I still remember my introduction to the Smashing Pumpkins. In a friend’s backyard, drinking schnapps from the bottle and jumping from balconies. Thrumming over it all, the ominous, disaffected observation that the world is a vampire.
It was unlike anything we had heard before. We knew grunge, of course. These were the days when Vedder ruled the known musical world. We knew rock, we knew pop, we knew punk, but with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the schoolyard soundtrack went entirely off the rails. It was music that just didn’t seem to fit anywhere else, and we flattered ourselves by understanding this as music made just for us.
Though some time has passed since then, the music still holds relevance. Not only amongst those who swang from balconies and fell about the playground at the time of its release, but also for those engaging in those pastimes now. Billy Corgan has just announced that he is returning to Australia to headline Soundwave in 2015, proving that there is still considerable demand for his work amongst a contemporary audience. He’ll be travelling to Australia alongside Smashing Pumpkins mainstay Jeff Schroeder as well as Rage Against The Machines Brad Wilk and The Killers’ Mark Stoermer almost twenty years later, to perform songs from the classic Mellon Collie as well as material from their tenth studio album, Monuments to an Elegy arrives. As Billy Corgan figures, it’s simply another chapter in a long and complex history.
“I have to say it feels like it’s an unfolding story,” Corgan says in an unexpectedly deep voice. “Somebody said the other day, ‘Your recent work doesn’t sound like your past work’, and yeah, so it shouldn’t! Then you’ll hear, in the next breath, ‘I hear echoes of the past’, and well, that’s also true. It’s the same person and it’s the same teeth that the sound is passing through. I’m not here trying to reinvent myself into something I’m not. It’s an unfolding story, and as you go along you’re going to learn something and you’re going to forget something, and that’s part of the story, too. The only intention was to try to make contemporary music, and I think the album shows both where we were able to update things, but also my weakness in not being connected to contemporary music. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be connected to contemporary music because I don’t like it, and there’s a part of me that acknowledges that living in that world, well, maybe I need to be.”
While his voice is still unmistakable, it’s now a much richer and pleasantly weathered sound. It struck me that while a person’s voice is so intrinsic to their identity, for most, we’re never going to be particularly conscious of how it develops. We don’t actually hear ourselves all that often, despite it being an essential component of our character and one of our most identifiable features. Most of us aren’t ever surprised by being confronted with the sound of our own voice being played through the car radio, or across a busy supermarket. Though for someone as prolific and revered as Corgan, with a voice so unique, it’s an inevitability of life. So being comfortable with the sound of your own voice is important.
“I never wanted to be a singer. I became a singer because I was a songwriter, and I didn’t know anyone who wanted to sing my songs. My first connection with music was through the guitar. I couldn’t hear the notes in my head, so I had to work out the melody on the guitar and then try to sing like the guitar. So from the early work on, you’re hearing someone who doesn’t like his voice and is trying to find a way to use it in a unique way. As my writing developed, particularly after Mellon Collie, I wanted to move into different work but I reached a point where as a composer I was becoming frustrated with the singer in me, because I just couldn’t sing my own songs. They were too complicated for my lack of training. That lack of training was just killing me. So that began a very different journey. Can I actually sing complex melodies in a way that has control? That has authorship? And that’s been a really long journey for me, and in many ways I think Monuments is the fruition of all of those years of trying to learn how to sing in a way that I’m controlling the vocals. The vocals aren’t controlling me."
Developing his vocals and the difficulties Corgan has faced in having these lyrics realised is a concern that never strays far from the conversation. Given the fervour with which his fans pull apart the meanings and connections within each release, its little wonder. You feel that in another life, he could quite happily have been a writer.
“I should have been an author. I’m a voracious reader, one of those people who know a lot about nothing. I do find that there are certain writers that when I come into contact with their work, it makes me want to try better. People like Bob Dylan or Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, writers that ask you to re-examine the comfort you have with your language.
Have you ever read any Burroughs?”
I have, and outside of Burroughs’ writing, it has always been my ambition to emulate his art techniques. To make a hallway of canvas lined with spray-paint cans, and then fire a shotgun down the middle.
“Ha, I actually have one of those shotgun paintings. It was a gift from a former lover. I wasn’t crazy about it, but you know, I loved him and so it works for me. Burroughs had that concept of the word virus. He talked about how certain cultures don’t have certain words, say, the word jealousy for example. And then a particular word can get into somebody’s system and just rumble around. He showed me we have a standard comfort in the way we use language, and by juxtaposing certain lyrical images, you can create a different kind of violence. You can have the same three words, but if you put the third one first, the first word second, that’s
suddenly violent in the sense of how you would ordinarily hear them.”
It’s a fascinating approach to songwriting (one which David Bowie has also utilised), and while I admit that I do hold affection for the latest Taylor Swift release, it’s difficult to imagine many contemporary mainstream artists adopting Burroughs’ linguistic preoccupations.
“I mean look,” he laughs, “pop music, by and large, is dumb. It’s just getting them out to the dance floor, and there’s a joy to that. There’s totally a joy to pop music if you’re willing to celebrate it. It doesn’t mean you have to get sucked into all its bullshit, but there’s a certain joy to the right track on the right day. After twenty-five years, I just don’t think I have the same enthusiasm for it, and I think that’s really affected me at a deep level. I think when I finally do break from it all, which will probably be sooner rather than later, people will be surprised because the language on the other music that I want to do is vastly different to my usual work. It doesn’t sound like the Pumpkins, and that’s not so much me trying to be different. I just am different. A different language, which I know doesn’t really have a place in pop music at all.”