Reprinted without permission from CMJ New Music
Monthly, July 1996
It's an unnaturally sunny spring day in Seattle, and all the windows are open in a small conference room at Susan Sliver Management where the firm's most prestigious client, Soundgarden, sits basking in the warmth like sleepy lizards. Down the hall, three frisky Pomeranians are wrestling with each other, and since they belong to Sliver and her husband, Chris Cornell, they pretty much have the run of the building. And as the members (minus bassist Ben Shepherd) begin discussing their self-produced new album, Down On The Upside, a lone dust-colored Weimaraner-another pampered office pet-stares, whining, outside the closed plexiglass doors. Suddenly, in the middle of discussing Soundgarden's studio technique, Cornell leaps to his feet, races to the window, and barks and excited alarm you just don't hear everyday: "Bald eagle!"
Guitarist Kim Thayil jumps up with an amazed "Really?"
"There!" Cornell points, squinting. And sure enough, among the nearby chimneys and rooftops darts our national bird, his white-plumed head easily recognizable in the afternoon glare. But he's on the run, being pecked and harried, mid-flight, by local avian riff-raff -- a couple of gulls and a loudly cawing crow.
"See? The other birds hate him. They're trying to chase him out of the area." The singer watches until the raptor finally flaps out of sight. Then he sighs sadly and slumps back down in his chair. To witness the humiliation of such a proud, majestic animal is somehow irksome, problematic, akin to watching a parent get fired or a U.S. president barf all over some other shocked head of state. These things just shouldn't happen.
How Cornell spotted the eagle is anybody's guess. The sun was beaming directly into his half-closed eyes at the time. Is this songwriter -- whose ASCAP publishing company is dubbed You Make Me Sick I Make Music -- particularly sensitive to nature?
"I don't know if I could smell an intruder on my property before I saw one," he deadpans, his crystal-blue eyes now wide and alert. "And I don't know if 'nature' would be the right word to describe it, but I'm sensitive to my surroundings. Over-sensitive you might say, always over-aware of what's going on."
Leave it to a passing bald eagle to make an important Sound- garden point. Chris Cornell, author of seven of Down's 16 tracks, co-author (with either Shepherd or Cameron) of another seven more, means exactly what he says in "Blow Up The Outside World." 'I've given everything I could to blow it to hell and gone/Burrow down in and blow up the outside world,' he growls on the explosive chorus, which makes "Fell On Black Days" (from the Grammy-winning Superunknown) sound like a whimsical fairy tale by comparison.
Yes, Cornell says, he does feel like blowing up the outside world. "All the time, so it doesn't encroach on me -- you can hibernate and not have to worry about it." And Soundgarden's music, he adds, isn't coming from a "blind, happy place or even an innocent place, like the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. We're not Norman Rockwell rock. The initial spark might not come from that, but once it's completed, it obviously brings joy to our fans, which is kind of ironic. But it's all part of our songs' process."
The beefy Thayil, looking like a biker in his usual all-black outfit and beard, agrees. "There's a power in our music that, on the surface, may seem gloomy and depressing." He sips his cappuccino and snickers. "And it still may if you look deeper. But I think you can derive some kind of power from that. I'd listen to Velvet Underground records when I was in high school, and it didn't make me wanna go out and stick my head under a truck. It made me totally stronger."
"And if those emotions are conveyed convincingly," Cameron stresses, "then that's a beautiful thing. No matter what the emotion is."
There's a shadowy sense of mortality pulsing beneath numbers like "Overfloater," one of the grimmest ruminations the band has ever attempted; "Rhinosaur," whose initially jewelled lead spirals downward while Cornell's voice hits full metal-grating velocity; "Ty Cobb," a punk-frantic study of the misanthropic baseball great, with Cornell and Shepherd furiously plucking at mandolins throughout; and the dreamy, layered chording of "Switch Opens," which showcases Cornell's evocative low-decibel crooning (a style that first stunned listeners on 1990's Temple Of The Dog one-off with Cameron and various members of what would soon be Pearl Jam).
Unfortunately, Cornell's most telling lyrics -- for the futuristic "Applebite" -- are lost in gaseous vocoder distortion: "No one can save the pure or the brave/No one can save them all/Grow and decay... it's only forever."
"I guess that's the way I think," shrugs Soundgarden's tortured frontman.
In his jeans, workboots, and sweater, with his hair and goatee trimmed to polite business length, he looks like any other Seattle nine-to-fiver, trudging off to the daily grind. But sensing one's own death coming down the pike, he says, is a "much more realistic viewpoint, and it encompasses more troubling ideas than other things you could choose to write about. And there's some sort of a challenge in there -- exorcising the fear by writing about it."
Naturally, Cornell isn't very forthcoming about his lyrics. In fact, he gets downright cagey at some points. "Rhinosaur," he says, "wasn't directed at any specific person or group, but it could be about one person or group..." How does one "Overfloat"? "Verrrry carefully." And Thayil bristles at the thought that some folks might hear his "Never The Machine Forever" as being anti-computer. "It's not about computers," he grumbles, while Cornell laughingly ribs him: "See? You start writing lyrics, and then everybody wants you to explain 'em!"
Thayil snorts. "We're not intending to put out a secret decoder ring with the album to facilitate people's enjoyment of the record. We're really not trying to be cryptic. But I've experienced fans who seem to think that being artistic means being cryptic -- that isn't what Soundgarden is about."
Back to the chat that was taking place before the eagle stole the spotlight. Production-wise, Cornell was saying, the Down cut "Dusty" (a tempo-shifting anthem that's almost optimistic) proved particularly difficult to capture on tape. "It shouldn't have been, but there were about two or three different schools of thought on what the song could or should sound like. So we recorded it with those two or three elements in it, and when we tried to mix it, it didn't work with all those elements -- it was only gonna work one way or another."
Concerning the song's lyrics -- "I think it's turning back around and I think I like it" -- he confesses that it's "pretty positive for a Soundgarden song. But it still echoes more of my beliefs -- there's a reason you feel that way, like the opposite of 'Fell On Black Days.' 'Dusty' could be the B-side of that, in a concept record." He squints out the window again. "We have a lot of black days in Seattle, but this isn't one of them." Personally, he sees fit to add, "I haven't added them up, but I'd say I have more black days than not, probably."
Silhouetted against the city skyline, the bald eagle is high-tailing it home to the norther woods. Does Cornell ever seek refuge from Soundgarden obligations (a prominent slot on Lollapalooza, for example) in a woodsy retreat as well? He grimaces, shakes his head. "That doesn't help. Sometimes escaping to the wilderness makes you feel worse, because you might end up going somewhere quiet and all of a sudden, thought start crashing in and you're trapped. I know why some people like being around lots of other people in a noisy atmosphere with a lot of chaos because..."
"You don't have to worry about the video game that is yourself," Thayil finishes, helpfully. "You can sit there and bounce off other people coming at you, other lights and sounds." Nevertheless, he concludes -- and this may explain where a good deal of Down On The Upside originated -- "If you're alone, and a certain aspect of your brooding is going unresolved, you've gotta stop and check into it. Otherwise, you're losing the game.