In 2003, Billy Corgan returned from California to his native Chicago to settle down in the northern suburbs. He will be the first to tell you that the move helped set him on a path to determine how he wanted to play out the sequel to the global stardom he cultivated over the past decade: Rock star? Nostalgia act? Wrestling mogul? Avant experimentalist? All of the above or none at all?
“When I go into a bake shop somewhere and the guy behind the counter goes, ‘Hey, do you still play?’ That’s a humbling moment and good information. Not in L.A., where everywhere you go, everyone goes, ‘Oh man, you’re the greatest.’ Here, there’s no bubble. Chicagoans being Chicagoans will tell you what they think.”
He has spent many years trapped inside what he describes as a show business bubble. Mega-fame will do that to you. As the auteur behind the Smashing Pumpkins, one of the most successful bands of the 1990s, Corgan has not just enjoyed the spoils of success, but he also served as an iconic figure of his generation alongside Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and few others. That didn’t help.
Fans, business managers, critics and his own demands were fighting for priority in his head. He toured with a solo album of new songs and would find himself enraged when fans in the back of the venue would shout out for past hits. He reformed the Smashing Pumpkins brand, but with new musicians, and then found himself condemned by fans who argued it wasn’t the real deal. Business people wouldn’t leave him alone with big cash offers to play greatest-hits tours (an evening of “Siamese Dream” anyone?) instead of new material with relatively unknown players.
Now 47, Corgan says he has things sorted out. Nestled in Highland Park for more than a decade, in a 9,606-square-foot Normandy chateau-style mansion designed by early 20th century Chicago architect David Adler, Corgan is quietly redefining what it is to be a maturing rock star. He has the brand (Pumpkins) when he wants to fire up the stadium rock; he has a neighborhood teashop (Madame ZuZu’s) when he wants to indulge in noise experiments to 30 people. He also is an investor in a wrestling company (Resistance Pro), is reissuing deluxe editions of his past albums plus unheard demos, and is writing a memoir.
“Expectations,” he says, “are now in order.”
“When somebody sees the Smashing Pumpkins name on a bill, now I accept, without any reservations, what that means, and I’m happy to fulfill that. When I do synthesizers at Madame ZuZu’s, my expectations are really, really low. I’m not thinking, ‘Why isn’t the world running here to see this?’,” he says. “I’ve made peace with it all.”
On Saturday is another first: He will perform a rare solo show at Ravinia, one of his very few since April 2004 when he played a cycle of Chicago-themed songs at Metro that were never released. The semi-acoustic show will feature supporting musicians, including drummer Matt Walker who has played with the Pumpkins, and will move through a set-list suggested by fans (including a five-song suite from “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” the band’s penultimate opus), but will also include personal favorites of his own over the years.
“I should have titled the show ‘my favorite songs.’ I’m playing many of my favorite songs I‘ve written but I often don’t get to play because I have to play everyone else’s favorite songs,” he says. “This is exercise in doing something I really love.”
What he refuses to indulge, however, are the straightforward nostalgia trips that many iconic bands of his generation (Pavement, the Pixies, the Breeders) have pursued in recent years. He acknowledges he has “received a lot of pressure internally and externally from fans” to hit the road to perform full front-to-back treatments of “Siamese Dream” or “Mellon Collie,” but he says he has refused because he says those kinds of tours are integral to why rock music has become so devalued in recent years, both at the ticket counter and on the sales charts, and why the new generation in particular no longer considers it a vehicle for rebellion.
“Ultimately when the public isn’t buying records in the way they used to, or aren’t going to shows the way they used to, the way to fix the problem is not to try to pamper those listening or watching, it’s to try and understand what’s turning them off,” he says.
“My general sense is that [nostalgia tours] are not going to fix anything, either for myself or for the business I’m in. The minute you start getting into a cozy relationship with your audience, that’s not rock and roll, that’s selling cookies.”
What Corgan has done instead since the heyday of the Pumpkins, is zig and zag, pursuing different shades of music from what he made with his former band, and trying new directions he now says ultimately tested his confidence.
“Oftentimes what you lose is what is ephemeral about your music, and you lose whatever you have in touch with common people. Most people have to work, struggle, to make sure the kids grow up right — that’s the world I came from. As soon as I lost touch with that world, I started making wackier records,” he says. “I don’t think I put my feet back into the world [lately] to prove anything. I had to survive.”
Corgan grew up in Glendale Heights, and with founding bandmates James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlin and D’arcy Wretzky released six albums between 1991 and 2000 that not only produced endurable hits and sold more than 22 million copies, they showcased an individual vision that was meticulous and unrepentant. The music blended old-fashioned romanticism powered through searing guitars and propulsive drumming. As a frontman in the supposed alt-rock era, he often made it clear he owed a debt to classic rock bands like Black Sabbath, The Cars, Cheap Trick and Boston.
After dissolving the Pumpkins, culminating with a final show at Metro, Corgan embarked on different projects: Zwan, a more pop-oriented band featuring indie musicians David Pajo from Slint and Matt Sweeney, a frequent collaborator with Bonnie “Prince” Billy; and a synth-oriented solo album that looked back to the house music heyday of 1980s Chicago and the romantic sound of iconic British New Wave bands New Order and Depeche Mode.
In 2007, he rebooted the Pumpkins, but with new musicians except for Chamberlin. Two new albums confirmed Corgan’s talent for aggressive stadium rock but with new sinister political overtones. Two more albums — “Monuments To An Elegy” and “Day For Night” — are on their way, the first set for release Dec. 9. On his website last March, he promised fans “guitars, guitars, and more guitars, but more so on the epic side of things.” Since then, he has become unusually accessible, updating fans with daily posting on the recording process, and soliciting their feedback as well.
At the same time, Corgan has dabbled in instrumental music; this year he released limited-edition, vinyl-only release of improvisational synth music he performed at his teashop this year, inspired by the 1922 novel “Siddhartha” by German writer Hermann Hesse. Then there is his wrestling company, Resistance Pro, which currently is the subject of an AMC reality television series.
Outside his diehard fans, Corgan’s contrarian nature has continued to puzzle outsiders. He does not care.
“I literally have seen people write, ‘you’re killing your legacy!’ What legacy? Against whose?” he asks.
He lambastes the politics of the alternative-rock era that dictated how a rock star needed to behave, what their music should sound like, what defined a “sellout,” among other criteria. As he got older, he started to “realize where the real value is.”
“It’s not the one that’s supplied, or it’s not even the one we’ve been raised with. It’s kind of false. Which is why, in many ways, a Judas Priest or a Motley Crue looks better in hindsight than many, many other people who waved the flag of integrity. Because it was a manipulation,” he says.
Corgan says the moment he stopped asking those questions — particularly to himself — life became much simpler, and he felt more comfortable doing music with the same passion and intention that he possessed when he was a much younger man. He says he still wants to take creative risks in his music, despite the feeling from the industry that appears to embrace reliability and brand protection.
“Somewhere along the way I had to abandon what I would call a completely artistic mantle if I wanted to continue the Smashing Pumpkins. Which initiated a completely different process. [I said] ‘you know how to do this, so just do it. Stop complaining, write better music you know people will engage with.’”
He decided that he had a stronger “emotional connection” to small, less pop-oriented music he now has the ability to make on the side, while the Pumpkins are now the equivalent to the well-crafted summer blockbuster — “CGI music,” he calls it.
“I can’t invest in an album as I used to because I no longer see it as a complete statement,” he says. “To make a complete statement a la a ‘Siamese Dream’ is to waste your time. Like when you go to see the Godzilla movie, how deep do you want to get into the whole love story? You’re there to see Godzilla, not whether the guy gets the girl. So that’s a little how I feel. I go, ‘OK I’ll give you plenty of Godzilla, a little bit of love story. If want to get the real love story, come to Ravinia, or come to the teahouse, or find me on the street and ask me a question.’ Because that brain’s still operating, but I do feel like a guy who knows how to do a bunch of stuff for vaudeville, but no one wants vaudeville anymore.”
His inspirations are now bands that continue to make music but without artistic pretense, such as Neil Young, Iggy Pop, and particularly Rush. He says the Canadian rock giants have taught him that “the right way to get older is no apologies, do your thing, and when you get out there, you can still walk off the stage feeling you’re one of the best at what you do.”
“You don’t feel they’re leaving anything on the table or phoning it in,” he says. “That’s the spirit that made you love them in the first place.”
Another unexpected name he has come to worship is Motley Crue, the hair metal band that preceded the Pumpkins back in the day, but he says he has so come to respect. Crue drummer Tommy Lee is playing on the new Pumpkins album. Once again, Corgan says he has come to realize that “everything’s pop” music, no matter the label. Shedding labels — alt-rock and indie-rock in particular — has given him creative focus and more willingness to compromise. Today, he’d rather please his Pumpkins audience and then pursue the more intellectual work that feeds him elsewhere.
A common scenario these days: “I’ve written these five new songs. I love them all. But let’s be frank: Only one has the potential to catch people’s ears. So let’s go in on this one song, let’s spare nothing to where I don’t have an ounce of reservation about it.”
“I have done this before — [Pumpkin hits] ‘Stand Inside Your Love’, ‘Tonight, Tonight’ — where I’ve committed myself fully to the art of it … so you just go with it. To use that old Batman line, ‘You can’t fight city hall.’”
Billy Corgan plays with Katie Cole, 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Ravinia, 418 Sheridan Rd., Highland Park. $80/$60/$38. Ravinia.org.
Billy Corgan rehearsing “To Forgive” at the piano for the Ravinia show:
The Smashing Pumpkins “Doomsday Clock”