Even when Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan is dropping a bombshell-- such as declaring that his band is about to quit the guitar-rock arena for good--the soft-spoken singer-guitarist presents the news as calmly as if he were commenting on the weather.
Corgan’s unflappable demeanor can be unsettling, because you sense that there’s a lot of turbulence just beneath that surface. In his rocky five-year career, he has defied the conventions of the indie-rock world with his ambitions of commercial success, suffered a nervous breakdown during the making of 1993’s 3-million-selling “Siamese Dream” album, and headlined Lollapalooza ’94 in the face of band breakup rumors.
Speaking by phone from the kitchen of his Chicago home, Corgan, 29, explains why the Smashing Pumpkins’ new double album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” ( see review, Page 90 ), is his final contribution to guitar rock.
Question: How did the success of “Siamese Dream” affect you while making this album? In the past, pressure and expectations basically shut you down.
Answer: I always promised myself if we got any success that I would use that as an excuse to go further as opposed to water down the music. That’s the only impact it had. It made me feel more free, removing the basic question marks that you always have.
Q: What are some of those question marks?
A: Whether you could reach a larger audience. There was a lot of satisfaction with “Siamese Dream” 'cause I felt I hadn’t sold myself down the river to sell records.
Q: Is that newfound freedom what spurred you to make a double album?
A: Well, that’s part of the reason, but certainly another part of it is that I was reaching the end of where I could take the rock part of the band’s sound. There’s a certain boredom that begins to creep in with playing rock. I wanted to get it all out at once, because I want to go in a different musical direction after this. I just wanted this album to be the big exclamation point.
Q: That can mean a lot of things--the end of the Smashing Pumpkins, a solo move, quitting altogether.
A: A lot of people are taking this as the end of the Smashing Pumpkins, but that’s not what I’m trying to say. I just think every band--especially successful ones--reaches a point where you have to go in a different direction, or you just end up watering down what was initially a good, inspired idea. I can’t continue to try and break down the doors of rock ‘n’ roll when I don’t really care too much anymore.
Q: Does the state of rock--the abundance of so-called alterna-rock bands--have anything to do with your change of heart?
A: That’s part of it too. I see the beginning of the end. When the airwaves are saturated with Nirvana Jr. bands, that’s a good cue to move on.
Q: Where do you want to go?
A: I don’t really know, but it’s certainly based somewhat in technology. I see the access to music technology similar to Chuck Berry figuring out the electric guitar. There’s plenty of electronic music, like Nine Inch Nails, but I don’t think anybody’s combined it with what I consider the essence of rock: that spirited, all-encompassing emotional range.
Q: Electronic music is often accused of being too obsessed with reminding you it’s complex and electronic. But there has been progress with techno artists like Moby.
A: Moby is what points toward the kind of stuff I’m talking about. It’s about bringing pop sensibility to it. U2 certainly got one foot in it but were too concerned with being U2. I’m not really concerned with being the Smashing Pumpkins, because I don’t really have a fixed identity to live up to. I’m just gonna jump off the edge of a steep cliff into a deep lake and see where I come up.
Q: It sounds like you find this new frontier really challenging.
A: When I play with that stuff [technology], I feel like I did when I was a 15-year-old kid playing the guitar. Looking at a stack of amps just doesn’t do it anymore. This album is a really nice blast of what I love. I’m just trying to anticipate my own future so I don’t make that change one album too late, when everyone’s already bored of us. I’d rather end on a high rather than a low.
Q: Double albums have come to represent big-rock-star indulgence, and even in the face of criticism from the indie world you’ve never made any bones about wanting to be successful. Is this your final ironic statement?
A: Not really. I’ve always been honest about what I wanted and didn’t play these coy indie games like everybody else played. There’s a lot of people I know of that are a lot bigger rock stars, at least in their own mind, than me.
Q: Many huge bands out there like Pearl Jam are still struggling not to look successful, almost apologizing for a success they’ve obviously worked for.
A: What’s really sick about that is it’s really offensive to the fans. It’s like the band is more worried about what their friends are gonna think than about the people who are really supporting them. Your friends don’t buy your records. If you look at a lot of backlash toward Pearl Jam, it’s because of what they held themselves up to be.
Q: You mean non-accessible anti-stars?
A: Yeah. Fans are like “What the [expletive]? We’re here, where are you?” I’ve always been there. To me, there’s something really amazing about going into Iowa and playing for 5,000 people. That’s so real.
Q: How are things within the band? With your last album you were aggravated with your role of leader and wanted to pass around some of the responsibilities.
A: “Siamese Dream” was so much pressure and work, I reached this point where I was angry all the time ‘cause I wasn’t getting any help.
Q: But you are often portrayed as a control freak who simply can’t turn over responsibilities.
A: There’s a discrepancy between the real me and the perceived me. The real me is certainly looser and dumber than the way people perceive me. It’s funny--I read interviews with other bands and they ask, “Tell us about when you hung with David Bowie.” With me, it’s more intellectual questions. It’s like nobody knows I’m also a sports geek who sits around and watches games all day.
Q: Perceptions aside, do you think you’re still largely naive about things?
A: Yeah, there’s a lot of naivete in me. I still stupidly believe in rock ‘n’ roll. I still believe it has some power, and I’m constantly disappointed. But when it works, it really works. I guess that’s what makes it worth it.