CHICAGO - Billy Corgan calls "Oceania," the Smashing Pumpkins' first studio album since 2007, "an anti-mid-life crisis album."
Whatever it's called, the new album due out Tuesday represents Corgan's best work since the '90s, when the Pumpkins were among the most successful bands of their time. The band broke up in 2000, and to hear Corgan tell it, he's spent most of the last decade figuring out how to create fresh music out from under the shadow of that legacy without fully letting go of it.
He says that after reuniting with original Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in 2005, he realized that he was holding on to an idea of the band caught between unrealistic expectations (repeating the success and sound of the Pumpkins 1993 breakthrough, "Siamese Dream") and his own nostalgia-loathing intentions.
He's in the midst of writing what he describes as a "spiritual memoir," and it's causing him to "dredge up stuff from the past I wish I had forgotten. This album is basically my way of saying I don't want to carry this stuff anymore. I don't want to carry (original Pumpkins members Chamberlin, James Iha and D'Arcy Wretzky) forward anymore. It's done. I couldn't have made 'Oceania' if I didn't let go of that band."
Chamberlin and Corgan parted ways in 2009, soon after a tumultuous tour that found the singer verbally tussling with his audience. For a 20th anniversary Pumpkins tour, many fans were expecting a greatest-hits retrospective. Corgan instead presented a deep dive into his music, in which the beloved '90s singles were balanced by deep cuts and plenty of new tracks. The often-hostile reaction led him to "blow up the band" so that he could start fresh.
Corgan rebuilt the Pumpkins with young guns: guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne. The imperative was not only to re-energize the audience, but "to reconnect with that part of me that made me want to make music in the first place." In an interview, he described the process:
Q: A few years ago, you said the album was dead, and you begin releasing your music song by song online. What changed your mind?
A: We did a radio tour, one of those b.s. things - if you go play a radio station's party with seven other terrible bands, they'll play your record. We're playing and we're looking out at 18- and 20-year-olds and they don't care. What is this? How do you win this? You don't. We basically sat down and said, 'This is it. This is boring.' So what do we do to actually change this? Only thing that made sense was to make an album. Can you make an album that is so strong that it reignites the flame within you and the audience? Is that even culturally possible? We went to Sedona (a studio in Sedona, Ariz., with longtime producer and engineer Bjorn Thorsrud) for a while to work. It was small steps. I can write songs, I can always write songs. That's been part of the problem. Maybe I write too many songs and put them out loosey goosey. So let's get down to it and challenge ourselves. It takes so much psychic energy to do this. I did this album for a year, 12 hours a day. I understand how it gets tough for people when they reach a certain age and you just don't want to work that hard because it's easier not to. We could've made a lot of money playing the nostalgia shows. I cut that road off. It was do it this way or die.
Q: So you want to get the feeling of 1995 back, but you want it to do it with new music?
A: I want the new feeling. Picasso did some of his best work in his 90s. Neil Young is making some of his best music now. I don't want to be 25 again. There are people out there who are older who are cool. I want that. Music is your guide. At the heart of Jimmy Page is the 14-year-old playing skiffle and trying to figure out Scotty Moore licks in his bedroom. The year 1995 for me was miserable in some ways. I just dream of having a voice in the conversation. Not being written off by the bloggers as some grandpa who keeps showing up at the buffet table.
Q: How'd you rediscover that feeling?
A: I've found peacefulness in myself where I found I didn't have to be more than or less than. Be yourself moment to moment. Go left, right, and in between. You like keyboards, guitars, loud stuff, quiet stuff. Just go with it. Stop overthinking it. It's very similar to the way I worked in the '90s.
Q: So you're saying you lost that in the last decade? Why?
A: I got away from that to teach myself a few things. I'm a bit weird. I'm the guy who would be bored with two on two basketball, so I'd play against four guys to make it interesting. I've done a lot of that in (2005 solo album) "The Future Embrace," (2003 band project ) Zwan - working within concepts of limitation. Can I box my way out of this corner? I think this is the first time I've made a record where I didn't box myself in. If it sounds like Frank Zappa one minute and Vangelis the next, OK.
Q: How were your earlier records boxed in? Whatever people say about them, the Pumpkins were definitely their own thing through much of the '90s.
A: I said this to the current band the other day. The "Siamese Dream" band didn't exist. I created that band and then we learned how to be that band after the record. I expressed to (producer Butch Vig) an idealized vision. A beautiful, silver version of the Smashing Pumpkins that did not exist. It was a movie. The videos, the success enhanced and filled in the gaps. (The 1995 album "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness") is a much more accurate portrayal, it's the band as we really were - mean, dark. (The 1991 album "gish") is me trying to be somebody, "Siamese Dream" is me trying to create something, "Mellon Collie" is the band unvarnished. "Siamese Dream" was me working within my own and Butch's straitjacket. (Nirvana's Kurt Cobain) went through it, with the idealized version of Nirvana on "Nevermind" and the unvarnished version on "In Utero" with (Steve) Albini. Finally you reach a point where it's over, the game doesn't work, Smashing Pumpkins is dead. I couldn't just flip the switch and be great. So is there nothing in this for me? You walk away or try to make it for you. The difference for me is that at 45 I feel I have to deliver or you don't get another chance. Our axiom for "Oceania" was you have one chance. Don't expect anyone to listen seven times. They'll listen one time if you're lucky.
Q: When things are working, great artists say they reflect their audience. Do you feel you're still in touch with your audience?
A: I feel I'm reflecting the part of the audience we don't hear from. There are a lot of people out there who love music but don't have a place in music culture as it exists. I meet these people all the time. Soccer mom, 34, has good taste in music. They are your average rock fan who isn't part of the Pitchfork culture. They don't follow the train. They're the difference between 40,000 sales and 400,000. We've disenfranchised that part of the culture by playing to the (snobby, snarky) crowd. The Internet has swelled that (expletive) crowd. The crowd that trashes what you do instantly and writes you off. It's like the '90s indie-rock crowd all over again: Don't look this way, don't dress this way, don't play long guitar solos, whatever. But there are people out there in their teens who found Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they don't care that those bands don't exist anymore. They exist in their computer. They're finding this other value system that isn't contemporary. It's a wider scope. The unspoken audience, the stragglers, and this new audience who isn't snarky or cares much about modern record business, that's our audience.
Q: You've decided to release the album through a major label, EMI, even though you've long said the traditional record-industry model is broken and beyond repair. What happened?A: I still think that. But I thought naively that by becoming an entrepreneur and putting out my own music, that my fans would rally and help me market it. They didn't. I got, "This is the worst, retire," from some blogger. As a music fan of artists with a certain longevity like Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Neil Young, I want to hear all of it. The good, the not so good, everything. They've earned it. But that's not the way our country works. We're the absolute worst at appreciating that sort of thing.
Q: So social media is not the democracy we thought it was?
A: It's just allowed the most narcissistic among us to amass more power. But a lot of people in my generation are avoiding it. It's just not interesting. Chat boards chase away people who want to be positive, and they get shot down, so they retreat from it.