Interview: Billy Corgan talks new Smashing Pumpkins, rock radio, Radiohead and reality TV

As Billy Corgan said in our recent interview, Smashing Pumpkins are never, ever going to be an “Oldies act.” This week, it was laid bare that at least 54,000 album buyers know that the rock troupe is still alive and releasing new material, with the latest set “Oceania.” Radio continues to serve as a good reminder of the Pumpkins” past.

Those sales put the Pumpkins at the No. 4 slot on the sales chart this week, but not without Corgan going on an all-out media blitz in the weeks leading up to the full-length release. The 13-song set was the result of a new distro deal with EMI, the major label that was also busily re-releasing the Pumpkins” “Gish” and “Siamese Dream,” and today announced the reissue of the Pumpkins’ 1994 “odds and orphans” album “Pisces Iscariot” (due July 17). The act”s lineup was new, too, as was this eclectic album”s role: “Oceania” was conceived as an album-in-an-album, in the middle of what Corgan intends to be a 44-song suite, “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope.”
Below is an abridged version of our talk, which covered everything from his ex-girlfriend Jessica Simpson to his Chicago-based independent professional wrestling company Resistance Pro to his favorite new artists (M83) to why he loves radio. Hey, he even likes Radiohead and is pitching a reality TV show. Billy Corgan is refreshingly game to talk about it all.
I am shocked at the amount of press you”ve been doing for this album. It”s kind of unprecedented. Does it totally exhaust you at this point?
Yeah, it”s pretty overwhelming but at the same point, you know, I haven”t been in this position for a really long time. It”s been 17 years since I put out an album that people liked right away. So for me it”s a bit of a weird experience; it”s familiar obviously, but at the same time it”s like — it”s a bit of a relief because every time I feel like I”ve been walking in some sort of force that doesn”t just kind of want to ride along.
You have an expertise in the span over the last 20 to 25 years of how people buy music versus consuming music. You guys released this streaming in full online a couple weeks out, for instance… what factored into why you ultimately decided to make a new deal with EMI?
I think the key with the EMI part component is that it”s a distribution situation. So, you know, I”m not under their thumb creatively, you know, which has always been my problem with the record business, is when somebody runs a sub-agenda on you that is counterintuitive to your business. That took me a long time to figure out because, obviously, on the surface it doesn”t make any sense why somebody would invest in an band that sells less records than you, when you”re selling more records…
When I was on Warners, they in particular were very weak internationally, and EMI is very strong internationally. And I do have people in the EMI system that I have long term relationships with, somebody I can pick up the phone and get an answer on. And so far we”ve just been fairly smooth sailing. Pete Katsis, my manager, has been working within the EMI system, with some other artists that he has. So there was a familiarity and, of course, then there”s the ability to kind of leverage with the catalog, which, you know, when you”re talking about a spot in retail space…
I mean, and I”ll give you a perfect example and this is the reality of the world we live in. I”m out in Scotland and I”m in the whatever store, and I walk in and I can”t find a single record that I”ve ever put out in the store. And I mean, we”re talking “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” “Siamese Dream,” huge selling albums. And no Warner Brothers product. I mean, if I”m 15 years old and I go in the store, The Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan, Zwan does not exist.
It”s kind of unbelievable, how far away we”ve gotten from that physical experience. Do you kind of mourn its passing, in a way?
No. No, I”m very much a person just deal with the situation that you”re in; I”m cool with it, but that”s where EMI sort of opens a little bit of a window. You gotta jump through those windows when they”re open because it”s not like the old days when you can assume, “Oh yeah, in 12 months we”ll run a cut-rate program, and put all your titles on 12 months after the initial album comes out because those bands will still be there.” It doesn”t work that way anymore. [Stores have] moved on probably two weeks after the dang thing. 
You can”t be too artistic about it, too conceptual about it. You just gotta kind of take it where it is, and work with it ’cause it”s free-for-all right now. It is the Wild West in the record business. There comes a point when you”re in a fight, you know, you don”t apologize as you”re wiping the blood off your knuckles.
I was wondering what your feelings were about EMI”s reissues of “Gish” and “Siamese Dream” and, you know, the whole timing of that. Was it a good sign for you that everything kinda hit at once?
Yeah. It just kinda lined up that way. I mean, I”ve been jerking around with EMI for years to try to get this things reissued properly. Previous administrations treated us very poorly in this regard, which was staggering to me when you”re talking about the interest in reissuing Platinum albums. I mean, you have to beg – you have to beg somebody to reissue a Platinum album. That”s a mind-blowing experience, especially in an industry that is seeing really diminishing record sales. I”m looking left and right at people whose albums are being reissued that sold one-tenth of the records [Smashing Pumpkins] sold. Kind of a mind-blowing concept. But anyway, this administration got that.
Specifically with the rock business, there”s always been a shaky relationship to radio, and even with a lot of rock stations, Hard Rock, Classic Rock, Triple-A – your records from the ’90s are still getting a spin. But now you have this record that you want people to accept it wholecloth. How would you describe your relationship to rock radio and your relationship to pop and rock radio on the whole?
Part of the difficulty, and of course, we started in the late ’90s, and I”m taking responsibility for making some interesting musical choices. So I wasn”t necessarily trying to make pop records. That said, I did have singles and I did have songs that, I think, that could have worked within the format as they existed, and I saw a shift towards a kind of short-term, “let”s get behind this band because they got a catchy cute song about ‘dig in for squirrel”” or some sh*t, right? And I talk to these programmers and they”d say, “What do you think? What do you think of this direction?” And I”d say, “You guys are stupid because you”re turning away from career artists, right?”
I”m a career artist. I”m still gonna be here in 10 years and you”re gonna rue the day that you didn”t support me because you”re gonna need me, just like the Loop in Chicago needed Led Zeppelin 15 years later. And here we are and those stations still need me. Now the difficulty, as it exists today, is they basically turned into pop stations. It”s just straight-out f*cking Robot Pop. There”s very truly credible alternative rock stations left in America. So we have an interesting situation, which is they”ve gone so far of the left on this Robot Rock, that it”s hard for them to kind of just jack in and play an integral band like the Smashing Pumpkins, who just have a really good song that”s not ProTooled to sh*t, and gimmicky and all that sh*t that all these bands do. And, of course, behind closed doors, radio”s scratching their eyes out because their ratings are going down, and they say to me, “What do you think we should do?” And I say what I”m about to say when I meet with some of these people out in Palm Springs, “You”ve got to build around core artists.” 
And I”ll give a perfect example; okay, Radiohead, not a singles band, one of the biggest bands in the world. If I own an alternative radio station, I don”t care if I”m playing tenth of that song in the Radiohead album, I”m playing a Radiohead song. I”m making a Radiohead single; I”m finding one song that just represents our feeling of our station. Part of the reasons Radiohead”s successful is because they”re themselves and they”re not a singles band. Make them a singles band, just like rock radio in the 70″s made Pink Floyd a singles band. Find that one song, even if it”s 15 minutes long. If your fans like it, play it. Why would you support a band that can”t even sell out the f*cking House of Blues, and then not play the song by the band that comes in and does 30,000 people in a field? That”s the insanity of the radio business at this point.
So why bother with it, then?
Because I f*cking love radio. I love radio, I do.
Does your love of radio have anything to do with your love of pop music? Because you”ve written some seriously pop songs on this effort.
Yeah. I”m not anti-Pop. I think Pop has a place in the culture. I mean, I”ve recently been dating a pop star. I love the moment. I”ll hear that Nikki Minaj song and I”ll think, “Yeah it”s cool, that”s cool what they did.” I”m not anti-anything as long as it is what it says it is. 
The problem with alternative radio is you gotta a bunch of pop bands with full sleeve tattoos and faux-hawks acting like they”re alternative bands. Or we call radio up and we go “We want your support,” and they go, “Well you gotta play at our backyard barbecue, and what songs you guys gonna play? Because our audience really needs to hear those old songs.”
I mean, look, Led Zeppelin: what is the main staple of Rock Radio in America today? Led Zeppelin. But why are they still playing them? Because they”re f*cking better than all the other goddamn bands. It”s that simple. 
I was going to ask you about with your relationship to your old material, especially when it comes to your live show. There”s been times when you have been hostile to your audience. You”ve also been extremely lovely with your live audience. When those requests roll in, as they inevitably do, do you have a complicated relationship with the old material and the old radio hits?
No. No. It”s all – for me it”s all context. If that audience is there only to see the past, get me off the stage. Get me off the stage. I”m not that guy. I”ll never be that guy. Wrong guy. Because you know what? There”s plenty of people in my generation willing to get on their knees and do whatever to get you there. If that means they have to play the album from 20 years ago, great. That”s not me. 
I”ve drawn pretty much a straight line. I just do what I wanna do, and sometimes it works and many times it doesn”t, but I”ll just do what I wanna do. At least you can trust in that, you know; I”m not a phony that way. I play games and I do silly stuff and I say silly stuff, but there”s always meaning behind it. That”s where the professional wrestling comes thing comes in.
We have to break a spell with our audience, to get out of the idea that the band from 2008-on was going to be an oldies act. Smashing Pumpkins will never, ever, ever be an oldies act, and if that means the end of the business or whatever, whoa me, tough sh*t for me.
Are you playing a lot of festivals this summer? Are you planning on any other kind of mini-festivals, you know, like Metallica and Dave Mathews Band have kind of done, where they curate their own like one or two day kind of thing?
I think that if Oceania pans out well, I think we”d be primed for our own kind of run. I think my credibility in the music world easily carries over in to a generation, which is obviously carrying on the alternative mantle well. I would love to put on a festival, and highlight bands that deserve a bigger audience, and give them a context to do and go out and try to kick our ass off the stage every night. I”d love that. I”m being dead serious. I love that aspect. 
We thought like that when I was 25. We got a stage where were opening for Guns ‘n Roses or whatever. We thought we were gonna kick their ass; and believe me, we learned the hard lesson: it ain”t that simple, right? Well, that”s how you learn, and we”d love to put some of those young bands that are deserving in that position because they need to learn those lessons too the right way. Because the lack of transitional aspects in the alternative music community – let”s call it Pitchfork — into the mainstream. That bridge has been burnt down, and these bands need to figure out their own way, and I certainly am no genie here. They got to figure out their own way to get into the mainstream.
It worked for Led Zeppelin; it worked for The Beatles; it worked for The Cure. I mean, I don”t know anybody who”s alternative that doesn”t like The Cure. Robert”s had amazing, big, hit songs; why did The Cure crossover? Why did Depeche Mode cross over? Why did New Order cross over? Because they”re f*cking great. If you”re great, you should crossover.
Is that something that you”re interested in doing with your own label, adopting new bands? Who kinda turns you on these days, that”s new?
I like M83; it”s a really good band. I like Best Coast a lot. Those are bands that I sort of get that feeling like, “Okay, they”re doing something new; thank God,” you know? As far as my own imprint, I thought about it and I think my only interest in having an imprint would be helping artists, which are usually marginalized by the record business, but are really talented; buying sustainable models where they can put out music, find an audience and not have to do anything stupid or embarrassing to sustain themselves.
Like, I”m friends with an artist Sierra Swan out of Los Angeles; incredible singer, and she at some point was signed a major label, went through the whole f*cking bullsh*t and made it out with Linda Perry, you know? And then the whole thing dropped. Incredible singer. One of the greatest voices I”ve ever heard.  Sierra is the type of person that should be putting out music, and should be able to find an audience. So like, for example, if I started imprint, Sierra would be my first signing and I would work with Sierra to find a sustainable business model so she can be everything that she is as an artist, and not have to do anything goofy or stupid; complete class and dignity, and find a sustainable model in a very transparent way – you know, whether it”s Kickstarter models or whatever, just like Amanda Palmer did from Dresden Dolls. So that these artists can live, literally, with dignity, you know?
What do you mean by goofy and stupid? What do you think are some of the laziest ways to make a pop star today?
Well, they”re all bottom-feeders and they all chase trends, and it”s all short-term business. You know, for every Rihanna, there”s 999 girls you”re never gonna hear of who just get crushed…. I said to a record executive, “You guys find a needle in a haystack and then you spend the entire time that you have the artist on your roster telling them why they”re not special.” And why do they do it? Because they don”t want the artist to get cocky and they don”t want the artist to try to leverage their power against the label; and you know what? As long as the labels have the system stitched up, that mentality worked, that abusive relationship worked. It doesn”t work anymore because an artist can build their own world and, hey, if you”re Lady Gaga and you want to sell perfume and platform shoes, more power to you. That”s gonna be the new model. Artists as entrepreneur; artists builds their own business model; artists builds they own world; and, finally, artists are going to get paid on every level, not just financially, paid what they”re due for their work in the culture.
I”m really looking forward to the reality show where it”s a bunch of 30-somethings who all worked in major labels; they all had that one Moment and they”re all like working at Starbucks, you know what I mean? And they”re still looking for that one shot because there”s gonna be a plethora of them laying around. It”s really sad, especially with these kids that have been raised into believing that fame is the great arbiter of wealth. And it”s not. Fame is not wealth. It looks like wealth when you got big Twitter numbers and a bunch of people on your Facebook telling you how great you are. That is not wealth. 
So perhaps you don”t hold reality TV in the highest esteem?
Not true. I”m actually trying to make a reality TV show with my wrestling promotion.
Can you tell me more about that?
Yeah.  We have a wrestling promotion in Chicago called Resistance Pro. We”ve done about 70 shows so far and we”re working on our side with a big producer and we”re trying to put together a package to get our reality show made of what really goes on behind the scenes in professional wrestling promotion. I, of course, would be part of it, but not necessarily a key figure, I”ll just be part of the team.
Wrestling is very much a communal effort. So, even though I”m sort of the figurehead of the company, there”s a lot of people doing a lot more work than I am.
That kinda surprises me that you want to be involved in reality television. Do you have strong feelings about talent shows like “The Voice” or “American Idol?”
I really think its context, you know? I think its context. Look, reality TV as a form isn”t gonna go away. It”s cheap. It”s cheap to make and within the economic model that we”re in. We will all leave the planet with a reality TV show playing somewhere. It”s here to stay… For our show, if we can get it made, we want it to be more of a documentary style because we think wrestling is crazy enough and we don”t think we”re gonna have to manufacture storyline.
That sounds like an even-headed opinion about reality and about talent on television. Are your feelings shaped at all because of your former relationship with Jessica Simpson, has it really helped inform you? It seems that relationship could have a large bearing on how you feel about fame and success.
No, not particularly. I mean, I had conversations with her about it but I think it was comparative to my experiences. I can”t really say that I learned anything that way, but it was more just because my experience was the same. I think in the root of it, what you learn in fame is that it”s very much about projection, and so there”s an emptiness that goes with it because you ultimately come to realize that it”s really not about you. Which is kinda weird, because it seems to be all about you, but it”s really not.
So on kinda like making peace with media, making peace with culture, there”s a lot of spirituality on the album. There”s a lot of reference to finding peace within yourself as well.  Was this album at all a kind of projection of self? Was this any kind of, you know, developing self-betterment?
I think I”m just reporting kinda where I”m at; I”ve just kind of always done that. I look back later and go, Wow, that”s pretty weird, as if I”m talking to myself, that you were there at that moment. I think the funny thing is with “Oceania” —  which finished about seven months ago —  I”m way out of that spot now. 
I”m in to a whole other set of problems. So I”m always proud that I”m able to document and snapshot certain parts of my life; it was a very interesting, painful at times, part of my life that I sort of documented. In this case, I chose to document it with joy and appreciation as opposed to anger and bitterness; not to say that there”s none of that in there, but I made — more often than not — a happy choice [rather] than a bitter one. 
On completing the 44-song cycle you set out to do: When can we expect to hear all 44?
You know, I don”t know because I”ve got – I”m sending out a bunch of demos and right now it”s like everything – “Oceania” is such a game-changer, our heads are kind of spinning. We”re not really sure of where we”ll land on, you know?