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Billy Corgan on his 107-track Smashing Pumpkins reissue, and what’s ahead

Billy Corgan, the sonic architect behind one of the biggest bands to emerge from the alt-rock era, the Smashing Pumpkins, doesn’t romanticize the past anymore.

“I

’m not sentimental. I can tell you that,” laughs Corgan. “Actually, I was much more sentimental back in the day, although I tried to hide it.” The guitar wiz laughs again at the thought during a call to Digital Trends from his native Chicago to discuss the massive six-CD/one-DVD/107-track box set out today on Virgin/Ume. It celebrates Adore, the Pumpkins’ oft-misunderstood 1998 follow up to the 1995 mega hit, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
Adore veered away from focusing on the band’s patented loud/soft guitar histrionics to embrace Corgan’s ever-expanding folk, acoustic, and electronic leanings. Tracks like the touching “To Sheila”, the burbling “Ava Adore”, and the anthemic, cathartic “For Martha” showed the expanding breadth of a songwriter who has plans to release not one but two new Pumpkins records in early 2015, Monuments to an Elegy and Day for Night.

“I don’t think I could have ever imagined how the technological changes would affect both the way we make music and the way we listen to music.” 

Corgan and his Adore production team were working with an early version of ProTools back in 1998, and while the album received mixed reaction upon its release, it has since become a touchstone for the modern millennial era of recording.

“Looking back, I don’t think I could have ever imagined how the technological changes would affect both the way we make music and the way we listen to music,” Corgan reflects. “I feel like somebody in the 1930s imagining space travel. It had a sort of romanticism to it that had long been beaten out of me.”

Here, Corgan, 47, tells Digital Trends about his sound quality goals for Adore, doing an alternate album mix in mono, and reclaiming the Pumpkins legacy, plus he also previews what we can expect from both of the upcoming new albums. Today is a good day indeed.

Digital Trends: When I first heard Adore in 1998, I instantly connected with it, and I was quite surprised that other people didn’t exactly “get it” it at the time. Do you feel a sense of vindication now that people seem to have embraced it over the ensuing years? It sounds as fresh today as anything new I’ve heard in 2014.

Billy Corgan: Thanks. I remember reading your review of Adore back then and thinking, “Yeah, that’s the album I made.” And I do have that impression, which maybe sounds self-effacing, but I don’t really listen to my old work unless it just happens to come on. So to sit down and really study the work again and get into the head of it — I can be pretty cold as far as assessing what does and doesn’t work, but I was surprised at the freshness of these tracks.

Why do you think that is? Is it because you took a different approach while recording it? What was your in-studio mindset at that time?

I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience, there’s been two ways to approach recording. One I would call being more intuitive, in that you’re sort of probing in the dark and making decisions as you go, and the other is more from what I’d call the band mindset — or more of a character mindset, where you’ve developed a certain “character” of sound, and then you’re operating within the parameters of that. Both have their pluses and minuses, but the intuitive approach I mentioned is probably akin to the way a lot more people work today in ProTools.

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On Adore, in a way, you were practically Pre-Tools.

Well, we did use some ProTools, but it was pretty primitive. We didn’t have a ton of tracks, and those we did, the resolution wasn’t high. We did a lot on tape first and then dumped it into ProTools, and in some cases, going back to tape. It was a complex process in the sense that I didn’t know what I was doing in what we would now consider the “modern way” of recording. It was all mixing and matching and chopping. There was no manual to look up, and I couldn’t even find anybody who worked like that at the time.

Is there one particular track where you felt you put the entire right piece together, one that became the beacon for the record?

For me, the pivotal track was really the first track, “To Sheila”. For whatever reason, the writing of that song and whatever was going on in my personal life at the time helped it come together like, “Right, I’m going to go down this road.” On some level, I guess you could call it a Basement Tapes approach, or something like, “I’m going to write these songs, and I’m going to go in the studio to wing them out and see what happens, and just kind of go with it.” “To Sheila” was the turning point: “I can make this epic feeling I get from the rock side of the band with acoustic music.”

I also like that we get a full disc of mono mixes of Adore in 44.1kHz/24-bit. Tell me about that decision.

I’m a real fan of mono. I just love mono mixes. It’s a different perspective. There’s something really stark about mono mixes. They have a different emotional quality that’s really grown on me over time.

“When you get the spinning ball of death on the screen, you want to pull your teeth out.”

I got it in my head at the time that it would be cool to do starker mono mixes of Adore, and I talked my co-producer Flood into it. And of course, Flood said, “Well, it’s not true mono, because we’re not mixing on a mono desk. All we’re doing is collapsing the stereo.” (laughs) That’s classic Flood for you. And I actually do have mono desks now, which is kind of funny. But anyway, I thought it would kind of be cool to do when the record was done. At the time, I thought the mono album was a lot better. I thought it had a stark appeal to it that the stereo lacked.

And I didn’t put the mono mixes of Adore on here as a gimmick — they really give you a different vision of the album. And we did take care with them. We sat there and rebalanced the mixes to make sure the mono was effective.

Is there one mono track that you feel is clearly different from the stereo mix?

There’s an acoustic song called “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete”. The mono mix is not only a different mix, but we did a different printing process. At the time, I was really into tape degrading, where you bounce tapes to get that sound. The mono Dusty mix is bounced three or four times, so it’s a bit darker. It kills some of the ambience, but it makes some of the haunting quality of the song more forward. Whereas the stereo mix is more of what you’d expect — lush and pretty.

You went 24-bit on the mono tracks instead of 16-bit, which I think is a critical sound-quality decision in this day and age. In fact, the overall sound quality on the Adore box set is at a supreme level. You must have had a very specific goal in mind where you said to the production team, “This is how I want this music to sound.”

That’s a great compliment. Thank you. One thing we have to remember is that ProTools has really changed through the years, and the current sonics of ProTools is very, very favorable to analog transfers. Whatever it does to the low end in particular can take an analog tape and really clean it up in a very interesting way. While hearing the analog transfers of the Adore tapes, I was really shocked to the point where my comments were along the lines of, “It sounds like we made this album yesterday.” The stuff didn’t sound soggy, or a little worse for wear. The only dictum I handed out was, “Whatever gets mixed or mastered anew, mix it like it’s a new record. This is not preservation. This is about showing this album has stood the test of time.” If it were a contemporary release, it would be reviewed quite favorably.

I don’t think there’s any question about that. There’s a generation of listeners who’ve never even heard this album at all, and it’s right up there with any 2014 release in terms of content and sound quality. You were ahead of your time and didn’t even know it — or did you?

billy corgan smashing pumpkins adore reissueI felt I was, but then I was told I wasn’t for many years. (laughs) And to your point — fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective of looking at it, there are a lot of people who think the Smashing Pumpkins ended after Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. And that’s part of my fighting so hard to get the Pumpkins catalog reissue campaign right from the beginning, because there were forces within the old record label that didn’t care for the last two Virgin years albums, even though Adore was platinum and Machina [2000] was a gold album.

They would just shrug their shoulders and show no interest in reissuing those albums. I had to fight really hard to make sure all of them were to be reissued at the same level of quality and support. The thing I always wanted to prove is that all of these albums were produced on the same level of artistic integrity. I realize not every album has the same appeal, but that was never the point, you know?

I look at how this campaign has unfolded is that it legitimizes a full body of work, as opposed to the bits and bites that the cognoscenti has “decided” define who you are. That’s not what a career is.

That’s always been the struggle with the Smashing Pumpkins, which came about when we were cast in a populist light — and I have no problem saying we were populist at some point. When we decided to veer off into a much more arcane direction, for lack of a better word, the “stink” of commerciality followed us, even though we took incredible chances and risks, and paid for them. We didn’t necessarily win.

So at least there’s some sweetness, all these years later, that younger generations of musicians are coming up to me and talking about these albums, pointing out “This influenced me” or “This made me think this way.” That even in the way kids listen to music these days, to use your phrase, “the full body of work” — things like YouTube are allowing people to explore catalogs in a new way, and make their own playlists. It’s allowing me to tell the story of my band in a way that’s more commensurate with the experience I had from within. And by extension, other people are reflecting back their own experiences, which constantly unfold something that’s new to me.

Are you recording the material for both of your new albums in 96/24?

Yes. And Monuments is the first album I went in and said, “Tape is done.” I’m off it now. I accept that this is the way it’s going to be from now on. If I use tape anymore, it’s strictly as a sonic device. There’s no longer a competition in my mind; it’s a digital medium from now on. As I’m going along, I find I’m embracing some of the things I learned on Adore — how to work, and the things you can do to create certain opportunities. Moving along at a brisk pace in the studio, when you’ve only got so much creative mindspace in a given day, can be really good. But as everyone who works in that medium knows, when you get the spinning ball of death on the screen, you want to pull your teeth out. (both laugh)

What can you tell me about the sound you’re going for with Monuments?

What’s interesting is that we went into the Monuments record saying, “No limits, no concepts. Let’s just have the best songs we’ve got for it.” And what it ended up being was a kind of a strange, “best of” feel.

The responsibility of the work was trying to bring together disparate production styles so that they all go together. And then when you listen to the record you go, “Ahh, there’s Pumpkins.” How that works in the “real world” I don’t know, but, luckily, I’m working with a producer like Howard C. Willing, who has the record living up to the standard of modern recording, and I’m working with a brilliant mixer like David Bottrill, who was able to clear things out and get the volume people are used to — to get that brightness without subverting the Pumpkins’ dark sound.

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And then having Howie Weinberg at the end of it doing the mastering. God knows what he does, but he warmed it up just a bit so it has this beautiful blend of new school/old school, and it’s got a real timeless appeal.

You have a song like “One and All,” which is kind of like Pumpkins meets Mötley Crüe in 1984, with Tommy Lee playing the drums like The Crusher. And then we turn around into another song called “Being Beige,” which sounds very much like modern music, albeit with Tommy on the drums as well. Using technology to find those balances has really been the trick of the album.

And I imagine level-matching has been of concern, since the dynamic range of Pumpkins music is so far-reaching.

That’s been one of the unspoken challenges with the Pumpkins — getting that dynamic range, particularly in the era of brickwall limiting [i.e., controlled clipping, or reaching the dynamic threshold], where everything is just loud. Getting that sense of epic thrust when you hit certain changes takes skill, because you can’t do it the old way. Sometimes I’ll hear an old Pumpkins song like “Today” on the radio. It starts with that guitar riff. Well, that was made in the era where you weren’t dealing with brickwall limiting. The beginning riff is so loud (chuckles), and then the minute the rest of the song comes in, it gets crushed down where it almost sounds like the complete opposite of dynamics. So knowing all that, and knowing that’s how people will hear it on their portable devices — it takes a lot of skill to get now, almost like an impressionistic form or painting, because you can’t do it the old school way of softer to loud. It just doesn’t work.

What can you can say about the sound of Day for Night? Did you take a similar approach like you did with Monuments, or does it go a different way?

It’s going a different way. I feel we learned a lot on Monuments, so we’re going to take those things and combine them into the Day for Night process. It’s not that the record is going to sound like Adore, but I think I’m going to work on it like I did on Adore.

“Having Tommy Lee on the album is pure evidence of that. We went for it.”

We’re going to take a good idea and go down the rabbit hole to see what we come out with. I think that’s the only way to compete in the modern world. When you get into the old ways of doing things — and obviously I’m invested in that — the time it takes to cut a band’s track and come up with something truly new is nearly impossible. I think you have a higher batting average if you take the rabbit-hole approach. You swing around different plug-ins and effects and chop up things until you go, “That’s different.” I mean, I thought making new rock music was difficult in 1994. Making new rock & roll in 2014 is near impossible.

What’s beautiful about Monuments is that it puts its arms around new and old processes in a way that is not precocious. We just go for it. Having Tommy Lee on the album is pure evidence of that. We went for it. The people who have heard that record really hear that vibrancy.

I want to take the energy we found on this record and really craft a way to do Pumpkins for the future — not in a way that’s respectful of the past, but can we re-carve the vision so that we keep moving forward? I feel that’s the only way.

If you were to project Pumpkins music 30 years into the future into the year 2044, what do you think it would sound like?

I don’t know. I think the acoustic side of the music needs to be more explored, and I would say that, as long as I’m willing to really engage emotionally in the process, the Pumpkins are designed to be sort of a rock that keeps rolling down a hill. I don’t mind collecting new influences, and I don’t mind betraying old ones. It’s not a big deal to me.

If you lack a little confidence or things aren’t going the way behind the scenes like you want them to, it’s hard to muster deeper energy. But a song like “Imagine” can change the world in an instant. That song works yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and you have to believe in that as an artist. If you stop believing in that, then you really should start painting with the same colors as everybody else.