ENTERTAINMENT

Time For A Warmer, More ‘Cuddly’ Smashing Pumpkins

The rockers return with familiar faces. Frontman Billy Corgan calls the reunion a "triumph."
"The blessing is that we were able to make good music," Billy Corgan said about the new Smashing Pumpkins album. 
"The blessing is that we were able to make good music," Billy Corgan said about the new Smashing Pumpkins album. 

For years, Billy Corgan had song ideas swirling around his head in case of the off chance Smashing Pumpkins reunited with some of the original band members.

And this past year, he was able to tap into a few of them. For the first time in 18 years Corgan recorded a new album with founding Pumpkins members James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlain. 

“Most of the work happened on the fly,” Corgan told HuffPost. “Very commensurate to the way we worked circa ’92 to ’94. Come in with, hey, I’ve got an idea, I’ve got a lick, I’ve got a part and you just kind of wing it on the fly. And you let the group inform the direction in the congealing state of the idea.”

Called “Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/ LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun,” the new album ― released on Friday ― also features longtime Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder. It coincides with a 30th-anniversary tour that kicks off Nov. 28. For the outing, Smashing Pumpkins will dive into their entire catalog, tapping into new material, as well as the hit ’90s albums released before their split, including “Siamese Dream” and “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” 

Corgan called it a “triumph” that they’re even back together. “The fact that we were just able to get in a room and make music is the victory in and of itself,” he said. 

Prior to the album release, we caught up with Corgan via phone about repairing old wounds, making new music and what’s next.

So, it’s just a week or so ahead of the new album release. Is that something that’s old hat to you at this point, or do you still get the jitters or excitement around it?

It’s always a bit nervy because the reaction is never what you think it’s going to be, even if you think you know what you think it’s going to be. There’s always some wrinkle in there that surprises you, you know?

How are you feeling about this album, having reunited with some of the guys and everything?

I mean, from an internal point of view, it feels great just to make music with them again, and it was such a relaxed environment because of all the years, the work that we had done, we just kind of went right back into that so that was a really pleasant time, and rewarding. You know, we’d managed to do something that we thought would never happen. The response has been really positive, and I just always raised a little bit of an eyebrow because when people start talking about what it reminds them of past or present, I always get like, eh, you know. I know that’s an inaccurate read. But you’re oftentimes put in a position of sort of having to answer for a perceptional thing that you don’t agree upon.

For you, what does it represent to you, the new album?

I think it’s a triumph that we were able to get in the room, as maybe grandiose as that sounds. I mean, the fact that we were just able to get in a room and make music is the victory in and of itself. The blessing is that we were able to make good music. And I think the thing that I did that was good was I just let it happen. I didn’t try to say it has to be like this, or it can’t be like this. I just let the music that we make together be what it is.

I didn’t try to elevate it or weigh it down under some conceptual artifice. I just let it be, and that’s where [producer] Rick [Rubin] really comes into play. He picked great songs and emphasized making sure that those songs came through clearly in terms of their messaging and the musical sort of statement behind them. And I know this isn’t a great word for rock and roll, but it just feels really relaxed to me. Which is the opposite of what you would think, you know, after all these years, and at this point.

Smashing Pumpkins scored hit songs in the '90s with "1979" and "Tonight Tonight."
Smashing Pumpkins scored hit songs in the '90s with "1979" and "Tonight Tonight."

What did Rick Rubin bring to the fold?

Well I mean, the biggest thing is, we thought we were just going to do one song and he wanted to do eight. So, we suddenly found ourselves sort of thrown into a deeper kind of thing than we had expected. And the first thing that hits you is like, wait, we haven’t worked under this kind of stress. ... We haven’t been in this kind of stress in the recording studio since 1999.

Suddenly, you’re kind of like, wait, I’m not sure we necessarily want to jump into the deep end of the pool so quick. We just managed to put this thing back together to tour, which is a fragile thing in and of itself. And now we want to suddenly be in the studio for the long days sort of picking songs and everybody, of course, has a seat at the table. ... There was no stress. It was weird. It was just like we just kind of rolled our sleeves up and said, “Fine, OK.” And we just went to work. ... We released so much music in the decade-plus that we were together that we just reverted back to our old kind of job descriptions.

What do you think it was about this time, this year, that made it happen for you guys to come together?

That’s hard to say because for two years, James and I had been kind of reconnecting and speaking again and just to rebuild the personal relationship to where you could talk about business and it wasn’t this kind of anxiety thing of, “Oh, if I say the wrong thing, this is going to blow up.” Get it back to a place, the family, where you can kind of be your messy self and it’s OK. I think that’s a two-way street, you know what I mean? Nobody’s perfect in the room here. The process of just kind of repairing the personal relationships to where they could sustain a long tour and actually talking about a plan beyond four months. ... Sitting at a table with your bandmates is saying, “OK, what do we really want to accomplish here?” 

James came out recently in an interview and said he didn’t think new music was necessary. If you read that the wrong way, it almost sounds dismissive, but that’s not reflective of his attitude. His attitude is more kind of like, “Yeah, I’m cool if you guys want to do music and I’m cool if you didn’t want to do music. You know I’m kind of cool with however way this is going to go.” For me, it has to be about new music or I just don’t see why you would call it a band. Then it’s more like one of those shows where they put the same cast together, like “Murphy Brown” or something. I’m really not interested in that, even though I realize we’re in a culture that sort of celebrates those things.

Corgan says there were many times he nearly gave up on music. 
Corgan says there were many times he nearly gave up on music. 

At the same time, there is that nostalgia aspect to a band that’s been on and off for some 30 years. What’s your relationship like with that part of your history?

I fought it for many years and I lost. What do you get in my surrender? A, I accepted the public’s expectation without complaint. Then B, from my Piscean brain, it gets into, OK if that’s the way that it is, is there a way that you can embrace this that feels good and positive? And not grumbling under your breath like, well, this is the way I’ve gotta do it. Once I was able to accept it, I got on with the business of, well how would I approach this in a way that I feel really positive about. What I really found, particularly with the live side, was creating a staging and a narrative form around the music that allowed me to express my ideas in the present without having to compromise the music of the past.

And finding that balance point. Honestly, it was Roger Waters, both professionally in the way that he staged Pink Floyd’s music, but also talking to him privately a few times. He really helped me kind of see his visions. I was able to kind of adapt some of that to myself and, in my way, feel like I was breathing new life into something.

At the same time, you’ve continued to put out new music. You have your solo record. Different band members. To what do you owe your longevity in the business? A lot of people just give up or move on.

Well, I almost gave up many, many times. This might sound like an odd answer but it’s really thinking a lot about my ancestors. I came from really poor people. Immigrant people. If I was to sit at a table with them, I mean, they’re long departed, and tell them, “Yeah, I’m just going to blow all this off because I just don’t like the way it feels.” They would laugh at me, you know? They were a tougher breed of people than I am. And I’ve oftentimes tried to think through their eyes how they would view the opportunity. If you’re going to throw away an opportunity, fine, but at least know what opportunity you’re throwing away. And I think when I really examined the opportunity, and I realized there was still a lot of good to be done, including helping bring my band back together, and really heal a wound that really needs to be healed. Not just for us, but even for a lot of fans.

I just had to grow up and really appreciate, really only in America could you have this wild life that I’ve had. Billy Corgan

They felt very grieved by the situation. ... But if they look up to you and you can’t do the thing that they’re asked to do all the time in their own lives, which is, you know, mend fences and move forward, particularly within a family, it’s very painful for them. Because on some sort of meta-level, they see you as part of their family. When you can’t put your family back together, it’s aggrieving to them. It’s like, how is this possible? You guys just can’t get in a room and just kind of get over it? 

There’s a lot of dreamy stuff in there, but the point being, I just had to grow up and really appreciate, really only in America could you have this wild life that I’ve had. And live this crazy dream and also be willing to throw it away, jump up and down on it. It still survives, you know? There’s something pretty magical about that.

It is wild, just looking at your career. I can’t even imagine what it was like. The rise to fame, what kind of toll or excitement did that bring to you, looking back on it now, 20, 30 years later?

Well, I mean, just to give you context, ’92 we were playing a solo club, and four years later we’re playing Madison Square Garden, sold out. There is no way to prepare yourself for that kind of rise. And certainly our family backgrounds weren’t much help. Broken homes. Although James came from a two-parent home, so I don’t want to throw him under that bus. When you start off and your aspiration is to sell out the local club and then you find yourself on MTV and there’s tabloid articles about you dating supermodels and it’s all kind of like, wow, this is pretty wild. This is right at the dawn of the digital age. We found ourselves stumbling into this new technology, not really understanding not only how it would change the way people interacted and saw one another, but also change the music business and send it on a downward spiral for about 15 years.

Corgan and Iha perform at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1996.
Corgan and Iha perform at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1996.

It’s kind of like riding the crest of a massive wave and it is the wave of your generation. As anybody who accomplishes something in a particular generation, they get the benefit of that wave. When that wave crests and starts to come down, it didn’t just come down to its natural place to make way for the next generation, it crashed even further because of the changes in technology and streaming. File sharing. We found ourselves on the back end of a lot of weird stuff. Suddenly, from a lot of resources to not a lot, because the music business was bottoming out.

The new album's cover art.
The new album's cover art.

What’s the vibe being on the road together again? 

I think that the best way I can describe it is, it was such a long winter for all of us that it feels nice just to be in the sunshine a bit. ... I think for the three of us just to be in the room and it to be very warm and have the sense that the 30 years has added up to something, that the music has endured. To see a lot of young people coming to shows is like, that’s the ultimate compliment. And certainly our, not to be too insidery, but we look at our Spotify numbers and stuff and it’s crazy. Like, the younger generation is almost equal to the older generation that listens to the band. Which is wild. Because we’re like, wow, you know, this means there’s a future, you know? It’s not just this diminishing set of returns for an audience that, as we all do as we get older and have kids and stuff ― music is less of a centerpiece of our focus. So it’s great. It just feels really nice. Not words you would normally associate with Smashing Pumpkins, “warm and nice.” It’s a cuddly period, let’s put it that way.

Do you think this period will continue and for how long? I know it’s hard to predict, but do you think the momentum will continue?

I think, ultimately, there’s the choice that needs to be made. It doesn’t necessarily need to be made tomorrow. You can be that band that people would like you to be for a very long time. There’s plenty of indication now in the culture that people are willing to see bands all the way into their 70s. So you could chart a path forward and say, well, as long as we keep playing these songs in these ways for as long as we can, we’re able, there’s the path there. 

I’m much more interested in whether or not we can once more tap a deeper vein, creatively, and come up with work that is not only as contemporaneously received well, but we actually start to lean our influence back into the culture and have something more to say than, like, oh, I like your new album and that’s cool. You know? In essence, we go to being received to having an influence.

The interview has been edited and condensed. 

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