Preview: Smashing Pumpkins refuse to wallow in the past
December 6, 2012 5:00 AM
Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan made use of some old influences for the group's new album "Oceania."
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There was hot demand for Billy Corgan to roll with the current trend and go out on the road playing "Siamese Dream," "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" or one of the albums that made Smashing Pumpkins a premier band in the '90s grunge era.
The poetic frontman who leads a new version of the Pumpkins had no interest in doing that.
"I kept saying, no, not only are we not going to do it, I'm morally opposed to the idea because it's become this new business model, which I think overall is really bad for the touring business," he says. "Once you create that culture, you can't go back from it. It's a greatest hits culture. Once that's all it becomes, then it's really difficult to play new music."
His theory is that if the business is in "a perpetual spiral," the best approach is to offer new business models -- and new music. On that note, Smashing Pumpkins is on tour performing the new 13-song album, "Oceania," in its entirety (with a video package) and bottoming that with a handful of Pumpkin favorites.
The result, he says, is that the fans are buying in, and the Pumpkins are getting some of the best reviews to date. That's because "Oceania," with its epic sweep, stands alongside the band's best work.
He admits that in making the album, at first, the band -- guitarist Jeff Schroeder, drummer Mike Byrne and bassist Nicole Fiorentino -- wasn't sure "if we were going down another blind alley or we were opening up a door. God, I'm cliche-ridden today," he laughs. "I see now looking back, doing the reissues and stuff, the original group, we developed a language that I was conversant in, and I felt strong about and comfortable in. At some point, I got bored with it and other bands ripped it off and it became part of a bigger alternative music junk jargon. So when you're trying to reinvent, most artists end up sounding like strange imitations of themselves, or they try to adapt in the cool new thing. Most of our energy was focused on creating this new language based on the other three people in the room rather than saying, 'Hey, can you play in this style because I know it works?' "
While "Oceania" isn't a drastic departure from the Pumpkins vintage sound, a common reaction is that Corgan and company have incorporated a more progressive-rock feel.
"About five or six years ago on tour, I started, as just something to do, to go to record stores and buy all these weird records I'd never seen before -- '60s and '70s music that was released on major labels that I had never even heard of. And I used to work at a used record store, so I pretty much knew what was out there. I would find them in stacks and wonder, 'Who the heck are these people?' And I would Google them and there would be no mention. A lot of prog out there is like that, and weird mid-'70s psych folk or stoner music, or whatever their trips were."
He digitized them for his iPod, and started to soak in some of these new/old influences. "I've reached a point where I've stopped trying to adhere to the alternative music glue, how you're supposed to put things together," he says. "I just rumble around in whatever I'm interested in. What I hear in a lot of current alternative music is people sort of rummaging around in a hipster way where they don't really possess those genres. For instance, Beck is a master of sort of skimming genres and putting pastiches together. But the current thing is people skimming through things in a hipster way where you can tell they haven't digested it. It's one thing to do your Brazilian beat, it's another thing to get in the groove and understand it. By listening to a lot of these old records, it's allowed me to kind of sink into, and digest the philosophical reason."
Although the writing of "Oceania" sprung from some difficult relationship situations, the overall tone of the record is less anguished than what fans normally get from Mr. Corgan.
"I think where I've kind of pivoted is, 'I still deal with the same issues I've always dealt with, I just decided to deal with them differently, so as I was going through these relationship struggles, I just made different choices for the first time in my life. I decided to embrace and accept rather than scorn and hate. It doesn't mean I lost my cynicism or my bite, I just decided to be more loving and that kind of opened me up to a different kind of life experience and also different things I wanted to say."
Getting people to listen to the new album is as great a challenge as making it, as a lot of people don't accept the current band as the real Smashing Pumpkins, which broke up in 2000.
"I've reached a point where I'm OK with that," he says, "I've stopped trying to win them over. You're just never going to win them over. My best argument is that it's a sort of brand that endures. Yes, there are different personnel but the philosophical approach continues into a new era. If you want to take that ride, there's certainly a rich spate of music to still be explored by this unit, with me at its helm. If you need the '90s version of the band -- which, that '90s version really wasn't intact through all five records -- then that music is there, enjoy, I'm glad, buy the reissues. But don't come to my concerts expecting me to play party to that philosophy. I think that's at the root of most artists' death is living in some sort of quasi-past. I don't see where there's this massive upside. I don't see what's so great.
"I admit, there are certain bands I would not go see if there were certain members not in the lineup because they're intrinsic to why I'm interested in that artist. In my case, the one thing I can say is, I am the auteur of the Smashing Pumpkins sound and vision. I did most of the recording, and I'm pretty invested in how to portray it. If the fact that I wrote all the songs isn't enough for you, that I recorded most of the albums by myself isn't enough for you, then, cool, I don't know what to do."
He scoffs at the idea that Smashing Pumpkins could be playing arenas instead of clubs now if the four originals were intact.
"Honestly, I doubt that. Look at our contemporaries. The ones that are successful at that level are making modern music that is well received by the 2012 crowd. Those that are making music that is not on the charts, they're not playing arenas, and I doubt we would be either. It would have been great if the four members had gotten through what we needed to get through. We didn't, and that was part of what drove us in a way, in a good way. People would say, 'Why are you working so much?' in the '90s. And I would say, 'Because I don't know how long this is going to last.' A lot of what was generated was generated out of a propulsive fear that it wasn't going to last. When you're in a band with two drug addicts, it can end any day. So, I think we did what we meant to do and this is an honorable continuance of what we were creating, and I think the world is changing so fast that a lot of the old rules don't apply anyway."