Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan: China is the future of rock music

On the eve of The Smashing Pumpkins' Hong Kong concert, Billy Corgan tells Crystal Tai why China, not the internet, is the future of rock music

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 August, 2013, 12:02pm

TWENTY YEARS AFTER the release of their breakthrough album Siamese Dream, The Smashing Pumpkins will finally play their first gig in Hong Kong. Headed by Billy Corgan, the frontman and only remaining original member, the Pumpkins are scheduled to perform at AsiaWorld-Expo on August 13.

Corgan believes this landmark gig is a sign of the globalised times. In fact, he's expecting even more change to come. "For the last 50 years, the majority of rock'n'roll artists in the world have had to sing in English, because the Western world dictates what is legitimate in rock'n'roll," he says during an exclusive interview with 48 Hours.

"But once that's flipped economically and socially to, say, China, you'll have artists lining up to sing in Chinese because they will all want to penetrate that market. And that would instantly become the number one market in the world," he says.

Along with shifts in the global economy, the music industry has witnessed its share of changes during the past few decades. During his time in the spotlight, Corgan has seen mainstream tastes transition from 1990s alternative to bubblegum pop via Britney Spears, to nu metal and hip hop, and now to the celebration of indie music, and the careers of Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj.

But throughout all the changes, The Smashing Pumpkins have remained critical and commercial darlings, which is why Corgan refers to the outfit as his band and his "brand".

His brand has been a success, with eight studio albums that envelop their listener in everything from guitar-heavy rock and metal to gothic rock, psychedelia and electronica, released since the band formed in 1988. With more than 245,000 people following his personal Twitter account, Corgan feels he has high expectations to live up to.

"You create a brand, and then people come to engage with that brand for a particular kind of experience. Whether you can create that experience or whether you can involve them in that experience becomes part of the challenge. Because you no longer have access to what's called a familiar identity," Corgan says of the way the Pumpkins are today. "It's my job to present an evolution of the identity that keeps it fresh. You have to be [savvy] because that's the way to survive. The Pumpkins have had to survive [various line-up changes]."

From the early 1990s until 2000, alongside bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the Pumpkins ruled the American alt-rock scene, with guitarist James Iha, bassist D'arcy Wretzky, Jimmy Chamberlin on drums (on most albums), and Corgan fronting the band. They released six dark, moody, yet varied albums, including the critically acclaimed Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, before breaking up in 2000.

In the ensuing years, Corgan worked on several projects, including the spiritual power-alt band Zwan, the solo album T heFutureEmbrace, as well as writing a book of poetry, Blinking with Fists. He announced his intention to reform the Pumpkins in full-page advertisements published in Chicago newspapers in 2005. "I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams," he wrote. Joining Corgan in the band now are Nicole Fiorentino (bass), Mike Byrne (drums) and Jeff Schroeder (guitar).

But why dredge up the past, many critics wondered. Few bands have such staying power; but even when given the chance, how many would want to continue playing their adolescent anthems of the past? Even Corgan sounds unsure. "If I'm standing there, and my life is reduced to playing 'rat in a cage'," he says in a reference to the famed Pumpkins single Bullet with Butterfly Wings, "for someone like me that's going to cause an existential crisis. Think about this - I'm singing this song that [someone] wants to hear about how I'm trapped in the paradigm of expectation, and that's the expectation to continue playing that song."

Corgan also acknowledges that today's audiences are different from those in the 1990s. "When I step onstage in Hong Kong, I will assume that 85 to 95 per cent of the audience knows about five per cent of the material. They're only gonna know the top 10 to 15 songs.

"That puts me in a very difficult situation, because you're there to play, obviously you're there to entertain; but to make an artistic statement going off the grid, knowing that they only know 10 to 15 songs, you're going to basically have an audience that might as well be listening to a band they have never heard of," he says.

Since reforming, the Pumpkins have released two albums, Zeitgeist in 2007 and Oceania in 2012, along with the 2009 free project album Teargarden by Kaleidyscope. Out went the Pumpkins' original moody sound and in came surprisingly upbeat melodies as Corgan tackled new subjects such as politics and the nature of reality.

Of Oceania, he says: "I didn't go into it with any emotional perspective. I think it's probably more inclusive of both sides of my personality, as opposed to just the darker one."

Having struggled with depression for most of his life, Corgan has long sought answers. And when the Pumpkins originally disbanded, he found himself exploring different avenues of faith. While he does not follow any particular religion, Corgan has referred to himself as a spiritual visionary and mystic. Prompted about his views on faith, he says: "Peace comes from knowing you're standing on more solid ground. [For example] why do we love animals? Because they're honest. They love us unconditionally, and there's something really beautiful about that. We want to have this idea, we want to know that we won't be abandoned."

Despite his predilection for Twitter, the increasing ubiquity of the internet during the past two decades has not made it easier for Corgan to deal with his fame. "I don't read any blogs. I have almost no contact with modern culture. I avoid it like the plague," he says, adding that the demands of today's audiences are not easy to meet. "Technology has shifted the power from the artist to the consumer. I don't think this is good … it's been good for selling computers and iPads, but it's been bad for rock'n'roll."

Corgan is equal parts entrepreneur and artist - and he's not too shy to admit it. While he has made it clear in the past that he's not interested in attaining "indie cred", he believes he's held to a double standard: "An indie band can do an American Express commercial because it's OK, they need the money, but the rock star can't because he doesn't need the money.

"Music is its own worst enemy, because it takes people like me, who are talented and able to sell things and generate resources, and demonises them because I don't do it the way somebody else would. And then it turns around and celebrates the artistic genius of somebody with one-tenth of my talent who makes an album in a basement on their laptop, who can barely get out the door."

Despite all his battles, Corgan says he can now see the bigger picture. "When you've been in the business for as long as I have, it's easy to be jaded, it's very easy to be disheartened. I've suffered more loss than gain. I've obviously had to work through a lot of my life in public, and it's helped me to understand that music is part of who I am. The Smashing Pumpkins are a part of who I am. … But it's not who I am. It doesn't define me to my core. My public life, for better or for worse, is an extension of who I am now," Corgan says.


The Smashing Pumpkins, August 13, 8pm, AsiaWorld-Expo, Hong Kong International Airport, Lantau, HK$580, HK$780 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288



Gish (1991)
Released when many of their current fans would have been in kindergarten, the Pumpkins' debut album remains just as accessible today. In part a tribute to 1910s silent film actress Lillian Gish, she of the cherubic countenance and rosebud lips, Gish is the quintessential gateway grunge album. Its atmospheric, angst-filled tracks were co-produced by Butch Vig (Nirvana's then-producer), and still sound formidable.


Siamese Dream ( 1993)
Beset by battles against heroin addiction (drummer Jimmy Chamberlin), break-ups (bassist D'arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha), and Corgan's existential gripes, the band still prevailed and went on to produce one of the best albums of the era. Angry tracks such as Soma and Geek U.S.A. give way to subtle glimpses of hope and optimism in Mayonnaise and Luna.


Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
By now, the Pumpkins were known for their signature moody sound, but this two-disc album represented an ambitious shift towards more theatrical rock sensibilities. In Galapagos, Tonight, Tonight and Muzzle, Corgan continued from where he left off on Siamese Dream and showed us the dreamer that lurked within. Elsewhere, the surprisingly nostalgic 1979 became an anthem for Generation X.


Adore (1998)
Critics were divided over the noticeably less grungy aesthetics of the dark, synthetic beats on Adore. The band's original line-up began to break down, beginning with the departure of Chamberlin. " Adore, for many people, transformed the band from being any other band to a band that has a special thing to it … It was at the time, horrible [for us]. But long term, it's been the best thing for the band," Corgan has said.

Crystal Tai