To say the rhythm of the music industry has changed over the course of the last 25 years would be an understatement, but Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan has been there for it all—even when the music business turned its back on him.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of The Smashing Pumpkins’ industry-defying double album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Crushing expectations as it grew to become the best-selling double album of the 90s, Mellon Collie found the band at the peak of their career, cementing Corgan’s status as a songwriting powerhouse.
Celebrated in every way—including two consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Hard Rock Performance in ‘96/’97 and a cameo on The Simpsons where Corgan performed at “Homerpalooza” wearing his iconic silver pants and long sleeve black shirt with the word “Zero” printed on it—everything was going great for the Pumpkins. Until it wasn’t.
“MTV couldn’t get enough of us,” Corgan says over the phone from his studio in Chicago. “And then, one day, it was literally like their door was shut. They didn’t care, they wouldn’t return our phone calls, and we weren’t invited to anything anymore. It was literally like night and day—it was a really strange experience.”
There were many hurdles contributing to the band’s struggle to maintain their footing in the spotlight of the music industry over the next few years. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin’s battled with a heroin addiction, and the death of Corgan’s mother prior to the recording of their 1998 follow-up, Adore, were understandable hurdles. But for Corgan, as much as the sting of being left out in the cold by MTV affected him, he never stopped creating.
As fate would have it, things seem to have come full circle in 2020 with the band’s return to their original lineup (minus bassist D’arcy Wretzky) and the addition of a second double-album, Cyr, to their celebrated discography. A dark and dystopic electronic rock album written, produced, and funded entirely by Corgan, Cyr features Smashing Pumpkins’ co-founding guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, plus new guitarist Jeff Schroeder and touring vocalist/keyboardist Katie Cole. The 20 new tracks find the band in excellent form as they explore the groovier synth-rock side of Corgan’s repertoire. Five of which have been turned into the soundtrack of an animated sci-fi video series, In Ashes, which follows a group of friends trying to survive while making their way through a broken post-apocalyptic city.
We called Corgan to talk to him about the new album, his foray into animation, and what he believes is going to save the music industry from itself.
Congratulations on your new album. What’s it like for you to be releasing music during a pandemic?
It’s definitely surreal. It’s hard to beat your chest and say, “Hey, pay attention,” because it’s one of those rare moments in time where it’s obvious that there are more important things happening. It’s not a cultural discussion, it’s literally a world health crisis that’s affecting everything. I have a tea house cafe here [Madame ZuZus Teashop] and it’s affected us as far as who we can let in, and right now we can’t have any indoor dining. I think the thing I’ve seen from people who have reached out on social media is that they appreciate having something to focus on.
Your new animated series, In Ashes, seems like a convenient way to communicate visuals given the current restrictions. How did it come about?
It was one of those things where management calls up and goes, “We think you should probably do something animated or we’re not going to have any video at all,” because of Covid. So I just came up with this crazy idea for a series and everybody loved it. Then we found the right team to work with. I think animation is an under appreciated form of art and I’m still learning how to work in the medium. It’s been good fun though and the silver lining is we ended up doing something we probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
You produced Cyr yourself and have always been a hands-on creator. How was your experience working on this album?
I’ve always co-produced everything. I think overall I work better with a producer, but there are times, even just for logistics, I’m fine to take over. But I don’t always like to be in that role because it asks a lot of me to be the good and the bad cop.
Can you elaborate a bit on what makes someone a bad cop?
Well, let’s say a musician—not myself—plays a part that you don’t think goes well with the song. If there’s a producer and the producer agrees with that idea then it’s not two against one, it’s someone else in the room who has an invested interest in the best outcome.
Would you say your vision has always been the crux of what Smashing Pumpkins is?
Yes. I’ve kind of accepted that somehow now. It was harder for me when I was younger, but I’m kind of cool with it now. It’s my crazy dream that I dreamt up and I’m lucky to play with musicians who by and large agree with my crazy ideas. And then we just tumble down the road until we run out of road.
You have this new double album that you’re just about to drop, while also celebrating the 25th anniversary of Mellon Collie. Is it just a coincidence that they both happen to double albums?
I don’t know if I believe in coincidences. I think things kind of cycle back around, so it makes sense to me in a weird kind of way. But no, it wasn’t conscious.
Looking back on Mellon Collie, is there anything in particular you remember about how you felt when that album was released?
I think the thing that sticks out most is the anxiety because there was such pressure and I had stuck my foot in it by insisting it be a double album. The record company didn’t want a double album. They were particularly worried it was going to impact sales. I insisted that it be one body of work that all went together and we would do our best to make sure it was worthy. And then it debuted at No. 1. But the week of it coming out, we were very late handing it in, so there was a lot of pressure.
Thinking about the state of the music industry in the 80s/90s and the idea of alternative music, MTV played a huge role in shaping that landscape. What was your relationship like with them?
It was great until they didn’t give a shit about us anymore.
Do you think it was something you or the band did or didn’t do?
No. It was like they had a meeting and were like “OK, they’re off the list.” We went from being invited to everything, participating in everything, to zero. It was weird because we were young and we didn’t really understand.
MTV today doesn’t exist in the same way that it did during its heyday in the 90s; does that make you feel any comfort?
From a personal point of view, I think that their hubris was their downfall. MTV got away with one of the great crimes of the century, which is that they were able to convince the record labels to give them the videos for free. And the labels sat there and let somebody build an empire, for which they got very little in return.
Do you think social media has helped artists reclaim what is owed to them?
Absolutely. This is why the next 20 years are going to be really interesting. I think the ultimate revolution in the music business will be the ability for an artist to directly market and create commerce with their fans, with no middle people at all.
Looking back at your career arc, do you have a moment that you consider your ‘breakout moment’?
If I had to pick one and stick a pin in it, I would say it was probably the first time we appeared on Saturday Night Live. It was around the time Siamese Dream was coming out. I don’t remember who was hosting, but I remember that when we were rehearsing they tried to put pumpkins on the stage and it turned into a big argument.
What did you tell them?
I told them to fuck off [laughs].
Did you find it easy to embrace your newfound fame after that SNL appearance?
You can be the biggest band in the indie world and your family doesn’t give a shit. But when you’re in the New York Times, on Saturday Night Live, or on the cover of Rolling Stone or the cover of the local paper, then your family goes, “oh!” and a little light goes on in their head, realizing that something is happening or you wouldn’t be there.
So if that’s your family, now imagine everyone else. I go to the gas station and the guy who is clearly not a fan shouts, “Hey man, I love your new song.” And you’re like, “Huh? How does this guy know who I am when he’s like 62?” You breakthrough into this other space that is completely different from what you’ve been in, which is indie record stores and bearded journalists who want to talk about the great lost Beach Boys record or something. It’s a totally different experience, the difference between indie underground culture and mainstream culture.