Why Billy Corgan Went Out of His Mind Making ‘Siamese Dream’
When Siamese Dream arrived on July 27, 1993, it helped catapult the Smashing Pumpkins into the upper echelon of ‘90s rock acts. However, making the album nearly destroyed the band’s leader.
There was incredible pressure on the Pumpkins’ shoulders as they prepped their second album. Siamese Dream would be their first release on a major label; the band had signed with Virgin after the unexpected success of their debut, Gish. With more attention came more expectations. Stakes for the band had never been higher.
“What affected [Siamese Dream] was [the feeling that] you’d better sell a lot of records,” Billy Corgan explained to Uncut in 2014. “Because you were facing a world with ‘indie’ bands selling 10 million copies. If you didn’t approximate those numbers, you were facing oblivion. I’ve never felt pressure like that in my life.”
For Corgan, that pressure manifested itself in several forms, most notably depression and writer’s block.
“I lost the ability to function,” the singer admitted to Blender. “I didn’t want to go outside. I was eating like a pig and gaining weight. I couldn’t write songs.”
Watch the Smashing Pumpkins' 'Cherub Rock' Video
Making matters worse, the other band members were dealing with their problems. Guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy Wretzky ended their romantic relationship, while drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was in the throes of heroin addiction. Fighting among the bandmates was commonplace.
“Before and during the recording of Siamese Dream, and during the writing process, things were kind of fucked up,” Wretzky bluntly surmised. “I think we weren’t mature enough not to take it out on each other.”
Therapy helped Corgan pull out of his downward spiral. He instead channeled his emotions into song ideas.
In an attempt to escape outside influences, the Smashing Pumpkins retreated to Marietta, Georgia, to record the album. Butch Vig, who had produced Gish, was back in the fold to help guide the group.
"Billy and I raised the bar really high. We wanted to make a very ambitious sounding record,” Vig later recalled. “It was all done on analog tape so it was time-consuming. We were working 12 hours a day, six times a week for about three months, and for the last two months we worked seven days a week, 14 or 15 hours a day because we were behind schedule."
Watch the Smashing Pumpkins' 'Disarm' Video
Those self-imposed high expectations further frayed relationships within the Smashing Pumpkins. At various points, members locked themselves in the bathroom or refused to be in the same vicinity as their bandmates. Frustrated with his bassist’s playing, Corgan rerecorded many of Wretzky’s parts.
"[The rest of the band] believed in what the album represented, they actually really believed in the album, but the actual physical making of the record, they couldn't live up to that level of scrutiny, they couldn't live up to that level of pressure,” Corgan attested. "It destroyed my health, you know, it destroyed my relationships, I went out of my mind."
Among the chaos, the Smashing Pumpkins crafted some of their generation’s most influential rock songs. Straying from the era’s famous grunge sound, Siamese Dream was closer to progressive rock in style. The influence was felt on the opening track “Cherub Rock,” which Corgan later confessed was ripped off from Rush. Elsewhere on the LP, the singer battled his demons, using his complicated relationship with his parents to inspire “Disarm.”
Still, the breakout song from Siamese Dream was “Today,” which coupled heavy subject matter with a seemingly upbeat melody. Corgan has been suicidal throughout the making of the album, admitting that he even fantasized about his death. “I started thinking what my funeral would be like and what music would be played,” the frontman confessed to NME. “I was at that level of insanity."
Juxtaposing that lyrical darkness with a lighthearted tune seemed perfect.
“I just thought it was funny to write a song that said today is the greatest day of your life because it can’t get any worse,” Corgan explained.
Watch the Smashing Pumpkins' 'Today' Video
Released July 27, 1993, Siamese Dream was met with universal praise. The album debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and went on to sell more than 4 million copies in the U.S. Meanwhile, “Cherub Rock,” “Disarm” and “Today” all peaked within the alternative chart’s Top 10.
Success didn’t cure every problem within the Smashing Pumpkins. Chamberlin’s addiction continued to worsen and he wouldn’t get sober until years later. Likewise, Wretzky’s relationship with Corgan continued deteriorating for years until she finally left the band in 1999.
Despite all of the turmoil, Corgan developed an affinity toward Siamese Dream, often calling it his favorite Smashing Pumpkins album.
"Even though it wasn't the one that sold the most, it's the one that seems to have come through the best,” the singer opined. “As dark a record as Siamese Dream is, there's a lot of fun in it, it's almost like we're kind of laughing at how stupid the whole thing is.”