20 Oct 2017

Who is the real Billy Corgan?

From RNZ Music, 1:30 pm on 20 October 2017
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Photo: Paul Elledge

If fifteen year old me had known that future me would one day interview Billy Corgan, I would have had butterflies in my belly for twenty two years.

His band Smashing Pumpkins were at the core of the nineties grunge movement which rocketed into the mainstream, bringing with it bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

His outspoken public persona in recent years has seen him face criticism from fans and foes alike. He's also opened his own wrestling franchise.

Corgan's second solo album is called OGILALA and is being released under his full given name – William Patrick Corgan. He's toned down the distortion pedals he was formerly renowned for, instead opting for an intimate, acoustic aesthetic.

All my life I’ve known you as Billy Corgan and now for the first time you are releasing music as William Patrick Corgan. 

It sounds so ominous, doesn’t it? Let me get my chauffeur to pull over.

The true story is a few years back I started asking my friends and my family – with half a wink, to call me by my real name because Billy started to sound a bit strange to me after all these years. When I was young I was Bill because my father was Billy so I was really only Billy between the ages of nineteen and forty-something.

Somehow the American press picked up on the idea that I was changing my name back to my real name and it turned into this weird clickbait thing like I was having this sort of weird mental breakdown as they like to do here with me in America. Once I saw that I was just like, I’m going to keep doing this because … it’s too fun.

The press have a little bit of fun with you from time to time, don’t they?

The great news is they give me ten percent of all the clickbait that I generate.

You must be a millionaire.

I’ve built an empire from all the beautiful negativity. 

This is a very different album for you… William. There’s no distortion, no percussion. In a time where technology has utterly embedded itself into music, you’ve made a record that's completely the antithesis of that. Is that a deliberate choice? Are you making a point?

No. Actually, the album I was doing before this, which I abandoned, was going to be a Smashing Pumpkins album. I was actually trying to make more of a modern music and I lost my mind. I just said I can’t do this. So I ended up finding myself with nothing to do and thinking, "Well what would I like to do?" and so I started making music with no idea that I would ever release it or that Rick Rubin would be involved.

I had no idea, I literally just started writing songs on my old trusty acoustic guitar and now here I am. Totally unexpected.

In 1998 you made an album called ‘Adore’ about the grief of losing your mother, which was something many people missed because they were so busy talking about the aural aesthetic of the album. Do you fear that happening again?

No, not at all. I think when you’ve survived as long as I have in the music whatever it’s called … I don’t know that I’d call it a business, you learn that you don’t live and die on every album.

There’s a bigger story to be told and as long as you can stay focused on that you can really appreciate that every album is more of a celebration that you’re able to turn the page. But that one page is not going to define you.

I think that’s when you actually start to have real freedom because you’re not beholden to other people's ideas of what success is. 

And it’s not reactionary on every song or every album. You have more of an overview of your entire career in context, I totally understand that.

Yeah, I actually think me being reactionary has caused me a lot of problems. It’s not a good look. Just because you think you’re winning an argument doesn’t mean you are.

You know the music business survives on one thing and one thing only and that’s success. Moral victories don’t mean anything. It’s like if we’d only scored the last goal we would have won the championship, no one cares about that. Second place doesn’t mean anything.

What I’m saying is, it’s like you really have to have your own narrative. For me as a songwriter to still be doing something that people like all these years down the road that feels very satisfying. 

Speaking about survival in the music industry, it's Mental Health Awareness week in New Zealand and it’s the one year anniversary of the New Zealand Music Foundation’s Wellbeing Service, which provides support specifically to people in the music industry.

You’ve spoken openly about battles with depression through your life. And one of the things that struck me after Chris Cornell was that no one is immune from that. Age and status aren’t defences against serious depression. Are you in a good place William?

Yeah, I had a son, he’s almost two years old now. I wouldn’t say he’s changed my life but he’s certainly smartened up my priorities. And yeah, life’s very good. I’m blessed, happy and feel really good.

It’s a huge issue in the music business though isn’t it and perhaps it’s because  as you were saying, in the music business you’re either at the top or you’re nothing.

Yeah it’s a very difficult business and I say this with humility, it’s the same reason we go to the movies, we like the fantasy and we don’t always want to hear what the fantasy costs. Right now in the news, there’s this massive sexual abuse scandal going on in Hollywood and you’re hearing these horrible stories about these vulnerable young women or somebody in their thirties who's put in this position.

Power and the seedy side of Hollywood that you hear whispered about and you know it’s there, but you don’t always know where it’s coming from. It’s very very difficult because you know it’s not always an easy thing to do to turn to the public and say ‘hey can you suspend your fantasy for a minute, let me tell you about the real cost of being on tour.

Let me tell you about the real cost this rock and roll dream has had on my life.’

When I was younger I had a hard time understanding why people weren’t more empathetic and they would always say, ‘Well you’re lucky.’ and I would always think, "What does that mean? Lucky? What because somebody’s stalking me? Because I had to call the police or something?"

I had a hard time wrapping my head around it and what I learned over time was that they were right – I am lucky. And it’s not always meant to be public what the struggle is, because in essence in an equitable way everybody struggles.   Like you were saying before, everybody goes through struggles, everybody goes through depression and trying to tell somebody that my struggle is more valuable or more deep than yours or the next person, that’s where it gets a bit weird.

So you have to walk an interesting line where you have to be yourself, you have to know who you are in the business and you can’t let the weirdness of the business get to you and at the same time you can’t expect people to understand because it’s probably very very hard for them to relate to what the business is like from the inside out.

We don’t like our stars to complain, do we? We don’t think it’s fair. 

No, listen, and again I say this with humility for someone who has complained a lot and I have complained a lot, it’s not a good look. It’s not becoming. It’s not graceful. That’s one thing that I’ve tried to do is get off of that.

I could sit here for hours and go on about how I was ‘right’ but it’s just not a good look. I really am, and I mean this truly, I’m lucky, I’m blessed to have these opportunities. To still be putting out albums at this point in my life and have people care, I feel really really lucky and really really grateful.

I can’t thank people enough for supporting me all these years. I’ve totally come around some other corner where I really appreciate it and I’m almost embarrassed that I didn’t appreciate it more in other times when it was just as good or better.

I hear the wisdom, William.

[laughs] Is there a weaker word than wisdom? Like intelligence?

I hear mild wisdom.

There you go. Thank you.

You’ve admitted to becoming at times a character within your own public image and persona and I’m sure that you’ve accentuated or overstated certain parts of your personality. Do you think the world will ever have a clear picture of who William Patrick Corgan is?

No. I think I muddied those waters so early on that I think if I sat here and told everyone the truth and the whole truth and nothing but the truth that no one would believe me.

I work in professional wrestling so I accept that the ‘gimmick’ as we say, the characters I’ve portrayed, were very powerful and they connected with people both positively and negatively and that’s imprinted like a tattoo. 

It's going to go on and that’s fine ... I don’t feel any need to fight it. But no. the truth is quite different. But it’s hard to explain and especially it’s hard to explain in a public forum.

I started writing a book and it’s only about half done. I’ll have to finish it one day, but I think if anybody was really interested in what I’m saying at the depth that I mean it, that would probably be the only way that would come across properly: where people could understand the logic of how a kid who was abused and neglected and enters this wacky world at the beginning of the grunge insanity, how you end up making a lot of weird choices, which at the time made a lot of sense, which in hindsight sound like complete insanity.

I’m very interested in the things you have to say William and I’m wondering whether it’s a character or the real you that has been so outspoken in recent times about social justice warriors being akin to the KKK. Opinions on climate change. Various conspiracy theories … you’re very outspoken and unafraid to be so.

I’ve kind of gotten off of that because (and maybe it’s hard to translate) but the temperature in my country is so ridiculous now you cannot have a nuanced conversation about any of those subjects. It truly has become polemic to the point of stupidity.

So, unfortunately, celebrities become cannon fodder in a culture war that doesn’t seem to have an end. It’s like a Terry Gilliam movie at this point – you know what I mean? Like people don’t even remember what they’re fighting for.

And I don’t mean to minimise what people are fighting for – there are very important issues that still remain at the forefront of the American consciousness that need reform and need TLC. They need real attention. There are real injustices in this country and they’re not going to be fixed because somebody puts up a hashtag.

But if you can’t get everybody on board and feeling good about what change means then you can’t get everybody on board feeling like they’re empowered and they can’t have a say both in where the country is going and also the culture, and you create sort of demonised classes of people.

Many people in the public sphere are too afraid to speak out because if they say one wrong thing, one wrong word you’re going to be strung up in a digital way. It gets old really fast and having gone through this now for what seems like many many years I basically raised my hand and said I’m out. 

Yeah because you’re one of the very few high profile musicians who has come out and said for example that you’re a Trump fan. Do you feel that America is …

No. No, I never said that. I never said I was a Trump fan. See that’s a classic example where I said something in regards to what Trump’s running meant to the political hierarchies.

Right you said that he was messing things up, that he was bringing a punk rock attitude to politics.

So did Bernie Sanders. I would have said the same thing about Bernie Sanders. [editor’s note: Corgan criticised the Sanders campaign, by saying that he was telling America 'Mao is a good idea'].

In essence, I was pointing to the fact that America seemed ready for a populist set of movements to break apart the oligarchy aspects of the political system. That people were tired of the same tropes over and over again and from the same political class.

And so a nuanced point about a nuanced intent which is ‘hey, you know people look around for someone to kind of represent something that is kind of inarticulate kind of a frustration, that turns into now you’re walking down main street waving a flag.

Like I said you become cannon fodder in a culture war that has no interest, respect or need to temper their comments based on your real accomplishments in the world. And I’ve made these same criticisms about Twitter.

It’s like somebody who doesn’t have an artistic life or a critical life that involves the public sphere – they can say anything they want in any fashion, and outside of maybe worrying about losing their job at K-Mart, they have no tether to anything else that involves the public.

I’m trying to support both my role as a citizen, my alleged role as a celebrity, and then whether or not people are going to punish me as an artist because they disagree with my opinion, which is ultimately sort of the classic fail of American culture: where you’re going to punish somebody because you disagree with the way their brain works.

Instead of turning around and saying, "I disagree with you and let me educate you on how I see it and can we have a conversation?" it turns in to, "I need to snuff you out of the picture because you represent the man." or whatever.

It’s very boring. I guess what I’m trying to say underneath this highfalutin language, is it’s just boring. You know I really believe in civil discourse. I really believe in freedom. I really believe in the first amendment and I really believe in my country.

I think artists need to be free to make mistakes. That’s what they’re here for. They’re here to rummage around in places that most people wouldn’t have the courage to go in to and they’re going to make mistakes and they’re going to say dumb things and if they’re smart enough, they’re going to figure it out and they’re going to evolve their position.

But most people don’t know what it’s actually like to stand there and actually represent something that’s more than... that’s greater than yourself because they would have never even put themselves in that position, nor would they have the ability to do it even should they want to do it.

I love the fact that you say, "I’m backing off from talking about these things." but wow, give you a topic and you are all go. So you’re a fan of the first amendment how are you feeling about the second amendment?

That’s a tough one. You can’t get into that other than there’s these horrible tragedies. You know. Um. But you want to talk about a subject you can’t even joke about I mean that is a third rail subject.

You’re a big one for seeing through the systems of control and in the nineties, you witnessed alternative culture, you were there at the birth of grunge, you watched that alternative culture become a business model.

A whole scene that you were a key part in became totally commercialised and infinitely less valuable because of that. It happens today with things like EDM culture or festival culture.

When are people going to wake up to the fact that even when they think they’re being individual they’re still being played by the hipster department of a giant corporate culture?

I think that’s a generational thing that repeats every generation and every generation has to figure out where it lost its way. In many ways, it’s up to the next generation to point out the hypocrisy and hopefully improve upon it.

As it stands now for the last two to four thousand years of culture every generation makes the same mistake. Which is sad because every generation does have something to offer and it kind of comes up off the street.

In essence it’s a form of authenticity that can only come from the hunger of a new generation and the fresh ideas of a new generation and then wanting to make their own statement on the culture which you know, obviously as someone who did it I can appreciate that restless urge to say, "Argh get out of the way – you’re boring – we’re more exciting."

And then the next generation comes and pushes you out of the way and says, "You’re boring, get out of my way." So I respect that process. But that’s also the, "Youth is wasted on the young." I mean most youth don’t realise the true cost of commerce. You think by compromising a little thing here and a little thing here that it won’t add up and it actually does, but you don’t know it happens until it’s too late. And by then, the wagon train has moved on.

Was there one moment in the nineties when you realised that it had gone from an underground to a massive commercial beast and was there a moment when you didn’t want to be part of it then? I’m interested also in what you said earlier about decisions you made that may seem crazy in retrospect but made a lot of sense at the time.

Yeah, I think that there was a moment in time where I felt that by pointing out the hypocrisy, you know when alternative music got really big in the Nirvana times, it brought forth a lot of people who weren’t part of our alternative culture.

And those things happen, they don’t even happen every generation they happen maybe every two or three or four generations: that you have this sort of massive movement that seems very organic.

But of course, it invites in the football player who just wants to bop around in the mosh pit and doesn’t care about some indie label in Portland or something. And so you kind of feel this influx of (let’s call it) and alien ideology to the one that you’ve been living by.

I thought at that moment as somebody who was like, recognised you could stand up and sort of say, "We still need to stand for a certain set of values." and then I quickly realised that it was all just lip service.

The people who had been preaching to me from the indie side about values were the quickest people to sell out. Because there was suddenly a mob there and there was money to be made and there was power and there were videos to get played and stuff like that.

You’re standing there and it’s like a tidal wave is coming and you’re standing there making a very nuanced speech about integrity or something and you just get completely wiped out. So it’s not like I’m wishing I had the moment to replay, I just wish I was sophisticated enough to realise that I was wasting my breath.

Well, I congratulate you on surviving such an interesting time in our culture William Patrick Corgan. It’s been a pleasure to speak to you.

Just before I go ​ the name of the album is what exactly and what does it mean?

It’s Ogilala (O-G-la-la) and it’s a made-up word and it’s a secret. I won’t tell anyone what it means.

So it will forever be a secret. We’ll never know. We’ll just guess.

We’ll have to wait til I assume a character who feels comfortable to share the secrets that I as myself can’t.

We’ll have to guess just like we have to guess who the real William Patrick Corgan is.

You know I would say maybe at this point there isn’t one and that’s the funny part. You just keep waiting to show up and you just never do.