Max Fairclough

Billy Corgan Talks Taking Time to Find Life’s Sweetness

It is the month of The World is a Vampire Tour. It is the month of the Smashing Pumpkins. It is the worthwhile journey of a lifetime for a band who has had high highs and low lows.

Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan called The Aquarian from Australia, where he and his band were in the midst of their AUS run of the tour in support of their latest release, Atum. They are now continuing across North America for an even more extensive run of dates, which includes stops at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey on August 24, then Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York on August 30. He says the album and the tour are both being well-received – and he’s making the conscious decision to enjoy that fact.

“I’ve got a seven and a four year old. They’re at that point now where they’re like, ‘Daddy, why do you have to leave?’ It’s hard to explain to them, so I have to really be able to justify to myself why it’s still worth it. And I think having fun is a big component of that. I want my kids to see that I’m engaged and I’ve embraced my opportunity in a positive way. No one likes a bitter rocker, you know.”

This upbeat take is, admittedly, in contrast to the dystopian mood his songs convey in Atum, though. “Atum certainly grapples with what it means to be one powerless person against a tremendous amount of power,” Corgan explained. “In the case of the narrative, the artist Shiny is exiled because he poses a threat to an institution which has total control. He doesn’t wield much in the way of cultural or social sway, yet the government decides he’s got to go off-planet because he still poses an existential threat to their power.”

He points out that this isn’t just some far-fetched sci-fi fantasy, but instead reflects the kind of government and corporate intervention and domination that are increasingly dictating how people can live.

It’s an ambitious concept, and it’s part of an equally bold large-scale project: Atum is what Corgan terms a “triple concept album,” with each of the three “Acts” released separately. Act One came out in late 2022, Act Two followed this past January, and Act Three closed out the trilogy in May. Along the way, Corgan has hosted his own podcast, Thirty Three, to preview and explain the songs.

He didn’t worry about whether listeners would get on board with his elaborate artistic vision – “I don’t really think about the world much when I’m writing lyrics, honestly,” he says – but even so, he feels gratified that Atum has earned overwhelmingly positive reviews from fans and critics alike. “The album has been really well-received – probably the best-received album we’ve had since the nineties. So that feels nice. It gets a little old always going against the wind.”

Corgan is also determined to bring an innovative approach to the way his band tours. Although there will be opening acts like usual (with Interpol, Rival Sons, and Stone Temple Pilots sharing the bill for various dates), there will also be another highlight at many of the shows: wrestling.

Wrestling has long been Corgan’s passion alongside music. In 2011, he became involved in it as a promoter, then climbed through the ranks until, in 2017, he became the owner of National Wrestling Alliance, a promotional and governing body for the sport. He will bring many of the NWA’s talent (both male and female) along on this world tour for wrestling matches that will go down between the bands’ sets.

This is all part of Corgan’s plan to reintroduce a more esoteric vibe to the touring circuit. “We’re certainly trying to make the case that it’s time for a true alternative and traveling rock festival to come back,” he shared. “It really seems to be working, so we’re hopeful to build The World Is a Vampire [tour] up to the point where, kind of like Ozzfest, it doesn’t need to be about the Pumpkins every year.”

For now, the Smashing Pumpkins remain the main draw. Their setlist on this tour heavily feature songs from Atum, but also include many of the band’s hits. Though Corgan admitted to The Aquarian that it can sometimes be frustrating that they can’t play more tracks from their last couple of albums, he knows there’s a certain balance he has to strike between the old and new material. He thinks they’re doing a good job of it… even if it’s impossible to please everyone.

“It’s funny; I had a writer go at me the other day about, ‘You seem to be playing a lot of nineties music.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, those were a lot of big hit songs.’ I mean, we’re not dumb. It was kind of this reverse integrity question, as if we would gain something by not playing our most famous songs,” he said with a sigh.

“I told the guy, ‘Go look at a set list from 2010 when I was playing for three hours and I had people throwing bottles at me’ – I was playing a lot of nineties stuff, but I was [also] playing a lot of deep cuts, and people were getting super pissed and leaving the concerts early. I was getting excoriated in reviews. So I’ve certainly earned the right to wrap my arms around what we’ve created and have a good time. There’s a time and a place to go against it, but at this point in our lives, it isn’t.”

Corgan paused when asked what he thinks it is about his work that has made it connect so strongly with listeners, even three decades after many of these songs were first released. “It’s funny you ask me that question, because I found myself thinking that last night when I was looking into the audience,” he shared. “There was a girl up front that had the demonic contacts that looked like something out of a horror movie. There was another young lady up front with massive pink hair. Then there was the guy in the eighth row that looks like the guy you wouldn’t go up to at a gas station because he would probably tell you to go to hell. I look at all these faces and I’m thinking, ‘What is it that they see in us that I don’t fully understand?’ And I think that’s sort of the beauty: I can guess, but I don’t understand it.”

Furthering that, he admitted that he also didn’t understand just how beloved the Smashing Pumpkins would become when he first formed the band in his native Chicago in 1988. “When we started, we were basically like a goth band, [like] Gene Loves Jezebel and Sisters of Mercy and The Cure. That was my natural inclination: to play that type of music. Being a goth in ’87, it wasn’t like I was with the cool kids, you know?”

Then he noticed that his drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin, played rock music exceptionally well, so he decided to make the band pivot more in that direction instead. It was immediately clear that this was a serendipitous move.

“We caught the wave of what was happening with the coming rock revolution thing – you just kind of felt it,” Corgan said. “You would play something heavy and the crowd would just go crazy. And you’re like, ‘Ok, they want more of that; let’s just keep doing it.’ We all just went cavorting down this path, never imagining in a million years that the music we were playing was not only going to be popular, but be on MTV a year later.”

Their intricate, imaginative music and evocative lyrics ended up making Smashing Pumpkins massively successful on an international scale. With their 1991 debut, Gish, they became one of the main bands to bring alternative rock into the mainstream culture. Their next albums, Siamese Dream (1993) and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), were even more popular. Several of their twelve studio albums have attained multiplatinum sales status. Their hit singles –including “Cherub Rock,” “Today,” “Disarm,” “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” and “1979,” among many others – remain among the most recognizable from the 1990s. 

“Here’s a statistic that surprises people: the Pumpkins were the most played alternative band of the nineties, by far, of every band,” the group’s frontman disclosed. “Whether or not the common person on the street knows that, I know that our catalog of songs will be just fine. They’re going to get played on somebody’s satellite radio into infinity.”

But, Corgan soon learned, attaining that dizzying level of success then meant needing to sustain it – or else. “Now you have a record contract, and you go in these board meetings with these people who are – very subtly and with L.A. smiles – telling you, ‘Better figure this out or you’re going to go back to Starbucks, working behind the counter.’ So that took [us] on this other journey of, ‘Ok, figure out how to be a pop band.’ I had no inkling of even how to do that.”

So he persevered, remaining the online constant member in Smashing Pumpkins – but then came the backlash against many of the artists who had been popular during the 1990s. “You get in those weird periods where people fucking hate what you do,” Corgan emphasized, “and you’re like, ‘Well, I’m just doing what I’ve always done. Trust me, I wish you liked me more. It would be a lot more fun.’”

Fortunately, with time, the band are once again viewed favorably. Still, Billy Corgan isn’t allowing himself to get too comfortable with this. He knows popular opinion can swing back against him with each new album he creates. 

No matter what happens, though, he knows he’ll be resilient, just as he learned to be during his difficult childhood. “Where does the grit come from? I think it comes from the abuse as a kid,” he says. “If you’ve survived getting punched in the face in the middle of the night when you’re five years old, it does something to you – obviously, in a negative way. It traumatizes you. But it also inures you to humiliation. You’re less afraid of being humiliated because you’ve had everything taken from you before you even knew what was being taken from you.”

Things didn’t improve for Corgan as he became a teenager: he remembers when he was a 16 year old, attending a high school where “I’m a fucking nobody. All I ever hear is, ‘You’re a fucking weirdo. What’s wrong with you?’ Teachers pull you aside in the hall: ‘What is your deal? Why do you have to act like this?’” His response, he recalled, was: “Act like what? This is me. This is the way that I am.”

All that “social intimidation,” as the musician puts it, made him defiant – and it’s a stance he maintains to this day whenever he encounters criticism. “It doesn’t mean I don’t feel it, but it just doesn’t affect me. I just think, ‘I don’t really give a shit what you think.’”

Concurrently, Billy Corgan can, and does, feel pleased when he looks back on the career he’s had and the legacy he’s created. “I never could have imagined it went the way that it did, and I certainly have plenty of regrets, but it’s kind of cool that it’s come all the way back around. Life is sweet if you can get to it. Maybe that’s the message of the day.”