Billy Corgan: The smashed pumpkin

The trouble with selling 25 million records is the fallout. Billy Corgan tells Fiona Sturges about the human cost of stardom
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The Independent Culture

Billy Corgan is, by reputation, not what you'd call a people person. The former leader of the Smashing Pumpkins takes himself and his art extremely seriously. In the past, would-be interviewers have been rejected on the grounds of being too young or too stupid. Journalists shouldn't take it personally, though, since erstwhile colleagues have confessed to similar experiences. Sharon Osbourne, recruited as the Pumpkins' manager in 1999, quit after three months for medical reasons. Corgan, she said, "was making me sick".

So it is something of a surprise to be introduced to a relaxed and amiable individual who claims - at least where the press is concerned - to have turned over a new leaf. He is here to promote his first solo effort TheFutureEmbrace, a disarmingly intimate album that finds the singer grappling with the ghosts of his past. During his last round of interviews he refused to talk about anything other than the album he was publicising, but today it seems anything is up for discussion, from his tormented childhood and battles with depression to the best way to cook an egg (he's eating breakfast when we meet). So what's changed?

"There was always this attacking feeling," Corgan says of previous encounters with the press. "It was kill or be killed. I don't know if it's just getting older or that interviews are more conversational now. Whichever, I don't have that end-of-the-world feeling anymore."

TheFutureEmbrace has been a long time coming. Corgan started writing songs within weeks of the Pumpkins' split in late 2000, though he was sidetracked by Zwan, the band he formed with the Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and the ex-Slint guitarist Dave Pajo. In Corgan's mind, Zwan was meant to be a bit of fun, but instead he found himself criticised for taking over and becoming the star of the show.

"I was so naïve," he recalls. "I thought I could just be the guy in the band. Even on stage I withdrew. I didn't want to be out front - I didn't need the criticism or the credit - but it was never going to work out that way. It's like Bowie with Tin Machine. When you think about it it's just stupid. It's David Bowie. People wanted him to be David Bowie, not just another guy with a guitar."

Much has been made of Corgan's perceived arrogance and control freakery over the years. The fact that he's no longer on speaking terms with three out of four of his ex-Pumpkins band mates would suggest that conflict is part of the Corgan package.

"I've always been a whatever-it-takes kind of guy," Corgan reflects. "I grew up with team sports, and the whole concept is that it's teamwork. If someone's weak, you cover for them. Being the guy who took over in the Pumpkins was out of necessity. But it wasn't like I had some Teutonic master plan. I'd calculate that I was doing 82 per cent of the work but I wasn't getting 82 per cent of the money or 82 per cent of the credit."

Released in 1991, the Pumpkins' debut album, Gish, a powerful amalgam of Goth rock and Seventies psyche-delia, saw the band categorised with the alternative rock acts who stood in opposition to mainstream rock's self-regarding excess. Yet the Pumpkins went on to become among the most successful bands of the decade, selling 25 million albums. Their 1996 album Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness sold 10 million copies.

At the peak of their popularity, however, the Pumpkins' fortunes took a turn for the worse. Months after a fan was crushed to death at a concert in Dublin, their touring keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin died from a drug overdose. Chamberlin, who had an escalating heroin problem, had been unconscious at the scene and was subsequently fired from the band. Later that year, the Pumpkins released their fourth album, Adore, to disappointing sales.

He believes now that the Pumpkins should have called it a day after Chamberlin left and when the band were commercially still on top. "If you could rewrite your personal history, that would have been the thing to do," he states. "But it would have been unfathomable to abandon the other people in the band. I had to go down with the ship."

In fact, Corgan surprised many this week by taking out an advert in the Chicago Tribune, saying that he had "made plans to renew and revive the Smashing Pumpkins". In the meantime, he has been busy with other projects. In 2003, he published a volume of poetry, Blinking with Fists, which featured in The New York Times's bestseller list. Now he's pouring his energy into his autobiography, The Confessions of Billy Corgan, and chapters are being posted on his website (www.billycorgan.com). He is currently chronicling his early childhood; it makes for revealing and often distressing reading.

Asked why he has chosen to do to this now, he replies: "I'm trying to heal something. It's got these other components because I'm basically outing people so there's obvious anger there. When you're complicit in things that are hurtful, in some ways you take on the mantle of shame. I had to ask myself why I was still hiding all this."

The son of teenage parents, Corgan grew up in the Chicago suburbs. His mother and father separated when he was four and, after his mother's committal to a mental institution, he was shunted between assorted relatives until adulthood. By his early teens, Corgan was seeking refuge in music and, after listening in on his neighbour playing electric guitar in his garage, resolved to start a band. The next instalment of the autobiography, he says, will cover the period between the ages of five and 18. "This is stuff I haven't told anybody. It involves everything from starvation to being beaten in the middle of the night for no reason, crazy shit which I'm sure a lot of people go through." He pauses, then continues: "If you could stop your life like a VCR and say, 'OK, what's caused me the most pain?', for me, the wounds of being beaten is one thing; my covering up and taking it on myself as if it were my fault, that's worse."

Yet, even with these childhood wounds, Corgan maintains that he reached his lowest ebb in 1997, when his mother died of cancer. "I had this strange epiphany recently where I realised I had been in mourning all this time," he explains. "Since I didn't grow up with her she always existed as this presence. I was connected to her as a human being but never as a son. I didn't really feel like I had a mother, and of course that's reared it's head in relationships with women. Freud believed that every psyche had a bullet in it, and if you could take the bullet out you healed whatever was making you sick. For me the concept of the mother was my bullet."

Corgan has had plenty of therapy in which he has endeavoured to thrash out his childhood issues. This decision to unburden himself is, it seems, a way to make himself less distant in the eyes of his fans. He describes writing, and talking, about his experiences as "simultaneously liberating and intimidating".

'TheFutureEmbrace' is out now on WEA

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