Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins Talks "Oceania"
Mon, 18 Jun 2012 14:29:35
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Often, a band will make one definitive album by which its entire career is measured.
That record usually leaves an indelible imprint on both music and culture, as a whole. The Smashing Pumpkins yielded three records that all remain unanimously regarded in that manner by both fans and critics—Gish, Siamese Dream, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. However, they've undeniably added a fourth to that lauded canon with Oceania.
Available June 19, the record stands at a conceptual crossroads between heavy distorted alternative bliss and the otherworldly atmospherics of classic psychedelica. Still, it's even more than the strands of timeless work in its DNA. It's unabashedly a Smashing Pumpkins record, and it's their best work. It can be heavy at times. It can be hypnotic at others. Throughout, it's simply a timeless rock album that demands complete attention and thorough listenings.
Singer and guitarist Billy Corgan, drummer Mike Byrne, bassist Nicole Fiorentino, and guitarist Jeff Schroeder remain one of the tightest units in rock at large, and it shows here.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Billy Corgan discusses Oceania, what lies ahead, and so much more.
Enter to win vinyl copies of the band’s masterpiece Oceania here!
When did the thread tying Oceania together arise?
When the band lineup solidified, I thought, "This is a group again and not just some people I put together to play the songs". That was the genesis of thinking, "Okay, how do we move forward?" Especially if we're going to be an intact lineup for years to come—at least it feels that way—how do we focus ourselves? An album seemed to be the most obvious choice to explore the musicality that's in the band. Conversely, we were out as a team playing new and old music every night. There was less interest in the old music, and there wasn't enough interest in the new music. You reach a point where you're like, "Okay, we have to do something". The album seemed like the most holistic choice, if that makes sense. If we can do this well, something good should come of it. Everything else you can consider, you ask, "Is that worth putting a lot of energy into?" With the album, it's like, "Yeah, we can get into that".
You've created an experience that's as immersive for you as it is for the listener.
Yeah, honestly, it speaks a lot to the way this particular band plays. If the old band played with a lot of density, this band plays with a lot of space. I found myself exploring more of those landscapes in the psychedelic realm. It's a different experience for me.
This is new territory for you.
It's territory I've been trying to maybe get at for a while, but a lot of credit goes to the band for helping me get there. I had the confidence to explore that territory. It's one thing to put on your Tangerine Dream record and say, "I want to do that!" It's important to have people around you who can enhance that vision and bring new things to react off of. They can play with so it doesn't come off two dimensional.
Do you feel like that chemistry ties the album together?
I'm really happy about that because I don't know how many years I can get beat over the head for being the "anti-band guy" when, of all the records I've made, I've only made one solo record [Laughs]. Obviously I like being in bands.
So what is that concept for Oceania?
I don't really know. I think for any record you're in a particular state of mind. There were foundations for the record that actually went back to the beginning of the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope stuff. However, the record started to really take shape in Sedona. We went there with the idea that we were going to live there and work for three months—just get into that Sedona spiritual space. My friend Mark Tulin from The Electric Prunes who played with me a lot in the previous couple years passed away suddenly from a heart attack. It was a weird period. You're dealing with a death and you're in spiritual land. I'm working with spiritual people. My shitty canned answer has to do with isolation, but I don't think I have enough perspective yet to answer that. There's something going on there [Laughs].
Did you always know "Quasar" would be the opener?
We didn't really have any particular plan. In fact, we never even toyed with sequence until the whole record was done. Ironically, that's the first sequence I put together. Once we heard it, we said, "That's it!" We never tried another sequence [Laughs]. "Quasar" is obviously a song, but it's also a "thing". "Whole Lotta Love" is a "thing" built around a riff. Sometimes, those riffs work, and other times they don't.
"Panopticon" pulls you right into this world after.
It just works. It's one of those funny things. You could try so hard sometimes to make it work and it won't. Sometimes, you don't pay much attention, you put it together, and go, "Okay! It works!" If you can imagine, the first time we sat and listened to the record we invited the twins from Madina Lake—Nathan and Matthew. They happened to be around, and they came in. Generally speaking, we work in almost total isolation. There's that word again! I don't usually like to have people in the studio. I don't want anyone around me because I don't want to hear it. They were the first outside people who heard the record, and they were like, "Dude, holy shit!" We looked at each other thinking, "Really?" They said, "It's amazing". We thought they were just being really nice [Laughs]. Then, you play the record for the next record and they have the same reaction. You think, "Maybe there's something here".
Has the lyrical process changed for this record?
I don't write like I used to in the sense that I used to get up every morning and write. I'd bang away like a carpenter. I tend to write in stops and starts. I won't write for months, and then I'll write a bunch in a really short amount of time. I feel more at ease with the intuitive process. I tend to trust what comes out of me a little more and tinker with it a little less. With that being said, I wait for the inspiration to strike me. There's a lot of unconscious stuff on Oceania. What's weird is there are some lyrics on here lifted from other songs of mine. I'll hear a line and say, "Did I rip that off from another song?" I wasn't even conscious of if I was appropriating my own material. It's kind of strange. In "G.L.O.W.", which we did a few years ago, the first line of the song is "I'm so alone". The chorus of "Oceania" is "I'm so alone, I'm so alone". In the past, if I saw a repetition, I would've just canceled it on form. It never even crossed my mind until the record was done. I thought, "Oh shit!" [Laughs] It hearkens back to little touchstones and moments, but it wasn't done consciously. I wasn't trying to be cute.
The lyrics and guitars entwine naturally as well.
From a producer standpoint, at this point in my life, I really stress not trying to let gimmickry or some kind of flashy thing get in the way of something that will work every time. That's the difficulty with riff music. It's really hard to find the ultimate riff. When you do, can you even put it in a song? There's a lot of that here. For every idea in Oceania, we probably threw about seven away. It'd be like, "Oh, that's trying too hard. That sounds too much like Talk Talk. That sounds too much like Duran Duran. Fuck it." It was natural. It wasn't possessive. I'll get it in my mind that I want a record to sound like pick-your-favorite-obscure-artist's-solo album [Laughs]. I can't pick it right now! I'd say, "I really want it sound like this guy's first solo record" and, of course, nobody knows what I'm talking about. I get very determined like that. I have it in my mind. I want a certain emotional value. Sometimes, I get very limited like that. I don't necessarily pick the best option. Here, I think we worked out a system of picking the best option whatever it is and not get too precious about it.
Was the title track particularly special for you?
Yeah, there's a perfect example of what we were talking about. We'd worked on Oceania when we first started, but the first movement of the song, as we'll call it, was the song. I thought, "It's okay". The things you here in there—the second and third movements—I actually made those up the day the song was recorded. We had the ascending chord sequence at the end from Sedona but it was still in the same pace of where the song starts. It felt very languid and drawn out. When we went to figure out the arrangement, it was like, "Can we do something more exciting?" Mike and I were working and he came up with that really cool beat. Suddenly, those chord changes took on a different life and we completely arranged it. It was all spur of the moment. It wasn't worked out over months of rehearsal. We cut the drum take and moved on. It wasn't like we poured over it, thought about it, and got out the rulers [Laughs]. It was very intuitive in that way.
Where did "Wildflower" come from?
I struggle with that because lyrically it's a bit of a sad end to the album. The guy ends up brokenhearted basically. I did the original demo with Mark Tulin in 2008 maybe. The original version is almost like a country song. I really love the chord sequence. It's one of those strange chord sequences that doesn't seem to resolve. When I reworked it, unconsciously I went with a completely different rhythm base. When I tried to sing some of the lines of the country version, they didn't fit melodically so I had to re-phrase stuff. I stole some stuff from the country song and made it a song in three. It's very strange. It was very piecemeal and not very deliberate. Even if you asked, "When did you write the song 'Wildflower'?" I don't really remember because some of it was written in 2008 and some was written in 2011.
Do you feel like you write in visual manner?
Well, I think that's one of the great legacies of Pink Floyd for example. How they use space has a psychedelic aspect to it that seems to fire up the imagination. With old Smashing Pumpkins, it was really about density most of the time. Having the confidence to work with space is really a new thing for me. That being said, if you study Pink Floyd, the way they use space is deliberate. It's not an accident that they happen to play that way. They've really figured out how to do it. I know that sounds overly simplistic, but there's a consciousness to the way they use space.
What you don't play is just as important.
Yes, that's what I'm saying. That's part of the process we worked on. My general thing is I want to fill every nook and cranny with something, a melody or keyboard. We worked on this theorem if you get this rocking underneath track and you want to do an overdub, does that add to the feeling or subtract from it? We worked from an additive principle. As long as the idea you were adding made the song feel better, great! If it took away the feeling you already had, that was bad. Normally, in the past, I would've piled on every idea I wanted and tried to sort it out in the mix. That doesn't always work that way.
Do you want to play Oceania from beginning to end live?
That was always the plan from the beginning. We made the album with that in mind. Everybody is out playing their old album. Now, it's created a thing where people expect that. Being The Smashing Pumpkins, we're going to play an album; it's just going to be our new one [Laughs]. We want to play the album and then play some classics to go with it. I have to give some credit to David Gilmour. I saw him on his solo tour in 2006, and he did that. He came out and played a couple of The Dark Side of the Moon songs. He played his whole new record. Then he did "Echoes", "Comfortably Numb", and all of that stuff. It was awesome. It was a really cool thing, and you felt like he was honoring where he was at and did this idealized set afterwards. That's what we're shooting for.
What's the next step?
I don't know. I came back with Jimmy in 2007. Right away, as fairly well documented in If All Goes Wrong, we met this wall resistance like, "It's nice you guys want to move forward, but can't you just play the old songs?" I've had five years of "Can't you just play the old songs?" The whole time, all I've done is put my head down and try to make new music. You reach a point of literal frustration where you start going, "Maybe this is never going to move forward? Maybe the vague 'they' out there will never accept The Smashing Pumpkins of this time?" It's really nice when a kid walks up to me and says, "I really like Zeitgeist, but that's not what I was hearing in 2007. If this is a record people are going to embrace right away and they do want to see the band and hear the new music, it's going to take me a while to wrap my head around it. I've been walking against a fierce storm for a long time now, and you get used to that. If I can have the wind at my back for a while, I don't know. I know that when I had the wind at my back in the '90s, I did a lot of great work because it helped my confidence. I know we're supposed to be steely, teutonic beings, but we're human like everybody else. Sometimes, the confidence of the world can inspire someone like me to try a little harder or reach a little deeper. When I made great albums in the past, it was with all of the eyes of the world on me and expecting something and duking it out on MTV and stuff. This was made very quietly with the people I trust—no record company, no manager, nothing. It was our own little world. We're not precious about it, but I think we're cautious.
What matters is you did it, and you did it on your own terms. It's a ride people can take with you.
We hope so…In the past, everything has always been compared to something else. Hopefully, Oceania starts a new comparison [Laughs].
What do you think of Oceania?
See our review here!