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Billy Corgan, frontman of The Smashing Pumpkins, on 'ATUM'


Few rock bands are as prolific, dynamic and ambitious as The Smashing Pumpkins. The group just released the final act of a 33-song rock opera called "ATUM."


SIMON: The Chicago band has been making powerful and complex rock for decades. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan joins us now from Los Angeles. Hey, hey, as they say at Wrigley Field.

BILLY CORGAN: Hello, sir. How are you today?

SIMON: Fine. Thank you. Opera begins with an instrumental piece that sort of takes us into the vastness of space.


SIMON: And here we meet Shiny, the banished rock star. What is Shiny doing here?

CORGAN: Well, the contrivance of the narrative is that he's an artist whose - maybe his best days are past him. He doesn't have a lot of cultural or social significance, but for whatever reason, he represents a threat to a global order which doesn't necessarily want any dissonant voices. He's basically given an option, which is rather than put you in a jail and let you languish away, we're willing to put you in space in a spacecraft for one, and that's where you'll spend the rest of your days. And so he's exiled.


THE SMASHING PUMPKINS: (Singing) Who sweeps the squalid rain to scan through pinks and gray?

SIMON: Tell us about June, his comrade.

CORGAN: So June is a fan or an acolyte who is obsessed with Shiny. He doesn't know this person, but she's from a wealthy family, so she puts herself next to him in space where she can kind of keep tabs on him, even if it's sort of an emotional sense that at least somebody is there for him. So the second song in the musical, The "Butterfly Suite," that's her kind of daily love song in an old Hollywood musical way.


THE SMASHING PUMPKINS: (Singing) It's morning to good morning. Good morning to you, sun. Don't ever set on our love, as our love has begun. I'm here to be, to stave the dream with you. Believe.

CORGAN: On this particular day, he punches in a code which is like, hey, you always have the option of taking this very noble - the act has been propagandized as a sort of a noble end. So it's called the March of Life. You punch in a code, and your ship breaks orbit and just starts to float towards the sun. Of course, she's heart-stricken because this is the great love of her life floating away in space.


THE SMASHING PUMPKINS: (Singing) ...You unto I.

SIMON: Now, I gather this builds on your 1995 double album, "Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness." What were you picking up from that album? What made you kind of complete that arc?

CORGAN: When we were doing what became our big style of "Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness," we were at the height of sort of rising fame, MTV time, and I felt this need to do a larger work, which became conceptual. Behind the scenes, when I went to the record company, they said, please, please don't do a double album. No one cares about those things anymore. And we went on to make something which really touched a generation and became - you know, I think it's one of the only albums that's ever gone diamond. Enough of my bragging, but my point is I took this intellectual and creative leap, and it ended up sort of working out. In 2000 when the band was breaking up, we did a second conceptual work called "Machina," which sort of documents my descent into madness, which was, on some level, somewhat literal, and then the band's implosion, which was real. So I never thought there would be a third chapter to this story, but the band ended up getting back together, at least three-quarters of it.

SIMON: I don't want to just slide over that phrase, descent into madness.

CORGAN: Is that a question, or a...

SIMON: Well, that was real?

CORGAN: Oh, yeah. No, absolutely. You know, there were a lot of forces going on. One was dealing with loss. My mother had died. The band, of course, imploding far before its due date was very haunting for me. And then, you know, we had what now, of course, everybody understands in hindsight is this coming technological revolution. It changed the dynamic models within the music business about how artists made their money. Suddenly, everybody was losing money. No one was selling records anymore. So as you can imagine, within the record business, the reaction was to become very conservative, which is not my normal MO. So suddenly, you had a lot of fear. And when you put fear and art together, it tends not to result in a great work. It doesn't touch people at a deeper level because it's based in something that I don't think most people resonate to, which is fear.


THE SMASHING PUMPKINS: (Singing) We stand on clover shield - hunted, yet unloved, seasick as one preys through tasteless, dray haze. I'm waiting on your fireflies.

SIMON: Mr. Corgan, may I ask you about your father?

CORGAN: Sure. Anything you want.

SIMON: You've spoken about him in the past - three-time convicted criminal. I will say so you don't have to, from - in your explanation, often cold and cruel to you.

CORGAN: Well, you know, my father, in an unkind way, used to say it's good you had such a terrible childhood because it made you a better rock star. And my argument was always, Dad, you don't know who I would have become without that, you know? Maybe I would've been a great classical composer and not some dissociative, struggling artist in a musical business that doesn't value people like me often. And I certainly receive validation from my father, who was a musician, a very good musician. He did have opportunities in the music business and squandered every opportunity he had, mostly because of drugs and his issues with addiction.

So navigating his disappointment and bitterness with his life experience and then him trying to figure out what to do with mine, it was both tangible in the sense that he understood music - he understood what I was trying to do, but he oftentimes couldn't understand the scale of the challenge. So when I would call him up and say, yeah - you know, he'd say, what are you doing? Well, I was just at the White House yesterday. It was hard for him to navigate that.

SIMON: But I'm struck by the fact that you still called him.

CORGAN: Well, we had our ups and downs. There were years there where we didn't talk, and there were years that we did. My father passed away, for everybody listening, about a year and a half ago. And we certainly had made our peace, but I can't say I ever felt like we reached a point of true understanding. After our second album came out and it was quite successful, he called me and said - and I sort of was bracing for the conversation because I thought, oh, here comes the horrible criticism. And he said, I don't know the person that made this record. And I said, he's been standing in front of you the whole time.

SIMON: Wow. One of the last songs - and what I'll call this project - is "Spellbinding."


THE SMASHING PUMPKINS: (Singing) It's Berlin, baby, Luxor and daisies, and I'm plumb crazy for your tomorrows. It's Weimar lately, Luxor and daisies, and I'm plumb crazy for your tomorrows.

SIMON: Crazy for your tomorrows. There's a lot of hope there.

CORGAN: It happens to me occasionally. I have moments of optimism.

SIMON: And what do we make of, take me away. I'm going to find you?

CORGAN: If you don't mind, I'll share a story with you I've never shared. The day where we recording the song that you just played, the song was basically the part you just played. That's all there was. Well, that morning, I had a dream. And it doesn't happen to me often, but it has happened where I'll dream a song that I have not yet written.


THE SMASHING PUMPKINS: (Singing) Take me away. I'm gonna find you.

CORGAN: When I came to the studio that morning, we start recording, and we reached a point in the song where I thought, it gets a bit boring here. And I said, hey, you know what? I wonder if that dream that I had fits in this song. And it was the exact right key change, and we literally just dropped the dream into the song. It's magical the way it happened. I wish it happened to all the songs. But on that song, it was just a kind of a one-in-a-zillion thing.

SIMON: Billy Corgan, frontman of The Smashing Pumpkins. And "ATUM," the third and final act of their rock opera, is out now. Mr. Corgan, thank you so much.

CORGAN: Oh, thank you, my friend. Nice talking to you.


THE SMASHING PUMPKINS: (Singing) Take me away. I'm gonna find you 'cause nobody else could ever mind you. Take me away. I'm gonna find you. You drew to this rye while I was righting my own sun, bright as your eye and glitched. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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