by Andy Aledort
Ten years after Mellon Collie
and the Infinite Sadness, alt-rock legend Billy Corgan reflects
on the making and meaning of the Smashing Pumpkins' biggest
success and discusses his new solo album.
"I think Mellon Collie
illustrates a complete passion for music and for the guitar,"
says former Smashing Pumpkins' leader Billy Corgan, reflecting
on the group's most successful album, Mellon Collie and
the Infinite Sadness. "Almost every track was written
on a $60 guitar while sitting on my couch in my living room,
watching TV. The album is a love affair with music, the
guitar and the band. And it's all documented in those tracks,
which makes me so happy."
It's been 10 years since
Smashing Pumpkins - Corgan, coguitarist James Iha, bassist
D'Arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin - unveiled Mellon
Collie, their third and most ambitious album. Released on
October 24, 1995, the double-length album featured 28 songs,
many of which - including "Bullet with Butterfly Wings,"
"Tonight, Tonight" and "1979" - became
hits, propelling the album to multi-Platinum status. Though
some at Virgin, the group's label, doubted the viability
of a double-record set, Mellon Collie held together over
its length, thanks to not only Corgan's songwriting but
also the shrewd production of Flood and Alan Moulder. What's
more, its success brought more fans into the Pumpkins' fold.
Listening to present-day emo-based rock, it's apparent that
many of its architects were among the fans in Smashing Pumpkins'
thrall, so lasting is the group's influence.
Unfortunately, the album
was the Pumpkins' peak. Two more releases followed - 1998's
Adore and 2000's Machina - but each was, in large part,
a Corgan-created effort. By the early part of 2001, the
group had announced it was breaking up.
Corgan has remained active
since the Pumpkins' demise, albeit in a more understated
fashion. In 2001, he and Chamberlin formed the short-lived
group Zwan, which released just one album, 2003's Mary Star
of the Sea. Now the guitarist and songwriter has released
his first-ever solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, an eclectic
mix of dreamy synth pop, dark hard-edged techno and twisted
rock guitar that recalls nothing so much as Adore, the first
Pumpkins' album to be, essentially, a Billy Corgan solo
The release of Corgan's solo
debut, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Mellon Collie's
release, seemed a timely occasion for Guitar World to catch
up with the guitarist. In the following interview, Corgan
discusses his new album, talks candidly about Mellon Collie
and the Infinite Sadness and reveals the truth behind Smashing
Pumpkins' white-hot rise to fame and slow, destructive descent.
is the first solo album of your career. Did your approach
to writing differ from when you were writing for a group?
BC First of all, I never really intended to be
in the position of recording and releasing a solo album.
I have always envisioned my work within the context of a
band, that band being the Smashing Pumpkins. In fact, whenever
anyone would suggest that I do a solo album, I would think,
Why? The Pumpkins were the outlet for my music. My motivation
has never been to do a solo album outside the context of
the band. The Pumpkins were my life, so full-on intensive.
People do solo albums because there are things they cannot
do in their bands. In my band, what weren't we doing? It
wasn't like I was looking to make an album of Brazilian
GW So there was
no real motivation to pursue another outlet?
BC I view everything within the context of a band.
I have always respected solo artists, like David Bowie,
for example. But I never felt that my band had held me back
from pursuing my musical direction.
GW Mellon Collie
and the Infinite Sadness is a great example of the musical
variety inherent in the Pumpkins music. The album contains
incredible diversity, from delicately quiet love songs...
BC ... to absolute brutality! [laughs]
GW The many trials
and tribulations of the Pumpkins and the band's ultimate
demise have been well documented. Can you describe it from
BC To simplify it, the key issue came down to
the disintegration of my relationship with James. James
and I had started the band together; as with everything,
how it starts is how it ends. The key internal relationship
was between two guitar players. We had the most variance
over what happened musically. Jimmy was in or out [Chamberlin
was fire from the group in 1996 and rehired in 2000], loud
or quiet, but the guitar interplay between James and me
really was the personality of the band. The disintegration
of that relationship became the issue. As much as drugs
were a problem, our relationship was really what it was
about. I don't think that was apparent on the surface, but
it was the key that turned the lock. At the beginning of
the band, we were best friends. As things wore on, we were
both constantly reminded of the relationship we once had
and that it was gone. There seem to be a lot of resentments,
but I feel I have done my part to try to heal the relationship,
and he won't let me in that door.
GW Did that situation
force you to envision yourself as a solo artist?
BC It was the reason why we went into the last
Pumpkins album all in agreement that the band was going
to end. The return of Jimmy Chamberlin was a way to close
the circle; he wouldn't have come back under any other circumstances
than the one-shot deal. The unexpected part was that D'Arcy
drifted off into drug addiction. The moment we got it back
together was the moment it began to fall apart all over
GW When I was at
your house in Chicago back in '94, while you were in the
midst of recording Mellon Collie, you had your "one-man
army" workstation of an eight-track recorder, a few
synths and a bunch of MIDI patches. On the Mellon Collie
track "Here is No Why," you sing, "In your
sad machines, you will always be," the sad machines
being your pet name for your home demo station. Your new
solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, has the very personal and
diarylike vibe of intense home demos forged by one person.
BC Yeah, I'm back in "sad machine" land.
[laughs] I know that not everyone will understand this,
but to me, I am still in the Smashing Pumpkins, and it really
doesn't matter that the band is broken up. Every piece of
work I do is about the Smashing Pumpkins or the absence
of the Smashing Pumpkins or growing to learn to live without
the Smashing Pumpkins. This has everything to do with the
concept of family, because that was my musical family, complete
with all the analogies to a real family: approval from "dad,"
a structured hierarchy, et cetera. Everything I understand
in this world is through the prism of that band, including
my own life, which is pretty heavy. On some level, I am
trying to prove to my old bandmates that I can do it without
them, and you can hear where I am and you can also hear
where I am not. I'm not trying to hide anything.
GW A bunch of songs
on Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie were recorded by you
and Jimmy, with you playing all of the guitar and bass parts
and doing all of the singing, and Jimmy supplying the drum
BC Yeah, totally. The true picture of how those
records were done is worse than anyone could ever imagine.
[laughs] Mellon Collie was the last album on which you could
get some sense of how Smashing Pumpkins sounded as a band.
GW You could easily
have made a solo album that gives the image of a full-blown
BC Sure. Me and Jimmy know how to make Smashing
Pumpkins records; I could have used Jimmy, called it Billy
Corgan and done the rock band thing. When the Pumpkins were
together, I wrote for the personality of the band, and that
was a very negative personality. People thought that I was
the negative guy because I was writing most of the songs.
But I was writing through the prism of the band, and the
band had an ability to go all the way into hell and come
back up. Not every band can do that; it was a special talent.
You have to be willing to stay in the heat of hell when
you go down there. When we played concerts and people threw
shit at us, we did not flinch. We stood there and took it,
and we threw it right back at them. That revealed the soul
that we had as a core unit. It was a military thing: when
the guns are blazing, you have to be willing to sit and
wait for your shot. That was us: we'd take only so much
and then we'd fucking pummel you. Without that collective
vibe, you can hear that I am really not that uptight a guy.
GW That reminds
me of the time the Pumpkins played in New York at a place
called Academy, right at the release of Mellon Collie. Out
of nowhere you suddenly jumped into the audience...
BC ... and I clocked a kid in the face! He was
making "gun" gestures toward me, like he wanted
to shoot me. It was during the song "1979." Jimmy
likes to tell that story, because, as he always says, his
gig is about watching my ass, literally and figuratively;
he had to learn how to read my body language from behind.
He could tell whether I was happy, unhappy, didn't like
the tempo, et cetera. That night, he could tell halfway
through "1979" that there was a problem, but he
couldn't see my face. He did see the rigidity in my body.
When he hit the last cymbal crash in the song, I dropped
the guitar and dove off the stage, into the audience and
on top of that guy!
GW Yeah. What a
BC Thank you! [laughs] Those were different days,
different times. That was a great moment for the band. We
had it; it was all under our fingertips, and then-blam!-it
GW How has the massive
success of the Smashing Pumpkins had an impact on your creative
process as a solo artist?
BC The only analogy I can make is that it's like
going to a great college, and then those experiences carry
over into your adult life. All of the experiences I had
with the band define my view of the world today. When I
have moments of self doubt, I think, No way; I've stood
up in from of 100,000 people and played my music. It's a
relative experiential issue. The fatal flaw in the Pumpkins
was that I was never able to win over the love of the band
members, to keep Jimmy off drugs, make James like me, make
D'Arcy focus - whatever our weird thing was. I am still
trying to prove something to them, way off to the side,
that my independence has value.
GW There was always
a great musical communication between you and Jimmy, akin
to the musical sparring of Pete Townshend and Keith Moon
in the Who.
BC I agree. All our conflicts were over drugs,
never music. On a musical wavelength, we are beyond sympatico;
it's psychic. When he did his solo record, Life Begins Again,
I helped out from afar, and then he helped me with mine
GW Did you have
any overall appraoch to the music on TheFutureEmbrace?
BC The main goal was to avoid all the things that
I know how to do, because we know where that will go. That
means drums and rock and roll guitars were out. The songwriter
comes first with me, and the style of guitar playing I did
in the Pumpkins has been so copied and so overdone by this
point that it's a dead end from a songwriting point of view.
The question was how to be reinvigorated by the guitar;
the only way was to take away all of the things I knew how
to do: doubled vocals, big walls of guitar, intense drumming
- which means no Jimmy - and when you take all of that off
the table, what are you left with? You are left with this
other palette of stuff that I've only dabbled in but don't
know how to integrate into a vision. I spent four months
just getting the sonics right, doing guitar tests, electronics
tests... it was like being in a laboratory for a long time.
I felt we needed a primary set of tools - specific sounds
and tones - that we could always go back to so that we wouldn't
get lost in the wilderness of production and knob turning.
Once I had our tools, I could go from there. I also learned
a whole new way to write songs, which I won't divulge; it's
a good secret. That yielded different results too - a different
production result, a different sonic result. Slowly, a new
picture started to emerge from all of this, largely because
I had yet to record the guitar parts. I wanted to make songs
work without any guitar, and then put a single essential
guitar part into each of them based on what was already
there. On every song but the last, there is just one guitar
track; the last song has no guitar at all. Guitarwise, this
record contains some of my most challenging guitar playing,
because I had to approach it as if I was a hired guitarst.
Using a "Jimi Hendrix live" analogy, I wanted
to be able to say everything in a single, well-conceived
guitar part. When people dig into these guitar parts, it's
going to fuck them up. Can I pull all of this off live?
I'll have to, because I can't imagine anyone else playing
my guitar parts.
GW This is really
the opposite of the way you worked in the Pumpkins, where
everything in the songs stemmed from your guitar playing.
BC Right. But once I got this whole new process
straight in my head, then I went back to writing songs the
way I used to, and they were different. I had learned a
new approach to the songwriting craft. Good examples of
the results are "The Hybrid," [Atomsk's note:
probably actually said "A100" - I doubt this is
some ultra-secret b-side.] "Walking Shade" - which
is the single - "DIA," "I'm Ready"...
These were all of the last songs written for the record.
GW There is something
in the feeling of the song "DIA" that reminds
me of "Perfect."
BC Really? Hey, no fucking way! [laughs] When
you get to the point where you've written about 350 songs,
you always think, Have I written this one before? With Zwan,
the band members were self conscious about the music sounding
at all like the Pumpkins. But Jimmy and I were there - the
two guys that defined the sound of the Pumpkins - and we
were trying not to do what we do naturally; it was weird.
It became a negative thing: Why am I listening to a band
called Zwan if it sounds like the Smashing Pumpkins? It
made me realize that unless I made a clear musical statement
that could stand on its own, I would continue to hear this
type of criticism. I feel like I've accomplished this now,
but it wasn't easy. In the process, I was able to realize
a side of my musicality that was only hinted at before.
GW Any artist who
has achieved a high level of success has to compete with
BC That used to feel like an albatross around
my neck, because the success of the Pumpkins set the bar
so high. But now I am really grateful for the experience.
I am all for personal resolve, but when you mix it with
fear and insecurity, it's a recipe for disaster. You can
get tweaked way too high. There are some insane contradictions
when success brings you new cars, a new house. You are making
money faster than you could spend it, but you are still
trying to get blood out of the same stone, creativity-wise.
There is actually something of a letdown when you hit number
one, because then there is no one left to beat. Who do you
set your sights on next? Yourself. And once you get there,
it's hard to keep the band pulling together in the same
direction. The drug issues in the band seem the most obvious
things to point to, but they were really just one element
in the overall picture. When things start to unravel, it's
no longer about being the best band in the world; it's about
survival. But I'm not a victim of my former self; I have
a personal vision of my life now that is strong, and that's
where I take solace.
features a cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody"
with the Cure's Robert Smith. An interesting twist is that
you transposed the song to a minor key, which completely
changes the vibe.
BC It's definitely a postmodern take on the tune,
one that seems pretty appropriate at the moment. [laughs]
I always loved the song. I tried the Motown technique of
flipping the bass line to a minor key while keeping the
chords major, and suddenly it was a different song. I had
been speaking with Robert about being on the record, because
we are old friends, and it seemed like the right tune. But
when I called him and suggested it, there was an incredibly
long transatlantic pause on the line before he responded,
"The Bee Gees? Are you sure?"
depicts what you have described as the "beautiful coldness"
in the music of Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen and
David Bowie's Low. Can you elaborate further on what you
BC There is a warmth to the metal of Black Sabbath.
Tony Iommi achieved a massively heavy sound that was also
inviting. In contrast, Joy Division had a colder sound,
even though they were a metal band influenced by Black Sabbath.
Space and repetition were critical components in what they
did, but there is a groove in the mechanical nature of it.
There is a way to achieve warmth over what is generally
conceived as a cold feeling, and that is appealing to me.
GW Did you use a
specific guitar for most of this record?
BC Yes. Reverend made me a custom C-scale instrument,
which means that it has a longer scale and sounds two whole
steps lower without tuning down. I also used a one-of-a-kind
Fender Jaguar that I bought in New York, and I also used
a Gibson 335 from the Seventies.
GW You use a very
distressed, distorted guitar sound in the echoed guitar
solo on "To Love Somebody" and on "Walking
BC Yes, extremely distressed! If you remove the
guitar track, the songs sound much smaller; the guitar creates
the impression of size. It may seem to be mostly synths
and effects, but the tracks are really very guitar-driven.
GW I said earlier
that "DIA" reminds me of "Perfect,"
but in fact I hear similarities to Adore all over the new
BC Adore was the most "solo" of the
Pumpkins albums, in terms of what I was trying to accomplish
and the participation of the other band members on the songs
and the sound of the record, overall. At the time, Darcy
was in fact very upset; she felt I should have released
it as a solo album.
GW The Adore track
"For Martha," dedicated to your mother, is thick
with atmosphere in a way that is akin to the sound of your
BC Yeah, I see what you mean. For me, going into
this territory reinvigorates my approach to heavier rock
music. Metal was my favorite music when I was a kid, but
I was bored with it by the time I was 17. The music of the
Cure is what really got me into playing the guitar. So I
brought the heavier rock stuff into the mix afterward, and
I always go back to that approach in order to find who I
am. Sometimes I turn on the radio and hear all these different
guys doing my trip, and I think, Well, what am I supposed
to do? All my moves have been copied and I get no credit
whatsoever from any of these new bands.
GW It's been 10 years since the release of Mellon
Collie, and, as you say, its influence is obvious in the
music of many new emo-rock bands, both sonically and lyrically.
A perfect example is "1979," which was a huge
BC You can still hear the influence of that track.
I was bitter about it for a while because I felt we had
been uncredited, simply because every new band over the
last 10 years would claim Nirvana as their prime influence.
That was silly to me, because Butch Vig, who worked with
us on Gish, took our sound and brought it to Nirvana for
Nevermind, and the truth is that sound originates with the
Smashing Pumpkins. So for years I felt the credit hadn't
been given to us. But now there's a whole new generation
of bands that are crediting us, because it's not a political
issue anymore. They grew up on the Pumpkins, Zeppelin and
Nirvana, and these are the bands that inspired them to play.
At the end of the day, it's turned out to be fine and wonderful.
I took what I could from my heroes - Hendrix, Blackmore,
Iommi - and I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I
would never in my wildest dreams put myself in their league.
GW What accounts
for the enduring appeal of Mellon Collie?
BC It was a really beautiful time, because the
band was in sync, the practice space sounded amazing, we
had the best producer in the world in Flood, and we were
just flying at 1,000 miles an hour; I couldn't write songs
fast enough to keep up with the passion of the band. There
are such extremes on the album: "X.Y.U." is total
Pumpkins brutality - seven minutes about death and fucking
- and "1979" is a Sonic Youth/New Order take on
bittersweet adolescent life. And then there's "33,"
a gentle, open-G tuned acoustic piece with a beautiful lilting
GW Because of the
expansiveness of Mellon Collie, are there tracks that you
feel may have been overlooked?
BC There are a few songs that, on a different
record, would have been singles. There were seven singles
from Mellon Collie, which is a lot. If I had it to do over
again, I would have taken about four songs off and put them
on the next album. In that way, some of the songs that I
thought were the best of all didn't get much attention.
We spent much more time working on the crap songs, trying
to make them good enough to be on the album. I fought the
band on "Thru the Eyes of Ruby." We worked on
it for six months before I felt it was good enough to be
GW What are your
feelings about the Smashing Pumpkins today?
BC I am still wrestling to the ground the concept
of the Smashing Pumpkins. It's so hard to explain, because
it sounds improper in the public forum, but to me, I am
a Smashing Pumpkin. It doesn't matter to me that there is
no band. It is so much a party of my identity.
[Guitar World, julho de 2005]