Reprinted without permission from Blah Blah Blah, June 1996

by Max Bell

We wanted a shot of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell astride a customised Harley, and an interview on greasing nuts and hard helmet action. Apparently, that was "too Bon Jovi". Hey, how about some pictures back at the hotel and a 40 minute chat around at the record company offices?

Soundgarden. What are they like? They don't do recreational drugs. They don't drink what Americans laughingly call 'beer' before showtime and they go to bed immediately afterwards. Extra-curricular nooky is not an issue. They live in blue collar neighbourhoods and draw a modest monthly salary. Singer Chris Cornell has no visible tattoos and he's married, sensibly, to his manager, Susan Silver, who also looks after fellow Seattle-ites Alice in Chains.

Cornell turned out to be yin to Chains' singer Layne Staley's yang when I had him over the desk at his publicist's bijou new offices in London's Kings Road. "Can somebody get me a Diet Coke?" was for him, a controversial comment. Chris's idea of a good video shoot is "one where we don't have to move around. Like in Black Hole Sun. We did nothing in that one. And a good photo shoot means I can sit down or lie on the bed in a hotel room." Small wonder that magazine journalists have been known to nod off during interviews with the band.

However, three million rock fans did buy into the Grammy winning Superunknown and even more people will be exposed to its successor, Down On The Upside, which finds Soundgarden in controversial rootsy mode at Pearl Jam's Litho Studios in Seattle.

"I like that word," says Cornell, fiddling with his wedding ring. "Most people say 'raw'. Rootsy is better. We're getting worse at our instruments. We're not trying hard any more. We used to think you had to be perfect - check your tuning - now we don't care about slick performances."

The 'gardeners' progress will be measured soon at Lollapalooza 96 - featuring Rancid, The Ramones, Screaming Trees and Metallica. Sounds great. Must get a ticket.

"Have you noticed how Lollapalooza isn't this multi-cultural, multi-sexual, multi-racial event at all?" asks Cornell. "What Perry Farrell never admits is that it's just a slick rock concert with a good name and his ambition is to make a lot of money. Perry has a very good manager. He even has a percentage on the parking."

Soundgarden are no mugs. Lollapalooza, which the dictionary defines as 'something excellent', is also akin to bankrolling yourself. Once you've done it you don't need a pension plan. "It's a huge draw, and what people don't realise is it's far from being just the 'alternative college' crowd who go. It's very mainstream and very middle class. Even when we did it in 1992 with Ice Cube, the whole audience was entirely white."

Apparently, Metallica insisted on Soundgarden's presence, so Cornell and company shouted for The Ramones. Surely Joey and company had only split up three months earlier after 60 years' active service? "We brought them back from the dead. It's perfect timing for them. Anything that is remotely punk rock is very fashionable in the States right now."

Reading between the lines of what Cornell says, it appears that Soundgarden are ready to collect. Like all their '80s peers, they crave respectability. They want to belong. That's why people like guitarist Kim Thayil went gung ho for the Willie Nelson Seattle tribute disc Twisted Willie.

The diverse style of DOTU indicates that Soundgarden can't be called alternative any more. Alternative to what? After all, one of the B sides for the Pretty Noose single is called Jerry Garcia's Finger, a reference to the late guitarist's truncated middle digit, lost in argument with a chainsaw. Considering Kurt Cobain once expressed the wish that Garcia would die in his own tie-dyed piss and vomit, the wheel seems to have come full circle on the North West Coast.

"We wrote that as a space jam on the day the Grateful Dead played their last show in Seattle. I originally called it Jerry Garcia's Dead, but Finger was better. I liked the idea of the Dead. They gave all those acid casualties hope. They were one band from the '60s who stuck to what they wanted and didn't care about fashion. Their fans could count on them. Every once in a while that's good. Our band could never be like that. I can see the comfort angle of a group who doesn't change with the times, especially now that events come and go so fast. There are very few 'career' groups left. I actually think we could be around when we're 50 and it doesn't bother me at all."

So what does he think of Oasis? "They're funny, kinda, but that attitude isn't new. Jane's Addiction started out the same - screw you, our band is best. I can't imagine Oasis working for ever because people are getting tired of them. Being confident is one thing, but if you think you're great simply on the basis of record sales, you'll kill yourselves." That's them sorted. How about that other bastion of British rock, the newly reformed Sex Pistols?

"That's the question of the moment. It doesn't bother me that they're trying to make a buck because they were manufactured in the first place. Malcolm McLaren wanted these people with cool hair and bad teeth who looked good in his clothes. They didn't make any kind of ethical statement. Their philosophy was always fuck everything. I wouldn't go and see them though. I'd rather stick with my bootleg videos."

Aha! Cornell is a collector. "Not really. I'm a non-stuff guy." Doh. "I'm good at throwing things out. I do have one thing I wouldn't want stolen. My customised Harley. A friend built it out of raw metal. Losing that would be hard to deal with. It's a 1340 Standard Big Bore. I have faster bikes, but they're off the shelf."

Fast bikes are useless in America, of course, since the speed limit is 55. "Not outside the county", says Cornell without a hint of tetch. "It's 65 outside the county and everyone goes ten faster. You have to wear a helmet though, especially in Washington State cos it's so conservative."

This month, Soundgarden will appear on the last ever edition of the long running TV comedy favourite, Saturday Night Live, hosted by Jim Carrey, thus breaking their final taboo. "We had two things we said we'd never do. One was play when the sun was out, which we've now done, and the other was live TV. But Jim Carrey said he wouldn't do the programme unless we were on, so we relented."

As for the great outdoor experience, Cornell admits: "We had to let some air into our music. Making this record proved a total relief. You can only be dark and angry with yourself for so long."