Reprinted from Bone, August 1996, ©1996 Rebecca Luxford, reproduced with permission
SOUNDGARDEN: LIVING IN THE DIGITAL AGE
Soundgarden's Matt Cameron reveals how his band is taking rock in new directions with old equipment and why music sounds better if it pops and cracks.
After selling 4 million copies of their last album, Superunknown, Soundgarden could very well have made their latest A&M release, Down On The Upside, by farting into a paper bag.
"Well, we did," drummer Matt Cameron says with deadpan sincerity. "Didn't you hear that?"
He is, of course, just joking. Soundgarden isn't known to play it safe. Cameron, vocalist Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd are wont to foist chromatic scales and arcane time signatures on unsuspecting teen-age boys who just want it loud. As Bill Cosby used to say, "If you're not careful, you just might learn something."
Over the past couple of years, Cameron has expanded his own horizons, moonlighting with the Seattle Symphony and jazz pianist Wayne Horvitz. That native curiosity, coupled with Soundgarden's steady, clear-headed rise to prominence, is perhaps why, despite a touch of hard-earned cynicism, Cameron has retained the capacity for delight.
The foursome produced Down On The Upside themselves, a move which involved some industry weasel-wrangling. A&M president/CEO Al Cafaro, ever the diplomat, was quoted in Billboard saying the label was "initially concerned" about Soundgarden's desire to produce themselves. But he went on to confirm that the band did indeed deliver the goods.
"I don't think the record label had complete confidence in us from the start, but it wasn't a problem for us," Cameron says. "We knew what we had to do, and how we had to do it, but the record labels like to get the name guy of the hour to produce their records, because it's all part of the industry scene that they all hang out in. We just didn't want to be a part of that, and our abilities were good enough in the studio for us to do it ourselves."
Left without a chaperone, a less disciplined band might come up with and exercise in solipsism, but Soundgarden used its freedom to create weird and wonderful stuff like spaced-out Moog surrealism and punk songs with mandolin breaks. As Cameron tells it, "We just had more fun making the record, because a lot of times with big-time, big-name producers there's a little more pressure to make sure you're getting your money's worth, which in turn means that you have to sell a lot of records just to pay this guy's salary."
"You kind of start off in the hole when you're using a big-name producer like that. In our case, we didn't feel like we needed one. I'm not saying that they don't serve a purpose, for someone who actually needs some guidance in the studio, but we just happened to know how to get our sounds and how to go about recording in the studio."
Upside has been released on vinyl, but those who would dismiss the move as mere trendiness need to know this band doesn't even record digitally: "No way, man!" Cameron protests. "Digital recording is not good for a band like ours. It just doesn't sound right. We recorded analog and mixed analog, and then it gets dumped over into the digital realm for transfer to CD."
Cameron gets downright misty at the mention of clicks, pops and skips. "Some of the first rock records I remember, one of which was Zeppelin IV, there was a skip on 'Black Dog,'" he recalls. "And I always thought that's how the tune went, till I heard it many years later, and I kind of learned the drum part with the skip in there, so I totally had to re-learn it."
"You memorize all that cool stuff that is now wiped clean in the Digital Age."
Cameron's compositions for Soundgarden inevitably involve pre-Digital Age synthesizers like Moogs and Mellotrons. So what is the allure of these instruments? "I guess deep down underneath I really want to be a key board player, man. I might as well move to Europe right now."
"No, really, it's just great sounds," Cameron says, getting serious for the nonce. "The early '70s synthesizers had a warm, but kind of dirty, brown sound that a lot of the newer digital stuff doesn't have. And the Moog I have is one that actually stays in tune, so that was the criterion for using that one."
Staying in tune, indeed. Aren't these instruments horribly cantankerous? "Oh, completely," Cameron says. "The Mini-Moogs, the first ones they made, are just notorious for going out of tune. You've got to turn them on for like three days in advance before you're gonna use them. They're completely unpredictable."
Despite his enthusiasm for analog synths, however, this early-May interview is the first time Cameron's heard about The Moog Cookbook, a collection of switched-on, cheesed-out versions of all your buzz bin faves like "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Buddy Holly" and "Black Hole Sun."
"Actually, Cibo Matto did a version of 'Black Hole Sun,'" Cameron says. "It's supposed to be beautiful. And then there's a vocal jazz choir up here in Washington that did a version of it that's just completely hysterical. It's a capella. They get some of the words wrong."
There was no chance of lyric-mangling when the Seattle Symphony took on "Black Hole Sun" as part of Cyberian Rhapsody, a multimedia orchestral extravaganza offered over the Internet, benefiting United Way, underwritten by darn near every major corporation in the Pacific Northwest (yes, Bill Gates figures into the equation), featuring melodies by such Washington music luminaries as Heart, Screaming Trees, Queensryche and Jimi Hendrix.
"That was yet another version of 'Black Hole Sun,'" Cameron recalls. "Full-on symphonic version. Hundred-piece Seattle Symphony version. It actually came off very nicely; the melodies sounded great in that context and I was just back there playing drums with a 100-piece orchestra. It was a lot of fun."
If it was so much fun, surely the other Soundgardeners were clamoring to join in. "No, they all chickened out."
Their loss. With symphonies struggling all over the country, Cameron got to play a part in exposing a whole new generation to the power of the orchestra. "They've got some pretty vibrant people at the symphony that are trying to do that very thing," he says. "It's pretty difficult when the repertoire consists of music that's a couple hundred years old. It's still completely awesome music when it's played right, but a lot of young people don't really get turned on to it."
Speaking of education, Cameron and crew are currently somewhere in America, teaching its youth the Canon of Rock at Lollapalooza. Getting them there took some coaxing. "At first we were not really interested," he says. "Then we heard that Metallica really wanted us to play, and it just seemed like a cool thing to do. We've always wanted to do a tour with those guys. And we also were able to ask the Ramones to play on the tour, so it seems like it's gonna be a pretty rockin' bill. We're going to be able to totally rock out."
"They [Ramones] deserve to be seen by many young people, because they're the Kings of Rock, as far as I'm concerned. The young people who think that, like, Green Day is punk rock need to hear the Ramones."
And the young people who would go for the paint-by-numbers life need to hear Soundgarden, if only to see that aiming for your highest expression isn't anything like eating Brussels sprouts: "The band would be absolutely no fun if there were no challenges. We'd be dead and gone many moons ago."