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Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan: Busy like '94

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pumpkins101612.JPG

Billy Corgan leads the Smashing Pumpkins Oct. 14 at the Gibson Amphitheatre
in Universal City, Calif.
(Kevin Winter/Getty Images)


Billy Corgan is as busy as he was 20 years ago, maybe busier.

He's recorded a new album with the Smashing Pumpkins, "Oceania," one of the most acclaimed under that moniker. The restaffed quartet has been trotting the new material around the world all year -- South America this summer, Asia early this fall. It might as well be the mid-'90s: "Siamese Dream" just came out, and "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" is due Dec. 4 (amid the string of expanded Pumpkins reissues, which Corgan oversees). Somewhere in there, he started his own pro wrestling group in Chicago and last month opened a 1930s-style tea salon in Highland Park.

The band launched a North American tour this week -- shows are featuring the entirety of "Oceania" plus a second set of Pumpkins oldies (last fall's Riviera Theater show drilled deep into the catalog) -- and, even after all this time, he still has trepidation about bringing it all back home.

"More than any audience in the world, Americans will cross their arms, stare at you and say, 'OK, whaddya got?' -- no matter how many times you've proven it to them," Corgan told me in a recent conversation about his North Shore retail venture, Madame Zuzu's Tea House. "Then a weird thing happens. Once you've taken enough slugs and punches, they decide they like you. All of a sudden you're revered, just because you're still there. Unless you say something they don't like politically. I just went to see Kiss and Motley Crue, both bands that are past that threshold. It's this weird endurance test, more about survival than art."

He also touched on that touchy subject earlier in the summer, when I caught up with Corgan to chat about his survival tactics, his band's continuing critical disconnect, the old days and, sure, God ...

SMASHING PUMPKINS
• 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19
• Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim Rd. in Rosemont
• Tickets: $50; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com

Q: "Oceania" is getting raves. Sometimes these critical resurgences have to do with the actual music, sometimes with non-artistic factors. Why do you think you're suddenly a critic's darling again?
Billy Corgan: Well, don't jump to any conclusions. [Laughs] I'm still waiting to be a critic's darling. I'm honestly not saying this in a pity-me way, but I don't see that I've made one album that everyone agrees on. I've never had the moment where everyone goes, "Yeah..."

Q: But I'm not seeing other reviews that go after you the way I've seen reviewers go after you before.
BC: But there's still a disconnect. Is this the best record I've ever made? Yes. But most reviews I've seen on "Oceania," I don't think they get the record I made. I get why they liked it. Let's call it, "Oh, he's decided to do what he's good at again, he wants to listen to himself, he's back." The familiar things are all there, but I just don't see the level of critical review for an artist who's been in the public eye for 20 years. It might be my own sense of paranoia. They're looking for something that I'm not doing. That's been the consistent thing all along. ... It's the same thing I see with heavy metal. It gets waved off as not important, but a lot of people really like it. It's worthy of deeper critical review than, "Oh, here they go again." To many people, Ronnie James Dio was a poet.

Q: Was there any conscious intention to reach back to sounds and energies from "Gish," etc.?
BC: No, no, no. If you really look at the record, it really looks forward. Thematically, it's much different. The guitar playing is completely different. ... When I've tried to reinvent the wheel, I get bashed for not doing the familiar things. Here we have a lot of new things, and new musicians, and people connect it to the old days. "Oceania" has none of the original Pumpkins but still resonates with people as a Smashing Pumpkins record.

Q: No doubt you're weary of sentimentalism for the old band. How do the new players [guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino, drummer Mike Byrne] deal with it?
BC: These are all really intelligent people. They knew what was coming. They knew [certain critics] would call them a rent-a-band. They've had to shut their ears to constant critique that they're not real while they've taken on an artistic mantle that's very idiosyncratic. ... They took the journey with me, playing in Tennessee to a thousand people yawning through the new songs. Those experiences either blow a band apart or galvanize you to a common purpose. ... They took the experience and said, "We'll show you like a good band should." Rather than go dark and go negative, they brought this thing into the light.

Q: But a Smashing Pumpkins album is still very much your singular vision, is it not?
BC: To work with me is not "Let's get in a room and see what happens." I get something in mind. I work differently than most people.

Q: I myself have kvetched about the band name before. Why do you stick with it?
BC: One, it centers me into a conceptual base I believe in and have faith in. Second, I kept seeing people try to separate me from my past, and I didn't like that. As somebody who likes to create artistic paradigms, staying with the name is the most rock and roll thing I could do. ... When Jimmy [Chamberlin, the original drummer] left, it became even more intense. I saw regularly on Twitter: "He has no right to continue using the name." You say that to someone like me, it just gets my dander up. It gets to the heart of why I'm in a band, which is kinda to piss people off. There's so little of that left.

Q: "Oceania" returns to several spiritual subjects. May I ask: What do you believe?
BC: I believe there is a god. I don't feel the need to name that god or claim that god in any dogma. I'm probably closer to a Gnostic or pagan. To me, it's the folly of man to make God human. ... I believe there's a higher energy and that the universe has order to it. If you listen carefully, you can see it, find it, trust it. It's backed by science; we know at the quantum level there's an intelligence we can't explain. God is probably one of the simplest things in the world.

Q: You're writing a memoir, is that true?
BC: Allegedly. It's 75 percent done. It's hard -- I keep re-forming it, recompressing it. It's pretty rambling, but I've had a rambling life. ... As much as I've talked in public, 95 percent of this I've never talked about in public.

Q: Last time you played Chicago, it was a no-nonsense, bash-it-out show. The tour's going to have a bit more flash, yes?
BC: We're playing ["Oceania"] in sequence, and we'll have some production to go with it. Sean Evans [who recently designed the production for Roger Waters' "'The Wall' Live" tour] is working with us. It's a good, old-school, watch the band and there's stuff going on experience. If you've seen "The Wall" -- I was there [at the Wrigley "Wall" concert]. We're hoping to build something memorable like that.

pumpstage.JPG

The Smashing Pumpkins perform underneath their new stage effects, Oct. 14
at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, Calif.
(Kevin Winter/Getty Images)



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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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