Billy Corgan on the Longevity and Survival of the Smashing Pumpkins – ‘The Promise of Alternative Music Is Unlimited’
With the third and final act of Smashing Pumpkins' Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts released, Billy Corgan is feeling a lot of gratitude not just for his band's new music, but for its longevity and thriving.
"We had a lot of success as a singles band, but we didn't start off being a singles band," Corgan explained to Chuck Armstrong on Friday night's Loudwire Nights (May 5). "When Nirvana had so much success at MTV and on what became alternative radio, we were put in a position where if we didn't make pop singles, we were going to get dusted. We were basically a psychedelic jam band, doing nine-minute songs. We had some success, but we weren't really focused on making pop music. So, circa '92, I'm in the position of, 'Hey, can you write these types of teen anthems?' It wasn't even on my brain."
The Pumpkins did experience success in the '90s, though, even as Corgan created music against the constant expectations he was faced with from record labels and management.
"When you have success, the way the business is, it's like, 'Hey, you want to keep doing more of that and skip doing all of that arty shit. Get off of that.' But we've always driven from the arty stuff up into the single ... "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" was a song that came out of all that jamming, it wasn't where we meant to go, it was just where we went on that one day."
He added, "I like to say—and it always strikes people as somewhat odd—we're kind of okay with failure. We'd rather try and fail than not try."
In Corgan's eyes, that kind of mentality wasn't ubiquitous in the '90s.
"I think we've been critical of a lot of our generational mates through the years [for] getting into a lane and not taking chances," he admitted. "The promise of alternative music in the '90s, actually going back to the '80s, was this: unlimited, not constrained by society, not constrained by expectation."
With the Pumpkins' rock opera Atum now complete, Corgan is happy with the risks they took and the final result.
"One of my favorite albums from Siouxsie and the Banshees is when they worked with an orchestra [on The Thorn], which at the time was very different for an alternative band that played 12-string electric guitars. It's such a beautiful record. I appreciate those things as a fan so I try to put that into my own band. It's worked sometimes, sometimes it hasn't. For Atum, it seems to be the right balance."
The Survival of Billy Corgan
Over the course of the release of the three acts of Atum, Corgan has given fans a beautiful look behind-the-scenes of the album's creation and taken them deep into other points of interest in his life on his podcast, Thirty-Three with William Patrick Corgan. In one of the episodes, he looked back on the reason he wanted to get into music in the first place, calling it an act of survival. Today, 35 years after he founded the Smashing Pumpkins, most fans would say he's accomplished that goal—and more.
"If you asked me, my young self, that young self would say, 'Yeah, I survived,'" he told Chuck. "Yes, the Pumpkins have survived and thrived, but the real survival of the Pumpkins is that the Pumpkins be seen—and of course, we can't control the end result, but I think I'd like to see the Pumpkins land where we feel it deserves to land. We never walked around thinking we were better than The Beatles but we certainly walked around thinking we were a whole lot better than a lot of hipster bands that got a lot of press that are completely forgotten. I mean, completely forgotten."
Corgan reflected on what that was like, "competing" with bands who now are nowhere to be seen or remembered. He admitted that it was difficult to "hear about Joe and the Haircuts and how amazing their new song is." He explained to Chuck that it seemed like there was always a qualifier when it came to the Smashing Pumpkins and their music.
"'I don't like your guitars, they're too loud,'" Corgan said about one of the things he often heard. "Much like the bands that I really love, whether it's The Who or Beach Boys or Gary Numan, there comes a point where everybody looks around and goes, 'Yeah, we were kind of wrong about what we thought that was and now there is a greater understanding of the value.'"
As he considered that, he immediately brought up his favorite band, Black Sabbath.
"Sabbath was pilloried in the '80s," he said. "We would bring them up in interviews and we were mocked for liking Black Sabbath. Now Ozzy is a cultural institution in and of himself. People realize the greatness of Black Sabbath as a band, arguably one of the most influential bands of all time ... even their last album they did with Rick Rubin, , I love it, I think it's fantastic. Sometimes you just gotta get out of the way and say, 'Hey, that thing was great. I didn't have to like all of it but it obviously meant something.' Maybe it'll take [the Smashing Pumpkins] to end at some point and it just becomes a book on the shelf and people can pick it up and read it and put it down. I don't know, that part doesn't feel over."
Though he admitted "that part doesn't feel over," Corgan also told Chuck that he has a plan for how he hopes the Pumpkins will land in the end.
"We're just not there."
Finding Happiness and Contentment With the Smashing Pumpkins
With Atum completed and out in the world, Corgan admitted that it feels really good, not just because it's another new album in his growing body of work, but because the unmatched diversity of the record seems to have drawn a younger audience to the Pumpkins.
And that is something that has always been really important to him.
"Whether people would understand it on a sort of emotional level," he explained, "the band has always been about youth—navigating a youthful impression of the world versus a reality of the world—the good, the bad, the disappointment, the glory in all of that. I never could have imagined in my Siamese Dream years what it would be like to have a family and to be happy and to have a great future wife in my partner, Chloe. I never could have imagined any of those things, all of those things really seemed far away. That was a long struggle to get to a place of happiness and contentment."
Corgan sees the continued work of the Pumpkins—and the band's newer, younger fans—as significant parts of that happiness and contentment.
"To come all the way around the sun and have the band be out working, doing really well internally—everyone is in a good mood," he said. "We're from the Midwest. We grew up where you had to work. At times, we've been made fun of for how much we work. I think it's in our DNA. The way we express our appreciation is to do more work. Put out more music. Put on concerts."
Corgan and his band are gearing up to do just that as they prepare for The World Is a Vampire summer tour alongside Interpol, Stone Temple Pilots and Rival Sons. When fans see them live, they will experience the passion and love that the Pumpkins pour into their work; Corgan admitted that when fans return that same passion and love, it creates a deep sense of gratitude in him.
"It doesn't always work that way ... I feel really humbled that we're in this situation."
Watch the Smashing Pumpkins' Official Music Video For "Empires"
Billy Corgan joined Chuck Armstrong for Loudwire Nights on Friday, May 5; the show replays online here, and you can tune in live every weeknight at 7PM ET or on the Loudwire app; you can also see if the show is available on your local radio station. Stream Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts at this location and then check out the Smashing Pumpkins' full tour schedule.