Reprinted from Faces, December 1989
SOUNDGARDEN, WHERE THE DOWN BOYS GROW
Soundgarden's music is the definition of commercial suicide, a sonic cacophony of unearthly beauty. Or to put it another way, one big loud noise. For the members of this rapidly rising underground phenomenon, music is an outlet for their personal aggressions. And hasn't the best rock music always been exactly that?
"It was a way to say 'f**k' in a real loud way," says guitarist Kim Thayil of the band's formation. Thayil and bass player Hiro Yamamoto moved to Seattle from Chicago where they hooked up with vocalist Chris Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron in 1985.
"We'd all played in various bands and we started jamming together and the jams were prolific. We wrote five of six songs the first two times we played," he recalls. "There are no particularly dominating force. Most bands have one guy who does all the material and everyone else goes along with it because they like playing. Playing isn't enough for us -- writing is more fun than playing."
Combining the influence of heavy metal, hard-core, and post-punk, Soundgarden has managed to come up with completely original and compelling full on sound. "People compare us to bands I hate," complains Thayil. "They lump us in with Jane's Addiction. I don't know why. They're an OK band but I don't think we sound like them at all. We're not Metallica. we're not the Butthole Surfers, we're not Led f**king Zepplin either!"
With a bottom heavy attack and a wailing vocalist the like of which hasn't been heard since Robert Plant in his hey day, Soundgarden has indeed been compared to Led Zepplin but unlike the recent surge of Led clones, this band manages to capture the surge of Zepplin or Black Sabbath in their prime without actually imitating them.
Hard-core is another essential Soundgarden element but the band plays too slowly to be called thrash. "The thrash bands that we liked weren't the generic ones," recalls Thayil. "We would listen to the Minutemen, Husker Du. They had a unique style and sound. Then there was the arty thing; the Swans, Big Black, and Sonic Youth. The arty thing slowed stuff down. Slow it down when you are playing thrash and it gets kind of heavy."
This sound, which came to epitomize the Pacific Northwest, was originated by bands like the now defunct Green River and of course Soundgarden. The band may have not been conscious of what it was doing, but the time is definitely right. "People can only get into Talking Heads and R.E.M. for so long before they want Black Sabbath again," says Cornell.
Soundgarden has come more rooted in metal over time but without losing the adventurousness that sets them apart from other bands. In fact it is bands like Soundgarden, Danzig, and -- yes -- Jane's Addiction that help to bring newfound respect to the metal genre.
"We're not a party band and we're not all gloom and hate," explains Cornell. "We have angry lyrics, we have political lyrics, cerebral lyrics, and poetry. Our last record was more in that vein but our new record is more political, more straight-ahead fist-in-the-face kind of anger. Not like 'f**k you' for no reason but 'f**k you' for this reason and this reason and this reason."
Early releases on Seattle's influential Sub Pop label and SST (i.e. Ultramega OK) left no questions as to what this band was all about. However, with their signing to mainstream A&M records, many are wondering if Soundgarden's sound will change. Cornell has a ready defense to these early charges of "sell out".
"Philosophically we haven't changed our approach to songwrinting or the reasons why we are in a band. A lot of that's changed around us. Originally we were just a band and our friends would come and see us; now it's a lot bigger thing revolving around pretty much the same process. We held off major label land for so long that by the time we actually signed a contract, the labels all understood where we were coming from."
In fact, the band's Louder Than Love is as uncompromising as anything Soundgarden has released previously, if a bit more accomplished. The band claims that A&M has been extremely good to them, and hasn't asked them to change their sound at all. "We don't like to emphasize the uncompromising aspect of ourselves because we're not going up against an immovable object," says Thayil.
The area in and around Seattle, collectively refereed to as the Pacific Northwest, has become a breeding ground for a kind of heavy metal untouched by the fads and trends of either coast. Queensryche, Fifth Angel, Sanctuary, and Metal Church are but a few of the better known examples. "It's independent," says Thayil. "It doesn't require people to move there to help it go. It has it's own sound. There are people that listen to AC/DC and there are people who listen to Big Black and they run around together."
What most of these bands seem to have in common is a gloomy quality that seems to be a reflection of the rainy weather. Thayil claims he was the same way in Chicago, while Cornell calls it "a general mindset," but Soundgarden's music is a little on the down side. "There are little retard influences in our music," says Cornell. "There are gothic influences, minor key type stuff. That's the kind of stuff that moves us. We don't listen to party music. That isn't our style."
The members of Soundgarden seem to have an all-encompassing involvement with the music that they make but they aren't without a few outside interests. Cornell is a voracious reader and Thayil attends his share of movies. "I see mostly drive-in movies." he says. "I get the films that come from beneath the earth's core and decapitate cheerleaders. I've seen my share of art-house films. Films that actually have some literary content influence our music more than the garbage I watch now."
This says a lot about how Soundgarden manages to strike a balance between their artistic aspirations and their love of volume. Any band that has the sense of irony to cover John Lennon's "Two Minutes of Silence" deserves to be mega.........
Make that ulramega.