Photo by John Isberg and Jacob Boll
It can be hard to find something that lifts your spirits up during a global pandemic. For rock-music fans daydreaming of times when live music was an option in our daily lives, a dystopian-themed, futuristic sci-fi double album from the Smashing Pumpkins really is good news for people who love good news. Cyr was released at the end of November, but an even sweeter announcement came a month prior, on the 25th anniversary of the 1995 masterpiece Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, when the band announced that a 33-song sequel was in the works, to finally complete the intended trilogy sequence of Mellon Collie and Machina.
Pumpkins’ maestro and principal songwriter Billy Corgan, a man notoriously known for his ambition, is doubling and tripling down on his prolific nature and is downright ferocious with creating as much art as is humanly possible in 2020. “I’ve been writing a book for years,” Corgan says when he pops up on Zoom for this interview, hurriedly eating a snack. “I get up early and write the book, and I just literally finished writing, so I’m trying to scramble.”
Besides that book, right now he’s also composing several intricate conceptual albums (a follow-up to Cyr is “about three-fourths done,” Corgan says), he owns the National Wrestling Alliance, and he just opened Madame ZuZu’s, a plant-based teashop and art studio in Chicago, with his wife, Chloe Mendel. (They also have two small children.) He recently collaborated with Carstens Amplification on a signature amp, called Grace, which he helped design. And he broke the news to PG that there’s another Reverend signature guitar in the works. The prototype is pictured on our cover and in this article (above).
The Smashing Pumpkins original lineup of Corgan, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, guitarist James Iha, and bassist D’arcy Wretzky mirrors the hybrid nature and push and pull of the group’s most celebrated work, Mellon Collie. Highs and lows of internal struggle and interrelationships are silver-lined with romantic, epic frolics in the light, yet marred by sorrowful valleys and conflict. At the height of their success in the ’90s grunge era—starting for the band with the 1991 debut Gish, building with Siamese Dream’s breakthrough wall-of-guitar sound in 1993 (that inspired generations of guitarists to seek that one-of-a-kind fuzz tone), to Mellon Collie, the album that blasted them into the top echelons of rock ’n’ roll history—the Smashing Pumpkins became one of the biggest groups in the world. After disbanding in 2000, Corgan formed Zwan, pursued solo works, and ultimately continued making music under the Pumpkins umbrella with a rotating cast. Guitarist Jeff Schroeder came into the fold in 2007 and remains a permanent member of the group today.
In 2018, James Iha rejoined the Pumpkins’ on tour for some live shows in L.A. and Chicago, and, not long after, he officially rejoined the band. With three out of four original Pumpkins’ reunited, they teamed up with Rick Rubin to make an eight-song LP called Shiny Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. Those sessions served as a prelude to now, which is ramping up to be one of the most productive periods for the Smashing Pumpkins in more than two decades. Cyr is the first time original members Corgan, Iha, and Chamberlin have created a conceptual album together since 2000’s Machina.
The Pumpkins are a different band today, with three bona fide guitarists in Corgan, Iha, and Schroeder. (Iha could not take part in this interview, due to a travel conflict.) Corgan calls Cyr—which he wrote and produced entirely by himself—a new way forward. He says the tradition has always been: “Stick our foot in something new and see what comes out.” This time, Corgan worked primarily in Pro Tools and played heavily with layering synths and remixing Chamberlin’s drums. To say that Cyr is more of an electronic record is not to say that the arrangements are any simpler. The album’s musical range is wide and unpredictable, incorporating elements of prog, and, well, most genres really, with heavy bass synths, lush layering, and, of course, a few extremely aggressive metal-guitar nods.
The band always had one foot in the past and one foot forward, but today Corgan seems to be standing in the now, with a goal to make music that reflects the rare time we’re all witnessing. Cyr’s release date was delayed multiple times because of the uncertainty of COVID-19, but Corgan was adamant that it be released in 2020. “It’s kind of a blurry,” Corgan says with a laugh. “My one mantra was, it’s all gotta come out this year. I’m not waiting. Please don’t make me go through Christmas, like I just gotta get this thing out of my life, like move on, next page, put the album out. It’s just music, no one will die. Everything’s fine.”
After all, he’s got other things to do, and next up is finishing the sequel to Mellon Collie, which means, we’ll find out what happens to the Zero character. Corgan had this to say about it.
“There’s some interesting messaging in the usage of those characters and how it’s played out over time,” he shares. “If I was being a bit glib about it, I would say that at the dawn of the internet age, circa ’95, whether I realized it or not, I started dealing with the dissociative effect of the coming culture. Unfortunately, over the last 25 years we’ve gotten more and more dissociative as individual people and as a culture and as groups, and we’re falling more into factions. We’re less unified by common ideas. So on one hand you have the rise of the super individual, the brand, the avatar, but you also have the falling away of old institutional thinking about how groups can be peacefully together. It’s very much the stuff of cyber-punk novels and dystopic sci-fi movies and stuff like that. So, in a weird way, this character launched me into a set of ideas that I may not have explored otherwise, including my grappling with my own self through the prism of fame or whatever. So it feels right to me to try to finish the story. If we started here, now we’re here. How does the story end? I talked to the band about it and everyone was interested in the idea so, we’re off.”
Pretty deep stuff, even after a year like 2020. And sonically?
“It’s pretty out there,” Corgan says. “It’s as heavy as anything we’ve ever done and it’s as out there as anything we’ve ever done [laughs].”
Until then, there’s a new experimental Smashing Pumpkins’ double album to digest. Read on as Corgan and Schroeder take us through the making of Cyr.
When talking about Cyr, you use the word “dystopic” a lot. That’s a fitting theme for these times.
Billy Corgan: That’s my new favorite word.
TIDBIT: The Smashing Pumpkins' 11th studio album, Cyr, was written and produced entirely by Billy Corgan. The companion animated series, In Ashes, features five songs from the 20-song double album.
How was the songwriting process different or the same with Cyr as compared with past Smashing Pumpkins albums like Mellon Collie?
Corgan: Well, I think the beginning is always the same—it’s like a riff, a motif, a chord change or something like that. The difference now is, over the past two years I’ve learned how to produce records in a more modern way, and so I had to let go of the way I’d always produced records before. I had made kinda modernish records but I ran them through the prism of the way I would normally do stuff. So TheFutureEmbrace, my first solo record, was electronic-ish but it was still made in the same way I would’ve made a Smashing Pumpkins record in terms of process. But now with everyone using technology I had to … it’s a very different process by which to work.
Jeff Schroeder: I think maybe sonically it is a bit of a departure. There’s a lot of synths, and even if there are guitars they kinda sound like synths sometimes so it’s hard to tell. So, in that way, it is a departure, but from my experience of working with the band as a recording entity, which basically goes back to the Teargarden project and Oceania, the studio process is relatively the same in that it’s a very slow, meticulous way of engagement. It’s not a very “off the cuff” band. It’s very thought-out; the aesthetic choices are very strategized. It’s just more the culmination of discussions that we had over time about where we saw new material going. The way that I understood what we were trying to do is that anything that felt like the older-style material—which maybe we did with the Rick Rubin album, if he wanted to indulge in some of that we were more than happy to. But on Cyr, we were very much like, even if that’s a good idea, if it feels like an older-style song let’s put it aside and look for things that feel fresh and new.
Billy, you write songs on piano and acoustic guitar. For Cyr, was that a pretty even toss, or did you favor writing on one more than the other?
Corgan: To me, it’s just always about a germ of an idea that I believe in. I always believe that a good idea can be jumped up and down on. It needs to be tested. In the old days, we would get in the rehearsal space and play a riff for an hour or something like that, and it was sort of testing your interest and curiosity and whether it was sort of inspired. Something emotional or romantic. So this is just different, but it’s also the same: a melody in the shower, a dream. I’m whore-ish when it comes to ideas [laughs]. I’ll take ’em as long as I like them.
How did the idea for this year’s In Ashes five-part animated series come about? How did you select the five out of Cyr’s 20 tracks for the series?
Corgan: Because of COVID, we were concerned we weren’t going to be able to make any videos in the traditional sense. So this idea was hatched about animation, that seemed more fun. We talked about maybe releasing five songs before the album. It felt right to me, because of the different nature of Cyr, if I gave people a chance to hear the music—that they familiarize themselves with it as opposed to having kind of a gut reaction of hearing all 20 [songs] at one time. I’ve had way too many experiences where people overreact to an album on first listen. Some of my most favorited albums now are ones that people had a completely negative reaction to the first time they heard it.