The PV Q&A: The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan On Bookending a Musical Legacy with Oceania

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Interview by Tom Lanham

Smashing Pumpkins bandleader Billy Corgan has much to discuss these days. His new Citi-Private-Pass-sponsored tour, backing a new 13-track comeback album, Oceania, and the ethereal flagship single “The Celestials,” that leads it. Then there’s the vault-combing EMI remasters program that’s already begun, with box-set reissues of the group’s early Gish, Siamese Dream and Pisces Iscariot chestnuts; it continues this December with a five-CD-plus-DVD revamp of 1995’s definitive Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, recently certified Diamond for selling over 10 million copies. This is not to mention, of course, the Pumpkins’ ongoing 44-track work-in-progress, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope [featuring newest members Jeff Schroeder on guitar, drummer Mike Byrne, and bassist Nicole Fiorentino), and — believe it or not — Madame ZuZu’s, an actual replica of a Chinese-style tea house found in Paris in the 1930s, which Corgan opened this September in his native Highland Park, IL. “And don’t forget the wrestling company!” he helpfully chimes in. “I have an independent wrestling company in Chicago called Resistance Pro, and we hold shows and I write the storylines for an actual wrestling promotion. I just met some brothers who were in the business and decided to start a company, so yeah — I’ve got the tea house, the wrestling company, and the band!”

PureVolume: How did you hatch this crazy tea house scheme?
Billy Corgan: Well, a little bit has to do with where I live — there’s really not many cool places to hang out on the North shore, so we just thought we’d create one. And I’d had an idea for years about having an art-type space, so it’s basically meant to be a place where you can hang out, show off work, and maybe do old radio plays — just fun stuff, because I love homespun theatre and things like that. So we just opened it as a business, and I think it sort of appeals to everybody in the community. I go in there and there are 65-year-olds and there are kids sitting there with their laptops. It’s awesome.
PV: Are you a big tea connoisseur?
BC: Yeah. I’m a tea guy. And I think I’m like a lot of people — I like cool teas, but I don’t know much about it, like this one versus that one. But I think it’s cool when you go to a place and you try something and you’re like ‘Oh! That’s kind of different!’ I look at it like that. So we’re not trying to out-snob anybody — we’re trying to create a vibe, and we’re trying to get teas from interesting places. Like, if you get our green tea, it’ll taste different because it’s from North Africa. So we try to do stuff like that. And we have vegan desserts — it’s more on a health-conscious vibe. And we’re just about to set up for people to start doing shows there, so it’s very exciting. I love the idea of an artistic hub.
PV: What’s the selection process for potential artists?
BC: We’re just about to announce that, so it’ll be interesting to see who wants to come. But even when I was a teenager and I wanted to play somewhere, just getting a gig felt so prohibitive. So it's important to us, having a space where people can play for free — an 18-year-old who’s a good singer-songwriter can actually show up and play for free, and there won’t be any clinking-at-the-bar noise while they’re playing. And it’s all acoustic — there’s no PA amplification. So if you’re gonna get across to the audience, you’re gonna have to figure out how to do it the old-school way.
PV: And with no industry weasels, talking through sets in the back, right?
BC: They’ll come, I’m sure.
PV: And you played several sets yourself at Madame ZuZu’s grand opening?
BC: Yeah. We have a small capacity, like 40 or something. So we kind of had to encourage people after every set to rotate out and let other people come in. And people were actually good about it. So throughout the day, we had maybe 300 people coming through. But then I held my breath the next day, because obviously it’s one thing if I show up and fans come, but another thing if we were gonna be able to have a viable business. But business has been great. And that’s what I really stressed to the community — if people are only coming because of me, this won’t last. It really has to serve the community. But people really like it, and it’s just a nice place to hang out. And it also has an aesthetic to it that’s totally unique.

PV: But wrestling? Really?
BC: It’s a fascinating subculture, and I think the most fascinating part is, people learn how to work within their own territory, and then they’re expected to be able to come together and put on a match in a different territory. It would be like two musicians from two different schools of thought, who can get together — never having played a song before — and jam and actually make it look really good. So it’s a little like the blues, in that it has a form, and everyone knows how to bend the form around. But I really like being in the business – I get treated really well, and people really like me helping sell the sport. I get treated far better in wresting than I do in Rock 'n' Roll!
PV: After all of your online releases, how does it feel to have an actual new CD, Oceania, in stores?
BC: Well, there it is! But whenever you have a new album come out, there’s a real sense of accomplishment, because in essence, that part of the journey is now over. Because up until it’s actually physically there in a store, you know, God knows what can happen. And oftentimes it does — I’ve had exploding drummers, people quitting in the middle of records, coke benders, you name it.
PV: Especially with all the box sets coming out, how do you feel about your own legacy now?
BC: It’s kind of balancing itself out. For years it seemed that the public persona, or the failure — or the perception of failure — dominated the conversation. But now with Oceania as a bookend toward a musical legacy, everything seems to be getting its own balance. Like the albums that deserve attention, the influence we had, my influence, for better or worse — it all seems to be balancing out. And the gravity of what I have said for years —and am still saying — is sinking in, in a different way. So I no longer just seem like a bitter guy who’s pointing a finger at younger generations for not cinching up their pants and finding some balls. I mean, Jesus Christ! Britney Spears took on her generation harder than a lot of those emo bands. So at least with Oceania bookending it, it seems to be a little closer to the truth, at least from my perspective.

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