When I pick up the call, William Patrick Corgan strikingly sounds exactly as I imagined he would: youthful. A voice to match the heart-shaped, ultimately shaved-headed alien baby-face that lead the Smashing Pumpkins into 1990s iconship and beyond, Corgan, 50, seems like the type of person to whom you’ll say, “You haven’t changed a bit!” and regret it immediately for how untrue it is and for the fact that you just didn’t have anything else to say.
WPC’s second solo album, Ogilala, is co-produced by industry figure Rick Rubin (co-founder of Def Jam Records) and drops Oct. 13, the day before the tour. This tour is preceded by Facebook Live sessions steamed from Madame ZuZu’s Tea Shop and Art Studio (Corgan’s teahouse in Chicago), and features songs off the new album, deep cuts from the Smashing Pumpkins and solo catalogs and covers recently including the Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves The Sun” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”
The sparse, dreamy (“somber,” by some accounts), vocals and lyrics forward “Aeronaut” preceded the record as its lead single, a video for “The Spaniards” shortly following; the entire album is now available for streaming via NPR. A trailer for the silent film written and co-directed by Corgan and scored by Ogilala in its entirety, Pillbox (with a movie poster tagline reading, “No hero dies but twice”) visually evokes Moulin Rouge, Citizen Kane and Tora Tora Tora.
Asking one of the most influential figures in modern music a series of questions you actually want answered with the purpose (hope?) of entertaining readers (and the subject, if we’re being honest) can feel like a “one shot” kind of deal, which it is. But the reasons you ask the questions really come down to learning about someone else, which is a roundabout way of learning about yourself.
“Art is art.” A few weeks before the start of the Ogilala tour, I stole away to an empty conference room at my day job and hoped no one would walk in on me crouched on the floor in the only open space with carpet and a door and no chairs. My one regret from my conversation with WPC is that I didn’t ask what “dosha” he was.
Sorry I’m late. They always book these interviews so close together and if somebody wants to run over I’m like, “Uhh.”
How’d your day start out?
Well, I’ve been on this really intense ayurvedic cleanse, so that’s been a bit strange. I don’t know if you’ve done anything like that.
Well, I’m interested in the medicine and I’ve dabbled in the concepts. If you don’t mind sharing what that entails for you, that would be interesting.
I’m certainly no expert, but it’s based on the idea that your body is one of three types…
Doshas, right. So you need to eat foods that support your individual dosha, right? And so it’s weird, I was eating a lot of food that was like, low-calorie, whatever. And you’re like, “This isn’t working.” It’s sort of strange, you think, like, my body should be responding positively. I’m not putting…I’m not eating Snickers everyday, or something. So my doctor put me on this, you know, whatever, cleanse…Super intense, but it’s interesting. I mean, I definitely see changes, I feel better. But it’s an intense process because there’s a lot of…what do you call it? Not purging, but…
Detoxing. There’s a lot of detoxing going on, so, I’m a little bit spaced out.
Does this have anything to do with preparing for your upcoming tour?
I think you go through life in your semi-unconscious state, and then when you have a tour coming up and you know you’re going to be on television, you almost go through this mental inventory, which is, “How do I feel? How do I look? How am I singing?” And you start to prepare yourself like an athlete for the season. So I’ve been preparing now, I guess, for two months. It’s always an interesting journey because you reconnect with playing old songs, you reconnect with the catalogue and you start thinking, “What do you I want to say that’s different than what I’ve said before?” I don’t want to repeat myself.
We had some really great shows in New York last year, some of the best shows we’d played in years, so for those people that are coming to this show, I don’t want to play the same songs the same way. So I have a commitment to try to find something new, even for myself, so I can translate that enthusiasm into the audience.
This week’s Facebook Live sessions from Madame ZuZu’s in anticipation of the release of Ogilala Oct. 13 have been called somewhat of a “preview.” Have you been tinkering with the different versions of your live songs?
No, I think with that it’s because I was playing so many old songs, and there was a bit of confusion about what the tour was. Even [laughs] it makes me laugh, that people keep getting confused that I’m using my real name, which is so shockingly weird, but ok, whatever. So I found…and I have found through the years that super simple and clear is the best way. Like, trying to explain a tour is harder than kind of sort of demonstrating, “Hey, this is the way the tour is going to feel.”
And the response has been really beautiful, which is what I would hope for. So hopefully that will connect with why people would want to see the show and what they would hope to get out of it, because what I really realized in preparing is this tour is really about the songwriter, and how the songwriter connects to the performer. In essence that this show rises and falls on how good my songs are. The performance is obviously part of that, but at the end of the day I’m really presenting: These songs are important to me and here’s why. And it obviously falls on me as a performer to pull that off, but it’s really more of a songwriter’s show. In a weird way, I’ve never done a show like this.
Would you say that there’s anything of note or specially stripped down about the set design or the way the show is structured?
It’s weird because you want to achieve sort of, almost like a languid intimacy, but it’s still showbiz, so how do you do that? I’ve seen some one-person shows, in theater and stuff, and it very much about the audience being willing to take the journey with that person on stage. It’s like, I saw Dave Chappelle at Radio City, maybe a month ago? And Dave gets up there for an hour, and its just him, you know what I mean? And you watch someone who is able to draw you into their own narrative and story in a way that you relate to. You root for them and you like them and you want to hear what they have to say. So it’s like, can you create that atmosphere that will invite people in?
When you do a big rock show, it’s like landing a starship. It’s a bit of a fantasy game, or a video game, it’s like lights and boom and explosions, the drums— this is the complete opposite. It’s like, “Hey, you know [laughs], I’m not going to talk with a really loud voice for two hours.” Can I say enough here that you’ll actually wait to hear how the story ends?
How do you balance your own expectations for the songs you want to play with what you think might be the fans’ expectations of the songs they want to hear?
Honestly, you can’t get caught up in the fan expectation game. You just can’t. I mean, there’s an obvious baseline, like, “I’d really like it if you’d play some songs I know.” But you’re often surprised. Like I’ve done sets where you drop music, like, “This is obvious.” And the show isn’t very good. Because it doesn’t connect to people’s personal experience of your music. So I’ve found that if you can connect to the music on a very personal level, they will pick up on that, even if they don’t know the song. You gotta really avoid the temptation of dumbing down your expectations because you think the audience isn’t able to come up to yours, does that make sense?
Right. It’s kind of, like, respecting your audience.
Yes, and it can be very difficult because the safer route is of course to dumb down your expectations and know that 80 percent of the people will be 80 percent satisfied. But if you’re truly going to take the artistic route you’re going to be willing to accept that not everyone is going to be satisfied, but those that are going to walk away feeling like, “That was really worth my time.”
And in the era of social media, people’s engagement or sharing of their experiences and their emotional connection to what they are seeing and witnessing and then sharing it with their friends and family, that’s really powerful. “I saw a good show.” – You’re flipping through your Facebook Timeline, are you going to stop to read that? No! You’re going to going to stop and read if somebody says, “Hey. I thought it was going to be okay! And here’s a video clip and I was really taken, and…” You have to go for it.
You don’t play baseball hoping you are going to win; you play to win. And I think you have to take that same approach on stage or you are going to lose in a way that you can’t calculate.
Working with Rick Rubin gave you a more stripped down approach to recording Ogilala. Is there a level of discomfort that comes with putting yourself in another’s’ hands this way?
No, because Rick’s a friend of mine, so I think the trust was there before we ever started. And I had worked with Rick in the ‘90s for a few days kind of thing. We’d done a song together, but we’d stayed friends through the years and saw each other socially here and there. And I trusted Rick, I said, “I’m just going to let you do your thing. I just want to be the artist here.” And it was rarely uncomfortable. There were moments where I thought, “I would do it different,” but then I would think, “I’m going to let him paint his picture because I’d like to see what that picture is.” I already know what picture I would paint, and I’ve done it. So I’m willing to take a different journey here, so it was great. I really enjoyed it.
Last night I watched the trailer for Pillbox, your short film that’s scored by Ogilala. Really beautiful, and interesting because it gives the sum and the parts of the art concurrent purpose and meaning that build off of each other. Can you tell us a tiny bit about that?
My manager had this idea, “What do you think about doing something like a short film as opposed to just doing the normal video?” And I loved the idea, so I came back with, “I had this idea about doing a silent movie,” and hopefully the movie would be long enough that we could put most of the album. And we ended up making the movie and we kind of guessed on the time and it ended up working out where we had the whole album. We only had to switch one song around for one of the scenes so that it didn’t feel weird, but basically you get to hear the whole album while you’re watching this goopy silent movie that we made. What’s kind of cool is the silent movie is sort of related, but we didn’t try to directly tie it to the music and it ended up having a lot of synchronicity where it actually kind of worked.
But what I found that I most enjoyed was its an opportunity to watch something and be engaged. As we know these days, time is really precious to everybody, especially forty minutes. But it actually, in a weird way, gets you to listen to the album more than if you were just listening to the album, you wouldn’t listen to it the same way. So it’s a way to command the audience’s attention to listen to the music in, I guess, a way that music videos used to.
Smashing Pumpkins pioneered weird/artsy music videos in the ‘90s. Music videos are still beautiful and interesting, but what do you think about where music video culture stands today in terms of how people connect to them/ consume them.
I think the difficult part is that you used to have a very direct causal relationship. Like, if I get my video on MTV and this many million people see it, were going to sell this many records, so therefore the video is worth the effort and the expense. I think now, it’s harder to ascertain whether or not…Like, you can win a cultural war and you can put out a video that a lot of people are interested in that has no translation point back to what you are trying to do musically, and that’s where it gets bit weird to me.
It’s a bit of a wry way to put it, but we’ve seen the rise of the brand. The pop star is the brand, and everything else is subservient to the brand. So the video is subservient to the brand, where in our case we saw the video as a way to build the brand. We saw the video was a way to show people, “Here’s who we are.” We didn’t see it as a commercial. If you read about Madison Avenue, they’re very picky about their commercials because they have to protect their brand. We took chances because we wanted to define who we were through the visual media and through the visual mediums.
It’s hard to talk about it without sounding critical, but even if I was going to be critical, I don’t think the medium means enough to enough people anymore to bother to be critical. At the risk of being boorish, I grew up in a time both watching and ultimately being involved where the music video drove a lot of things; you have this causal relationship. Me, from where I sit now, I don’t see that same causal relationship. So, for somebody who is younger, it may be as important as it was to me, I just wouldn’t know ‘cause I don’t see it.
I mean this more sympathetically. We may turn up 20 years from now and say, “Wow, this was actually a really rich period of video making, we just didn’t know it.”
The Road to the Ogilala Tour FB Sessions from the teahouse has its last show tomorrow. Any plans for the weekend?
Oh, no, I’m going to keep doing it. I’m enjoying it. Maybe that’s just the way they marketed it, but I’m going to enjoy it. My plan was to do it all the way up till the start of the tour, which is in New York, and hopefully kind of touch every period so that over the aggregate of whatever number of days I do it, people say, “Oh, I get a sense of what he’s after for this tour,” and then I’ll have a clear picture of why they would want to come or not come.