Reprinted without permission from Circus, July 1997
A LONG ROAD ENDS! THE SOUNDGARDEN RETROSPECTIVE
On April 9, 1997, a press release from A&M Records was faxed and e-mailed to press all over the world, and by extension, fans posted it all over the Internet. The press release was only two sentences long. "After twelve years," it said, "the members of Soundgarden have amicably and mutually decided to disband to pursue other interests. There is no word at this time on any of the members' future plans."
"Year by year and record by record, we have gone through this process of trying to dial into what we want to hear ourselves sound like at that moment," lead singer and rhythm guitarist Chris Cornell said last year. "People always say they're surprised by the turns we take, that they didn't expect them. And I always pause and say, 'Shit, I never expected anything, why would you?'"
With greater success following the release of each of their five albums, it's not hard to see why fans and critics tried to peg Soundgarden's next move. It's also telling that the band pleasantly surprised the listening public every time. While it's not surprising that they've chosen to call it quits after a very long time, it's certainly jarring. Here is a group of guys who got the music in their heads out into the world and managed to become a seminal band in the much scrutinized "Seattle scene" that conquered the musical world in 1991. Since then, they've done nothing but make great music and gain fans. Last year alone, they became the first band to play the Lollapalooza main stage two different years, and their album, Down on the Upside, went platinum easily and generated three hit singles. Also, they never suffered any of the usual infighting and personality conflicts that often comes with being in a famous band. Normally, bands usually break up because the members have come to hate each other , or because their records and tours are selling miserably. But Soundgarden, confounding expectations again, broke up after a successful album and tour because, as far as can be insinuated, they just felt like it had come time. No hard feelings. But what they leave behind, of course, is their respected legacy, their music.
Soundgarden came together in 1984 as the logical progression of vocalist Chris Cornell's earlier band, The Shemps. The Shemps formed in 1982 and played mostly covers until Cornell's roommate Hiro Yamamoto joined the band and they started to write originals. By the time a mutual friend, Kim Thayil, joined the line-up, they decided to change their name to Soundgarden after a nearby music-making pipe sculpture of the same name. In the band's early days, Cornell sang and played the drums. Born in Seattle in 1964, he'd grown up the youngest of five boys [an error! Chris Cornell actually has 2 sisters and three brothers] listening to the rock and roll and early metal of the late '70s and fancying himself a drummer, playing along to records on anything he could get a good sound out of in his bedroom. But the very day his parents divorced when he was 14, he dropped out of the eighth grade for the second time, this time for good. Two years later, he forged out on his own, working as a short-order cook to pay his rent.
Guitarist Kim Thayil, the son of Indian immigrants, was born in September of 1960 and grew up in Park Forest, a remote suburb of Chicago. Thayil had been friends with Yamamoto and Bruce Pavitt throughout high school, so it wasn't surprising that they decided to head west to Washington State together for college. Each of them would make their indelible mark on Seattle music. Yamamoto and Thayil would join Soundgarden and Pavitt would soon co-found Sub Pop records, the label tat first released records by Soundgarden, Pearl Jam ancestors Green River, and of course, Nirvana.
In the early 80s, when Thayil was an undergraduate in college majoring in philosophy, Seattle wasn't very conducive to music-making. The city was in the throes of its decades-long drive to close down any all-age music cub that tried to spring up occasionally. That, coupled with the terminally depressing weather and the small town, big company feeling (its major industries are lumber, Microsoft, and Muzak) is, ironically, what drove so many talented young musicians to create music that would eventually take the world by storm. Thayil quickly made his mark in the very limited scene of the time with his radio show on Seattle's University of Washington station KCMU - one of the few programs to air music by local bands.
Soundgarden didn't really hit their stride until 1985 when Cornell decided that he should get out from behind the drumkit and put his full concentration on singing. Hiring a new, short-lived drummer named Scott Sundquist, soon the adonis-like Cornell was standing on local stages, shirtless and wild-haired, unleashing his otherworldly operatic screams. It wasn't just that he screamed though, anyone can do that. His piercing voice has an unusual emotional precision. Even from their earliest recordings, like their tracks on the 1985 compilation Deep Six, he nails each melody like a bullet hitting its target at close range. Unlike most rock singers, Cornell looked at his voice as a work-in-progress. He spent hours every day singing so hard that the neighbors could always hear him a capella, keeping his vocal chords in shape just as athletes train their bodies. But Soundgarden wasn't Soundgarden just because of that; the combination of Cornell's voice and Thayil's drop-D tuned power chords and slow burning progressions is the trademark of the band's sound.
It wasn't until 1987, three years after forming, that the band, by then with Matt Cameron drumming, managed to release their first single, but they did it with style. Early on, the band earmarked itself as one of the pioneers of Seattle's nascent groups - not only were they the second band on Sub Pop (after Green River), but also the first Seattle band to be offered major label deals. The band were also smart enough to realize that they would get better and wiser with time and practice, so they put off signing to major (A&M) until 1989, five years into being a band. But the best example of their innovativeness is how, in 1988, Kurt Cobain thought it'd be good for Nirvana to put out some records on Sub Pop after being impressed with Soundgarden. A good idea, to say the least.
By the time the early nineties rolled around, Soundgarden had earned their place through sheer hard work opening for and like Metallica and Guns N' Roses while supporting their albums Ultramega OK and Loud Love. But when grunge, for lack of a better word, became the unrivaled focal point of national music, Soundgarden, though they had no idea it was coming, was ready for the moment. 1992 was a triumphant year for Soundgarden. Their 1991 album, Badmotorfinger, spawned three heavy rotation singles: "Jesus Christ Pose," "Rusty Cage," and "Outshined." While they spent the summer playing Lollapalooza mainstage, the soundtrack to the movie Singles, which featured two songs by Soundgarden members, was released to a public absolutely hungry for dyed-in-the-wool Seattle music. When the film Singles came out in the fall, the inescapable buzz intensified further. The band even appears in the film playing live at a Seattle club, and Cornell had a bit part with no lines. But that's not all.
In the 80s, Cornell had been roommate with Andy Wood, the lead singer of another Seattle band called Mother Love Bone. When Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990, the grief opened Cornell's creative floodgates and he began to write an unstoppable flow of songs inspired by his late friend. By the end of the year, he asked two of Andy Wood's Mother Love Bone bandmates, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, to turn the new songs into a Wood tribute of sorts. Cornell brought Cameron to the sessions and Ament and Gossard brought their bandmates Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder. They called themselves Temple of the Dog. By the fall of 1992, not in the least because Temple featured half of Soundgarden and half of Pearl Jam, the self-titled album - shamelessly slapped with a sticker announcing the fame of the musicians - generated a hit single and video, "Hunger Strike," and also made a hearty climb up the charts.
Fittingly, their 1992 was capped off in January 1993 with the news that Badmotorfinger had become the first Soundgarden album to sell a million copies. But by then, in the already tried and true Soundgarden tradition, it was time to be cautious. Just as they had put off signing to a major, they took a step back to assess all that happened. Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd (who'd joined the band in 1990 when Yamamoto left) went off and did a side-project called Hater, which released a self-titled album. Cornell and Thayil, separately, went off on their own, to rest, and to write music and jam without the pressure of an impending tour or a new album to support. By the end of the year, they'd convened to begin recording a new album, not an easy task if you remember that this was the first time they had to create with the whole world expecting greatness.
By the time Superunknown was released in March of 1994, the musical climate was much chillier. The music press had by then talked up the "death of grunge" with a fervor that Chicken Little would have been impressed by. Within a month of Superunknown's release, Kurt Cobain had committed suicide, a downer that cast a shadow on music that has yet to disappear. The band must have felt very wary of how the album would do, but by the summer, the album was platinum and had spawned two hit singles and they were headlining a sold-out cross country tour. That summer it was impossible to get away from the single "Black Hole Sun." It felt like any radio station that played alternative music, metal or even just rock and roll, was playing it as every other song. MTV certainly wasn't shy about putting the video in heavy rotation. "Black Hole Sun" inarguably became their most well known song.
Again, 1995 was a year of reassessment. The mid-90's Soundgarden had palpably evolved from its raw, small club early days. Gone were the shorts and no shirt, crappy day jobs and intermittent singles. Cornell had shorn his head close to the ears and gotten married to Soundgarden's longtime manager Susan Silver. Thayil had long since stopped DJing at the college radio station. And the drum and bass slots of the band had changed hands a few times. But most importantly, none of the intensity of the music was gone. The last Soundgarden album, Down on the Upside, released in May of 1996, had all of the pure energy, distortion and enigmatic, well thought out lyrics of their first EP, Screaming Life, from back in 1987. The trick was that each new release, including Down on the Upside, managed to take a life of its own, ensuring its freshness. Ever wise, maybe Soundgarden's dignified dissolution has something to do with the band's inherent philosophy of having no expectations for itself except, as Cornell said, to stay true to what they are feeling at the moment, a philosophy that made them what they were and has, in turn, solidified how they will be remembered. "I don't see us as having boundaries at all," Ben Shepherd said. "If you have boundaries, it's obviously some kind of personal complex..."