'We're past the age of the auteur': Billy Corgan on how the rise of technology has changed the role of the producer

Smashing Pumpkins frontman, rock icon... and studio whizz. Billy Corgan spoke to us about the changing role of the producer
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Billy Corgan has endured a long and complex relationship with the music industry over the past 25 years. Since exploding on to the alt rock landscape with Smashing Pumpkins, he has established himself as one of the most prolific, revered and versatile songwriters in the canon of contemporary rock, releasing music under various guises and of a variety of different styles over the past quarter of a century.

Given the vast changes in technology and the development of new production techniques that have surfaced over the course of Corgan’s career, he is now of the view that a distinct line has been established between generations of producers. Whether it's the influence of a producer over the direction a record takes or major advances in technology, he believes that production styles can be clearly divided into ‘new’ and ‘old’.

“You could argue it's very similar to the way the movie business is going,” he says. “There are so many cooks in the kitchen. The atmosphere of rock’n’ roll has become so competitive that no one person can do it on their own. Maybe we’re past the age of the auteur. You need someone who's really skilled like Butch, so you can focus on the competitive part of what you have to do, which is singing well and playing well. I drank the cool aid on the Beatles idea, that we can all be our own auteurs. I’m going to cover Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus for something, so I’m working on the song and researching it online… that song is written by seven people! Every famous song I’ve ever written I wrote by myself. I arranged it myself, in many cases produced it myself; the idea I’d have six other people going, Well maybe there’s a better rhyme…maybe that’s what I need!

“I also think it bears pointing out that the rise in technology has shifted the role of the producer, so that maybe the role of the producer is as a vibe man at this point. You don’t need the perfect take anymore – someone can just chop you up and auto tune you. The Phil Spectors of the world would try to drag gold out of somebody who didn’t even know what they were after. He could see gold where the was no gold to be found, and he found it. Then you had the rise of the auteurs, the Crosby Stills and Nashes and The Beatles, like, We can create our own world. Then you get to the point where people can imitate. Anyone can sound like The Beatles now. You can get the exact plugin, you can study the chord charts or whatever and look up the song on YouTube. So maybe the old warhorses and auteurs are out of date.”

Though production styles have indeed changed dramatically over the past 25 years, Corgan is not looking back on times gone by with any misty-eyed romanticism. According to him, producers of today are simply taking a different approach to the business of making records.

“I think there is an old guard,” he ponders. “The Butches and the Rick [Rubins] of this world learned how to make records the old fashioned way. I think everything that has happened over the past 10 years shows me there is a whole group of people who don't care about the old ways. They've learned and manufactured their own new ways, which involves technology and their methodology for making records and mixing is completely different. And I don't see it as worse or better than, it's just different. It's like saying, Why hand wash your clothes when you can just throw them in the washing machine? While the clothes are being washed automatically you can focus on something else. That’s the world we’re in now. The focus has shifted on what’s important. Maybe that’s why Ogilala stands out, because it's so not that other process. It harkens back to one man, one guitar, and if it's really good it shows you can still compete.”

Regardless of where Corgan and his new solo album Ogilala fit in today’s tech-driven studio culture, his approach to recording and releasing music remains fierce as ever. He already has more than enough material in the pipeline for a solo follow-up to Ogilala and has discussed the possibility of recording stripped down and alternate versions of his entire back catalogue. An as ever, the possibility of a reunion with his original Smashing Pumpkins bandmates remains an ongoing subject of speculation.

Read the full interview with Billy Corgan here.

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