MAYBE THEY'VE always been solo records, but "TheFutureEmbrace," released Tuesday, is the first album under the solo billing Billy Corgan.
Before that, there were the five studio albums and assorted compilations with the Smashing Pumpkins, the '90s alternative rock juggernaut that sold 25 million records. Corgan disbanded that group in 2000 after a decade of bickering with bassist D'Arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha, who accused the singer-lead guitarist-chief songwriter of being a studio perfectionist and a controlling tyrant, and not just because of the 6-foot-3 Corgan's imposing goth Darth Vader demeanor.
Corgan hasn't talked to either of them in years.
There was also the 2003 debut/swan song with Zwan, the brief-lived band whose only good point seemed to be that it featured former Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Corgan has been talking about the other members of that band in terms normally reserved for criminals and terrorists.
And the last time Corgan was out performing, it was as a solo act in 2004, albeit as a poet reciting works collected in "Blinking With Fists," a first effort that became the highest-debuting poetry book on the New York Times bestseller list in more than a decade.
Yet when Corgan makes his solo Washington debut at the 9:30 club on Friday, he'll once again have a band: keyboardists-singers Linda Strawberry and Brian Liesegang, and drummer Matt Walker -- the latter two from Filter. Walker was a Pumpkins sub in the mid-'90s when Chamberlin had serious drug problems.
"I prefer being in a band," Corgan says, calling from Germany, where he has spent the last two weeks road-testing the new act.
"I just think lots of good things come out of being in a band," says a genial Corgan. "At times it can be frustrating because what I hear in my head is so complex or has a certain emotional tenor, but in the Pumpkins I thought the band was really good at translating that emotional tone and also being flexible on a night in, night out basis to go with the flow. I don't have any particular issues there.
"I think recording has probably been the bigger problematic area. Live, I actually enjoy playing with a group."
In April, Corgan spent time in Paris and at one point found himself outside the historic Sacre Coeur basilica built at the end of the 19th century atop the city's Montmartre hill. Corgan pulled out his guitar and was playing for himself when some fans discovered him, anonymity perhaps being difficult when your pale looks and glistening dome are something of a match for that church's spectacular medieval dome.
And for the first time since the Pumpkins' farewell concert Dec. 2, 2000, Corgan played a Pumpkins song, "Today."
"I made a decision when the Pumpkins ended that I was not going to continue to play that music because I felt that to do so had more to do with marketing and making people comfortable than it had to do with my artistic progress," Corgan explains.
"Having done that and really put myself, for lack of a better term, in the fire of having to live completely within the new musical form I'm in, it's given me a lot of hindsight appreciation," he adds. "Because I've had distance, now I can really appreciate and see the beauty of the work because I'm not a slave to it. I think that's been really good; it's made me really come back around to my music."
But, he added, "I feel really strongly that the music of the Pumpkins should be played with the name Smashing Pumpkins. It was a very distinct, specific band with a specific mission, and without that mission, without that band, the songs belong in that context. Now maybe when I'm 50 and I decide to go out and do the songs that I've written throughout my life or something, then that would make sense. . . . I think it's been a very good position to take."
If not to hold. On Tuesday, the day "TheFutureEmbrace" was released, Corgan took out full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times saying, "I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams."
In the ad, Corgan wrote, "For a year now I have walked around with a secret, a secret I chose to keep. But now I want you to be among the first to know that I have made plans to renew and revive The Smashing Pumpkins. . . . In this desire I feel I have come home again." Corgan did not say when he would try to re-form the Pumpkins, adding that the new album "represents a new beginning, not an ending. It picks up the thread of the as-yet-unfinished work and charter of The Smashing Pumpkins."
That Billy, he's full of surprises. For instance, as his new band's makeup suggests, "TheFutureEmbrace" is something of a departure from the swirling, distorted guitars and pounding drums that made Pumpkins' albums such as "Siamese Dream" and "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" alternative rock touchstones in the '90s. In fact, the synthesizers, lush guitars and atmospheric drums are more reflective of Corgan's fandom for the '80s synth-pop of David Bowie, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, New Order (for whom he briefly played guitar after the Pumpkins broke up) and the Cure; the new album's only cover, a melancholy minor-key recasting of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," features the Cure's Robert Smith on backing vocals.
"I am from the '80s!" the 38-year-old Corgan points out passionately. "And I was playing in bands in the '80s! The original band that I had before the Pumpkins [the goth-metal Marked] sounded a lot like this record. It's probably more akin to my personal style that I was playing when I was a teenager.
"The Pumpkins' style sort of evolved out of the personalities within the band and the necessity of playing in a working-class city and trying to get people to shut up and listen to what you're playing. So the volume and the power part of the band went hand in hand with trying to command some sort of attention and after a while became a self-fulfilling prophecy. But as far as my personal tastes, I always leaned more to this kind of fuzzy sound."
The emotional tenor of Corgan's new music is also different, still cloudy in spots, but generally sunnier, more upbeat, more open to possibility and progress.
"I think I was born a very optimistic child and I kind of had that beaten out of me, and it's taken a long time for me to re-find that person," Corgan says. "Like a lot of abused kids, I think I unknowingly put myself into a lot of negative situations, and it's taken me a while to figure out how to live a good life and find a belief system that coincides with who I am naturally. The inherent culture of alternative leans towards the negative; it's a lot of disenfranchised people, especially back in the '80s. It's an easier direction to go in and creates a frame of reference, but it wasn't ever necessarily who I was."
If it sounds like Corgan's been working on himself, he has, and quite publicly. You can visit his Web site (www.billycorgan.com) and read the 31 "chapters" of Corgan's "Confessions," an online and ongoing autobiography in which he candidly recalls formative experiences as both child and musician. There are sobering discussions of Corgan's physically and emotionally abusive childhood as the sensitive son of a drug-dealing musician father and mentally ill mother, and disastrous relationships with wives, bandmates and record labels. (A lot of scores are being settled.)
As for the original impetus for creating the bio/blog (which he promises will get "crazier and weirder"), "it was selfish in that I've been carrying around a lot of secrets -- my family secrets, the band's secrets."
"In terms of the band, I'd go into an interview and [hear that] I'm a tyrant, a perfectionist, I'm this, I'm that, and it doesn't have a lot of blood in it. [The Pumpkins] created a lot of powerful, emotional music, and sometimes a fan would pull me aside and say, 'I read these things about you in the press, and I listen to these records and there's such a distance between the person that I know through the music and the person that I read about in the press!'
"It's not some huge attempt to close the gap because I don't trust the media or trust fans to discern 'the truth,' because the truth is a [expletive] concept anyway. All I'm doing is just telling my story and feeling artistically empowered enough to let people pick through the bones of it if they want. It's no different than letting people listen to songs that I consider intimate. It's just more art, as far as I'm concerned."
Yet even Corgan admits to being surprised at what he's finding looking for himself.
"Sometimes as I'm going through these things and looking at situations in hindsight, I can see where in some cases I really made some horrible choices. In other cases, I'm very surprised that I was consistent in my focus. Despite drugs and divorces and all this other stuff, I stayed pretty focused on music. It was the one thing I kept turning back to to keep me on course."
BILLY CORGAN -- Appearing Friday at the 9:30 club.