Reprinted without permission from Details, April
GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS
Before Chris Cornell, Soundgarden's singer, became a new metal icon, he was a cook. And proud of it.
"I always liked working with food," says the former seafood chef. "It's not that different from music. Unless you're a short-order cook or something - there's no poetry in fried food."
Nor, some would argue, in grunge. But Soundgarden, Seattle's oldest grunge rockers, strive for an epic dimension that goes beyond the usual early-'70s riffing and ripped flannel. Their huge, engulfing sound - the meltdown point of ornate art rock and ornery hardcore - delivers the kick of heavy metal with none of the bloat.
Like most crossover heroes, their credits are evenly distributed; support slots with Metallica and Guns N' Roses to satisfy the headbangers; Lollapalooza II and a cameo in Singles for Generation Skank. Their last album, Badmotorfinger, duly went platinum. But they've never had a big hit - only the comparatively spritely "Outshined" cracked the Top 40.
This is partly because their fractured songs don't really qualify as pop. And partly because Soundgarden - Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron, and bassist Ben Shepherd - can't resist confusing people. They're too aloof to party down with the metal fraternity; they'd rather play chess than entertain groupies. (On the Guns N' Roses tour they maintained an attitude so stoic the GN'R crew dubbed them Frowngarden.) But in a post-Cobain scene where men wear dresses and scream out their vulnerability, Cornell's bare chest and unusually dramatic voice - a sexy rumble at ground level, a Wagnerian shriek in its upper register - seem unapologetically masculine. Soundgarden don't care about being politically correct. They just want to rock, then go home and feed the cats.
"A lot of alternative people think we're like this macho metal thing 'cause we don't sing songs that are little whispers in the ear," says Kim. "And a lot of metal people think we're this wimpy alternative thing 'cause our name is Soundgarden, not Skullfuck."
They've just released their fourth album, the very heavy and very trippy Superunknown. So tonight, at the end of ten days of interviews and photo shoots, Chris and Kim get to order broiled lobster at Musso & Frank's in Los Angeles and discuss whether the band should collectively buy one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington. Chris doesn't usually go out much; he prefers his own company. By a long shot. "When there's somebody else in the room, it's honestly harder for me to think," he admits. "You always have to be ready to respond to the other person, so you can never really relax." But eating out gives him the chance to show off the fact that, after eight years in the trade, he's restaurant-literate: He can tell what to order just by looking at the wallpaper. Here it's kind of a musty red, with lots of wood paneling. "Avoid the shrimp cocktail," he says wisely. "It's probably canned."
Kim: Should I get the asparagus? What do you think?
Chris: Sure. In this part of the country, asparagus is good at any time.
Before grunge, there was new wave; before flannel and heroin, there were keyboards and cocaine. Soundgarden, when they started out in 1984 (as a three-piece, with Chris drumming and singing), were appropriately quirky. For about five minutes. Then they discovered that the slower and louder they played, the weirder they could sound.
Along with the Melvins (who moved to San Francisco) and Green River (who mutated into Mudhoney and Pearl Jam), Soundgarden defined the genre - lumbering heavy metal with a punk ethos. They also established a career pattern: Release a few independent records (preferably on Sub Pop), then vault onto a major label. But Soundgarden never realized the world-domination possibilities of this scenario. While Nirvana captured the zeitgeist and Pearl Jam spoke to the masses, Soundgarden were too intellectual, too remote. They could never allow themselves to write anything as crowd-pleasing as an anthem - most of their songs didn't even have a recognizable chorus. So they stood on the sidelines, dignity intact, while sweatier bands ran away with all the sales.
Of course, none of the early grungesters expected to be palatable to the MTV nation. They didn't want to be. So when A&M sniffed out commercial potential in Soundgarden's metallic grooves seven years ago, the band was horrified. "We thought there was something wrong with us," says Chris. "Like for some reason we were wimpier or lamer than these other bands we liked."
With their first two EPs (Fopp, which featured an ill-advised Ohio Players cover), and the thrashy Screaming Life) and their colorful but muddled debut album, Ultramega OK, it was only too easy to take Kim's psychedelic riffs and Chris's bluesy voice, metal-man ringlets, and conspicuous shirtlessness and think: Led Zeppelin. This bummed them out - they weren't even huge fans. But the Zep comparison stuck. Journalists scrutinized the Chris-and-Kim pairing for signs of Plant-Page volatility - "Like, we don't get along, but ultimately we'd kill for each other, die for each other," drawls Chris. "It was this really goofy thing left over from the '70s rock trip with all the guitar virtuosos and pouty, hip-swinging singers with high ranges."
A guy selling roses out of a bucked sidles up to the table. Kim, a burly man wearing a backward baseball cap, flutters his eyelashes at Chris, who recently shaved his head. "You never buy me flowers anymore," Kim pouts. Chris and Kim get along just fine. Chris once dreamed that he and Soundgarden's first bassist had murdered Kim and hidden him in the attic, but he claims it was a nightmare. They both cultivate an unapprochable front, but while Chris is a genuine hermit, Kim is an ebullient cynic with a degree in philosophy and a penchant for waspish commentary. ("Why does anyone write a song?" he demands rhetorically. "I guess Evan Dando would be like, 'I got some split ends.'") Chris dropped out of high school at fifteen. Sometimes he dreams that he's gone back and everyone he went to school with is still there. Only they're still young.
It was on Louder Than Love, and especially 1991's Badmotorfinger, that a distinctive Garden sound emerged; heavy, hypnotic, with assaultive riffs underscoring distorted guitars that could sound like sitars or giant mosquitoes. Superunknown proceeds to take liberties with it, spiking ominous, slo-mo onslaughts with psychedelic charm, or making room for quieter moments, like the surprisingly intimate "Fell on Black Days." The evocative, abstract lyrics set moode more than they tell stories, though Chris, who grew up Catholic, has a residual fondness for Gothic imagery. The apocalyptic attack on greed in "Limo Wreck" has him coming on like an avenging angel: "I'm the wreck of you," he howls. "I'm the death of you all." There's a fine line between grandeur and silliness, but Soundgarden stay on the right side of it: Most of the album is magnificently gloomy. Which is doubly impressive when you consider that their lyrical lexicon includes words like "whomsoever."
Back in Kim's hotel room, Chris flicks through TV channels; Kim calls L7, who are recording locally, to see if they want to come over and hang out. They know each other a little, more by reputation than anything. L7's reputation, it must be said, is that of hard-rocking women who can keep going all night long. "They wanted to know if I had a mini-bar," he says, looking slightly perturbed. "Do you think A&M will pick up the tab?"
"We could hide all the liquor before they get here," suggests Chris sleepily. "Just leave the dried meat."
Half an hour later, Donita Sparks and Jennifer Finch turn up and stride purposefully toward the fridge. They've had a shitty day in the studio, but they are disarmingly polite. "You got any low-alcohol beer?" they ask.
Thursday, all of Soundgarden (and most of Seattle) has converged on the Seattle Arena: Hater, the eclectic side project of Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron, are opening for Pearl Jam. They've never played in public before and they have to face an audience with only one thing on its mind - Eddie! - but they carry it off well. Matt comes out from behind the drum kit to do one last song. "You'll just have to suffer," he teases. But the front rows have already warmed up to their grumpy lyrics ("Who do I kill?") and loopy style-shifting, and cheer instead.
"I thought that the Pearl Jam crowd should have heckled us more," decides Ben afterward. We're backstage, where the Seattle cognoscenti are milling around companionably. Chris is chatting to Blackie Onassis from Urge Overkill. Sean Kinney from Alice In Chains is congratulating Matt on his drum technique. "Keep taking the lessons and you might have something," he joshes.
At twenty-five, Ben is the youngest member of Soundgarden, but he fills the role of resident mad genius. Despite his hardcore background, it his his off-the-wall take on late-'60s Anglo-pop that gives Superunknown its oddest, most winsome moments ("Half," "Head Down"). Ben is dryly humorous, but he has a spooked, country-boy intensity. Each of the other guys offers an idea of what makes up Soundgarden's appeal - Chris and Kim say it's depth, Matt says that they rock. But Ben is brought up short. "God, I don't know," he brought up short. "I don't think in terms like that, so I couldn't come up with a true answer at all." Still, he's not as serious as he was. He used to bristle when people called him "dude." "I used to be totally anal about that word - 'Don't fuckin' call me that!' I just don't bother anymore. You can't be a hairshirt saint all the time."
He joined Soundgarden just before Badmotorfinger. They were his favorite band. "It still dawns on me - 'Wow, I'm in Soundgarden,'" he says. The feeling is mutual. "Ben rules," says Matt admiringly. "He's got music that he wrote at home that's just amazing."
Matt is the sunniest member of Soundgarden, the one teen magazines gush over because he's so "cute and nice." He moved to Seattle from San Diego ten years ago. When they're not on the road, he putters about happily in his little brick house, rewiring the kitchen, building furniture. But he scores some of the band's darkest moments - the gigantic "Limo Wreck," the remorseless grind of "Mailman" - "the stuff that hits you in the stomach but then creeps into your head."
Kim breezes past with his girlfriend Katey, an appellate defender for Washington State. He's agreed to sit down and talk tomorrow. "Though I'm kind of busy tomorrow," he announces. "I gotta repaint my apartment."
Kim has lived in the same tiny place for five years. "Kim's not a very good consumer," says Matt. "Buying a house is kind of overwhelming for him." His living room is cluttered with records, magazines, assorted junk, and two cats - but no cans of paint. "I was only kidding," he says airily. "I haven't repainted in years."
In a band of professional skeptics, Kim still manages to stand out. He's compulsively critical. He keeps the TV on with the sound off - it gives him extra ammunition. But he turns it up when Seattle Supersonics forward Michael Cage comes on. "He's really articulate for an athlete," Kim says approvingly. "He's got like a degree in English lit."
He's a peppery, entertaining host. He gets a kick out of existentialism. ("Try to define yourself apart from the relationships you have with events and entities in the world," he says excitedly. "You can't do it! It can't be done.") His idea of fun is to sit around late at night deconstructing the media with his best friend Brad. Then they'll deconstruct the collusive nature of friendship. "Then a lot of the time it's overwhelming, so we'll just get drunk and watch a basketball game."
"Kim's a flake," Ben sums up affectionately. "Matt's stable, and Chris is as weird as I am."
I meet Chris again in a yuppie hotel bar where the walls are lined with cookbooks. He orders a margarita, takes a sip, and makes a face. "Too sweet," he pronounces. Most rock singers, even the least garrulous ones, carry a trace of whatever it is that sends them shrieking onto stages night after night - a recklessness, or a need to express something they can't always articulate. But Chris is calm and self-contained, and just a little sly; when he's amused, he makes an effort not to break into a smile. It doesn't always work, which is kind of goofy. Sometimes he mishears a question and snaps "What?" suspiciously.
But Chris's studied impassivity seems playful, his way of poking fun fun at the interview process. He looks younger and seems older than twenty-nine. He was more sociable as a kid. He grew up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood that seemed full of boys with big bad brothers. Chris got into the usual trouble - "from auto theft to burglary to selling to drugs to beating other kids up and burning down buildings." He'd hang out with his friends, drinking, smoking pot, doing mushrooms, acid. "Then I got really afraid of drugs when I was about fourteen. Everyone knew that I did drugs, so I just shut myself off from everybody. I spent like two years where I really didn't have any friends." And then he discovered that he liked being alone.
Neither being married (to Susan Silver, Soundgarden's manager) nor being successful has changed that. It just gives him more opportunity to be reclusive. "I dunno," he sighs. "I just sometimes worry that I'll get too distant from everyone and one day I'll wake up and there won't be anyone around." But he keeps himself amused: When he's in a hotel room on a high floor, he'll always open the window and look down and imagine what it would be like to jump. What it would feel like. What he could land on. Thinking about it, I realize Ben is wrong. Chris is even weirder than he is.
He orders another margarita. He's a big guy, uncommonly good-looking, like an angelic lumberjack. The waiter's staring at him, and drops a beer bottle in his confusion. "I thought he was gonna card me," deadpans Chris.
Inside Chris, there doesn't actually seem to be a rock star struggling to get out. And Soundgarden, with their existentialism and their asparagus and their abhorrence of cheap rock camaraderie, don't make a very convincing rock'n'roll band. Which is how they like it. But as clear-sighted and detached as Chris tries to be, his view of rock is romantic as that of the guy who believes that rock means never-ending rebellion, or unconditional adoration.
"It's like the only thing that's really yours. Relationships are never yours. Property is never yours. Your body isn't even yours. Music is something that actually is. It's forever in a way."