Smashing Pumpkins Say They’re Happy Now. Can They Keep It Together?


Beginning in July, the original group — minus a discontented Ms. Wretzky — will set out on a 38-date (and growing) summer tour titled “Shiny and Oh So Bright.” And though the shows will coincide with the Pumpkins’ 30th anniversary and exclusively feature songs from their first five essential albums, it’s not all a nostalgia trip. Trying to make this more of a reboot than a reunion, the band has been in the studio with the guru-producer Rick Rubin at work on new songs, which likely will be released as two EPs before year’s end.

“I would say this is the happiest time of the band,” Mr. Corgan said, flanked by Mr. Chamberlin, who was relentlessly positive, and Mr. Iha, who seemed content to go with the flow.

The question now is whether fans — who have weathered years of diminishing returns from Mr. Corgan’s mercurial antics, broken promises and odd decisions — will allow themselves to trust the band enough to care. And assuming they do, how long can this infamously dysfunctional musical family hold it together?

Kevin Weatherly, the program director of the alternative station KROQ in Los Angeles, said that although a reunion may feel less impactful for a band that “never really completely went away,” the Pumpkins’ biggest hits have remained a constant presence, and a set list full of them could likely fill seats with old fans. “You can count the bands on one hand that really defined the ’90s alternative scene,” he said, “and I would put the Pumpkins up there with the biggest from that era.”

At the Four Seasons outside of Malibu, near where the band was finishing recording this month, the three original members were convincingly in sync and professional, if not affectionate. All three are fathers now and in interviews, separately and together, they expressed gratitude for the opportunity to demonstrate newfound maturity and once again tour arenas with their greatest hits.

But with the exception of Mr. Chamberlin, 53, who seems to have fully evolved from a drug-addicted caricature of a rock drummer into a sober Midwestern dad who plays jazz, serves on school boards and does tech consultant work on the side, the Pumpkins remained very much in their classic roles. (In 1996, Mr. Chamberlin was booted from the group for three years after a touring keyboardist died from a heroin overdose after using with him in a hotel room.)

Mr. Iha, 49, in a hoodie and polka-dot socks, had a slouchy teenage demeanor and stayed mostly quiet, while Mr. Corgan could not help but be the kind of frontman who, despite repeated assurances that he didn’t want to interrupt or speak for the group, still did 90 percent of the talking.

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“I would say 80 percent of the things that I get sort of held up and mocked for, I’m doing intentionally,” Mr. Corgan said. “It’s sort of funny to me that they actually think I’m that stupid.”

Credit
Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

“It’s a bit akin to trying to rekindle a romance almost two decades later,” Mr. Corgan said, away from his bandmates. “The love is there, but, you know, is the language? Is the magic there?”

In the studio, they decided, it most certainly was. The band put out a demo of 15 songs with hopes of perfecting one single with Mr. Rubin to publicize the tour; the producer ended up picking eight songs he wanted to record.

“The energy of the performances are fiery and vibrant,” Mr. Rubin wrote in an email, noting that the music “fits well with classic Pumpkin catalog.” He added: “It’s not unusual for there to exist volatility with passionate, creative people. It seems like they’ve known each other long enough for many of the old wounds to have healed and they all seem like they are in a good place, so they came in with a healthy mind-set.”

Mr. Chamberlin said that the group’s disagreements had never been musical, so upon reuniting, the new songs “just poured out.” Mr. Corgan concurred: “It picks up where this unit left off,” he said, adding that the fresh material saw him return to “the Zero character” that he had used to write some of the Smashing Pumpkins’ most wrenching lyrics.

Where Mr. Corgan remained most conflicted — and most contradictory — was in grappling with his outsize public persona (a reputation that includes, but is not limited to, authoritarian control-freak, trash-talker and conspiracy theorist) and how it has affected his band’s legacy.

Never as revered as Nirvana, as coolly disaffected as Sonic Youth or as overblown as Guns N’ Roses, the Smashing Pumpkins made their name with sprawling musical ambition and all-out rock ’n’ roll chaos. They were a moody band with equally volatile songs that alternated between pummeling hard-rock stubbornness and fuzzy dream-pop serenity, instantly recognizable by Mr. Corgan’s sulky, nasal shrieks and moans. But at a certain point, the soap opera eclipsed even singles as monumental as “1979.”

The Smashing Pumpkins – “1979” Video by SmashingPumpkinsVEVO

“If I kept my mouth shut, and if I kept my band together,” Mr. Corgan, who wore silver Gucci high-tops and a trucker hat, said, “we’d be playing a lot bigger venues and we would be a lot more successful, and we’d be in somebody’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”

Instead, he’d leaned into a role that he described alternately as “bitter contrarian,” “carnival barker,” “rebel force” and “sand in the oyster,” alienating even his own collaborators.

“I’m a class-A heel,” Mr. Corgan admitted, using wrestling-speak for villain and adding an obscenity for emphasis. In terms of legendary heels in rock history, he added, “I’d put me two, behind Lou Reed, who’s the king.”

Mr. Corgan said that, for a time, “the controversy worked to our favor” and noted that the Pumpkins pulled off five world tours and produced some 200 recorded songs. “So how dysfunctional were we, really?”

But as the others fell away, first Ms. Wretzky in 1999 and the rest of the band soon after, Mr. Corgan’s shtick soured. “To my discredit, I didn’t realize that that formula only works if you’re winning commercially,” he said. And when the audience dwindled? “Well, then you’re just a jerk with a bad message.”

At the same time, Mr. Corgan maintained that he was largely in control of his meta-narrative. “I would say 80 percent of the things that I get held up and mocked for, I’m doing intentionally,” he said. “It’s sort of funny to me that they actually think I’m that stupid. It’s, like, yeah, I work in wrestling — I’m running you.” (In fact, he promised another cat magazine cover is coming soon.)

So it could be forgiven if some cynical observers saw the band’s recent online spectacles as all part of a WWE-like plan.

Though the Pumpkins had been teasing some sort of a reunion for months, the official announcement was pre-empted and undermined by the news from Ms. Wretzky that she would not be participating. First in pseudonymous comments on a rock blog and then in leaked text messages and an interview, the bassist detailed a long making-up and negotiation process that was ultimately derailed by miscommunication, worries from Mr. Corgan about her ability to perform and, of course, money.

Ms. Wretzky said by phone that she had been discussing a potential Pumpkins comeback with Mr. Corgan for nearly two years, but felt in retrospect that he had never truly considered her to be the band’s full-time bass player.

“He was stringing me along and using me to be able to say that it was, in fact, a reunion of all the members,” she said. “Billy can be incredibly charming and funny and fun, but when it comes to money and giving credit where credit is due and any kind of work situation, it’s not pretty.”

She added that while she was initially told she would make “millions of dollars,” there were disagreements about how the members would split the payday, with Mr. Corgan making twice as much as the others. “I really wanted to do this tour for the right reasons,” Ms. Wretzky said. “If everybody was doing it for free, I would have done it for free.”

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The band at a festival in Belgium in 1992. “Billy can be incredibly charming and funny and fun,” said D’Arcy Wretzky, the band’s original bassist, who is not participating in the reunion. “But when it comes to money and giving credit where credit is due and any kind of work situation, it’s not pretty.”

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Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

Mr. Corgan pointed out that he had not even seen Ms. Wretzky in 19 years and he called the exposure of their correspondence “horrifying,” though he declined to get into the specifics of her accusations.

“I think what she did demonstrates why she couldn’t be involved,” Mr. Corgan said. “I was vulnerable and shared things and trusted that there was a reason to give it a chance, despite plenty of empirical evidence that that was not a wise decision.” That bridge is now burned “forever,” he added. (Jack Bates will play bass on the tour; Jeff Schroeder will serve as a third guitarist.)

The Pumpkins’ remaining baggage is less musical. While the band was never particularly political, it returns at a supercharged and divisive moment when Mr. Corgan’s associations with the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who argues that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax and Sept. 11 was an inside job, are particularly loaded.

Some fans have wondered if the singer supports President Trump — a subject that makes Mr. Corgan testy.

“I’m a free-market libertarian capitalist,” he said, adding that he had not voted since 1992, when he cast a ballot for Bill Clinton. “I’m not anti-anything except establishment. I find institutions and systems suspicious.”

Still, he referred obliquely to the “culture war,” “fake news,” “globalists,” “Maoists,” “purity tests,” “left-leaning groupthink,” “protected minority groups,” “mass hypnosis,” “social justice warriors” and other terms used in some conservative circles to dismiss leftist identity politics. And he defied any opportunity to coddle conflicted fans.

“I’m not going to be defined by other people’s version of the shadow world,” Mr. Corgan said. “I’m not going to sit here and hold myself up as Mr. Pure, nor have I ever. I’m not a virtue-signaler. I have no agenda. I’m not a politician.”

Mr. Corgan was far more interested in reconciliation as a rock star.

The band said that there had been no grand summit, no cataloging of specific grievances before getting back together, but rather a general understanding that they had all mellowed and were committed to moving forward with compassion and respect.

“I can sit here and tell you all day, ‘I wrote the songs’ and ‘I was alone in the studio at 12:00 at night, while you were drinking wine on the Riviera,’ you know?” Mr. Corgan said. “It seems really irrelevant.” (He did, however, mention one grudge that lingered: After the band played its final shows together in 2000, Mr. Corgan proposed renting out the venue Metro in Chicago, “our sort of home temple,” and record a “Let It Be”-style farewell album; Mr. Iha refused.)

Now, though, Mr. Iha implied that Mr. Corgan was less of a taskmaster — the guitarist was delighted that, recently, he could miss some band responsibilities to drop off his kids at school without any pushback.

Mr. Iha added that he had tried not to pay much attention to Mr. Corgan or the Pumpkins in the intervening years. “I didn’t allow myself to think about it that much,” he said. “But there would be reminders — a song on the radio or in the grocery store.”

After he and Mr. Corgan had reconnected as friends, the guitarist made a cameo with the Pumpkins live for the first time last spring. But to Mr. Corgan’s disappointment, “It’s not like the minute he got up onstage with us the phones started ringing off the hook — in fact, it was the opposite,” he said. “So that silence was humbling.”

But the lack of industry clamor allowed the band to take its time in deciding exactly what a reunion would look like. It came to resemble an apology as much as a fresh start.

Although the group was most energized when discussing its new work — “He still has angst,” Mr. Iha said proudly of Mr. Corgan, who began reciting new, still-dour lyrics — the Pumpkins also realized that by playing only their most loved songs on this tour, they could be, for once, crowd pleasers.

“It’s a concession to a bigger goal,” Mr. Corgan said, promising to play the music, for the first time, as faithfully as possible to its recorded version. “We collectively need to rebuild the public trust in our brand.”

Already, there had been some schadenfreude around reports of sluggish ticket sales in certain cities, but Mr. Corgan was defiant. “Are they all selling as well as I would like them to sell? No,” he said, but he added, with eyes toward the international market, that the band was still ahead of estimates and selling more tickets overall than it did in 1997.

Mr. Corgan insisted the tour would be a corrective after decades of hardheadedness. “We’re going to say, ‘Look, yes, we’re brats. Yes, we’ve tested your patience. But this is our absolute best effort,’ ” he explained. “We charted a very, very, very difficult path, and have rarely received the credit. This is our time to have a party — we deserve a party.”

That said, Mr. Corgan slipped in, it’s probably a one-time thing.

Correction: March 22, 2018
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article referred imprecisely to Jeff Schroeder’s role in the Smashing Pumpkins. He did not replace D’Arcy Wretzky, who was the band’s original bassist; he joined the group about a decade ago as a guitarist.

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