open, and he could have jumped in [laughs].
Did you ever pick up your father’s guitars and try to play?
We had guitars lying everywhere. Never picked one up. I think part of the vibe was, I wasn’t supposed to. I opened the cases and looked at ’em. I remember seeing a nice ’67 white Stratocaster, the kind Hendrix played. But it never really dawned on me.
Then I saw my friend playing in his basement, and that was it. Saved up all my birthday money, bought a guitar. I remember it was April 1, and the first day I got it I practiced for four hours. It was literally four hours a day, forever. I would take the guitar to the relatives’ house and sit in the upstairs bedroom, playing away.
Did your father take any interest in your playing?
You’re getting into the minefield there. There’s a lot of dynamics that went on there that are kind of tricky to get in to. All I can say is that I don’t think my father was as supportive as he could have been. And that extends beyond playing guitar into the band’s career. I think he knows that. I don’t say it to be mean and cruel. I just don’t think he was as supportive as he could have been. And I think a lot of people around me thought he was, because he was a musician. But it was almost like the opposite.
I want to talk about your experiences in therapy.
I’m reluctant to talk about this subject because I feel it’s been trivialized. For someone who has complained about his life as much as I have, you’d think that going to therapy would be seen as a positive attempt to improve one’s life. Instead it’s turned into some kind of caricature sign of what a fuckup I am.
But what has therapy done for you that playing music didn’t?
That’s a pretty valid question. The kind of therapy that I’ve gone to has its roots in Jungian therapy, but mine is more spiritually based. I think what going did is emphasize my life. The band and my music do not emphasize my life. I needed someone I could respect – who didn’t need something from me, didn’t want something from me – who could talk to me about me. Because everyone else around me in some sense is leaning on me or pulling or needing or asking. It’s always that kind of thing: “Where’s this all coming from?”
Yeah, I get paid, I get patted on the head. But I also go through a lot that in some ways is in direct opposition to having a good life. Worrying about being on the cover of Rolling Stone – in light of finding happiness and having a sense of purpose and thinking about raising a family – is not very important. But if you’re in a rock band, it’s a big deal. So which side of the fence are you living on?
Do you bounce back and forth over that fence?
You have to. On one side of the fence, you have a constructive life. You’re a writer; I’m a musician. You’ve made good; I’ve made good. We have a reputation, people respect us.
On the other hand, you have you, the you your mother talks to. The you that sits there and eats cornflakes while you watch Geraldo. That’s not in the other construct. That’s just the you that’s living and surviving. You think I want to be in that mixing studio 20 hours a day? No, I wanted to go lie down. I wanted to watch the O.J. trial.
But those are not ambitions. My ambitions drive me. My desires drive me but in direct opposition to what is natural. Especially if you’ve got a million bucks. Go buy a log cabin and live in the woods. Don’t get a TV.
Have you considered the log-cabin option?
Absolutely. It’s not very rock & roll, but you need to think about it. I’m not quite ready to give up the rock & roll ship.
But you envision a time when you will.
Or take myself out of the ring and accept the consequences of that. Neil Young‘s taken himself out of the ring, and then he puts himself back in when he wants to. I have paramount respect for him. The man who wrote “Harvest Moon” is the same man who wrote “Cinnamon Girl.” And that’s a great example for me to look at, that is a possibility for my future.
If you’re the fuck-up misanthrope, what do you want? You want everybody to like you. You want everyone to think you’re cool. So you build this grand scheme to do it. And when you actually pull it off, you’re not in a grand hurry to go, “Oh, well, I didn’t want it anyway.” It’s what you always wanted.
Yet the time will come when you’re just not cool anymore.
Even at the age I’m at, I can see the forest through the trees. I’m looking and saying, “When does this shift come?” It may not come for another five to seven years, but it has to be part of the equation.
People say, “What if this new album isn’t really successful?” Well, it’s the end of the band. “Well, that seems kind of shallow.” No, because I’m not going to have people view our double album as a complete artistic failure. I’m not going to be playing live while people are whispering in the back about what we could have been. Fuck that. The band is too good, too real, to be surrounded by this cluck-clucking of the tongue.
There comes a time. There’s the ebb and flow. And you accept it.
Is there any new music out there that gives you a rush – or a sense of competition?
I swear to God, I wish there was more good music out. How can I feel any sense of competition with Rancid? It’s a good band; I think the guy [Tim Armstrong] writes good songs. But it doesn’t have all those 10 other factors that make you look in your drink and go, “Fuck!”
Like when I listened to early Soundgarden. It was all the fucking heavy metal power that any band could ever muster, and it wasn’t dumb, and the guy [Chris Cornell] could sing his fucking ass off. You go, “My God, how do I compete with that?” And you go, “Fuck, we’ll find a way. We’ll find our own way.” Some of the best shows the Smashing Pumpkins ever played were where we were billed with Hole. Total visceral competition – like “I’ll fucking show her” [laughs].
That’s what rock & roll is about. We’re headed to disco again. That’s all I can figure out.
Have you come to the end of the road with the standard rock & roll format: two guitars, bass and drums?
There are still people doing really valid work. The Flaming Lips are a good example. But, yeah, we’re at the end of the wellspring. Then again, suddenly some 15-year-old kid will come along. It’ll be another Kurt, another guy who somehow shatters all those preconceptions. It could happen. But I don’t feel it. We lose our innocence so fast. We become so jaded.
OK, after the Beatles, there were a lot of sub-Beatles, and after Nirvana, a lot of sub-Nirvanas. But what’s distressing is the major media. If all those sub-Beatles weren’t on TV, who would care? The message being sent to bands on the way up now is that it’s better to be like this than to be yourself. It’s better to be like Better Than Ezra.
Maybe there will be a rebellion, kids going, “What the fuck is this crap?” But for now, the future of rock looks bleak.
[Laughs] Look, I’m whining again.
This story appeared in the November 16, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.