The Smashing Pumpkins are an institution. Back with ‘CYR’ – their first album in over twenty years to feature iconic frontman Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin – they still have something to prove.
Words: Ali Shutler.
Billy Corgan is after a scrap, but what’s new? Well, with a rebooted version of his band behind him, The Smashing Pumpkins are not only about to release ‘CYR’ (their first proper album since 1999 to feature Corgan, James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin – three-quarters of their original line-up), but there are two more nearing completion. After twenty years of speculation, middling reviews and questions about their relevance, he’s out to prove there’s still life in The Smashing Pumpkins.
“It’s one thing for you and me to talk about being misjudged, misunderstood or that things weren’t fair but people like proof. It’s like a fight, right? You can talk a bunch of shit but until you get into the ring and punch the other guy’s lights out…” Corgan explains via Zoom. “Well, let’s see if this 30+ year old institution still has enough of a punch to knock out the other side one more time.”
Formed in 1988, The Smashing Pumpkins have always been a divisive force. Their first two albums ‘Gish’ and ‘Siamese Dream’ were released at the height of grunge and saw the band cut the moody genre with a psychedelic spirituality. It instantly set them apart. “We were rejected by every scene that we were ever supposed to belong in. That just made us angrier and weirder,” Corgan says. The epic two-hour double album ‘Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness’ dabbled in a bit of everything and remains one of the best selling records of all time, while follow-ups ‘Adore’ and ‘Machina’ (a loose concept album playing up to how the public saw the Pumpkins which saw a rock star named ‘Zero’ hear the voice of God through radio static, rename himself Glass, suffer loss and fade into insanity and obscurity) continued to toy with electronics, dream pop and the unexpected. “If The Smashing Pumpkins had ever been just a grunge band, I wouldn’t have joined,” Chamberlin asserts. “People didn’t know what the fuck was going on, but we’ve never afraid to burn it down and try new stuff.”
Growing up in Chicago away from cultural hotbeds of LA, Seattle or New York, Corgan always knew there was something more out there for him, he just didn’t know how to get there. Ambitious, hopeful but also nihilistic, furious and downtrodden, for a decade The Smashing Pumpkins soundtracked coming of age in a place you didn’t belong. In the 90s, he used to tell interviewers that “if I’d been accepted as a child by my classmates, maybe I wouldn’t have turned out to be the weirdo that I was, but I was rejected so brutally early on that it made me turn into this other person.”
Sitting confidently on the outside (Corgan calls himself “the outlier of the outliers”), the band “fought a very particular time of American history,” he explains. “We were taught about how great America was, and we were told that this was the perfect version of the world. We knew it wasn’t so perfect. We were talking about what went on behind closed doors and how we didn’t believe in the institutions we were told to believe in.” Of course it connected.
The band quickly became one of the biggest around, but they were also hated. “The very things we were challenged for were what people were most afraid of,” says Chamberlin.
“We knew what people were saying about us, but we just didn’t give a fuck.” Instead, Corgan took all that criticism head-on. “We had people constantly telling us, ‘don’t be so loud, don’t be so weird and don’t piss off the journalists’, but we really didn’t care. There’s something magical about not caring if the world blows up.”
“I remember playing a festival in 92, and there were 40,000 people moshing. There was this eruption of energy that’s almost indescribable. It was this ecstatic – ‘thank god somebody understands that there’s more to life than this world I’m being presented’. Once you get a sense of that, you feel like you can go all the way with it. Typical megalomania, we felt like we could take over the world.”
“We were out of our minds. There were drugs, egos, misinformation and that era of the record business certainly didn’t help anybody,” says Chamberlin, who was kicked out the band in 1996 in a bid to break an addiction to heroin. “There wasn’t any emotional management going on. We were just left to our own devices to either deal with it, get lucky or do something destructive. Unfortunately, there was a lot of destruction going on.” After a decade of fighting the world and themselves, The Smashing Pumpkins broke up in 2000.
And for many, that’s where the story ends. Corgan’s new band Zwan didn’t really take off, and while promoting his solo album ‘TheFutureEmbrace’, journalists only really wanted to ask him about The Smashing Pumpkins. “Even when I wanted to let it go, they wouldn’t.” So, he decided to take it back on. Taking out a full-page advert out in The Chicago Tribune (“You need a bit of bluster about it because you’re trying to convince yourself that it can happen”) he announced his desire to reunite The Smashing Pumpkins to the world as well as his bandmates, writing: “I want my band back, and my dreams.”
Chamberlin was the only one to return (they’d been regular collaborators during the hiatus) and the pair released ‘Zeitgeist’ in 2007 before going on to headline Reading & Leeds. With a new family at home though, Chamberlin quit in 2009, but The Smashing Pumpkins continued with an ever-shifting line-up. The dreamy ‘Oceania’ came in 2012, with ‘Monuments To An Elegy’ following in 2014 with Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee behind the drum kit. Each record sold less than the previous one had and “it just wasn’t the same,” according to Corgan. “When you bring people into an established world like The Smashing Pumpkins, it’s difficult to navigate, and we just weren’t clicking.” With everything they did compared to what had come before, Corgan was busy fighting “the ghost of The Smashing Pumpkins.” If it was a brand new band, they’d have been fine but asking “that band to be The Smashing Pumpkins, it’s like they couldn’t handle it and neither could I.”
With none of the original line-up involved, the current band never clicking and new music met with a general shrug, Corgan thought he was finished. “If you’ve had a moment in your life where youth culture is very focused on you, then when changes happen, there’s this feeling of abandonment. It feels like something has gone wrong.” Now he’s accepted that “it’s just the natural evolution of life”, but at the time, “it felt futile. I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, but that’s when people get suicidal, and there were times when I really struggled with it. It felt like this magical journey was over.” There were many days where he woke up and thought “it’s over, just accept it, but I fought that idea to the ground.”
Scrapping the ‘Teargarden by Kaleidyscope’ project midway through, Corgan reached out to the original line-up to put those ghosts to rest. Bassist D’arcy Wretzky was in talks to rejoin, but they fell through, with each side publicly blaming the other. Iha and Chamberlin did come back though, joining Corgan and guitarist Jeff Schroeder (a member since 2007). “Once you have this sort of OG line-up together, it’s really just about making good music. It’s not us versus someone else’s idea of the band now, it’s just us versus us.”
The band went into the studio to record a single as a declaration of intent, but ended up with eight. “It was just us having a laugh, but it was nice we captured ourselves.” Those tracks were released as ‘Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1: LP No Past. No Future. No Sun.’ ahead of a worldwide arena tour that saw the band draw heavily from those first five albums.
“The success of that tour proved to people that there was a lot of life left in the band,” Corgan says. “Through those weird years between 2009 and 2014, there were a lot of people who basically wrote the band off or believed it wasn’t valid because somebody wasn’t standing on stage. I had to convince a lot of people that there were still great days ahead for The Smashing Pumpkins.” But, that’s hard to do if you’ve always said that. “I’m not in a position to go and argue it because most people don’t agree with me, so I’m the drunk guy at the bar arguing about how the game should have ended,” he explains. “This might sound really boorish, but the best way to make the argument is to be great.” Which is where ‘CYR’ comes into play.
“This album is the result of us trying to come into the modern world,” Corgan says but rather than just use Lil Peep inspired beats (an artist who he believes was “his generation’s Kurt Cobain”), the band wanted it to feel like their own trip. Chamberlin hopes that “the whole record will surprise people,” he explains. “Under the best circumstances, it’ll reaffirm for people what the band has always been about, which is pushing creative boundaries and not being reliant on old tropes to get our point across.”
“There’s a certain spirit in the band that’s valuable right now. In a weird way, the world has caught up with our uniqueness,” says Corgan. The band have never stuck to a single lane so this genreless landscape they find themselves in isn’t so disarming.
With more electronics than any album since ‘Adore’ and technology that’s able to capture “the tension in the air”, it’s a record that speaks of the “rapidly disintegrating situation in America,” Corgan continues. “The hyperpolarisation of our politics and our media has created real rifts in culture. There’s been a tension in the air, and it’s been growing for a long time. What’s sad is people aren’t talking like they used to.” But he feels like he has “something to say that adds to the conversation.”
“The world needs outliers like me; people just outside the line to remind you there’s a different way to look at things. You need somebody tapping on the glass, saying ‘you’re all a little too comfortable, you need to hear some perspective’.” He doesn’t think he knows it all, though. “Some of the issues going on in America have made me think about my place in the world and whether I can contribute in a different way.”
“Music can be a common denominator that brings culture together,” Chamberlin adds. “But I’m not going to place myself responsible for that.”
There’s “always pressure,” when it comes to new Pumpkins music. “There’s always somebody mad,” Corgan explains. “The ‘Gish’ fans hated ‘Siamese Dream’, and the ‘Siamese Dreams’ fans hated ‘Melon Collie’ so we’re used to that part. I’m not interested in repeating myself. I like having something new to say.” But the pushback runs deeper than old skool fans afraid of change.
“If you had told me at the beginning that I would have the success in the 90s that I had, I would have never believed the way that people spoke about me in the 00s,” Corgan says, warning us he’s being “overly simplistic. You go from being ignored to being celebrated and cheered to being jeered.”
He uses characters like Zero to distance himself from the more personal attacks, and it’s left him fighting a meta-narrative he doesn’t believe is true. “We don’t really think about the legacy of the band because it seems like no one really wants the real story. A 30-year-old band going over to London and selling out Wembley Arena, that’s nothing to shake your head at, right?” he asks. “But you read the press, and it’s like a different reality. They believe I’m washed up, out of mind and the worst person in the world.”
It might seem easy to shrug off the hate, but those views “do affect reality,” he says. “If a bunch of people think you’re Attila The Hun, they’re not coming to your show, and they’re not listening to your fun new single. There’s a lot of people that wouldn’t consider us legendary.”
This is despite the band releasing one of the biggest selling albums of all time, inspiring the likes of My Chemical Romance and Biffy Clyro, and creating a body of work that “moves through a series of genres and maintains a high level of integrity”, like The Cure, The Who, The Rolling Stones, U2, The Beatles and Depeche Mode.
“You can point to a lot of things about me as a person, but my statistics are good. I’m not saying we’re picked on. We just don’t maybe get the credit that we’ve earned. When you ask the question about legacy, I just assume they’re gonna write us out of history.” Chamberlain would rather not think about it. “It’s not a fun gig to write your epitaph in real-time.”
It’s why, as well as working on a series of forward-facing albums under the ‘Shiny and Oh So Bright’ umbrella (‘CYR’ is volume two and there’s a ten-track volume three being finished off as we speak) the band are also making a sequel to ‘Melon Collie’ and ‘Machina’. “I’m working on 46 songs at the moment. I should be at the dentist because I worry about my teeth,” Corgan says with a grin.
“There are moments in your life where you have to be willing to risk everything.” For the Pumpkins, the first one was ‘Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness’. “If you put out a double-album, you’re asking for it.” Especially when it’s so much more expansive to what you’ve done before. The sequel feels like another risk. “Obviously there won’t be the same stakes now, but this feels similar. And it feels right.”
More than a nostalgia-driven callback to a more successful time (“we’ve never been a generational thing. If this is just a sentimental journey then that doesn’t do anybody any good”), this sequel record is being made to “try and close the loop on the meta-narrative” that the band have been fighting against since the 00s. “If ‘Melon Collie’ is about the rise and arrival of a person, ‘Machina’ is about their dissipation,” Corgan says. “In essence, ‘Machina’ was the middle of the movie. Even if he just dies and goes to heaven, there’s still more story to tell because nobody wants to watch a movie where the guy just dies. This record is the resurrection, redemption and finish of a narrative.” That’s always mirrored The Smashing Pumpkins’ own. It might be the end of that particular tale, but Corgan says he’s “love there to be more. A sequel to the sequel, why not?”
Sure, the future is getting harder to predict in general, and a band like The Smashing Pumpkins have always had a reckless spirit, but for the first time ever, the band doesn’t feel destructive. “This feels right, and this feels like a thing that can go on for a long time, in a way that I don’t think it ever has. We did end up learning from that journey through the fire,” says Chamberlin, now sober for almost 20 years. “The great injustice would be if we had just carried on acting like clowns. Now we live our lives with respect to the pain we’ve suffered.
“We were just dumb suburban kids who listened to a lot of great music and tried to create a band that made great music. We were challenged for it early on” – and they fought back. “Now, we’re one of the last left standing. We liked a lot of music, and we wanted to celebrate that. Here we are thirty years later, just as excited. The band has never been about chains, it’s been about freedom. That, to me, is the most successful part of The Smashing Pumpkins, not the fact we proved people wrong.” Corgan agrees. “What we think is important about the band isn’t what most other people think is important.” Well, Billy, don’t leave us hanging.
“The most important thing is that the band has covered a tremendous amount of ground with a high level of integrity. It’s almost unprecedented.”
The Smashing Pumpkins have never been about winning people over or pandering to expectations. “It doesn’t hurt to do both, [but] that’s not what we’re about. We want to win, but we want to win our own way.” Chamberlin doesn’t know if he’d call making these new albums ambitious. “There’s just a lot to do. When you’ve got a guy like Corgan, who’s that talented, writing that many good songs, it doesn’t make sense to do anything else but take big swings. It’s not like we want to take over the world or think we’re going to be back on top.” But the fact they continue to explore the depth and breadth of The Smashing Pumpkins’ unique landscape is reason to celebrate.
“People just assume that because you’ve been around for a while, what you have to say isn’t as important anymore,” says Corgan, who strongly disagrees. “I love the challenge of making music that both my generation and other generations can connect with. Nothing makes me happier than when I see a young fan wanting me to add them on Instagram, but I owe just as much loyalty to people who’ve been with me the whole way. There are a lot of people in their 40s facing their own challenges. They need inspiration, and they want to believe that they have better days ahead. If I didn’t believe that my best was ahead of me, why would we bother even having this conversation?” Corgan asks us. “Just because some other guy wants to clutch his copy of ‘Siamese Dream’ into his crypt, that’s not for me.”
Like all of us, Billy Corgan has been let down by his favourite bands. At some point in time, he’s picked up their new album and thought “‘God, they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. They haven’t figured out how to be great in a way that only they can be great’.” The Smashing Pumpkins though, “I think we’ve figured that out. We’ll see if it’s true over time, but we’re not going away quietly. We’re going to make a big noise as long as we can.”
“If any band is capable of breaking the ceiling of what a band can do past a certain point, in terms of cultural relevance and musical dominance, The Smashing Pumpkins would be the band,” says Corgan. “We didn’t start the band to get laid and paid, we started it to be great. Why wouldn’t we want to be great today?”
The Smashing Pumpkins’ album ‘CYR’ is out now.