Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins and Stephen Christian of Anberlin Meet and Talk "Oceania" Tour, Influences, and More
Thu, 04 Oct 2012 11:04:36
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Alternative music has certainly changed, but there are a few bands still doing it right.
The Smashing Pumpkins released an absolutely essential album this year with Oceania. It's as alive as Siamese Dream and Gish, but there's still palpable progression that's rooted in the future. Billy Corgan once again pushed the boundaries of rock, while yielding something that's embraceable on a massive scale. If you think long and hard about it, that's the essence of alternative and it's also why he's a veritable legend.
Simultaneously, Anberlin will let their new album, Vital, loose on October 16. It's an energetic, yet ethereal collection which sees the group rapidly firing on all cylinders. The record also builds on their patented sound by lighting a whole new fire, and it's a new high watermark for the band. Vital stands out as a must-have this year.
It makes sense that The Smashing Pumpkins chose Anberlin to open up their Oceania North American tour. Every night after Anberlin finishes, Corgan and Co. will play Oceania from top-to-bottom accompanied by mind-blowing visuals and then segue into a second set of classics. "Immersive" doesn't even begin to describe this evening from the moment the doors open...
Given their shared ethos and mutual respect, ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino sat down with both Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins and Stephen Christian for an exclusive dual interview.
They discuss alternative music, the Oceania tour, the journey, influences, and so much more.
How did you both discover music?
Stephen Christian: How I first discovered music is much different from how I first decided I wanted to get into it. As a child, my grandmother would take me along to her church services where there would be these massive choirs singing hymnals. I think that was my first acknowledgment of music. I came from a background that kept the Sunday ritual. That was the initial eye-opening experience, so to speak. As life moved on, I began to be drawn more and more to music itself. It wasn't so much the playing, artistry, or musicianship craft of it all, but like any adolescent or teenager, I'd spend hours in front of the stereo just staring at it as it basically sings their life's songs. I started to pick up the guitar. I met with some friends in high school who had the same passion in life, and I formed the most horrible bands you've ever heard [Laughs]. I think that's how it always starts with most musicians.
Billy Corgan: My father was a working musician. My earliest memories are of being around musicians and the culture of music. As anybody who knows what it's like behind-the-scenes, it's just as much about people sitting around talking shit, getting high, and eating as it is about music [Laughs]. It's as much of social construct as it is a musical construct. I grew up in that culture, but my father dissuaded me from playing music. He didn't want me to play music. It wasn't until I saw a friend playing a guitar that I decided it was what I wanted to do. Then, I charted my own path with it. I had the typical heavy metal high school band. Eventually, I wound around to finding a set of influences that gave me the courage to think, "If I can sing along to this song, maybe I can sing my own songs".
What were some of the bands that resonated with you both early on?
Billy Corgan: For me, it was The Beatles, Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Yes, Jethro Tull, Boston, UFO, Scorpions, and a lot of classic rock mixed in with '70s pop music, which was in many cases super cheesy outside of The Bee Gees. Those are pretty much my formative bands. I think you can hear what I've ripped every one of them off at some point [Laughs].
Stephen Christian: Honestly, The Smashing Pumpkins were a massive one [Laughs].Other than that, it was New Wave bands like The Smiths, Depeche Mode, and The Cure. You attach yourself to what your older siblings and cousins are listening to, and that's what mine were listening to. Those were the biggest influences.
Stephen, when did you first hear The Smashing Pumpkins?
Stephen Christian: I was quite sheltered as a child. I'm envious that Billy's dad was there introducing him to music. We were a family that really didn't give it much attention. Some friends of mine had given me Siamese Dream. I brought it home to my bedroom and, as soon as "Cherub Rock" came on, it was like a switch flipped. That still remains my favorite record. I'm not saying it was their best record, but it was the most nostalgic moment for me. It was the moment my eyes got wider and someone was speaking to me. It was like they got into my psyche and wrote a record about my life and to me. That was the first time.
Billy Corgan: That's really cool…
Billy, when did you first hear Anberlin?
Billy Corgan: I'm bad now because I really don't pay attention to new music. Obviously, Anberlin are on the tour because they're a really good band. The music's solid. For us, that's a very big deal. You have to be able to play. In a wider sense, I pretty much gave up on most alternative music seven or eight years ago. It might've been ten years ago, when it just fractionalized into the "poser" and "holier-than-thou" mindset. Then, of course, there was the ubiquitous moment where every band began to sound like every other on alternative radio. I think it's very difficult for young bands to genuinely embrace their individuality when they're being pressured by their labels to sound similar. The great thing about Stephen's band is they've found a way to be themselves in a contemporary setting, which isn't always the easiest thing to do. There's an identity there that comes through with Anberlin. That's what would attract me. Do I hear an individual identity? To me, the style of a band is not as important as the voice of a band. If you listen to some of the bands he cited as influences, all of those groups, including I guess my own, when you think of the name, you think of that sound or feeling the band generates. That's key. Without that, I don't think a band does anything. You can have songs on the radio. There are a lot of people who have had songs on the radio. Audiences can remember the song, but they can't remember the artist's name. The real key for their generation and the one to follow is, "How do you bridge that gap in a shrinking business?" The pressures they're under are, in many ways, are more extreme than the ones we were under. How do you bridge that gap to be both contemporary and have an individual voice? I'm sitting backstage warming up, but I can hear everything coming through the walls. It's like I don't I want to cover up my ears because they can play and there's a voice there to listen to.
In the alternative scene The Smashing Pumpkins came up through, the bands sounded different. There was heaviness and a sense of emotion. Now, the indie alternative scene is so cliquey. It's much more exclusive. It's "hipster", for lack of a better word. The Smashing Pumpkins and Anberlin tap into alternative in the truest sense of the world. It's "alternative", but it welcomes a larger audience.
Billy Corgan: Yeah, I think that's the thing. If you look at the great bands of the past, and I mean before my decade, they all were seeking a wider audience. They didn't shy from the idea of creating a bigger audience. When New Order came out of Joy Division, Joy Division had singles and so did New Order. They didn't run from things they were attracted to. They also made music that was clear and resonated with people whether it was on the dance floor or through the radio. Somehow, that's been subverted and diverted into the hipster ideal that being on the radio is anathema to what it means to be a musician. Yet, you got to every hipster's loft apartment and sift through the record collection and there are a lot of bands who have many singles. It's a precocious idea. It's a way of stealing music back to the unwashed. I came out of the indie scene. I played with tons of bands in obscurity long before The Pumpkins formed. They were bands I really liked and appreciated and bands that influenced me. There's nothing wrong with indie music. In fact, there's a lot right with it—more than the mainstream. When it gets hijacked by agendas that have more to do with cultural decisions than musical decisions which limit people's ability, if you have a gift to write a song that's catchy or reach a wider audience you shouldn't be dissuaded from that. In fact, bands that have found that formula, for lack of a better word, between the popular and edgy—whether it's U2 or Depeche Mode—have gone on to really influence culture in ways that are far wider than whether or not people want to pick up their guitars. I've always been really suspicious of someone who stands there and tells me what I can and can't do when the greatest band ever in my estimation, The Beatles, did everything and did it well. They wrote hits. They wrote psychedelic songs. They wrote folk songs. They changed the world by the force and power of their ideas. Why anyone would want to form a lesser ideal that rewards precociousness or overt self-reflection that it becomes a marketing strategy is beyond me. Ultimately, Stephen and I once stood in our bedrooms and stared at somebody's poster and it gave us a sort of impetus to find the courage to write a song and go through the lumps of people saying, "That's not very good". Or in my case, it was, "That sounds like Pink Floyd" or whatever [Laughs]. We had to fight through stuff that would discourage many people find our own voices and find companions of a like mind and then take it on the world. Then, we'd be told, "You're not good enough" or "Your voice is too weird". If you've gone through that journey and actually come out on the other side and you see where people are emotionally responding to what you're doing, and you tweak what you're doing to create a greater resonance in your message, there's nothing wrong with that. It's okay if a politician does it. It's okay if the bakery down the street does it. Somehow, music has been hijacked by people who want to keep it small.
Stephen Christian: I get it. It totally makes sense. Billy summarized it best. I think this generation of musicians is more defined by what they hate than what they like. They've got this little, very exclusive club. Everyone feels like, "I had this first", "I liked their first record", or "I liked them back then". It feels very, "I'm better than you". It's an oxymoron. Music should be all-inclusive. Music in the '90s, '80s, and '70s had the mentality that "we're all in this together" and "we're all one". Let's all rebel against this. That's the beauty of punk rock. We're anti-establishment, therefore come join us. Now, it's like, "I wrote this and I'm cooler than you". Music's supposed to be accessible and freeing like The Beatles. We've strayed and gone the opposite way. I'm ready for this generation of "music intellect" to hurry up and be over with.
Billy Corgan: The funny thing is hipster-ism exists in every decade. You can easily trace American hipster-ism back to the '20s. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald and he's talking about the hipsters of the '20s. It's not a new idea. It's just taken over to the point where it seems to be strangling those bands capable of transitioning. I've got a 22-year-old in my band, Mike Byrne, and he talks about it all the time. He's very suspicious of a culture that tells him how to think. It's all fine. Everybody should have an opinion. It's when they start telling you how to think that's almost like a subliminal form of peer pressure. We faced similar peer pressure. It just wasn't a dominant part of the business at the time.
What's the experience of the Oceania tour been like for you so far?
Stephen Christian: Basically, this is our second show. It was just an incredible feeling to walk into this unbelievable venue and to see the light show and perform there. Not only that, it was amazing to get off stage and go in the crowd and watch The Smashing Pumpkins. It was unbelievable to be a part and in the show. The first one was absolutely phenomenal. The band sounded incredible. The songs from Oceania translate so well live. I'm looking forward to the next few weeks.
Billy Corgan: Probably more than any other part of the world I've been in, North American culture has gotten used to a very servile music class—particularly for bands let's call "30-plus". They're used to bands rolling in essentially with greatest hits packages and little else. To stand on stage close to home soil and start by playing our new album, which as far as I can tell outside of a few indie bands, we're probably the only band in the world right now touring our new record as part of the show in terms of playing it. Halfway through the show, I told the crowd how appreciative I was. I said, "I have some of the greatest fans in the world because they're willing to take this journey with me." It really says something about the 24 years of Pumpkins. Even though there were a few years I wasn't in it, I still had to deal with it [Laughs]. It's crazy to stand on there and be on the forefront of new music and sounds and have young people in the crowd. To see them just as interested in the new music as they are the old is a thrilling feeling. The fact that we can include a younger band on the bill who I respect is exactly what I'd want it to be. In our wrestling company Resistance Pro, part of the thing you learn in the wrestling business is you have to figure out how to apply what the veterans bring to the table to help bring the younger talent up to where they're seen as peers. That's the right tradition of the music business. We want to take young bands out. We want to endorse bands we feel are worthy of the endorsement. We have an audience that appreciates musical aptitude. Part of the legacy of The Smashing Pumpkins is to place other bands on our stage with us that are worthy of a musical legacy far deeper than The Smashing Pumpkins' legacy is. It's the legacy of the troubadour. It's the legacy of respect. We respect music as a holy thing—not something to be toyed with or catchily danced with. That's more of a warrior mentality, but it's served me well over 20 years.
Stephen, what's one thing you've always wanted to ask Billy as a fan?
Billy Corgan: [Laughs] That's a bad setup question…
Stephen Christian: [Laughs] For me, the reason I was honestly into The Smashing Pumpkins for every single record was basically because I felt this connectedness. It was this connection to your lyrics in a way that I feel like you are a coming-of-age novel skewed over poetry and sung. You're like the Holden Caulfield of spiritual journeys. If you look back through your lyrics, everything from "Quiet" to "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" to "Quasar" on this record, it seems like there's a longing for and searching on your spiritual journey. My question is, in your personal life, do you think you're ever going to arrive or have you arrived? Or, do you think, as humanity, we're always going to be on a journey?
Billy Corgan: That's a great question. I think God is always there, and He's always perfectly there. The issue then becomes, "Why can't we receive what is already there? Why can't we look at our mother and really true understand how much our mother loves us even if she's unable to show it?" Or, it could be our father or grandfather—even our fans. Why do we need indications of love? Why do we need lesser symbols of love to reassure us of what we already know is there? That's what the core of the spiritual journey is. It's knowing—yet without the proof you need for your heart, you need to just wander around and figure it out. That's the beauty of the opportunity. If one could agree with the construct that we're here per God's grace to have an experience and learn something to come into the sublime world we live on, then there's something beautiful about the idea there's a trust from God to let us wander, stumble, fall, and pick ourselves back up. Those who accomplish much are invariably going to stumble and run into things beyond their comprehension and ability to translate if they're really going to accomplish anything. Artists are a very rare class in the sense that we take our journey public. We're both rewarded for it handsomely at times. At other times, we're vilified for having the courage to say something, even if it's stupid. I think the longing is a recognition of the curse of knowing. It's the opposite of "ignorance is bliss". I feel like I illuminated into something around age four that I've been seeking ever since. The beauty is I've been able to share that journey—good, bad, and indifferent. Through that, it's further illuminated my own path because I've gotten to share in other people's stories and journeys. Stephen, your story touched me today. As you know, being in the music business, you can get stuck in, "Well, there aren't enough people in the seats" or "The record only sold two copies in China today". You forget that it has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with effectiveness. One thing people often overlook with The Pumpkins is maybe we didn't sell as many records as we would've liked, but we were incredibly effective at getting our message across. That's the enduring quality of the band that can't be stamped out. The band has a street-level heart punch that's very rare.
Stephen Christian: It's true.
Billy Corgan: Thank you…it was a fantastic question!
Stephen Christian: Seriously, I think that's something any musician should long for. At the end of the day, when you look back on the life, you may have a plaque on the wall with numbers but if you're forgotten…Take the average pop person. They're on a television show, they sing, and get nominated to make a CD. The CD comes out, but those lyrics and songs are easily forgotten. Where are the winners from American Idol? When you create with depth, feeling, and honesty evoking these emotions, these songs will live in us until the day we die. Two nights ago, when you played certain songs, I felt the same as I did when I was sitting in front my CD player in my trailer staring at the speaker listening for the first time. There's a lot to be said about the connection your music has with the fans. It goes much farther than numbers or figures like you said. It's much deeper than that. That's why people come back. That's why they want to hear Oceania. That's why they want to hear the next record. It's not because you have a number, but we have a connection. That's not even something you can put on paper or tell a record executive about. It's on a spiritual level.
Billy Corgan: To take that a little further, what we're seeing now is the rise of a new business that's going to celebrate those artists who are willing to take that journey and new business models will be able to build up around those artists so they can have very respectable careers without compromise. We're a far way away from it, but there will be a tipping point. We're in it too deep already. Let's say a band like yours, five years down the road, may make a different set of business decisions because they have a different path that doesn't require them to deal with some other guy's version of their reality. We might find the rise of an artist class that's essentially creating their own reality without the influence of someone behind a desk. I think rock 'n' roll will greatly expand and have a far greater influence when it reaches that point. We're a bit away, but we're getting closer. Do I get to ask a question?
Stephen Christian: Go for it!
Billy Corgan: I'm just curious because I'm a little out of touch with that end of the business. How are you dealing with the pressures that invariably come? You've got a manager in one ear. You've got a record company guy in the other. How have you dealt with it? What have you gone to in order to keep yourself focused on what you really have to do?
Stephen Christian: At the end of the day, I think the only thing that matters is each other in the band and the music itself. It's easy to repel "we can make you this" or "we can do this for you" when you know they're talking to the shareholders and not you in the back of their heads. They're seeing through you to the end result. The fortunate thing for us is we were on an indie label before we jumped to Republic Records. There was no moment for us to not be "D.I.Y." We still try to do as much as we possibly can for ourselves. We rely on ourselves to make the final decisions. The advantage was we knew who we were, and we knew what our music was. We built in such a fan base. Republic only wanted us to be ourselves. We'd been successful before. It wasn't like, "We're going to change your name. We're going to change your hairstyle. We're going to change your songwriting". Figure out yourself and come up with a concrete foundation of who you are and who you want to be before you sign a contract. I feel lucky we're in this situation.
Did you dig this interview?
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See our review of Oceania here!
See our interview with Billy Corgan here!
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See our retrospective on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness here!