Billy Corgan

Billy Corgan Biography

Billy Corgan has made many albums by different names--with his legendary band Smashing Pumpkins and more recently with the short-lived but acclaimed Zwan. As a writer, producer, player and singer, he’s contributed to recordings by the likes of Cheap Trick, Ric Ocasek, New Order and Hole, among others. Yet until now with the hauntingly beautiful TheFutureEmbrace, Corgan has never released an album under his own name.

“I always thought the solo thing was so egoistic, and believe it or not, I didn’t want that,” Corgan says with a grin. “I didn’t feel it needed to all be about me. Overall, I always thought bands were better than solo artists--David Bowie being one of those rare exceptions. But shit happens. I was on top of the world with the Pumpkins when my band blew up. I went from being in one of the best bands in the world into some nightmare. All you can do is keep going, and keep on making records you believe in.”

With TheFutureEmbrace, Corgan has made an album worth believing in-- one that is very much his own. “This is probably the first record where I wasn’t being somewhat reactive to what was going on around me,” he says. “The early work of the Pumpkins was influenced by the fact that we would go play in Chicago and people would just talk. We found the louder we played, the more people would listen. . .or leave. Then you move into the indie ranks and you start hearing you’re not cool enough or loud enough. You could even say Zwan was a reaction against the Pumpkins.” For Corgan, however, “This is the first time I said, `Okay, I don’t care what the trends are. I don’t care what the modern marketplace says. I’m just going to make the record I want to make.’ That’s it. Every time I came to a fork in the road, I just kept repeating, `I’m gonna do my thing.’”

Describing his mission for TheFutureEmbrace, Corgan says: “I just wanted this to be beautiful--though I suppose it’s my own definition of beauty. I didn’t want to be shocking or loud or provocative just for the sake of it. I wanted it all to emanate from a place of beauty.” Towards that end, Corgan began working in his beloved hometown Chicago with Bjorn Thorsrud, a musical associate since the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1998 Adore album and Bon Harris of Nitzer Ebb fame who Corgan describes as “like the Jimi Hendrix of synth land.” Later in the process, Corgan brought in Brian Liesegang, formerly of Filter, and Matt Walker, of both Filter and briefly the Smashing Pumpkins as “great tastemakers and knob-turners.” Jimmy Chamberlin--Corgan’s bandmate in the Pumpkins and Zwan--plays drums on “DIA.” Last but not least, Robert Smith of the Cure sings backing vocals on a gorgeously heartbreaking if unlikely version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.”

“We worked a long time on making this feel like a real album,” says Corgan of making TheFutureEmbrace, which was mixed by Alan Moulder. “I always felt that my albums are too scattershot. I’d get bored and my albums would become weird amalgams of the assorted swings in my mood. I kept telling the guys in the studio that I don’t want this album to sound like Billy’s Junkshop – like Billy went in his attic, and said, `Oh I found a harmonium. Oh, I found a Moog.’”

A compelling and often dreamily melodic construction of synth sounds and Corgan’s own famed guitar, the impressive Wall of Sound on TheFutureEmbrace feels powerfully modern while at the same time offering a heartfelt sonic salute to some of Corgan’s own musical heroes, including Bowie and Joy Division. As Corgan explains, “In painting they pay tribute to previous artists, like they’ll say `After Matisse.’ The way I look at it, there’s homage here. I could spend more energy covering it up, but I don’t think it’s necessary. In terms of things close to my heart, Low by Bowie is the touchstone, but that vein goes on to Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen and beyond--music with that beautiful coldness. Somehow what we’re going through right now seems to realign with the feeling in that music. To me you almost have to bow to the masters who figured things out. Then you figure it out your own way and ultimately it all becomes part of your fabric.”

While some of Corgan’s sonic heroes explored bleakness, TheFutureEmbrace itself is more affirmative and even romantic. “I’m not interested at all in celebrating any shadowy stuff,” Corgan explains. “I’m not in that place.” Instead, Corgan–whose first poetry collection Blinking With Fists was published by Faber And Faber last year--has written his most intimate set of songs yet. “In some way the grandeur of the Pumpkins was a way to dodge my weaknesses, like if things were loud enough or strident enough, no one would notice the flaws,” Corgan says. “I don’t have to do that any more—so that lets me shine through more authentically. To me what is poignant about my past work is that I was really struggling to find myself and wearing a sort of mask to be functional. But at some point you have to put down the mask.”

Having put down the mask, Corgan sounds philosophical about how TheFutureEmbrace will be embraced: “I brace myself for the worst and assume it will all get worked out in the end. I’ve always been aware of the quality end of what I do, and things have worked out pretty much as I thought it would. For me, it’s successful in the sense that it’s very focused. I think it’s a beautiful record that packs an emotional punch, but time will tell if the songs hold up. I only know if I don’t go into unfamiliar territory, I’m not going to get anywhere.”

Here’s what Billy Corgan says about the places TheFutureEmbrace took him:

ALL THINGS CHANGE: This was the zero point for the record. We’d been messing around for a couple months, but “All Things Change” was the first time we found the feeling we were going for musically. I knew I wanted to sing something at the end, and the words “We can change the world” came into my head when I was driving around. I thought, “Oh man, you’re asking for it.” But there’s something so car-crashy about someone actually saying something like that--you don’t want to look but you have to. The feeling is authentic. I do feel we can change the world, but it’s not a Michael Jackson sense. There’s a sense here that it’s not going to be easy.

MINA LOY (M.O.H): The guys I worked with on the album would label the soundscapes I had. This song was originally called “My Old Heart” and they abbreviated the name in the sound file as “M.O.H.” At first I wasn’t sure about my lyrics to “Mina Loy” because I felt like I was returning to one of my old themes-- rage. Yet it expressed my general feeling of paranoia. I live in Chicago and I love my city so much--I love it like a woman. I was thinking how I’d feel if anyone ever set off a dirty bomb and destroyed this place I love so much. This is not some vague Soviet threat. It’s the thought that someone on a whim can put their finger on a map and destroy something beautiful.

THECAMERAEYE: This is like one of those poems where you vaguely know what it’s about, but can’t quite explain it. It has something to do with this feeling that love is constantly being perverted. You’re constantly asking yourself what true love really is. I’ve been with women and I thought I found my true love and it’s turned out to be the worst, most hurtful thing. You think, is that true love? I’ve been with woman who are completely devoted and would lie across a railroad track for me, and I think this is kind of boring. So what is true love anyway? Somehow the words and the images in “TheCameraEye” communicate that to me.

TO LOVE SOMEBODY: The original song by the Bee Gees is in a major key and very up-sounding, and I knew it wouldn’t fit that way. So I slipped it all into a minor key, so it’s the same melody but sadder. We finished the demo and my engineer thought it was one of the best things we’ve ever done – and that was just the demo. So I’m pretty good friends with Robert Smith from the Cure who were a big influence on me. We’re not just rock buddies, we sort of have a loving relationship from afar. So I called Robert up and said, “Will you sing on my record?” He said, “Sure, whatever you want.” I said, “It’s a Bee Gees song.” Over the Transatlantic line I hear Robert Smith going “The Bee Gees?” I said, “Trust me, just do your thing and it will be fine.” He did and it was great.

A100: Just your typical God is Disco Love Song. I come from Chicago, the home of house music. We grow up there in a place where for a lot of people it’s really all about the kick drum. That’s why New Order was so big in Chicago--they really captured that feeling. There’s still something in me that just resonates to that Big techno moment. That said, the song is still semi-sarcastic. I’ve got my tongue in my cheek a little bit there.

DIA: One of the last songs written for the album. I figured out some new ways to write songs this time and by this point in the process I’d gotten comfortable with new approach. So I went back to my old process. To me, it’s sort of an old school song written in a new way. “DIA” has got a nice Gothic vibe. Actually, Courtney Love was staying at my house at the time. She’d come into town for me to write songs for her record. I had this one and another one. I liked the other one, but Courtney picked this song.

NOW (AND THEN): This one's just really sad--some fucked up, weird tale of teenage isolation that never really happened to me. It's a sad devotional about willing to be hurt and consumed by someone. At first the song had a different feel and I was ambivalent about it. Perhaps it was a bit too Pumpkins for me right now. Then Bon said he really loved the song, and thought it was the best thing we'd worked on. He said, "Mind if I fuck it up for you?" So then I went away, came back and thought what Bon had done was really beautiful. Then the whole song clicked for me.

I’M READY: Bjorn wanted me to take this one off. He said, “It’s not that I don’t like it, I’m just not sure if it fits the record.” And in a way, that’s what I do like about “I’m Ready.” It comes at the point in the record where you need a different feeling. I often like the underdog songs on any album. And to me, there’s something satisfying about knowing it will be someone’s favorite song.

WALKING SHADE: I like where this song comes on the album. Someone I work with told me, “It’s that point where you want to put your foot on the accelerator and drive a little faster.” Without it, the album tailed off into a blissful thing, and I didn’t want that. I wrote this song at the last possible second--I wasn’t sure what I was writing about. Then a week later, this whole thing blew up with this girl, and I had pretty much written what was going to happen but a week before. It’s the psychic breakup song. We’ve made a video for it with all my pasts coming back to haunt me.

SORROWS (IN BLUE): Now that’s a weird one. Besides “All Things Change,” I think this song captures what I was trying to say emotionally and sonically with the album. But it’s a strange song and I don’t even know what I’m trying to say exactly. It’s definitely a feeling-based song and not at all intellectualized.

PRETTY PRETTY STAR: Yes, this is the most Bowiesque title imaginable and that’s the point. It was my way of winking and saying that I know what’s going on here and I’m not going to pretend I’m not going there. I know David halfway decently, and I’ve always been open about my love for his work. Then having played with Mike Garson who was the Aladdin Sane pianist and all that stuff, my heart is close to that feeling.

STRAYZ: This is just one of those things we did and everybody loved it. If I even brought up ever taking it off, there would have been a mutiny--which was nice. The guys I was working with on this album really made an emotional investment in this music. They really helped me fight for the idea that the best music should be on the album. And I hope that it is.

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