Billy Corgan insists he’s made peace with his public image. Not that the Smashing Pumpkins’ lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist doesn’t wish things were different. Like, say, that people respected him.
“You’ve written 300-plus songs. You’ve produced these iconic albums,” he says, listing off his accomplishments. “There’s a point where the empirical data kind of adds up.”
Alas, he’s tired of fighting a losing battle. Corgan says he’s come to understand one can trot out his credentials only so many times before he actually becomes the past-his-prime rocker with razor-thin skin and a disproportionately large ego.
“I get that now,” says Corgan, with a hint of resignation. “Because it’s like a taunt—’Hey, if you’re so great and you’re such a genius then climb out of the hole.’ And it’s a fair schoolyard taunt: ‘If you’re so tough, beat me up.’ So you have to navigate this kind of weird process where, in order to survive, you have to give yourself maybe more credit than you deserve to buoy yourself up against the criticism, which is, in your mind, kind of unfair.
“But I’m no longer fighting that,” he says, “because I accept it’s never going to change. You’re condemned and you’re condemned, and it’s fine.”
The 51-year-old Corgan—whose band sold four consecutive platinum albums in the 1990s, two of which, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, are era-defining works—is one of rock’s great rationalizers. So, as he’s done so many times in the nearly two decades since the original lineup of his band crumbled—a rocky stretch that saw him struggling to maintain relevance; touring with new lineups under the Pumpkins moniker; releasing tepidly received new albums; and confounding fans by posing for strange magazine covers or associating with right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones—Corgan recently found himself again explaining why we’ve got him all wrong.
One overcast morning in mid-October, Corgan is sitting at a local Mexican restaurant near his home in the Chicago suburbs eating a veggie skillet—“No eggs, please”—and recalling how he’d been misunderstood yet again. This time, the issue at hand centered on one particular sequence during every show on the Pumpkins’ 43-date Shiny and Oh So Bright tour of arenas that concluded the week before—a much-publicized outing with original band members James Iha, 50, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, 54, back onstage together with Corgan for a concert-length performance for the first time in more than 17 years. Roughly two-thirds of the way through every night’s three-hour-plus set list that spanned the band’s history, Corgan would sit at his piano and, while covering Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” watch as an illuminated religious shrine with a statue of him wearing a crown and a crucifix necklace was slowly paraded through the crowd.
“One of the great misunderstandings is that the people who really are fans don’t hero-worship me,” Corgan says now, and, as evidence, he relays how on some evenings when said shrine was being carted around the arena, “Some people would get up and they would leave. Particularly Christian people. I was raised in that tradition, so I get it.” Some fans were so distraught during this moment in the show, he notes, that one woman wrote him and said, “I literally went in the bathroom and started weeping for your soul because I was so upset that you were so lost.” “So I had to write that person back,” Corgan continues, “and say, ‘You do understand I was joking, right? There’s no blasphemy intended.’ She wrote me back and said, ‘I’m so relieved that you’re not delusional, you’re OK, and’”—this part is crucial to Corgan, “‘I was wrong.’”
Corgan smiles at the memory of this interaction, and then pauses before adding a coda. “And then she said, ‘I’m happy that I can still be a fan of yours.’”
Corgan drove here today in his white Cadillac Escalade. He’s wearing a black hoodie adorned with a “Santa Fe” patch and a trucker hat promoting his recently acquired National Wrestling Alliance. He says he’s the happiest he’s been in years.
“The mood is good. And the music’s good,” he says. “There’s great harmony now.”
His longtime girlfriend, Chloe Mendel, recently gave birth to the couple’s second child, a daughter named Philomena Clementine Corgan. (In 2015, his son, Augustus Juppiter, was born.) For the son of a father addicted to heroin who often felt as if he was “playing child” on the rare occasion his father decided to “play parent,” becoming a father took some adjustment. “But the second one feels a lot less overwhelming,” Corgan says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh no. What is this?’ It’s more like, ‘I know where this is going.’ I find myself a lot more calm about the whole thing.”
Such contentedness is undoubtedly aided by a recent turn in his professional life. Perhaps for the first time in his nearly three-decade career as a touring musician, Corgan is flying at a drama-free and commercially successful altitude. Following Iha’s return to the Pumpkins, the band played to its largest crowds in years and, by Corgan’s estimation, the reunion tour was the “most lucrative, most rewarding, best received” one in the band’s 30-year history. And to cap off the feel-good fest, on November 16, the Smashing Pumpkins will release Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun., a Rick Rubin–produced album, and the band’s first in almost two decades with its near-original lineup (minus bassist D’Arcy Wretzky).
Corgan says the relationship between him and his bandmates has never been stronger, and, while he tried to convince himself so many times over the years that he didn’t need them to achieve a level of greatness he’s known he was destined for, “There’s a particular warmth there that you cannot create with anybody else. And that’s the one thing that I have to bow to. Because, of course, at times I had to rationalize it like, ‘Well, this is just as good,’ or ‘It’s just as good but in a different way.’ Or ‘I’m trying to move on with my life. Everybody else should move on.’ Whatever you say to just get yourself down the road. But there’s a real humbling feeling that comes through that I don’t know how to express, other than it’s only possible with those people.”
This is a major leap for Corgan. By the time the band officially disbanded in 2000, Wretzky had left during the recording of 1999’s Machina; Chamberlin, addicted to heroin, had shuttled in and out of the lineup; and Corgan and Iha were barely on speaking terms. As recently as 2010, and reflecting on this time period, Corgan told Rolling Stone, “Rather than break up the band, what I should have done is chuck James out. I should have just said to Jimmy [Chamberlin], ‘You go to rehab, and we’ll continue, and James, get the fuck out of here.’ Instead, I fell on my sword for James, for what I thought was a friend.”
“There was no period in those last three or four years that just felt like sunshine,” Corgan says now. Following the original lineup’s dissolution, Iha didn’t speak to Corgan for nearly 17 years. This all makes sense to Corgan. “If that was James’s last experience in the bunker with me, you can imagine he’s thinking [now] ‘Oh god. I have a very nice life. A nice family. I’m not in a big hurry to get back into that fucking drama.’”
However, in 2015, Iha changed his mind. The guitarist now says it was his becoming a parent that helped him mature. It propelled him to reach out to his former bandmate via email. “It just seemed worth a shot,” the typically press-averse and painfully shy Iha says, speaking from his home in Los Angeles.
When they eventually met face-to-face that year at an Asian fusion restaurant in Los Angeles, Corgan says, “For me, it was assuring James that my priority was peace and our having a good connection again, a dialogue. That if the only thing that came out of it was peace, that I was cool with that.”
“For me, that’s where it started,” Iha says. “Having a kind of reconciliation and starting a dialogue where we hadn’t spoken in years. If you put yourself out there, somebody is either going to respond or not respond. And [Billy] did. He could have chosen to ignore it.” Future plans for the band weren’t discussed initially. But slowly the two former bandmates’ relationship progressed. The following March, Iha joined Corgan onstage for the first time in decades during a Smashing Pumpkins acoustic gig in Los Angeles at the Ace Hotel.
The way Corgan tells it, Iha returning to the fold felt not unlike the necessary redemption arc in the epic saga of his band’s life. “I have a very distinct memory of that night in Los Angeles,” Corgan recalls, with a smile. “I looked up in the balcony and I saw a fan and his hands were over his face, as if to say, ‘Is this real?’ The expression was like, ‘Huh? How is this even possible?’”
Though, after so much some time and animosity and fighting words, how were Corgan and Iha able to put it all behind them?
“It was just basically putting things in perspective and getting old,” Iha says. “It’s just maturity. We’re all hitting that age, and things that seemed like they were so big back then don’t seem as big now.”
Corgan has a slightly different take. “Truly familial love is acceptance,” he says. “I could sit here and tell you why my brothers are flawed, and they could probably give you a list about me that’s twice as long. That’s irrelevant. When your ties are that deep, I don’t want to say that part’s easy, but you know who each other are. The issue is not, ‘Have they changed?’ The issue is, ‘Are you cool with who they are?’”
The Smashing Pumpkins have certainly disagreed about a great many things during their time, but one thing they all seem to collectively agree on now is that they aren’t and never were friends. At least not in the traditional sense.
“It was never like, ‘Hey, do you want to go to the baseball game?’” Chamberlin says with a laugh, calling from his home in the Chicago suburbs. “Sure, Billy and I would hang out on a sports level, but for the most part the band wasn’t really a social organization. The power of the music was partly predicated on the fact that the music was really the only reason we got together.”
That’s not to say Corgan hadn’t always hoped it could be otherwise. “I think one of the great mistakes I made was asking my band to be my family when my family wasn’t my family,” the singer says. “And that put a pressure on them that just wasn’t realistic. Because you didn’t have the kind of friendship that you would assume would then translate to being in a room 12 hours a day and making a song. Somehow we were able to commit there in a way we couldn’t commit to, ‘Let’s go out to dinner.’ Me, having grown up with very messy family stuff … that was very painful for me. ’Cause I couldn’t help but take it as a slight.”
The Pumpkins then were, in essence, little more than a highly effective working partnership. “I would love to paint a romantic picture, but it isn’t like that,” Corgan says. “You showed up with your hard hat and you got to work.”
It remains that way even now. The band members each say recording a new album wasn’t a necessity for them to consider reuniting, but given that their musical collaboration always stood at the root of their connection, this only seemed logical. If memory serves Chamberlin correctly, in fact, the first time he, Corgan, and Iha were back together in the same room in nearly two decades was to record a series of demos last January at the Village Studios in Santa Monica.
“But again, I don’t think of it like that,” Chamberlin says of the temptation to dramatize this long-overdue encounter. “It’s just like ‘We’ve got work to do. You have a guitar. I have a drum set. Let’s get going.’”
They’d intended to write a handful of songs, whittle them down, and present them to Rubin in the hopes he’d pick the best one to record as a single leading into the tour. In the end, they recorded 16, picked the eight best ones, and, after Corgan played them for Rubin, the producer said they should record every single one.
“And we literally started that day in on the eight,” Corgan says with a laugh. “And the band”—which includes guitarist Jeff Schroeder, who has played with Corgan since 2006, and touring bassist Jack Bates—“looks at me like, ‘Wait, what are we doing? He wants to do all eight?!’ But Jimmy’s like, ‘OK!’ And off we go.”
Corgan admits the resulting LP—buoyed by classic Pumpkins sonic dramatics and the singer’s typically brooding lyrics—feels quite disjointed to him. Almost haphazard. “Though maybe it’s modern in the sense that it’s not burdened down by some overarching concept,” he says. “It’s just some music. But for me it feels weird that there’s no conceptual base.”
Having worked in the studio in recent years with other lineups, however, Corgan now recognizes the special connection he has on a musical level with his original bandmates. Because, as he notes, those musicians in the alternative iterations of the Pumpkins, “them being in the room wasn’t contributory. Nothing magical would happen. And I would find myself thinking, ‘Well I might as well just be in this room by myself. Because these people aren’t adding to the process at the pace that I’m used to from the old band.’”
When it’s suggested to Corgan that he’s playing into a long-held narrative of him as the domineering and obsessive creative, the singer says, “Well, this goes back to the joke about the personality or control-freak Svengali thing. If I was a Svengali, I would just do it myself because I can do it myself.” The singer said he was amazed at how quickly he and Iha and Chamberlin reconnected on a musical level. “I want their take. I want the data. That’s the sort of the relationship and the trust we have. We’re a good team like that.
“We were working at a lightning pace,” he adds. “We did eight songs in four weeks. In the Mellon Collie era, you’re probably looking at two to three weeks per song.”
Rubin, in an email, says he too sensed the band’s innate connection. “They seem to have a tried and true method of working together,” the producer says. “Jimmy really complements the power of Billy’s riffs and James adds another dimension shedding new light on Billy’s melodies.” The interpersonal dynamic in a band, Rubin adds, often becomes secondary. “If the players are great and serious about what they are doing, it’s hard to know how much the relationship matters. Some of the greatest bands of all time didn’t get along with each other. Sometimes that tension is part of the friction that creates something great.”
Iha, in fact, wasn’t the only one whom Corgan had tussled with over the years. The singer and Chamberlin had been through their own share of troubles: Corgan famously fired the drummer in 2009, though Chamberlin has disputed this fact, saying he quit to focus on his burgeoning career in the tech consulting industry. Nonetheless, they always managed to work things out and have been playing on and off together in different iterations of the Pumpkins since 2006, when Corgan first revived the group to record Zeitgeist.
Corgan can’t say the same for Wretzky. Until recently, the singer hadn’t spoken with the bassist since she left the band in the late-’90s or, for that matter, seen her in 19 years. At some point in the last few years, however, Corgan and Wretzky, 50, began exchanging text messages and speaking via phone on a semiregular basis. Eventually, the topic of her returning to the Pumpkins came to pass. According to Corgan, upon him expressing worry that she wouldn’t be able to perform up to the standards he expected for the tour, having not played professionally since the Pumpkins, their talks grinded to a halt. And then, once the reunion tour was officially announced sans her participation, Wretzky (who did not respond to requests for comment for this article) replied in turn by leaking a series of text messages between her and Corgan that she claimed display his negative intentions.
“He was stringing me along and using me to be able to say that it was, in fact, a reunion of all the members,” Wretzky, who has remained mostly silent since her Pumpkins days and now lives in rural Michigan, told The New York Times in March. “Billy can be incredibly charming and funny and fun, but when it comes to money and giving credit where credit is due and any kind of work situation, it’s not pretty.” She added that she and Corgan clashed about how the band members would split the money from touring, and that Corgan was set to make twice as much as the others. “I really wanted to do this tour for the right reasons,” Wretzky said. “If everybody was doing it for free, I would have done it for free.”
When the topic turns to the bassist, Corgan becomes uneasy. He quickly downplays her role in the band’s creative process. “Her role was to contribute to the aesthetic vision,” he says. “She obviously would play when we would play and when we rehearsed and made decisions about songs. So. So let’s call it ‘Phase One’: These are the songs. This is what we’re going to do. After that, most times she wouldn’t even be there because it was just understood she couldn’t play to the level. ...” He pauses, looks down in annoyance, and adds, “Ugh, don’t print that because it will just start the circus all over again.”
From there, our conversation went as follows:
I understand that. But it’s to your benefit for fans to fully understand why she’s not involved.
Trust me, I wanted it, too. Look, the bigger beef in the band hierarchy was between me and James. So if I could solve that, then why couldn’t I solve the issue with her? Which were more about her personal issues. Why wouldn’t you go for the win? Get everybody back onstage. Everybody’s happy. You turn the page, and life moves on. Which is why I went out of my way to try to tell her that.
What then, ultimately, spelled the end of her being involved in the band’s future?
When it became obvious that she wasn’t going to be able to do full shows. … “Just come and participate in a limited role, and if you feel comfortable and we feel comfortable then we can expand that role. So there’s no downside and it’s all upside.” But she took a position that it was all or nothing. The press ran with it as a wrestling angle. I get it, I work in wrestling. But in essence the refutation of the argument, which was put on me, is “Why don’t you just let her back in the door?” No, the real refutation of the argument would be she goes out and starts playing again. Isn’t that easiest way to say, “Look, they made the wrong call.” So she’s given all the benefit of the doubt without having to provide any proof. A well-filtered photo and a couple interviews with third-tier websites does not a touring musician under 2018 rules make. And you saw the show. That’s a three-hour-and-15-minute show. That’s hard for anybody to do, much less 50-year-old people with other concerns.
Given their history, it’s probably best to never expect the Smashing Pumpkins to make any hard promises about their future. For now, the band is set to perform a string of 30th-anniversary shows later this month and, Corgan says, “There’s a lot of offers and a lot of interesting opportunities on the table. I think the difficulty is more, what do we want to do? What do we want to accomplish?”
Four years ago, Corgan told Esquire, “There are bands that are contemporaries of mine that are literally still making the same record they made 20 years ago,” and he still doesn’t want that as his band’s future. “I’m very hesitant to just fall into the mill of greatest-hits band touring endlessly,” he says now. “Although the music business is now set up to reward those types of groups to continue to be that. I just can’t see that being our legacy from here on out.”
“I wouldn’t lay out a master plan to take over alternative music again or something like that, but I think it looks good,” Iha says of the Pumpkins’ future. “It’s not really in me to say, ‘Now we’re going to do this, we’re going to do these kinds of tours, these kinds of albums.’ But,” he adds, “everything about the tour and the recording went well, and everybody’s psyched to play with the band.”
Chamberlin is perhaps the most sentimental about the band being back together. “We all took our turns pissing on this thing over the years,” he says of the Pumpkins’ legacy. “So to be able to have a second chance at a relationship or a vehicle of self-expression like this doesn’t happen that often.
“I think the only roadblock to the future of the band will be a lack of understanding of personal needs,” the drummer says. “Which I don’t see happening. I just think we’ve all grown so much from young men to middle-aged men, or whatever the hell we are now. We’re all really cognizant of not just the fragility of the relationship but the importance of the relationship. As long as present time is giving us an opportunity, then we’ll seize it.”
What Corgan does know is that if there is to be an extended future for the Pumpkins, he wants it to be with noble intentions. “If we go another 10 years, which would be fantastic—and I feel like we can,” he says. “If we can actually hit that 40-year milestone, let it be about music.”
He’s heard fans theorizing about how he reunited this band only to cash in on an appetite for nostalgia among fans. Is there any truth to this? And if so, will money guide the band’s future decisions?
“We’ve been beaten up on those things so long they’re irrelevant arguments against us,” Corgan says. “We were never a critics band. We never got the 2,000-word hosanna reviews. We just never got that. And so we are what you made us. We are what the world made us. And the world made us suspicious and self-reliant. So when somebody raises, let’s call it a very realistic first-world problem, like, ‘Oh, you guys are just touring for money’ or ‘It isn’t what you make it out to be’ or ‘It isn’t credible if all four are not onstage,’ whatever the argument is, the internal resolve is kind of like a ‘Yah? And?’
“Because we don’t need that approval to prosper,” Corgan says. “We’ve prospered in spite of it.”
Dan Hyman is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His work has appeared in publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the Chicago Tribune.