I could only fit a fraction of my interview with Billy Corgan into my feature about Smashing Pumpkins' show at Newport Music Hall this Tuesday. So here's the full text, in which Corgan discusses classic rock, the Midwest, contrarianism, the fight against becoming a nostalgia act and that infamous 2008 Halloween show.
Alive: What are you up to today besides doing interviews?
Corgan: Actually, I’m gonna be demoing some new songs for hopefully what would be a Pumpkins album somewhere down the road. So I’ve been up all morning kind of tweaking some of the ideas before we go in and record them. And then tonight we have rehearsal for our postponed — or whatever the tour is at this point.
So most of the shows around this Columbus show are ones that got rescheduled due to the hurricane?
Yeah, there was maybe five that got postponed, so we just added a couple to get us from Chicago to the East Coast.
Oh, well, lucky us. So how many demos do you typically make for a Smashing Pumpkins album? You’re known for having all kinds of B-sides and rarities and all that.
Actually, I don’t really like making demos, which is kind of funny. I hate committing to anything, especially if it’s not sort of done, done. But I think these days with as busy as I am, I just have to be sort of picky about what we go into the studio to record with the band and the whole orchestra on call. So it’s probably prudent in this day and age to maybe demo more and be pickier about what gets recorded. It’s better I spend an hour on a song and at the end of the day decide it’s not good enough than go in the studio with the band and everyone’s standing there and then figure out halfway through the week.
So is this part of the tour continuing the approach of playing Oceania all the way through?
Yeah. We just decided that we’ve invested so much time in it that it just sort of works. We talked about maybe mixing it up a little bit, but I think it’s sort of a well-oiled machine, and people have really liked it. It’s probably the best reviewed tour I’ve ever had in my life, so I really can’t complain. And maybe for once in my life, if it’s broke, don’t fix it. Though we are planning on playing some songs we haven’t played. We’re actually rehearsing up some new stuff so there’ll be some other stuff to play every night. It won’t be the exact same setlist.
When you brought back Smashing Pumpkins, you talked about taking a “scorched earth” approach and wiping out the idea of the band as a nostalgia act. Do you feel like the current set allows it to work both ways?
I don’t know. I mean, we talk about it a lot. There are other factors that have come into play that I could have anticipated even two years ago. No. 1, the time that people are interested in participating in concerts seems to be diminishing. Used to be you could pretty much do whatever you wanted for about two hours, and after two hours, it better be good or they’re leaving. Now it’s sort of more in the 90 minutes to 100 minutes range, so that’s sort of changed the dynamics of the show. Coming out an playing Oceania first puts a tremendous pressure on us to keep the second half of the show exciting. And of course that pushes us back more toward the familiar and the known. I’m not sure if we’d be playing some of those songs if we were more in a mixed set kind of situation. We feel it’s a good trade off in the sense of like, hey, if we’re going to go down this one road this far with all new material, let’s try to make the second half easy and not try to prove some point that doesn’t need to be proven. I mean, to me it’s a one-time tour, if that makes sense. I don’t see going out and playing the next album in full. I don’t see it being that kind of record, necessarily. It’s a huge commitment psychologically and even business-wise to do something like this. So I just saw it as sort of a one-time thing.
What about this record made you feel like it deserved this treatment?
Well, it was the whole psychological mindset, which was that we had to change the channel. And if we were unsuccessful at that, we probably need to stop. It’s hard to explain in a short context like this, but: Most bands, and trust me I understand why, it’s just so much easier just to go with the flow of what the audience wants. The minute you start going against that, you’ve got to deal with negative Facebook, negative Twitter, negative reviews, and of course that starts to kill who wants to come to the concert. It diminishes your number of attendance in a time that’s really economically tough already. So to swim against the grain like I have for the past five years, you reach a point where it’s like, yes, it’s fine to be difficult and contrarian, but if you don’t have something to show for it? If you don’t come out with a prize? And to me, Oceania was the prize of all that contrarian work. I’m proud to say that I think I’ve made a really quality records in a time when most people are not making quality records. And I mean new and timely, like 2012. Not, “It’s 1997, wink wink, it’s 2012” records. Like, it’s a new record. And I’m proud of that. And that could only have happened by being contrarian, and by being willing to go against that flow and willing to take a hit on the business and all that. So now that we’ve actually come out with something where we have something valuable, we’re willing to expand with that publicly and make that commitment publicly and say to the audience, “Look, we can play old songs and that’s well and good, but if you can’t invest in this and we can’t invest in this, then why are we here?” The other business model’s not going to work. It’s not an option with this particular group of people.
You were talking about how this is a time when economically it’s so necessary to have people showing up at your shows. I noticed you’re selling a VIP ticket package where people get to attend a backstage performance. Is that purely an economic thing? Have you been doing that for a while?
We kind of stole it from KISS. We heard KISS was doing it and we thought it was a cool idea. Yeah, you do sit around and try to think of new revenue streams, but at the same time, I think it’s also about trying to kind of reinvent the wheel on what you offer as a business that involves creativity. And I think there’s no shame in it. Like, back in 68 — I’m a Hendrix fan, right? And I’m shocked, and I’m reading, like, Jimi played Berkeley Theatre two shows in one day. Now, back then, sets were shorter. One hour was a set time. So a guy like Hendrix would go to the Berkeley Community Theatre in ’68 and he’d play at 4 and 8. So he’d get two full houses in one day, you know what I mean? Maybe we need to go back to playing two showsi n one day and play a shorter show. We have to look at all those things because at the end of the day, we have to survive as an artistic entity. And if you get to the point when the economics so infringe on the creative process that it starts to affect the creative process, then you’re doing yourself sort of a disservice.
There was a big to-do about getting Roger Waters’ guy to do the visuals for this tour. Some of the dates, including the one in Columbus, aren’t in an arena. Is that going to translate?
(laughing) That’s a nice way to say we can’t play the big place, yeah.
Well, I didn’t mean it like that.
No, no, no, no. I’m being funny. What were you saying? I’m sorry.
Is all the visual setup you’ve been doing in the arenas going to translate to clubs or theatres?
It depends. We played one theater recently where we took the projections and projected them on the walls and it looked unbelievable. It was probably the coolest gig we played outside of where we had the ball. So in some cases we can do the projections sort of Velvet Underground on the band. But there’s been other gigs where we’ve sort of done the set as is, no extra production, just basic lights, and the audience enjoyed it just as well. So it made us feel really good in the sense that the show can work just as a musical thing without all the bells and whistles. The bells and whistles obviously adds to it, but we feel really comfortable with the musical component.
Speaking of the contrarianism you mentioned earlier…
(laughing) Ha ha ha… it just makes me laugh.
…I wanted to ask you about a few years ago. You guys came here and played, I think it was billed as a “special acoustic Halloween performance.” I was wondering what was the thought process behind that. If I remember right you did songs like “The Monster Mash.”
Yeah, we did. And it’s so funny. People are still mad about that. We were just trying to have some fun. I mean, Smashing Pumpkins on Halloween. I mean, Halloween is supposed to be about pranks and trick or treat. So we thought we were just being funny, and people were legitimately mad. I mean, they didn’t get the joke. They thought it wasn’t funny. Jess and I staged a mock fight on stage where we played up to type. Here I am in a geisha outfit on stage arguing that he didn’t play the right note while we’re playing “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers. We played a 10-minute version of “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, which is online. And I swear I’m out of my mind. We just had a lot of fun. And the way we looked at it was, if that’s all we’d done, that would have been a bit too dickish. But then we said we’ll come back. We went off stage for 20 minutes. We put on our normal clothes, and then we played a full rock set. So, was it a bit of false advertising? Yeah, but that’s part of the joke. If you tell people that it’s a joke before it’s a joke — I mean, part of the whole thing was we wanted people to think we were being serious. It was all in good fun. It’s a pretty legendary show. I mean, we played “Hang on Sloopy.” I think we played “Wild Thing.” All those songs you can learn in like five minutes. We actually learned all the songs that day. That was pretty funny too.
So for this Oceania date you’re not going to slip in some Christmas songs or something like that?
No, no. Yeah, you gotta be really PC these days. You play a Christmas song and somebody will get mad because you’re not honoring their religion. You hear all the time, like, people being made to put down Christmas trees, or you can’t call it a Christmas tree, it’s a holiday tree. I’m just going to stay out of all that.
You guys have been covering some classic rock songs, like I saw you here about five years ago and you played Joan Jett. And I see you’ve been covering David Bowie and KISS on this tour. Is that something Smashing Pumpkins always did, or is it something you’ve worked in during this most recent version of the band?
We always used to do it. I was just listening to some kind of tape the other day from ’94 and we were playing “I Just Want to Make Love To You” by Foghat. We’ve even got a version of “Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult from 1990 which sounds remarkably like “Teen Spirit” before “Teen Spirit” came out. Yeah, I mean, we always sort of saw that as a fun thing to do. Covers are weird. It’s like a way of cheating in a known song that gets the crowd into the show without having to play one of your own hits. It’s a way to change the energy too. We play “Space Oddity,” and sometimes when we encore we play “Black Diamond” by KISS as an encore. It just changes the energy. The audience seems to enjoy it. The band enjoys it. I honestly don’t think that much about it.
Anything else a Columbus audience might need to know?
I think it’s our only Ohio date on this tour, so I’m glad we’re coming because I know a lot of people when we announced the dates were upset there were no Ohio dates. I feel bad because I know the Rust Belt cities it’s hard times for a lot of people. And then unfortunately that reflects on the promoters not wanting to book the shows because not enough people are going to come, and then the band’s put in a really weird position. So I’m glad at least there’s one Ohio date. I’ve always had really good shows in Columbus. It’s not one of those cities I kind of look at and go, “Oh s---.” There are those cities where it’s like, “It’s gonna be a long night.”
Those will remain nameless, I assume?
Yeah. Ohio’s just got a great relationship with rock n roll. I don’t know if it’s because we all kind of grew up the same way with working class, or parents being working class, whether it’s Detroit or Chicago or a place like Columbus or Pittsburgh, when they go out they want to have a good time. They’ve got enough on their minds. So that always works for me. And plus I’m all warm and cuddly now in my old age, so it’s all good. I’m super fan friendly now. There’s your headline: He’s super fan-friendly and he’s coming to town!