Billy Corgan: “If you identify with something, that’s all that matters. I don’t think young people have any responsibility to give a sh*t about what’s come before”

On the release of the third act in their ATUM trilogy, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan looks back on a career of risk-taking, the future of his band, and the rejuvenation of rock music…

Billy Corgan: “If you identify with something, that’s all that matters. I don’t think young people have any responsibility to give a sh*t about what’s come before”
Nick Ruskell
Paul Elledge

Billy Corgan has never been a man for the easy road. Or, indeed, the normal road. In the mid-’90s, when such things were still openly laughed at as the products of self-indulgence and pretension, in a musical world where rawness and sweat had become a valued commodity, he decided that Smashing Pumpkins would release a sprawling double album, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. It was massive.

Last November, 27 years after the first third of what would become a trilogy with 2000’s Machina/The Machines Of God, the band began rolling out the closing chapter. Aptly, it was a triple album, a rock opera. “About one-third of it’s heavy,” Billy told us at the time. Oh, and rather than coming in one big binge, he was going to unveil and discuss a track a week on his podcast, Thirty-Three With Billy Corgan, releasing each act of the album as it came.

As the project closes today with the third act of ATUM: A Rock Opera In Three Acts, and the physical version of the album set to follow (“And that has 10 extra tracks,” says Billy knowingly), he explains to Kerrang! about the journey here, creative decision making, the state of rock, and insisting on doing things a harder way than most…

Now you’ve got to the end of it, how was it actually releasing the album via the podcast, a bit at a time?
“I really enjoyed it. A lot of people told me not to do it this way, but it's kind of worked out. I'm just relieved that people seem to be enjoying not only the music, but why we did it. I always think it's a weird thing when people in the music business try to talk you out of putting out music. It's the strangest thing in the world to me. They’re worried that this crazy idea you have is somehow gonna hurt your ticket sales or something.

“I think it's really beautiful that people have embraced the idea that it's kind of what we do. We're a little bit different and, somehow, when we’ve committed to things and seen them through, it's tended to work out for us. We've always been willing to not be perfect to get something new. And if we get something new, that's when things tend to go well for us.”

It’s a big ask of people, though, to listen to one song at a time for a week, and to keep coming back…
“I understand the way you mean it, but I looked at it differently: if I do a podcast explaining all [the songs on the album], and people have to wait all this time to hear the music, that's really weird. If I get somebody invested, and they hear a song in the podcast, and then they can't go stream it? That's really weird. So we're trying to balance all those forces [by including tracks in the podcast].”

Have people been digging it?
“Generally speaking, [the feedback has been] very positive. I'm not somebody who sits there and reads all the comments, but my sense of it is that it’s been very positive. Obviously, not everyone likes every song – it's a lot of songs – but overall, I think it's been satisfying to people. For the people who tend to whinge and moan about too many synthesisers, there's enough guitar music to keep them happy. And yet, I think the overall aggregate is that the merging, for lack of a better word, between Pumpkins’ recent efforts to break new ground, with our ‘traditional’ way of approaching rock music, and putting those two together, [where we’ve previously been saying] that we have other things to say with guitar music, somehow that's all added up, too.

“It sort of closes the circle on, you know, people whinging about [all that]. People over the past, let’s say five years, have kept asking, ‘Oh, why is he doing synthesiser music?’ And I would say, ‘Well, show me all these rock songs on the radio.’ Guitar music, by and large, has been pushed out of the mainstream conversation. There are big bands that continue to do well as guitar bands – let’s start with Metallica – but you don't see a lot of rock music at the GRAMMY Awards. It's somewhere over to the side.”

But that’s sort of cool…
“What I like about the rock community as a whole is, when rock starts to feel like, ‘Oh, the people who really run the world don't care about us,’ it sort of does well, in a weird way, because everyone just goes and does their own thing. And if you bring something fresh, rock fans will show up. So I think it's healthy.”

But still, it must be pretty vindicating to decide to do this mad, three-part opera album, a sequel to an already massive album, and have people twig to it…
“I honestly don't feel a sense of vindication. I think I've had to learn over the last 16 years since we brought the band back, me and Jimmy, that it's not worth getting into, ‘I'm right, you're wrong.’ You’ve just got to keep keeping on. I remember when AC/DC were playing theatres in America in the ’90s, and Iron Maiden were playing theatres, and everybody declared them dead in America. And lo and behold…

“I guess what I'm trying to say is, you can spend a lot of time getting lost in expectations. And I'm a person who doesn't take into account a lot of expectations, but it affects you in terms of… you feel the pressure of it. It doesn't change my musical decisions, but it's like getting up and knowing it's gonna rain today. Don't get too caught up in the in the plus and minus of it. When you're winning, be humble, and when you're losing, live to fight another day, or something. Somewhere in there is an ethos.”

It’s not your first rodeo.
“Sometimes you're ahead of the curve, and people don't understand what you're doing. And it doesn't mean anybody failed, it's just that sometimes it doesn't line up. For whatever reason, ATUM is lining up for us. It shouldn't, if you look at it on paper: the band is releasing a 33-song concept album, three acts as a rock opera, what the fuck does that mean? Oh, by the way, the boxset has 10 extra songs. I’d see a comment saying, ‘Why can't you just write one good song?’ and be like, ‘Oh, fuck you,’ because I never worked that way. It was always important for me to jump into the ocean and see what happened. And when you jump in the ocean, and it goes well, you can't say, ‘I'm a fucking genius,’ because there's plenty of evidence to suggest I've done a lot of dumb shit that didn't work.”

When you were deep into making the album, you said you were working on four tracks at a time and had loads of things on the stove at once, and the whole thing was a lot to keep on top of. Is it easy to lose sight of things when you’re in that far?
“It's pretty blurry. We work sequentially, so we kept working through the record, and we’d go back to the top and go back through all 33 songs. We did that, like, six or seven times. And I hear me say that to you, and I think, ‘Okay, that makes sense.’ And then I'll hear a song and I can't even imagine how we got where we got. I remember writing it, and I’ll listen to the finished version, and go, ‘Why did they make all those decisions?’ And sometimes it makes sense to me. And other times, I think I could have made better decisions. But I also know I went through it six or seven times. So whatever decision I made, I confirmed it again. And again, and again…

“Bob Dylan said, ‘A song is never finished.’ At some point, I just become exhausted by it. Psychologically, for my own mental health, I have to move on. When I was doing predominantly guitar music in the ’90s, I was in the studio for thousands of hours, layering guitars. But then I have to do all the studio work, too. So, by the time I would come out of that entire cycle from a blank piece of paper to 46 guitars on a track, you know, doing all this crazy Brian May stuff, I was like, ‘Okay, I'm fucking done, get me away from this music.’ So it would be like going to a different restaurant. ATUM was two years of work just to make the record, and the idea went back four or five years.”

To take a break from that, you’re working on more music…
“Yeah. We're actually in the studio now recording the ATUM follow-up. And in contrast to ATUM, it's almost all guitar. Because it feels like that's the opposite of where I just came from, and I wanted to just go back to something really straightforward. What's the fucking drumbeat? What's the bassline? What's the guitar line? Strike a straight road.”

And then people will complain there aren’t enough synths…
“Sure. That's fine. I will say this, I feel vindicated that my way of doing it over time has been sort of proven out. There's value in all this exploration. We understand that it's not conventional. It's also, at times, totally counterintuitive to the business side of it all. But musically, considering we started 35 years ago, not just having songs in the charts, but to still find new things to say, that's an accomplishment for us.

“There's tons of musical ground to cover and there's always new things to learn. The part that's difficult is understanding that there's an expectation, and whether you agree with the expectation or not, it's going to colour how what you're doing is perceived. So it was curious to us when we brought the band back in 2007, a band that had Bullet With Butterfly Wings and Cherub Rock, we also had 1979, and Landslide and I and Ava Adore. So when we stepped back onstage in 2007, we were sort of shocked that everyone thought we were just a guitar band that wrote alternative rock anthems or something. And it wasn't just fans, it was radio programmes. And I would literally have these conversations with radio programmers where, without saying it, they were looking for another Bullet With Butterfly Wings or something, right? And I'm like, 'But your station is playing Disarm.' It was weird.”

How’s the next record coming?
“We’ve recorded about 20 songs. I want to do a shorter album, something in the tradition of Gish or Siamese Dream, a 10-to-12 song record. Not too much music. My ideal for this record would be: you put it in, it's not too long, you listen and you go, ‘Fuck, that was great, it rocks hard, and want to listen to it again.’ It's purposely going to be less of a commitment in terms of people's time. For those who have been with us a while, there’ll hopefully be a level of familiarity. I think we've gone around this sun enough times that we feel we have something new to say even if it's on traditional ground.”

Are you getting inspired by being out on tour with some of the bands you’ve been playing with?
“I’ve found it really heartening to see [what they’re doing]. We did the show in Mexico City, and all the young bands on the bill were playing pretty heavy, whether it was Deafheaven, or some of the Mexican bands, everyone was bringing the real power from all different places. Punk, grunge – whatever. In Australia we were playing with Amyl And The Sniffers and RedHook – same thing. It's like, all of a sudden, there's all these young bands playing rock again. It's awesome.”

Do you see a bit of younger Pumpkins in newer bands, feeling their way and making their own thing?
“We were criticised early for classic rock stuff. People said, ‘It's already been done,’ or something like that. But for a younger generation now, they don't really care [about that] – if they identify with something, that's all that matters to them. I don't think young people have any responsibility to give a shit about what's come before, right? I think you should respect people who have paved the way. But it doesn't mean you have to be beholden [to the idea that music is] never going to get better than ‘X’. And it's never going to be better than ‘Y’. You could make a great argument that the last true, great rock album was The Black Album by Metallica. It's an argument around a bar. And what I mean by that is, an album that was a band hitting its critical and aesthetic peak, and it was a huge success.

“So whether it was Deafheaven’s last album, or Korn’s first album – you can pick whatever you want – the point is, it's a good thing when somebody comes along and just breaks it all apart and makes it new again. I knew that seeing Soundgarden and Nirvana in the late-’80s that they were different. Did I know it would be MTV big? No! But it was coming from the street and it was new. I feel the same way about bands like Deafheaven. Whenever you listen to rock bands, you hear the influences, because rock’s a tradition. I stole from Ritchie Blackmore and Eddie Van Halen, and then people stole from me, and it's just the way it supposed to go. But it's cool. When you hear young people take it in a different direction, you go, ‘Oh, that's really interesting. I never would have thought of that.’ It's cool to hear the renewal of rock in a fresh way, and see young people not only representing but also responding. I think that's just so encouraging.”

The final part of ATUM: A Rock Opera In Three Acts is out now

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