Questions we would’ve asked Billy Corgan
If Kurt Cobain is the George Washington on the Mount Rushmore of ’90s alt-rock, Billy Corgan is the monument’s Teddy Roosevelt—maintainer of a powerful cult of personality, but responsible for some deeply questionable decisions. (Bonus game for rock-cum-history nerds: Argue who would be the grunge-era Lincoln and Jefferson in the comments.) In fact, in the nearly 20 years since the release of Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish, being a fan of Corgan’s has become a steadily rising challenge. As he rambles in interviews, embarrasses himself online, and releases records that are less and less relevant to the musical landscape of a new millennium, even his most devout adherents have lost the faith.
But I’m still mostly on board. I like his newest music, and the nuttier Corgan acts, the more interested I am in what the fuck is going on in his head. I think the most disappointing thing about his much-maligned post-Pumpkins indie-rock super-group, Zwan, was the fact that the band’s acoustic counterpart, Djali Zwan, never manifested. When Corgan finally cast off the ’90s-era integrity that made licensing one’s music to credit card and car commercials verboten—opting instead to quietly sell out—I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really believed in Hyundai and Visa. And even when he decided to re-form Smashing Pumpkins with a bunch of younger ringers, I thought, “Well, he must have a good reason for still calling the band Smashing Pumpkins.”
So I was really, really excited when the band’s publicist offered The A.V. Club an interview with Corgan in advance of tonight’s Pumpkins gig at Stubb’s. Finally, questions that had been piling up since Zwan’s breakup would get answers! But as quickly as the opportunity appeared, it vanished: The call came too late for our print deadline, and despite his full embrace of digital distribution methods, it’s hard to get the guy who made Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness to sit down for a web-exclusive Q&A. Thus, in order to make lemonade out of the Billy-Corgan-is-too-busy-to-talk-to-us lemons, here are some of the questions I would’ve asked the Smashing Pumpkins’ leader, and why.
You’ve been a major innovator with online distribution, and you’ve also used the immediacy of the Internet to say some goofy things. Does the former justify the latter for you?
You can’t take this away from Corgan—he anticipated the collapse of the conventional distribution model at a time when most people were accessing Napster via dial-up. When Santana was selling 27 million copies of Supernatural starting in 2000, Corgan released Machina II: The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music as a free download. (And to think, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails were considered groundbreakers when they did the same thing seven and eight years later.) Corgan’s current project, Smashing Pumpkins’ track-at-a-time, Internet-only release Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, meanwhile, suggests a release model that we may see the “innovators” of the next decade emulating. At the same time, he’s also used the Internet to pen blog and Twitter posts that would make even Kanye West and Ryan Adams cringe, slinging mud at ex-bandmates like David Pajo and James Iha while tweeting about how much Courtney Love has hurt his feelings. Technology is a double-edged sword, and it’d be interesting to learn if Corgan has considered how he struggles to wield it properly.
How long do you expect the pass you get for writing “Mayonaise” to last?
Some artists get lifetime passes, based on the quality of their early work. On the basis of the music he released between March 1965 and May 1966 alone, Bob Dylan can make as many goddamn Christmas album he pleases. Corgan’s catalog doesn’t include quite as many era- and genre-defining works, but “Mayonaise” is one of the finer post-breakup anthems of the last 20 years, and the tracks that surround it on Siamese Dream (and the bulk of the next couple of Pumpkins albums) aren’t so bad, either. However, Zeitgeist, The Future Embrace, and Corgan’s poetry collection, Blinking With Fists, have squandered a lot of the devotion that the Pumpkins’ 1993-2000 run inspired. (And then there’s the nutty Zwan-era blog and the ridiculous interviews…) So the question remains: How long did Corgan think he could keep dropping these uninspired records and embarrassing online missives and still maintain the rabid fanbase he cultivated when he was writing songs like “Mayonaise” and “Thirty-Three”? Sadly, the best answer we’ll receive will come in the form of his set list at tonight’s show.
When you said, “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? My answer is yes, I do,” did you mean that with regard to the music you’re making now, or for your entire of body of work?
This sounds kind of snarky, but it’s not. Corgan may not be at the height of his creative powers currently, but few musicians in their 40s are. The fact that he’s not pushing the same boundaries as 2010 “album of the year” contenders like the Arcade Fire, Dessa, or Beach House isn’t a slight on his caliber as an artist—who knows what Win Butler’s music will sound like 13 years from now? Besides, “Widow Wake My Mind” and “A Song For A Son” from Teargarden By Kaleidyscope show that Corgan’s days of being relevant aren’t entirely behind him. If the latter interpretation is the correct one, it’s hard to argue with the epochal status of the initial run of Smashing Pumpkins albums—taken that way, it’s a fair statement. Still, if he meant, “Zeitgeist should have been atop everyone’s ‘best of 2007’ lists,” he’d have some serious explaining to do.
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