Reprinted without permission from Faces, October 1994
THE WIZARDS OF SOUND
Jeff Gilbert follows Kim Thayil down the yellow brick road to the Superunknown.
"Did you bring beer?" asks Kim Thayil excitedly, opening the security door to Heart's Bad Animals mega studio. Soundgarden's thirsty guitarist leads his visitors through a myriad of hallways and rooms filled with high-tech recording consoles, miles of patch cords, and more guitars than you could shake a music store at. It is a rare night in Seattle. Soundgarden have been holed up in Bad Animals for nearly four months, completing Superunknown, the masterpiece that will become the biggest and most important album of their career. And tonight, they've invited a few friends to hear some of it.
Entering the main engineering room, which looks more like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise than a recording studio, Thayil nearly bumps into Seattle Mariners baseball superstar, Randy Johnson. Johnson's seven-foot towering presence seems right at home in this evening's circus atmosphere. Thayil, a hardcore baseball fanatic, asks if Johnson, a hardcore Soundgarden fanatic, is enjoying himelf. Johnson's wide grin indicates he is enthralled, being allowed into this rock and roll inner sanctum. Across the hall, lined with glittering gold and platinum Heart albums, Tad are re-mixing a single for their Inhaler album. Pearl Jam's Mike McCready wanders in, carrying a brown paper bag, and offers it to anyone brave enough to drink from it. Soundgarden take a break and drink a few beers with their guests. Alice in Chains' Jerry Cantrell comes in unnoticed and chats with singer Chris Cornell. Many beers, hugs, and handshakes later the band to the task of working out a rough version of "4th of July," an intense and moody track that Cornell is teaching them. More guests crowd into the recording room to watch it. It is a mesmerizing sight. Soundgarden, completely absorbed by the music and oblivious to the eyes upon them, work as one mind, feeling the song first, then adding touches that will make it a moving and emotional track when finished. The band played the song over and over for hours. Johnson, McCready, and most everyone else tire and leave around 2 A.M. Cantrell offers to go on a burger run. "Anyone want cheese?" he asks.
Two years in the making, Superunknown is an album made by a band at the peak of their skills. Tearing away the heavy metal outer shell and exposing a thick core of pure melody, Soundgarden have reached musically and lyrically further into themselves and pulled out their collective influences in a detonation of streamlined guitar chaos. Clearly this title is in reference to the journey Soundgarden made to come back with this album. "It's a mutant pop damage," remarks Tad's Gary Thorstensen accurately. FACES talks with Kim Thayil about life in the Superunknown.
FACES: The new song titles and lyrics - "Let Me Drown", Fell on Black Days", "Black Hole Sun", "Like Suicide", seem immersed in depression, very dark and morose, more so now than on earlier records.
Kim Thayil: That's the kind of band we've always been. We've always had the aggression and angry element, and the angry side is not that unrelated from the depressed introspective side. You do that by being a little protective, and you might present yourself as being angry, which we are outwardly. If we feel a little more intimate, we share ourselves with ourselves a little more open. And that's the depressed element. The humor in our early works was simply a way to offset the overwhelming burden of our preoccupation with our depressing and angry thoughts. We play for forty-five minutes bashing out something and punching a wall and smash our heads into the front of a car, and then after a while, we all look at each other and go, "let's do 'Earache My Eye'." (laughs)
F: Where does that come from?
KT: I don't know if the source is insecurity, or a response to our own overblown sense of aggression and depression. If one of us is constantly sharing the negative side of ourselves, after a while you get a little bit self conscience and try to temper it with humor. We're just a parody of our original selves.
F: There is usually so much to a Soundgarden record, both lyrically and musically, that it is hard to assimilate at one time, especially fifteen tracks.
KT: Sometimes I think that might alienate people. If it isn't easily accessible, I think a lot of people might just get pushed away from it. But there are some nice little four-minute chunks.
F: It's been suggested that more than a few of Seattle's most famous sons owe Soundgarden a great deal. How do you feel about that?
KT: There may have been a time where you would have said Nirvana or Alice in Chains was influenced by Soundgarden. I'm incredibly happy to see the success that Nirvana and Pearl Jam have had given the work they put into it, and the authentic sincerity and belief they have in what they do. You couldn't be happier for a group of guys. But ultimately, it's ironic. Things like this have always happened in the course of pop history. There's always been someone who's a trendsetter, and establishes a style and influences other people who run with it. But there is absolutely no reason to complain. When you see a band like Stone Temple Pilots, achieving success, and then you turn around and look at bands like Mudhoney or Tad, who are far more deserving because of the work they've put in and the quality of the material they churn out. But for some reason the timing, or perhaps they're imitative of the trend at the time, they didn't have the success some of these bands have had. There's no accounting for trends or tastes of popularity. As much as I might have a lack of affection for the Stone Temple Pilots, they are part and parcel of this whole alternative and I'm happy to see them having some success doing what they do instead of the goofy cowboy-booted, hair farmer, strip-club-frequenting rock bands that used to dominate the rock scene.
F: Bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Soundgarden have put an end to that kind of rock.
KT: And you know, I don't really feel sorry for them. (laughs) They were doing dumb patronizing suck up music the whole time. They've sucked up to this little girl, immature, sexually-underdeveloped marketplace. I don't miss those bands at all.
F: Put Soundgarden's last ten years in perspective.
KT: I would be a complete asshole to not look at the fact that we've had a very good and satisfying career. And it's only going to get better for us. To not acknowledge the kind of success we've had would be ungrateful, especially when you see the wanting for success that bands like Tad, or The Screaming Trees, or Mudhoney have. The Screaming Trees are way overdue for that kind of success. Tad should have incredible success. But what's there to complain about? I would love to se Tad get their due, or Love Battery, or Metal Church.
F: Does the distinct possiblility of ending up on MTV's Buzz Clip scare you? What happens if it turns you into this year's Pearl Jam or Nirvana?
KT: I don't know that we'll be this year's Pearl Jam or Nirvana. Given that people have high hopes for us, that isn't gonna make someone go out and buy our record unless they thinks it kicks their ass.
F: What if Soundgarden becomes a commodity and no longer a band like Pearl Jam?
KT: It seems to me that Pearl Jam has established themselves and are firmly entrenched in pop history right now and they'll probably have a nice career as entertainers.
F: As long as the media doesn't further reduce their contributions to nothing more than a blip on the radar of pop history.
KT: Pop history is a blip on the radar of world events.
F: Do you really believe that?
KT: Yeah. I think far too much attention is given to it because it is commodified. You don't commodify things like history, politics, or world events. There is no money to be made in the marketing of war - sell a few books, make a mini-series; pop entertainment is a blip. Sad to say, even the Beatles are ultimately a blip in the world of academia or history or politics or economics. It's significant in that it's a soundtrack to a lot of people's lives, growing up. But it doesn't pay the rent, it doesn't feed you, it doesn't make you a happy father or mother.
F: It's paid your rent though.
KT: Yeah, but I suppose if i were a coal miner in West Virgina it wouldn't.
F:Rather pay rent playing guitar than mining coal.
KT: (laughs) True. Pop culture is a blip, but its a big industry. Do you think it's as important as Campbell Soup? Do you think Marlboro cigarettes are historically important? Or intellectually or artistically?
F: You're comparing music to soup and cigarettes?
KT: Real history of human culture is science, and art, and politics.
F: But isn't music art?
KT: Pop music? Barely. It's like television; it's dependent upon trends and fashion. Generally art is something that, although it may share itself with social trends, it's aesthetic qualties are going to be independent of marketable qualities. Something's beautiful, not because of this years's model, but because of what it has in itself.
F: That sounds too New Age.
KT: (laughs) The reference point shouldn't change it, references being cultural, the age and sex and race of the viewer, the economic social strata of the viewer.
F: So where does the new Soundgarden record fit into that idealogy?
KT: Try to make a beautiful piece of pop art, something that will be beautiful maybe for a few years or a couple of decades. Obviously, it won't be beautiful by the standards with which they'll measure popular entertainment thirty or forty years from now. Very few things hold up over time, especially entertainment. Except for The Wizard of Oz.
F: Is it your ambition then to become The Wizard of Oz of Rock?
KT: (laughs) Yeah, don't pay no attention to the guitar player behind the curtain!