Formed in the late 1980s, the Smashing Pumpkins became one of the era’s mega-bands in very little time. Revitalized with a new lineup and a successful new album, Oceania, the Pumpkins’ oft-controversial founder and frontman Billy Corgan talked with me recently about where his music and spirituality—informed largely in part by both Buddhism and Christianity—has taken him, and where they might lead him in the years to come.
A Rolling Stone article about the life and death of the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch made a fleeting reference to the presence of Buddhist monks at the Tibetan Freedom Concerts (organized by Yauch, and played by the Smashing Pumpkins and others) having an impact on you, pulling you from the brink of suicidal depression. What was it about them?
There was one monk, sort of the head guy. He and I started having these daily conversations. He would call me aside and say, with a very happy, smiley face, “Why do you look so miserable?” I would complain about whatever was on my mind—the crowds, the band, the hazards of success—and he would laugh and say, “You know, it doesn’t have to be this way.” He never preached or tried to convert me to Buddhism or anything like that. He was, like a good teacher would, creating some curiosity.
Being raised a Catholic, I grew up with Jesus, but I recognized that there was more than one teacher. That monk lit the path for me; suddenly Jesus made more sense, and Eastern modality made more sense. It all started with those daily talks about just trying to be a little more conscious in my life and how I was creating my own misery.
Was Yauch somebody you would regularly consult with? Or was his influence more that he had set the conditions for you to be there at the concerts and encounter the monks?
We would talk about the humorous side of being on tour with twenty devoted monks in their beautiful robes, while you’ve got people backstage on drugs and all the drama and intrigue that goes on. We had this dutiful, fresh-faced purity happening—among some of the most cynical people in the world. And here I am, trying to play basketball with them. You know, the monks, in their playful minds, didn’t believe in playing by the rules, so if they wanted to pick up the basketball and run to another spot, that made total sense to them. They were also constantly hitting me up for money. But I came to realize they didn’t really care if I said yes or no.
From the standpoint of being a public person, that’s something I really respect Adam Yauch for. He felt compelled to step forward into a public role and he did it.
Are prayer and chant aspects of your spiritual practice or your creativity in general?
As far as chanting and sound, I consider myself kind of a cantor. Usually, my mind is focused on how my voice affects others; I’ve only had very few instances in my life where I’ve actually used my voice to affect myself.
Overall, I’m horribly undisciplined when it comes to spiritual practice. I think every person has a different path. For instance, my friend Yungchen Lhamo, the great Tibetan singer, is very devoted: chants all day, prays all day. I seem to be coming to God in a more circuitous route. I’ve kind of avoided formal practice. I feel I’m in a transitional set of stages.
Your Teargarden by Kaleidyscope song cycle, of which Oceania is a part, is based on the “fool’s journey,” taking us through the realms of the child, the fool, the skeptic, and the mystic. Are you the mystic?
I’m on the threshold, I think. Maybe divine wisdom gives us each our own koan, our own version of “one hand clapping.” I think mine is that I have an intense spiritual calling within, yet at the same time it’s been a very public journey. It seems that the journey is part of the art, and the art becomes part of how I learn.
Oceania is probably the first music I’ve ever made that really lacks a deeper sense of material consciousness, which is interesting because it’s the first real out-of-the-box material success I’ve had in about fifteen years.
You’ve always been outspoken, and that’s sometimes alienated and angered people. But as you started talking in the press about the new album, there seemed to be a different kind of ease, or confidence, present.
Yes. As I’ve let God, or love, come into a bigger place in my life, the things that I was afraid of have become less scary. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m not afraid of losing my stature in life. The music will come. The songs will come. The people will come.
I can see the potential with my music life. That could mean, after I’m fifty, traveling to India with a camera crew, making music for people who don’t know my music, don’t know me, don’t know Western music even. To find some place of integration, some place of commonality. Those who want to hear will listen. And those who don’t will find it some other way, or they’ll find somebody else.