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“I should have been an author. I’m a voracious reader, one of those people who know a lot about nothing.”

Billy Corgan is back with a new Smashing Pumpkins album, Monuments To An Elegy. ADAM NORRIS reports.

I still remember my introduction to The Smashing Pumpkins. In a friend’s backyard, drinking schnapps from the bottle and jumping from balconies, I was thrumming over it all, the ominous, disaffected observation that the world is a vampire.

It was unlike anything we’d heard before. We knew grunge, of course. These were the days when Vedder ruled the known musical world. We knew rock, we knew pop, we knew punk, but with Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, the schoolyard soundtrack went entirely off the rails. It was music that just didn’t seem to fit anywhere else, and we flattered ourselves by understanding this as music made just for us.

Though some time has passed since, the music still holds relevance. Not only among those who swang from balconies and fell about the playground at the time of its release, but also for those engaging in those pastimes now. Billy Corgan is returning to Australia to headline Soundwave, proving there’s still considerable demand for his work in a contemporary audience. He’ll be travelling to Australia alongside The Smashing Pumpkins’ mainstay Jeff Schroeder, as well as Rage Against The Machine’s Brad Wilk and The Killers’ Mark Stoermer almost 20 years later to perform songs from the classic Mellon Collie as well as material from their 10th studio album, Monuments To An Elegy. As Corgan figures, it’s simply another chapter in a long and complex history.

“I have to say it feels like it’s an unfolding story,” Corgan says in an unexpectedly deep voice. “Somebody said the other day, ‘Your recent work doesn’t sound like your past work’, and yeah, so it shouldn’t. Then you’ll hear, in the next breath, ‘I hear echoes of the past’, and well, that’s also true. It’s the same person and it’s the same teeth that the sound is passing through. I’m not here trying to reinvent myself into something I’m not. It’s an unfolding story, and as you go along you’re going to learn something and you’re going to forget something, and that’s part of the story, too. The only intention was to try to make contemporary music, and I think the album shows both where we were able to update things, but also my weakness in not being connected to contemporary music. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be connected to contemporary music because I don’t like it, and there’s a part of me that acknowledges that living in that world, well, maybe I need to be.”

While his voice is still unmistakable, it’s now a much richer and pleasantly weathered sound. It struck me that while a person’s voice is so intrinsic to their identity, for most, we’re never going to be particularly conscious of how it develops. Though for someone as prolific and revered as Corgan, with a voice so unique, it’s an inevitability of life. So being comfortable with the sound of your own voice is important.

“I never wanted to be a singer. I became a singer because I was a songwriter, and I didn’t know anyone who wanted to sing my songs. My first connection with music was through the guitar,” he explains. “I couldn’t hear the notes in my head, so I had to work out the melody on the guitar and then try to sing like the guitar. So from the early work on, you’re hearing someone who doesn’t like his voice and is trying to find a way to use it in a unique way. As my writing developed, particularly after Mellon Collie, I wanted to move into different work but I reached a point where as a composer I was becoming frustrated with the singer in me, because I just couldn’t sing my own songs.”

Developing his vocals and the difficulties Corgan has faced in having these lyrics realised is a concern that never strays far from the conversation. Given the fervour with which his fans pull apart the meanings and connections within each release, it’s little wonder. You feel that in another life, he could quite happily have been a writer.

“I should have been an author. I’m a voracious reader, one of those people who know a lot about nothing. I do find that there are certain writers that when I come into contact with their work, it makes me want to try better. People like Bob Dylan or Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, writers that ask you to re-examine the comfort you have with your language.”

It’s a fascinating approach to songwriting (one which David Bowie has also utilised), and while I admit that I do hold affection for the latest Taylor Swift release, it’s difficult to imagine many contemporary mainstream artists adopting Hemingway’s linguistic preoccupations.

“Pop music, by and large, is dumb,” Corgan states. “It’s just getting them out to the dance floor, and there’s a joy to that…

“After 25 years, I just don’t think I have the same enthusiasm for it, and I think that’s really affected me at a deep level. I think when I finally do break from it all, which will probably be sooner rather than later, people will be surprised because the language on the other music that I want to do is vastly different to my usual work. It doesn’t sound like the Pumpkins, and that’s not so much me trying to be different. I just am different. A different language, which I know doesn’t really have a place in pop music at all.”





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