Smashing Pumpkins might seem like an incongruous band for me to love. Yet, I do. I love the anthems, I love the distortion, I love the ballads. William Corgan hides devotional poetry in the midst of walls of sound, and it’s plain great songwriting. One of the intents of WITH is to share with you the different areas of life and experience that I personally find uplifting and encourages my creative spirit, and that’s what’s happening here. It was really a joy to speak with William for this interview and talk about his music and process.
WITH: How is it that listening to a favorite song can open an entire universe of emotions, feelings, and memories? How does music do that?
William Corgan: Well, I start with the premise that the human body is already hardwired for tonality or wave forms. We’re attuned to the sun — which of course is a wave — and darkness, which you could argue is a different form of a wave. But I think we’re also hardwired to receive sound in a way that affects us with certain common results. Certain modalities, certain keys, they strike a kind of common chord and I think an artist intuitively knows how to manipulate those tonalities to engender an emotional response that’s consistent with the vision that they have.
W: Can you give an example of this in a song you have written?
William: When I wrote the song “1979,” people asked me what I was thinking about when I wrote it, because it seemed to capture a kind of youthful moment. But the actual sense memory was sitting at a red light in my terrible 1975 Camaro with the wipers going back and forth on a cold, gray, Chicago day. That’s it.
That’s the memory. But it was this particular moment in my life, a particular road, a red light, and literally, just as I sit here talking to you, I can completely recall that. That moment was absolutely worthless. It was literally ten seconds, and it changed my life. What a fantastic and crazy thing.
W: When you write a song, are you thinking about tonality, or something else?
William: Oftentimes I write from a visual picture in my mind. I would say that I’m able to translate through one medium, which is memory, into a physical medium, sound.
W: Is this something like resonance?
William: I think harmonic resonance is a different field of science altogether. For example, in punk rock music there is a lot of distortion. Distortion is built on dissonant resonance. You know, like taking two waves and crashing them together to create a sense of unease. It can allow you to access the unconscious part of the human system. Some people do it with drones, like in Indian music, where you find resonant harmonies and frequencies and interpolating patterns that get into the quantum part of the frequency content.
W: Does quantum physics play a part in your creative process?
William: Very much. It very much involves the idea of creating. So, when I make music, I create reality. I create out of nothing. That doesn’t mean I invented the guitar or the frequencies, but I can take silence and can fill that silence with something, and that changes reality. So, I believe in the ability to do that on a quantum level.
W: When you talk about pulling it from a quantum level, are you talking about turning potential into something tangible?
William: I think so. I mean, let’s go at it from a different angle. Let’s take a sculptor, okay? The rock exists as inanimate matter, but the sculptor is able to carve an image. The sculptor doesn’t create out of nothing, but rather out of something that wasn’t there before. Or, maybe it was there, but we didn’t have the capacity to see it. So, I’m able to harmonize or synchronize a sea of noise, or a sea of silence, into something that is concrete.
W: There’s the story of the sculptor when asked, “How could you create such a thing of beauty from this block of stone?” responded, “I just chip away at everything that wasn’t the statue.”
William: Fantastic. I actually think one of the most important faculties of a creator is discernment. You can put me in a room with a hundred objects and I’ll know the seven that I need to pick up to make the thing I want to make. So, part of being a creator is also knowing what not to waste your time with.
The way I look at it is that there’s all this stuff that exists, and all I am is a prism that refracts the light, or the waves, in a new direction and it makes you think or feel something different. I don’t take personal possession of the source code. I only take personal possession of my ability to refract in a different direction that allows me both an inner and outer experience. I take possession of what I’m creating.
W: Your songwriting catalog is so prolific, I wonder do you ever restrain yourself and only want to write a song if it’s perfect? Folks who practice Yoga and meditation sometimes fall into a danger zone of wanting to do things “perfect” — which is of course not the intent of a contemplative practice.
William: I believe my heart is God’s heart. So, when I speak my heart, I’m speaking God’s heart. And when I’m not speaking God’s heart, I can feel it. It doesn’t have the same, sustained truth.
One thing I’ve spoken about only a few times in public is my transformation as an artist when I allowed myself to write a bad song. When I allowed myself to be imperfect, the true messages came through. We all recognize that moment where it lines up. When it happens, I think most of us would say there’s a higher message that comes through, and it’s an elevated message.
W: What are your thoughts on the undependable nature of the creative process? Can creativity be a continuous state?
William: Well, I’m a bit of a rebel in this regard and I can only speak from the standpoint of creative process. I believe you can mechanize the creative process. Many artists do not believe in this concept. They believe in waiting for a train and when it comes, knowing which one to hop on. I made a different decision in my mid to late 20s. I wasn’t going to wait around for that train. So, I started mechanizing my creative process.
Siamese Dream was successful, but it was an incredibly torturous, emotional process and it almost killed me. I was suicidal for a long period of time and I barely survived the process. I was like, okay, this is not going to work again.
W: What changes did you make?
William: I made a critical decision, which was that I’m going to spend four hours a day in creative practice. This is a bit laughable now because now I’m probably at around 12 hours a day, but at the time it was a big deal to devote four entire hours every day to my creative process. Over time, I was able to go 12 or 14 hours in that high meta state where I was engaged with things that would stimulate my thinking — films, books, articles, paintings. Once I was able to achieve an almost industrial scale of focus on the creative level I started writing songs like crazy. I couldn’t write them fast enough.
W: I’ve not spoken to you about your songs, but I do want to bring up to an audience that might not be familiar with you that there is a very distinct spirituality or religiosity moving through your lyrics. The first song on the first Smashing Pumpkins album Gish is called “I am One,” followed by the song, “Siva.” There are transcendent lyrics on each of your albums that one might miss, amidst the tremendous guitar sounds and big rocking moments.
William: You’re making my heart smile because no one talks to me about these things. Our mutual friend Sherene told me: “In the Tarot you are The Hermit at the door with the lantern, peering into the darkness with the lantern — but you’re also seeing if anybody’s coming.” It’s a very Dark Night of the Soul – kind of a thing. In a journey to God, we have this faith that we’re going to cross this dark valley and once we get to the other side our lovers are going to be waiting for us. And in this case, it’s God.
I love the analogy of traveling through a dark valley at night by yourself. The spiritual practice is an achievement of clarity, and it can be very lonely. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve lived this very lonely life trying to communicate about my experiences to God. One of the harrowing parts of that is knowing that most people cannot hear what I’m saying. Not because they can’t physically hear what I’m saying, but because they’re not in a place to hear what I’m saying. That pains me, you know what I mean? Because it’s the spiritual equivalent of shouting at the void. I want to get over there to where God is and that’s my life.
W: You have experienced a lot of things that our culture tells us will make us happy — fame, recognition for our art, a devoted fan base — do these things indeed make one happy?
William: We live in a culture here in the West that is absolutely obsessed with materialism and fame. I’m considered by many to be a public idiot because I will not play with fame as a public currency in the way that people think I should. Fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We’re living in a completely false construct, and it’s getting more false by the moment. And then between those little moments, there’s people like you that are communicating different ideas and we’re kind of out here floating in space.
It’s lovely to talk about these things. Honestly, it’s a total pleasure because I’ve had so many conversations that are so far away from what I care about, and this is what I care about.
Never listened to Smashing Pumpkins before? You can check out this playlist I put together, starting with songs for those with sensitive ears, and ending with a few that are a bit louder.