“I did it to fuck with people because it seems to fuck with them, which is something that I love to do,” says Billy Corgan as he explains why he’s decided to credit his second solo album, Ogilala, to his birth name of William Patrick Corgan. “It’s not an alter-ego thing; it’s me being a prankster.”
He pauses and laughs again. “A few years back I asked my friends and family to start calling me ‘William’. ‘Billy’ kind of started to feel alien to me, because when I was young I was ‘Bill’ and my dad was Billy. So in some weird and churlish thing I became ‘Billy’ when I turned 18 and it’s like I took my dad’s name. But I’ve always wrestled with my name ‘William’ but if you believe in spirit and stuff, then OK, that’s my name.
“But what does my name really mean? If you look up my name in the dictionary, it means ‘hard head’. And ‘William’ feels right to me now.”
His reputation for being hard headed certainly precedes him. It was this hard headedness that saw him take control of Smashing Pumpkins to the degree that he frequently played most of the guitar and bass parts himself, much to the chagrin and alienation of his bandmates. And so, on top of the internecine fighting and pressures of touring, it came as little surprise that the original line-up of Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain called it a day in 2000.
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But what is surprising is that Billy Corgan elected take a series of acoustic demos that he’d been working on to uber-producer Rick Rubin to ask his advice on what could be done with the songs in the realm of a solo album and who would be best placed to produce them. He wasn’t expecting what he heard.
“Rick wanted to get involved,” recalls Corgan. “He had a pile of acoustic demos but it never occurred to me that that was the record he wanted to make.”
Corgan was initially unsure of Rubin’s insistence that the structure of the acoustic demos should form the basis of the album.
“At one point I even questioned him on, where is this going? And he said, very calmly and very Rick-like, ‘Let’s let the record make itself. I’ve too often made the mistake of making the record in my mind and then trying to force it to its destination point.’”
He continues: “So it’s weird because on one level he has you committing to something you’re not sure is going to work – which is this Spartan approach – while he would reserve the right to say, ‘This isn’t going to work; let’s get out the tuba.’ So you’re never quite sure where it’s going other than you need to trust his instincts as to where it’s going to go. As long as you take that train, then you’re going to take that ride.”
For Corgan, the process of following Rubin’s vision of a stripped back and acoustic album was one of trust.
“It’s a little like being hungover and handing over the wheel and saying, ‘Can you drive?’” he laughs. “My mind was right enough to write the songs but not right enough to know what to do with them.”
The resulting album, a collection of acoustics meditations occasionally augmented by a delicate string quartet, is as far removed from what you might expect from Billy Corgan.
It seems that the pair managed to pick up a hitchhiker in the shape of former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, who appears on the track ‘The Processsional’, and is the only other person to play on the album apart from Corgan and the string quartet. How did that come about after years of estrangement?
“We made out peace a few years back,” says Corgan. “And, as part of making peace, there’s been consistent communication. When you haven’t had anything for 16 or 17 years, that’s a big deal. To be able to write an email like, ‘How’s it going?’ – after all that went on before – that’s a big step.”
Corgan played Iha some the tracks that he was working on and was delighted to get some positive feedback from his erstwhile bandmate: “I played him about five or six songs and it was like being back in 1987.”
With the album recorded with James Iha’s encouragement, his participation arrived during the latter stages of Ogilala’s production.
“When we finished recording the album, Rick said, ‘Is there anything you want to add to it or anything you want to try?’ and I said, ‘I want to see if James wants to play on this. It feels right to me,’” explains Corgan.
“It was so cool – I got the files back from him, listened and went, ‘There it is! There’s that thing that he does!’ Our communication is like a puzzle piece. And it’s weird – I can play like Ritchie Blackmore but I can’t play the way James does.”
So does this leave the door open for a reunion of the Smashing Pumpkins’ original line-up?
“My position is that I’m all for it and I’m happy to do it. And I’m happy to do it in the way that people want me to do it. I’m totally cool if the band gets together.”
But, as Corgan points out, there are caveats.
“The only qualifiers that I have are firstly, I want it to be fun and happy for everybody involved – and that’s audience and band – and secondly, I want us to be creative again; I want us to creatively engage. The idea of it being one trip around the sun is not attractive to me.”
Though Corgan isn’t interested in playing any of Smashing Pumpkins’ previous albums in their entirety, he credits former Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters for inspiring him in how to bring the re-union into fruition.
“I have to say that Roger Waters, in talking to him personally and seeing him play live, particularly when I saw him do The Wall, has helped me to change my perception that there is an opportunity to re-contextualize my work in a way that imbues your work with a new energy while also satisfying the nostalgic revue,” he says. “There’s a way to do it and Roger, in his sentient intelligence, showed me how he uses visuals, technology and re-contextualizes his work.”
He continues: “If we ever did reform, there are opportunities to revisit the work in ways that would be like a remix of a movie or something. If you take Mellon Collie… and that whole period, we’re not going to play the whole album, but we want to dive back into this period so trust us and come see us and we’re going to take you back into this moment but only in a way that we could and on our terms. That could be very interesting.”
The conversation turns once more to Ogilala. It’s noticeable that two of the album’s tracks – ‘Shiloh’ and ‘Antietam’ – are named after two of the bloodiest battles to have been fought during the American Civil War. Gigwise is curious at whether Corgan is attempting to make a comment on contemporary American society or whether he’s a history buff. Or are we simply reading too much into this?
“All of the above!” he chuckles. “’Antietam’ is talking directly about the battle itself. I’ve been to the bridge that was fought over and it’s so weird to look at it through 21st century eyes and try to comprehend how many people died over a fucking bridge.
“The other song, ‘Shiloh’, has nothing to do with war but everything to do with a girl. And it’s basically an ape on Jimmy Webb. If you listen to the track, we’ve gone for the six-string Glen Campbell guitar.
“Rick and I were talking about what to do with the song and I told him that I wanted that ‘Galveston’ feel so when it came to doing it, I said we could do that Glen Campbell thing but it’s so fucking obvious, and he was like, ‘Let’s try it!’ I do it, and it’s so fucking obvious, and Rick goes, ‘I love it!’ And I said, ‘You would love it because it’s so fucking obvious!’ And it makes me laugh every time I hear it.”
The album’s opening track, ‘Zowie’, was written for David Bowie in the wake of his passing. And while many tributes were paid to Bowie, Corgan finds many of them to be hypocritical.
“It makes me angry that it took people so many years to cycle back to David,” Corgan says. “There are certain artists who have earned the right to be given a chance over and over again but we all know that’s not the way it works. Neil Young had a rough time of it in the 80s, David had a rough time of it in the 90s and there were the years when Johnny Cash didn’t get treated so well. And then you look in hindsight and think, how the fuck did we do that? These are singular talents. These are the best of the lot.”
But if some people happily turned their backs on these artists, Corgan is keeping a keen eye on what’s coming through from younger generations.
“We think our block is rock’n’roll but to a 22-year-old, Chance The Rapper is just as heavy and just as dangerous as Kurt Cobain ever was,” states Corgan. “Is it up to us to take that away from them? Or for us to say, ‘Your block isn’t as dangerous as our block was, since you don’t appreciate Chris Squire’s Fish Out Of Water album you can’t follow where we’re coming from’? No!
“I think you’ve got to give every generation their version of it. You could quite rightly argue that in the past 20 years, rap has more closely represented the values that we grew up on than rock’n’roll.”
He goes on: “I’ve gone from the cranky old man position of like, you can play all you want but what you’re doing is not as dangerous as Kurt Cobain, to getting off from that. There’s a lot of energy going on there with the new generation of artists and if you’re comparing what they’re doing now to what went on before, then you’re doing the same thing that irritated me when I was in my 20s. Because I sat with a lot of journalists when I was in my 20s who told me that my version of Black Sabbath wasn’t as dangerous as Black Sabbath. I think that I’ve proved that it was just as dangerous but it was danger for a different time. Same as it is now.”
With Corgan now at his half century, he’s got interests – both personal and business – outside the realms of rock’n’roll. As of October 1, Corgan is now the proud owner of the National Wrestling Alliance.So what does that mean in practical terms?
“It means that I have the opportunity to re-boot the brand that’s basically on life support and not only bring it back up to prominence but to infuse that with a 21st century vision,” he explains. “I like the combination. It’s a similar with the Pumpkins. I like the idea that we can have second chapter together but in a 21st century frame and not try to recreate the 90s.”
So how long will this take?
“It’ll take about seven years to create a 21st century entertainment brand,” he says, outlining his vision for wrestling for the new century. “Similar to the record business, you’re not going to get the same level of capital investment at the foundational level that you would’ve gotten. No one’s going to come along and write you a big cheque and give you three years to stumble around to figure it out. You have to figure it out at street level and to figure it out at street level you have to go digital. And you have to figure out what channels and avenues you can use to brand them.”
Warming to the theme, Corgan goes further: “The difference between pre-internet and existing culture is that brands were built around product. Now, products are built around brand. Apple set the stage for 21st century commerce which is why Amazon can own all the books, dominate music, technology and now they’re into wholefoods. I mean, on the surface you’d say, ‘Well how does that work?’ but Amazon’s brand is not ‘We sell books’ their brand is, ‘We sell you shit cheaper and you get it quick’. So basically, the brand is fucking anything. So a 21st century entertainment brand doesn’t have to have to the traditional ‘we’re on television, you’ve got to come buy and get tickets.’”
In other words, Corgan sees the audience for modern wrestling being younger than its current demographic with an emphasis on digital distribution channels and using a lot of behind-the-scenes politics and intrigue as a marketing driver.
“You roll with what the public wants,” says Corgan. “And the thing is to stay one step ahead of the public.”
Musician and now sports mogul, Billy Corgan certainly is keeping one step ahead. But for the time being, he’s happy being William Patrick Corgan, the writer and performer of Ogilala. Where he goes to next is anyone’s guess but right here will do for now.