Smashing Pumpkins March On: Billy Corgan Talks Getting to a Good Place With James Iha

Smashing Pumpkins
Olivia Bee

Smashing Pumpkins

Billy Corgan thought the Smashing Pumpkins would be recording one song, not an entire album, earlier this year. But he promises that this week's release of Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. is the beginning of more to come -- and sooner rather than later.

"The hope is to get another record out in the same time frame next year," Corgan tells Billboard. "We've sort of set aside a similar window, late winter/early spring, to (record). I really don't want to wait much longer. I'd be happy if at least we could put out something every year. I think that would be good for everyone involved."

Shiny and Oh So Bright is the Pumpkins' first new album in four years but, most importantly, its first in 18 years to include original guitarist James Iha (founding drummer Jimmy Chamberlin rejoined the band in 2015). The set began life as a song; "That's all anybody really agreed to, 'Oh, we'll get together and just do one song,'" Corgan says. But when producer Rick Rubin heard the 16 songs the Pumpkins demoed he suggested a full album. "I think we set aside two weeks, and suddenly we're doing eight songs all at once -- like, 'Huh?'" Corgan says. "We were totally not prepared at all."

Nevertheless, the album -- which weighs in at a compact half-hour and also includes guitarist Jeff Schroeder, who's been a Pumpkin since 2007 -- as well as this year's Shiny and Oh So Bright Tour demonstrates that all is well, or at least as good as it's been in quite some time, in the Pumpkins' world.

"Going in, I wanted it to be a positive experience for James and Jimmy," explains Corgan, who hadn't spoken with Iha for nearly 17 years before the reunion. "I don't look at it like, 'As long as it's positive for me, who cares?' I was like, 'I really want this to be a positive for everybody involved.' I don't want to go through any more weird negativity.

"It's been very healing. When I'm down at the pool and my son's in the pool with James' kids and they're playing, you think, 'Wow this is a crazy journey we're on. To go from, 'Hey, can't talk to him on the phone' to the kids playing together and you're talking about child-rearing, it's pretty wild. That there we were again...all the way back to Elk Grove and Glendale Heights, two nerds listening to the Smiths. It's pretty amazing."

Smashing Pumpkins will be playing seven special 30th anniversary shows starting Nov. 28 in Madison, Wisc., which Corgan says will be considerably shorter than the three-hour epics it performed this year. Meanwhile, he's starting to think about what the group's next album will be, and whether it will be another straightforward song collection like Shiny and Oh So Bright or carry a bit more conceptual weight like 1995's Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

"There's a conceptual thing I'm after that I'm still trying to figure out if I want to do," says Corgan, who took one of the new album's songs, "Alienation," from a project called Day For Night that he was working on "when I gave up on being in the Smashing Pumpkins, right before James and I started talking again." The conundrum, he adds, is that "nobody wants the 10-month slog in the studio again. That was always the greatest point of stress for us." But Corgan also feels the potential for a more ambitious statement from the band.

"I don't know if we'll get there, but I'd like to see if the band has the ability to do a wider work again, something that has a wider conceptual base," Corgan explains. "I think it's fine to do a collection of songs, and it certainly seems to jibe with the modern pace, but I think I seem to be at my best when I'm challenged on a creative level. Pop music, for me, is fine but it's not really what gets me up in the morning. So we'll see; I'm not announcing anything yet because I don't want to weigh the band down with a set of expectations that it doesn't need at the moment."

Corgan is still indulging his conceptual jones with a return to the group's 2000 Machina/The Machines of God, which became a victim of the group's deteriorating relationship with Virgin Records at the time. Corgan plans to create "a big deluxe reissue package" sequencing Machina and its Internet-released sequel Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music as he originally intended and maybe including a graphic novel to accompany the project. "I never explained the story to the fans, so the fans were wondering through the years, 'What's this thing even about?'" Corgan notes. "That's the last major conceptual work I think I've done with the Pumpkins, and here I am still working on it 20 years later." There's no firm timetable for the release, but Corgan does predict "there’ll probably be a little bit of new recording" by the band for it.

The only cloud among the Pumpkins' current situation remains the fractured relationship with original bassist D'arcy Wretzky, who has not been part of the reunion despite, Corgan maintains, many offers and discussions. He feels Wretzky's public comments, which began during February, "a betrayal" of their private discussions before then, and while the band has moved on he still feels some residual rancor. 

"Y'know, we couldn't get her in a room," Corgan says. "The other three original Smashing Pumpkins members have not been a room with her for 19 years. She hasn't been on a stage in nearly 20 years. It's a complex series of events and...was very frustrating. There's nowhere to go with that. We finally said, 'Let's put our heads down and just play. Jimmy in particular said, 'Look, the music will take care of the rest of the equation. Don't respond. Don't fight. Don't get into the mud. Just march forward.' That was sage advice, and that's what we've done. And here we are -- new record, very successful tour, dates being announced for next year. Marching on, in essence."