I was expecting a sullen Nosferatu in a high black turtleneck and an elaborate hoop skirt to pop up on my screen that morning in late January. Billy Corgan’s reputation as a daunting and argumentative interview precedes him (“I was always told I was the second-toughest interview behind Lou Reed. It’s a great compliment,” he would proudly divulge during our chat). But instead, sitting across from me through the vast tunnel of Zoom was a rather genial William Patrick Corgan, wearing an off-license kelly green Chicago Cubs baseball hat pulled down low on his head, a black sweatshirt with white script (no, it did not say ZERO), a faint hint of a blond mustache and accompanying beard, and an impish smile that played on his lips. His posture was perfect, none of that tall-man slouch people always mention, and he was constantly in motion, whether biting his clean white nails, taking off his cap and replacing it, or gesturing with his sturdy-looking hands, which seemed to have a will of their own—always at the ready to illustrate some smart point—alternately looking like he is palming a basketball or explaining an aggressive cold front in front of an invisible TV weather map. He possesses a grave sort of beauty, or maybe just an attractive menacing allure; at 55, the Smashing Pumpkins leader has grown into his looks. Details magazine wrote in 1996, “Billy is the kind of guy whom other men mistakenly regard as homely, and whom women of all ages immediately want to meet.” I was pleased to finally do so.
One of rock’s bigger thinkers, he is intimidatingly intelligent, an autodidact, like Benjamin Franklin, Frida Kahlo, Gustave Eiffel, and Iggy Pop, which accounts for the fully realized three-act sci-fi thriller-cum-album Atum, released at 11-week intervals and explained in great depth on his weekly podcast 33. All master numbers in numerology, because if anything, Billy Corgan is relentlessly metaphysical. For well past our allotted time together, I was given free rein to pick his brain in a wild and wayward discussion on rebirth, revenge, soulmates, and how Gene Simmons tried to pick up his stepmother.
Jaan Uhelszki: I think the role of the rock star, when it really works, is to be a wayshower for us. When I grew up, it was that whole idea of: They teach us how to live. They go first and leave a trail for us in the lyrics. Anyways, I’m gonna shut up...
Billy Corgan: I’m happy to listen to you talk, honestly.
Well, what do you see your job as?
That’s a fantastic question. I really don’t know anymore. Because I grew up in a world where your value was established in commercial success, and we’ve seen an erosion of that—which is fine, systems change. And I’m fine with systems changing, I just don’t think it’s been replaced with anything. So there’s been an erosion of the ability of the rock star to gather energy. No matter how great the artist is, without the energy of the crowd, you don’t hit that zeitgeist moment. It can’t happen. It really is this beautiful alchemy between the audience and the artist, that’s when the magic is truly possible.
Yes, it’s a spiritual exchange. Early on I did a CREEM piece where I got on stage with KISS and dressed up like them, and I experienced firsthand what you guys feel every night, that wah-wah-wah, it accelerates something in you. Your molecules go faster...
Yeah, one of the hardest things on stage is to modulate your adrenaline.
Do you feel like you're here to show us something? I've listened to your podcast 33 about your new album Atum, and if I wanted to get astrological, I’d say you’re working your big planets. Your goals have altered, you speak of community a lot. Has there been a change in what you’re here for?
I’m honestly struggling for an answer, but I do want to answer your question because it’s a fantastic one. I think I’m in sort of the pied-piper position at this point. I’m not sure who I’m leading, and where I’m leading them to... [Laughs] But I’m leading somebody somewhere.
I’m very comfortable with being the pied piper, and I’m very comfortable if the pied-piper crowd is five or 5 million. I don’t really care anymore, which is what I alluded to earlier: comparing value against known numbers or systems. We live in a world now where it’s easier to talk about the idea of somebody’s influence, and that people who are not necessarily high-profile can have a tremendous influence on what happens.
On a spiritual level, I feel like I’m still figuring out what God’s asking me to do. There’s a pragmatic component, which is, I feel I want to get out as much music while I still can and care to. Where those two things meet is a very uncomfortable space for me. As far as the issue of community, I really like that you said that. I’m not a punk rock person—I’m much more into Thin Lizzy—but the promise of the DIY punk ethos was this idea of “Hey, you can be in the band too." It's this idea of anybody can be a star, and it's okay to be in the audience, and it's okay to be on stage.
Everyone can have an effect.
To jump in sideways, because I came up through alternative music and DIY community, I kept saying, “Well, why can’t I do my own version of this?” A very influential conversation I had somewhere in the early ’90s was with Courtney Love—when she was with Kurt, so we were just friends at this point. I was bemoaning my lack of place in the rock pantheon and she said, “But you don’t have an archetype that registers with them. Kurt’s the Greek-god quarterback that everyone wants to be. I’m the bad girl. Eddie Vedder’s the ‘Who, me? How did I get here?’ guy. Like, who the fuck are you?” I said, “I’m the anti- of the anti-.” And she said, “But that doesn’t exist. There’s no one in your model.” And I was like, “Yeah, so what?” Like, I don’t care about that. And I think that, over time, stubbornly I’ve put that model in the ground, and you see more of my model now than ever.
You know, Courtney and I were talking about lyrics once, and I consider her a great lyricist. Her reading of Shakespeare, it’s in her lyrics. She’s a big Shakespearean devotee. So she basically said, “Well, your lyrics on Gish are a bunch of hippy shit,” y’know, bad LSD-trip poetry. And I said, “Yeah, okay.” I’ll own that kind of thing. And she said, “I don’t understand why the person I talk to on the phone can’t write the lyrics for your band.” It was like being seen completely naked. The way she said it, it was a compliment in a criticism, which is what most critiques should be.
Well, you don’t strike me as the type to take advice. On your podcast you talked about your friend Lisa Marie Presley. I’m so sorry for your loss...
You talked about how you don’t often find a tribe because you’re in rarefied air. Famous people are different because people see them differently, so you’re always isolated by the job description. So it’s hard to have civilian friends anyway...
Do you want me to speak on that? Is there a question there?
Well, do you often take advice?
I’m one of those stubborn personalities who wants to learn how to do it myself. I don’t always think it’s an admirable quality. As far as listening, it’s only certain people I listen to.
You didn’t take advice about Atum. Apparently your bandmates weren’t initially that impressed with the idea of it, but that didn’t stop you. So let’s talk about it, the fully realized saga and the 33 songs. From what I’ve gathered by listening to your podcast, it’s the story of Shiny, a rock star whose persona was so dangerous to the government that they exiled him to space. When we meet him he’s been orbiting Earth for the past 20 years, but then he’s followed into the stratosphere by a sort of groupie/fan named June. She believes the two of them share an important destiny that will change the course of life on Earth. Having said that, can we talk about June? You wrote this just over the past few years, but there’s a song called “By June” from really early in your career. Can you tell me why June keeps showing up in your work?
I have no idea. I wrote that song in ’89 and it just became like its own little plant. People would ask me, “Who is June?” And I would say, “Who cares?” It’s another girl, you know? I think for me over time it became the idealized other that I never found.
Who cares? I care! Tom Petty once told me he always thought the woman who kept showing up in his songs was probably himself. Could this be something similar?
A really gifted astrologer who was very psychic once told me everybody wants the same thing: They want to know if they’ve got a soulmate. She said, “You actually have a soulmate, but you’re not going to meet them until really late in your life. So you’re going to go through your whole life asking, ‘Where is this person, who is this person, why isn’t this person here?’ But they’re out there and eventually you will find them and they will find you. But until then you just have to sort of figure it out.”
That’s certainly intriguing. Or maybe you’re your own soulmate. Maybe you’re June.
That’s probably true. I won’t meet me until the end.
Back to Atum, though. What are you really taking on with this story?
It was my grappling with—oh man, it’s been a long journey—with the technocratic society that’s coming, or here, that is now becoming even more depersonalized. And it will be AI systems deciding appropriate speech, appropri- ate creativity. And whether it’s people trying to cancel podcasts or people’s music off of Spotify, we see this erosion of what was the gold standard in American society, which was: free speech, in glittering letters. That’s gone. And now we’re into feelings, and facts don’t matter. So I’m sort of grappling with that, because as a Piscean, I’m willing to take on both sides of the argument. And I get the idea of safety, I get the idea of not attacking people, as somebody who’s been heavily bullied. So it’s my way of grappling with the idea of being canceled, but more on an existential level. Which gets into human value, back to the idea of an individual voice.
Historically, tribes will attack the most outlying personality. A family unit will pick on the black sheep, with the idea that if the black sheep can be exiled, everything will be okay. And then once they do that they start looking for the next black sheep; it’s just human nature. As somebody who’s always been that personality, long before there was a band, I’m very sensitive to that. Because I know eventually they’re gonna come for me, and more than likely they’re gonna invent reasons that don’t have anything to do with reality. I know that’s a rambling way to answer that...
No, I’ve got a ton of Pisces in my chart, so I can slow-dance with you here. I think that’s your superpower as the outlier, the person who’s always polarized. The abuse—and trying to overcome the ramifications of it—causes you to be a perfectionist, to always strive, to keep pushing that rock up the hill. Because there’s always someone out there telling you you’re not good enough. It’s fostered incredible creativity and output for you.
The most haunting part of abuse is you forever want to know who you would have been without it. You can put a fractured vase back together, but you still see the crack lines. My way of dealing with abuse was to create distance between my creativity, or my inner child, and the harshness of the world outside. So for the outside world I presented a harder, more crass exterior to, in opposition, create a more supine and gentle atmosphere within. And where I’ve been able to establish equilibrium in that, I’ve been very successful as a person and as an artist. But you can’t spend all your energy creating an outer shell and then catering to a beautiful muse of a mind that is incapable of dealing with day-to-day reality, because butterflies and rainbows are not the solution to every problem.
I was totally shocked by how vulnerable you let yourself be on your podcast. Was there any fear that you were going to say too much, that you’d regret being so open?
I don’t go back and read old press, pretty much ever. But for some reason I’d gone back a few years ago and read a 1993 interview when we were on the cover of Rolling Stone. And I was shocked at how, at such an early stage of public visibility, the narrative had already congealed that I was a kind of angry Svengali. And that gave me a level of compassion for understanding why I navigated the ’90s the way I did: It was either accept or fight. And the fighting worked as long as I had hegemony over the market. But once you lose that position...
Then with the rise of the Pitchfork crowd, it became more about them saying, “Well, this is how I feel. It has nothing to do with history. It doesn’t even have to do with success. I don’t even have to register your success as having any qualification in my world.” So then you enter a period of erasure. Having survived negation before the band, negation in the early stages of the band, and erasure in the early 2000s, the process of that has created someone who’s really quite free, because I’m not beholden to anybody. I’ve already suffered all the downsides of that type of attack. At this point I’m just playing into confirmation bias: If I talk about myself, people who don’t like me will just plug their ears back up. But for people who are actually listening, they’re able to chart a particular journey that’s coming into a softer, gentler place. There’s a story that girds underneath that journey that maybe has a little more depth than you would see if you just looked it up on Wikipedia.
At some point what you create takes on its own energy, and then the real thing is no longer relevant. In fact, it’s kind of in the way. Spinning it to Elvis for a second, because I had intimate knowledge through Lisa [Marie Presley], and she allowed me to understand Elvis the human being, Elvis the father. It was a tremendous gift to be able to understand that this titanic, creative, mercurial person—to see the normal person at the root of it? It actually made Elvis bigger in my mind. She broke snow-globe Elvis for me and showed me the three-dimensional, “holy fuck” Elvis. The human mind wants to reduce things we don’t understand to the snow globe, but the real Elvis is a fucking mind-blower.
On the podcast you’re taking your own personality, your own humanness, in hand and showing it, so rather than just being the snow-globe Billy Corgan, you’re more of a living, breathing person in the natural world. Because before, the construct was: the Prince of Darkness. The guy who’s a little scary. You were considered a little frightening to interview.
I think the meta take of it all is this dismantling of a convenient star culture, which KISS weaponized in a fun way and Bowie weaponized in a completely different way. And they both rose and fell because of it, and now they’re celebrated for it. But they also had to deal with it when it stopped working, when KISS had to take off the makeup and Bowie started just wearing button-down shirts instead of being the guy with the red hair and all that stuff. I’m not taking credit for this [idea], it’s just a dismantling of it.
But you’re doing it willfully and humanely...
Well, it is revenge, don’t misunderstand. [Laughs] There is revenge in the middle of that.
If you really think about the star system—I’m fascinated with Old Hollywood, I’ve read probably 40 books on it—the idea was, “We can take Gladys from Iowa City, and if we can airbrush her, get her the right haircut, the right eyebrows, and properly position her, she can be a star.” And they did it! But then that system broke apart, and you get the more auteur class [in film]. Rock has been slower developmentally, because rock was able to—especially at its greatest commercial heights—weaponize the star into a set of values that weren’t real. And then the press celebrated the idea that, like, “Johnny Thunders is on heroin all day and never eats eggs.”
So that’s all breaking down, but it hasn’t been replaced by anything. The hipsters broke it all apart with a crassness, they poked holes in it, but what did they replace it with? Taylor Swift. Beyoncé. They didn’t replace it with Kurt Cobain Jr. They took literally the enemy of the artistic class, the pop star...well, put it this way: Only the rarest of rarest of pop stars was afforded the dignity of getting respect from the artistic class. You had to be fucking epic, where people would go, “Oh, Madonna, she’s all right.” Otherwise, they’re the fucking enemy. So the crass class came in and started breaking it all apart, as they probably should have, but they didn’t replace it with anything.
I know eventually they’re gonna come for me
So, selfishly speaking, where does that leave someone who truly believes in the power of rock ’n’ roll? Who believes in Phil Lynott 100 times more than I would ever believe in a pop star. It’s not even fucking close. Can I respect somebody for their game? Sure. But I’ll take Phil Lynott every fucking day of the week because he fucking brought his heart to that fucking stage. Or to quote the [Stones] lyric, “If I could stick my pen in my heart/And spill it all over the stage.” I mean, people like Steve Marriott and Phil Lynott fucking did it and they inspired people like me to get up out of the suburbs and make something of themselves. And Lou, and David. So I go to the heart and the spirit because that’s the one thing you can’t mess with.
So what’s the revenge factor for you?
Well, I’m right! [Laughs]
But even in the rightness, it’s probably not going to go back to any of those templates that created the music we love, that we connect with. Maybe we’re just gonna get aged out. We’re gonna die, and what will they have? Will there be a revolution that’s the anti-Beyoncé, the anti–Taylor Swift, the anti–Harry Styles?
Oh, it’s coming. We just don’t see it yet. I do think you see it with somebody like Harry Styles, where there’s a greater consciousness that the value system isn’t just on the pop side of the equation. I don’t know Harry Styles, but my guess is that he respects and reveres David Bowie as much as he respects and reveres, I don’t know, Robbie Williams.
I’m less focused on whether or not they’re doing it for the right reasons. I’m more focused on an audience that wants to be fooled. I’m talking about a willful subjugation of the human spirit in a commercial exchange where I know I am literally making you feel less than and me greater than in order for me to win and you to lose. We relied on the deeper ethos of the Lester Bangs generation to say, “The Velvet Underground are more capable than Led Zeppelin,” or whatever. At least there was some sort of beautiful balance there that produced a lot of great music that we’re still listening to, because there’s a sort of reach in it.
Jimmy Chamberlain has been back in the Smashing Pumpkins since 2007, and when James Iha came back to the band in 2018, you almost had the founding lineup back together. You’ve said that the band has matured intuitively and skillfully, and that this version is as good as it’s ever been. Can you talk a little bit about where you’re at artistically and in terms of what you see as your own heart-centric work? Couldn’t you have done it without breaking up the band in 2000?
I think I had to let the band die. When I broke up the band in 2000, people wouldn’t let it go, they wouldn’t let me move on. I didn’t replace it with anything, so it became this shadow. Then I picked it back up and I was like, “Well, it’s my shadow, I’m going to run the shadow.” Between 2005 and 2017 or so, that was my sort of yoke. Then I just...I reached the end of it. There was no more band, there was no more anything, it was just, like, “What am I doing? This is not who I am, this is not my life. I’m living with something I can’t even define anymore.” It was that process of death that somehow opened up the space to “Oh, there’s this other chapter.” Jimmy came back, James eventually came back, and then even when I said, “Okay, let’s pick up the mantle of creativity again here,” there was resistance [among the former members] because it was like, “Oh, that’s just too much inner work, too much energy.” I said, “I don’t care.” So I just started charting my own path. I don’t have to be right and they’re wrong. They get out of it what they need, I get out of it what I need. It was sort of reaching a point of, “I’m okay with what I do and I’m okay with what you do or don’t do. It’s all fine.”
I think I had to let the band die
I was fascinated with your analysis of your family dynamic on the podcast when you talked about how your ancestors were smart, suspicious, and dark, and how even that awareness didn’t lead you to overcome your heredity or try to correct that, but it confirmed that you were destined to be ostracized because of these things.
I think the deepest work that we do in life is the family story. There’s a belief in the spiritual community that you can not only heal present and forwards but you can heal backwards. I once had a conversation with Bono where he talked about the concept in the Bible of sins of the father and how generational trauma extends back into the family and that part of what the child tries to do is fix the family backwards, not just forwards. I think it’s very powerful because if you think, like, what’s the greatest way you can honor your family? You can stop their bullshit. Like if your ancestors are in heaven looking down at you they would be like, “Please don’t do what I did wrong.” They would want to bless you and they would hope that you don’t make the same mistakes they made.
I agree, the best you can do as a parent is to not make the same mistakes your own parents did. Although we make different mistakes.
That’s the challenge. Part of my way of healing the family story is creating an opportunity for my children in the world where when they say the Corgan name it will mean something in a positive light and not be like, “Oh yeah, your dad is that mean guy.” Think of poor Lisa and how many times she had to encounter somebody talking about “fat Elvis.” Not “Elvis the fucking god.” She had to navigate all that, knowing full well that her dad was a genius.
But backwards into healing the family story of, like, how did we get here? My father told me repeatedly through-out my life, and even after I became famous, that who I was, was not a good idea. That it was counterintuitive to whatever it was I was going after. I would say, “Daddy, I’m not capable of changing that and I’m certainly not going to change it now.”
It’s sweet that you called him “Daddy.” I always hated that I retired “Daddy.” My father always prefaced everything with “If you were smart you would...” It certainly wasn’t being a rock writer.
I was talking to a journalist once and it was just a general riff on the damage that’s gone on with me publicly through the years. They asked that inevitable question that they do when you have children: “Do you think your son will become a musician?” I said, “Well, if my son does become a musician and a rock star, he’s going to be me without the damage. Be careful encountering me in an alley without the damage. You’ve dealt with me as this twisted hunk of metal who’s been able to kind of navigate and endure. Me without the damage is frightening.” And I see it in my kid. There’s times when I look at my kid—both of them—and I’m like, “Jesus, this is what it’s supposed to look like.”
I have to ask about the wrestling, it’s just too good. You own something called the National Wrestling Alliance?
The NWA, yeah. I think that’s one of those weird guy things of, like, I want a challenge. Like, I’m going to go out in the woods for seven days and shoot a bow and arrow or something, you know what I mean? Like, why the fuck do I need that challenge? [Laughs]
Did you ever wrestle?
No, no, never. I was very athletic when I was a kid, but wrestling wasn’t part of what I did. I loved wrestling on television, but I was never involved physically. I think I just found this kind of weird, very American subculture that intuitively I was like, “I’m actually pretty good at this for some ungodly reason.”
Good at what part?
I think just understanding the archetypal inner language.
My grandmother used to take me to wrestling as a kid.
What year would that have been around?
She probably started taking me in about ’61.
That’s the golden era of Big Time Wrestling. Did you used to go to Cobo Hall [in Detroit] and see the Sheik and all that?
By the way, that’s NWA too.
One of my first pieces when I was at journalism school was to cover a wrestling match, and I took Lester Bangs with me. I was slammed at work and he asked me if I wanted him to write it. Lester got me a B minus on that paper.
[In buying the NWA,] it was the idea of putting yourself in a completely different discipline where the skill set that you have from the other discipline has some application but not a lot. Basically, can you survive and thrive in a completely different atmosphere with a completely different set of dynamics, go!
And when did you know that it worked?
I don’t know! [Laughs] Wrestling is a very easy entry point as a business, but only one person has ever succeeded at it and that’s Vince McMahon. Everybody else has failed at it.
Well, you certainly bring attention to it because of your celebrity.
Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword. As a business model I’m still working on it and I’m approaching it very asymmetrically.
You have to go outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself sometimes.
Here’s our way to end, since we were talking about KISS today. My stepmother was a stewardess, and somewhere in my junk I have autographs from a few of the KISS guys, but from the ’70s, like ’77 or something, when they were at their peak. Because my stepmother met them on a plane, and my stepmother was very attractive, so Gene was trying to pick her up.
I love that.
So I’ve got these autographs from when I’m, like, 10 years old because Gene was trying to pick up my stepmother on a plane. That’s when they were still in the makeup, so I said, “What does he look like?” y’know? Because he was the Demon. She said, “Oh, he’s just a normal-looking dude.” In my mind, I couldn’t...it was so mysterious, like, “What do they look like?” And CREEM played with that, right?
Oh, I fought for KISS to be in CREEM. That was one of my greatest accomplishments here. Because I loved them from the first. There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.
Well, I remember them in CREEM because of you.
Okay, last question: If you weren’t a musician, what would you have done?
Been a psychologist, I think.
Or a pied piper.