Few Smashing Pumpkins fans realized it at the time, but the group’s 1995 double LP, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, was the start of a loose storyline about a character known as Zero, who was reborn as Glass on 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God. Two decades later, Billy Corgan is revisiting the whole saga on the triple album Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Parts, where the central figure — now known as Shiny — has been exiled in space. The band will promote it on the World Is a Vampire North American summer tour with special guests Rival Sons and Stone Temple Pilots. “For a while I thought this album was never going to happen because the band’s enthusiasm was suspect,” Corgan says. “But the pandemic was a watershed moment for me. I thought, ‘What’s happening in the world, I have no control over. At least I control the world of Shiny and his friends.’ ”
You’re really trusting your fans to follow a pretty complex story with Atum. Did you worry many of them wouldn’t be able to track all of it?
It’s actually hard-baked in there that I would assume that most people won’t follow the story. It doesn’t bother me, because it’s the same way for Mellon Collie and Machina. Most people don’t know what the records are really about. They’re focused on their favorite song or their favorite drum solo or whatever. It’s totally fine. The last 20-something years of social media have taught me to respect the fact that everybody has their own level of engagement, and any engagement is good.
So if somebody likes a song, great. If somebody wants to know every guitar pedal and what these lyrics mean and stuff, that’s great, too. It doesn’t bother me at all. I’ll just take engagement, because I can do something with engagement. That’s something that professional wrestling teaches you. Without engagement, there’s no opportunity.
The podcast you’re doing allows fans to follow the storyline on a pretty granular level.
I had a lot of people tell me that no one would listen, and I would think, “Well, that’s fine too.” It’s very old thinking: “Hey, only 500 people are going to care, so don’t do it.” That’s the last century. Look, I don’t know if you’re on Twitter, but I follow people who are on Twitter, and it’s amazing how certain people without a huge audience are very influential on the discourse. We’ve seen where people have an undue influence because people respect their take.
So I’m cool with the idea that if only a certain number of people want to get granular, then they become part of the force that goes out and explains it to others — not me.
I saw a lot of people on Reddit paying pretty close attention to the story.
If you went back in a time machine to me 30 years ago, I would be plagued by the idea that not every person was paying attention. Now I’m on the opposite. I’m almost pleasantly surprised and pleased that people pay attention. That’s icing on the cake. It’s my job to make attractive pop music that people will want to listen to while they’re washing their car or something. That’s OK. There’s no shame in that.
Everything else on top of that is intellectual. We’re all the descendants of that Lester Bangs shit. Music, by and large, is very functional. We’re driving in our car and we’re going to take the dog in for an appointment, and we hear a song that we never heard before, and we’re like, “Oh, I love that song.” And then you go on and you find it. That’s really what music is for.
You clearly believe in the album as an art form these days, though. You said a while back that you weren’t sure about that and that you might just make singles.
I think you hit at something that’s very important. The pop stars have weaponized the singular moment. What we couldn’t have anticipated two decades ago was the way they would weaponize the pop moment with social media and perfume companies and Super Bowl appearances. So for the rest of us, the alternative crowd, we have to find a different way to engage our audience and say, “That’s fine, but we’re different over here.” So I’ve gone the other way, which is we should be in the content game. We shouldn’t get caught up in, “Does it sell?” Those are old metrics. We should get caught up in, “Does it animate? Does it electrify?”
Right. We’re past the point where an album’s success is judged by sales.
I was up last night at midnight, and I found some EP of Sisters of Mercy from ’82 of them playing on some guy’s radio show that I’d never heard. It’s just a live recording. And I loved it. I spent half an hour listening to some recording from 40 years ago, and I was totally in the moment. I was enjoying it. It was inspiring to me. So did it sell? It doesn’t matter. You know what I mean? That’s what I’m saying. We’re moving past that.
This goes back to the DIY alternative community, the promise that engagement illuminates and you can be an integral artist and you can build a ecosystem spiritually and fiscally that is supportive of your being different. You can sell 5,000 numbered copies of your vinyl, or you can do an acoustic EP that only comes out on Record Store Day. This is really exciting. It’s the true maturation of alternative culture, where the audience is sophisticated enough to know how to support. You’re not relying on gatekeepers and you can do your thing.
You don’t need a major label to make a big impact now. That wasn’t always the case back in the Nineties.
Yeah. The idea of selling out was always a pejorative, you “sold out.” Well, now it’s the opposite. You’ve bought in, you’re buying into your own thing. So the math on Atum was, I had people in the record business telling me, “It’s a terrible idea, don’t do the podcast.” And now here we are, not a year later, but months later, and everything’s great. Vibe is great. Numbers are up. Tons of people have listened to the music, people have joined the podcast, and life is good. This is what I would’ve dreamed of as a 20-something.
You’re bringing your NWA wrestlers on the road with Smashing Pumpkins this summer. Why did you want to combine these two worlds?
I thought it would be fun to introduce wrestling to a crowd that doesn’t like wrestling. But if they’re given wrestling in a certain way, they might like it. Let’s call it the alternative version of wrestling — it engages the alternative mind in a way that they wouldn’t think if they watched the normal products. It’s not a financial opportunity. I probably have to go out of pocket to make it work, but I love it as an exercise in putting your money where your mouth is. “Hey, let me share this other thing I’m doing with you.” And the cost of entry is really low, which I think works for a lot of people. You can watch it, you can not watch it. It doesn’t necessarily impact your day.
How much new material are you going to play on the tour?
We play about four or five new songs, which is a lot when you think about it. I still hold out the dream that we’ll be able to perform the entire album in the right setting, but we’re not there yet.
A certain percent of any Pumpkins audience basically just knows your Nineties work.
That’s been going on for 20 years. That’s not a new thing.
How do you process that?
If you want to be negative about it, I could stand there and say, “That guy in the fifth row, he stopped listening to me in ’96. What a bummer. He doesn’t know all these great songs I wrote over the last 20-something years.” The other opportunity is, “Hey, it’s so awesome that guy’s here. I’m not only playing new music, I’m playing a lot of new music, and I’m playing deep cuts that he may not know.” And gauging by the reaction over the last couple years, that guy tends to walk out of that concert more interested in what we’re doing.
That’s a nice way of looking at it.
I grew up in a culture where you weren’t a fan if you didn’t know John Lennon’s shoe size. That was what being a fan was. I’ll meet people all the time, usually in airports because that’s where I’m most accessible. They’ll say, “Hey, I’m a big fan.” And in talking to them, you realize that by my definition, they’re not a big fan. But they think they’re a big fan. They have a positive impression of who you are and what you represent. So if you enter into that with a chip on your shoulder — “You should care more about what I’m doing today” — you’re setting yourself up for failure, because that guy doesn’t understand that vibe.
A lot of your older songs reflect incredible pain and trauma from your childhood. What’s it like emotionally to sing a song like “Disarm” every night and have to basically re-live it?
I approach it more like an actor, which is you have to allow yourself to be open to the emotions of what you’re feeling, but you also have to recognize the moment that you’re in. I can’t perform it mawkishly in the way I would’ve done it 30 years ago, and I can’t pretend that I’m the same person. But I can stand there and say, “I am the guy who wrote this song.”
I can reflexively remember what it’s like to be three-dimensionally in the room as I wrote the song and what I was thinking. So I try to create a bridge from who I am today to who I was then. And oftentimes, for an example, when I’m singing a song like “Disarm,” I’ll think of my children, more so than myself. The song becomes a triumphant statement of someone who’s not only survived, but is raising children who won’t be traumatized like I was. I’m able to flip it into something that doesn’t feel like you’re opening up a wound.
Speaking of your kids, how has fatherhood changed you?
The biggest thing is it made me appreciate the opportunities that I had. It allows me to think, “How do I want them to perceive me?” Most recently, I was at Lisa Marie Presley‘s funeral. I was very acutely aware, because of my friendship with her, of how she felt as the child of a famous person, arguably maybe the most famous person. And I’ve met many other scions of famous families.
So with my kids, I want them to see me in a current modality. When someone comes up and says to them, “Hey, I love your dad. I’m a big fan.” Or, “I love your dad, but he hasn’t done anything good since 1996,” they have their own impression of who their father is based on who I am today. And then they can do the math.
For example, in talking with Lisa Marie, we had extensive discussions about her father, because she was just a little kid. She was proud of her father, loved her father, and had nothing but glowing things to say about him as a person. Only later did she learn about what other people thought about Elvis of that time — let’s call it the mid-Seventies Elvis. But she relied on her own memory, which is important.
At some point, people are going to tell your kids the impressions they once had of Nineties Billy.
Yes. And I know enough for my own life, however… to use the term of the day, micro-aggression. I deal with people all the time who throw out little weird micro-aggressions because of something I did or said or didn’t do. I’m aware that my children will encounter these things as they go. The most important thing for me is for them to see me actively engaged, working hard, positive, happy. And them being here forced me to have to deal with that, where I don’t think I would deal with that in the same way if they weren’t here.
You said recently that the Pumpkins were a “pile of wasted opportunity” if you look at them the right way. What exactly did you mean by that?
Well, I think in my mind, the Nineties band separates into two eras. There’s up until Jimmy [Chamberlain] leaves the band in ’96 and then there’s what happens afterwards, which is a month-to-month struggle of who’s in, who’s out, the decline of the music business, MTV going off of rock music. It’s a lot of forces. If one is an elevator straight up, the other one is like a rollercoaster, a jumpy up and down.
People have asked me many times, “If you could change anything about your life, what would you do?” And I said, “The only thing I would change is I would’ve left the band in ’96. When Jimmy left, I should have left. That should have ended the band right there.”
The band had in many ways outlived its usefulness, even to me personally. But we continued, and our story continues to be what we did after that point. Even the current incarnation is certainly closely linked to what we did to carry on. Like a family, you carry on, and you’re not really sure whether the love is there or the fidelity is there, but you carry on because that’s the family that you know.
James Iha has been back in the band now for five years. What’s it meant for you on the emotional and creative level to repair that relationship after so many years of estrangement?
It allowed me to re-embrace what was good about the band without having to always have some sort of qualification attached to it. Jimmy and I would go out and play a show circa 2008, and it would be about who wasn’t there. We even had people coming out and saying, “The band should not exist at all.” And then you get into weird math of, “Wait, there’s other bands out with only one person. We have two. Is that better?”
I had other contemporaries, unnamed, who were literally critical of the fact that Jimmy and I were out under the name of the Smashing Pumpkins, as if we didn’t have the right or something. James coming back ended all that. There’s always that crowd that’s going to want the fourth person [former bassist D’arcy Wretzky], but for the most part, that conversation is over. It allowed us to get back to the work of, “OK, we’re a music band. Let’s make music.”
Since James has come back, we’ve put out 71 songs in five years. We got back to doing what we’re good at, which is making music. We learned to be quiet, not talk a bunch of dumb stuff, and just move on. And like all jagged stories, you assimilate the bad with the good. So the 16 years of not talking become part of why you are less likely to be dramatic about something today.
Back in the day, it was clear you liked to stir the pot and almost make yourself into a villain. It seems like that’s no longer the case.
Well, let me say this first. I was never that person. I became that person in a reactionary way to the way I was presented. So I’ve just gone back to the person I was before all this BS started. At some point after having children, I looked around and said, “I don’t want to be this guy anymore.” Working in wrestling, I get it. We know those personalities that are still out there that are working negative game for attention. We even had a president you could argue was one of the great villains of all time, right. [Donald Trump] loves playing that game. He’s still doing it. For me personally, I reached a point of just being weary with it.
Occasionally I’ll step over a line, but I’m pretty tame these days. I still encounter journalists who want the old guy to come back. They won’t let it go. I even recently did an article for the UK Guardian, and the guy [writer Jeremy Gordon] was a former Pitchfork guy, from Chicago. He wasn’t a bad guy or anything. The article is him wrestling with the ghost of me basically admitting that I’m not that person anymore. And looking under the covers like, “Well, maybe he’s still there.” And it’s like, I’m 56.
Here’s what I would say. If you haven’t graduated at this point, then you become one of those Sunset Boulevard characters that’s holding onto something that’s really far in the rearview mirror.
We just hit the 20th anniversary of the Zwan record, and there have been a few articles reappraising it. I know it was a difficult time for you, but do you see that record differently today now that the drama is long in the past?
I don’t read any press, so I didn’t even know there were articles reappraising the work. That’s nice to hear. I thought it was a good record at the time. We really didn’t have good record company support, and that’s the true story of the business side of that band. The personal stuff, I put that on me. I tried to recreate the family dynamic of the Pumpkins with different people, and when it didn’t work, no one was more shocked than me. When you get out of a long-term relationship and you have the rebound relationship, that one doesn’t last long because you basically invited in the same problem.
The album isn’t on streaming and it’s pretty hard to find. Are you going to put it back out at some point?
Actually, I’m working on the box set right now. I think there’s 65 unreleased songs.
When might that come out?
Not sure. I’m setting up a new business model with the Thirty Tigers company that we’re working with. Atum is a good model. I think I’ll be able to release these projects through them. That’s because they can handle the independent record stores and all that type of stuff for ordering, because otherwise I’m just putting it out myself and that’s very difficult.
I’m working on the box as we speak. I’m very excited because honestly, I personally think the best Zwan music didn’t get released — the acoustic side of the band, which is really what we should have done, and not tried to do an alternative pop record. That would’ve been the stronger effort, I think, and a more timeless thing.
But I’m glad to see that people have reappraised some of the music, because it is strong. In many ways, it’s like the great lost Pumpkins record. The quick backstory on it was when things started to go south in the band when we were making the record, Jimmy and I just took the record over and basically turned it into a Pumpkins record, because I felt the shadow of the record company over me.
Your political views can be hard for people to nail down. You aren’t firmly on either side of the left/right debate. Does it frustrate you that people can’t accept the fact that you’re just heterodox?
I had to give up [speaking about politics] because I was slow to recognize how hyperbolic the political atmosphere had become. Stuff I would say in ’95 just didn’t fly in 2005. And I was an old guy that was slow to realize you can’t talk like that anymore. People were getting into, “I’m never listening to you again because of one thing you said.” And I was like, “Are we really living in that world?” And obviously now, almost 20 years later, yeah, we are living in that world.
So I had to withdraw myself from that polemic. It’s just too dumb. To me, it’s dumb world. It’s Idiocracy. I really truly believe in democracy, and I really believe that when everybody says what they need to say, we by and large, however slowly, get around to the good part. We have a long history, however painful, of getting around to the good part … And seeing where we’re at now, where people can’t have conversations around a dinner table, or people are whispering … When I was a kid and we read Animal Farm and 1984, these were supposed to be warnings, not, “Here’s your future, kid.”
I think people heard some of your past comments and thought, “He’s a conspiracy theorist now.”
I had to long ago give up the idea of what people thought about what I did. That ship sailed in ’92 … In music, you can be glib, ironic, stupid, funny, and revelatory in the same song. I was reading some of Kurt Cobain’s unreleased lyrics the other day from “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and there’s some great stuff in there that’s not in the final song. Kurt, the person I admired, who was obviously very intelligent and very sentient, could play dumb in a way that was funny. You knew he was playing dumb on purpose. When you lose the ability to be sublime in culture, especially when you have a history of being a multifaceted and complex creature, and your only choice is to reduce yourself into binary decisions, I’m out. You guys, speaking pejoratively, you guys have at it, have fun with that. Write your dueling memes. I got other stuff to do.
Smashing Pumpkins haven’t even appeared on a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot, but you’ve been eligible for a few years now. How do you feel about that?
I’m not one to avoid questions, but I’ve decided I’m not going to answer this question anymore, because every answer I give is the wrong answer. But I appreciate you asking. I appreciate the sentiment behind the question. If you want, feel free to look up my past statements on it … Put it this way. There’s nothing I’ve said in public about it yet that actually represents my feelings about it. I made the choice now, either I’m going I’m going to be blatantly honest or I’m just not going to talk about it.
At least Joy Division/New Order finally made the ballot this year.
They are one of the most important bands in the history of rock & roll. I was saying that in the Nineties. I was quoted as saying they’re the second most important band after the Beatles, Joy Division. New Order has shown its mettle over time, too, and you could argue they are maybe even more influential than Joy Division, which is hard to imagine.
I’ve known Peter Hook since 1990, and obviously his son Jack plays in the Pumpkins. To be part of the family of the band, to know a lot of the things that are not public, to have played with them on stage … Hooky just appeared with us in Mexico the other night. I couldn’t be happier, because they are the true testament of where four people getting in a room making music, even with primitive technology, can change the world. They certainly changed the way I saw the world. So I’m forever grateful to them. They are up there for me in the top-top.
Your new record presents a dystopian look at the future. Is that where you think we’re headed?
I am very pessimistic, but if I look historically at the American story, every time it gets really, really funky, we figure it out. I want to point out that I said the word “we.” There’s something that happens here. And so if I got to go with history, which I am, I feel like we’re going to figure something out. I don’t think it’s going to be what anybody thinks it’s going to be.
It will neither be what it was, and it’ll neither be the way it looks like it’s going. I had this discussion the other night with a friend who feels very, very bleak and pessimistic and wants to move to an island. And I said, “I hate to be the center in this, because usually I’m the dystopian guy, but I just have a funny feeling that somehow we’re going to figure it out. I don’t know how. Anytime I pray on it, I always get the sense that it’s going to be something almost unrecognizable, but it will be for the better.”
Shiny begins the new album exiled from Earth, alone in a spaceship. It’s easy to read that a metaphor for cancel culture.
That’s the simple version, but I believe cancel culture is more akin To Kill a Mockingbird or the story of Jesus. It’s about shooting the messenger. Why are we obsessed as a mob with always killing the messenger? In psychology, they call it the identified patient, where the mob decides, “If we get rid of that guy or that girl, everything’s going to be better.”
Not everything in the story is me, but my own part of the story is that I came along with a lot of innocence and a lot of guile, and I was very successful, but I was also targeted and bullied for a lot of reasons, which aren’t worth getting into here. And they also involved generational changes and even changes in the music business. I survived. I got my life together. I didn’t kill myself. I’ve been sober for 20-something years.
I stuck with being a musician, much to the detriment of my mental health. I could have quit years ago, when I had enough money to. I decided not to. I built a life that went beyond “the rat-in-a-cage guy.” I have a tea house. I have a successful partnership, a family. I have a wrestling company. I run a little empire over here. And if my partner has anything to do with it, it’ll be a bigger empire, including her fashion brand.
And yet I feel on some level I haven’t accomplished anything because of the way the American system works. For example, you brought up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When they do those things at the Grammys where they have somebody come out and play to honor who’s passed in the past year, I guarantee you I’m not on that piece of paper. I’m not on the shortlist of people to call to come play the sad song at the Oscars.
What I’m saying is you reach a point in your own personal accomplishment where you go, “I’m good.” And yet I’m still engaged in the system that requires a certain level of material success, which is fine. That’s capitalism.
They may not call you to play at the Grammys, but the Pumpkins still headline arenas. You’re doing pretty well.
I want to be careful. I’m not complaining. I’m actually very happy with where I’m at. What I’m saying is when you engage back in the mainframe, sorry for my visual analogy, but when you engage back in that mainframe, you become conscious of the way the mainframe views you.
It’s not part of my daily churn. It’s in fact not even remotely close to my daily churn. But when I do what I’m really good at — which is to make sad rock music — and I reengage, I have to deal with this other thing. So some of your questions today have to do with the way I’m viewed over there by those other people. For me, it’s more about building something, and then it takes on a life of its own. Whether it’s Frankenstein’s monster and the great Pumpkin machine comes back to kill me, or I become too old or too weird to run it, you have to navigate something.
As I said, this is a mad culture that’s obsessed with a bunch of stuff which is completely counterintuitive. On some level, when you reengage with it, you’re basically saying you approve, or you wouldn’t be there. But until somebody else builds a counter-system, which no one has yet, that’s the only game in town. And so a third of your questions, or a quarter of your questions, have to do with the game in town. And you’re rightly asking, “Well, how do you navigate those things?” And I’m telling you, I don’t, because I don’t agree — but I still have to raise my hand and say, “I’m still here.” So judge me for reengaging even though I tell you it’s crazy. It’s like, “If you don’t want to be on the boat, why are you on the boat?” And I’m like, “Well, what other boat should I be on?”
You do seem happy, though.
We’ll leave that for another interview.
But you’re laughing and smiling as you say a lot of this to me.
I’ll be succinct here. I feel by being more in charge of the way this rolls, that it’s closer to who I am. So I’m not asking you to do this, but if you compare the perception thing, the cloud, versus my daily life and what I’m engaged in with, I think you see a truer path in what I’m actually doing, as opposed to the cloud that was created in another time, under a different set of circumstances.
So when you say happy, I was happy selling millions of records, don’t get me wrong. But then I had to roll into some interview with some hipster that was after me about a bunch of shit which I didn’t care about, and which I knew subconsciously if I didn’t navigate, it was going to hurt the brand. And by the way, there wasn’t any other version of it. Even to this day, my publicist, God bless her, we’re still navigating whether or not they want to send me at certain people, because somebody’s going to pull out an ax.
It has nothing to do with the guy working for charity, the guy running the wrestling company, the guy with little kids, the guy with the tea house, the guy who spends 80 hours a week working on music at age 56. It has something to do with some old riff from ’94.
You said that you were working on a memoir a few years back. What’s the status of that?
I put it down. I wrote about half of it, which was half a million words, and I turned it in. The publisher loved it and said, “We want to wait for you to finish it before we start putting it all out.” And I asked them, “Why don’t you start putting it out and I’ll keep writing?” So then it just ground to a halt, and I stopped writing, because it was such a herculean effort just to get to the half a million.
The craziest part about my life is as public as I’ve been about a lot of stuff and as transparent as I’ve been, easily 90 percent of what has happened in my life is not public. Using the analogy of the avatars and the characters out front, I let them create a narrative which wasn’t true. Basically, that kept the true narrative away from everybody. So people that have read passages of the book are shocked, because it’s the complete opposite of what they thought happened to me.