Billy Corgan has gone on record as saying the new Smashing Pumpkins album, Oceania, out Tuesday, is the band’s best in 16 years. He’s probably right. It’s a return to form for the kingpin nineties alt-rockers, who, in the mind of Corgan, had to either put up or shut up. And for Corgan, the former has always been a better option than the latter.
We kind of lost track of the Smashing Pumpkins. Where are they, in 2012?
There’s a cultural divide. There are people who don’t want to embrace the band within their own hypocritical value system, and who use the band as a touchstone for what not to do. And then you have another class, which is rising, that loves the band. You see the Smashing Pumpkins being name-checked, particularly by young musicians. And then there is a new argument that says, “Well, Billy Corgan did some good music between these years, but he’s an idiot outside of that.” As if aliens had replaced me after 1997.
How would you characterize your relationship with rock critics?
Really, generally, rock ’n’ roll is a murderous business. There’s a lot of agendas flying around. At the end of the day, you either have your foot on somebody’s neck, or they have their foot on yours.
I’m guessing that’s not what you signed up for, originally.
Not at all. I was very naive. The fact that I’m still here and in it shows some pathological weakness, because it’s really not for a person like me. Then again, I can look at my idols, like Rush, Neil Young and Tom Waits, and say, “They made their own niche, and they’ve had much courage and temerity to stick with it.” I’ve taken inspiration from that.
Look at Fleet Foxes or Arcade Fire. Isn’t niche what it’s all about these days?
When I spoke at South by Southwest my No. 1 critique of musical culture is that you have no transitional space. I actually used Arcade Fire as an example of a band, given another time and another system, that would have crossed over like the Talking Heads did. But they didn’t.
And so what?
I think there’s a special thing when you take radical musicians and radical artists and bring them into the mainstream. Both the mainstream and the artist are transformed. I think that’s one of the best things about rock ’n’ roll.
The Beatles wanting to be the topper-most of the popper-most. That drive worked out to be a pretty good thing, right?
The Beatles are an excellent example. We’re still feeling the cultural zeitgeist that followed them and was created by them. And that goes way beyond the music. Healthy competition is a good thing. I find it very suspicious when musicians preach to choirs that already love them. That’s not an artistic life – it’s a life of comfort.
What’s the ambition of the Smashing Pumpkins with this new album?
It’s pretty simple. We had to get back on the positive side of this equation, or we just couldn’t operate. At the risk of self-aggrandizement, I’m a pretty good songwriter. I’ve made popular music before. And to be marginalized into nothingness by a critical class who sees me as a curiosity and an oddity is beneath me. But the end of the day, you have to deliver something. It’s either put up, or shut up. And so we have delivered something now. It’s what we do with that.
In the defence of critics, even you have said this album is your best in 16 years. Which suggests you haven’t been putting out your strongest work in a long time.
It’s hard to qualify the word “best.” Maybe it’s not even worth trying. It’s more the cohesion in the thing. The album is a cohesive statement. But that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of the other things I’ve done for different reasons.
And what is this cohesive statement?
That, hello, I’m still here. I’m still fairly capable. I can still sing in the original keys. I still think I belong in the game, at a very high level.
I’m guessing you’ve always felt that way. What was it like to be dismissed, critically, over these last years?
It’s like that weird thing, where you think somebody’s waving at you, and you wave back. But they’re waving at somebody behind you, and you feel like a complete idiot. I’ve been having that experience for a while.
And how do you get people to start waving at you again?
Linda Perry, the great producer and songwriter, once told me tha t all modern albums basically just need to be greatest hits. That why waste one of the songs on your album with anything less than something top level? And so, when we made Oceania, that was the best we had to offer. There was nothing left in the tank. It was the best I had.
This interview has been condensed and edited.