Billy Corgan is a modern rock icon, having led The Smashing Pumpkins to phenomenal success in the '90s with classic albums including Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, until their dramatic split in 2000. After a stint leading new group Zwan, the prolific songwriter revived the Pumpkins in 2005 and continues to create new music with the band despite being the only founding member still in the line-up. Never one to follow convention - which has sometimes put him at odds with fans and the media - Corgan discusses his motivation for keeping The Smashing Pumpkins alive, how he feels about playing the band's old material, and their forthcoming album Oceania.
He also opened up about his contribution to girlfriend Jess Origliasso's new album with The Veronicas, his unexpected involvement in a wrestling company, the painful process of writing his autobiography, and The Smashing Pumpkins' co-headlining slot at Splendour In The Grass 2012 this July.
How are you?
I'm good, thank you. I'm in Las Vegas, it's always worth a laugh.
Are you in Vegas for an event with your wrestling league Resistance Pro?
Yeah, well there's a wrestling convention. It's actually run by wrestlers so it's kinda cool. It's almost like a fraternity type of thing. People coming together, mostly independent. It's cool. It's a really fun thing, everyone comes out here to Vegas once a year.
Where did your obsession with wrestling come from?
Well, wrestling was really big on television when I was a kid in Chicago, and of course when I was a little kid I had no idea that it was 'not real" as we say. We had these incredible characters and I didn't know it at the time, but most of them were sorta towards the end of their career. So I loved it as a kid, then when I became a gothic, moody teenager I was like, Oh that's kid's stuff. Then somewhere in my late 20s, early 30s, I got back into it. Ever since then I've made a lot of friends, gotten to know a lot about the business and suddenly I find myself being part of a wrestling company.
How is Resistance Pro going?
It's going really well. It's more of an old school feel than a modern feel, so it's got a little bit of a throwback to it. It's very storyline driven, and I get to write the storylines for the promotions. That's a cool creative challenge because you're dealing with a lot of different personalities and of course they're larger than life. It's a bit like a living comic book.
Sounds like a different creative outlet to making music.
Yeah, honestly it's mostly just fun. My musical life, although very important to me, is complicated; not everything I do everybody cheers for. Here I can just be a creative part of a team. Honestly, wrestling has been very welcoming to me and I really enjoy it just on a social level.
Getting to music, your new album Oceania is due out in June.
Yeah, June 19th I think. It's cool, when we come down there the Australian audiences will be the first people that actually get to hear us play the album.
What's the significance of the title Oceania?
There's a couple of symbols there that are pretty easy to access. One, of course, is that I've had an interesting romantic association with Australia, with my woman Jess [Origliasso, one half of The Veronicas]. And Australia as a symbol, as an independent spirit. There's the famous quote "No man is an island", we all have to reconcile our own "islandness", for lack of a better word.
Speaking of Jess, I've heard that Daniel Johns has songs written for The Veronicas' new album. Have you written any tracks for it?
No. I did write a song in the very beginning of the process that they didn't end up using, which I'm still very upset about! Ha ha. But I know they wrote some songs with Daniel and his musical partner, and Toby Gad, who they worked with on some of their previous stuff. I do play guitar on one song, I kind of make a strange, super heavy metal, guitar appearance, which is kind of cool. I really like it, it's on a cool track. It's probably gonna be the opening track on the album. I've heard all the songs, and it's really, really strong. I'm not the biggest pop guy but they're so talented and so unique in what they do, I have to give it to them. The beautiful thing about them is they love pop music and they go with it, they're not trying to pretend and play games with it. They try to make great artistic pop and that's what I respect them for... They really want to stand for something and I know they're very proud to be Australian... They've certainly made me have a greater appreciation for Australia as a country, Australia as a culture.
Australia is the perfect place to debut your new album then.
I think it's really cool that the official Oceania tour starts in Australia. Our Australian fans will be the first to hear it and see what we're gonna do. We're working with the guy who's been working with Roger Waters on The Wall - he's doing the graphics for our tour. We're gonna have a really interesting stage show. It's more of an experiential thing than just us getting up and playing with a bunch of bright lights.
Will you have that show at Splendour In The Grass?
We haven't made that decision yet. That's a tough one. It's right on the edge because the album will have only been out a month and obviously a lot fans there are casual fans, they're not invested in every B side. That's gonna be a tough call. The plan we have is to play the whole album first, which is about an hour, then we play a bunch of the classics. I'm hopeful that we'll make the right decision but it's too early to say right now. A festival crowd, that's a tough crowd. You know, they're in the sun all day and you can't expect them to follow you through everything so we'll have to think about that one.
Will your Splendour appearance mark the start of a world tour?
We hope so, but the world's changing so fast I no longer make assumptions. The reaction to the album behind the scenes has been as positive a reaction as I've gotten since the mid '90s, which took me by surprise. I didn't expect it. It's a good thing, but you can't say for sure everyone's gonna feel this way and we're gonna be doing this massive tour in Europe after that. We literally almost go moment to moment now. Australia is one of those places where the audience has been incredibly supportive of the band as it is right now, so it's a real honour to be able to go back there and play.
You've described Oceania as an album within an album, can you explain this concept? Are you going back to a more traditional format with this record, as opposed to the ongoing process of releasing your as-yet unfinished album Teargarden by Kaleidyscope digitally, track by track?
I was doing it song by song for a while with the Teargarden project and I just ended up wandering back to wanting to do an album again. Of course people started saying, Well if you're gonna do an album what's it have to do with Teargarden? So that was my clever play with words, just to say I need to do this and it makes sense to me at the moment, and not get too deep about it.
It seems you don't feel a need to do things in a way that people are used to. Is this a conscious decision?
You know what, I spent a lot of years going against the grain, and I'm not a person who's okay with going with the grain, if that makes sense? But I think that where I'm at now is I just do what I wanna do and I don't get real deep on what other people are gonna think about it, because in the internet world - the Twitter world, the Facebook world - for every guy who likes it, there's a girl who doesn’t like it. You just can't pay attention to that anymore. I don't think anybody really even knows what they like anymore. People just give opinions because they feel they have to, or to get some attention. I'm not saying that when somebody has a negative opinion that they're not entitled to it - a lot of times when I read negative opinions from fans I actually think, yeah that kind of makes sense, because nothing is perfect and certainly I'm not. But I don't think you can let the audience dictate. It's death in art to let the audience dictate what you're going to do. When we made Mellon Collie, a lot of the Siamese Dream fans didn't like it because it didn't sound like Siamese Dream, yet that went on to be our biggest record. A lot of people didn't like Adore when it came out because it was so different from all our other albums and now fans rate it behind Siamese Dream as their second favourite album. There's no right or wrong, you've just gotta do what you think is good and live with the results.
I saw that one of your fans recently tweeted "it's taken 6 years of listening but i think i finally 'get' Adore."
Ha ha, yeah, I think I retweeted that the other day. Yeah, that's a pretty common occurrence for me. That's the type of album you're not gonna get on its first listen, it's a very complicated album about dark subjects - my mother had died, there was a lot of addiction around me in the band, probably my own issues with... God-knows-what! It's not a happy, cheery, take-a-pill-and-listen-to-it album. It takes some time to unravel. It's like there are those movies you watch and you like it the first time, and there are those movies you have to watch a few times to even understand what it's about - I think I've made those kind of records and I've made the albums that everybody likes the first time through, so I had both experiences.
How do you feel about requests for The Smashing Pumpkins' older material?
Yeah, I'm happy to play older stuff. We like to do a mix of both. Smashing Pumpkins is about that more than doing what a lot of bands are doing and just playing the old songs that the audience wants to hear. That's fine if you're gonna be an oldies act, but I'm still making a lot of new music, and I think you have to balance it out. I have a past, I have a legacy, and I really like that I have so many great fans that want to hear those songs and albums, but it can't be at the expense of progress. That's where I draw the line.
Having been around for a long time, in various incarnations, The Smashing Pumpkins means different things to different people. How do you define The Smashing Pumpkins and why do you record and perform under that guise instead of something else?
The thing about The Smashing Pumpkins' formula, which was developed by the original band, was the ability to play any style of music you wanted to play in a somewhat seamless fashion. We could play a very heavy metal song, going into a ballad, going into a song with strings, going into an electronic one - that's what the original formula was designed to do. So any time I would try to do anything else I'd think, Why don't I just go back to the core of The Smashing Pumpkins' idea, because that allows me that kind of freedom. I know it sounds strange but I feel more freedom in The Smashing Pumpkins than I did out of it.
Are you looking forward to seeing anyone else on the Splendour In The Grass lineup?
I was happy to see Jack White's name was on there, I just think he's one of the most talented people out there. He's the type of guy where it's like he's always gonna be good, he's always gonna do something important. I dunno if you call him the subsequent generation or two generations down but he's somebody I feel lived up to the level that a musician should, which is being an innovator, an entrepreneur, a creator, and he has a restless spirit about his musical journey, so I really respect him for that.
He's not someone you can pigeon hole.
No and because he's so talented, why would you want to? Don't you want to see where he goes? I'm a fan of Johnny Depp and you see him do a super serious role then you see him do Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - he's a great actor so he can do both. Why do musicians get, "Oh you just play grunge," or "You're a country artist"? I think all that stuff is eroding really fast. And ironically, pop music does a much better job at letting musicians dress up in different clothes, so to speak. Alternative rock is still very stuck in the stone ages, it's like, "Oh you're just the angry guy with the weird voice." No, some of my biggest hit songs were acoustic songs or electronic. "Oh, no no, you're the grunge guy." Oh right, I'm the 'Rat In A Cage' guy, here I am, I'm waving to you from across the ocean. Ha ha. It sort of reduces me down to a cartoon character. That's what wrestling is for! Rock'n'roll is about artistry - of course there's artistry in the wrestling ring - but the core of the music business is supposed to be about innovation, not about puppets. The weirdest thing is when you almost become, in the public's mind, a puppet of your success. Because you've done something SO great, people are like, please just keep being that guy. I think, oh God, that's the worst thing in the world.
You don't feel pressure to live up to a certain reputation?
No, I'm a little too old for that now. Nobody controls me, I'm an independent businessperson, every deal I do now I do in a partnership, I'm not under anybody's thumb anymore, no-one can attempt to control me - not that they ever did, but you were fighting against things; you were fighting against MTV, you were fighting against the record label. Who are the great foes now, Pitchfork? You know? A bunch of sarcy indie guys with beards writing about guys with beards in basements. At least when I had great opponents they were named Kurt, and Trent, you know what I mean? Now it's, like, Larry And The Elephant Collectors in the basement.
You came up in a hugely significant era for music. Have you considered writing an autobiography?
Actually, I am right now. It's a little bit different in that it's more of a spiritual autobiography than an "I'm a celebrity, look at me" biography. It's my life from a spiritual perspective. I've been writing that book for almost two years now and I'm almost two thirds done. That's one of the hardest things I've ever done. Oh my God, writing a book is so hard.
When will it be released?
Hopefully that will come out next year. For the last four months I've spent five to six hours a day writing. It's a very, very intense process. It's a bit like - this is the bad poet in me - but it reminds me of taking an ice-cream scooper and sticking it in your stomach, and trying to find more pain. Ha ha. It's a bit of a strange process.
So is the book about lessons you've learnt along the way or is that simplifying it too much?
I guess you could say it's about that. But from my perspective, one of the greatest things from my spiritual life is that it took being incredibly famous, incredibly wealthy - all those things - to realise none of those things are gonna make me happy. But you couldn't have told me that before they happened. I was fixated on the thought that if I could be independently wealthy I could do whatever I want to do, or if I'm famous and everybody knows who I am I'll get to do whatever I want to do. But I actually felt more enslaved, which of course has a lot do with 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings', where I was making fun of the fact that the angrier I got the more I was stuck in somebody's cage. Here we are, 16, 18 years later, and I'm still stuck in somebody's cage, which is kind of ironic because I'm a grown man and I've had an incredible life. In many ways it's been an almost unprecedented artistic life on the public stage, a very unique journey - good and bad - Australia is even in there somewhere too! I'm not one to complain about that part of it because it's been incredible, so it's about life but not so much about celebrity as it is about what celebrity did to my life.