Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan on Playing the ‘Heel’
Smashing Pumpkins are back on a career upswing, reuniting three-quarters of their classic lineup, while also continuing on with guitarist Jeff Schroeder who has been a key figure in the latter day era of the group. The band just released the new single "Solara" and will start their "Bright and Oh So Shiny" tour July 12 in Glendale, Ariz.
Loudwire Nights host Toni Gonzalez recently spoke with Billy Corgan and Jeff Schroeder about "Solara" and their excitement over new music, as well as the current lineup's dynamics.
Do you remember the first thing the reunited Smashing Pumpkins worked on creatively in the studio as a unit?
Billy Corgan: We went to a studio for three weeks to do demos, so I don’t even really remember. There was so much music, and we worked so fast. We worked on 16 pieces of music over three weeks, so it’s kind of a blur. You have any memory, Jeff?
Jeff Schroeder: Yeah, actually, I do. We did do the demos first, but when we actually moved up to Shangri-La to work with Rick [Rubin], actually, on the tunes and start tracking, I personally had a pretty touchy moment for myself in that I was sitting there tuning my guitar, and then I looked around and saw Billy, Jimmy, and James. And then I look through the window and see Rick Rubin, and I thought like, “Wow. This is a really special moment.” To think that when I joined the band it was such a different scenario, that to even think twelve years later you’d be at this point, it was really unfathomable. So I really kind of took a second and took it in.
Let’s talk about the new song, “Solara,” which we are playing on Loudwire Nights. Why did you feel it was the right song to reintroduce the Smashing Pumpkins to the world, and do you consider it a reintroduction, given the band never really went away?
Billy Corgan: You wanna tackle that one, Jeff?
Jeff Schroeder: [Laughing] Sure, yeah. No, I think that we didn’t over-intellectualize it and try to write a song that would reintroduce the band. I think that we just played, and I think certain characteristics that are strong points of the band came into play, and so I think that what you hear is very classic Pumpkins, because that’s kind of everybody doing their job and doing it well and it just works.
Billy, can you speak of it, too, how this song came together and the meaning behind it?
Billy Corgan: I usually don’t talk about song meanings anymore, because somehow in the Internet age that turns into, like, a religion. So I hate to be vague, but I’ve learned my lesson on that. As far as the song’s roots, it actually has roots in the last Smashing Pumpkins album. It was demoed during the Monuments album; Jeff and I were the only people in the band at that time and we just couldn’t find the magic. We always thought the song was strong, but we couldn’t find the magic in it. So when we came in in this situation, the minute we put it in Jimmy Chamberlin’s hands, it’s like, "Oh, there’s the magic." So it got a lot easier after that.
What makes you most excited about the new songs?
Billy Corgan: For me, I think it’s the fact that, like Jeff said, we don’t have to intellectualize anything. You have the principal people in the room who made the albums that people are familiar with. And like Jeff said, when everybody does what they do and they do it well, it comes out sounding like Smashing Pumpkins without having to try, where having been in other situations, and obviously Jeff was involved in many of those situations, at times we would sit around and say, “We know what people want.” It’s not really, “Should we try to shave an edge here and there?” And honestly, as a musician, that’s probably the worst thing you can do. Frank Zappa had an album called Shut Up n' Play Yer Guitar, and I think there’s something to that. There’s a point where you’re better off as a musician just playing whatever you feel.
I don’t blame anybody for this, but I think when I was in the band called Smashing Pumpkins, and Jeff and I are the only guys in the band, by calling it Smashing Pumpkins, people are gonna have an expectation, whether you want them to or not, and if you try to combat that expectation, you’re gonna be frustrated. If you try to go along with it, you’re really probably not being in the moment, as far as making the music that’s in your heart. So you get kind of caught in cross-purposes. So it just feels really good now to not have to think about any of that anymore, and we just make our music, and if people like it, great.
Has the band settled on a release date that you can share?
Billy Corgan: I think management would prefer if we not talk about that, but there’s definitely more music coming. We recorded eight songs, and we hope to put them all out this year.
OK, I had to ask. Billy, people tend to classify you as, as you called it, “A Class A heel,” as you said in your New York Times interview. Do you give much thought to others’ perspectives of you?
Billy Corgan: No, honestly, because we live in a world where most of the people who care about that stuff really aren’t fans of the band. It’s more of a gossip type of thing, and you can play into that, but ultimately it doesn’t really do what you hoped it would do, which is get people to listen to the music. I don’t think the guy printed it in the New York Times interview, but I said, “I’m done playing that guy.” I did it because I enjoyed it. I thought it was fun. I thought I made a lot of good points through the years that exposed the hypocrisy of much of the media complex as far as how they treat celebrity, that they’re really not interested in the work, they’re more interested in what the work gives them in terms of opportunity of creating clickbait and stuff like that.
So I’m pretty settled at 51 years old. My life is about music and being an artist. I’m blessed to play with such tremendous musicians who are great collaborators, friends, family. I’m blessed to still want to write music, and especially with my partners. It’s a great time in my life. Like Jeff, who’s obviously in this with us, he and I, we’re 12 years into this journey together, that’s a tremendous journey, and just Jeff and I alone, we’ve had the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. So it’s a great time to be in the band.
Jeff, you seem to be very ambitious, very productive. I believe you earned your PhD in comparative literature; you’ve produced an EP and a full-length album while working with the Pumpkins; studying jazz guitar with Tony Do Rosario. But Billy has spoken about how much you do behind the scenes for Smashing Pumpkins besides your musical contribution. Can you speak a bit about that?
Jeff Schroeder: I never really thought about it in that way of, “Oh, I should do some extra.” I just think that what I learned from joining the band 12 years ago is that there’s kind of a high demand for putting out quality work or a quality show. So it’s just kind of looking around and looking at what needs to be done, I guess different than other bands, which Billy and I to this day shouldn’t be shocked at that. People in the industry that work for you tend to be shocked that you actually care about how your guitar sounds or what you look like or what the video looks like, what the lights look like, what the sound is like. And so I think it’s just across the -- I think you would find that all of us care that much. It’s not just me, it’s that we all care.
I don’t mean to sound sappy, but what is the most valuable thing you’ve taught each other, musically or otherwise, as you said, during your 12 years?
Jeff Schroeder: I just think, and I’ll just use one example, that what I learned and what has been the most valuable thing to me as an artist and as a musician is that I think people would say that maybe Billy has a reputation for being a certain way in the studio, whatever, and be hard on people or this or that, but I’ll tell you one thing, he’s just as hard, if not harder, on himself. So once you realize that, and you get into that mindset of it’s really the art, the song that you’re working for and really trying to uncover little pieces that you can find that are gonna make the song better, I think that that kind of relentless pursuit of greatness in that way is the most valuable lesson that I’ve learned as a musician.
Billy Corgan: From my end, I’m almost 30 years in as a quote/unquote “professional musician.” My father was a professional musician, and I watched him go through great struggles, never achieved the success that he hoped for. If you approach music from the point of ambition first and relationships second, you’re also gonna be severely disappointed. I think the one thing I really, really learned over time is that if you don’t trust the people you’re in the bunker with, if you don’t love them, if you don’t care for them, and you also don’t let them love you back, you’re also gonna be disappointed.
The music, when you can combine your friendships and your family and your heart with the music you’re making, the music sounds so much better. The songs you write have so much more passion in them. It’s hard to explain, but it starts from the family of the band first to the music, and when James, D’Arcy, Jimmy, and I had that at a point, these golden years where we produced so much great music that people still want to talk to me about every time I’m in an airport or something, it really goes back to we were on the same page, not just about the next video, but like where we were as people. We shared every meal together. We went to each other’s weddings, and it really, really did have a lot to do with the music that we made. When we lost that with one another, we lost our ability to make that kind of music.
Do you feel that the rebuilding of public trust, as you stated, in the band has begun, and what measures are being taken to do so?
Billy Corgan: Well, it’s kind of weird because ... I think it’s a great question. It’s not me disabusing the question, but it’s weird, because you end up battling perceptions which you know internally really aren’t real, so it gets into your reputation or why some people left or stayed, so you end up answering a lot of questions which really aren’t relevant to how the band works internally. I would say the simplest thing, if the question is trust, which I think is really ephemeral, honestly, and not as valuable as people might think it is, it’s just: do your work and be consistent. A lot of the years that people didn’t like what we were doing, they didn’t even really understand why we were doing what we were doing.
I’ll give you the perfect example. We did a 20th anniversary tour in 2008. Jeff was in the band, Jimmy was in the band, James was obviously not in the band, and we were taking a very aggressive position against where rock and roll was, what people thought the band was and wasn’t, so it was very much a contrarian position on what rock and roll is, what’s valuable in rock and roll. We made a lot of creative and aesthetic points that I consider very valuable in that the band as it exists today is completely tied to that band at that moment.
But people look at it as like, “Oh, you were so angry.” No. I was in complete control of my emotions, and I knew exactly what I was doing. I was playing the character of a very angry person. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have my own feelings about it, but as an artist, if you’re not in control of yourself, then it’s like being an actor onstage and forgetting your lines and fumbling all over. It’s like 99 percent of the time I’m in control of myself and I know what I’m doing, because I’m making points that aren’t necessarily about fame or success. That’s what the band was built on.
The band was built on a contrary position. We had to fight for every video, every weird thing we ever did, because people would say, “Why don’t you just make the normal video, and you’ll sell more records and people will like you.” And we’d say, “But we don’t care. It’s not why we’re here.” So people forget that the band’s roots really are anachronistic and anarchic, not wave the pop flag and get along. That’s why the band’s still here.
I want to talk about the upcoming tour. What can you tell us about what the fans can expect and see, and are either of you very hands-on in terms of stage production, or is that left to someone else?
Billy Corgan: No. We’re very involved in the stage production. It’s the most ambitious show we’ve ever mounted. It’s a crazy amount of production, lights, and video. We’ve been shooting stuff on sound stages out here in L.A. for the show. The show tells a story which is very interesting, I think, and we’ll see how people take to it. But no, the show itself is a real celebration of the band’s 30 years, and it’s gonna be quite interesting and exciting, because we’ve never been able to mount ... and now the technology that’s available these days, compared to, say, the technology that was available 20 years ago about how you put on a show, it’s unbelievable the technology. So it’ll be full lasers, as we like to say.
I know you’re a huge metalhead, Billy, and the community recently suffered a huge loss with the passing of Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul. Did that band have any influence on you? Did you know Paul?
Billy Corgan: Yeah, I knew Pantera quite well. I used to go see the band all the time, hung with them, drank with them. Dimebag gave me a guitar, gave James a guitar too. They had an influence on our record, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. [They were] one of the greatest bands ever. The fact that both Abbott brothers are gone -- Vinnie was an incredible, sweet guy. He loved music. And obviously, the tragedy of his brother’s death and what he went through that day, that night, it’s something that I think all musicians [understand]. if you knew Vinnie, you loved Vinnie, you also couldn’t help but understand what he was going through, because we’ve all been in that position where you’re looking out in the crowd, and you don’t know what’s out there.
So the tragedy of the Abbott brothers and what Vinnie went through, I don’t know. I can’t even find the words, because it’s so sad. And obviously, we still have the music, but there was something special with those Abbott brothers that is very, very, very, very rare in rock ’n’ roll. They brought a lot of love and passion to fans. It’s just so sad.
Thanks to Smashing Pumpkins for the interview. The band's "Bright and Oh So Shiny" tour kicks off July 12 in Glendale, Ariz. and you can see all of the dates here. Take a listen to their new single "Solara" in the player below. 'Loudwire Nights' airs on radio stations across the country and to find out where you can hear host Toni Gonzalez on the program, check here.
Smashing Pumpkins, "Solara" Video
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