“The positive reaction to what we’re doing right now musically and the emotion coming off the stage has just lit a fire back up,” says Billy Corgan — guitarist, vocalist and sole remaining original member of alternative titans The Smashing Pumpkins. “I haven’t seen a reaction to the band like this probably since the mid-’90s.”
History has once again begun to shed a favorable light on the recently re-formed Chicago band, who rocketed to fame during the alternative-music boom of the 1990s and topped charts worldwide before imploding at the turn of the millennium.
“The diverse amount of the band’s material attracts different fans for different reasons,” muses Corgan, now 43 and based between Chicago and Los Angeles, as we speak on the phone. “As they mature, they go, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll listen to that album that I didn’t like before,’ and the band seems to have more depth. And that seems to be adding up.”
The band topped a listener poll last month by key Los Angeles radio station KROQ, which labeled them the best band of the ’90s. And in Japan their influence has been particularly acute: Ask any young Japanese rock band to name their influences and The Smashing Pumpkins are almost always on the list.
The story of The Smashing Pumpkins is long and well documented, so let’s keep this brief. Corgan formed the band with fellow guitarist James Iha in Chicago in 1988, recruiting bassist D’arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain soon after. Their breakthrough came in the wake of the success of Nirvana and the exposure of the nebulous grunge subculture, when their 1993 album “Siamese Dream” catapulted them into the mainstream, a position cemented in 1995 by their No. 1 album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.”
But success was not so sweet. The band’s path was littered with ego clashes, failed romance, drug addiction, death and that age-old affliction: musical differences. They disbanded after a farewell tour in 2000, with Corgan and Chamberlain working together again in the short-lived band Zwan. Corgan released a solo album in 2005; his unsuccessful attempts to re-form the original Pumpkins lineup later that year resulted in him, Chamberlain and two new members releasing the album “Zeitgeist” to mixed response on Warner imprint Reprise in 2007.
“Because I had started the band with James Iha, I sort of looked at it like, if I can’t be in this band with him, well then that’s the end,” says Corgan of the band’s fraught 2000 split. “And then after five years, when I had no contact with this person, I thought, ‘Why am I holding on to a concept of friendship, or loyalty to the friendship, when there is no friendship?’ My main focus (for The Smashing Pumpkins) was conceptual, and I think that’s borne out by the fact that every album is different. So to me, to try to do the same sort of conceptual thing under a different name but still make the same kind of music was kind of dumb.”
Chamberlain left the band again in 2009, under circumstances that have not been made public. “You just reach a point sometimes with somebody where it just doesn’t work, you know?” says Corgan. He was replaced by prodigious 19-year- old drummer Mike Byrne, and Corgan is hopeful that the new lineup is built to last. And while the band now operate through Corgan’s own label, Martha’s Music, the concept behind their latest album has seen their popularity soar once again.
The 44-song “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope” is being released one song at a time through the band’s Web site. Each track is available for free — indefinitely, and with no strings attached — with limited-edition EPs collecting four songs a throw for release on CD, and a deluxe box-set planned for when all 44 songs have been released. So far, just five songs are available; Corgan expects the process to take roughly four years.
Although Corgan played some solo shows here in 2005, The Smashing Pumpkins will this week play their first shows in Japan since they packed the Budokan on their 2000 farewell tour, starting with Summer Sonic on Aug. 7 in Chiba and Aug. 8 in Osaka.
The festival’s lineup features many of Corgan’s contemporaries, including some he might be less keen to run into backstage. For instance, a spat between Corgan and one-time girlfriend Courtney Love — singer of Hole, for whom Corgan has cowritten several songs — went public when the two traded insults recently over Twitter. Probably not much chance of a cameo during either band’s Summer Sonic set, then.
“I’m not interested in anything to do with Courtney anymore,” says Corgan flatly. “I’ve just completely broken my relationship with her. I’ve always considered her a great artist, but personally I want nothing to do with her.”
Another regular fencing partner for Corgan is indie band Pavement, who will appear just one hour after the Pumpkins on one of Summer Sonic’s nighttime stages.
Catfights aside, Corgan is happy to see so many of his contemporaries — Pixies, Atari Teenage Riot and Orbital, among others — on the festival bill.
The group will also play headline shows at Studio Coast in Shinkiba, Tokyo, on Aug. 10-11. Support comes from a hot selection of domestic acts, including emo-metallers 9mm Parabellum Bullet and revered noise band Ling Tosite Sigure.
When they’re not on stage, Corgan says the Pumpkins will be trawling the record stores of Tokyo and checking out Kiddy Land in Harajuku. His younger band members, in particular, are thrilled about the trip. “They’re so psyched it’s unbelievable,” says Corgan.
“The Japanese audience is an extremely sophisticated musical audience. They really know their music, and they’re incredibly passionate about it, and that to me is always a pleasure as an artist.”
The Smashing Pumpkins headline Summer Sonic’s Mountain Stage at Chiba’s Makuhari Messe on Aug. 7 and the Sky Stage at Osaka’s Maishima on Aug. 8. For more information, visit www.summersonic.com or www.smashingpumpkins.com
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5