Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan Returns To The Mainstream (With A Little Help From Tommy Lee)

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Since entering the limelight in 1991, the apocryphal year zero of "the grunge revolution" as he calls it, Billy Corgan has led The Smashing Pumpkins with unsentimental musical ambition. Never one to be lulled into complacency by past achievements, he has driven his band from one artistic challenge to another, from alternative guitar rock to electronica and back again, from concept records to concept album cycles. His latest full-length with the band, Monuments to an Elegy, comes out today and is part of a series of releases he calls Teargarden by Kaleidyscope. Inspired by Tarot cards and begun in 2008, the series also includes 2012's Oceania album and will conclude next year with a planned experimental album, Day for Night, and an eventual box set issue of all related recordings.

Not only is Billy Corgan the sole original member of the Pumpkins, he has at various points been the only member of the band and has played all instruments save drums on some of their most famous songs. Guitarist Jeff Schroeder, who joined the band as a touring member in 2007, is currently Corgan's only official bandmate. Infamous Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee turned a guest spot into a guest appearence and ended up playing on the entire album. Find out how the new record fits into the album-cycle below and how the heck Tommy ended up on the record in the first place in the interview below.

Explain the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope multi-album cycle concept and how your new record Monuments to an Elegy ties into it. 

Billy Corgan: Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, which I started in 2009, was sort of an emotional process by which I’d come from the outward position I was in - which is; I’m the only Smashing Pumpkins member left, what am I doing? Should I even continue? - hopefully back to a center position, which I like to think I’ve found in the new album Monuments to an Elegy, which is I feel back in my space in the band, in the musical field of the band and I feel excited about that and that there’s a future for the band. Teargarden by Kaleidyscope was a process by which, through a subsequent series of releases, I would sort of find my way back to the center, i.e. from outside the commercial mainstream back to the commercial mainstream. And that in essence watching this process unfold, much to many a fan’s chagrin, is that you could actually chart what that actually means and what gets sold and what gets lost as you take that journey from artist to artifice, from artistic idea to the crystalline idea of pop.

How did the concept evolve from your previous album Oceania to Monuments to an Elegy?

A few people have asked if there’s a conceptual link between Oceania and the new album Monuments to an Elegy. There really isn’t. I think Oceania was the end of my belief in a band structure.  I’m never going to be able to find the same synergistic aspect of a band. The idea that only through the experience as a commonality; riding around in the van, coming up from the same kind of social class -can you really have a band that’s of one mind. And trying to assemble a band, outwardly in pieces particularly when you have a name like Pumpkins, oh come join the band. What is the band? There’s a level of artifice there that you can’t get past because they weren’t there for those early experiences and no matter how hard they try to help you create new ones, there’s always some sort of barrier there. (Guitarist) Jeff Schroeder sort of bridged this concept because he came from being a fan to being someone who is basically a “hired gun,” to use the writer’s parlance, to somebody who’s now in the band’s inner world and understands how the band really works, even if it’s just an emotional construct. And that’s really the only way it’s going to work. So I’ve given up on the idea of bands and I see Smashing Pumpkins as more of a collective mind and the shows we’re going to play going forward are going to represent that more than trying to present  - this is the band and here’s our picture and here’s what we do and here’s where we’re from. I think the audience really doesn’t care that much about that anymore and I think that’s indicated in the culture.

[caption id="attachment_308715" align="aligncenter" width="500"]The cover of The Smashing Pumpkins Monuments to an Elegy. [Artwork: Martha's Music/BMG] The cover of The Smashing Pumpkins Monuments to an Elegy. [Artwork: Martha's Music/BMG][/caption]

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What was the creative process of writing the new album?

I did a bunch of demos over two years, probably about 80 demos. They were mostly short - I didn’t try to write whole songs - they’d be like snatches of an idea. Once we started in with producer Howard Willing, we kept whittling down until we ended up with a pile of maybe 12, 13 songs, which kept getting smaller and smaller, the album kept getting shorter. Suddenly we thought; that’s kind of a modern vision of how to make an album. Nine songs, all of them pretty bright and shiny, and to the point. The kind of music you could hear on the first listen and get. You don’t have to have repeated listens to get the subtext of the song, it’s all right there. I think it’s important that Pumpkins move at the modern speed. The grunge revolution was never about creating something that was not going to change for me. Maybe for other people, they can keep making the same album ad infinitum. That’s not me. I got into grunge, I got into alternative music, to be a forward-thinking artist. And the people we’ve lost along the way, I think would be horrified to see that the music basically has stayed the same. Smashing Pumpkins need to evolve or die and I’m on that plane.

How the hell did Tommy Lee end up playing on the album?

We had a song on the album that had this kind of LA strut to it. It reminded me of the Sunset Strip in probably about 1985, at least the one in my mind. So I said to Jeff, Pumpkins guitar player, we really need to get someone who plays like Tommy for a song like this. And Jeff said “Well, why don’t we get the real Tommy Lee?” And next thing I know we were kind of laughing on the floor thinking that’s the most insidious thing we could do with the Pumpkins, is get Tommy Lee to be on the album. A couple days later I was on the phone with Tommy and the next thing I know, I’m flying to LA and hearing all those great stories and he wanted to play on the whole album, which really surprised me, because I thought he would just want to be on the rock stuff. He took total possession of the album. Working with Tommy was an incredibly experience and I just love him to death. I mean he’s really made this album special in a way that I don’t think it would have been without him.

It’s shocking to me how underrated Tommy Lee is as a musician. But it goes to show that we live in an era of media and the media creates the story. Musicians know what a great musician Tommy is. They know he’s one of the best drummers in the world and he’s been that for years. There are guys who are super technical that we all love, like Neil Peart, where you’re just blown away by the technique of it all and the fact that he can play at such a high level for so long. Tommy’s on the opposite set of the spectrum where it’s all feel, it’s all heart, it’s all emotion. And 9,000 of those guys who play like that couldn’t get past a couple songs. But somehow the way that Tommy plays is just perfect. In a way playing with him, I really see that he kind of created the modern style of kind of metal drumming. This kind of more open, to the point style that has a lot more emotive quality and of course he beget the whole army of frizzed out dudes, I don’t know.

[caption id="attachment_308716" align="aligncenter" width="615"]Smashing Pumpkins' Jeff Schroeder and Billy Corgan. [Photo: Getty Images] Smashing Pumpkins' Jeff Schroeder and Billy Corgan. [Photo: Getty Images][/caption]

Well, in amongst the many expenses of Smashing Pumpkins are, you hire these people who are way smarter than you are and tell you things and whisper in your ear and say “This is what the kids are going to like.” I’ve gotten out of the business of picking singles. For a while I got very frustrated because I would be with record labels that would try to tell me “This is the single.” And I would know it wasn’t the best song on the album. It was really because it sounded to their ears like old Smashing Pumpkins. So I was in this acutest process that I couldn’t get out of, which was that if I didn’t sound like my old band did, which in their eyes was a psychological precept - because there were so many different types of singles that the Pumpkins put out, but generally speaking - alternative rock, it was a failure in their eyes. It wasn’t good enough, no matter how good the work was. So I’ve given up on that process and I think the cool thing about “Being Beige” as a single is it sort of bridges the gap of what people think the Pumpkins were,  and sort of a futuristic vision that I think shows the band can exist very comfortably in the 21st century. I think that bridging that gap is vital, just saying this is what the band is today. I don’t feel I need to make any artistic points or I don’t feel I need to make any conceptual points. I think at the end of the day pop is the ubiquitous form of the world. It’s everywhere we look, and Andy Warhol was right, so we might as well get on the train and start painting that same picture.

I have to say “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” was really a surprise to me. I thought the song was so stupid that I didn’t think anybody would actually want to hear it. It was good stupid but I didn’t think it would be the first single and I literally had the president of the record company call and beg me. I originally wanted a song called “Jellybelly” (off the same record, 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) to be the first single, which is way more prog and all over the place. I can see now why they (the record company) were probably horrified at the idea. What’s even more shocking to me is that the song has endured 20 years later.  We play it in concert and the song still gets this rousing reception.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness turns 20 this year. When you hear it now, is there anything about it you’d change if you could?

My normal diatribe is I’d probably take about four songs off. Make it a little shorter. It’s shocking to me that the production style is as rough as it is and as forward as it is. It’s kind of a dark production style. It’s aged well I think because there’s a ferocity in the playing and I think that’s kind of what offsets it against, say, the modern album which is kind of pro-tooled and perfectly on a grid. Most of those takes were done live. Take a song like “Tonight, Tonight,” it’s basically a live take with a live orchestra glommed over the top of it. There’s real passion in the playing. I mean, we’re imperfectly perfect in a way and you don’t hear that much anymore. And I think what’s weird is that’s actually getting to be more contemporary of a feel than having everything perfect.

[caption id="attachment_308713" align="aligncenter" width="615"]Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. [Photo: Getty Images] Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. [Photo: Getty Images][/caption]