One Is the Easiest Number | Music Review | Chicago Reader

One Is the Easiest Number 

Zwan's done, the Pumpkins are ancient history, and Billy Corgan feels like talking.

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Billy Corgan loves his new kitties. And professional wrestling. And the Virgin Mary. These are only a few of the revelations found on billycorgan.com, a Web site launched in late January by the former leader of Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan. Corgan's regular posts make for unpredictable reading: in one eyebrow-raising entry he blames guitarist James Iha for the Pumpkins' breakup and takes a swipe at bassist D'Arcy Wretzky in the process. He's also maintained a relatively high profile in town of late, turning up for local charity functions and media events--he recently performed at the execution ceremony for the Bartman ball. But mostly Corgan, famous (or infamous) for his merciless work ethic, is working.

Having finished a book of poetry that's due in October, Corgan's in the middle of two musical projects: a DVD of live acoustic performances and his first official solo record, both to be released late this year.

At the core of the "video album," as he refers to it, is a batch of songs he's been developing for the last few years. Of the 20-plus tunes, a dozen are specifically about or inspired by Chicago. "They don't have any particular thematic link as much as they're just connected to the city," says Corgan, who grew up in the west surburbs. "One song is about what it's like to have a long-distance relationship and live in Chicago, one song's about Leopold and Loeb, another's about the Cubs. It's kind of all over the place, but somehow it goes together in sort of a beautiful way."

Next month Corgan will play this material in front of cameras and small invite-only crowds in a series of dates leading up to a solo concert open to the public--his first ever in Chicago--at Metro on April 19, which will also be filmed. The DVD, he says, will combine the best of all this with other footage: some of him performing solo during Zwan's residency at the Hideout in 2002 and 2003, some from studio sessions last summer, and "maybe things like me out in the middle of a cornfield, playing."

He says the project presents a new set of challenges: "Mainly, in that it's all live. I can do it, but it's not necessarily what I've been practicing at for 15 years--how to really show up in a four-minute song and have it be something you want to live with for the rest of your life.

"The thing I always respected about Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, or Elvis is that ability to completely get it in a single take. For me, that really goes back to working with [producer] Flood. He was big on saying 'Fuck all this studio shit--can you show up in a take?' So that's a seed planted long ago that's finally coming to fruition."

The acoustic songs also reflect what Corgan describes as his awakening to folk and roots music. "When you fully invest in understanding folk songs it's a transformative experience," he says. "I love rock; no one's a bigger fan than I am. I love Zeppelin, but I never really understood them until I heard Howling Wolf. And I didn't understand Howling Wolf until I heard Charley Patton--that power of just one human being. I've kind of found it for myself, in my own way, not in an imitative way. But I feel like it's unlocked a lot of things for me that are coming out. It's totally reinvigorated me."

The solo LP, by contrast, is "a rock album, but in the broadest sense of the word." Corgan's been recording at his private Chicago studio for the past two months ("which for me is just getting warmed up") and hopes to have tracking done in time to mix this summer and release the record on Warner Brothers in late fall. Coproducing is Bon Harris, founder of the pioneering British industrial act Nitzer Ebb and a programmer on the Pumpkins' Adore album. "He's like the guy who takes you on the ferry across the river Styx," Corgan says. "He takes me across the technological world in a way that I don't get lost."

Although he says he's approaching the sessions in an abstract manner that's new for him, Corgan is somewhat cagey about specific details, like who else, if anyone, is playing. "I really don't want to talk about that part," he says, "'cause that leads people into all sorts of speculation on what it's going to sound like. And I've not had a lot of success with people guessing what I'm doing. Somehow it turns into an opinion of what I'm doing, and then when I don't give them what they thought they were getting, they get mad."

Corgan's solo career begins four years after the breakup of the Pumpkins but only months after the announcement of Zwan's split. Corgan now sees Zwan as a crucial transitional experience, if nothing else: "If I had done a solo record as the first thing after the Pumpkins, I would've felt a tremendous amount of pressure. Too much, probably. Being in Zwan kind of softened the blow of going back out into the world. That was the good part about being in the band."

As for the bad part, Corgan alludes to personnel issues. Outside speculation about the breakup has centered on David Pajo's commitment to his own outfit, Papa M, which bassist Paz Lenchantin joined upon leaving Zwan, but there's a bigger picture. "I can't deal with the band dynamic anymore," Corgan says. "There's just a point--I don't know whether it's maturity or confidence--where you know what you want to do. And you're not really interested in whether other people agree with you. I was very happy to be in Zwan in the sense that I invited credible musicians to enter into the dialogue. But now I want to pursue my vision completely. No compromise. No negotiating. No pleading. No begging. And certainly not having to convince somebody that working hard is a good idea. Now I come to work, I do what I want, leave when I want, and don't have to answer to anybody.

"I'm about to turn 37, and it's like, I'm really ready to do this myself. I wish I'd been ready ten years ago," Corgan says. "I've hid behind bands and hid behind personas and all this other shit, and it's like, I'm not going to do it anymore. And that's part of what I've even been trying to say on my Web site. I'm just going to be myself now."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Elledge.

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