“Music has been hijacked by business, much like the American spirit has been hijacked by corporate interest. It’s a reflection of our greater culture, where our value systems are being powered by the grammar of fame, the grammar of power, the grammar of control. And none of these things matter in the eyes of God, in my opinion,” Billy Corgan, part-sage, part-angry-middle-aged man, speaks to a handful of Filipino press figures. He is fielding questions on behalf of the rest of his band, the Smashing Pumpkins, whose newish personnel (a mere one album to their credit, but a damn strong one) is touring the world in support of the bald-headed singer-songwriter-guitarist’s newest opus, Oceania. Reminiscent of the long-form narrative that is Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, this present record is, in a sense, part of a bigger story, a forty-four-song epic called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, the massive undertaking first announced by Corgan in 2009. However, it is, more importantly, also a stand-alone record, one that seeks to relive the glory days of the album being a cohesive statement meant to be experienced in sequence, and not a mere collection of catchy singles.
And, to the humorless hipsters who think SP releases no longer matter, Corgan says he is swathed in the embrace not of commercial valuation but the devotion of their fans. “What we’re seeing in the world is, the old system, which said the only way you’re valuable is if you sell records, or if you get on the radio, or if you get on MTV: those values don’t matter anymore. What the Smashing Pumpkins means as a band is so much more valuable—what we mean to people—is so much more valuable than our commercial value,” Corgan posits, proud and defiant. The band’s present roster—which includes guitarist Jeff Schroeder (the comparative literature graduate who used to play for The Lassie Foundation), bassist Nicole Fiorentino (formerly of Veruca Salt, and no, she was not one of the girls in the Siamese Dream cover, by the way), and drummer Mike Byrne (who was for a time bandmates with Corgan in Spirits in the Sky, the group especially convened to pay tribute to the late Sky Saxon of The Seeds)—are aware of the historical baggage of the band they’re in, but are also unfettered by it. Corgan expounds, “No, they’re not intimidated, nor should they be. How we work in intimate spaces is like a family: we eat together, we travel together. We don’t sleep together. But we have musical respect, and, also—maybe in a way that was lacking in some of my earlier bands—we have personal respect, and that’s coming out in the music.”
Oceania, by all accounts, is the first great Pumpkins album in a long time, a far cry from the lukewarm reception the band’s most recent efforts got, and that includes Zeitgeist, the last album with original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in it. It is rich in sonic texture, distorted-guitar bombast (“Quasar”), gone-apeshit drumming (“Panopticon”), but also metaphor (“My Love is Winter”) and heart (“The Celestials”). Clearly, Corgan and company do not want to end up as an “alluring, virtual jukebox” of revivalism and nostalgia, a thing some of his ‘90s peers have fallen prey to. “There are those bands that are, essentially, coming back only to make money, playing their old albums, and maybe, somewhere in the back of their mind, they’re thinking there might be a future. I’m not in that business, obviously. I condemn anybody who’s in that business that doesn’t admit they’re in that business,” the man behind such hits as “Today,” “Disarm,” “Tonight, Tonight,” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” insists, mentioning comebacks by Soundgarden and Pavement in the process, causing the room to fall deaf, silent, or both. “We can’t run an oldies business. Not that it’s always boring; it’s actually not a very good business. It’s just not,” he adds. Testament to that, of course, is their intention to perform Oceania in its entirety in their Manila show August 7 [update: August 8], which happens at the Araneta Coliseum. The latter part of the show, meanwhile, will be devoted to better-known songs in their catalogue. Visuals will be provided by Sean Evans, whose most recent work was on a restaging of Roger Waters’ The Wall.
Corgan, who, along with fellow frontmen Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Layne Staley, and a few others, defined what it meant to be “alternative” two decades ago, sticks to its basic principles amid a perennially vacillating musical atmosphere. “Alternative culture is also about values: being yourself, being an individual. And when those things are hijacked and then it becomes more like a fashion show, show-off-y bullshit, I don’t know. That’s not the world I grew up in. And maybe I sound like an old man like that, but I don’t feel that. I feel that there [are] a lot of people out there who don’t want that. They love alternative culture because it says freedom, independent thinking, [and] exchange of ideas; not ‘Hey, you’re not cool enough; get out of here.’”
Press conference photography by the author.
Update: the concert is postponed to a day later, August 8, same time, same venue. From Billy Corgan’s Twitter: “The safety of our fans is ALWAYS a huge priority. […] SP has the best fans in the world and we didn't want anyone taking any chances. Manila you are worth the wait.”