Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Siamese Dream’ Turns 20: How Five Music Video Directors Brought Billy Corgan’s Masterpiece to Life
We speak to the visionaries who turned "Cherub Rock," "Today," "Disarm," and "Rocket" from ambitious siamese dreaming to crafty MTV takeover
While the kings and queens of the alternative-rock era were renowned for self-sabotage and spotlight-shirking, in 1993 Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan was openly chasing his opportunity to become a star. On the band’s Siamese Dream, Corgan embraced tropes that had been central to big radio rock for decades: instantly anthemic choruses, star-blazing guitar solos, and plenty of beautiful, sad-boy ballads to choose from for the third single. The band was able to make noisy English shoegaze feel like pop; and make the deeply uncool (prog, hesher metal) seem cool. In the intervening decades, the group’s influence could be heard in bands including My Chemical Romance, Deftones, and Silversun Pickups — acts who achieved mainstream success but didn’t necessarily come from a pedigree that would have predicted it.
In his pursuit of stardom, Corgan often alienated his bandmates, the indie-rock cognoscenti, the press, and sometimes his collaborators. During the recording sessions for Siamese Dream he notoriously re-recorded the guitar and bass parts of James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky, only leaving the drumming of Jimmy Chamberlin untouched. The band was called out by Pavement in the lyrics to “Range Life,” getting lumped into the same verse as Stone Temple Pilots, who were seen as alt rock’s ultimate strivers. He chose “Cherub Rock,” a song that rails against the indie community, as the first single for their major-label debut, then went on the attack in the press and onstage about other musicians who talked shit about him.
In true ’90s rock-star fashion, the Pumpkins were absolutely inescapable on MTV. As Michael Azerrad wrote in 1994’s SPIN Artist of the Year profile, “Corgan did uncork some fine singles from Siamese Dream, although they worked as such because they provided grand soundtracks for the band’s videos.” For their four videos they teamed with five different directors — Kevin Kerslake, Stéphane Sednaoui, Jake Scott, and the team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — each of whom was either a sought-after figure in the alt music world, or quickly on their way to becoming one. Each video has its own unique look, never quite allowing viewers to get a definitive read on the band. “Cherub Rock” was lo-fi and barely decipherable, “Today” balanced artsy ambition with a dose of silliness, “Disarm” went heavy on symbolic somberness, and “Rocket” embraced the computer-enhanced hyper-realism that was becoming a fixture of the era. From the stories behind the making of these videos, you can track how the Smashing Pumpkins figured out how to be one of the biggest rock bands of their time.
KEVIN KERSLAKE – “CHERUB ROCK”
Kevin Kerslake began his career making videos for Sonic Youth in the mid-1980s. He directed all the videos from Nirvana’s Nevermind (except the Sam Bayer-helmed “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), as well as the band’s documentary Live! Tonight! Sold Out! Courtney Love introduced Kerslake to Corgan before Siamese Dream‘s release — even before she introduced him to Kurt Cobain. The video for “Cherub Rock” was filmed during one rainy night in the forest on Mount Tamalpais outside of San Francisco.
Where were you in your career when “Cherub Rock” came around?
This was post-Nirvana. I had been doing a lot of bands that had been in that indie world, and for the most part, we got to do whatever we wanted. None of the record executives showed up at the sets. We were at the kids’ table, in a way. We were free to invent new things and go off on all sorts of different tangents. From 1993 and 1994 on up, things got to be a little more formalized. The execs who were doing [Siamese Dream] still had that impulse to chart new ground and do something fresh. It was probably the sweet spot of my career in the more commercial territory. The budgets started getting higher and higher, but in terms of doing stuff that was more artistic, it was starting to get a little more restrictive and less rewarding.
How did the “Cherub Rock” video come to be?
There is always that suspicion among bands when they’re picked up by a major that all of sudden they’ll be made to do something super commercial. Because Billy and I already had a relationship, it was sort of a logical choice for everybody. Oddly enough, “Cherub Rock” lyrically was very critical of the indie-rock scene, which prompted me to approach the video in a particular way. That was the first track off the “biggie” [the band’s major-label debut] and it was a song that had pretty caustic observations about indie rock and alt rock, and that was definitely the scene that the Pumpkins came out of. It was an odd way to justify the move, if you were a Pumpkin.
The video is super indie. It’s Super 8, I processed the film in my bathtub. In terms of production elements, there was a whole lighting design that was pretty sophisticated in terms of it being big, but I didn’t want the video to look big, commercial, and polished. I wanted the video to have a really gritty, reckless feel to it, which was the spirit of indie rock and the alternative scene. That was something subversive that I was up to, but I don’t think it reached the level of consciousness within the band. I didn’t say it overtly, but for me, it’s pretty obvious. Everything that Super 8 represents is down-and-dirty and pretty nasty in terms of the aesthetic. I heard some comments from Billy later on about, “We were in this forest and it was raining and you can’t even see us,” and it was like, dude, that’s the whole spirit of what we were up to. It became obvious in some of the videos that followed that were polished and beautiful…they had an approach that was radically different from what “Cherub Rock” looked like.
You said that the record execs weren’t coming to the sets yet, but in “Cherub Rock,” you do barely see the bandmembers’ faces. Was that an issue with the label?
That didn’t come from the label at all. It really came from Billy, and it came later on. In terms of being clear and polished, it was never in the DNA in how this video was approached, and it was written that way. Billy is a smart dude, and he knows his way around film history and art history, so I don’t want to challenge him on that level, but maybe he didn’t consider it enough when I was talking about the look of the thing. It also went right against the message of the song, which was basically: Fuck you indie scene. I guess I was more concerned with the virtues of that scene and the aesthetic of it. Of course, there are all these politics — giving out and giving in — that are present in the lyrics, but the indie scene and alternative scene is not all about selling out. There are virtues in a lot of music that came out of that world that still haven’t been matched in my mind.
What was the initial response to the video from the band once it was finished?
I remember there were some questions about the b-roll stuff, like the statues and things like that, but for me that was texture. When you’re doing a performance video, it’s really tough to just see performance. If they don’t have another element that offers some sort of relief or bounce, then they tend to be sort of yawners. I tried to think of something that had some of the texture that the film had in terms of the grain, because when you process film in your bathtub, you’re really giving it up to chance what can happen. You dump the whole reel in and you’re basically doing everything that the instructions tell you not to do. When you start to peel the film away and scratch it, you don’t even know what you’re getting until you start transferring it and messing with it. You are basically ripping parts of the film off. I’m sure you’re ripping a lot of beautiful stuff off too, but that’s just the way it is. All that stuff, the band was super stoked about. It wasn’t until later that I heard about Billy complaining about the rain and not being able to see the faces.