There’s nothing like a little healthy competition, and Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan reveals that when Kurt Cobain died in the ’90s, he felt a sense of loss. But not in the way you may think.
While speaking with Apple Music 1’s Zane Lowe (as seen and heard below), Corgan was asked about the contemporaries of his day and embracing the competition. That’s when the topic of Cobain came up.
“I want the Pumpkins standing on the top of the heap of our generation,” admitted the vocalist. “If that means I got to write 800 songs to do it, I’ll do it. I ain’t shy about that.”
He then added, “I will go down always as saying, Kurt [Cobain] was the most talented guy of our generation. Kurt had so much talent. It’s like frightening. It was like a John Lennon level of talent, where you’re like, how can you have all this talent? Or Prince, right? But Kurt’s not here, sadly. So I looked around, I was like, ‘All right, well, I could beat the rest of them for sure.'”
While it seems like Cobain set the bar in Corgan’s eyes, he reveals that things felt different after the singer’s passing in 1994. “When Kurt died, I cried because I lost my greatest opponent,” said the singer. “I want to beat the best. I don’t want to win the championship because it’s just me and a bunch of jabronis, to use a wrestling term, it’s like, Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest sports competitor I’ll ever see in my lifetime? I mean, you want to talk about an alpha. That guy wanted to win the valet tip. You know what I mean?”
How Did Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins Stack Up?
Billy Corgan was once quoted as saying that he and Cobain were the “top two scribes” of the ’90s. While the singer perceived a competition, on the charts it didn’t always pan out that way. Nirvana preceded Smashing Pumpkins with their 1989 debut album Bleach. Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish, while released months ahead of Nirvana’s Nevermind, wasn’t the massive breakout that Nirvana was about to experience, but it did garner enough critical praise to set up the band nicely for their sophomore set. Gish has been certified platinum, while Nevermind has reached rare air as a diamond certified release (10 million copies sold).
One interesting note is that both Gish and Nevermind shared the same producer, Butch Vig. “Obviously the album had a lot to do with how Nevermind was recorded,” said Corgan in a 2021 interview, later adding that he felt their record was the springboard for grunge to come.
“They gave us a very modest budget and wanted us to get our feet wet, so they were stuck us in the corner with this no-name producer named Butch Vig to make a record that, in their mind, was going to fly under the radar. They were positioning us for where they felt we could go later,” said Corgan, recalling, “Our record starts selling like crazy and they start thinking, ‘Maybe we’re onto something.’ Around the time they’re trying to figure out what to do, here comes Nevermind and here comes the Pearl Jam record. And the game is instantly changed overnight.”
It wasn’t until 1993 where you could call it more of a competition, at least commercially. Once again, the Smashing Pumpkins were the first to release their music, with Siamese Dream dropping in late July and Nirvana’s In Utero following in September of the same year. This time, with the momentum of Gish and a fully-fleshed out grunge scene thriving, Smashing Pumpkins hit the Top 10 at No. 10 and went on to be certified four-times platinum by the RIAA for Siamese Dream. In Utero, meanwhile, debuted at No. 1 and has been certified five-times platinum. Sadly, Cobain’s death ended whatever competition there might have been as the two acts seemed to be on nearly identical recording schedules. Smashing Pumpkins forged ahead with their hugely successful double-album Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in 1995.
READ MORE: Billy Corgan – ‘I’m Not Sure You Can Be Happy in the Music Business’
These days, Corgan is continuing to challenge himself, with Smashing Pumpkins in the midst of ATUM: A Rock Opera in Three Acts. Pick it up here. And you can look for the band sharing the stage with Stone Temple Pilots, Interpol and Rival Sons this summer. Tickets are available here.