It’s hard to miss Madame ZuZu’s, the neo-chinoiserie tea house belonging to Billy Corgan, on the tucked away stretch of Roger Williams Avenue in the Chicago suburb Highland Park. The white-neon spelling out “ZuZu” is the brightest sign on the block, whose foot traffic up until now has been due mostly to local runs to the barbershop, the two cleaners across the street, or the therapist’s office next door. That’s the point, though, of the parlor-style establishment: To inject some much-needed life into the sleepy downtown area of the village and provide an all-ages music venue and gallery space for the community. “I live here and I’ve been here since 2003, on and off, and there’s just nothing to do,” the Smashing Pumpkins frontman told Hive outside of the cafe. “The cultural programming tends to be for an older crowd and I’m a pretty young 45-something. I’ve wanted to open this place for about a decade as a space where artists can show work and meet and have reasons to get together. Also, it’s sort of a community thing where we can host everyone from archaeologists to homeopaths. I’m a big spiritualist New Ager-type so I know a lot of those people too. The tea is sort of an excuse to bring it all together.”
On its opening day, Corgan brought together a wide range of generations and kicked off the programming with two short acoustic performances throughout the day. During the first set, he strumed through the Smashing Pumpkins’ confrontational ballad “Muzzle,” where Corgan asserts he’s “just like everyone else” — which was a sentiment that felt timely expressed — and the unreleased “The Rite of Spring” that he debuted earlier this summer.
In between sets, Corgan chatted with nearly everyone in the bearably-crowded room, stopping to pose for pictures and sip from his tea. “Some people like their teas very strong: I like my tea like I like my women,” he said with a laugh. “I’m a big rooibos fan. It’s the Dorian Gray tea. Tea is very personal.” Corgan says his fondness for tea developed a while ago. “I’ve always been a tea drinker. When I got older, I realized that there was this whole world of tea that I didn’t know about when I was a kid, because all we drank was Lipton. I knew there was caffeinated and decaffeinated [tea] — that’s about it. So I was traveling, opening up to other teas and other cultures and how they used teas in medicinal ways.” Corgan enthusiastically offered insights to varying teas but was less willing to comment on how his tea differs from Moby’s, whose Teany Lower East Side, NYC cafe opened 10 years ago. “I saw a few idiots wrote that I was following in his footsteps because I’m the second bald guy to start a tea house and it’s really disrespectful to him and me,” he said. “I know him and he’s a great guy. We’re two totally different people from two totally different cultures — so that’s just dumb.”
“Some people like their teas very strong: I like my tea like I like my women.”
Corgan designed his tea house with a very distinct aesthetic in mind. “I like the idea of romantic things so the idea of a 1930s style teahouse in the chinoiserie style just felt good up here,” he said. “I live in a French house, so it’s a style I like. If you know anything about art history — which I’m not saying I do — when international trade became more predominant there was a show in Paris in the late 1890s that showed a lot of Chinese and Asian artists and it certainly influenced French art. That chinoiserie style has an elegance where the Chinese lines meet French culture and I’ve always thought that is beautiful.”
Between opening Madame ZuZu’s, launching an indie wrestling company, and penning a book of poetry, Corgan has still found time to work on new music. He’s already at work on the follow up to this year’s Oceania: “I’m starting to write new songs for the next ‘Pumpkins album. I have to go home and work on the script for tomorrow’s wrestling show. I got a lot going on. I have a title for the next album but I won’t tell. It’s going to be a cruel record. Vengeance is mine,” he said. While the Smashing Pumpkins will be playing Oceania in full on their upcoming tour, don’t expect to catch them on a tour behind their seminal records Gish and Siamese Dream in the future. “That overly sentimental culture as a new business model is really weak,” Corgan said. “I’m in my 40s, I should be making new music predominantly. I think that that expectation that’s been created is really bad for people.” Tea, on the other hand, according to Corgan, is not.
Check out photos from Madame ZuZu’s Grand Opening, in Highland Park, Chicago: