After 20-some years in music, Billy Corgan is in a different space. And it’s all good.
“I'm in a really happy place with my band at the moment,” said Corgan, who’s also finding happiness and influence in professional wrestling -- more on that later. “I think I just went back to playing the way I felt.”
The Smashing Pumpkins released "Oceania," their ninth studio album, to positive reviews last week, coupled with a surprise show a few days earlier at a small venue in Chicago.
What Pumpkins fans will find in "Oceania" is a combination of the hard-hitting, sobering rock sounds of the first Pumpkins album, "Gish," along with the dreamy and emotional songwriting found in "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness." But Corgan, along with his new band members -- Mike Byrne on drums, Nicole Fiorentino on bass guitar and Jeff Schroeder on rhythm guitar-- considers the new album not simply a throwback to the multi-platinum sounds of the 1990s. There’s more to the sound than that.
“We used to get this back in the '90s about the Pumpkins were supposedly playing around in the classic-rock sandbox,” Corgan said. “But I think that sells the whole thing short.”
"Oceania" may well be the Pumpkins’ most ambitious work in a decade and a half with the songs "Quasar" and "Panopticon" evocative of the metal energy of Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest. Meanwhile, “The Celestials” and “Wildflower” emphasize the soft, emotive part of Corgan’s songwriting arsenal.
But after parting ways in 2009 with the Pumpkins' original drummer, Jimmy Chamberlain, not only has the band changed but Corgan says the world has changed -- music culture included.
“Basically, [in the '90s] every interview was almost the same,” Corgain said. “Now, you talk to one website and somebody wants to talk about your gear. You talk to another, and here we are talking about sports meets wrestling. It’s a different world, and I think it’s more fascinating that way.”
Music aside, Corgan’s life has been influenced by much more than hard rock sounds. The Pumpkins’ singer/songwriter has spent much of the past year knee deep in pro wrestling. As the lead partner in Resistance Pro, Corgan indicates that he has taken a lot from working with other dedicated artists who are well outside the music biz.
“I have had a lot of experiences where I've just wanted to be a member of a team and, in some ways, my talent has sort of isolated me in music,” Corgan said. “With wrestling, there is a communal theater type of vibe.
“But I learn things through everybody I am around,” Corgan said, regarding the wrestlers and performers. “And I am often impressed by those who have limited natural talent who -- through perseverance and determination -- can almost charismatically surpass their talents.”
Corgan sees that in his brother, Jesse Andersen, who has cerebral palsy and Tourette's syndrome and about whom Corgan wrote “Spaceboy," one of the signature tunes on 1993’s smash album, "Siamese Dream."
“My brother has struggled, as many people with special needs do, to integrate into normal life,” Corgan says. “But he’s very charismatic. And so, wrestling is of course a great place for someone like him, where different is what’s embraced.”
Andersen was attacked on a city subway last year, and shortly afterward, the wrestling league’s management discussed getting him involved.
“My brother wants, as a character in the production, to be a ‘bad guy,’” Corgan said. “I see this as an extension of his life of being spoken to like he’s not a real person.”
Andersen made a special appearance in the ring last month, not only for the specter of it, but also to raise awareness of what adults with special needs are capable of achieving.
Still, Corgan admits, pro wrestling is a surreal world of its own.
“Think about this for a second,” he says. “You’ve got Chris [Nowinski] in the ring. Publicly, he’s spearheading a complete change in sports culture. One day, he’s testifying in front of Congress. And the next day, he’s in the ring for the first time in nine years standing next to my brother. It’s so silly, but that’s what we love about it.”
So what’s next? For now, a tour of South America and Australia, then some U.S. dates in the fall. But that’s not all.
“We’re trying to get together reality TV based on the wrestling venture,” Corgan said. “And I’ve said from the beginning I’m just a bit part player in it. It’s not a starring vehicle for me; believe me. But if it helps the wrestling promotion happen and gives opportunities to people in the wrestling business, then I’m all for that.”
Corgan and The Smashing Pumpkins are back in the cultural zeitgeist, as busy as they were in the '90s. Plus, Corgan’s still got a competitive streak, or a “jock mentality” as he sometimes calls it.
“It’s been an interesting journey, and I tend to stand on the side feeling somewhat bemused, because [musically] we’re running a faster game than people can figure out,” Corgan said. “And sooner or later, they're gonna figure out that that’s the game that I am in.”
Andy Frye is a freelance writer in Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter at @MySportsComplex.