Friday, October 26, 2012

Playing heel: An interview with Billy Corgan

I recently interviewed Billy Corgan for Time Out New York. I was never a big Smashing Pumpkins fan growing up; I loved—and in many cases, love—many bands connected to the alt-rock of yore, but aside from "Cherub Rock," the Pumpkins didn't speak to me. I started hearing good things about the new SP album, Oceania, though, and when I checked it out, I found myself taking to it right away. The record is not a revelation; these SP songs sound pretty much like the ones I remember from the early ’90s. But for some reason, it was easier for me to appreciate Corgan's balance of vulnerability and bombast this time around. I admired that he was still going for an unabashedly big sound, and that he still seemed unafraid to flirt with pretentiousness in order to achieve the effect he desired. Plus, I found (and find) the material catchy as hell—concise and memorable, nearly all the way through.

In conversation, I found the man improbably charming. He's just as, shall we say, inflammatory as you might have read, but what the caricature misses is how good-natured he is about it. He seems to genuinely enjoy repartee, the trading of blows, the dropping of science. As you'll read in the interview, Corgan runs his own wrestling league. One of my favorite parts of the conversation comes when we discuss the parallels between a "bad guy" wrestler and his persona within the world of rock & roll:

"So in wrestling language, I play heel. I like to kick the shins of the Pitchforks of the world because they're pompous, and equally so, they like to point where I'm pompous. So in a way, we're benefiting from the feud."
It seems to me that there's something charmingly old-fashioned about this idea. It's almost like an Oscar Wilde kind of thing. It's just hot air, he seems to be saying of his gratuitous opinion-spouting; it's just entertainment. If we seem to be taking these sorts of pop-cultural dialogues too seriously, it's only because they're more fun that way.

In short, he knows what an interviewer wants from him, in the tabloid sense. He seems to actually relish playing the part that has been foisted on him. He does it with a smile. I recently read somewhere (I really wish I could remember where) a positive reframing of the term "bullshitting," a suggestion that this kind of idle, aimless, sometimes puffed-up talk shouldn't necessarily be considered a bad thing. I'd agree with that. Sometimes we want to tune in and hear someone taking shots. The problem is, it's usually (as on reality TV) cast in a dead-serious light. With Corgan, it's all about mutual amusement. I had a blast talking to him.

1 comment:

LauraJackson said...

That sounds fun. I bet you can think of a few people you grew up with that think you didn't deserve to interview Billy Corgan and THEY should have. I know what term you mean. Came across it in the discipline of Positive Psychology.