The Smashing Pumpkins' mainman Billy Corgan has always occupied a rare space in the diverse ether of the alternative rock world. When other like-minded bands were opting for the jingle jangle of clean guitars and punk-driven rhythms, the Pumpkins were seeding their music with strains of metal, classic rock, goth, and if you listen really closely even the psychedelic overtones of bands like the Seeds, Love, and the Electric Prunes [Corgan loved these bands though he denies any of their influences ever crept into his music and maybe he's right.]
Beginning in December 2009, Billy began a project he called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope. It would be the Pumpkins' eighth and newest album but would appear in a much different form than anything that came before it. The guitarist/songwriter wanted to invite the listener inside his own head to hear how one song developed from the next and in a massive undertaking that could take years to complete, he would release one song at a time. Each song would be made available online. Free.
At the time this email was sent to Corgan, only two tracks had been released: "A Song For A Son" and "Widow Wake My Mind". Still there is everything here from burning guitar solos to loopy time changes and Hammond organs.
The bald and brainy Billy is one of the truly unique voices out there in a world where so much sounds the same. Here, you get some sense of how the man's brainpot works but don't spend too much time on trying to figure him out because you never will. Just read this and dig it and then go and listen to his new music and hopefully you'll have a slightly better idea of how and why he does what he does.
UG: Releasing free music online isn't a new approach for you. You released Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music in 2000 as a free download. How did your audience respond?
Billy Corgan: I think the fan response at the time was very positive, as the fans who were around at the time seemed to like Machina 2 better than Machina 1. That said, Machina 1 is proving now to be the more influential part of the work for many of the younger bands that I've talked to.
In the back of your mind, did you think you might build on the concept of making your music available online in the ensuing years?
Not really. At the time I saw it as a one-time thing. I never thought we would see a near collapse of the music business and its dominant control on how music reaches people.
Is the event surrounding the release of music now as important as the music itself in this digital downloading age?
The evidence so far suggests that music has lost its moment. But I think that will change soon.
If the music world were still releasing vinyl albums and singles, would this be happening?
In some ways, has the digital age destroyed the integrity, the beautiful moment as you describe it of a single release like back in the day?
I would point to the sheer volume of music released as part of what confuses the beautiful clarity of a new release by any artist. Which is always a singular moment where the genie comes out of the bottle and can never be put back in.
You must have been aware of bands like Radiohead releasing their In Rainbows album for free. Was that any kind of influence on releasing these songs for free?
No. In fact it would probably be more an influence not to, because most aren't aware of our past history with giving away 'free' music. You unfortunately get lumped in as a copycat rather than an innovator. It's really not a big deal. My decision has much more to do with putting the right white light back around what I do. Everyone else is on their own I figure anyway.
As you were writing the music, did you know you'd be releasing the tracks separately?
Or did that concept come later?
No. I've been thinking about this way for over three or four years. Maybe even going back to my short-lived band Zwan.
Are these ideas you've been working on? Or is everything new?
Almost everything is post-Zeitgeist period. But I'm finding as I go along that I'm less interested in the stuff already written. I'm seeing a whole new road to go down now musically and emotionally. And it involves a lot of guitars!
You have talked about the music being more psychedelic can you describe this?
Psych music is a state of mind. In my youth, the adults would get stoned and listen to Steely Dan or Pink Floyd. I would classify it as music that takes you on a trip.
Does this come from doing the Spirits in the Sky tour and re-releasing Strawberry Alarm Clock and Electric Prunes albums?
How did the Seeds influence you in a psychedelic way?
Sky Saxon influenced me as a mystic warrior for peace, love, and harmony. He was a great man.
You played in the Spirits in the Sky band in a tribute concert for the Seeds. Were you a huge Seeds fan? Ever meet Sky Saxon?
I worked with Sky on some of the last music he ever made. The Seeds were a great and very important band.
In dissecting songs by the Seeds, Electric Prunes, et al, does this inform your writing for SP?
How important were the Electric Prunes to you?
The Electric Prunes are arguably the most important and influential true American psychedelic band if you look at what existed before and after them. I have been a fan of the Prunes since 1986 and loved how their music had an emotional heaviness to it with really great songs.
You've brought in former Electric Prunes member Mark Tulin on bass. Have you talked to him about the Electric Prunes music?
I talk to Mark all the time about the past, because he saw all those great west coast bands in their prime, and in most cases played on bills with them. The Doors, The Byrds, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Love; all really important bands. I love to hear what it was like at that time of discovery. And yes, I am now an expert on Prunes history, fact and fiction.
You're a huge fan of those 60s types of psychedelic bands?
Yes; I have almost all the key psych bands music on vintage vinyl, and I also collect obscure singles as well.
What about a band like Quicksilver Messenger Service?
Quicksilver is one of those bands where the heart of what they do is so big everything they touch is magical.
Arthur Lee was one of the most talented people to ever make records anywhere ever. Like all great mystics, when he is on no one can touch him.
Love Spirit; criminally overlooked band.
How do you create a psychedelic texture in your music?
Distortion is ultimately the key: distortion of time and space and colour, with how you blur elements to create a kind of impressionistic picture of what you are trying to say. That and probably exotic atmospheres and rhythms.
Are there moments when you've created a wonderful piece of music and you can't find a lyric to match that level?
Oh yes, many times. It is really frustrating. I find tapes all the time where I think, How could I have not used that riff or chord change?
There are always more riffs than words. Words at some point are pretty limiting, especially words that must be sung, but music has an infinity in it that never gets old.
Will the songs get progressively more complex and orchestrated?
Can't say yet. It seems at this time to be moving towards more complex melodies and using more singular instrument approaches to create a more orchestral approach.
Or is it entirely random?
Nothing is random that involves Love/God/Truth.
Do you have any sense of how the last batch of songs might sound?
If you mean by the last, the last of the 44 I hope to finish, I would hope that by then I would have created a whole new exciting Smashing Pumpkins sound that is compatible with the old sound but is wholly different. I am definitely trying.
Can you see musically that far down the line?
I can already see where there will be an acoustic type period, and a very experimental period. Right now the stuff is just more rich but easily understood. I'd like to surprise myself by working with different approaches if I can find the time.
Without being disrespectful, how do you gauge the reaction to your music when the songs are offered for free?
You can't. The numbers aren't real. The real test will be four or five years from now when the work is fully assembled and released.
You have spoken about a holistic approach but the entire approach to the music business has always been based on album sales and chart numbers. Do you truly believe that by releasing these songs for free in this format that you might have some impact on the way music might be marketed in the future?
I think my influence in the world has little to do with the business side honestly, and much more to do with how one would approach and conceptualize music, words, and video. Artists are selfish, as they should be, so they will just jump on whatever works best for them.
After all the tracks have been made available for free, the music will be packaged as EPs and some sort of digital format?
The first EP comes out end of May. You can pre-order it as of April 17th with each EP probably arriving in the vicinity when the fourth song of that group is released.
"The evidence so far suggests that music has lost its moment. But I think that will change soon."
When it's all completed, there will be 11 four-song EPs made available?
The final box would hopefully be all 44 songs plus a DVD or two, and maybe some bits and pieces, themes, demos, pictures, and whatever else I can stuff in there. That will be sold and would then become the final 'album'. It's also possible then to just break the piece into say a single CD best of of the best of the 44 songs.
These songs are going to be constructed as a trio: Yourself, bassist Mark Tulin, and drummer Mike Byrne. Does that change the dynamic scope of the songs as opposed to the way you might write songs with a second guitarist?
That's not totally accurate. For example, the next song available, which is called Astral Planes, was played in our Spirits in the Sky band where the other guitarist was Dave Navarro. The way Dave and I interacted on the song definitely influenced how it was recorded. And one of the songs of the first four, Mark doesn't play on. The point being that each song is treated case by case, with no set rules of 'who plays on what', etc. It's really going to change a lot as it goes especially with us going on tour now.
You've brought in new drummer Mike Byrne what does he bring to the music that Jimmy Chamberlin didn't?
You can't compare the two yet because Mike is four years younger than Jimmy was when I first met him. Plus Mike had never even recorded in a studio before when he played on the first song. The great thing is they are both fantastic drummers with blistering hand speed.
Because you write songs in so many styles, the rhythm section must be critical to you. What do you look for in a rhythm section?
A good rhythm section has a language all its own that is distinctive yet works in tandem with the guitars and vocals. Almost like two parallel machines. Any great rhythm section has a way of making you have to move. You just can't stand still listening to Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, or Bonham and John Paul Jones. They force you to feel what they are feeling.
Song for a Son was the first song released. Is this meant to introduce the rest of the album?
Honestly didn't really think of that until it was coming out. So I guess it starts the long journey by, in some ways, connecting to the past.
There is a moving guitar solo on there and the tone is killer. Are you always looking to stretch yourself as a soloist?
I like to play solos one of two ways: made up on the spot or totally worked out bit for bit. Either way you should always top yourself I figure.
How is it different doing all the guitars yourself versus working with a second guitarist?
No difference; I had to do 99 per cent of all SP guitars in the old band anyway.
If you could have played any solo by any guitarist, what would it have been?
Hendrix on Machine Gun. Unreal!
Why that solo?
It is a political statement, that solo. Maybe the most important guitar solo of all time. Second would be Jimi doing Star Spangled Banner. Every guitar player should do their level best to try to get in Jimi's head. Amazing!
Can you talk about some of the other musicians on the album?
Kerry Brown, my mate, plays some conga; Yvanne Spevack on violin on Stitch. That's it so far.
Will you bring in musicians as necessary for each song?
I would love to have some of my favourite guitarists on this album if they'd be up for it: Ritchie Blackmore, the best! Robin Trower, the coolest! Leslie West, the meanest and most heartfelt! Eddie Van Halen, the mad hatter!
Widow Wake My Mind incorporates a couple of different movements. It is very subtly complex.
When you have a song with only one key change, you have to cheat dynamics!
There is Hammond and piano on this one. Can you talk about these different instruments, guitars and effects on this?
The chorus of Widow Wake My Mind has nine different instruments playing different parts. It's a crazy mess in there; very tough to mix. But I didn't want to just play the chords. So there are no rhythm guitars on the whole song.
Will there be a certain thread of specific guitar tones throughout the songs?
No, but right now I am really enjoying using old Marshalls, like my Super Tremelo from maybe '71, and the Randy Rhoads Marshall custom model with a Dallas Arbiter Line Driver. I'm very much after a guitar sound you would have heard a lot between 1968 and 1976: pure and very physical.
You will experiment with new sounds for each track?
Every song gets a unique approach. Honestly. It's very time consuming but I love trying to come up with new ways to communicate the crazy sound in my head.
What new effects and guitars have you been messing around with?
I use new pedals but from people trying to top old school ideas. But most of my effects are rare and vintage ones.
Has the evolution of studios (Pro Tools; digital boards; et al) improved your ability to translate guitar sounds to record?
I really dislike the way electric guitar sounds in Pro Tools; I still think it messes with the distortion signature. That's why I still use tape. I saw something recently where Tom Scholz of Boston was talking about that as well. Almost all of the new SP is off analog tape. 16-track!
You have your own record label did that come about out of necessity or simple desire?
The record label is up in the air.
Do you ever wish you could have made music back in the 60s?
Yes; it seems like a fantastic time to make music. But I really was made for these times.
Do you ever feel like you were born out of time?
If I was to choose, I would have preferred to have been born in the 1920's.
What is Fancy Space People?
Fancy Space People is a band that is anchored by Don Bowles of the Germs and Nora, a beautiful woman who sings somewhere between a lost angel and a confessing demon.
"I'm seeing a whole new road to go down now musically and emotionally. And it involves a lot of guitars!"
You've mentioned bands like Black Sabbath and Rainbow as representing touchstone classic rock bands. Many bands have copied them. Do you have any sense that Smashing Pumpkins might represent a touchstone band for a lot of newer bands?
I hear echoes of my band in lots of places, and in almost every case I am very flattered. Our band is not always easy to spot the influence in because we had so many different types of songs.
You've graced the covers of many guitar magazines and yet you've come across as the reluctant guitar hero is that an accurate observation?
I believe I am a bit embarrassed at times because I don't practice like I should, or did when I was younger. At some point I shifted my focus to songwriting and let my guitar playing become more of a raw expression of the way I was feeling. I don't consider myself to be anywhere near the top of the greats, but I do believe I have crafted a unique style that has had a very wide influence on what has happened sonically with the guitar since the early 90's. I stole a lot of that from Tony Iommi so he should get the lion's share of the credit. I am a humble person at heart but when it comes to guitar I am an assassin. Not by chops, but by stealth.
Would you trade your songwriting abilities to play guitar like Dime?
Dimebag was unbelievable. How he did what he did while laughing blew my mind!!! Dime is Dime, may he rest in peace. There will only be one of him ever and that's the way it should be. All I've ever wanted to do is figure out my own deal. The guitar playing ended up being a big piece of a bigger picture that involved so many other talents; many I didn't know I had when I started.
You are working with producers Bjorn Thorsrud and Kerry Brown what do they bring out in your music?
Both Bjorn and Kerry are skilled at getting me to admit to what I'm really trying to do. And then helping me achieve that in a way that doesn't destroy the song.
Can you talk at all about the upcoming tracks? Any titles?
No. Fans read too much into what I say or don't. I'm enjoying living in the moment with each song as it comes out. All I'll say is, I think songs five thru eight are better than the first four.
This seems like it's an incredibly complex and creatively demanding project. Is it?
Yes! But I love it. I think its one of the most fun things I've ever tried. I'm having a great time.
What do you hope to achieve with Teargarden by Kaleidyscope?
Teargarden is either a really long hello or a really drawn out goodbye. I'll go with hello for now.
Would you mind providing a brief overview of the following albums and how they stand up for you all these years later:
Gish: Very innocent in many ways, which is where its charm comes from. The songs are interesting but it's the chemistry of the guitars versus the drums that still works for me.
Adore: Gaining in importance year by year. An album I still haven't made total peace with but it has everything to do with my happiness today.
Zeitgeist: Too soon. Very dark!
Interview by Steven Rosen
"Words at some point are pretty limiting, especially words that must be sung, but music has an infinity in it that never gets old."