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Pumpkins’ leader Billy Corgan still smashing conventions

Musician Billy Corgan talks TV reporter during opening his new tehouse called Madame Zuzu's HighlPark. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media

Musician Billy Corgan talks to a TV reporter during the opening of his new tea house called Madame Zuzu's in Highland Park. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 19, 2012 2:43PM

Billy Corgan is as busy as he was 20 years ago, maybe busier.

He recorded another album with the Smashing Pumpkins, “Oceania,” one of the group’s most acclaimed. The restaffed quartet has been trotting the new material around the world all year — South America this summer, Asia early this fall. It might as well be the mid-’90, with the string of expanded Pumpkins reissues: “Siamese Dream” just came out, and “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” is due Dec. 4. Somewhere in there, Corgan, 45, started his own pro wrestling group in Chicago and last month opened a 1930s-style tea salon in Highland Park.

The band launched a North American tour this week — shows are featuring the entirety of “Oceania,” plus a second set of Pumpkins oldies. But even after all this time, he still has trepidation about bringing it all back home.

“More than any audience in the world, Americans will cross their arms, stare at you and say, ‘OK, whaddya got?’ — no matter how many times you’ve proven it to them,” Corgan told me in a recent interview about his North Shore retail venture, Madame Zuzu’s Tea House. “Then a weird thing happens. Once you’ve taken enough slugs and punches, they decide they like you. All of a sudden, you’re revered, just because you’re still there. Unless you say something they don’t like politically. I just went to see Kiss and Motley Crue, both bands that are past that threshold. It’s this weird endurance test, more about survival than art.”

He also touched on that touchy subject, along with his survival tactics, his band’s continuing critical disconnect and the old days and, sure, God:

Q.“Oceania,” released in June, received raves. Sometimes these critical resurgences have to do with the actual music, sometimes with non-artistic factors. Why do you think you’re suddenly a critic’s darling again?

A. Well, don’t jump to any conclusions. [Laughs] I’m still waiting to be a critic’s darling. I’m honestly not saying this in a pity-me way, but I don’t see that I’ve made one album that everyone agrees on. I’ve never had the moment where everyone goes, “Yeah…”

Q.Was there any conscious intention to reach back to sounds and energies from “Gish,” etc.?

A. No, no, no. If you really look at the record, it really looks forward. Thematically, it’s much different. The guitar playing is completely different. When I’ve tried to reinvent the wheel, I get bashed for not doing the familiar things. Here we have a lot of new things, and new musicians, and people connect it to the old days. “Oceania” has none of the original Pumpkins but still resonates with people as a Smashing Pumpkins record.

Q.No doubt you’re weary of sentimentalism for the old band. How do the new players [guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino, drummer Mike Byrne] deal with it?

A. These are all really intelligent people. They knew what was coming. They knew [certain critics] would call them a rent-a-band. They’ve had to shut their ears to constant critique that they’re not real while they’ve taken on an artistic mantle that’s very idiosyncratic. They took the journey with me, playing in Tennessee to a thousand people yawning through the new songs. Those experiences either blow a band apart or galvanize you to a common purpose. They took the experience and said, “We’ll show you like a good band should.” Rather than go dark and go negative, they brought this thing into the light.

Q.But a Smashing Pumpkins album is still very much your singular vision, is it not?

A. To work with me is not “Let’s get in a room and see what happens.” I get something in mind. I work differently than most people.

Q. Why do you stick with the name?

A. One, it centers me into a conceptual base I believe in and have faith in. Second, I kept seeing people try to separate me from my past, and I didn’t like that. As somebody who likes to create artistic paradigms, staying with the name is the most rock ’n’ roll thing I could do. When Jimmy [Chamberlin, the original drummer] left, it became even more intense. I saw regularly on Twitter: “He has no right to continue using the name.” You say that to someone like me, it just gets my dander up. It gets to the heart of why I’m in a band, which is kinda to piss people off. There’s so little of that left.

Q. “Oceania” returns to several spiritual subjects. What do you believe in?

A. I believe there is a god. I don’t feel the need to name that god or claim that god in any dogma. I’m probably closer to a Gnostic or pagan. To me, it’s the folly of man to make God human.I believe there’s a higher energy and that the universe has order to it. If you listen carefully, you can see it, find it, trust it. It’s backed by science; we know at the quantum level there’s an intelligence we can’t explain. God is probably one of the simplest things in the world.

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