Even before he was really in a band, Billy Corgan used to say he was part of a band called Smashing Pumpkins.
That's how much he likes the brand and he's not giving it up -- no matter who is or isn't in it.
The singer/songwriter/guitarist is the lone original member of the current group, which turns up Saturday at Mr. Small's as part of a small-club warm-up to what is expected to be a bigger tour.
This was, after all, a band that headlined arenas and amphitheaters in the' 90s when it helped spearhead the alt-rock movement with such multiplatinum albums as "Siamese Dream" and "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness."
After rising to the top, the Pumpkins crashed hard with a combination of infighting, drug problems and declining sales for the albums "Adore" and "Machina/The Machines of God." When the foursome split in 2000, Mr. Corgan went on to form the supergroup Zwan and issue a solo album, both of which paled in comparison to prior successes.
In June 2005, he took out a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times calling for a full Pumpkins reunion, but the only one to bite was drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Guitarist James Iha and bassists D'arcy Wretzky and Melissa Auf der Maur were replaced by Jeff Schroeder and Ginger Pooley, respectively. That version of the Pumpkins released "Zeitgeist," which debuted at No. 2 but was neither a commercial nor critical success, as it was said to be the most bombastic and overheated record in the Pumpkins' catalog.
Since then, the lineup has shifted again with 20-year-old Mike Byrne (found through an open audition) and Nicole Fiorentino replacing Mr. Chamberlin and Ms. Pooley. Their tenure coincides with Mr. Corgan's work on an eighth Pumpkins' album, "Teargarden by Kaleidyscope," projected to be a 44-song monolith, based on the Tarot and released as free downloads track-by-track at www.smashingpumpkins.com. There also will be a series of EPs, leading up to the full boxed set. It's an unorthodox approach, but nothing new to the Pumpkins, who released "Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music" for free on the Internet way back in 2000.
Thus far, there are five tracks available, including "A Song for a Son," an epic piece with a old-fashioned scorching guitar solo that would fit well between, say, "Stairway to Heaven" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on classic rock radio.
Last week, Mr. Corgan talked about the state of the Pumpkins in his first interview with the Post-Gazette.
First off, why this tour of small venues?
I think we just kind of wanted to get our feet wet. Got basically a completely new rhythm section and that's the kind of thing where, you know, you can play the songs, but whether or not you're going to play them well or consistently, it just takes time. Mike's 20 years old, he's never been in circumstances like this, so it was just, well, let's just start something we know we can manage and not jump into too deep and find ourselves in circumstances above our head.
Do you like the idea of playing with musicians who are somewhat green?
To me the key thing with a musician, assuming that they have the ability, it's a matter of enthusiasm and emotional connection. There's definitely an advantage like any kind of relationship where there's a different kind of openness than after you played with somebody for a few years -- the language gets developed, and sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes it can limit opportunities.
Why did you do this open audition process rather than using other channels to find musicians?
I was really offended a few times when people classified the last incarnation -- the 2007-2008 version of the band -- as a rent-a-band. I was really offended by that 'cause Jeff and Ginger came out of indie bands; you know they played in Silverlake, been in bands for 10, 12 years. You have to find people who have a certain perspective on music in order to play the kind of music I want to play. The guys in LA -- or girls who lay around and sort of go on different tours, they're all good musicians, but it's a job. I can't play music that way. And I can't play with people who are playing that way. The open audition process, to me, was trusting the universe to say, "OK, this is the right person." In the case of Mike, it worked out that way. In the case of Nicole, I met her through a charity event that I had done and once I brought her in, it was obvious that no one else was going to get the job.
As a unit, how would you compare the way they sound to the original group?
I think this particular group of musicians is probably better at playing with space and playing with tone and texture. Old-school Pumpkins was really good at sort of up and down, the dramatic end of it. But oftentimes a lot of subtleties would get lost in that. So maybe it made for a little more drama here or there, but also it made for more inconsistent live element. With this one, everyone plays with a consistency that's refreshing. It builds a different kind of trust musically.
You noted that this was a return to the psychedelic roots. Do you feel like you had to get away from the sound for a while -- then go back to it?
Pop music is a funny thing. I didn't start off writing pop music. I started thinking I wanted a band that was more atmospheric and occasionally would have a good song. Then, you know, in the '90s you find yourself in that situation where people are buying your records and in order for them to keep buying them, you have to write songs that are catchy and so your focus shifts. They're not going to put a 7-minute super jam on the radio. It just shifts the focus. It's not a bad thing -- all my favorite bands at some point make similar shifts. But once those issues became less important, maybe as I got older, I wanted to go back to a space where music had a different excitement again.
"A Song for a Son" sounds like one of those classic rock epics. Is that how you see it?
Absolutely. I was thinking somewhere between Led Zeppelin and Rainbow. Part of this album for me is not being afraid of making my influences part of the story. When I was younger I would try to drum my influences out of my music. Now I don't mind if I'm wearing them on my sleeve 'cause it's part of the story I'm telling. When I was producing it, I kept saying things like "this part reminds me of UFO, this part reminds me of Zeppelin" -- probably stuff from around 1975, where I came of age with rock music.
It kind of ties in with that lyric, where I realized my father wasn't going to be there for me the way I needed him to be. It's almost like a filmmaker who would choose to set a movie in the past maybe when they were coming of age -- like a World War II movie set in a certain time to say a certain thing. In a weird kind of way, setting the song in 1975 helps me tell the story that I want to tell. It's an overt thing. When I laugh is when the implication is that I'm too dumb to understand that I'm doing that -- when I'm using my 1972 Les Paul on the solo.
The piece as a whole -- the 44 tracks -- is going to relate to the Tarot, right?
Yeah, I'm working that out [laughs]. I was just thinking yesterday I cast out a big net and I'm still trying to figure that out. There's a lot of material, but the band is also defining what's possible. Some of the songs we're working on now are more representative of the band sound than they would have been six months ago.
Is it going to be important to understand what you're driving at there to appreciate the project?
You know, I don't know. I have to say that when I look at my own listening, I oftentimes don't pay a lot of intellectual attention to what's being said. All I know is, it makes me feel something. You have that, where you just love a song and it's really about that one line. The song could be about the guy's mother but for some reason when he sings this one line it reminds you of your girlfriend or something. I don't think it's as important -- just pointing yourself in a certain direction and what's going to be will be. Like the Beatles always said "Sgt. Pepper" is a concept album, and John Lennon was like, "That's a bunch of crap." Yeah, it started and ended with a concept and in between it's got nothing to do with anything. I think rock 'n' roll works a little better when it isn't trying to force something down an intellectual tube.
Why release the album track by track and offer it free?
Really, to get myself out of a music system that does not have anything to do with music. That was the simplest way I could figure out how to do it was: How do I get people to listen to what I'm doing? How do I keep myself focused and not get caught up in Web hits or sales? And what will be the most exciting thing? How can I get myself back to a place where I feel really engaged with the audience? That was the best way I could figure it out.
I think a lot is being sacrificed to try to get someone to spend a dollar. Obviously, the fans continue to show that they're just not interested in paying for music. Now that doesn't mean they won't pay at any price. I think they would pay for a cheaper price. I just don't think they want to pay for what's being asked. So what happens is, it just sort of squeezes everything down and it makes everyone go, "Well, I'll just buy that one song." I think music should be so affordable, especially in the digital format. If you were clicking around on iTunes and you saw an album you wanted, you shouldn't even have to think about it. You're 20 years old, you don't have a lot of disposable income, you're on there, you see a Bob Dylan album, you think, "Well, maybe I'd like to hear that." That thing should be so cheap -- boom -- it's in your folder in five seconds. The fact that you have to stop and think about it, that's so dumb. We're not talking about hard goods anymore. Yes, it's important that there's the indie retailers and they play a vital role, but 70 to 80 percent is digital now. It's so big that if it's not about shipping or the artwork, it should be a no-brainer.
So you think the 10-song album format is not relevant anymore?
I think it's been destroyed. I understand why people are still doing it because they don't know what else to do. But it's destroyed. I don't see how that means anything anymore. And I realize if you print that, some guy's going to go, "Well, I love Johnny and the Toads' "Forest" album.' No, I'm not trying to throw a blanket over everything. I'm just saying, generally, people are not that interested. Why we keep insisting collectively as the music world, keep shoving something down people's throats that they obviously don't want, I don't get that. We're not talking about like it's been a couple bad years. We're talking where it's been over 10 years now.
If you were talking about sandwiches or cookies, do you think they would last that long in that kind of thinking? It's a preciousness that isn't needed. Just figure out how to get people what they want when they want it. Maybe it's about putting out 40 songs a year, maybe it's not about producing everything perfectly. Maybe you produce the best song you can produce perfectly and the other five songs you just run in the studio and cut in a couple days. Maybe it is the DIY model at the end of the day. For the Christina Aguileras of the world who, it's about being perfect, well then, that's fine. But for the rest of us, I don't see how that works anymore.
What's the time frame on these 44 songs and releasing this physical product?
I'd say right now we're probably in the four-year range. The touring slows things down a little bit and trying to align ourselves with the reality of how to market the stuff in a very real way. The fanbase is really impatient for me to put out this music. But I'll give you a perfect example. I played a show the other night and there were probably 1,500 people there. I said, "I'm going to play a song now called 'Widow Wake My Mind,' it's available for free on smashingpumpkins.com, so hopefully some of you know it." I said, "How many people actually know we're putting out songs for free?" and only a third of the audience raised their hands. The message is they're there, they're interested, they bought a ticket, they don't even know it's there.
They're coming 'cause they loved "1979" way back when...
Doesn't matter. I got them in the door and I have that opportunity, and obviously if I play a good show the likelihood of them finding out is going to go up. I'm not mad about that. It makes me scratch my head like "How do I get this information out to people?" You say, oh, if it's free, people are going to know about it. No, it's not. There's so much information. Even if someone reads it, they don't necessarily retain it four hours later when they're arguing with their friend. Life moves on, life moves really fast. What I don't want to do is keep throwing songs into a vacuum to the 5,000 people that pay attention every day, who follow the ups and down and argue about the color of my hat.
Do you think people figure "I have so much Smashing Pumpkins music ... They made so much great music and I have so much of it." Then the need for more decreases.
What I think it is is if you keep doing the same thing, it limits the interest of why you want to go back. It's like seeing "Die Hard 4." The audience gets smaller because they already know how it ends. So I think you have to prove to the audience that you've moved on. And if you look at other people's success where they've had major comebacks -- U2, Elvis and plenty of other people -- it's usually because they find something new in their music. And so the indication right now is, it's still a very early stage. I seem to be finding something new and the audience is responding to that. If I can turn that corner and prove there is a whole new rich vein of music I'm tapping into in a way that doesn't alienate people but makes them say "Oh, this is why I liked them in the first place," that's my responsibility.
If you keep putting out the same songs, why would you want to hear it? You can just go back to the old stuff. That's what I do. There's no judgment there on the audience. It's my job to go, "Hey I have something new to say." That's why I look at people like Neil Young. You watch them kind of wander in the wilderness for a while and you go, "Aw, man, what's he doing?" And boom, all of a sudden he finds a new way to do the Neil Young thing and you go "Aw, he's back," and you're right back there. I feel like I'm at the tip of the iceberg right now and I don't know where it's going, but it feels good.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org ; 412-263-2576.