If you have ever paid attention to the Smashing Pumpkins, you know that Billy Corgan is a famously self-important rock star: the type who talks at length to the press about how great he is and then complains about being misquoted. We are in a Manhattan hotel, discussing how Corgan came to realise that his lifelong pursuit of music – and the undeniable success that had come with it – had left him unfulfilled, when he says this: “I would watch people quite cleverly try to disassemble what I’d actually built. They were sort of interested in separating me from my own true narrative.”
Now, this reads like something a famously self-important rock star would say. But Corgan says it playfully, with such self-awareness that he gets away with it: suggesting that he knows this is absurd, but it’s how he feels, and actually it’s even appropriate given his stature; that he’d rather risk ridicule than minimise his feelings. Some version of this dynamic repeats constantly over the next hour. Irony may not always be a healthy coping device, but having fun with an interview seems like the least a rock star should do. I wondered how differently many of his previously controversial quotes – about social justice warriors, a pizza fast-food chain, the Shrek soundtrack – might read in the context of their delivery.
At any rate, talking like this never seriously impeded the Pumpkins in the 1990s, when they released a handful of classic records, racked up awards and had hit singles in the US and UK. The Pumpkins exemplified their “refuse to choose” Gen X milieu, flitting between noisy and tender musical styles that bridged raucous grunge and emotive indie rock. After 1995’s hugely popular double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, they suddenly pivoted to an electronica-inflected sound on their follow-up LP, Adore, a daring shift that repelled some critics but has grown in stature in the following years.
The Smashing Pumpkins were a bold and great band. But although nobody seemed to mind the Gallagher brothers’ braggadocio, something seemed to grate when Corgan did it. Was it his incandescent baldness, a look he adopted before he turned 30? His easily parodied adenoidal bray? The fact that he wasn’t “the cute one”, which he was known to complain about in interviews? Whatever it was, it hung over Corgan by the time the Pumpkins broke up in 2000, and certainly when they re-formed a few years later with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin as the only other member of the original lineup. Slowly, Corgan became far more written about for the things he said and did – being pictured grimacing on a rollercoaster, say – than the music he continued to make.
Corgan arrives to our interview in black jeans, a quilted jacket, a multicoloured scarf and a Chicago Cubs hat. He is dressed down from the Pumpkins’ show at Madison Square Garden the previous night, where he resembled a techno vampire. Playing alongside Chamberlin and the band’s original guitarist, James Iha, who rejoined in 2018, Corgan exuded a good-natured theatricality you might attribute to his ongoing investment in professional wrestling: he has owned and operated the National Wrestling Alliance since 2017, and has worked in the business for more than a decade. During a performance of their latest single, Beguiled, a pantomime wrestling match took place on stage between a shirtless, muscular hunk and a barely dressed biker girl. Moreover, it seemed like Corgan was having fun.
Has his involvement with pro wrestling changed his relationship to performing? Immediately Corgan launches into a full-scale reflection about his public reputation over the years, and how he recently realised he was no longer interested in playing the villain. “I don’t really see a value in it any more, honestly,” he says. “In fact, I think it’s the opposite: I think people need to feel inspired, and so if you want to talk about a narrative, the story for the band overall is just one of coming together and survival.”
The Pumpkins are about to celebrate their 35th anniversary, and while that anniversary comes with some caveats – they split between 2000 and 2007, the lineup has fluctuated heavily (bass player D’arcy Wretzky remains on the outs) – it’s hard to make a fuss when watching three-quarters of the lineup that made the LP Siamese Dream channel the explosive malcontent of its opener, Cherub Rock. This is itself a wrestling trick: trusting that a good narrative can wash away the petty details, if you tell it with enough conviction.
“I used to perceive it as sort of a funny game,” Corgan says of playing a troll in the press. “But that sort of stuff works better as it does in wrestling, when you have a hegemonic position. If you’re winning, and you’re being a heel, it’s kind of fun. But if you’re not winning, then the heel thing turns into a grating white noise, and everything that comes out of your mouth, somebody’s rolling their eyes.”
Was there a particular moment where this snapped into focus? Corgan turns matter of fact. “When you get to the point where you’re suicidal. And it’s not because the meta-narrative isn’t working; it’s just your life’s not happy, and then outside of you is this squalling noise that has no bearing to your reality, your accomplishments, to who you are as a human being. You become kind of a pin cushion.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the past few years have welcomed a handful of profound changes in Corgan’s life. Now 55, he was recently engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Chloe Mendel, whom he notes – with another wry look,like one you might recall from the backseat of the video for single 1979 – he met through his divorce lawyer. (He was married to the art conservator and artist Chris Fabian from 1993 to 1997.) He and Mendel have two children, six-year-old Augustus and four-year-old Philomena. And Corgan’s father died last December, after years of health issues.
“When you start having kids, it’s like – OK, now you gotta not repeat all the mistakes that you’ve been complaining about in your songs for 20 years. Now, you got to be that guy that you wished your father was,” he says. “It has a way of sobering you up. I’ve never had any drug or alcohol issues; it was more like the classic: I guess I better grow the fuck up now.” Corgan admits, sheepishly, that it took until he was 48 for these changes to take root. “I put off adult responsibility about as long as possible, outside of work. It was always my inner rationalisation – ‘I’m working, and so everything’s fine.’ But that turned out not to be the case.”
This adult responsibility has resulted in a more adult period for the re-formed Pumpkins, where everyone accepts that they’re older and that it’s a privilege still to be playing packed shows at an age when many of their peers have split up or died. “I was able to rebuild the internal health of the band, and for the first time prioritise the things that matter – the band’s inner life, not the outer life,” Corgan says.
In the band’s heyday, Corgan concedes he gave too much weight to his boyhood dream of being a rock star. “Music was my saviour,” he says. “It was gonna fix all my problems. Suddenly, the stupid thing that happened in second grade has meaning because you’re on MTV.” What he found was that the bigger the Pumpkins got, the more problems accumulated – and, as the band’s leader, it fell on him to solve everything. (To be fair, some of those problems were of his own devising.) “You get to the point where you realise this game only works if you participate, and part of the participation is the emotional need to prove yourself. Once you stop needing to prove yourself, you just go back to what you know, which is: I’m a good musician, I’m a good producer. Why am I not making quality music to the level of my capability?”
This mindset resulted in Atum, a new 33-song LP due in three chunks. Act I is out this month, with the remaining parts arriving in January and April. Conceived as the final part in a trilogy that began with Mellon Collie, and continued through 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God, it’s a concept record that Corgan lays out like a movie, about artists exiled in space, whose isolation is both beautiful (from the Earth, their spaceships look like stars) and a warning to the human race about the dangers of being exiled.
Admittedly, it’s hard to get all that from the music. And even Corgan seems ambivalent about the concept, which he noted was initially received by his bandmates with “a big shrug”. The overarching idea was a recent invention, as Mellon Collie and Machina were never intended to be rounded out as a trilogy. “Some of my own sentimentalism, I find it unbearable – like: ‘Oh, jeez, get off the hearts and stars,’” he says. “But sometimes I find myself grappling for something that gives me the same je ne sais quoi feeling as when I watch the old silent movies.”
The Pumpkins’ debut album was named after the silent film star Lillian Gish, and the indelible video for 1995’s Tonight, Tonight – in which they donned old-timey outfits against a backdrop inspired by Georges Méliès’s silent film A Trip to the Moon – plays on the iconography of that era. The passing of the years gives new dimension to old concepts, says Corgan. “You can say the same thing every year and it changes because you’re just getting older.” Sometimes, he says, he’ll be playing on stage and suddenly have a flashback to sitting in his bedroom in 1985, playing guitar on a crummy carpet, and feel strongly about how everything has come full circle.
Concept aside, Pumpkins fans will be heartened to learn that Atum is more guitar-driven than recent records; the best moments are when jagged riffs give way to ascendant solos where melancholy and fury seem to ripple outward from some evergreen torrent of angst. Nevertheless, Corgan accepts that fans are mostly interested in the older songs. The music industry has flattened out in the streaming economy, and it’s harder to get attention with something new. “I’m not competing against Kurt and Eddie,” he says of his 90s peers. “I’m competing against the biggest pop stars in the world with like 14 publicists and 30 writers.”
Playing live remains especially fulfilling for him, even though he feels that the Pumpkins can go underappreciated. “One of my biggest disappointments, sometimes when we play a concert, is you don’t get the sense that the audience understands how rare it is that we’re actually standing there. It’s 34 fucking years later, you got three-quarters of the OG band in front of you, we’re ready to play and we want to be here.”
Corgan had mentioned that he could “bore me to tears” with his extended thoughts on what makes bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys endure over the years. How does his own band shake out within the broader landscape of rock history? He pauses to think. “If you look at us through a kind lens, we’re a wildly successful band for being as weird and as different as we are. If you look at us through another lens, we’re just a pile of wasted opportunity.”
True to form, he follows this pronouncement with something less effacing. “If you want to say there’s been 172 rock stars in the last 100 years, OK, well, then I’m one of them.” He says it lightly, in the way that suggests he knows how this could read, but again, it’s not untrue.
As the Pumpkins enter what might charitably be described as the back half of their career, Corgan seems intent on preserving the band’s legacy and place in the rock firmament. Earlier, when he talked about how being a parent had changed him, he admitted: “I don’t want my kids growing up with a has-been father.” (At the Madison Square Garden show, he brought his kids on stage in one of those feelgood moments that nobody could really deny.) This is declared bluntly, with no trace of contrarianism or self-pitying defensiveness. He makes it sound like a mission worth pursuing until the very end.
“I won’t play games: I believe we’re one of the great bands, and it starts with the conviction that we have something unique to say,” he says. “I felt that when we were playing to 50 people in 1988, and I don’t fucking know why. It was just something that the band had, and it’s endured. The sense, at this point, is not one of sort of chest-thumping victory. It’s just like: ‘No, this is the arc we should have stayed on.’ We were the ones who walked away from it; nobody took us off our game. And now we’re back to doing what we’re good at.”