By Mark Guarino
The Chicago rock visionary begs the question: “What do you do with a 38-year-old alternative rock icon that made an album that doesn’t sound like what he’s known for, goes on tour, doesn’t play his old songs or keep his mouth shut and looks kind of crazy?”
Alongside Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, Billy Corgan is the most recognizable face of ‘90s alternative rock. When the Smashing Pumpkins bowed out in 2000, the future looked bright. Zwan, his supergroup of indie rock veterans, delivered a tasty debut album of buoyant guitar pop. But things fizzled soon after and Corgan faced a challenge familiar to most former frontmen used to filling stadiums: how to stay relevant without ripping off your past.
Corgan’s debut solo album “The Future Embrace” (Warner Bros./Reprise), was recently released the same day he announced he is in pursuit of the next phase of the Pumpkins. That’s still in limbo. Meanwhile, he is settling into a home he recently purchased in Highland Park and is much more reflexive, insisting in an almost hour-long interview that he’s not the tortured soul he’s made out to be and wants people to realize a rock star is far less interesting than a rock artist.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: How was making this album different for you knowing it would be released under your own name and not a band?
A: I really didn’t give it much thought. I have to say I was really kind of naïve about the whole thing I didn’t really think it was much of a big deal because I had so much to do with the other records, as far as the producing and the writing.
Q: The lyrics seem to be much more personal and upbeat than anything from the Pumpkins.
A: I honestly didn’t give it that much thought either (laughs). I wrote the lyrics really quickly. I see what people see in that now. I think I’m just more clear in my life. So I don’t think I was trying to write clearer lyrics so much as I just got clear.
A: Why is that?
Q: I think I made more serious decisions about what I want to do. I put more emphasis on the past three years. My personal life has been a complete disaster. And that’s been very helpful. I got rid of a lot of negative forces around me. I’m extremely suspicious of the music business and all its permutations. I’ve come to some sort of decisions about what it is that you want. I got out of a passive aggressive relationship with the business part of it. I just feel more at peace and it comes to a point from being mature where you don’t have to mince words, you say what you’re thinking. I’m kind of okay with that.
Q: One thing I noticed about you is that you became much more visible in Chicago lately. Not as a big rock star, but on a more hands-on level, giving poetry readings, playing an acoustic show at Metro, hosting an open mic series at the Hideout. I remember seeing you, week after week, simply hang out at the back of that bar talking to people, something that never would have happened during your Pumpkins days.
A: I think Chicago’s been great because it’s afforded me the ability to try out some new concepts I have as far as how I want to be an artist. Fame has its own resonance. It seems to have gotten in the way of me accomplishing what I want to do. Even in the current context, instead of being celebrated for being an auteur or a visionary, people still keep talking about my past or what I’m not doing or what he’s supposed to sound like, all this stuff. And Chicago’s been generous with me allowing me to try out new things. And I think having done that over the last three years I want to take those concepts into a bigger width beyond Chicago.
Q: Was there a moment during the Pumpkins you realized fame was creating a disconnect from artistic growth?
A: I think musically I’ve persisted in my vision. I don’t think it’s altered me that much. But (it has) personally, through interactions with fans. You know, there’s this sort of weird thing … I learned early on. That people want you to be a rock star. They want you to be crazy or be on drugs or mysterious. They don’t want you to be normal. In fact if you’re normal, they’ll attack you. The same goes for the media. The media will take someone on if you’re too arrogant and then they’ll turn around and celebrate someone else for their arrogance because they like their music. There’s this weird double standard that goes on. And I reached a point where I thought, “I don’t want any of this.” The old thinking about rock stardom is dead. It doesn’t really work anymore. I call it the Elvis Model. Eminem is someone who is still on the pedigree of the Elvis Model. This cult of personality where everybody’s fascinated and wants to know everything about the person. Maybe it’s rap’s turn to have the Elvis Model. In terms of white rock and roll, I think it’s been pretty much played out. I’m looking for a new way to make it happen. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but the culture that the internet is bringing into everybody’s life is very much in line with the ability to have new paradigms. There’s different level of interactivity, different levels of connection, and how can it be used to an artistic advantage and not just as the promotional tool? That’s what I’ve been trying to do. How can you achieve … a personal indie feel but with whole world? And the internet really affords that.
Q: Promotion is part of your website, but it seems to mainly serve as an open diary for public view. And a lot of it has been surprisingly frank.
A: I reserve the right to be a human being (laughs). And I don’t give a (expletive) if it’s affected my record sales. Because I think that me the human being is much more interesting, because it’s me the human being that’s writing these songs. As much as everyone puts me into this tortured artist mode, I spend a lot of hours eating cereal and watching sports. I understand that contradicts with everybody’s picture. But that guy wrote those songs. In combination with the crazy part of me.
Q: You recently bought a home on the North Shore. What made you finally settle back in Chicago?
A: That was a whole set of complicated things. It goes back to the story of my dad …. Not that he was a failed musician, but he always talked about how he wanted to be famous. And growing up in Chicago in the ‘70s, the implication was if you wanted to be famous, you had to leave. I grew up with this basic notion that one day I’d have to leave. And leaving will equal success. And I explored living in L.A. at one point and I did move to New York. I did move my stuff to live with my girlfriend and start this whole new life. And it just wasn’t me. The lifestyle in Chicago is totally in line with who I am as a human being. I think it’s an incredible city. I feel really warm when I’m home, if that makes any sense … I feel like if I decided to not play another note, my place in Chicago as a person and as a citizen is secure. I feel I don’t have to live up to something of every minute of every day. As soon as I leave the gates of the city, you’re constantly being reminded of what you don’t do. As opposed to what you did do or what you stand for. I feel really loved in the city and that played a big part of me coming home. It’s like my safe place to be.
Q: You’re talking about being fed up being seen as tortured but isn’t that the result of coming from the alternative rock era, where the music itself was darker and more dangerous and was being marketed as music made by tortured souls? Are you a victim of the era you helped launch?
A: I can trace roots back to when we were first doing national interviews. There was a weird bias from the New York and L.A. press because we were from Chicago. I’ve seen Black Sabbath talk about this because they were from Birmingham. The London press would treat them as second class citizens. We had that in the beginning. The first time we came in with these savvy, hip New York writers, they were all over us about our influences, making fun of us being in to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. And being typical Chicagoans, we were like, “(expletive) you!” (laughs) We didn’t namecheck the bands you’re supposed to be into. We never played that game. And that set up a contentious air to begin with. On top of that, I basically picked a fight with the Chicago music scene for ignoring us and that didn’t help either (laughs). So I think those two things fed into it. And my general thing is, pick a fight with me, I’ll fight back. I didn’t make any friends there and that just started it. And when the information came out that I was primarily making the records outside the drums, people turned it into this other thing that I was this tyrant svengali as opposed to me doing what I was doing, which was covering for my bandmates. And it steamrolled from there … It doesn’t really matter. Whatever you are is what you are. It doesn’t matter what I say. Whatever that fake Billy Corgan is, you can either go with it, fight with it, roll with it, have a good time with it. I think having a good time with it is the way to go.
Q: Do you feel any connection to the Chicago music scene today?
A: No, I feel really disconnected from the local music scene. That’s got a lot to do with being famous. It’s not comfortable hanging in a club with 200 people because everybody’s going to either stare at me, talk to me or ask me to listen to their CD. When I’m home I want to be home. I just want to be quiet. Because when I’m not home I’m out getting my brains knocked out, running around trying to sell records. As far as the local music scene, I’ve been very happy to see that so many other people had success. If we can take credit for anything, we broke the barrier that you could succeed out of Chicago. We were the band that broke that 20-plus year spell that there was no success coming out of the city.
Q: But the pendulum has swung back. The new generation of kids are assaulted by corporate product like “American Idol” that the concept of indie music seems more and more foreign. I asked Chris Cornell this spring if Soundgarden would break through today and he said no. What about the Pumpkins?
A: Gee, I don’t even know. I would like to think so. We were a good band, I think we would have been able to repeat it. I don’t know if we would have the same opportunities. We were given some tremendous opportunities by our record label to find an audience. There was a consistency of support that paid off for everybody in the long run. But now, I don’t think we would have gotten that second record. It’s hard to say. I keep a basic eye on what’s going on. And I watch people flailing about in their videos and there’s a level of desperation in their eyes and it’s sad because it’s true. I mean, they got to get it done right now. And even if you sell some records, you might as well tighten that noose around your neck because that level of expectation is not going to go away. You’re not going to be able to have that off record because let’s say times change and your audience moves a little bit and you need to recalibrate and find a new audience, you’re not going to get that third record. I’ve been working with some young bands lately and it’s amazing the amount of pressure they’re under to get it right, right away. Anyway, I hate the music business, how’s that? Put that in big capital letters.
Q: You seem to be gunning for a position that was more in vogue in the ‘70s: the auteur.
A: Yeah, I think it’s hard for people to understand. I’m a public artist. I can create music on my own. I have probably seven albums worth of material sitting there unreleased. For the most part, the whole point is you make the music and then you play the music. And somehow I signed some contract along the way that because I once was in the biggest band in the world, everything I do must be titanic and momentous. And I’ve fought really hard to put my stake in the ground here and say I’m going to do the work I need to do. Because not everything I do is meant for everybody … “The Future Embrace” is not for everybody. It’s not going to be for somebody who’s a mainstream rock and roll fan who loves 3 Doors Down. They’d be much happier with a Smashing Pumpkins greatest hits CD. There’s a sort of comfort there. People forget I got to that position of making music that was … powerful mainstream music because I willing to take chances and find who I was and carve an individualistic identity. Having done that, at some point, it just runs out of gas and you have to start over. But in your thirties, how do you start over? You’re supposed to be like everyone else, get in line and do power ballads. And I just won’t do it. I’m in a difficult position. It’s a horrible time in the business, to try to be artistic. And unfortunately, half the world insists on me being somebody they didn’t care for 10 years ago. The shadow of this guy that I created and was happy to create but I’m supposed to still live there. So I’m fighting really hard to keep my autonomy here. It’s very difficult but I feel like I’m making inroads. The fact that the audiences are predominantly young is an incredible sign. And I go see other bands that are my generation and they’re playing to a lot of 30-plus year olds. Which is not bad, but it means they’re not finding anybody new. I think the soil that is being tilled here will pay dividends but it’s very hard for people to see. Kelly Clarkson, Coldplay and me. And I’m supposed to be what?
A: The same old guy.
A: Yeah right. Can you imagine if I made “A Rat In the Cage Part Two” and what they would be saying about that?
Q: I hear a lot of New Order on the new album and I know you’re fan. Were you thinking about them going in?
A: I wanted to try different dynamics. Having played with New Order, and of course they were also playing Joy Division songs, I got to hear how intimately they created what I would call their heaviness. Which is completely the opposite of say, the Pumpkins heaviness. It’s more rhythmic based. I started there, having never gone fully into the notion of how to create heaviness with rhythm. In doing that, you have to make overt sacrifices. One thing is you can’t slop 80 guitars on. So one of the most critical decisions I made making the record was okay, there’s going to be one guitar per song. For me, you might as well have to tie hands behind my back. But it was really great because it forced me to play a different style of guitar and I found out some interesting stuff along the way that I think will now, if I move back to playing rock, will invest that music with more freshness. I feel really invigorated again about playing guitar. Like in Zwan, I felt like I was constantly hitting a brick wall. I was playing guitar but I didn’t feel like I was saying anything new and in some ways, I wasn’t really saying something old (laughs). Because I was trying to avoid my style of guitar because I didn’t want to stamp the Pumpkins sound on the Zwan sound.
Q: I want to talk to you about the “Chicago Songs” project. Awhile back at a special Metro solo show, you debuted these acoustic songs inspired by the city’s history and I was struck by the song “Riverview,” a haunting blues song about driving down Western Ave. at night near where the famed amusement park once stood. Having grown up here, how do you take something so familiar to everyone and give it a mystery that immediately makes it unfamiliar?
A: Starting around the “Adore” period, I started to immerse myself in American roots music. Starting with Dylan and working my way back to Leadbelly and Son House and all these people. I kind of listened to that stuff but I never had gone there. What’s really fascinating about blues music, which is often considered to be the simplest music, it has enormous complexity in terms of how it uses symbols. Somehow, it must be because of my familiarity or just reading some stuff, but these symbols came pouring out of me. My dad talked to me about Riverview, he talked to me about the racial tensions there, and somewhere in there, there’s these loose symbols. So somehow they come spilling out. I don’t know how else to explain it. There’s certainly a loose narrative. There’s a link in a line like, “cruising down Western Avenue at midnight/riding on the center line.” I know that feeling. I’ve done it.
Q: There’s something about Chicago that, at different times of a day, one streetcorner can become a completely different place. Your lyric certainly captures the creepiness of how a routine street like Western feels like at night.
A: Yeah, Chicago has kind of softened over the last 20 or 30 years. But being 38, I remember Chicago being little colder. The Chicago of my parents was a little colder. A little more industrial, a little more working class, bare knuckes. I kind of remember that. I can still taste that part of the city. And that’s kind of what I like about the Chicago songs, is underneath, there’s still blood in those gutters (laughs). The city was formed basically because of an out of control run of industrial power and the mob and crooked cops and crooked politicians. It’s still sort of in there and I kind of like that.
Q: What’s the ultimate end goal for you before you’re finished?
A: I really want to shift what it means to do what I do. In the most simplest of terms, people accept that a painter does sketches, does paintings, has periods where they’re off and they’re on. And … at some point, everybody’s going to sit back and see bigger deal and ask, “what does this mean?” Being in a pop rock construct, it’s too … minute by minute. For a long time, photography was not considered real art. It was considered something that anybody can do, big deal. But now prices at auction reflect that it’s being taken seriously as a real art form. So I think ultimately there’s room for rock and roll at the table of the austere for a deeper review of one’s life work. It’s always complicated when something is popular culture. Because there’s weird mix of commerce, public demand and the artist. There are some artists, and you can take me out of this if you want, but there are some artists that if you step back, a Johnny Cash, there’s a deeper well of the work. It goes beyond, “did Johnny have a hit in ’62?” I would like to see my art form move forward into the deeper well of honor and respect and not wait until people are dead to get that. Why did we have to wait until (Johnny Cash) was dead or wait until he was 70-something years old to go, “oh, wow, you’re great!” Johnny Cash should have been celebrated for being an American hero for 50 years, not for five. And that’s a really big, big downside of our culture.
Q: It comes down to a mass dumbing down, which may be a result of the limited topics and products the gatekeepers of our culture let in.
A: Yeah, I don’t understand. I’ll do a fairly in-depth interview with a major paper and … The writer is smart enough to ask the questions and I’m smart enough to answer them but somehow they don’t end up in the interview. And it has to be this lowest common denominator notion. The reason (Chicago has) such a great art museum is because somewhere along the way some rich people in Chicago decided that the common people could appreciate real art. This obsession with numbers and popularity is really kind of strange. You would think that the best papers and the best writers would focus on what defines art. And of course they should cover culture. But art seems to be brought down to the cultural level but does the culture rise to level of art? That, to me, is ultimately disappointing. As a quote-unquote “rock star,” if I say I’m an artist, it’s like “yeah, you’re an artist. Sure.”
Q: There’s distrust.
A: Yeah. I’ve achieved a lot more than most artists have. The way people look at videos, the way they look at album artwork, they way they look at sound, the way they play their instruments, the way they think about lyrics. Why is not that relevant? Just because it doesn’t fit into some predetermined categories. So, that’s my own personal mission. I’d like to see paradigm shift into something deeper. I think it will happen. If you look at Bob Dylan alone, the influence he’s had on the last century is titanic. Does it matter he never had a platinum record? That is just so absolutely inconsequential.
Q: What’s your relationship with Warner Bros./Reprise, your new label post Pumpkins?
A: On the plus side, they’ve been very supportive of the artistic depth of the record. On the business side they’re clueless. They’re totally clueless. They do not know what to do with me. It’s as if I’ve dropped out of the sky. I’ve played … probably 600 concerts at this point. People know who I am, they certainly have their opinions. But I’m literally running into “no one knows who you are anymore” and it’s like, this is insane. There is an audience who will respond if they are spoken to in the correct way. The assumption is they won’t. The dumbed-down concept. I get a lot of shoulder shrugging. “They don’t want to play the record.” Well, there’s a lot of way to communicate to people … I’ll say this about all the labels, that they’re in the business of protecting their business. To make sure, when the internet pie is divvied up, that they’re still at the table. That seems to be the primary goal now and I don’t blame them. If it were my business, that’s what I would be doing. But meanwhile, there are people out here making records, standing on their backs at some level to prop up their business … Unfortunately, the basic message is, if I was making the same music I was making 10 years ago, I’d be in a pretty good spot. Which is a pretty strange thing. No one will come out and just say it, but that’s the undertoe.
Q: I was in Paris three weeks ago and saw your face on posters everywhere, a promotional push that was nonexistent when I came home.
A: Well, my stature in Europe has grown as an artist because … There’s just this level of respect that goes beyond whether or not you sell records. Here, your respect in the culture is tied to whether you sell records. Occasionally someone rises above that, but that’s rare and I’m way beyond that pedigree moment. So I’m sort of in no man’s land. If I sell records, I’m attacked for being whiny voiced. And if I don’t sell records, I get attacked for not selling records! If I were to make rock and roll, I would be attacked for making my old form of music and if don’t make rock and roll, I would be attacked for not making rock and roll … So I’m spending lot of energy upstairs in my brain trying to figure out new ways to operate. My whole goal with music here on out is not be passive aggressive. I got into a passive aggressive position with the companies because we were being asked to do things that we didn’t want to do. And people worked against us to prove us wrong, people went out of their way to make sure that we failed. So I really want to take a proactive stance with the Warner Bros./Reprise people. They’ve been cool. I wouldn’t want to paint a negative picture. But … I think they’re scratching their beards over there. What do you do with a 38-year-old alternative rock icon that made an album that doesn’t sound like what he’s known for, goes on tour, doesn’t play his old songs or keep his mouth shut and looks kind of crazy?