Q&A: Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan is ready to stop being the aggressor

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Forgive Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan for feeling as though he's recently been living in something of a time warp.

The Chicago native and sole remaining original band member, who brings the latest itineration of the Pumpkins to the Riviera Theatre this weekend, has been holed up in the recording studio for nearly six months putting the final touches on the group’s next record, “Oceania” (expected later this year, maybe), while working concurrently on reissues of early albums “Gish” and “Siamese Dream.”

“It feels a little like past, present, future at times,” said Corgan, 44, who splits his time between Chicago and Los Angeles. “I’ll walk in one room and I’ll have to remember something that happened in 1989, then I’ll walk in the other room and do an overdub on a new song.”

In a recent phone interview, the singer discussed where he goes when he wants to get a taste of home, the influence professional wrestling had on his past onstage behavior and which Smashing Pumpkins album still holds a special place in his heart.

Obviously you’ve heard about R.E.M. breaking up. I’m guessing you’re someone who can appreciate the difficulty of keeping a band together over the long haul.

I also know all those guys personally. Not, like, BFFs, but Mike Mills played on “Siamese Dream,” I’ve known Michael (Stipe) since 1991 and I’ve been to Peter Buck’s house and hung out. I know them as people, and I’m really surprised because if you said, “Name a band you don’t think will ever break up,” I would think of them.

Does the Smashing Pumpkins still feel like a band to you in the same way it did 15-20 years ago?

Not at all. It feels like a different band with a different set of agendas and a different point of view. The original band hasn’t really existed since ’96 in full form. I’m on like my sixth band variation or something since then, so it feels very far away.

Do you still feel the same connection to Chicago you did in the past?

No. I think we had a massive influx of yuppie types—the Starbucks generation—that really changed the complexion of the city, in my eyes, for the worse, because they had no connection to the local culture. It’s a homogenous class that might as well be living in Charlotte or Indianapolis.

Are there still places you can go that have that same energy you remember from the past?

Oh, of course. You still run into a lot of the people who are salt-of-the-earth.

Where in particular do you go when you’re looking for that taste of home?

There’s nothing like being in the city and seeing the hot dog stand on the corner. You know it’s gonna be good, so you go in and the guy behind the counter recognizes you and the next thing you know you’re talking about the Bears. I still have that, but I still feel over the last 10 years we’ve lost something that’s not going to be easy to get back.

How relieved were you to finish the mixing on “Oceania”?

I’m so happy to be done. It was five-and-a-half months of work straight, with no vacation or anything. Now we’re in mad tour prep, so there’s no break for me, but I’m really happy and really excited about the record. I think it’s really a step back into the right kind of light for me. It’s an exciting time.

You’re also working on reissues of the early Pumpkins records, correct?

Yeah, we’re going to put out “Gish” and “Siamese Dream” with extra discs and a DVD component—actually, both DVD components are from Chicago shows at the Metro.

I’ve always had a soft spot for “Adore.” Is there a record of yours you hold in a particularly high regard?

That’s a good question. I have such mixed feelings about all of them. I’m going to get into “Adore” next year for the reissues. It’ll be interesting to go back through that, because that was a really difficult time. Essentially it was the end of the band, so I was dealing with that. I was also dealing with the loss of my mother, the loss of Jimmy (Chamberlin) not being in the group and a divorce. It’s interesting to me how the respect for that album has really grown. At the time it was treated very poorly, and I was treated like someone who had done this dumb thing, like, “Oh, you should have just made ‘Mellon Collie 2’ and look what you did you [bleeping] idiot.” So it’s kind of nice in a way that the album has really grown, because it’s really special to me.

Back in 2008 you did an interview with the Chicago Tribune where you talked about how most of your heroes got lame when they turned 40…

[Laughs] Yeah. How about it?

Is that something you still worry about?

No, because—I’ll be somewhat self-aggrandizing—I’ve turned the corner on that because I’ve been willing to look in the mirror and say, “What about you needs to change? Where have you lost the plot?” I think I’ve really done that, and I know it’s easy to sit here and say, “Oh, my new album is so great,” because everybody says that, but I think when people hear “Oceania” they’re going to hear something from me that they haven’t heard from me in a very long time. I don’t know how to put it in words. There’s an ephemeral quality when I seem to be on my game, and all indications are that’s in this album.

In general, do you think there’s anything you can’t do now at 44 that you could do at 24?

Actually no. I’m lucky in that I have the genetics and I can still sing; 95 percent of the songs are still in the original key. I don’t have to do anything crazy like take sheep oxygen before the show or something. I’m still able to do my job, which surprises me.

Conversely, what trait do you think you’ve developed at 44 that you never would have had back then?

I think I have a lot more empathy for the experience of the audience. I think at 24 I really didn’t care. I wanted to shock people. I wanted people to walk out of the Metro talking about my band, and I was ruthless in what I was going to do to make that happen. I think I have a lot more respect and appreciation for why the audience comes, and what they’re looking for now. I’ve always been, as they say in French, a terrible infant about the way things should be, and I think I’ve just reached a point now where I’m in a nicer place with the whole thing. That being said, I’m part Italian and part Irish…so I reserve the right to go off again.

Do you ever wonder if your past tendency to engage in some of those public feuds is an extension of your obsession with pro wrestling?

You know, that’s actually had a huge influence on me, and some would say for the negative. The key with pro wrestling is you want to create energy, whether it’s good energy or bad energy. Oftentimes I’ll face an audience that’s very apathetic…so sometimes playing the heel, as they say in wrestling, gets people out of their hypnosis. I’ve always been willing to bear the downside price of my insanity, because I feel like, “Hey, it’s art. Deal with it.” That said, I don’t see that as being part of the Smashing Pumpkin shows anymore. I think it’s something we’re ready to move on from, and the focus right now is really on the music.

Andy Downing is a RedEye special contributor.

Smashing Pumpkins
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Ave.
Tickets: Sold out¿

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