Billy Corgan on new album ATUM: “It goes in a million different directions… It doesn’t feel like there’s too much of any one thing”

As Smashing Pumpkins announce their huge new three-part album ATUM, Billy Corgan tells Kerrang! about picking up the guitar again, making 33 tracks, and how he wants to do a full-production musical show of it…

Billy Corgan on new album ATUM: “It goes in a million different directions… It doesn’t feel like there’s too much of any one thing”
Nick Ruskell
Header Photo:
Paul Elledge

The Smashing Pumpkins have announced their new album, ATUM, the third part of a trilogy that started with 1995's Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and 2000's Machina / The Machines Of God. A rock musical set across 33 tracks, Billy Corgan reveals to Kerrang! that he first had the idea "four to five years ago", and eventually spent two years working solidly on it – at the same time as the band were working on 2020's Cyr.

Staggering the release to coincide with episodes of Billy's new podcast, Thirty-Three With William Patrick Corgan (during which he'll reveal a song a week, with the first two episodes available to hear now), the album will emerge in three 'acts', 11 weeks apart. The first comes on November 15, which will be followed by Act II on January 31, 2023. The final third act (and special edition boxset) comes on April 21.

The album's first cut, Beguiled, is out now. Following the almost guitar-free vibes of Cyr, Billy says he was finally back in the mood to play heavy guitar again, citing Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and German metal titans Accept as inspirations.

Speaking exclusively to K!, the frontman spills the beans on making the album, getting back into heavy guitars again, and quite how big of a mouthful a 33-song album is to actually make…

When last we spoke, you said that you were working on "something that sounds like it came from 1993". You weren't lying – Beguiled is very different than the last couple of records. There’s guitar on it, for a start…
“Yeah, I go through my moods. I'm definitely back on the guitar tip for a while. I'm happy about that. I like playing the guitar, but I think because of my father's relationship to the guitar, I came into it with a different perspective. He saw the guitar as something that was as much of a negative as a positive, because his musical life didn't turn out the way that he wanted, even though he was a great guitar player. So I've always ‘tried’ to play guitar. And I say that in quotations, I only try to really get into it when my heart's really into it. I don't just play to play. So if I go off it, I’ll go off it for a while, but when I do, pick it back up, I seem to kind of come back with something fresh to say.”

It’s a very classic-sounding Corgan riff.
“Yeah, I like it (laughs). You know, it's funny, because I came up with that at one of the demo sessions early on in putting together the record. And we never changed the tempo, which is very, very rare. Almost always you speed things up or whatever. But there's something about it being so slow that we just never changed. And that's probably the only thing on the entire record that didn't go through some sort of metamorphosis.”

The album’s being released in three parts, 11 weeks apart – how come?
“It's confusing, because the way the streaming services work, we have to release it in a particular way. So it'll be released in sections. It's not necessarily the way I intended it, but it has more to do with me doing this podcast. Because I didn't want to do a podcast talking about new music, but then people can't go listen to the new songs – that seems very strange. Like if on podcast four you hear a song and think, ‘I really want to hear that’ but you have to wait three months, that's really strange to me. So this is kind of the way we've worked it out. People can at least know the music's coming relatively soon, but it's not necessarily the way I wanted it.”

That kind of makes it more digestible.
“There's 33 tracks, and then the box that will actually have an additional 10 songs, believe it or not, which is a related project, but a totally different style of music. But for the 33, I definitely felt that if I just dropped the music all at once people would go, ‘What the fuck? It's just too much!’ And stuff would get lost. So I think releasing it slowly is kind of an interesting way of doing it. It's something I felt good about. And Jimmy Chamberlin in particular is a big advocate for letting people have a chance to listen to the music, and give them a chance to, just like you said, digest it and take it on piece by piece.

“The thing about the music business in 2022 is, no-one knows. Like, there's no answer. For years, people pretended to have an answer, but now everyone just accepts there's no answer. So everyone just goes with the best intentions – ‘What's the best thing to do?’ So doing a 33-song album presents a particular set of challenges. So all we've tried to do is just try to do the thing that we think is best, which is trust the music to find an audience and see if people will come and listen and absorb why we're bothering with so much of it.”

Is Beguiled typical, or over the 33 tracks are there a million directions?
“A million different directions. I'd say about a third of the record is heavy. A third is kind of more similar to what we've been doing recently, and I don't know what the other third would be called. I guess probably more esoteric to do with the musical. It seems to strike a really nice balance for me when I listen to it. It doesn't feel like there's too much of any one thing, which was important to me. I wanted not to be repetitive, because as you can imagine, over 33 songs if you become repetitive, that's the reason it gets turned it off. So I was determined to not overly do anything.”

This is the third part of a trilogy that started with Mellon Collie… Why did you feel now's the time to do this third part?
“I think it's a huge challenge at this point to sort of make music when you're not at the centre of the cultural zeitgeist, right? You know, there's a huge pressure on the band to always relate back to the past, which is fine, the past is quite nice. But it doesn't really interest me in the sense of, ‘Why would you make music today?’ You get pressure from other people just to make music in the vein of what people think your band is, which for us is never accurate. Usually it has something to do with me screaming and a riff. But if you know our catalogue, a lot of the famous songs weren't screaming and a riff. So, I need stuff to keep me super-motivated to try to produce work at a high level and not get caught up in the idea of, ‘Why am I doing this?’ In essence, I need to pursue music for music sake, and then let everything else kind of work itself out.”

You told us previously that you were working on this at the same time as Cyr, and that you would have three or four things on the go at once. Stressful?
“Sure. It was two years of work. I thought of the project about four to five years ago, but it was about two years of continuous work. And that includes the other 10 songs. So, I figure two years to record about 43 songs in total. And it's hard because it's life, things happen, you don't feel well, I’ve got little kids so I get distracted. It's hard, day after day after day, to go back and say, ‘I’ve really got to get this done.’ There's the old joke about the guy who tries to swim across the English Channel – he gets halfway across it and gets tired. So he swims back. Sometimes when you get so deep in the ocean on an idea, you start thinking, ‘This is crazy, what am I doing?’ But that's what I'm saying – because it's about music for me, and I come back to talking to myself: ‘Well, do you love music? Yes. Do you want to do music? Yes. And this was your idea, by the way…’ You can always stop, and over and over again, I choose to keep going. So that's my inner process, which isn't very attractive to talk about. But yeah, two years of work. It's a lot to take on. I mean, just try writing lyrics for 33 songs! What do you have to say? You have to really go pretty deep to have something to say.”

Where are you going lyrically, then?
“Well, on Beguiled… there's different characters in the musical, but Beguiled is sung from the standpoint of the authoritarian, so it's kind of a reverse thing. It sounds kind of like a classic metal chorus, like Priest or something like, but it's actually the authoritarian figures singing. He's saying, ‘Trust the message.’ At the height of the pandemic, we kept saying trust the science. Having been in public life for 35 years, anytime anyone asks you to trust them, that's when I run. So it's a little bit like somebody saying, if you just have faith in what we stand for, everything will be fine.”

You said you need to be in the mood for the guitar. When you hit that seam, do you find riffs and songs coming together pretty quickly?
“Yeah. But it has to be fresh. Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath, he's my hero, and Tony wrote those riffs that, when you hear him, it's like a movie. In my mind, I always call it ‘Cosmic Sabbath’. When I would listen to Sabbath, I felt like I was peering into the universe. That's the way it made me feel, even as a little kid. So for me a great riff has to kind of make you feel something bigger. So if I'm not in the mood it just feels weird. There’s the thin line between cartoonish and owning the space. Bands like Priest and Sabbath, and even Accept – which the riff reminds me a little bit of – [they all have] something about fucking owning the metal. It’s like, you’ve gotta believe it.”

You can't be Fast As A Shark like Accept if you don't truly believe you’re the shark…
“Thank you. That's a good one. I used to listen to that song when I was delivered pizzas back in the day, when I was getting tired delivering pizzas, I’d put that on.”

Can we expect a mega, 33-track tour for the whole thing?
“On the tour we're about to do, we're playing four or five new songs. So that's a lot, when we're talking about some of the classics and stuff. Our hope is to at one point stage this 33-song album as a musical where we have different guests singing the different parts. The idea would be coming to a show, and it’s two hours and 20 minutes of music broken up into three acts. And there would be different people playing different characters. They would sing different songs, and I would sing certain songs, but I wouldn't sing every song. So, you know, best case scenario is people grow to love the songs on the record, they're interested in how we would stage it, and eventually, there's enough interest for us to go out in a touring production. And people can sit back, eat your CBD gummies and enjoy the show.”

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