The alt-rock anti-hero talks about the power of the Web, feuding with Pavement, and his relentless pursuit of greatness.
“I’m standing exactly where every artist should hope to stand,” Billy Corgan stated with blunt authority and without hesitation to me, a khaki cap shading his piercing stare.
“I do exactly what I want to do, when I want to do it, and on my own terms. I’m completely independent. The only thing left to do is be great.”
Technically, he’s sitting at the moment—backstage at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, after delivering a damning state of the union address on the music industry in 2012—but the rest checked out.
After two decades of turmoil, chronicled on some of the most significant records in alternative rock, Corgan has established a position of solidarity—as the sole remaining member of the Smashing Pumpkins and in resolute control of his legacy and future output.
But he hasn’t made the trip alone. Corgan has been almost absurdly candid with his audience along the way, whether through his revealing rants on LiveJournal and Myspace, his spiritual (and now-defunct) blog Everything From Here to There, or his personal posts on Twitter.
“I think that’s one of the best things about the Web—being able to share what we used to call in the Pumpkins ‘the juice’ of who you are with somebody else.”
Before the release of the band’s latest, Oceania, a colossal prog-rock awakening that finds Corgan and company reaching for—if not quite obtaining—greatness, the Daily Dot spoke with the Smashing Pumpkins leader about the power of the Web, feuding with Pavement, and staying vital.
Daily Dot: How has the Internet changed your life?
“I think the greatest thing is that it’s allowed me to have a different connection and communication with people that I may not have in my intimate life. It’s reconnected me with friends from high school and people that I wouldn’t necessarily spend a lot of time with but I’m happy to be in communication with.
“From a musical point of view, it’s allowed anybody who wants to make music to have access to an audience, whether it’s five people or five million. When we were coming up, if you wanted to get your music out you either had to go through a very stingy indie community or you had to go through major label system, which was very difficult to even get signed for.
“It’s fascinating to consider that in the not-too-distant future, much of the planet will be able to share in singular events, if they so choose. Or, we’ll be able to play a concert in a studio and have 14,000 people show up, but it will be 100 from China, 60 people from Malaysia, and so on. It’s the ability for everyone to participate and not be excluded. I was always sensitive as a kid to being left out.
“I was a Goth when there was no Goths on the corner of a Polish-Italian neighborhood, being called a fag waiting for the bus because I had the Robert Smith hair. And I couldn’t go to a lot of shows because I couldn’t afford it. So I like the idea that there’s a level of community access, and you see it in these Google circles, where people are getting together and having a shared experience. I think that discourse is really vital.”
DD: There’s a drawback to that discourse and the transparency, though: It kills the mystique. How do you deal with that?
“People have a hard time hearing my music sometimes without combining me in it. As an artist, that’s frustrating, because I didn’t make it for those reasons. I made it to be understood and appreciated for what it was. Of course, I could have never imagined a social media world that would put me in the sort of position to where you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.
“I don’t think you can just be a musician or just a human being anymore. People are going to be forced to participate or risk being left out of the bigger conversation. I’m in a position where I can take part in particular dialogues if I choose. One of the best things about being socially conscious is to shine a light on other people.”
DD: You’ve said that great bands change the world. Can you still do that?
“Fela said that music is a gift, and if you abuse the gift, god will kill you. I really believe that. If music is nothing more than entertainment and flattery, then it’s no better than anything else. Music is an incredible thing, and to trifle it with nothing more than marketing platforms and sales is to ruin it. There are people that are there for the disco—to celebrate shallowness—and I have less of a problem with those people, since they’re overt in what their point of view is.
“I once put on Twitter that I think Lady Gaga will change the world. I got a lot of negative feedback from people, because my fans don’t necessarily particularly like her, but I think she’s a great artist and she’s going to be in a position of power for a long time. And you see her using her power for social activism, protecting people that might be bullied by the culture. For people like you or me, who are a little more sophisticated, we might not necessarily need that message, but for people that grow up like fucking idiots in suburban subcultures that don’t know any better, they need somebody that they look up to to tell them, ‘By the way, don’t be a fucking asshole.’ It’s important.”
DD: Do you feel pushed by modern artists?
“Not at all. I do not feel pushed by modern bands. I’m shocked by the lack of evolution, particularly in alternative rock music. I just hear a lot of repetition. I’m a music historian, and I hear someone doing their version of Cat Stevens, Suicide, Velvet Underground, or Mazzy Star. I’m just not duly impressed. But I do put a lot of blame on the system that asked them to be nothing more than robots.
“Let me put it this way: I should not be here to the level that I still I am. If the music out there was that fucking great, where is someone crushing me on the numbers? They’re not. Our generation crushed a lot of bands right out the fucking door. And they had to sit on the sidelines for 20 fucking years until people got nostalgic and brought that stuff back.”
DD: Do you have nostalgia for your own body of work?
“No, not at all. I think part of that has been inspired by other’s people’s nostalgia.”
DD: How so?
“It’s fine. It’s great, but it’s fucking annoying. It’s lacking proper context. I like to say it was great, but it wasn’t that great. It’s funny that I get better reviews now for older albums than I got when they came out. I have to laugh about that. I’m proud of what we did. But I’m not proud of it if it defines who I am today. And I’m embarrassed for the artists of my generation who are defined by their past work, cause it’s a form of surrender. I’m not into that. That’s gross.
A lot of those ’90s bands, they were all about integrity. Pavement is the greatest example. Talk about a bunch of fucking sell-outs, rght? Do the fucking money tour? Are you fucking kidding me? Where was this massive outcry from indie-land? There was none, because it would expose their own bias. They’re selective in who they choose to victimize in their scorn.
DD: You’ve certainly felt that scorn.
“I’ve always been really honest about my intentions and ambitions, even in the ’90s, when it was really not cool to do that. I’ve always believed in the indie values— that a guy like me should be able to make music and find an audience on my own terms—but I don’t like it when it rises to a form of control. We saw it in the ’80s: Don’t play guitar solos, now your songs are too long, and your records are too over-produced. It should be an open system that celebrates diversity.
“In many ways, the legacy of the Smashing Pumpkins over its 25-year history is pretty representative of those values. I’ve stuck to my fucking guns. I’m still making difficult at times music that represents who I am. Even when I’ve made missteps, they’ve been missteps because I’m trying to push myself. I haven’t sold out. I haven’t gotten fucking boring. I’ve stayed vital.”
Photo by Austin Powell
Pure, uncut internet. Straight to your inbox.