Reprinted without permission from Chart, June
As a shuttle motored me from the airport to Seattle's Capitol Hill district, I promised myself I'd keep my cool and decided to pretend I was going to be a Jeopardy! contestant. That way, I figured I'd feel way more confident asking questions of Kim Thayil - an Alex Trebek of rock if there ever was one. While both men are unbashedly well-read, articulate and hairy, they share an intellectual swagger that adds a fascinating dimension to your respect for them. The questions were to be mine, the clues and catagories would belong to Thayil.
I'LL TAKE "US AGAINST THE WORLD" FOR $100, KIM...
Thayil jokes about "laying down" on the sofa and lights the first of many cigarettes to come. The 35-year-old guitarist is as relaxed and talkative as ever, contrasting sharply with the somewhat edgy composure of drummer Matt Cameron - who arrived by motorcycle - and the hopelessly catatonic Chris Cornell, whose shyness can only be defined as dysfunctional and inexcusably rude. Well, almost. One listen to "Burden In My Hand" from his band's latest release, Down on the Upside, and the songwriter is not only pardoned, but one's needs to both communicate with and understand him flies out the window. Bassist Ben Shepherd is mowing his lawn, or something. This odd assemblage of characters makes up the heart, soul and body of Soundgarden - four individuals operating on different time clocks yet somehow mercifully capable of synchronizing everything together.
From its inception in the mid-'80s, Soundgarden has bent rock, punk, metal and noise out of shape, forming a sort of passive-aggressive yet postureless posse that allows people to get as close as they like to the music without stepping over the line of privacy. Soundgarden's members have never allowed themselves to be turned into icons. They couldn't care less. Raise your hand if you've ever seen someone younger than 10 years old wearing a Soundgarden T-shirt. Remember that the bulk of Michael Jackson's fans - in this hemisphere anyway - are under the age of 10. You don't like Soundgarden because your older brother likes them. You like Soundgarden because you like them, and you don't care if you have to stand alone in the process. In fact, that might even make it cooler.
Soundgarden can piss people off, but it's hard to diss Cornell the way one relishes dissing STP's Scott Weiland or Oasis' Noel Gallager. Soundgarden's members are altogether forboding and, in person, their demeanor - their body language - is amplified in Peavey proportion. They command respect, even if you think they're goofy. When's the last time Lady Hole has something nasty and ignorant to say about Soundgarden? Exactly. Never. They're probably the only Seattle band to escape her cackling.
HOW ABOUT "SONGS IN THE KEY OF 'DUH'" FOR $200, KIM?...
Down on the Upside is an asked for and far superior successor to 1994's Superunknown, at once collating some of Soundgarden's past works and taking the group into new territory. Screaming Life (1984) announced its arrival. Ultramega OK (1987) showed its range. Louder Than Love (1988) proved its power. Badmotorfinger (1991) revealed its growth and was a supreme pronouncement of the band's potential. Superunknown - the hardest album for the band to make - convinced the uninitiated of Soundgarden's song-writing capability and went platinum five times over. Down on the Upside is more comfortable with its own body, the soloing and instrumentation packing a "united we stand" tightness and punch even during the loser pieces such as the Cameron-penned "Applebite" - a cousin to the material on Ultramega with its processed vocals and spooky bassline a la band founder Hiro Yamamoto.
"It's easier to get into than Motorfinger, but not as easy as Superunknown," asserts Thayil. The straightaway winners are "Burden In My Hand", "Never The Machine Forever," "No Attention", "An Unkind", "Boot Camp" and "Ty Cobb". The other songs require more listens, and "Never Named" just plain needs more turkey feed. Thayil says that "Tighter and Tighter" is the only spillover from Superunknown.
The guitarist agrees that Superunknown occasionaly sucked a vis-a-vis production, and discusses the impact of self-production on the band's newest album. "We've always co-produced from the beginning 'cause we were the ones writing the songs. Our producers acted as recording engineers who had some creative input if the band was trying to figure out direction and style, but that was it."
Big on bombast and resonance, producer Michael Beinhorn helped Soundgarden sell more copies of Superunknown, but perhaps his greatest contribution was in reminding the guys of their shared dislike for many of his methods. While Motorfinger and Louder Than Love producer Terry Date has perhaps upped the metal ante at the expense of multi-platinum rigormorale, he was nevertheless very in tune with the group and worked with them as a friend. Thayil acknowledges having learned a lot from Date - an audible debt heard on this newest release - although the sound is newly intimate and homegrown.
"That primarily comes from the drum production," admits Thayil. "It's more natural sounding. Chris didn't really sing anything straight. There's a lot of delay and distortion. The guitars are less so. I've always liked doubling up the guitars: me doing one line and then doing the same line again and having it not exactly meet the other in the same spot, which is cool. Bit with this [album] we did less of that. We'd do one guitar track. Let the song breathe a little more."
Like many other bands from the region, recording in Seattle is important for Soundgarden, who feel a sense of security closer to home. Down on the Upside was laid down at studio Litho, a home facilty owned by Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard. "It was like being in our onw living room or kitchen. Some [record] labels like to get the bands away from their hometowns and away from 'distractions'," thayil smirks. "Well, that's good...if you're band happens to have drug problems! [Laughs] Go somewhere else to make the record! But for US, we need the release from the studio. When we're finished [recording] we need to go out to a ball-game or hang out with some friends."
A jam amongst Soundgarden's friends occured in early January of 1995. The occasion was Pearl Jam's "Self-Pollution Radio" hijacking, featuring programming made in Seattle heaven. Soundgarden performed three songs, one of wich was the relentless pummel-fest called "No Attention." The track shines on the new album, but it's taken five years for the band to get it right.
"I'm the only one who totaly loved that song!" exclaims Thayil, bouncing a little on the couch cushion. "Everyone in the band liked it, but we could never make a recording of it that would do the song justice." Only Soundgarden could rage punk and slow the song down to a snarling Sabbath sludge at its conclusion. When I mention that I heard them play it live at a Toronto gig with Neil Young in '93, Cameron - raiding the fridge in search of munchies - sets us both straight. "Yeah, it was Spoonman". Both those songs were written in the key of D," says Cameron. "The key of duh!" Thayil interjects. The bandmates make duh faces and laugh. Ah yes, those dark Seattle 'D' songs...
UMMM...LET'S TRY THE "1/4/5 THING" FOR $300, KIM...
It's curious how much happier and childlike Ben Shepherd's writings in comparison to the leanings of his bandmates. Shepherd appears benign but has a menacing undercurrent waiting to pull you down. Evidence: "Dusty" and "Switch opens," vintage Shepherd.
"I can see that fitting with his personality. The Sesame Street-type quality. There's a certain innocence to it," says Thayil, pausing and smiling at Chris, trying to draw the visiting singer into the conversation. He dosn't bite.
"I know exactly what he does to make things happy," continues Thayil. "He does these suspended things on the guitar. It's something I avoid all the time in writing. It's something the Stones do - one of those Stones chords. [He demonstrates a Keef and Woody butt-rock jam, a little disdainfully] He'll, like, linearize the line. To me, these things are very common on Stones chords or AC/DC chords. Kinda like bar rock. When we stared, Hiro, Chris and I constantly avoided 1/4/5 when we wrote something. It would be like 'Oh, hellooo! It's a 1/4/5 thing!' just cause it's so generically rock. But Ben twists it up. He naturally tends towards this 1/4/5 thing. "Ty Cobb" is all over the place with 1/4/5 and "Never Named" has a lot of suspended stuff. There's something about those songs that's friendlier and more familiar but the arrangement is more aggressive." Shepherd's playing is more dissonant, and his work with Cameron in their side project Hater seems to have influenced the other half of the band, keeping things fresh.
I'M GOING TO TAKE "INSTRUMENTS FROM AROUND THE WORLD" FOR $400, KIM...
When Thayil moved to Seattle from suburban Illinois after high school with his best friend and Soundgarden founder Hiro Yamamoto, little did he realize the impact his journey would have on his career. Or on "Ty Cobb." Like its subject, the song is a furious, stubborn mouthpiece ("I'm not getting old!") with mandola and mandolin adding a blue-grass feel - very different from Soundgarden.
"It's ironic, because when Hiro and I moved here we had this Datsun B-210 and we packed all our clothes and didn't even take my records. I packed a bunch of artwork and writings in a suitcase. I had my guitar. Hiro didn't have a bass, yet. He had a mandolin and a viola. We had these acoustic mandolins and whoever wasn't driving would sit there and play the mandolin. And I'd be playing and Hiro would be driving along and would turn around and look. He wasn't paying attention to the road and he'd go "Why don't you drive for a bit." So, I'd drive for a bit and he'd sit there and play out stuff. You'd look up and see you were in Montana. And that's how I taught him bass. That was kind of the first bondings of me and Hiro's, four or five days in a row - trading off mandolin when we weren't driving. It's kind of cool, like this circle that comes around. I think Chris played mandolin [on "Ty Cobb"] and Ben played mandolin." Originally, Hiro and Kim were the songwriting force behind the band. But mutations make you stronger.
LET'S SEE WHAT "THE CONSTITUTION" IS ALL ABOUT FOR $500, KIM...
Thayil delves into his "paranoia", and how he has learned to handle being in a public profession. "I can be gregarious and outgoing...which is something I try to do in order to not seem unfriendly...but there's a certain part of me that borders on paranoia. So much that the other guys laugh about it. There is a certain private unfriendliness to me that I mostly share with people closest to me. I try not to burden people with my weird trips." It's okay not to want to give your phone number away to Radio Shack, Kim, but must you be darted in other to board an airplane? Maybe that needs some urgent attention...
I'LL SWITCH TO "THOSE DARNED ENCODERS" FOR $600, KIM...
Thayil discusses how hard it is for him to write lyrics - he wrote all of "Never The Machine Forever" - and we stumble on the delicate topic of aesthetics. A philosophy graduate, the guitarist tears into religious and political heathens who persist in blurring the line between art and rhetoric. His arguments shed light on his band's aura of creative empowerment. How you hear its music is your business.
"[These fanatics] think that artwork - and everything - is encoded. Somehow, they think that their appreciation of a song or a painting requires that they are able to decode it. This is a misunderstanding of art in general and, unfortunately, people who grew up in the 50's or 60's who learned that that's the way to appreciate art are now making art that is encoded. And it's bad art. If it's beautiful, it should be able to communicate beauty. That's the nature of aesthetics. If there is some other message you're trying to communicate, just fucking say that! Don't encode it! It's so corny!" Uh-oh, duck and cover Eddie! Here Thayil comes, looking for you!
"Sometimes artists - primarily encoders - have an agenda and politicize their art. You will often find that what I consider to be bad art to be [labeled] feminist art or communist art or fascist art. Well, it's just crap because it has an agenda - a specific political or social idea so it's considering itself aesthetics. It's considering itself voodoo."
I'M GONNA JUMP TO "BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY" FOR $800, KIM...
Speaking of voodoo, Soundgarden's participation in this year's Lollapalooza Festival has surprised a lot of fans. The last huge show they performed in Canada was the disastrous 30,000 person mega-gig with Nine Inch Nails in Barrie, ON, two years back. Soundgarden appeared weary and outgunned, largely due to poor scheduling, lack of preperation and headliners jitters. The large setting seemed out of character for a moody, insular unit. Always more effective in front of a smaller audience, it'll be interesting to see how the band copes with realizing that all those thousands of people are coming to see them, in addition to the Ramones. And maybe Metallica. "We've been more about turning the amps up and blasting out live so the only theatre you get is how we act on stage," Thayil offers. The last time they did Lollapalooza, they had the 6 p.m. slot. This time, they'll be playing second to last.
WELL, I GUESS "SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST" IS ALL THAT'S LEFT FOR DOUBLE JEOPARDY!
The matter of survival becomes a little more meaningful the more successful a group becomes. Even Soundgarden must contend with this problem. The band was fortunate enough to have hit its jackpot at the tail-end of the Seattle-hype, so the public can at least concentrate on the music. Although i am told that the old crowd is to "venture out of hiding," hanging out at the Comic or the Crocodile like they used to, the music community of this beautiful city has to watch its recent past chronicled and analysed ad nauseim in dime store biographies and poster books, in addition to documentary films such as the Sundance festival Hype.
"It's a little strange. In a way it's kinda cool. You look at it and you see all your buddies. It's cool to get everyone's perspective. But those documentaries are usually done backwards...They're basicaly looking at somthing that's been done. It's over."
Wearing an even thicker "Rhinosaur" hide, Soundgarden holds its head up, despite the threat of extinction and usurpation - a prehistoric/modern hybrid that won't turn into a casualty. The weighty task of survival - technocolourfully described in "Burden In My Hand" - is juxtaposed with the uplifting pulse of the soul. At long last, Cornell's love of soul music is no longer a well-kept secret: "Follow me into the desert/As desperate as you are". Those words answer to the mantra repeated in "Boot Camp" but aren't answers unto themselves. Bet everything on this clue: the machine is not forever.