To many rock fans, Billy Corgan is a joke. He plays eight-hour synth interpretations of literary novels, admires conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and continues to call his band the Smashing Pumpkins although he's the only original Pumpkin in the band. It doesn't help that he's called the band's new album, due out this week, Monuments to an Elegy, but in the past nine years, under Corgan's control, the Pumpkins have remained one of the few 90s alternative rock bands to continue to sell records and receive critical acclaim without becoming (solely) a nostalgia act.
Their last studio album, 2012's Oceania, moved 54,000 copies in its first week, landing in the top five of the Billboard 200—which is a lot for a rock band in the 21st century. After Corgan "reunited" the band in 2005 without the original guitarist or bassist (drummer Jimmy Chamberlin left the new incarnation after a few years), the Pumpkins' new albums and performances have received rave reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone, Spin, and the BBC, even as Corgan continues to provoke people with cat magazine covers and eight-hour livestreams of electronic noodling.
Monuments to an Elegy will likely receive similarly solid notices when it becomes available for download this week. Like most Smashing Pumpkins records with ridiculous titles, the record blends earnest emotions with movie soundtrack–like instrumentals. Although the internet collectively LOLed when he announced that Motley Crue and sex-tape legend Tommy Lee serves as the drummer on the new album, Tommy Lee's playing style makes the Pumpkins sound as powerful as they did in 1995. As I noted in my review of "Tiberius," one of the album's promo singles, these new songs feel as intimate as those on Adore and as expansive as those on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. They're the kind of rock songs that will make you sound like a teenager screaming in a bedroom all over again.
After listening to his latest batch of elegies, I called Corgan to discuss his sensitivity, why Tommy Lee joined the band, and why people hate him.
VICE: How did Tommy Lee end up playing the drums on a Smashing Pumpkins album?
Billy Corgan: We were working on a song that reminded us of something Tommy would play. I made a joke: We needed someone to play like Tommy on this song. I was like, "[Let's get] the real Tommy." I was probably on the phone with Tommy the next day. I went to LA to see him. He said no. Tommy wanted to play the whole thing.
Were you a Tommy Lee fan before that?
Oh yeah. I was an old Crue fan, going back pretty much to the first [Motley Crue album]. I've known Tommy socially since the early 90s. He'd come to our shows every once in a while—and [current Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder] was a huge Crue fan. He grew up in LA, so for him Crue is legendary, so it was a really easy fit. On paper it looks stranger than it really is.
How do you choose your dramatic album titles?
I never get into that because I don't really know how to be honest. These things just pop into my head. When I was a kid, I would just write stuff down that popped into my head and made no sense. It just kinda became part of my inner poetry, for lack of a better way to put it. I was really a huge fan of William Burroughs when I was a kid.
Do you write your albums in a stream of consciousness?
It's all [subconscious] really. I just do a little tweaking in the end, to make sure it makes some kinda sense.
Does it bother you when people mock your dramatic style?
I haven't seen that. I don't really read any of that stuff. What are the jokes? You have my curiosity.
They say the new album title, Monuments to an Elegy, is melodramatic.
No more melodramatic than Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Last time I checked, [Mellon Collie] sold 10 million copies. Not to make myself seem the victim—because, like, every kid gets bullied in their own way—but actually I was bullied as a kid for being melodramatic. I was bullied as a kid for being into reading, in the arts and stuff like that, so to me that kind of criticism is more about our repressive, fearful society. When people attack words, I always find it really interesting because words are really quite innocent for the most part.
I'm a heterosexual, which in many ways makes me stranger because I'm definitely not supposed to be sensitive. I grew up around jocks and the whole thing. I played sports and I heard all those things and I always thought it was a bit strange because to me the greatest men I have ever known are people who are inwardly balanced.
How does this album differ from previous Pumpkins records?
There are the obvious things, like who's on them. I don't really know. All I've ever tried to do is be reflective of where I am. If I'm in a lame place then the records are lame. I don't really know what else to do. I really am an intuitive artist. I pretend to be an intellectual, but my work is really a guess. People say, "Why do an eight-hour synthesizer show?" I woke up on Tuesday and it seemed like a good idea. I just have a kind of a nose for creating a storm around me, so that's a bit dramatic too. Yeah, I'm an attention whore too, but that's part of being a performance artist.
I really like art that makes me uncomfortable, and I suppose I like poking at their biases. Going back to the question of sensitivity, I heard a lot of that stuff in the 90s when Siamese Dream came out. My very stage presence, sort of androgynous, made people violent. They would come over the barricades to punch me out. Back then, you suddenly had all these jocks coming to the show. They didn't know how to deal with androgyny. Suddenly I got the guy coming over the barricades trying to punch my lights out because I'm moving my hips a certain way. It was very strange.
I'm only 22, so it sounds like a totally different universe.
It's a totally different universe—you were dealing with an incredible level of repression. Why is that repression there? What is it that will send somebody off like a bomb? It's those hidden, unspoken biases that are the source of great art. Having been exposed to performance art in my late teens, and watching someone smearing themselves naked with some chocolate or something [made you think], Oh what the fuck is it? But then I would later [find] that I had a reaction. Why would I have a reaction? Big deal, he just smeared chocolate on himself.
People make fun of your band, but your sales are pretty damn good. What makes your music so appealing to people?
I think the question, which is a fantastic one that no one ever asks me, is [hard to answer] because the substantive things that make the band unique are not easily cleaned apart by somebody's opinion. No one sings like me, for better or for worse—you know my voice. My two-year-old nephew can point to the radio and say, "That's Uncle Billy." You can't imitate my voice. There is only one voice like mine. Two: I'm a songwriter. I know my shit. I studied the greatest. I've worked with some of the best people on the production side, like Alan Moulder, Roy Thomas Baker, Butch Vig—I've learned from the masters.
I've learned how to make records the old-fashioned way, and I've been blessed with a cast of musicians who somehow find some kind of common ground with me, whether it is short or for long, to help me navigate this language which I don't understand and I don't pretend to understand. Look at the album cover. I mean I took that picture like on a Sunday morning [at] like 6 AM. Why it turned out that way, I don't know. Why I named the album that, I don't know. Why is the last song of the album about a guy and a girl in a car? I don't know.
I'm still here. You are held up like kind of a piñata, but they forget that you are still there, so how much of a piñata can you be? I could very easily name 57 bands from my generation that got just as much hype and just as much record company pushes as we did. Sometimes it just comes down to talent and a little bit of moxie.
Despite all the bullshit you have to deal with, you sound pretty happy.
For me it starts with the belief that—and it is personal—that there is justice in the cosmos. The first 28 to 30 years of my life, my whole self-worth was judged on whether or not I was worth something to someone else. When you wake up from that dream, you realize, Wow. I can't really determine my worth this way, because if I do I'm going to kill myself all because I'm being told constantly I have no worth. Everybody knows what that feels like. You don't have to be a star to figure that out.
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