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Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan on creating his new solo album and the death of the old school producer

In addition to being one of the greatest US rock icons in recent history, Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan is also something of an accomplished studio whizz. Daniel Gumble caught up with him to discuss the making of his new solo album Ogilala…

Billy Corgan has endured a long and complex relationship with the music industry over the past 25 years. Since exploding on to the alt rock landscape with Smashing Pumpkins, he has established himself as one of the most prolific, revered and versatile songwriters in the canon of contemporary rock, releasing music under various guises and of a variety of different styles over the past quarter of a century.

Yet a fixation from certain quarters of the music press and sections of his fan base with the Pumpkins and Corgan as little more than heavy riff merchant, has caused him no little consternation over the years. A multitude of releases under the Pumpkins moniker – albeit with an ever-revolving door of members – supergroup Zwan and a solo record have more than sufficiently showcased his artistic dexterity, yet still, he claims, he has been tethered to his alt rock tag.

Despite their inextricable affiliation with heavy rock, the Pumpkins regularly ventured outside of the confines of Corgan’s juggernaut riffs and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain’s earth shattering beats, producing everything from fragile, piano driven ballads, industrial electronica and acoustic pop. Zwan, meanwhile, formed in 2001 with members of the Smashing Pumpkins, Slint, Tortoise, Chavez, and A Perfect Circle, revealed more of a pop focused rock sound, while 2005 solo outing The Future Embrace pursued a more electronic, shoegaze-tinged sound.

“If you look at my work in the ‘90s I did whatever I wanted to do: I made electronic music, acoustic music, rock music, I had hits with every style, literally,” he tells PSNEurope as we settle in for a chat about the production of his beautiful new solo album Ogilala, released under the name William Patrick Corgan.

“We wanted to be The Beatles. We wanted to have Eleanor Rigby and A Day In The Life. We didn’t see the contradiction. Then in the 2000s, in the collective hypnosis of the world, suddenly I was only in an alternative rock band. So if I made Smashing Pumpkins music and it didn’t sound like alternative rock music – whatever the fuck that means – I’m somehow letting the fans down. So I’ve had to let the Pumpkins just be what people think it is. I would be happy calling everything Smashing Pumpkins. Using my own name and all that stuff doesn’t mean anything to me. I would be comfortable releasing every song I ever wrote under the band name.”

Throughout the course of his career, Corgan has also amassed a wealth of studio experience as a producer and engineer, having produced or co-produced several Pumpkins records of the years, as well as releases from Zwan and his debut solo album. Yet in spite of his plentiful production credentials, he opted not to produce Ogilala himself, instead calling on the services of rock producer extraordinaire and friend of over two decades, Rick Rubin, to take up duties behind the desk.

The move to recruit a producer and not take on the role himself is arguably a surprising one, especially given the stripped back, highly personal nature of the album. Stripped back largely to acoustic guitar and/or piano, with the occasional orchestral flourish, Ogilala presents Corgan’s songwriting prowess in its barest, most intimate form, allowing voice and lyrics to take centre stage for proceedings. So why not go it alone in the studio as well?

“Well, when you’ve got Rick Rubin willing to help…” he laughs. “And I was at a point in my life where I was feeling a bit low and I was open to the idea of not taking on the extra stress. Also, I just had a kid – at that point my son would have been about a year old – so I had a lot going on. And some of the criticism of my work in the past few years suggested that I’ve tried to take on too much.

“I’ve known [Rick] for 20 years and I called him to ask if he could recommend someone for me to work with,” he continues. “I thought he would know who the hot young producer would be. And I told him it was a kind of personal record and that maybe it would need a different approach, and he said, Well that’s something I’d be interested in doing.”

Though Rubin is credited as the producer of the record, Corgan played a collaborative role in the studio, working closely on each and every aspect of the songs, from structure and arrangement to its overall sound and additional instrumentation.

“We collaborated on everything,” he states. “He would make suggestions where he thought it was needed and then if he was happy where we were going he would offer very little feedback, like, You figured it out for yourself. And some of the songs really benefitted from his suggestions. Then once the tracks were done it was like, Well what are we going to add to this. It was very comfortable and having known each other for 20 years really helps. It wasn’t like, Oh my God, it’s Rick Rubin! He’s like my buddy. And he’s so supportive that he really trusts when you’re going in the right direction. There’s no head games – he just tells you what he thinks.”

Given Corgan’s extensive experience in the studio, he also feels that there are now very few producers he’d be able to enter the studio with, describing that a close understanding of a given producer’s methodology as essential.

“As someone who’s almost unproducable at this point in my life, I think [a strong knowledge and existing relationship] with a producer is what it would take for me to go into the studio with them,” he says. “I haven’t really tried to work with a lot of people. I’ve certainly entertained it, because there are a lot of people out there doing really great work. But for me personally, having been trained by Butch Vig and Flood and Alan Moulder, I feel comfortable doing what I’m doing. And probably the only weakness in my game is that I don’t always have the separation between me the artist and me the producer that I should have. Very little surprises me in the studio at this point because I’ve spent so many hours in the studio. It’s just so much experience that maybe it’s counter productive.”

Although he has learned from some of the best in the business when it comes to audio production, Corgan claims that his studio style has been predominantly shaped by someone with whom he has yet to make music with.

“Probably the greatest influence on my life is somebody I’ve never worked with as a producer and that’s Brian Eno,” he reveals. “Working with Flood I learned this deconstructionist method, that to my understanding came from Eno. Sort of stripping back and moving perspectives around on how you look at music. Obviously that had a big influence on Flood, who also had a huge influence on me. And having worked with someone who’s a great tactician and great song person and sonic person like Butch Vig, as much as I recognise that’s a really effective way to make records, it’s not my natural instinct. My natural instinct is to be more Dadaist. Like, why does the guitar have to sound a certain way? Why can’t it be like this? If you look at what I’ve done with the guitar over the years, I do whatever I want to do. There’s no rule there. Even in terms of the mix. You look at the way Kevin Shields mixed My Bloody Valentine, the idea is that the guitar was like the lead instrument and the vocal was almost supplemental. In the arts that’s also what I’m most attracted to. Like Man Ray. Why do we accept the world as it’s handed to us? Why can’t we subvert it with the power of our ideas?”

Given the vast changes in technology and the development of new production techniques that have surfaced over the course of Corgan’s career, he is now of the view that a distinct line has been established between generations of producers. Whether it’s the influence of a producer over the direction a record takes or major advances in technology, he believes that production styles can be clearly divided into ‘new’ and ‘old’.

“You could argue it’s very similar to the way the movie business is going,” he says. “There are so many cooks in the kitchen. The atmosphere of rock’n’ roll has become so competitive that no one person can do it on their own. Maybe we’re past the age of the auteur. You need someone who’s really skilled like Butch, so you can focus on the competitive part of what you have to do, which is singing well and playing well. I drank the cool aid on the Beatles idea, that we can all be our own auteurs. I’m going to cover Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus for something, so I’m working on the song and researching it online… that song is written by seven people! Every famous song I’ve ever written I wrote by myself. I arranged it myself, in many cases produced it myself; the idea I’d have six other people going, Well maybe there’s a better rhyme…maybe that’s what I need!

“I also think it bears pointing out that the rise in technology has shifted the role of the producer, so that maybe the role of the producer is as a vibe man at this point. You don’t need the perfect take anymore – someone can just chop you up and auto tune you. The Phil Spectors of the world would try to drag gold out of somebody who didn’t even know what they were after. He could see gold where the was no gold to be found, and he found it. Then you had the rise of the auteurs, the Crosby Stills and Nashes and The Beatles, like, We can create our own world. Then you get to the point where people can imitate. Anyone can sound like The Beatles now. You can get the exact plugin, you can study the chord charts or whatever and look up the song on YouTube. So maybe the old warhorses and auteurs are out of date.”

Though production styles have indeed changed dramatically over the past 25 years, Corgan is not looking back on times gone by with any misty-eyed romanticism. According to him, producers of today are simply taking a different approach to the business of making records.

“I think there is an old guard,” he ponders. “The Butches and the Rick [Rubins] of this world learned how to make records the old fashioned way. I think everything that has happened over the past 10 years shows me there is a whole group of people who don’t care about the old ways. They’ve learned and manufactured their own new ways, which involves technology and their methodology for making records and mixing is completely different. And I don’t see it as worse or better than, it’s just different. It’s like saying, Why hand wash your clothes when you can just throw them in the washing machine? While the clothes are being washed automatically you can focus on something else. That’s the world we’re in now. The focus has shifted on what’s important. Maybe that’s why Ogilala stands out, because it’s so not that other process. It harkens back to one man, one guitar, and if it’s really good it shows you can still compete.”

Regardless of where Corgan and Ogilala fit in today’s tech-driven studio culture, his approach to recording and releasing music remains fierce as ever. He already has more than enough material in the pipeline for a solo follow-up to Ogilala and has discussed the possibility of recording stripped down and alternate versions of his entire back catalogue. An as ever, the possibility of a reunion with his original Smashing Pumpkins bandmates remains an ongoing subject of speculation.

“Regardless of if I do anything more with the Pumpkins, which is sort of up in the air, I would like to do an acoustic based record every 18 months,” he concludes. “I’ve already written another album to follow up Ogilala, which is just sitting there. The difficulty is working out how this music fits in the world. It’s not easy to get on the radio and all those traditional things – it’s hard to market. My great hope is that it will be well enough received that it’ll allow me to do another record. I’d also like to do sessions where I record a lot of my old songs but in acoustic form. So over the next five years I would release 150-200 acoustic versions of my songs. I’ve released 300 so far and there is another 100 that haven’t been released. I could release that on my own label or something. Over time I could compile an alternate record of my songs – acoustic or piano versions as opposed to the more band-like versions. There are a lot of good songs there that have been overlooked because of the time or the production.”

At this point in Corgan’s career, who knows whether or not such a reunion will ever occur? And when he’s making music this good simply as William Patrick Corgan, who really cares?