Smoke & Mirrors
by Christopher Scapelliti
Guitar World April 2000
TIRED OF BARING HIS SOUL, SMASHING PUMPKINS LEADER BILLY CORGAN CRANKS UP HIS GUITAR AND BECOMES AN INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY.
"If I see one more story that says I don't look like a rock star, I'm gonna puke!"
Billy Corgan snarls with frustration, his forehead furrowed beneath his imposing shaved head. He's not in the process of reading an article about his band, the Smashing Pumpkins, nor has the subject of his appearance come up even once during the entire afternoon.
In fact, at the moment that Corgan makes his entirely unprovoked proclamation, he's simply stretching out his hulking, six-foot-plus frame, having spent the past few hours sitting down to discuss the Smashing Pumpkins' latest album, MACHINA/The machines of God (Virgin). Lounging nearby, Pumpkins guitarist James
lha smiles at Corgan's announcement and shoots me a knowing look. This, it would seem, is Corgan's oblique way of attempting to exercise editorial control.
Like he cares. As Corgan has made clear over the course of our lengthy interview, he doesn't give a damn anymore what the media say about him or the Smashing Pumpkins, much less what theories they - or anyone else, for that matter - care to pose about the state of affairs in Pumpkin World. Over the past few months, he's valiantly struggled to keep silent about the group's inner turbulence: how drummer Jimmy Chamberlain returned to the fold following his battle with heroin; why bassist D'Arcy Wretzky defected from the group last September, and how the Pumpkins replaced her with Melissa Auf der Maur, former bassist for Courtney Love's group, Hole. Corgan continued to hold his tongue even when the Pumpkins' former manager Sharon Osbourne publicly grumbled about his "mind games" and severed her tes to the group this past January.
Because, truth be told, he's sick to death of spilling his guts.
"I think that, long ago, the Pumpkins made an artistic decision to be so unflinchingly truthful that it was jarring to the public," he explains. "We were a very visceral band, publicly, personally and onstage. And we rode that storm until what was pure and from our hearts became like a cartoon. Everybody started to make assumptions about us about who we were and what we felt.
"And about 18 months ago, I decided I'd had enough of it. See, there's a literal difference between what I am and what I feel, and
what I want people to know.
"And, frankly, I don't want anyone to know anything about me anymore."
Things have certainly changed in the two years since we last checked in on Mr. Corgan. At that time, the Pumpkins were preparing to release Adore, a valentine of an album whose gentle romanticism took the group away from the indie-rock sound that had characterized it's previous records. Simultaneously Corgan was attached to then-new albums from Hole and Marilyn Manson - Celebrity Skin and Mechanical Animals, respectively - having served as artistic counsel and muse for both releases. It was a time of great expectations, during which Corgan felt poised to assert his position as a Svengali for Nineties alt-rock.
The buying public, however, had other things in mind. The Hole and Manson records, while highly anticipated, sank in the charts. Adore fared better, eventually attaining multii-Platinum status; yet the album's impact was less than astonishing, and Corgan was criticized for breaking with the Pumpkins' hard-rock past. To add insult to injury, Courtney Love publicly rebuked him for allegedly claiming a larger share of the credit for Celebrity Skin than he deserved.
"For me, that period of time is distinguished by what went on emotionally, not by the things that happened or didn't happen," Corgan says today. "I think there were possibilities there - opportunities for me to accomplish the things I had hoped to. But now, when I look back, I think that I just didn't have it in me to follow through on everything that I set into motion. Most people would agree that going through a divorce and losing a band member and one's mother within one year - it just took a lot of wind out of my sails. I was in some sort of weird denial, thinking that I could just keep going and going.
"So while there was a lot of vision and foresight in my goals, I - as 'The Little Engine That Could' didn't quite get up the hill."
But Corgan - and the Pumpkins - are nothing if not resilient. Since releasing its first album, Gish, in 1991, the group has remained one of the decade's most unsinkable acts. Siamese Dream, the band's 1993 sophomore effort, took it into rarified territory with the modern-rock hits "Cherub Rock" and "Today," while the 1994 compilation Pisces Iscariot and 1995's double-disc set Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness showed the group could continue its ascent, even as alt-rock was in decline.
It was at the height of the Pumpkins' popularity that gravity began to take hold. In 1996, while on tour for Mellon Collie, Chamberlain and Jonathan Melvoin, the
group's touring keyboardist, overdosed on heroin, resulting in Melvoin's death and Chamberlain's dismissal from the group. That misadventure, combined with the muted reception that greeted Adore's release in early 1998, only reinforced the perception that the Pumpkins might be headed in the direction of their alt-rock peers.
The first sign that the group had bounced back came in early 1999, when it was announced that a drug-free Chamberlain was rejoining the band. With producer Flood in tow, the group retired to the studio to record MACHINA/ The Machines of God, its first album in four years to feature all four original members. The second indication came in late 1999 when radio stations began playing "The Everlasting Gaze," the hard-rocking lead-off track from MACHINA. With its snaky riff
and insistent, driving-to-hell drum beat, the song establishes the ominous spirit that permeates the new album, making it easily the must sonically bruising Pumpkins record since Gish.
But while MACHINA finds the Pumpkins back on familiar sonic territory, lyrically the album represents Corgan at his most obscure. Personae and points of view change mid-song, and cryptic references to God, love, life, death and career seldom gel into cohesive themes. On the surface, the record appears to offer a tantalizing glimpse into the mind and soul of Billy Corgan following the difficulties of the past two years. But as Corgan tells it: "This album actually has very little to
do with me. Anything in there that seems to make an obvious inference to me or my life is just a decoy; a way of confusing people and throwing them off the trail."
And so with great curiosity - and a greater amount of patience - we sat down with Corgan one winter day in Chicago to discuss his group's latest musical escapades, the enduring spirit of the Smashing Pumpkins, and Corgan's own newfound resolve to outwit his fellow humans, the cosmos, maybe even
God himself. As Billy himself so aptly puts it: "I think it's safe to say that in Pumpkin World, nothing is ever as it seems."
GUITAR WORLD: In light of everything that has happened to you and the Pumpkins since Adore came out, how have you changed over these past two years?
BILLY CORGAN: I think that, as an artist, I drew a line in the sand with Adore. It was my way of saying I wasn't gonna become a victim of the record industry and the preconceptions of what music can be about. And I think that, as a band, we showed that we don't want to keep pressing the "happy" button and pretending
everything's okay. I'm really proud of that time period. I know from a public point of view it seems like a bit of a confused time: Jimmy was out of the group, and Adore was such a departure from our previous direction. But I think that privately, within the band, it was the point of resolution for everything that we set out to do. People view success as a resolution, but for us it wasn't. Finding the strength to express what's important to us and to do the music we want to do - that was
our resolution point.
GW: Was Jimmy Chamberlain's departure responsible for the softer, ambient approach you took on Adore?
CORGAN: I think we were heading in that direction anyway. It's hard to hypothesize today, but I think if Jimmy had been in the band at that time, we still would have made an "unplugged" sort of record. There's no way we would have made another rock record - no way in hell. Mellon Collie and the Infinite
Sadness was our way of saying "good-bye" to one side of the band and "hello" to another. You can divide the tracks on that record into experimental songs that give a hint of what was to come on Adore, and songs that represent the final run of the high-flying psychedelic rock band called the Smashing Pumpkins.
That's really what Mellon Collie was all about.
Mellon Collie was an obvious album, and we knew it was. At the time that we made it, we felt that the alt-rock version of heavy metal was becoming passe and it was time to give it a rest. We also knew that people expected another alt-rock album from us, and we felt we still had one more album of alt-rock in us. So we continued in that direction, but we also did songs like "1979" as a way to suggest the next direction we would take. And I know this sounds like revisionist history, but if we had decided not to do Mellon Collie, our next album would have been like Adore. That was the direction we would have chosen - to embrace technology and find a way to balance the folk and the quieter aspects of the band against the rhythm.
GW: So, in a sense, MACHINA brings you full circle: Jimmy is back in the band and, at least for the making of this record, the original Pumpkins lineup is together again and making hard rock music.
CORGAN: That would be an accurate way of viewing it.
GW: Did it feel like you picked up where you left off?
CORGAH: [laughs] Pretty much, yeah. It didn't really feel like any time had paused.
GW: What led to the decision to bring Jimmy back into the band?
CORGAN: That's a tough one to explain. I think it was meant that he should leave the group, and it was meant that he should come back. I know people would like it to be spelled out in some easy-to-understand sort of way, but for us it's more metaphysical.
GW: Was it frustrating to have D'Arcy leave, right at the time when the group was back on its feet?
CORGAN: Let's put D'Arcy's situation into context: She's 31, and she's been in the band for 11 years. More than one-third of her life was spent in the band. That's a significant chunk of time. Life moves on. This gooes back to the ethics of the band: success is fun and great, but as four people, we have always put our needs as individuals first. I don't think we have ever felt that what goes on in the band is more important than what goes on in our personal lives. It simply comes down to this: the band does what the band wants to do, not what any one person in the band wants to do. As much as people have tried to make me out to be this awful dictator, no one in the band has ever been forced to do anything, and we've all done things by agreement. It's so hard to explain, because the band is like a
magical marriage. We came from four completely different backgrounds, and I can't say we have a lot in common as people; in fact, we have very different interests. The first thing we all connected with was music, but beyond that we have totally different backgrounds.
Jimnny Page could be sitting here right now and tell you why Led Zeppelin worked; Tony Iommi could be sitting here right now and tell you why Black Sabbath worked. But you know what? They don't know. And neither do I. It's so beyond our comprehension to understand why the four of us clicked and became one of the biggest bands in the world, or why other bands have had the same sort of thing happen to them. If you could explain it, if you could bottle it, believe me, somebody would have figured out how to do it by now. And they would have gotten four better-looking people than us.
GW: Is the door open to D'Arcy, should she want to come back at some point?
CORGAN: We don't even think about things in that way. Our relationship with D'Arcy as a human being is 10 times greater than our relationship with D'Arcy as a musician. And if you take that statement in the context of everything we've ever done - how we've pushed boundaries and refused to be categorized - I think it says a lot about who we are as people. It doesn't say a lot about who we are as a band, because if we were so concerned about the band, we would have done things a lot differently, I think.
GW: How are things working out with Melissa?
CORGAN: They're great. Rehearsals have gone really well.
GW: How did you happen to choose her?
CORGAN: That was an easy choice, really - there was no one else to consider. We've known her for a long time, and she's been a friend, so the choice was easy to make.
CW: As for Courtney Love...
CORGAN: [long sustained shriek]
GW: . ..have you heard any response from her about Melissa joining the Pumpkins?
CORGAN: I've got nothin' to say about that. I can understand the questions about Jimmy and D'Arcy and Melissa. But Courtney's not in the picture.
CW: You are aware, though, that people wonder about the dynamics between you and Courtney, and how Melissa's decision to join the Pumpkins affects your relationship with Courtney
CORGAN: Listen: I suppose if I thought it would sell records, I would be telling you everything that's gone on behind the scenes of Meliasa joining this hand. But I think that information is more of a prurient interest than a rock and roll necessity.
CW: On that note, let's talk abouts MACHINA. Did you make a conscious decision to return to heavy metal with this album?
CORGAN: Now there's a good question. [laughs] No, it wasn't a conscious decision, just as it wasn't a conscious decision for us to make a softer record when we made Adore. There's no faking heavy metal. Not in our world. I don't know why this album ended up sounding this way. I'm not being coy, but I don't have any explanation for this stuff. It just sort of shows up at your doorstep.
To elaborate, I can tell you that for the two or three very heavy songs on MACHINA, there are 12 heavy songs that we didn't put on, because it just didn't feel right: it lelt like we were repeating ourselves and digging up old bones. What's on the record is what we feel: if it sounds angry, it is angry, and if it
sounds pretty, it's pretty. There's no fakery in our world. Believe me, when we're faking, we're as bad as it gets.
GW: Unlike your previous albums, this one isn't especially riff heavy.
CORGAN: If you can look at our evolution from the first album to this album, we totally explored riff rock, and then we just got bored with it. And after you explore riff rock, the only thing to do is what the Beatles did, which is explore melody. So MACHINA is literally the other side of where we began. To me, riff
rock is frustrating: when you've got a great riff, it's deadly, but when you don't, forget it. Unfortunately, I would venture to say that, these days, there aren't that many great riffs left. It's rare that you escape the trap of rewriting an earlier riff. And once you think you have escaped it, you come across some Deep Purple bootleg and realize that Ritchie Blackmore was there 27 years before you.
GW: What music were you listening to at the time you made this album?
CORGAN: The number-one rock stuff I was listening to was Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. I've been listening to it for the past year. I bought a bunch of Rainbow bootlegs when we were in Japan - it's Rainbow at its absolute peak, around 1977. It's not the same style as our music, but it is everything we ever wanted to be as a live band. I was also listening to Black Sabbath. I can never get tired of Black Sabhath.
GW: Adore started out as a quiet album, with songs that were built around your demos. Along the way, you decided to scrap all of your work and start over. Did MACHINA have a similar evolution, or are the released versions of the songs what you first envisioned?
CORGAN: Actually, many of the songs took a number of different directions over the course of their evolution.