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|Billy Corgan comes clean, starts over; [Chicago Final Edition]
|April 25, 2005, 12:32 am
Source: Chicago Tribune
Billy Corgan comes clean, starts over; [Chicago Final Edition]
Greg Kot, Tribune music critic. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Ill.: Apr 24, 2005. pg. 1
(Copyright 2005 by the Chicago Tribune)
Billy Corgan sits in the back yard of a suburban mansion befitting a rock star, squints into the noonday sun and talks about death.
He is matter-of-factly responding to a question about his workaholic personality, a trait that is at the core of both his considerable successes and his equally epic failures. In the pantheon of Chicago rock artists, few have sold more records (more than 25 million), achieved more critical acclaim (albums such as "Siamese Dream" are routinely cited as benchmarks for '90s alternative rock) or become a bigger lightning rod for criticism ("What would my musical legacy be if I kept my mouth shut?" he muses at one point).
So what's left to accomplish? Corgan answers as if he's running out of time.
"I'm a religious person, and when God decides to push me off a cliff, I don't want to think as I'm going over that I didn't try hard." He offers this explanation at the outset of a conversation a few days ago in which he will also discuss the painful demise of his previous bands, the Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan, and the need to start fresh on his first solo album, "The Future Embrace" (Reprise), due out June 21.
More than an hour into the conversation, Corgan circles back to the same subject. He has already unburdened himself about many things: His attitude toward old bandmates, abusive family members and his reputation as a prima-donna musical dictator. He is doing more unburdening in a blog-like autobiography he is self-publishing on his Web site, billycorgan.com. Names are named, injustices revealed, scores settled. Corgan spares no one, including himself.
"There is a point to making a public confession," he says. "Why wait? I could die tomorrow."
It's disconcerting to hear the 38-year-old artist talk this way. He had a complex relationship with Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994. And Corgan has acknowledged that he contemplated suicide at the height of Pumpkins mania. But Corgan isn't on some goth-rock death trip. He says his health is good, his spirits high, and he looks it.
"I'm just a realist," he says. "A kid e-mailed me last night because he appreciated the blog I was writing. He told me a story how he was at somebody's house when he was growing up, and a guy was showing off a shotgun and pointing it at another kid's head. The kid tried to brush it away, but the gun went off and the kid's head got blown off in front of his friends. That ended their childhood."
But the story doesn't end there. The e-mailer tells Corgan he isn't a Pumpkins fan, but that his late friend loved the Pumpkins' song "1979."
"A few years later, he heard '1979' and it reconnected him to that friend, it healed something in him," Corgan says. "That's why we love rock 'n' roll. Beyond the record sales and major labels and Clear Channels, there is that moment when the music connects, and it's very powerful. It's modern alchemy. I want to keep doing that. That's why it's important for me as an artist to clear the decks."
Corgan's deck-clearing has brought him into the third phase of a career that includes a 13-year tenure as the singer, guitarist and driving force in one of the best-selling bands of the alternative- rock era, the Smashing Pumpkins, with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky. After the Pumpkins fell apart, he and Chamberlin put together the ill-fated guitar- rock quintet Zwan, which imploded in 2003 after recording only one album. As a solo artist, he has dabbled in folk songs loosely arranged around a "Chicago" theme (debuted last year at a one-off concert at Metro), a book of poetry ("Blinking With Fists," published last year), and now "The Future Embrace."
The album is a strangely beautiful electro-rock detour from the massed guitars of the Pumpkins and Zwan; it suggests what the Pumpkins' most-misunderstood album, "Adore" (1998), might've sounded like had Corgan pursued the possibilities suggested by two of its most alluringly personal songs, "To Sheila" and "Shame."
Corgan nods in recognition. "Those were the broken, drive-by moments on 'Adore,' and they couldn't be sustained," he says. "We were in the right mood at the right time on the right day, and those songs appeared. On any other day, those songs wouldn't have happened, because making that album was a nightmare. This is the record 'Adore' might've been if I had known what I was doing."
The drama drives Corgan as much as it bedevils him. As the interview continues, he acknowledges that sometimes he has been his own worst enemy.
Q. You pulled the plug on Zwan just before you were supposed to tour Europe in 2003, only a few months after your only album came out. Why?
A. It was devastating because I had invested two years of energy setting it up. I didn't want to start over again. But it was a disaster waiting to happen, worse than the Pumpkins. If you come out of something very painful, your natural reaction is I'm not going to do that again. And you wake up, and realize, not only am I doing that again, but it's worse. It's not even as good a band as the Pumpkins were. The record company turned it into a simple explanation: The record didn't sell, so Corgan got pissed off and went home. But the problems got started while the record was being made, and success would've only covered it up. Jimmy [Chamberlin] and I talk often, and we both thank God that it was not successful. Because if it had been, we would have been locked into it longer, and the atom-bomb potential would have been bigger.
Q. You had problems with the other band members [Matt Sweeney, David Pajo, Paz Lenchantin]?
A. The music wasn't the big problem, it was more their attitude: 'Why do we have to practice? I'd rather be hanging out at the Rainbo.' Lifestyle stuff. And then you get into what I would call cataclysmic behavioral stuff. Sex acts between band members in public. People carrying drugs across borders. Pajo sleeping with the producer's girlfriend while we were making the record. I just tried to do what I've always done, which is to patch it up and roll it out. You go into a denial state. I got snookered in by really bad people. It's embarrassing to me. But it wised me up to why I play, and who I love, and it made me appreciate my old band even more.
Q. How was making 'The Future Embrace' different?
A. Everybody in the studio [primarily co-producers Harris and Bjorn Thorsrud, as well as Brian Liesegang, Matt Walker and Chamberlin] worked as hard as me. There is no conflict. Even if they didn't always produce the results that I envisioned, I knew they were trying. As long as you try, I have tons of patience.
Q. Did you consciously move away from making a guitar-based rock record?
A. I had a mantra: "I just want it to be exciting." I already know how to make alternative guitar rock. So how do I make something new that's exciting? I looked at different periods of music, examined the transitional points where new things come in. The first reaction is, "What the hell is this?" The next reaction is, "Oh, that's kind of interesting." And the third reaction is, everybody wants to do it. Whether I've done that, I don't know. But I wanted to do something where people didn't instantly say, "Oh, that's great!" Because you're probably backdated already. The audience is not necessarily sophisticated enough to always be on the tipping point. And that's not their fault. That's why they pay you the big bucks. You're supposed to be on the tipping point. But new rock 'n' roll tells you to stay in the warm part of the circle, don't go too far out, make sure the choruses are loud, and the verses are mournful and down, i.e., what you used to do.
Q. So you had no preconceived notions about how to make this album?
A. None. I knew what the big pitfall was. You have an intellectual concept of what you want to do, which is exciting. You go to record, but you run out of gas and don't know where you are. When you're in a band, when you get lost, you go back to that sound. This kind of music, if you get lost, you can spin off into infinity, because there are too many possibilities. I needed to find the core elements of the sound, so that if we got lost, we'd have a backup. It took time. It was like starting over in the Pumpkins. There was a lot of back and forth, a lot of false starts, but once it got into focus [snaps fingers]. We built the sound on very simple drums, innovative voicing of the chords, space, and rhythmic dynamics, a la disco, for lack of a better way to put it, or James Brown.
Q. What if nobody cares?
A. A record succeeds on two different levels. It can be liked, loved, pored over, and in some cases it sells. I want it to sell, but I would much rather have people appreciate it. After "Siamese Dream" (1993), "Adore" is the most talked about record the Pumpkins ever made, and that was a disaster when it came out. It about killed my band, and it about killed me. This time I believe I made a really strong record. The fact that somebody might not get it today, I can deal with that. I believe this record has enough juice that people will find it eventually.
Q. You're asking a lot of a short-attention span culture.
A. Well, it's the shortest record I've made since the first one. I don't feel 46 minutes of music is too much to ask of anybody.
Q. Why are you addressing your past now on your Web site?
A. I still live there. I'm not in the Smashing Pumpkins right now, but for me it's an everyday thing, I'm still wrestling with that. Every day I think about, "Where's D'Arcy? Is she OK?" and [exasperated voice] "Frigging James [Iha]." Jimmy [Chamberlin] and I still talk twice a week. The bonds are still there. There is also a lot of [domestic] abuse in my past. Hostile, reactive, self-abusive behavior. People from the outside would look at me, and say, "What's his problem? Why's he such a jerk?" I feel if I tell the whole story, most people will understand why I did what I did. A child protects his parents from what they're doing to the child because he thinks he can fix the parents. It applies to families, bands, relationships. It's taken me 30 years to realize that doesn't work. Telling the truth will open me to criticism that I haven't been open to before. But it will release the black ball that has been sitting in my stomach.
Q. Your bands have imploded. How will you present this music in concert?
A. All options are open. If D'Arcy called me tomorrow and said, "I love you, I've made some mistakes, I figured some things out," I'd be the first guy on the plane to see her. But who knows? I may do some performance . . . thing.
Q. That's pretty vague.
Q. You could come out in a tutu.
A. I may play saxophone versions of all the songs. We're working it out. Don't count it out.
PHOTOS 2; Caption: PHOTO (color): 'There is a point to making a public confession. Why wait? I could die tomorrow.' --Billy Corgan (above). Tribune photo by Alex Garcia PHOTO (color): "I want it to sell, but I would much rather have people appreciate it," says Billy Corgan, about his first solo album, "The Future Embrace," which hits stores June 21. Tribune photo by Alex Garcia.
Credit: Greg Kot