Billy Corgan on Touring with Marilyn Manson and Battling Nostalgia
Billy Corgan and Marilyn Manson have been close friends since the late Nineties, give or take a rift along the way. And on July 7th, Manson and Smashing Pumpkins will kick off a month-long co-headlining tour in California. “If you get two friends that have known each other this long, with the crazy journey that we’ve both had, I think it makes for an interesting spectacle,” says Corgan.
The Pumpkins frontman called RS to talk about the End Times tour, why he hates nostalgia, and what it takes to be a rock & roll survivor. “This summer, it will be me and Manson onstage,” he says. “Think of everything that has been written about him, and think of everything that has been written about me. At the end of the day, you’ll have two friends onstage singing songs that they love and that they wrote and that they care for. And when the show is over, me and him are going to hang out and laugh and do shit that friends do. To me, that’s what it’s really about. Everything else is a bunch of drama.”
Read on for a lightly edited transcript of our thoroughly illuminating, occasionally contentious, always entertaining conversation.
Are you approaching your set lists any differently on this tour than in the past? Which eras of the band are you emphasizing?
Oh, I don’t look at it like that. I just try to pick the best songs for the show. Manson will have a somewhat heavier crowd, so I’m sure that we will play heavier than we normally play. But I’m loathe to talk about my set list, because when I do, no one is ever satisfied. No matter what I play, someone is always mad. And yet I consistently get good reviews over the past three or four years! I’ve been playing really good sets. The public perception versus the reality doesn’t bear witness.
Will you stick to one set list over the course of the month, or switch things up as you go along?
I think it’s really difficult these days to switch sets up, because the audience is so ADD. It’s like a Broadway show. You figure out your best foot forward. If you have to tweak it, you tweak it, but it’s not like the old days when you could change the set list every night and anything could happen. The audience doesn’t want it. I’ve learned that lesson. I’m more than happy to play a really high-quality set that I feel confident in. It’s not the rock & roll I grew up on, but that’s your generation, not mine.
I am not about fighting the audience anymore. Those days are over.
What do you mean?
Well, I assume you are younger than I am? [Laughs] I’m 48 years old. I’m assuming that you’re somewhere in your twenties or early thirties? So that’s what I’m saying. It’s your generation versus mine. The generation that followed mine was more pop-driven, more spectacle-driven, more MTV-moment-driven, and it’s gotten worse as it’s gone on. You can fight that and be a lone soldier, or you can figure out how to be the best that you can be under a particular set of circumstances. I’ve said publicly many times, I am not about fighting the audience anymore. Those days are over.
Both you and Manson became stars in the Nineties. Do you think there’s a risk of people seeing this as a nostalgia tour?
Anybody who calls us a nostalgia show does not know what the fuck they are talking about. Seriously. I mean, he has just released one of the best albums of his career, and my last two albums were super highly reviewed and well received, so they don’t know what the fuck they are talking about.
Sure, but at least some portion of the audience is going to be there to hear the records they liked 15 or 20 years ago. How do you feel about that?
I don’t care. That’s a nostalgia-sentimentality-based business that I am not a part of. It’s like saying because one movie company makes cartoons and another company makes movies, I’m in the cartoon business. I feel like people lump me into the cartoon business, and I don’t want to be in the cartoon business. It’s very simple: You’ve got two great artists, two great histories, still making great music. We are going to go out and kick ass as good or better than somebody in their twenties or thirties or whatever. Either believe it or don’t – but if you don’t, then you will miss something that you rarely see, which in this case will be three hours of really powerful music. I mean, there is a point where you can’t apologize for that, or you can’t really explain it to someone who’s got their head up their ass with a selfie stick.
That’s quite an image.
Thank you. I am a published poet. [Laughs]
You were quoted a few months ago saying the next Smashing Pumpkins album might be the last one. Is that still how you feel?
Never said that. I have been asked about it maybe 40 times since, and I have said the same thing every time. Never said it. All I was saying was that if these albums that I am doing – I’m now on the second of the two – don’t go where I need them to go, then I would take the Smashing Pumpkins in a different direction, i.e., I would maybe make four-hour albums, or I would make one song at a time again. But it doesn’t fly in the social-media era, because all it does is become clickbait. No one will actually read what you said. No one will actually read the subtext of your quote. I’m waking up and realizing that I don’t want to be clickbait anymore. Here’s a good headline: “Billy Corgan Slams Himself.” [Laughs.] “Billy Corgan Rips Himself.”
So just to be totally clear, as far as you’re concerned Smashing Pumpkins are alive and well for the foreseeable future?
Yeah, I think the new album we’re making is very exciting. It’s very futuristic. I’ve basically said that Smashing Pumpkins dies when I die, and maybe not even then. Maybe my niece will take over the franchise when I’m dead. Kiss is already talking about continuing past Gene and Paul, so why not the Smashing Pumpkins beyond William Patrick Corgan? We live in an era when everything is alive and everything is dead at the same time. If you are a fan of a particular band that’s older, you can go on YouTube and relive their past as much as you want to. You don’t have to go see them live. You don’t have to listen to their new music. And then you have fans that are really not connected to, in my case, the Nineties. They know the Nineties music, sort of, but it’s not their music. We are dealing with a conflux of so many different audiences coming from so many different directions now.
Another quote that’s been widely circulated was when you said at a show that you wanted to be called William, not Billy. I have a feeling you might want to correct the record on that. Do you?
Well, there’s another one. My name is actually William. I was born William. That’s my birth certificate name. And so all I have been doing in my private life is that I’ve been asking people to call me William, because at some point Billy just feels weird. It’s sort of a young man’s name. I feel more like a William than a Bill or a Billy. I see Billy as a professional name, and William as my real name – much like Axl Rose is not Axl Rose’s real name. His real name is William as far as I know. Again, it’s clickbait stuff. I said to people jokingly, “By the way, you should call me William.” It’s a joke! Some people call me William, some people call me Billy, and I respond to both. But again, clickbait somehow turns it into me being dramatic because I asked people to call me by my name. [Laughs]
Smashing Pumpkins will be eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year. Is that something you care about?
It’s a really difficult thing to get into, because the politics are really rich there. I’m a fan of Deep Purple. I’m a fan of Cheap Trick. Both of those bands belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, yet they are not in there. So is it a meritocracy or is it a political thing or is it that somebody pissed somebody off along the way? I don’t know. Kiss and Black Sabbath finally got in. I certainly think that we have earned our place among the great bands, and I think that the longevity of the music and the fact that we are still out playing at a high level – that’s what rock & roll is supposed to be about, you know? I feel like a day would come where it would make sense, but do I trust that it’s going to happen when it is supposed to happen? Do I trust it’s going to happen while I am alive? I don’t live like that. I’ve been disappointed too many times to think that rock & roll is fair. No disrespect, but half the questions we’re talking about are clickbait questions that are not about music, that are about me being a drama queen or not. For me, it’s like, what does it all mean? That’s why Manson is such a great artist. It’s because – obviously, I’m in wrestling – he works the crowd. He finds those things that are uncomfortable or make them question their own sanity. I’m almost the complete opposite. I make myself a different kind of target.
It’s interesting that you mention wrestling. Is there an element of that that you bring to your own performances now?
I’ve been doing it for 20 years. People are just not wise enough to understand that they’re being, as we say in wrestling, worked. My public image is based on a series of things that I have done as a performance artist to convince people that I’m somebody that I am not. I’ve done it for so long and so well that people actually think I’m that person – so then I am asked in my current reality to answer to something that I did as an artist with the idea that somehow I was a real person who didn’t have the sentient intelligence to know that I was being ridiculous.
Does that get tiring, having people expect you to play that persona?
It gets tiring when people don’t realize that it is a persona. Just follow my logic, OK? I don’t know you. Maybe you’re a fan, maybe you’re not. It really doesn’t matter. You might have seen a headline, you might have seen a quote where I was having a bad day and I told somebody to fuck off. That’s reality, whether I want it to be or not. And I could sit here all day and get into statistics and accomplishments, and give you a very sensible conversation about how the audience at times isn’t very bright or sophisticated enough to even understand that performers are performers. That’s what makes them really good at what they do, because they can turn it on and turn it off. And usually the ones who can’t turn it off are the ones who die young. So they are not around to be asked questions about nostalgia, because they’re dead. Manson and I have survived. We have survived trends, we’ve survived personal attacks, we have survived our own insanity. How is that possible? There must be a level of consciousness within us that separates the person inside from the performance artist.