In Defense of… Billy Corgan?

A candid and uncut conversation with the Smashing Pumpkins frontman
Billy Corgan
Photography BRIAN SORG 

If actions truly speak louder than words, then the most telling move in Billy Corgan's 30-year career was when the Smashing Pumpkins frontman bought the National Wrestling Alliance. Not because the brand has been on a downward spiral since the late '80s, or because Corgan is known for brash and impulsive behavior, like spending more time with a widely shunned conspiracy theorist (Alex Jones) than actual journalists.

No, the NWA deal says a lot about the singer/string puller as a person, from his love of sports—he wanted to be a jock until he didn't make the team freshman year—to his recurring role as one of modern rock's leading raconteurs. Or as he said in a recent New York Times interview, "I'm a class-A heel. I'd put me two, behind Lou Reed, who's the king."

It's hard to blame him when so many writers seem determined to hate everything he's done since the '90s. Why, just last night, a music critic at the Star Tribune slammed the Pumpkins' current Shiny and Oh So Bright tour for its "bloated" three-hour sets—something fans appreciated, since it leaned so heavily on their hits—and Corgan's omnipresent ego. Which kind of misses the point. Of all the alt-rock bands that topped the charts in the '90s, the Smashing Pumpkins was the one that wanted to be rock stars, that worshiped Black Sabbath and Bauhaus. Hence why they're covering nothing but the classics these days, including David Bowie's otherworldly "Space Oddity" and Led Zeppelin's seemingly untouchable "Stairway to Heaven."

"On a personal level, I'm a human being, right?" Corgan said in a self-titled interview a few years back. "And I don't feel understood. Instead of being celebrated for bringing a different opinion into the world, fostering it, and at times, having success with it, I'm treated like, 'Why do you want to keep doing that?'"  

We try and tackle that question below by sharing our entire conversation—a rare and revelatory look at Corgan's views on everything from organized religion to the rise and fall (and rise) of rock 'n' roll. One note: We spoke around the release of the last official Pumpkins LP, 2014's Monuments to an Elegy, which featured the one-off drumming of Tommy Lee and the wing man riffs of Jeff Schroeder. A full-time member of the band for the past decade, Schroeder can now be seen in press photos alongside longtime drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and guitarist James Iha, who are back at Corgan's side for the first time in 18 years. (Bassist D'arcy Wretzky claims she was essentially written out of the trio's reunion—something Corgan disputes, of course.) 
Can you start by talking about the "spiritual memoir" (God Is Everywhere, From Here to Therewhich is reportedly pushing 1,000 pages) you've been working on?
It's kinda hard to describe writing. It's a bit like describing music, but yeah—it sort of addressing life from a spiritual point of view. It's definitely not a spiritual book, though. I think everyone's read that one, you know what I mean [laughs]?

That's true, but you actually have a story to tell.
Well my whole contention with the book—where I'd say it's spiritual—is understanding that memory and one's impression of life is basically flawed and false. So it's written from the standpoint of it's all kinda a dream anyway.

Because there's no way for our memories to line right up with what really happened?
Yeah, if you want to get technical, the ego is there to protect the part of you that can't deal with reality, so the ego is constantly filtering out, or building a case for, whatever perspective you have. Which is why you can look at something your mother said when you were 5 at 45, and see it completely differently. It doesn't mean either perspective is wrong. The book tries to address memory from another perspective, as opposed to what most people do, which is try and build a case: 'Here's who I am, and here's why you should think like I do.' That's always been the source of public confusion for me, personally, because I was essentially trying to projecting an image from an artistic point of view while at the same time trying to defend the artist within who felt like he was being overlooked. That journey alone is probably worth another book. 
Billy Corgan
You've always embraced the internet, from giving the second Machina record away to sharing really personal posts from the studio and road. Does being transparent feel liberating in a way?
I think there's enough metadata on the Internet at this point to know that it's really a hall of mirrors. You've gotta be careful what you wish for whenever you put anything on the internet; we've all fallen into a cycle of propaganda. So at least with my propaganda, I try to be transparent [laughs]. That's the way I look at it; I think that's probably the most refreshing take. To pretend it's not propaganda is a mistake.

The one thing the internet has done is change the transactional part of the business. Maybe it doesn't add up to commerce in the ways we'd like, but in my particular case—and Smashing Pumpkins' case—the transactional energy is adding up over time. The grander accomplishment of the band is being realized through the way people connect information, whereas in the past someone had to be a pretty dedicated fan to even get the narrative point. Because from the outside, it looked like a total fucking mess.

When people hear the term propaganda, they immediately think of politics, but I assume you mean everything from record reviews to social media itself.
I can't speak for every culture, but with modern American culture, I think we've descended into a crazy level of politics, yeah. It is politicking, hence indie stars in their basement rising to the level of genius, and then being cast aside in the matter of an hour.

Even one song can elevate someone to that level, yeah.
Rising stars who end up on the covers of magazines with one hit song is a new dynamic. If you look at another era, like Elvis as this transcendent figure, it took the American public two or three years to realize, 'Okay, yeah, he's the real deal.' There was a process in place that included vetting out multiple hits, social discourse, people trying to kill him off, people refusing to show his swinging hips. It was a whole movement, and in that process, the artist himself evolved. There was kinda a parlay between the force it was going to be and the force that wasn't sure about it.

Now we have this instantaneous [makes heavenly sound], and artists who haven't had time to develop are being ascribed depth they don't have. You could argue they have it within, but they don't even have their moves or bullshit patter down. Then they step into these minefields, and like a good political campaign, they cover it up or Photoshop the pictures. It's just very strange, but I think it's emblematic of where we're all going. We're all running our own media campaign, and I've accepted mine as part and parcel of what I'm interested in. I don't always like it, but I'm cool with it now, whereas I wrestled with it before. Like, 'This is really fucked up. This is not why I picked up a guitar.'  

Do you feel fortunate that your 20-year-old self didn't start the Pumpkins now as opposed to put Gish out and have time to figure out what you want the band to 'be'?
It's hard to say. I read a lot of books by other artists and there's of course the golden age of Hollywood, and the golden age of vaudeville, and there's a little movement where the '90s is cast as the last golden musical age. Not that music can't be that again, but it's changed. I think you know what I mean when I say that. Maybe it was the last band era. Or the last organic era. You have to be careful with that because every generation wants its druthers and they deserve it, you know? All the old people out of the way. I get that; I want to do the same. So you've got to be careful making these grand declarative statements.

But we essentially haven't seen an evolution in guitar music since the late '90s, early 2000s. We've seen a devolution, and I don't think we're going to see a re-evolution. I think the guitar in particular has pretty much played its hand.

But you seem as excited as ever to play it. It's not like your next record is going to be synth-pop.
Yeah. I say this personally, not professionally, but the closest comparison I would make is when Neil Young seemed to say, 'Fuck it, I'm going to play the guitar again.' He just got back into it and stopped apologizing or avoiding what he didn't like about it. That's my own impression as a fan. He didn't sit me down and tell me that. There was a moment where he was like, 'Fuck it, I'm going to ride my horse.'

I think I've found this interesting balance now, where I've really embraced technology. I'm doing synthesizer work more—privately more than in public—and it's allowed me to get back on my horse. There were a lot of years where I thought, 'Why am I playing this redundant, dinosaur instrument no one seems to care about anymore?' I don't see anyone falling over anymore because I hit the big chord. I like to think I'm savvy enough not to be delusional. I sit there and see what is and isn't happening. My father was a guitar player, and I'm a guitar player through and through, but I'm not going to tell you it's a powerful instrument at this point in time. Somebody may reinvent the wheel, and I'm all for that, but I don't see it happening.  

You must still feel a personal connection to your old songs when you play them live, though. The last time I saw you play, you seemed to be really enjoying yourself rather than going through the motions.
It has everything to do with context, you know? Because we've played sets that felt very old-leaning—like, 'oh my god, I want to smash this thing in half'. It literally feels like the albatross around my neck. Because I've had hit songs without guitars, you know? It's weird sometimes.

My partner Jeff has really pushed me to re-engage in that conversation. I felt burned in the past with other relationships. When you play guitar with a person, there's a conversation. When you don't trust that conversation or you lose that conversation, or you speak a language you only speak onstage because you don't talk anymore, that's a weird thing. It's like sleeping with someone you don't like.

Jeff has really pushed me as a friend and artist to tackle that conversation and celebrate what he sees: 'How do we update this thing to a [modern-day] conversation?' Even though this is a bit techy, one of the ways he did that was by getting us to back off our gain and open it up to more of a mid-'70s, early-'80s guitar sound. Suddenly there was more space—more things to play, more things to hear. If you were to ask me intellectually, I would say we're stepping backwards. That was the sound I wanted to avoid. Everything I did in the late '80s, early '90s was to blow up my amps.
The Smashing Pumpkins
The Smashing Pumpkins in 2018 // Photo by Olivia Bee
A lot of people forget that Jeff has been in the band for a while now. Did you know each other before he joined? How did he get brought into the fold to begin with?
We auditioned people as we were making Zeitgeist. And because I was so busy, I kinda turned it over to [drummer] Jimmy [Chamberlin]. He went through a bunch of people and said, 'I think Jeff's the guy.' So we got together and played. Jeff was friends with some of my friends so he was recommended, which meant a lot to me. And he was coming from the indie world I come from; he wasn't one of these LA guys waiting for a call from Rihanna or Miley Cyrus.

Not a session guy then?
Yeah. The first time I played with Jeff, I said, 'Ain't gonna work.' Because Jeff had always been a lead guitar player. He'd never played with another guy. So he didn't know how to have that conversation. It was two lead guitar players just going at it. Which he laughs about now. To his credit, he went back and said, 'Can we try this again?' He showed me he had taken criticism and was willing to work with me. It was like, 'Oh, this guy's not afraid.' Because most people would have tucked their tail between their legs, said fuck you and goodbye. I've been there.

Jeff is not an easy person to get to know. He's very private, well-raised, well-read. When he joined the band, he was on the way to becoming a professor of literature studies, you know? He came into this crazy situation, and over time—through practice and him being a real guitar player—he's just re-engaged me.

And the irony is that you are doing more of a dual lead guitar setup now.
Yeah, because we've developed a distinctive voice over time in a way that makes the Pumpkins thing sound fresh. Whereas when I did it—with me playing the left and right stereo stuff—it sounds dated, I think.   

Has the process of reissuing old Pumpkins material made you think some of it sounds dated as well?
No, I think [the problem's] more when you're trying to make new stuff with the old tomato sauce. You put it on, it's that classic Smashing Pumpkins [sound] and you kinda go, 'eh, not really doing anything for me.'

Funny enough, the old stuff holds up pretty well, which says a lot about the producers I work with and the fastidiousness of our process. I'm pretty satisfied. Bob Ludwig has done a great job with the remastering, taking what was meant to be more analog, Black Sabbath-y type recordings and updating them for modern ears.

I could see how it might be boring to simply retread certain signature sounds of yours, as it takes away the sense of creating something truly new.
Well it's a great temptation. It covers up a lot of sins; it can make a good chorus sound great. There's lots to say about a big wall of guitars. It's just that the wall Jeff and I build now is different. It reminds me of that Judas Priest thing—two guys that still have this unified sound. We talk about this a lot in the studio. With the way Pro Tools have gone, what I used to do through acumen anyone can do now. The specialness of that sound isn't there. You can basically hear it on any pop recording.

You can't fake what we're doing… It's two voices that go together, like the Everly Brothers or the Bee Gees. We've figured out that's where the gold lays. That's very exciting. And then when you add a voice like Tommy Lee on top of that—someone incredibly distinctive and powerful—it's like, 'Oh shit, this is pretty cool.'
Well his style of playing has the power Jimmy had with you guys. Is that a mixed blessing, since you're psyched on the songs, but he's not gonna be joining the band full-time?
You know, he's looking at that major final [Mötley Crüe] tour, so the fact that he made time for us is really a blessing. I love playing with Tommy, but I wouldn't put that curse on him [laughs].

The curse of what? Having to play with you?
No, the curse of the Pumpkins. Playing Pumpkins music is like walking into a buzz saw between fans of different albums. It's not a unified, or even a dual, conversation. It's about 19 voices competing for what should be played—what should the future sound like, how should the past be represented, who's in the band, who's not in the band.

I wouldn't wish that on him. This is a good fit. We get together and have a total blast, eat food, tell stories, and just be friends. It doesn't have to be more serious than that.
You've had a long love affair with the guitar, as you said before. How were you first exposed to it? Was it through hearing your dad play or a certain record? 
I wanted to be a drummer actually. My uncle was a drummer, so I really wanted to play them. Of course, when you're 4 or 5, the last thing someone wants to hear is you playing the drums for more than a minute.

The guitar was weird. I saw my father—a great musician—playing, but I didn't connect with it intimately until I saw a friend playing one. The minute I started playing, I felt like, 'Oh, this is what I'm supposed to do.' I never had that feeling before that. I had a great attraction to music, but I never had a linear thought of 'me plus guitar equals future'. When I got that guitar in my hand when I was 14 years old, it was like, 'Ding, ding, ding!' That was it. I never looked back.

There was a sense of destiny about the whole thing. I've had plenty of time to muse over why. I think it's as simple as how some families have a talent for cooking or opera singing. And there's a particular talent in my family for the guitar. Rather than being able to make a 30-foot jump shoot—which I couldn't, although I really wanted to—I found I could do that on the guitar pretty quickly.
Billy Corgan
Weren't you more of an athlete first?
Oh yeah, I was a total jock.

So what happened? Did you reach that transitional point in high school where you either stick with the jock crowd or you become more of a burnout musician?
The reality of it was I didn't make the baseball or basktetball team in my freshman year of high school. So between that, and taking care of my special needs brother, I needed something to do. The guitar was the perfect fit, because I had to be home a lot taking care of my brother. Like, 'If I have to sit in front of this television, I might as well practice the guitar.' If I'm not gonna be on the team, why am I out here in the driveway shooting jump shots? It was that combination—'Fuck it, I'm going to go down this path now.' I took it pretty seriously for a 14 year old.

In what way? You taught yourself right?
I was totally self-taught, and immediately set out with an intense practice regiment. I took it on, you know? Songwriting is probably the only other thing in my life that I took as seriously as the guitar. Everything else was more of a shrug of the shoulders.
Smashing Pumpkins Rolling Stone covers
But you were a good student. It's not like you were a dropout.
I was an honors student, and offered Pell grants and Fulbright scholarships. My family freaked out when I decided to go into music.

How many years passed in between that freak out and them realizing you had found a career for yourself?
It didn't really sink in until the success of Siamese Dream. So if I started playing in… I guess '81 [laughs], it didn't really sink in until about 1993.

What helped make that happen?
I think it was being on the cover of Rolling Stone. That's one of those universal indicators of arrival, when everyone's like, 'Oh, we were wrong; he was right.' But by then, I'd gotten over the need to be right. It was like a posthumous award or something. 'Oh, okay, I could have used this seven years ago.'

Did you feel a need to prove yourself for quite some time then?
I don't think I've escaped that need unfortunately [laughs].

When you were teaching yourself to play the guitar, did you reach a point where you felt comfortable enough to play in front of your father? Or was it more of a private thing?
He just wasn't interested. He told me later that he saw it as me wasting my time.   

You've mentioned being into Black Sabbath and Bauhaus before, which are basically two opposing camps in the music world. What drew you towards the two of them? The sheer power of Black Sabbath and the melancholic aspects of Bauhaus?
I think I'm really attracted to pioneers. There are those moments in music, art and filmmaking where someone's on the edge of something—this moment of discovery. When you listen to Black Sabbath, the language of what is 'heavy metal' is being codified. The same with Bauhaus—you hear the codification of what will become goth music. It's really interesting because the artist themselves don't really know. In time, the audience boils it down to a sentence: 'They're blah blah blah.'

But if you listen to the band's music, there's evidence of other things. Like in the beginning, Sabbath was more bluesy. And in the beginning, Bauhaus was more art-house. In time, they learned how to write singles. These transitional phases are really fascinating.

Did you always gravitate towards rock music?  
I had this uncle who had a great record collection. So before I was 10, I was listening to Yes, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Queen, but then I was also listening to pop radio. So imagine the biggest dreck you can think of from the '70s—I was listening to that too. Then I started discovering, here and there, little pieces of alternative culture like the Ramones or the Plasmatics. Adam Ant. I'd hear all these different voices and think, 'What the fuck?' Living in suburbia, there was no way to dial it up on YouTube. You'd come across a compilation, album, or sometimes a clip on television, and it wouldn't be connected to anything.

There was nothing put it into context you mean?
Well I didn't know people who listened to that type of music, or people who dressed that way. I couldn't go on the internet, find those people and say, 'What are you thinking?' Or 'what is it like seeing these bands in concert?' I remember talking to a guy who had seen Mercyful Fate and it was like the holy grail. 'Oh man, you saw Mercyful Fate?' 'Yeah, two years ago.' It was mythical for me—all shadows and reflections. I didn't have a lot of money so what these people were was kinda in my mind. I created things that weren't there, and of course later, I'd either meet these people or work with them and get the real story, get to compare my notes against what really happened.
Who's someone you idolized as a kid and met later on who really surprised you?
Honestly, I can't say that's happened. I'm an actue enough listener where the humanity I heard in the music was what I saw when I met the people. Like I don't know Robert Plant. I've met him a couple times, but he's a hippie you know? And you can kinda hear that in the music. People get into the whole rock god, barechested bit, but I picked up on the fact that he's a hippie. And when I talked to him, I got that vibe.

Were you more of an outsider in high school then?
This sounds a little self-mythologizing, but nobody really got my take on the world except for my mother. But I didn't live with her so it was a weird thing. Everyone else treated me not even as a black sheep. More like a blue sheep or something, like, 'Where did you come from, and why do you have such intense opinions about things like free agent salaries?' You know [laughs]? 

My mother told a story once. I was arguing with her future husband; he was getting upset because we were talking about the advent of free agency in baseball. I was taking the position that the players deserve to be paid, and he was saying the higher salaries were bad for baseball. Then he said he realized he was arguing with a 9-year-old kid. Like 'who is this child?'

"I don't have an easy answer for why I'm trying to combine Abba with Black Sabbath"
At the risk of continuing to self-mythologize, I still feel similar. If you say in an interview that you feel misunderstood, people kinda throw their hands up in the air and say, 'Jesus Christ, what does that fucking mean?' 

My favorite is when someone takes something I did that was once risky and uses it to beat me up. 'Why don't you keep doing that thing you used to be known for? And why are you doing this new thing you're going to be made fun of for?' The only thing that's changed is I've accepted it—'okay, it's cool. I'm a weird guy. I like what I like and nobody's getting hurt by it, so let's just go with that.' The Pumpkins is my laboratory for developing those things into a cohesive language or pop statement. I don't have the luxury of 17 producers working for me; I do everything on my own. Not to take anything away from the people I work with, but I think they'd all agree the particular vision I have is very much my own. They'll often ask me, 'What the fuck is this?' And I don't know. I don't have an easy answer for why I'm trying to combine Abba with Black Sabbath.
Billy Corgan
Well people often confuse passion with simply being egotistical. Those two things become blurred;  caring about something deeply makes you look maniacal or something.
Well I am slightly maniacal, but what adds to the egoistic confusion is I'm a person who completely possesses what he's into at the time, and when I'm done, I move on. So that seems to lend credence to the idea that I don't believe in what I'm doing, that it is a bit of a pose. But that's like saying that because Russell Crowe was a good guy in one movie and a bad guy in another, he didn't believe in those things. You're imbued by a certain energy—let's even say possessed—by a particular set of feelings or impressions or artistic movements. And once those things stop being relevant in an exciting way, you just kinda move onto another ant hill.

People will say, 'Do you not love what you did?' And it's like, 'Are you kidding? Do you know what I went through to hatch that egg?' My book details some of that process in a way I haven't before. I take the time to explain it… My way [of doing things] isn't better than [other people], but it's as good as it. That's been proven over time. I haven't had the luxury of great reviews. I haven't had the luxury of being hailed as a genius or the next second-coming. I've always been given this question mark, this asterisk next to everything I do: Is it because of the band? Is it because of the producer? So I've had to defend myself, which always ends up with you looking stupid. At some point, you're going to over-defend or reach for something that makes your case sound dumb.
I'll give you a perfect example. When I worked on Courtney [Love]'s Celebrity Skin album, she had gone through a really rough time and reached out to me. We had this common ground, so we worked together and had this agreement where we would basically put a pleasant parentheses around the work. Because of course, she knew she was going to be questioned: 'Well how much did Billy do? Da, da, da, da.' So the other day I was going through a pile of stuff, trying to sort out some old papers, and I came across a press clipping that must have came out when the album came out. It was from a local paper: 'Love says Billy did barely anything on the album.' 

That article came out at the same time as when I did a bunch of press in Europe, talking very positively about the work I'd done with her. 'Oh, it's a great album. And I think it's really beautiful. We did this great work together.' So as these articles are coming out, everyone's writing articles about what an asshole I am for taking credit away from this total feminist [laughs]. That's the kind of stuff you laugh at now because then, when you ran around defending yourself, saying, 'No, I did write this song,' it made you look like some kind of weird schoolyard bully.

Now of course—15, 16 years later—people on the street will tell me that's one of their favorite albums and they appreciate what I did for it. That's where the satisfaction comes in. In the moment, you're not going to get that satisfaction. That's my own stupidity… It goes back to that cultural conversation. In the heat of the moment, something comes out and that discourse begins. 'Well, it's not on my Top 10 list. This is the greatest thing ever, and this is the worst thing ever.' If you get drawn into that in the heat of the moment, you end up doing things that ultimately make you look bad. You're sort of expected to rise above the fray. And if you have trust and confidence in what you've done, and trust and confidence in god—that he or she will sort it all out—that's what I'm saying. Fifteen years later, you're walking down the street, and here comes a tattooed teen who says, 'That album helped me get through a breakup. I really appreciate the songs you wrote with her.' And that's what you wished you'd gotten when the album came out. Of course, it doesn't work like that.  

You seemed to have reached a point where you don't care anymore, though, where you're going to do whatever the hell you want, whenever you want, whether it's your wrestling company or a synth performance that goes on for eight hours. All of this stuff outsiders might see as crazy you did simply because you're passionate about it at that moment in time.
I appreciate that. That's definitely how I feel. At the risk of stepping in another pile of shit, I will say that there's a level of criticsm to levy at the indie world, or this subcultural world that occasionally claims me, and occasionally won't. There's this kind of thing that gets put out there, and it's very simple: We're the authority, and if you do this, if you wear this T-shirt or beard, we'll accept you. It's very similar to the schoolyard. If you don't beat up Johnny over there, they won't let you hang out or whatever—these rites of passage. There's this codified rites of passage that exists with the indie intelligentsia that's grown over time into businesses like Pitchfork. And it's even seeped into larger publications.

The turning point for me was realizing [this], probably a decade too late. Back when I was in a relationship with Courtney in the early '90s, she knew these things. She was savvy enough to realize these things weren't real. I believed them because I wanted to believe them. It took me a long time to realize those are false enticements. They're kinda there because if you don't believe them, the artist doesn't need that world. That's gonna be the real interesting turning point in the next 10 to 15 years of subculture, as artists realize they can build their own world and they don't need to go to somebody else's world to pay tribute.
"I got really into the idea of the fight. Which is the worst thing you could do."
There will always be a crew that deems itself the authority, and there will always be a crew that'll go and kiss the ring. Well the generation that's coming up right now isn't interested in kissing the ring anymore. They've inspired me to live my own life and do my own thing. In my own weird, wacky way, my path is connecting with theirs. It's interesting to put yourself out there publicly while privately grieving because so and so in this corner won't give you the blessing you want. You sit there, scratch your head, and say, 'Why are they giving it to the guy that's less talented? Why are they giving it to the girl with the one song?' Or whatever.

I bought into the methology that the indie or alternative world played by a higher set of rules, that justice or great work would win. That was always the argument—that everyone who listened to Sonic Youth wouldn't listen to band Z. That's sort of what was promised to us in the late '80s and early '90s. If you do this or that, we'll embrace you. But they were never going to embrace the Pumpkins. The sooner I realized that, the better we would have been. It would have saved us a lot of trouble, and it probably would have led to better work. But we got caught up on quasi arguments. Me being the performance artist I was, I got really into the idea of the fight. Which is the worst thing you could do.
Do you feel like you needed to break up to take stock of the situation then?
I think I just realized that the internet affords you the opportunity to build your own world. If the old argument was, 'Where do the Smashing Pumpkins fit between Spin, Alternative Press and Rolling Stone?', the answer would have been nowhere, even though all three publications covered us in various ways. Ultimately, the internet says you don't have to be a part of any of those worlds if you don't want to.

There will come a day where there's a kid sitting in the Kurt Cobain or John Lennon seat. And those systems will come calling and say, 'Okay kid, time to kiss the ring; we'll anoint you.' And that kid says, 'You know what? I'm sorry. I don't want anything to do with it. I don't want to do your interviews; I don't want to do your photo shoots. I'm just going to sit here and do what I do.' When that kid crosses the line, and they will—hopefully I'll be around to see it—it'll be like that moment in where everything shatters. That's really where it's meant to be.

In my hall of justice, Bauhaus deserves to be at the top. Black Sabbath deserves to be at the top. Cheap Trick. The Cars. These bands that get pulled up or down depending on the public's fascination at the time. One year the guy with the beard says this is the best band ever, or the worst band ever. I think that's all going to come to a screeching, weird end when that kid—boy or girl—crosses that threshold and basically breaks the system with the purity of their own heart.

That sounds like the lyrics from one of your songs.
Sure. But that's really what I believe. At least I can say to you I no longer believe I'm that guy. Whatever I thought was my sword in the battle, I ultimately accepted that is not my role. My role is to be happy; my role is to be a good artist, and consistent. Once I realized that, the sky got blue again and I could hear my partner Jeff in my ear saying, 'Let's crank up and kick this shit out of the way.' Like, 'I want to be a man in the world. I want to fucking conquer and win and have a good time, get all the babes and win all the prizes.' There's nothing wrong with that. It's quinnessentially American. Once you get all intellectual about it, it becomes this hall of mirrors.  

What role has spirituality played in your perspective these days? It doesn't sound like your beliefs are didatic or belong to any one religion.
It's whatever works for you basically. That's the fascinating thing—if you actually read the avatars [from Hinduism] they're not didatic. What do the great avatars of this planet say? Love is the answer to every question. What does that mean? It sounds great in a Beatles song, but what does it mean when a plane goes down? What does it mean when someone loses a child? What I try to share in life is that love is the one thing that won't abandon you. It's the one force you can trust. You cannot trust mortality, and you cannot trust that your neighbor won't turn on you if they need a grain of rice. Mothers kill children; husbands kill wives. Nations kill other nations.

Where does this come from? Well power is the antithesis of love. And those who bow to power, literally look like pigs. They look like people in a trough. They can't say or do enough to maintain their status. Politicians celebrate our ruin—literally. So to answer your question succicntly, if you trust this organized principle in the world that says love will always defeat power or darkness or the absence of light, you start to trust there's something you're working towards that means more than record sales, praise, or mommy loves me. That was the changeover in my life. I was lucky enough to have stood at the top of particular mountains, and been at those parties, and looked down and said, 'You know what? There's no happiness here. There's a lot of fun and hot chicks, but there isn't happiness.' That's when you scale yourself back down the mountain, which I did, and go, 'Okay, now what do I do?' 

Did you realize that in the moment or in retrospect?
In the moment; I just didn't know what to do about it. The Matrix is a great example of that. Okay, so you figured out you're in the Matrix; now what do you do? I have people who come to me and haven't been awakened to the sociopolitical systems of the world. And they come to me with this moment of, 'Oh my god, the government doesn't love me.' And, 'Oh my god, what the fuck is happening to my country?' As if I'm some sort of sage. I just say, 'You're in that first stage of the Matrix where you realize, wow, everything I thought was real isn't real.'

In my case, it was very particular—when I was in the middle of this dysfunctional band that was still selling records. What do you do that makes any sense? Well I did the worst thing: I blew everything up, and thought I was 'powerful' enough to reassemble it some other way. What helped you realize things aren't the way you were brought up to believe they were? For me, it was achieving everything I thought I wanted, and realizing I didn't get what I promised myself or some variation of that. In order to endure all those long days in the studio and public humilation or whatever, I told myself, 'Well little Joey, if you just get to there, all this cool stuff is going to happen.' Well I got to there, and realized that not only am I not going to get what I want, I'm sort of enslaved by what I created. And there's really no graceful exit here. That's when the other side of my personality kicked in [laughs]. 

You did a special performance inspired by Siddhartha once. What does that book mean to you on a personal level? Was it eye-opening to some degree?
I read it in high school, but it didn't hit me like it hits me now. I read it again recently, in the last year or so, which made me want to do it musically. I think it's such a beautifully simple explanation of one's challenge with ego on the path to divinity. It's pretty simple, right [laughs]? He thinks he's got it all figured out, and there's a beautiful moment where he stands before the Buddha, and he's like, 'You know, I'm going to go my own way.' And the Buddha's like, 'Okay, see you later.' Because the Buddha, in his infinite wisdom, realizes this soul needs to figure it out his own way.

That's where it resonates: I need to figure this out in my own way. What's funny about that is I'm not so caught up in my own trip that I don't realize there's a certain insanity to it. It's this incredible, experiential journey to have existed in everything from the alternative club scene in Chicago in the '80s—when you had house music next to Ministry and Wax Trax!—to the opening of the grunge revolution and driving across the country to play with Tad.

I've also experienced the absence of those things. 'Now you're stupid. Now you're dumb. Now we don't need you; get the out of our way.' Those are all incredible experiences to have if you're a spiritual soul who wants to know the truth. If you're a vain glorious, social-climbing, scum-seeking jerk—which most celebrities are celebrated for—you know what you're going to get. You're going to get celebrated for being a narcisist, then they're going to tell you you're narcicissm is in the way. So for me, having had both experiences, I can tell you that experience A—this spiritual path of, 'hey, let's throw a party and see what happens; let's try this music and see what happens; let's blow this up and see what happens'—is more fun.

Now, has it been fun to listen to? I don't know. That's for other people to figure out, but it's been fun to make.

Billy Corgan