What inspires Billy Corgan? The Smashing Pumpkins frontman talks with Conan

Billy discusses three iconic songs that have led him down his musical path
Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins
Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins Photo credit Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
By , Audacy

This week on the Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend podcast, Conan sits down with The Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan to discuss some of the songs and artists that have inspired him over the years, and navigating the changing music industry over his 35-year career.

LISTEN NOW: Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend | Billy Corgan And The Songs That Inspired Him

Photo credit Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend

With his musical output beginning over three decades ago, singer and songwriter Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins and late-night host Conan O'Brien both began their separate career paths at basically the same time -- the early nineties. Conan remembers first meeting Billy during Howard Stern's Private Parts celebrations, and feeling like an outsider among all of the artists and celebrities who also attended -- most notably a chalice-wielding Marilyn Manson.

Billy was already a fan of Conan's work at the time, and came to his rescue when Manson made attempts to get him to drink from his cup of unknown evils. Conan remembers Billy "coming out of that fog" of all the performative shctick and presenting himself as a genuinely nice guy. Corgan attributes his attitude through the years to his punk and DIY upbringing that doesn't allow space for massive egos. "The other thing," he says, "is you start interfacing with what at that point was mainstream MTV, whatever BS culture. I mean, I have memories of shaking [late American billionaire] Sumner Redstone's hand.... like, 'why am I shaking Sumner Redstone's hand?'"

Conan has felt a strong connection and inspiration from the way Billy has thoughtfully shaped his own career, which leads him to wonder about the songs and artists that have stimulated his creativity. Corgan was asked to come to the podcast with three songs that have affected him in a certain way, first discussing Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here."

At the age of seventeen, Billy says he had to witness his grandmother's battle with cancer, marking the first time in his life someone he was close with was dying. "As you do, you try to find something you can hold onto," he admits, "and that song became the song of that thing. It sort of moored me into something... Something about the emotional tenor of the song really connected me."

Metallica's Ride The Lightning power ballad "Fade To Black" was Billy's second selection which starts off with, at the time, a very contentious acoustic guitar intro, before getting into "the fiddly bit," as Billy calls it. "A technical term in the industry." Billy remembers being kicked out of his house by his stepmother at the time, while his father was "in some form of jail." Billy ended up moving in with a drug dealer and "latched onto" the 'Tallica classic because it seemed to sum up what he was going through... "I remember sitting at the guy's kitchen table... playing the song over and over again. I must have played it 14 times in a row and he came down and was like, 'You gotta leave,'" Billy laughs. "He threw me out from listening to the song so much."

"I love that lyric in there, I think he sings 'I was me but now he's gone,'" Billy adds. "If that's not a seventeen year old... I still get the feels on that."

Lastly, Billy chose Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Aside from the tragic story of the band, and late singer Ian Curtis, the band (which later became New Order) has resonated with him since his first listen. "I started making the argument back in the '90s that Joy Division was probably the second most important band behind The Beatles in the 20th century. Back then people would make a face, like 'kinda, sorta,' and now I think people have kind of come around to it."

"A lot of people now would call it 'Post-punk' or something," Billy explains, "but what it really is is DIY musicians creating great music without the conventional structures of music." Explaining the progression of Rock music from its beginnings, "by the time you get to the late seventies," he says, "Rock & Roll's pretty much run out of steam. [Led] Zeppelin's at the end, The Who... you could say their greatest work is behind them, and here comes Punk. You have all these people who suddenly decide it doesn't matter how well you play. As long as you want to get up on stage and you've got some moxie, the crowd will sort of accept you. Out of that come Talking Heads, The Cure, Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode... but Joy Division to me was the greatest of them all," he says. "They capture a particular form of nihilism that's really hard to get in a way that doesn't feel mockish or childish. There's an adultness... a seriousness to it."

Listen to the full chat with Conan and Billy, and be sure to check out the tracks above.

After 25 years at the Late Night desk, Conan O'Brien realized that the only people at his holiday party are the men and women who work for him. Over the years and despite thousands of interviews, Conan has never made a real and lasting friendship with any of his celebrity guests. So, he started a podcast to do just that. Deeper, unboundedly playful, and free from FCC regulations, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend is a weekly opportunity for Conan to hang out with the people he enjoys most and perhaps find some real friendship along the way. Listen on the free Audacy app.

Listen to Smashing Pumpkins Radio and more on the free Audacy app

Listen to more of your favorite music on Audacy's Alt Now, Rockternative, Drivin' Alt, New Wave Mix Tape, 90s and Chill, Alterna 00s, IndustriALT, Greatest Guitarists, Greatest Drummers, and ALT Roots stations -- plus check out our talent-hosted Kevan Kenney's Music Discovery, Megan Holiday's My So Called '90s Playlist, and Scott Lowe on the Go's Post Modern Music Box.

LISTEN on the Audacy App
Sign Up and Follow Audacy
Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Featured Image Photo Credit: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images