Reprinted without permission from Circus, August
SOUNDGARDEN: MILLIONS OF RECORDS LATER AND BACK "ON THE UPSIDE"
Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell's once flowing black hair, piercing blue-grey eyes and Adonis-like body once seemed to make him qualified as a perfect canidate for rock stardom. they also seemed to warn anyone who didn't look beyond his appearence that they would notice more if they appreciate his group.
Maybe the fact that Soundgarden has sold millions of records confirms Cornell's prowess as a frontman. But if you believe that, you've never heard the muscular, darkly energetic and oddly magnetic sounds on their multi-platinum records. Cornell isn't what we consider the alt rock frontman norm. He may have once had the look, but, gasp, where's the angst? where's the drugs?
With a strong new album, Down on the Upside, and another slot on Lollapalooza (once again playing the main stage), they're poised for another success. However, the funny thing is that they don't mind.
Soundgarden is perhaps the only band of the early 90's Seattle musical explosion (as the first Seattle band of that period to get signed) that weren't whiplashed into major fame within months.
Chris Cornell and his cohorts have managed to embrace their position, and accordingly they've found themselves well adjusted, with neither big egos nor gaping self-depreciative streaks - the latter of which is common among their Pacific Northwestern brethren. Guitarist Kim Thayil noted one time that fame's biggest perk so far had been getting free pizza.
Soundgarden eased into superstardom over many years. None of its members were anchored down by drugs in Seattle, a town sometimes known as Heroin City. Their last album, Superunknown, sold millions more than their previous platinum-selling Badmotorfinger. No one in the band feels invincible either.
"We're well aware of our weaknesses and strong points," Cornell said, "and if somebody tells us that we're God, we're not going to believe it. And if someone tells us we're the worst band on earth, we won't believe that either."
Each successive album finds them in a different area of weighty sonic territory with experience behind them and a little more success. Down on the Upside is the fifth full-length work in their 12 year history, and the title is certainly fitting.
The four members of Soundgarden, who are all in their late twenties- early thirties -- Cornell, Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron, and bassist Ben Shepherd -- live content, music-centered lives noticeably devoid of self destruction.
Soundgarden's music, on the other hand, often reflects lyricist Cornell's introspective pondering of the darker, more solitary realm. Thayil's specialty is intricately monstrous, drop D tuned patches of chord work followed by short, eerie reverbed solos. Explorations like "The Day I Tried To Live" (with its vocals building up to Cornell's loud, smooth wail and Thayil's guitar repeatedly descending down the scale) and the unsettingly solid power ballad "Like Suicide," both from 1994's Superunknown, address the unseemly side of life. Down on the Upside, layered and ultra textured, also offers this view, as proven with song titles such as "Burden In My Hand," "Blow Up The Outside World," and the first single, "Pretty Noose."
Cornell certainly isn't always sullen, though his lyrics become unsure and pessimistic. And just like his band's metal-meets-psychedelia-and-grunge blend differs from the unique flavors of fellow "alt"ernates Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins, Chris Cornell has his lighter side. In 1992, when Pearl Jam and Soundgarden performed at Lollapalooza together, Cornell and Pearl Jam's lead singer Eddie Vedder had a running bet. The Jim Rose Circus, which was an attraction travelling with Lollapalooza, featured a man who drank bile and then coaxed an audience member to do the same. Inspired, Cornell and Vedder bet each other that one could drink more bile over the course of the summer. Eventually, Vedder won. Cornell conceded with a good natured handshake.
This dichotomy between contentment and dark introspection is a scenerio that most likely grew out of Cornell's real life. Born on July 20, 1964 to a lower middle class family with five siblings, Cornell hated school and it is said that he dropped out of the eighth grade twice.
Cornell's parents, who divorced when he was 14, were another source of tension. In fact, he dropped out of school for good the same day. By the time he was 16, he lived on his own and worked full time as a short order cook.
Music paved a way in Cornell's future as indelibly as his personal problems. Cornell was a fan long before puberty. As a 6 year old, he stole an Alice Cooper album and a couple of Beatles albums from a neighbor's garage. In grade school, he took piano lessons, but soon turned his attention to the drums. He honed his chops playing the drum parts of Rush and Yes along with his stereo.
When he was 13, he started a band with kids on his block called The Jones Street Band, in which he incorporated the drumming techniques of The Police, AC/DC, The Ramones, and Killing Joke. At this time, people began noticing his powerful voice.
Cornell joined the Shemps in 1982 with Hiro Yamamoto on bass, and a guitarist named Matt Dentino. The latter was a room-mate of Thayil -- then an aspiring guitarist and a University of Washington student aiming at a Bachelor's degree in philosophy. Though Thayil replaced Dentino early on, the combination of Cornell, Thayil, and Yamamoto had a bright future. The Shemps were primarily a cover band, but within a year or so they began to try out originals.
Thayil, who was four years older than Cornell, grew up alternately in a suburb near Chicago and in India before heading to Seattle for college. Cornell saw him at several of the local concerts, and was introduced to him by mutual friends.
At this time, most mid 80's Seattle music fans and musicans knew Thayil as the guitarist who covered tunes by local bands and others he heard on the Seattle radio station KCMU.
Soundgarden didn't just ride the wave of the Seattle boom; it rode the harsh sea of the cruel 80's music scene with a single-minded desire to play their trademark music.
Though they eventually signed on a string of labels (Sub Pop, Southern Cailfornia punk label SST, and finally, A&M), they wisely waited before signing with anyone. Cornell lived in a house outside Seattle where the band practiced for several hours a day. Neighbors remember hearing Cornell rehearsing the same vocal parts until he hit the notes the way he wanted to.
When Cornell decided to focus in on his singing duties, Soundgarden recruited Matt Cameron to fill the drum seat. Later, when Yamamoto left, Jason Everman (who was briefly a member of an early version of Nirvana) filled the spot until current Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd showed up.
By 1990, Soundgarden had released four albums: Screaming Life, Fopp, Ultramega OK, and their breakthrough, Louder Than Love. Arguably, Louder was the superior to it's predecessors, but it was the right sound at the right time. Caught up amongst a whirlwind of Seattlemania which originated with Nirvana and soon spread with Pearl Jam and beyond, Louder's immediate successor Badmotorfinger soon spawned a number of hits including "Outshined" and "Jesus Christ Pose."
However, it wasn't until the hype died down when Soundgarden had a chance to react to the intense media exposure. They wondered whether they really triumphed with Superunknown, an album that rose to the top of the charts, because of its own merits.
The negative Seattle hype of course was painfully obvious. Kurt Cobain killed himself earlier that year; long before that, Cornell's one-time room-mate Andrew Wood -- long pegged to be Seattle's first mega-star with his band Mother Love Bone -- was the first fatality of the scene. He died of a heroin OD in 1990.
While record companies flocked to the cities in the early 90's, some long time local veterans were signed to the majors, but a lot of them were ignored. The signed bands were not always ready for the brush with fame they experienced. Some persevered, some broke up.
But Superunknown, with its metallic tinged epics, seemed positively clear-headed, accessible, and most importantly as a common thread in all Soundgarden music, real.
"We haven't embraced any kind of lifestyle other than what we've always had," Cornell explained. "We don't hang out with movie stars and models; we still live in the same city and hang out with our same friends."
Since the mega-success of "Black Hole Sun," from Superunknown, Soundgarden have been reasonably quiet. Cornell has been spending time with his wife, Soundgarden manager Susan Silver, and his dogs. Thayil's been hanging out, playing music and having a beer or two. Cameron and Shepherd have been pouring their efforts into side projects, like 1993's Hater. But where there's smooth adjustment, there's longevity, and that's something Soundgarden has always known.