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Chris Schulz: A Smashing Pumpkins fanboy meets Billy Corgan

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Smashing Pumpkins tragic Chris Schulz met his '90s musical hero Billy Corgan and managed not to melt into a puddle. Here's his story.

Billy Corgan performs at Vector Arena on Saturday night. Photo / Jenna Todd
Billy Corgan performs at Vector Arena on Saturday night. Photo / Jenna Todd

How far have you gone in your devotion towards a band? Maybe you've bought a T-shirt, collected some albums, pinned a poster to your wall and written their name in Twink on your pencil case. Lightweight.

When I was in my teens, I took my Smashing Pumpkins obsession a step further. I joined the fan club. I collected every piece of Pumpkins memorabilia I could, including badly mixed bootlegs of live shows I imported - probably illegally - from Germany.

I belonged to an email fanlist that would discuss miniscule details about the band on a daily basis. Like, did Corgan's lyrics for the Mellon Collie song 33 reference James Joyce's Ulysses? Which guitar riffs did James Iha actually play on Siamese Dream? And was D'arcy Wretzky really a pixie elf?

And then things headed down a dark path. I shaved my head, put on my well-worn Zero shirt and went to the band's 1996 Wellington concert on the Mellon Collie tour trying to pretend I was Billy Corgan.

I even found out which hotel he was staying at and hung around there for an hour or two, looking sad. Yes, I know.

So it was with some trepidation, excitement and anticipation that I arrived at Auckland's Langham Hotel to interview Billy Corgan before the band's Saturday night Auckland show, which, by the way, was probably the happiest I've seen Corgan play, and therefore the best the band's been.

He was a friendly, chatty and mostly engaging subject, and we had a lot of fun over a cup of tea that lasted around 30 minutes.

But Corgan is a complex and complicated character, a glass-half-empty type who viewed many of my questions suspiciously, gave them weight that I wasn't intending and took his answers to places I wasn't expecting. We had a couple of tetchy exchanges, the phrase, "Oh, you journalists just jump to conclusions" was bandied about, and at one point I had to say, "Hey, I'm just asking a question."

But he gave me heaps to satisfy the squealing inner 15-year-old fanboy inside me. At one point Corgan asked me if I wanted to hear the story behind what happened to the band's "lost" album Machina II. To which I could only grin like the Pumpkins tragic I am, squeal "of course" and settle in for an amazing yarn. You can read it all below.

He also told me details about the band's Mellon Collie reissue, which will come with 70 - yes, 70 - extra tracks spread over five discs, and hinted at juicy details about the Pumpkins' next record, a planned double album for which he'll let punters decide the tracklisting.

I didn't have anywhere near enough room in my first story to squeeze all of that in, so here are a few leftovers. Enjoy.

Billy Corgan on why the original Pumpkins line-up couldn't last:

"If you take a normal married couple and you put them in a whore house for a week, there might be some stress. You had four people from middle class backgrounds. We were four different thinkers ... we saw the world differently, we came together with a musical vision, we obviously got along in that, and we were successful in that. But suddenly you wake up one day and you're in this world you don't recognise and you're not sure you recognise yourself in it. That is a singular experience, existing in a dysfunctional band, interpersonally, not musically, in that world, at that time, with that amount of energy and money, it was unique."

On the legacy of 1993's Siamese Dream:

"Siamese Dream was made in the (environment) that we couldn't survive and succeed in a world with Soundgarden or Pearl Jam. My voice was too weird, the band was too weird, you guys aren't going to do it. The first line on Siamese Dream is, 'Freak out and give in, doesn't matter what you believe in'. I'm saying it right from the beginning, it's like, 'It doesn't matter what happens because you're living an illusion'. People who believe Eddie Vedder was that person and Kurt Cobain was that person and Trent Reznor was that person, is a lie. They were parts of those people, but they weren't the people they were projecting them to be. When you get picked out in a line in school and you're the weird one, I'm the weird one, and I'm still here."

On the process of putting together the reissued albums:

"(It's) like digging around in the dirt. It's definitely weird to put on a song that I don't remember writing. Because there's a lot of stuff that got left by the wayside. It would have only been a week or three days of my life that I'd try something, it didn't work and I'd go off it again. So I'll be listening to something and I'll literally have no memory of writing it, playing it, how it goes. You're listening, it's like another person. There are enjoyable parts ... The reissues try to recapture part of the bigger picture because the band had more edges to it than post people assume."

On the Machina II reissue and why it wasn't released:

"The two Machinas will be remixed completely and then reput together in the proper sequence, so finally the album will be heard as I intended it, the way I wrote it, so that will be pretty interesting." Why was it never released? "It's a long story. We met towards the end of 1998. The four of us got in a room for the first time in about three years. We agreed to come back together to do one more album. I mapped out what the album was going to be and everyone signed on to the concept.

"Once we got into the process of the album, whether that it was the last album, or the personal issues with the band members, the whole thing started to fall apart. I actually thought about quitting in the middle. I didn't, obviously. It was more like stumbling to a conclusion out of weariness. I don't know if you've ever worked on something for so long where you're just like, 'I can't do this anymore'. It wasn't necessarily written to be a double album ... it turned into a double album ... all the work started collapsing in on itself, so in the end I was like, 'I'm just going to pick one album out of this material'. But it was written to be a double record. It was very conceptual, the band was in character and they had all agreed to it but by the time we got to it they all abandoned it.

"The band was about to break up for good and I went into the studio to finish all the material because I knew that at some distant point I would be mad at myself if I hadn't finished these songs in the time. You had these half-finished songs, songs with lyrics that hadn't been sung. Basically unfinished work. Once it was done, I thought, 'This is pretty good', so I sent it to the record company, of course they were bitching and moaning we weren't selling enough records. I said, 'Why don't we put this out, it'll help sell Machina I, it'll be a cool story'. They said, 'No, not interested'.

"Me being me, I said, you know what, f**k you, I'll put it out, basically gave away a million dollars. Fast forward six years later I've gotta sit there listen to interview after interview, 'Why don't you guys do a Radiohead and put out a free album?' Yeah, I'm gonna do that someday."

On whether Corgan will ever find his happy place:

"There's no happy place in rock and roll. The people who are in a happy place in rock 'n' roll have dumbed themselves down and mainlined themselves so they can access that bigger frame. Hence watered down music, not really radical positions, they don't take any huge social positions, they try to win Dancing with the Stars. This is still the rock and roll thing, I'm doing it my way, get on board, don't get on board."

On the new-look Pumpkins line-up:

"Sometimes you have to go somewhere to realise you had it right in front of you all the time. In my case I had to lose a band, try to find another band, lose that band, be on my own for a while, then try to come back to the band but not really with the intention of having a band because we didn't have all four original members ... Musically I have to give a lot of credit to my band, it's just worked out. We work together really well, they've taken possession of this business, which is ultimately more of a spiritual business than it is a musical business.

"Personally my life's still a f**king mess."

Follow Chris Schulz on Twitter.

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