Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan wasn’t intending to write a second solo album, when he sat down, last year, to work on his next project. He was attempting to craft material for a new Smashing Pumpkins release, the follow-up to 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy. But in trying to head in new uncharted directions for the band, he kept getting lost in the weeds. So he cleared the brush, so to speak, by shelving the tracks and penning a whole new crop of stripped-down acoustic songs that only made sense as solo material.
To reassure himself that he was heading down the right path, he contacted hitmaker Rick Rubin (Adele, Ed Sheeran, Kanye West) who, after hearing Corgan’s voice and guitar demos, was so drawn to the album’s minimalist vibe that he decided to produce it, himself. Rubin even encouraged Corgan to get closer to his bare essence with only an acoustic guitar, piano and strings. The resulting album, Ogilala, a melancholic look at America past and present, inspired by Corgan’s travels across the country, was so personal that the singer-songwriter released it under his birth name, William Patrick Corgan.
Corgan opened up to SF Weekly, ahead of two upcoming Herbst Theatre dates, about Ogilala, singing his sorrows, a potential Pumpkins reunion and the tragic losses of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington.
Why did you release Ogilala under your birth name, William Patrick, as opposed to Billy?
I still identify as the boy named Billy. But I’m getting older, so it’s time to be who I am, which is the way I was born and not this avatar that I tried to create and at some point got bored with, and it became caring for someone else’s fodder. There’s something to be said about going by who you are.
The album feels very topical, tackling environmental abuses, war and even the “end of days.” Are you optimistic about our country’s future?
Yeah. It’s hard not to be touched by what’s going on. We are entering what feels like unprecedented cultural and social strife, and then it’s amplified by these new technologies, where something that would have taken a month to break apart before is broken apart in five minutes. We like to think we can surf that wave, but sometimes it’s quicker than our systems are attuned to. But we have a long history of working through really difficult situations. Whatever we need to do, however messy, traditionally over time we figured it out. We’ve always seemed to come out in a better spot.
Your current show is divided into two sets. The first will feature the new album in its entirety and the second, a mix of songs from every era of your musical life. Are there any songs you’re over performing?
No, I’m fine with all of them. I was in a band, where the first album [Gish] was a gold record and very influential, the second album [Siamese Dream] is quadruple platinum, the third album [Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness] is one of the biggest selling albums of all time, and the fourth album [Adore] and fifth album [Machina] were gold, so there’s lots of fans from lots of different albums who heard the music. But when you’re dealing with a general crowd, you’re dealing with a greatest hits crowd, and so you get this narrow vision of a band that never was, yet that’s the band they think they’re coming to see.
So if you were actually in the band, that’s a problem, or if you try to balance the two, you never quite get the balance right, because someone is the biggest Adore fan, and you only played one Adore song, and it’s the fucking hit, and why can’t you play that song about your mom? But you have to balance winners and losers, and that’s the issue. So it’s contextual.
In preparing for this interview, I was thinking about Adore, and the song “For Martha” that you wrote in memory of your mother. Is music your main outlet for pain or are there others?
I deal with loss, grief, and heartache in such a subterranean way that it actually rarely touches the level that I normally live at. But then the bomb goes off at the subterranean place and the shards and reflections come out later in music. It’s only decades later that I’ll look at the lyrics and think, “What the fuck? I don’t even remember writing the song.”
When you’re going back and playing these songs, do they trigger emotions?
Oh, yeah. Consistently so, which is weird. They’re like prisms or something, like you shine the light through them a certain way, and out comes Princess Leia. It’s kind of strange, because it’s very specific holographic-sense memory.
It’s like having a four-dimensional camera and all of the sight, sound, movement, whatever was going on around you or in you at that moment, you’re able to snapshot that. Then, like a piece of crystal, I am able to drive some other thing off of it that turns into the song. Then in reverse mechanics, when I play the song, it re-illuminates the sense memory.
I’m sure your Smashing Pumpkins fans feel the same way when they hear the band’s back catalog. Why couldn’t the original line-up achieve more longevity?
I feel pretty strongly about my musical accomplishment, but aesthetics matter, timeliness matters, being consistent matters, staying together matters, not pissing off your audience matters. There’s lots of things that matter, and the work is only one piece of a bigger jigsaw puzzle, unfortunately.
If it was the other way, there’d be no dispute. I’m really good at what I do, and I don’t worry about that part. Did I naively think that writing a great song will solve all the other problems, so who cares? But the music wasn’t enough to solve all the other problems.
Since you worked with former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha on the Ogilala track, “Processional,” is there any chance of a reunion of the original line-up?
I’m actually really hopeful that we reunite in some form, but my interest in it is creative. We had a very kinetic relationship to one another vis-à-vis music. And like a lot of great bands, there’s an alchemy there that’s mysterious. I’d like to see, in this lifetime, if we’re able to re-approach that alchemy in a way that’s both dignified and has a positive result, so that if you or somebody else across the ocean listens, they can go, “Not only is it cool that they got back together, but they actually got something out of it of value. Not that they just got onstage and played ‘Today’ together again, which was really nice and brought a tear to my eye, but now I’m gonna go and listen to my Radiohead CD.”
You’re a member of a shrinking club, as so many of your alt-rock contemporaries — Kurt Cobain, Scott Weiland, Layne Staley, Bradley Nowell, Shannon Hoon, and, most recently, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, have died of accidental overdoses or taken their own lives. Do you have any insight into this troubling trend?
I wish I had more answers and I’d done more. I knew Chris, and we had a bit of a falling out and were never able to patch that up. I wish I hadn’t contributed in even the most miniscule way to his unhappiness. I wish I’d have been a force for encouragement, because he influenced me, and I looked up to him. Chester was obviously one of the best rock singers ever, and it was such a great honor when he covered “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” It’s haunting to think all this talent is gone. That’s a lot of memory, a lot of music, a lot of we should be sitting on the lawn when we’re 60, singing “Black Hole Sun” together with the guy who wrote it. Those are shared tragedies.
As far as why, I don’t think it’s as simple as we’re cursed as a generation. But we were the children of Baby Boomers, the generation that had the pill and decided they didn’t want kids. We were the latchkey kids, who grew up on Gilligan’s Island because there was no babysitter. Maybe that creates some sorrow or something that’s deeper than we even recognize.
Let’s lighten the mood. You became a father, almost two years ago, November. How has fatherhood changed you?
I’m relieved, because finally something more important than me came along.
WPC (Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins), Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 1-2, at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave, $55-95, 415-392-4400 or sfwmpac.org/herbst-theatre.