LOS ANGELES - It's a curious fact that the Smashing Pumpkins function best when surrounded by controversy.
But the three-ring weirdness dogging the release of their career-making-or-breaking MACHINA/the machines of god disc - out Tuesday (February 29) - may be the litmus test of Pumpkin head Billy Corgan's patience as a bandleader.
Even before the well-documented split with manager Sharon Osbourne, who made the memorable claim that Corgan was making her physically sick, the Pumpkins parted with founding bassist D'Arcy Wretzky.
Despite the fact that she was, by Corgan's estimation, "halfway or two-thirds" of the way through recording the new album, Wretzky bolted. Why is unclear, but it's been downhill ever since. On January 25, Wretzky was arrested by Chicago police for possessing crack cocaine and was subsequently ordered to attend a drug education program.
She could have saved herself the hassle by sticking around and consulting with founding Pumpkins drummer and recovering addict Jimmy Chamberlin, who was turfed from the group in 96 following the overdose death of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin.
With Chamberlin now back in the band, the rhythm section could've doubled as the willpower police.
There has been some method to the madness, though. Corgan, who introduced Montreal bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur to Courtney Love and, ultimately, Hole, swiped her back for the 2000-version Pumpkins.
"Melissa's still yelling at me about that, too," Corgan chuckles, saying of his relationship with former flame Love only that "there isn't any. She destroyed it."
Back to music. The relatively soft sales of the Pumpkins' "experimental" 98 Adore disc following the massive Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness release have Corgan eating his words about leaving hard rock behind for good.
With MACHINA - again produced by Flood (Depeche Mode, Mellon Collie) - the Pumpkins are definitely plugged back in.
Whether the fickle alt-rock world cares - a salient question, given the recent spate of stiffs by Pumpkins contemporaries Live, Bush, Days of the New, Marilyn Manson (the live record) and especially Nine Inch Nails - is another matter entirely. At a time when audiences are bombarded by sound and vision, it's increasingly difficult to command attention.
"I felt that way initially," Corgan confirms over a room-service lunch in a cozy two-bedroom suite at the Chateau Marmont. "I think that's pretty reflective of the band's work from 91 through 95.
"But I've actually kind of come off of that. It's easy to think, 'Well, everybody's yelling, so if I yell louder I'll be heard.' As you get a little wiser, you realize that if everyone's yelling, whispering is actually more effective."
Sound theory, perhaps, but Corgan's not taking any chances with MACHINA. Dividing the record between pretty, straightforward melodic pop in the vein of 1979 and flat-footed metallic blowouts, the towering guitarist clearly hopes to curry favour with kids and grown-ups alike.
As usual, Corgan plays with thematic notions of faith, name-checking God and pondering, in a spoken-word piece at the centre of a spooky,10-minute suite titled Glass And The Ghost Children, his relationship to a higher being.
So, when Billy Corgan has a bad day, whom does he direct complicated life questions at?
"I've actually come to believe that God is an It in its highest form, and beneath that is a masculine and feminine form, so I try to communicate and connect with both."
And how would Corgan describe MACHINA, using a fine-art analogy?
"I was in a photo gallery yesterday in New York," he says, "looking at what are considered sentimental photographs from the turn of the century, very soft-focus. You know, looking backward with a pretty eye.
"I think a lot of our early work had that, but the sentimentalism has been completely beaten out of me by myself. So I really don't know what I would call it."