Smashing Pumpkins founder Billy Corgan is a busy man.
Not only is he recording two new Pumpkins records, but he’s also a quarter of the way through a sprawling spiritual memoir and gearing up to release a cycle of songs inspired by Chicago.
Still, the singer/songwriter took time out to help us launch a new initiative across our network of suburban publications: Guest editorships. As editor of the Highland Park News, Corgan appeared on our new podcast, “The Big Questions,” and talked about his upcoming projects, his adopted hometown and why Twitter makes him lonely.
As part of his guest editorship, Corgan also champions animal charity PAWS, from which he has adopted two cats. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, but you can listen to the entire exchange by finding “The Big Questions” on iTunes, YouTube or SoundCloud.
Hometown Highland Park
Q: You could have lived anywhere. Why Highland Park?
Billy Corgan: Well, growing up in the western suburbs, as I did, I sort of idealized what it was like to live up on the North Shore. And, of course, there is the Gatsby-like version of the dream and the reality of that dream.
The idea of living on the lake, to me, was emblematic of some sort of success, that if you could live on the lake, that meant that you had arrived. I always had this dream in the back of my mind if I ever was successful, I’d want a home on the lake.
What attracted me to Highland Park ... I felt like I could come here and I wasn’t going to have some identity imposed on me.
I tried to leave Illinois a bunch of times. I always came home. I bought a house up here, in 2003, a David Adler home. It is a great honor to own a great architect’s home. So that’s it. I’m stuck here.
Q: You seem to have integrated. Not only do you own Madame ZuZu’s, but I just ate lunch downtown at Happi Sushi. Your name is on the menu.
Corgan: There’s two Billy Rolls. Billy Roll One and Two. Billy Roll One has three different types of tobiko [flying fish roe] in it and, I think, tuna. Billy Roll Two is crab, jalapeño, I think, cucumber. Very good. I highly recommend Billy Roll Two.
Q: What issues are pressing for you in Highland Park?
Corgan: I think the big thing in Highland Park right now is: Why we don’t see the upside from having Ravinia here in the community in terms of how it integrates back into local business? Highland Park is a little bit stuck in 1974 culturally. And there’s this bit of tension going on between, let’s call it the old guard and the new guard.
And the new guard, which I would consider myself a part of, is trying to move this community forward. It’s a great community that would benefit from more people coming up from the city and taking advantage of what the community has to offer. I think the old guard wants to keep it the way that it is — a little sleepy. And being a business owner, beyond being a resident, I have a vested interest in how it benefits my community — both culturally and fiscally — to have a robust tourist business.
When Ravinia has an event here … there’s almost no community involvement in terms of trying to then direct those patrons before or after concerts into the local community. Like literally nothing, it’s shocking to me. And so we’re trying to kind of find points of integration. The mayor here is Nancy Rotering, who is fantastic and is really pushing for these ideas.
My whole rap is we should treat this like a beach town. If you know the tourists are coming in on a weekend, why don’t we have free valet parking over here for nights after a Ravinia show? Can you imagine if there were 200-300 people on this street every night after there’s a Ravinia show? Get all the local businesses to stay open. Maybe you shut down the street and have vendors out. So I’m pushing for that.
Q: Is your Highland Park home a space for collaboration or is it your Fortress of Solitude?
Corgan: Collaboration in what regard?
Q: In music.
Corgan: No ... Living in a beautiful home designed by a genius of an architect, you can’t help but be inspired. Even if it just means you’re going to get up and help try to pay for it. Which is part of the inspiration. No, I live on a beautiful piece of property. I live in a community that respects my privacy.
When you shut the door, what goes on in there is the mystery. I feel like, the public part of my life here is at ZuZu’s in Highland Park and the private part of my life is once I go on that piece of property.
Q: You have also made Highland Park iconic, in a couple of ways, not just with ZuZu’s**, but with the last Smashing Pumpkins record cover, which features the tower near Rosewood Beach.
Corgan: Yes, which by the way, no one can seem to tell me what that tower is, which is kind of interesting. [Editor’s note: We dug into to the history of the tower, read our story here.]
Q: What significance does that tower have for you?
Corgan: It just represented this sense of isolation to me. But I think it is hard to put those things into temporal language.
Q: You once told Greg Kot, “On the road, I’m in character, at home I’m with my cats playing Xbox ...” What is the difference between that character and the guy in Highland Park at home?
Corgan: It has more to do with my philosophical bent about what it means to be a performing music artist. Based on my behind-the-scenes estimation, I would say 80 to 90 percent of rock stars are not the people they portray themselves as on stage. It is either an amplified version of themselves or some fantasy version of themselves.
I took a different perspective, which is, as if you were playing Shakespeare, I have created characters and then used that character to push a musical and a cultural agenda — which is not always expressed and, of course, which drives journalists up the wall because most aren’t bright enough to understand that I’m playing the character, so they attribute it to me personally. Which has sort of led to this strange loop of personal attack, which we saw very recently here with my synthesizer show. They don’t understand that part of my artistic agenda is to shift energy, because rock ‘n’ roll as an idiomatic form has sort of played itself out.
So if you’re a rebellious spirit, like I am, and you’re actually trying to penetrate these areas, which no one will touch, the third rail of rock ‘n’ roll ... talk about God and all this stuff. You’re sort of held up for scorn, but behind the scenes, I’m just an artist who is portraying a character; the character just happens to be played by me.
Revealing the process behind the music
Q: We’re in the space where you did the performance. What was that experience like?
Corgan: I thought it was fantastic. I’d never done anything like that before. It was a singular experience. I’ve done three shows since, and they’re meant to be atmosphere changers, like an immersive environment. Not too different from say, Disneyland or some art installation. You come in and you either feel something or you don’t. The doors open and you come and go and it is free. It was great, I thought. It was successful in that regard. It’s a bit crazy to try to create music on the fly, on the spot in front of an audience. That’s pretty nerve-racking.
Q: I was just reading your Twitter feed this morning and you’re letting people in on the forthcoming Smashing Pumpkins records …
Corgan: On the Smashing Pumpkins Nexus website.
Q: Neko Case just did something similar with NPR, filing little snapshots of developing songs. What are the pros and cons of welcoming your audience into your process?
Corgan: Well, I don’t read anything that anybody’s writing. So you start there, which would normally, I would say, be the downside. The positive thing is that you’re creating enough of a narrative for those that are interested enough to follow along. And I think in the information age, going away is basically death.
I think you just have to consider what you’re going to share and why you’re going to share it, and I think you have to be transparent in those things. I don’t even have time to manipulate my audience. I don’t have time to be clever. So the simplest thing — which Mark Twain once said, “if you don’t tell a lie, you don’t have to remember anything” — it’s just be honest, which is the daily struggle of trying to put together an epic album
Q: You’re working on two new Smashing Pumpkins records, “Monuments to an Elegy” and “Day for Night.”
Corgan: Two related but separate records.
Q: It’s also been reported that you’ve had this 72-song cycle of songs that is inspired by Chicago history. What is the status of that project and are any of those Highland Park songs?
Corgan: No. I completed the first part of the cycle, the Chicago song cycle in about 2004, and I was going to release it. I had a record deal at the time, and I was going to release it through that deal. And at the last second, I changed my mind. I made an electronic record instead. So that record has sat in the vaults.
I’m actually just about to get the rights back for all my material. So, I’ll be able to reissue my 2000 work in sequence. The idea is once I reissue the Zwan material, then I would reissue this material in sequence. I can’t remember how many songs there are, but there’s probably more like 40 or 50 — but only 20 or so are about Chicago.
Q: And the ones that are about Chicago, what are they about?
Corgan: It’s probably not as literal as that. It was more trying to find some spectral quality, it’s more impressionistic. Honestly, it has been a while since I’ve listened to the work. So I don’t even know if I could answer the question faithfully.
I was surprised in writing it that a lot of it is about immigrants and people coming here. And Chicago is a place of opportunity because my family, my blood family and my step-family, were all European immigrants. It was very much about the root of how Chicago got its bare-knuckle mentality, and in a way is a tougher place, but conversely also a kinder place. I think we are one of the last cities on the planet that has maintained its humanity with its toughness. I don’t think there is a more charitable city, I don’t think there is a more forgiving city than Chicago.
All that seems to be woven in that material, but it was very unconscious work. I didn’t set out to write a song about the Picasso statue or nothing like that. It is more like a dream take on the city. I wrote it honestly, I meant it at the time … I really wrote the song cycle as my gift to the city, because I came out of this very difficult time in my life and Chicago was the one thing that saved me. I had to be here to be saved.
And so maybe it will mean something to somebody at some point. It’s hard, because once it got caught in the gears of commercial expectation and the jerk that was running my record label and all that kind of stuff, you start going “Oh God, I can’t ...”
Writing memoir ‘like a long-winded song’
Q: You’ve also been working on a spiritual memoir for the last couple of years, “God is Everywhere, from Here to There.” When can we expect it to be published?
Corgan: It should be done roughly by the end of this year. The book is in four sections and I’ve just finished section one after a couple false starts. And that first section clocks in at about 120,000 words. Multiply that times four, that’s what the book is going to be.
Q: That’s a mini-encyclopedia.
Corgan: Well, yeah. We’ll see. I haven’t yet submitted what I’ve written to my editor. I’m sure it will be trimmed down a little bit, but I think there’s something really interesting. It’s sort of like a long-winded song. And you either get into the song or you don’t. It’s sort of like “Stairway to Heaven” times a thousand.
Q: What have you learned?
Corgan: I was surprised that writing long-form for a book is far different than writing a thousand words for a short story or a little observational thing. Or even a blog post. Because the long form of narrative requires a completely different discipline that I didn’t have. And I didn’t go to college, you know. And I have no formal training.
So being stubborn, I went into the process thinking, “I can do this” and then when I was confronted with the fact that I couldn’t, I had one of two choices. I was going to bring in a ghostwriter or quit, or figure out how to write a long-form book, and so I have actually taught myself how to write long form, which has been probably the hardest thing that I’ve had to do — way harder than learn how to write music.
Q: What about spiritual insights? Anything that you learned just through the process?
Corgan: I don’t think I’m learning anything spiritual from the process, I think I’m learning that my life — at every step of the way — has God in some piece of it. And I think that’s probably the hardest thing for most people to accept: How does God reveal Itself in tragedy? How does God reveal Itself in places where it seems there is no place for God?
Q: In terms of this memoir, why are you compelled to write it?
Corgan: Well, two things. One, I wanted to be a writer far longer than I wanted to be a music person. Secondarily, I just felt that there was some reason that I had held on to all these memories. I reached the part of my life where it was either going to hit the delete button and just scrub them … or do something with them.
Q: And you’re nothing if not prolific.
Corgan: Prolific sounds like really dignified. It feels more like I’m insane because we’re just preparing the “Adore” reissue right now, and I listen to all this work and I think, “Oh my God, does this guy ever rest?”
Twitter, the Internet and what is ‘real’
Q: I wanted to return to your use of social media during the recording process. Do you think it will change the shape of these new records? Is it just that you are broadcasting reports?
Corgan: The decision you have to make is: Are you going to front-load your marketing with the public that can’t wait for anything to happen and do a surprise album? And then frontload all that press and that marketing into one moment? Or do you draw out a long narrative that takes people on a journey? [Fans] are going to have a different, invested connection to what you are doing. And I think that is a choice you have to make.
I am a bit of an extremist. But I don’t think you can play the middle ground anymore.
I don’t think it serves to float out a piece of information like every four weeks. I don’t think that does any good. Everything gets swallowed so fast and the way things work now is, you can put out something very interesting and if it goes down the memory hole there, it never shall return. So if someone is not looking at their [social media] at that exact moment, it doesn’t exist. I mean, it literally doesn’t exist.
Q: Given the media cycle?
Corgan: Given the way we consume information. And of course that speaks to the business models of those entities and how they work.
Not only that, if you try to overly push commercial things on people, people rebel. They’re not signed up to your Twitter feed to see a running commercial. They’re signed up because they’re hoping you are going to say something interesting or point them to something interesting that is going to brighten their day. I respect that. How does one market with dignity?
Q: Well, and it does not seem to be marketing. Comedians do this almost better than anybody else on Twitter. It’s really sort of a conversation.
Corgan: I don’t think it is a conversation. I know that would offend some people, but I don’t think it is a conversation.
Q: Then what is it?
Corgan: I think it is a soapbox … I can’t believe a digital signature is a representation of a real relationship.
So that is why on my Twitter feeds, I don’t pretend. I don’t bother pretending. And trust me, I would have far more Twitter followers if I did because I would be playing a different form of a character. But I have chosen on my Twitter to be myself. In my music life, I’m not myself, or some variation of myself, but in those public forums, I’m myself, which actually is to my detriment. Does that make sense?
But even when you get into the Twitter apology ...
Q: Stephen Colbert just deleted his show’s account, because somebody who he doesn’t know and is representing him, caused him all sorts of problems.
Corgan: There’s the third rail right there. We’re living in an impressionistic world — it’s not real.
Q: But it does have real-world implications and consequences. Look at Anthony Weiner.
Corgan: OK, but who chooses, right? So the mob that decides one thing is real, decides another thing isn’t real. And at the risk of going into politics here for a second, that’s what the U.S. government has figured out. That as long as they tell the public what they want to hear, they will ignore real statistics. Consistently.
Q: But there is a whole book about that: “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” People vote against their own self-interest. So that’s politics.
Corgan: There is more than one book about that. So that’s what I’m trying to say.
But here is the spiritual point, you’re actually investing in something that’s not real. And I believe that falls under the teachings of all the great avatars. If you invest in something that’s not real, what do you think you are going to get back?
Q: But if it has impact, then you can’t say it is not real.
Corgan: Listen, no one in the last 20 years who is a music lover has annoyed or pissed off more people than I have, at least in rock ‘n’ roll.
Q: Let’s make up a short list.
Corgan: So go ahead, I’ll follow. Who is your number one?
Q: Courtney Love.
Corgan: But has she really annoyed people with musical things? See, I am qualifying against my former paramour here.
Q: I think her Twitter activity has polarized her and, in fact, taken attention away from her musical career.
Corgan: I would agree with that. But I have done a better job of making people angry with music. But the reason I’m saying that is because I see your point: a reaction is a positive. OK, then I have done a lot of positive things, because I have made a lot of people angry. By not playing certain things, by doing certain things musically, do you see what I’m saying? But the reaction isn’t real. Yes, it affects real things like, record sales or ticket sales, but it’s not real. Because those things are not invested in real values.
Q: But it is a medium. It is just Marshall McLuhan medium: “the medium is the message.”
Corgan: I think we have crossed the Rubicon into a different conversation in that regard, because yes, it’s a medium, but it’s a medium that doesn’t exist.
Q: That is like saying the telephone doesn’t exist.
Corgan: I think that is a good point, but I don’t think the telephone engenders this level of fantasy. We now have a new communication system that fosters, engenders and profits from the fantasy. And it is a fantasy. It is a literal fantasy. It is not real.
Q: I just don’t see how that is any different from any other mass medium, whether that’s movies, or TV or ...
Corgan: I think you have to look at the effect it is having on people’s real lives.
Listen, when the telephone came out, was it followed by studies that said that people are more depressed because they have the telephone than before? We consistently see studies now that people who overuse the Internet are depressed. They now have new areas of psychological study, because people are addicted to the Internet. I’m certainly addicted to eBay, OK?
So what is it about that form that has taken about on a kind of simulacrum, the holodeck for you Star Trek fans. I think it is a little more dangerous than that, and I think the way the governments are now trying control the Internet, and the free expression, tells you how dangerous that is.
Q: It is also interesting that the founders of Twitter — one of the reasons they founded Twitter, literally, was so they would be less lonely.
Corgan: Really? It has made me more lonely. I can tell you that.
Q: In closing, you are our celebrity editor and PAWS is your charity of choice. Why did you choose this charity?
Corgan: First of all, the greatest argument for PAWS as something to invest in is the no-kill shelter policy. There’s a level of humanity at PAWS that I’ve never seen from any animal-related charitable organization.
They’re down to one third of the amount of euthanizations at Chicago city shelters. It’s remarkable numbers and it has everything to do with PAWS’ aggressive program.
They’re going to put an adoption center here in Highland Park. Very excited about that and we’re going to do some events here. ... I think in the next couple of weeks, we’re going to do a volunteer drive to get people to volunteer for PAWS. I know the people that run the organization, and I’m just really proud to be associated with them.