Smashing Pumpkins: Right Back Into It

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Billy Corgan should have been downright delighted last week. With his latest in-studio lineup of guitarist Jeff Schroeder and veteran heavy-metal drummer Tommy Lee, his amorphous outfit Smashing Pumpkins had just completed one of the most accessible, hook-friendly albums of its career, Monuments to an Elegy, its ninth. The songs were earworm-irresistible, from the cheesy New Wave-ish “Anaise!” through tinkly toe-tapper called “Dorian” and effervescent synth-rocker “Run2Me,” to a Phantom of the Opera-grand processional “Tiberius” and the vaguely-Celtic “Drum + Fife,” in which Corgan sweetly croons “I will bang this drum ‘til my dying day.” And, indeed, he chirped sunnily, he was “in a good space right now, but as far as my mentality on this record, it was assassin—I’m going to kill you with pop. That’s my deal.”

But the man was not happy. Far from it. He had gotten caught up in an online feud with, of all people, usually affable CNN host Anderson Cooper, who had noted a recent cover story about Corgan in Chicago’s animal-shelter magazine PAWS—for which he was photographed hugging his two rescue kittens he had acquired from said place, Sammi and Mr. Thom—and commented that the musician was “off his alternative rocker,” and then dubbed the Pumpkins’ definitive Siamese Dream “derivative of My Bloody Valentine anyway.” Big mistake.

Corgan—who had raised over $60,000 for PAWS by auctioning off a private concert—fired back through Twitter: “Sorry to disappoint, but when I’m not raising Cain for a great organization like @PAWS Chicago, I’m still making real music. I realize you’re too busy being a globalist shill to know the difference, but there are those of us who do what we like.” It didn’t end there. For the group’s current globe-trotting tour (which features Schroeder, Killers bassist Mark Stoermer and Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk), he printed up special t-shirts, adorned with a cute photo of his bow-tie-sporting black cats and the words “Fuck you, Anderson Cooper.”

“In a million years, I never thought that I would have taken shit for appearing on the cover of a charity organization’s publication,” says Corgan, 47. “That shows you the level of depravity we’re living in, and it is inane to the Nth degree. It is unbelievable that a celebrity would be attacked for trying to give to others, and not even humans—which you could make some intellectual argument against—but animals. And the fact that there has not been a mea culpa? [Cooper] should have put his tail between his legs, turned around and said ‘You know what? I fucked up’ and done three minutes on PAWS to give PAWS some publicity. I mean, think about the next celebrity that would shy away from something like that, because they have an album or something coming out and they can’t afford the bad press. It just makes me sad.”

The message is crystal clear: Love me? Love my pets. “I don’t always get along with my dogs and cats,” the singer says. “But I will say this—they’re true, they’re honest, and they don’t give a fuck about who you are in the world. And there’s something really, really important about that. It’s a great gift, the love of an animal, and they’ll give it to you straight— they’ll check your ego at the door.” Especially his “little girl cat, Sammi,” he adds. There have been trying times in his professional life where he stumbles numbly home, thoroughly depressed. “And the only thing that kept me from going out on the ledge was the cat. When I’m having a really bad day, she’ll come and sit right on my chest—they just know, like ‘Okay, I’ve got to take care of him today.’ The gift of animals in my life is just amazing. I could never put a price on it.”

Doth Corgan protest too much? He doesn’t think so. He sees Cooper’s unprovoked assault as symptomatic of today’s mainstream media, which seems to exist merely to entertain through kooky and/or controversial clips, thereby upping viewership and bolstering the bottom-line ad revenue. News programs are no longer about news, they’re about shallow Ron Burgundy broadcasts beamed down from ivory towers, he snaps. “And for me, it’s pretty simple—those are the people that my father taught me to hate, growing up. And when I become their target?” His aggressive switch got flipped, he swears. “And that’s what alternative music was all about—it was like ‘Get off my fucking ass, just because I’ve got a funny haircut!’ But now it’s mind-boggling to the American public that there are people in this world who are still independent. It’s some sort of moral conundrum for them.”

But don’t get the musician wrong. He understands the nexus where art and commerce meet, and he’s studied it from every possible angle. “And I’m okay with selling stuff,” he admits, looking back on over 30 million Pumpkins albums moved. “And in fact, it’s been proven over 25 years that I am really good at selling stuff. And when I really focus, like I did on this new record? I can sell even more stuff. I mean, it’s not rocket science. It’s rock and roll.” And whatever Corgan does, he reckons there’s a market for it. After home-recording some material he deemed too experimental for the mainstream, he issued it as the album AEGEA through the website of one of his other curious ventures, Madame Zuzu’s Tea House in his native Highland Park, outside of Chicago. He will also be releasing a six-disc vinyl edition of his recent eight-hour tea-house-held solo performance, based on Hesse’s Siddhartha. He also vends his own brand of Madame Zuzu’s tea.

Even when Corgan was running an actual wrestling company, Resistance Pro (which he recently quit), he was, above all, staying true to himself, a trait that has colored his work since the Pumpkins’ early groundbreaking days with its classic James Iha/D’arcy Wretzky/Jimmy Chamberlin lineup. He saw problems with the media back then, as well: “I mean, we used to get asked questions like ‘What’s it like to have an Asian in the band?’ or ‘What’s it like to be a girl in a band?’ Those were actual journalistic questions! But we didn’t give a fuck—we weren’t married to any one concept. And particularly the ’90s generation had a real problem with that. It was the question of ‘Who are you?’ And we kept saying ‘What does it matter?’ When I did the Siddhartha show, I didn’t expect the negative reaction I got. Because I’m apparently not supposed to do things like that.” He pauses, gathering more venom. “But who says? And to what degree? And what does it matter if I do, and no one shows up? How does that harm anybody? Those reactions, those waves of hipster incredulity, show that nobody is in control of the narrative these days.”

So why not make a huge, hook-happy Pumpkins record like Monuments? Corgan reasoned. Where was the harm? “The ubiquity of pop is here to stay,” he declares, unrepentant. “And if you want to exist in this marketplace at any kind of higher level, you have to bow down to the god that is pop. And when I looked at it from a historical perspective, it really wasn’t any different than any of my heroes. I mean, The Beatles had to deal with it. Queen had to deal with it. It’s just more compressed and more high-pressure now, as far as what the marketplace demands. But I think the demand is the same.”

If you thought Corgan was angry earlier, don’t even get him started on modern technology, which he views as more of a tether than a tool. “We’re living in a perpetual state of what seems like self-awareness,” he says, after railing at length on the subject. “You open your computer and it says i-This and i-That, and everybody thinks they’re so connected because they fucking retweeted something.” He sighs. “Which again, brings us back to PAWS, and what was so shocking about that incident. You actually go out and do something nice, and you get clubbed in the head? The natural reaction is to just go and hide, because who wants to get beat up for anything?

“But we all have to go to sleep at some point and think about the day,” Corgan concludes, segueing into sage-like calm, perhaps reflective of the meditation path he follows. “So my defense here is, ‘Look how many times I’ve gotten up and gone right back into it’—what’s left for me is to stay in that fucking fight, because the fight is pretty worthy. And to me? It’s the heart of what’s left for rock and roll.”