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Billy Corgan on Smashing Pumpkins 20th anniversary tour

December 3, 2008 |  7:46 am

Corgan__3jpg Anniversary concert tours are traditionally about celebrating history and waxing nostalgic with loyal fans. But the Smashing Pumpkins don’t put much stock in tradition, even less in nostalgia.

So on the group’s 20th anniversary tour, which reached Los Angeles this week for shows Tuesday and tonight at the Gibson Amphitheatre, founding members Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin are emphasizing provocation over comforting celebration, with performances that have been greeted by as many jeers as cheers in previous tour stops.

That’s stemmed from set lists devoted as much or more to new and outside material as well as extended jams than the group’s hits.

“These past 20 years (not that I've been a fan for that long) of music have been awesome,” wrote one fan on the Pumpkins' fan forum after the group’s New York show last month, “and we're looking forward to another 20. But out of the 25 songs that are played or so, give us 2 or 3 that would make us -- the true fans -- have a nostalgic, or ‘mellon collie’ moment.”

That’s the kind of response that has prompted some onstage rants from Corgan, and more caustic feedback from the Pumpkin faithful.

“When we played in New York,” Corgan, 41, said Monday in Hollywood, relaxing backstage after a TV show taping, “people were freaking out and screaming and yelling ‘This sucks!’ yet [New York Times rock critic Jon] Pareles gave us a good review, because we’re still dangerous and we’re still relevant on some intrinsic musical level that can’t even be defined.”

The veteran Chicago band has booked many two-night stands on this tour, crafting distinct sets for each of the two nights -- labeled “Black Sunshine” the first night, “White Crosses” the second -- in part so that those who catch both nights won’t be subjected to major repetition of the material.

But it’s also designed to keep the musicians’ focus ahead rather than in their rear-view mirror. “If you spend 80% of your time talking about how great the past was, where are you living?” Chamberlin said.

Another result of that viewpoint is Smashing Pumpkins’ decision to dole out new songs and videos in a variety of places -- the song “G.L.O.W.” as a new “Guitar Hero” audio and MySpace video download, its four-song “American Gothic” EP issued earlier this year only as a download.

“The album format is dead,” Chamberlin said Monday. Yet he and Corgan both say they’re interested in remaining connected with a mass audience, a connection Corgan half-jokingly describes as “intrinsic to our nihilistic art objectives.”

And that’s the challenge to today’s musicians, especially those looking for a deeper connection than possible through selling ringtones or getting songs placed as soundtracks for TV commercials.

“I think our generation has shown that they are really not interested in buying music,” Corgan said. “If you start with our generation and moving forward, I think it’s not looking very good for the future.  Right now the music business continues to survive on the Paul McCartney tour.

“There’s a built-in business that continues to go on for the Elton Johns of the world, who are very solid artists. And there are plenty of people who still want to go out and see Fleetwood Mac. But when those people go out of circulation, I think it’s going to be a very different business.”

And Corgan, who’s never been much of an optimist as the writer of dark songs of angst and alienation, isn’t especially upbeat about how that difference will play out.

“You no longer have [institutions] to tell you what has more value," he said. "Growing up, I wasn’t necessarily a fan of Van Morrison, but I knew Van Morrison was an important artist just by the way he was talked about, by the way he was portrayed, by the way he was photographed. You don’t get that any more.

“If you don’t fit into this kind of like gossipy, trendy, Web-hit thingy, you’re relegated to sort of second-class celebrity status,” he said. “We don’t have a real peer support group that says 'This is valuable; this isn’t valuable.'''

“So we have to adapt to a different set of values,” he said. “But the pressure we get, being in our 40s, is to adapt to a non-set of values, and we refuse, because we see that as the signatory to our death.”

--Randy Lewis   

Photo: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times