Billy Corgan has always been the leader of the Smashing Pumpkins, responsible for the majority of the songwriting and recording process. But by continuing the Smashing Pumpkins without his bandmates, guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy Wretzky--who contributed heavily to the band's foundation and aesthetic--Corgan risks devaluing the Pumpkins' legacy. The vehement frontman doesn't seem to mind.
"It's no secret that I've always had a higher view of myself than the rest of the world. Do I have something to say? Fuck yeah, of course I do. I've proven that time and time again," Corgan said.
"If I felt the Smashing Pumpkins didn't have anything to say musically, then I'm just out there making money. If we do have something to say musically than I'm out playing my music, for the music's sake. I'll let the audience decide my relevance in the world."
At the beginning of 1996, the Smashing Pumpkins were on top of the music world. The band had released the era-defining Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which sold more than 9 million copies and landed them seven Grammy nominations and one win. This was on the heels of two equally lauded albums--masterpieces in their own rights--Gish in 1991 and Siamese Dream in 1993. In total, the band would go on to sell 17 million albums worldwide.
But by the end of '96, the fame was beginning to take a toll. Corgan's temperamental nature and iconic status made him an easy target in the media.
"It's a world full of people saying a whole lot of fucking nothing," Corgan said recently when BW asked him about the negative press he received back then. "I'll tell you one thing: Saying something that's been said a hundred times isn't saying anything at all."
In 1996, the Pumpkins' touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin, died of a heroin overdose. Pumpkins' drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who was with Melvoin at the time, was later fired for his own continuous drug use. And for the next few years, the band was plagued with more drug use and death.
After Mellon Collie, the Pumpkins weren't quite able to pull it together again, and in 2000 Corgan announced on Los Angeles' famous KROQ radio that the band would be breaking up, citing emotional, spiritual and musical issues. In 2006, despite objections from Iha and Wretzky, Corgan reformed the Pumpkins with Chamberlin. The two put out the aggressive, hard-rocking Zeitgeist to poor reviews. Chamberlin left the band in 2009 and since then, Corgan has been touring with three fill-ins.
"My goal is just to have a great band that can play the music, that I'm inspired to work with and want to make new music with--that's it," said Corgan. "I don't do the rent-a- band thing, I'll be clear about that. Chemistry is incredibly important. We play as a band, we eat as a band, we travel as a band. We're a band through and through."
It's easy to be skeptical of Corgan's career choices, but with his current album, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, the singer says he's experiencing a sense of artistic renewal. The 44-track collection is being released for free as mp3s, one track at a time.
"I just don't see people listening to albums like they used to, so I don't feel like investing myself in a work and not having it heard," said Corgan.
"For a long time I've thought about giving away music for free, not in a cop-out move but in some way that would instill fresh energy. Publicly, I'm not a fan of the major label system--I've been used and abused by it--and now it's kind of a thing of times past. Waiting around for someone to buy something is sort of passe. I wanted to get away from the begging part of the music business."
So far, there are five songs in the Teargarden collection, and Corgan said he aims to have it completed in about four years.
In the meantime, fans hope for the release of archival live shows. The band was known for putting on intensely powerful live performances and is rumored to have hundreds of hours worth of tape lying around. Unfortunately, the process is caught in a bureaucratic quagmire with the band's old label, Virgin Records.
"I definitely plan to, we just can't get the deals in place with our old record label," Corgan said. "There's a total disconnect from reality there. No matter how many ways we rephrase it to them they come back with the same shit concepts. They just can't get out of the mentality that if they're not raping you, then it's not a good deal to them."
Despite his consistently bleak view of the music business, Corgan continues to press forward. He's got a dedicated legion of fans that have stuck with him through thick and thin, and he aims to continue writing and creating music on his terms.
"I like to wake up and work on music every morning. I've got a guitar sitting here next to me that I'm hoping to play shortly, always trying to keep myself busy. And I'm always appreciative of the fans who have been supportive of me," Corgan said.
"In that way, I'm leading a blessed life, and I'm really grateful. All told, I feel my attitude is the best it's been in 15 years."
Smashing Pumpkins - Tonight, Tonight
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