Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan and clothing designer Chloé Mendel know that they could’ve very easily been at the Independence Day parade this year in Highland Park — the Illinois community where they live and operate the tea house Madame Zuzu’s, and where dozens of people were injured and seven killed in a horrific July shooting.
“The only reason we weren’t there was that [Chloe] was on a plane, and our business was closed,” Corgan explains. “It just happened to be [that way]. We were fortunate in that.”
Still, the two long-time partners also immediately knew they wanted to do something to benefit the victims of the attack, many of whom they knew or were connected to in some way. They ended up deciding to put on the Together and Together Again benefit concert at Madame Zuzu’s, which they’ll be livestreaming for free on Wednesday night (July 27) — while encouraging viewers to donate, with all proceeds going to the Highland Park Community Foundation (and specifically, its July 4th Highland Park Shooting Response Fund.)
“We felt helpless, right? We knew there were so many people hurting,” Mendel says. “And so we knew we had to do something. And it was, ‘What can we do in a quick turnaround?’ And I think it was like, two days later, we decided we were gonna do this.”
The event will of course feature a performance from the alt-rock legend Corgan — as well as his Pumpkins bandmate, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin — but will also include a variety of special guests, including electronic duo Bob Moses, jazz saxophonist Frank Catalano, classical group The Lincoln Trio, singer-songwriter Billy Swan (and daughter Sierra) and alt-rock veteran Perry Farrell, whose Jane’s Addiction will be heading out with the Pumpkins on the Spirits on Fire tour starting in October. “Everybody who’s coming is very excited to be there,” Mendel says. “Everybody’s changing their travel plans… people are moving everything around to be there and help.”
Below, Corgan and Mendel talk with Billboard about a tragedy that very literally hit close to home for them, and the event they’re putting on Wednesday night to try to help bring unity at such a terrible time.
I know you both have roots in the Highland Park area – what are your respective histories there?
Billy Corgan: I moved up here about 20 years ago, and Chloe about 10 years ago. So we’re pretty deep in the community, and we’ve had a business here for eight years – Madame Zuzu’s, which is the tea house where the benefit’s taking place. So we’re pretty steeped in the local community, and we know people in the local government… we’re not just sorta living up here, we’re kind of intertwined in the society up here.
Chloé Mendel: This is a small community. Pretty much everyone we know was either there or had a family member there. It’s pretty traumatic when most of your neighbors, or people around you when you go to a restaurant, were witnesses, and running for their lives. And children, too.
BC: Yeah. Mayor [Nancy] Rotering testified before Congress just a few hours ago, and she said there were 3,000 people at the parade. And just to give a little context – they’ve been doing free counseling services here at the high school, and 1,200 people were going, last I heard. So the trauma on the local community is almost immeasurable. So literally every time you turn around, you’re talking to someone who was there, or their kid was there… it’s inescapable here.
CM: Even the business next door to us, multiple family members were shot who worked there, and one died. And they had to have a closed casket… it’s awful. And they’re the people we see everyday. And it’s beautiful how people come together and are really motivated, now more than ever, to support each other, and to help heal and be remembered for that, not for the tragic event.
When did it occur to the two of you that a benefit concert would be a good thing to do to help here?
BC: I think when we started hearing about the level of mental health crisis in the community, and the different funds that were being set up, I think it just became a natural extension of what we do in the community here, of “How can we pitch in?”
CM: And what we have, that a lot of other people don’t have, is the ability to reach a lot more people in the world. And so we felt like, the best platform to do that is online – to make a free event on YouTube, so that as many people [as possible] could participate, listen to great music — an event that no one else would hear anywhere else, really. It’s just kind of special to what we can do… And people can donate just by clicking a button. And honestly, everything makes a difference. There are so many people – victims, I believe 50 people were injured, and seven people deceased. And so the effects of that on our community are tremendous.
BC: Even the psychological damage is just… I mean, the people that we know personally that we talked to that were traumatized by being at the event, being in the direct line of the shooting… just that alone is just horrific. And so for the families that are grieving… it just goes on and on.
Have you worked with the Highland Park Community Foundation before?
BC: No, but we have a lot of ties to the local government, so we vetted through the people that we know what would be the appropriate way to do this. And we talked to the people who head the foundation, and were given assurances – not only that there was a particular fund within the community fund that was for July 4th victims, but that secondarily, and more importantly I think, that the resources allocated are gonna be presented in a transparent way. So it’s not like we just give the money and then it’s gonna go where it’s gonna go. We’re actually gonna see where the money goes, which is fantastic.
Where did the name Together and Together Again come from?
BC: Uh, you know, I just liked the idea of something that sorta signaled unity. I think the way it reads in my mind is, you know, “Love is always gonna win.” It doesn’t matter what the devil throws at us, we’re gonna keep coming together. And I think you gotta keep putting that message out there.
You know, the person who [is suspected of committing] this atrocity was local, was well-known to the community. I certainly saw him in the community. So, you know, you have to send this message out, that.. what you think you’re gonna get out of it, you’re not gonna get out of it. You’re not gonna win. Whatever you think, whatever weird thing’s going on in your head, you’re just not gonna win. And I think that’s the enduring message that I would like to send – that our community, and our love and respect for one another, trumps this.
CM: We have an incredibly diverse population in Highland Park. I know the North Shore tends to have a rep of being a certain way – Highland Park really is on its own, kinda separate. We have a diverse community – we have a pretty large community. And people from all different walks of life. And typically, everybody is welcomed, loved… serves the business, the beaches. You know, it’s just a happy, very family-friendly town… [people] come here to raise their children.
BC: Especially young people. You see a lot of young people moving here because they want, of course, a safe community.
Was it always the obvious choice to host the concert at Madame Zuzu’s?
BC: No, we talked about different things. In fact, we had people blowing us up when we announced – probably not a good choice of word – people giving us a little bit of guff about it, because they wanted us – and I kid you not – they wanted us to hold a free outdoor concert. And the idea of holding a free outdoor concert, literally weeks within a horrible event… I mean, just the logistics alone…
But Highland Park needs this event, and it’s just too soon, too close and too difficult to pull off [as an outdoor concert]. We looked at it more as, “Well OK, how can we generate resources quickly, and put those resources in the hands of people who know how to distribute them properly?” And so once you kinda did all the math on that, it became pretty readily apparent that [we needed a venue] that we could control, which is our own environment.
CM: I mean, I also want to say… Madame Zuzu’s is within the crime scene perimeter of the shooting. So it was most important for us – because we were there, we were closed, the FBI locked us down for about six days – and it’s a one-block radius, so we were right in the heart of it. So it was really important for us to embrace our space, our venue, the people working for us in our community, and just be there.
And again, raising funds is the goal, so we needed to involve as many people as possible — and make this a special event, for anybody to enjoy from their home, from their phone… I know friends are just sitting on their couches, having like a party, and gonna watch it on their screens.
When you’re trying to figure out a setlist for a benefit like this, do you try to focus on one part of your catalog, or a certain tone of songs? Or do you just kinda play the songs you know people want to hear, because it’s more likely to make them donate?
BC: I certainly feel like half my catalog is not appropriate. So for me, it’s doing a kind of deep dive and trying to find those songs that I think express the way I feel. And mix them with a few songs people I’m sure want to hear. But more so, more reflective of the event.
Was there a song of yours that really struck you as resonant for this event?
BC: Not yet, because I really almost have to sit and play them. You know, some of the songs I think, “Oh, well, this would work,” and then I start playing it sitting on my bed, and I’m like, “Ah, this lyric doesn’t really match what I’m after,” or there’s something in there that… coz y’know, we are gonna have people that are gonna be there that were affected by the event. The last thing I wanna do is be singing something and I say something, something comes out of my mouth that reminds them of something horrible that just happened. So I’m hyper-sensitive to that.
And just related to the larger issue, is there anything you’d like to see changed at the governmental level or anywhere else in terms of gun control?
BC: You know, I have a lot of personal feelings on that, but I think for this event, we’re just really focused on trying to get people on the same page. What I can say is: When these things happen, and they happen far too regularly in our culture, I watch on with horror – including what goes on consistently on the south side of Chicago, with all the horrible violence – and there’s a certain sort of spectator thing that goes on, where you have your feelings, you have your opinions, and you lean into the things that you believe in. When you’re actually sort of in the middle of it, it certainly has a different feel and tenor.
And my personal response at this point is unity. I need everybody on the same page. I feel like all I live is a divided country. And we’ve all had those dinner conversations, family conversations, where somebody is on one side, and somebody’s on the other, and one person watches this network and one person watches that network. I really feel like, having been in the epicenter of this, and still standing in the epicenter of this, I wanna preach unity. I feel like, the words of John Lennon in multiple songs never resonated more deeply to me than they do now. We really need to lean into that first to get people moving in the same direction.
And I would rather it not be, “How many tragedies does it take before things change?” As opposed to, “You know what? It’s enough, let’s get together, let’s move in the same direction, let’s find some common ground, so we can start moving these things in the right direction, politically and socially.” Because we really do need to be on the same page when it comes to these things, because it is such a divisive issue. And I just don’t want any part of that divide right now.
The Together and Together Again benefit starts at 9:00 ET / 8:00 CT this Wednesday, July 27 on YouTube.