Reprinted without permission from Guitar Player, June
ALONE IN THE SUPERUNKNOWN: SOUNDGARDEN REDFINE RIFFAGE AND MASTER
MELODY ON THE ECLECTIC FIFTH ALBUM
"I don't know," shrugs Ben Shepherd, shaking his head. "That verges on disco." For bassist Shepherd and the other members of Soundgarden, it's another long day of tour rehearsals at downtown Seattle's ancient Moore Theater, and getting the light show right is just another sweaty detail. Drummer Matt Cameron agrees. He tells the lighting operator to try simple back-screens and full-stage washes to avoid anything too glitzy or too obvious. "Hey," crows the tech warmly, "that just makes my job easier."
A few minutes later, the whole band is onstage, slogging half-heartedly through versions of "Face Pollution," "Jesus Christ Pose," and a rambling, impromptu blues. Singer and guitarist Chris Cornell, ruggedly handsome with his new short haircut and goatee, hunches over his Gretsch, turning his head just slightly when he lets fly a trademark wail. Lead guitarist Kim Thayil barely moves at all except to sit down on the drum riser; this is clearly a technical rehearsal. Stageside, guitar tech Ernie Hudson, polishing one of Kim's new Guild S-100s, leans over to shout to me over the din: "These are the best guys to work with!"
Avoiding the showy and obvious is a Soundgarden trademark. Though comparison to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath have dogged them for most of their eight years, the band have steadily expanded the hard rock guitar vocabulary with their combination of mammoth alterate-tuned guitar riffs, odd-timed rhythms, and labyrinthine song structures. But they're not out to make the job of listening any easier for anyone. Many fans of Nirvana or Pearl Jam's more traditional song formats are thrown by Soundgarden's dense, less accessible melodies, weird riff shapes, and tricky things, not to mention their cryptic lyrics.
Accessibility is an issue that Thayil and Cornell are forced to grapple with, because the talk around their new, fifth album - the tuneful, moody and diverse Superunknown - is that it's going to take them to another level of success; it's supposed to be the big one. "Well, it's definitely the long one," jokes Cornell backstage after the rehearsal, referring to the album's mighty 15-song expanse. Does the band feel the weight of expectation? "Yeah. Everyone's saying this is the breakthrough album," nods Thayil, to which Cornell quickly and derisively responds, "A lot more housewives are going to like it."
Not likely. While the album's first single, the dropped-D tuned "Spoonman," may be a relatively hooky piece for Soundgarden (never mind that the main riff is in 7/8), the rest is deep, dark, and diverse, full of rich tonalities and lyrical conflict on some interior terrain that perhaps only Cornell himself truly understands. Shepherd's compositions, the Middle Eastern-flavoured "Half" and the early Pink Floydish "Head Down," are evocative and intriguing, but you're not going to get a Topeka housewife singing "Mr. Full, Mr. Have kills Mr. Empty Hands" unless she reads Rilke or really likes Soundgarden.
"I've heard the comment that the aggressiveness is down a notch, but the moodiness is up a few notches," says Kim of the contrasts between Superunknown and the band's previous A&M release Badmotorfinger. "The prettiness is probably up too, the melodic quality of Chris' singing." Cornell, sitting on the floor in a corner of the room, considers this and offers his own perspective. "Before we were always trying to get a better version of what our normal sound was," he suggests, "but on this record we were trying to do a whole new thing, and almost everything was really different."
To initiate a change in sonic landscape, the band put to rest their fruitful two-album partnership with producer Terry Date, choosing instead to co-produce with Michael Beinhorn, who'd produced Soul Asylum's breakthrough record, Grave Dancer's Union, Herbie Hancock's Future Shock, and the Red Hot Chili Pepper's The Uplift Mofo Party Plan and Mother's Milk. Though the arrangements and song structures were, as usual, worked out by the band in rehearsals and demos, Beinhorn worked closely with the band to achieve the right guitar tones for each song. The result? A cleaner, more economical guitar sound, less noise, and smarter parts.
"The approach to recording guitars was much different," Cornell affirms. "It's a lot sparser with respect to rhythms. There's a lot less going on as far as layering each rhythm part goes, but there are a lot more little parts going on - more guitar melodies and lines." Thayil concurs: "The tricky riff stuff that made Badmotorfinger really attractive to some people is present on Superunknown, but it's not presented at the forefront. It's much more subtle. This record doesn't come across as brainy, guitar-geek record, though there's a lot of that stuff going on incidentally. It's just smoother." What the album loses in all-out attack, it makes up for in depth. Cornell points out that songs like "Fell On Black Days" and "Fourth Of July" are no less dark or intense for lack of super-aggressive guitars. The fact is, they're still pretty aggressive.
Superunknown also represents Thayil's biggest leap as a soloist. Where he once filled out sections with cool, loose textural feedback flurries, he now bucks into full-blown, wah wah-ignited lead breaks. "The song transitions are so smooth that it made it easier to picture where the noodles and the leads should go," Kim explains. "On Badmotorfinger it was more like, 'Here's the part where you go doodaloodoodaloo.' On this one, there were a bunch of songs that didn't have any specific place for a solo. If it needed something, we'd put it there. So sometimes there are vocals happening concurrently with lead stuff, particularly if it gave motion to the song or added dynamics." But the sheer fluidity of Thayil's solo work on "Limo Wreck" or "Like Suicide" handily gives the impression that some - gulp - practicing has taken place.
"I've never practiced," says Thayil in earnest. "Not that it's a bad thing - it's just... work. I never took lessons. I just fooled around with the guitar and the serendipity of how notes and chords and scales all relate to each other. Practicing starts from the position that there is something you are unable to do, and you do it over and over again until you're able to do it. What me, Chris, and Ben did is play what we can, have fun with it, and then get better anyways. There's always a little progress; maybe we're relearning something or learning new intervals by accident. But if you come from the position that you lack a certain ability, then it's discouraging and frustrating to go ahead and try to do it. You should be satisfied with what you are doing and enjoy it, even if it's only playing two chords."
"I've never practiced anything in my life except the drums a little bit," says Cornell, originally Soundgarden's drummer. "Practicing is so hard. It's like school. Who wants to do that?" For starters, people who want to improve their skills on the instrument. Cornell looks incredulous. "I know a lot of amazing guitar players who don't have a talent for creating a sound for themselves," he avers. "I think it's partly that they spent a lot of time practicing the instrument to be able to play things they heard that they appreciated. I spend all my time, hours and hours, most of my life, trying to be creative as opposed to trying to be good. I guess I traded one thing in for another, because I'm a shitty guitar player."
"You're not shitty," counters Thayil.
"I'm pretty bad," Cornell assures him.
"You probably have a better sense of timing and rhythm than most guitarists out there," insists Thayil, "because you play like a drummer."
Cornell isn't swayed: "Yeah, but if you consider that I've played guitar almost every day for eight or nine years, I'm not proficient at all. I can improvise in a jam situation and be comfortable and make it fit, but I couldn't pick up a guitar and entertain a bunch of people as a guitar player. I mean, I could if I sang."
Fortunately, Cornell does sing, and his inventiveness as a player more than outweighs his technical limitations. The same is true of Thayil, who, though more technically accomplished, stands out more for his creative approach to riffing than for his speedy phrasing. The Soundgarden guitar style is an alternate-tuned monster of infinite possibilities, many of which are just being fulfilled now. On early LPs like Screaming Life (SubPop) and Ultramega Ok (SST), a simple dropped-D once facilitated bone-crunching one-finger barre chords (a device since used liberally by Helmet, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Gruntruck and countless others), but the riffs on Superunknown get inside ever more interesting tunings, bent notes, and fresh tonal variations.
Consider the variety: "My Wave" and "The Day I Tried To Live": E, E, B, B, B; "Head Down" and "Half": C, G, C, G, G, E; "Limo Wreck": C, G, D, G, B, E; "Like Suicide": D, G, D, G, B, C; and "Fourth Of July": C, F, C, G, B, E. They haven't given up on dropped-D either; "Spoonman," "Let Me Drown," "Kickstand" and "Black Hole Sun" all derive unique character from simply lowering the bottom string a whole step. Combine that with interesting, coolly executed time signatures - the 7/8 riff in "Spoonman," the 6/4 of "Fell On Black Days," the 7/8 to 4/4 of "The Day I Tried To Live" - and you have music that is harmonically dense rhythmically interesting, and rocking at the same time.
"On 'Fell On Black Days' the drums are totally straight, even though the riff is in six, so it doesn't feel quirky at all," says Cornell, clearly uncomfortable with all this music nerd talk. While Cameron offers to "answer the math questions," Cornell puts his usual absurdist spin on the subject: "There's a breakdown that's in 27/1, though sometimes I've been fucking up because I stop on 26." Kim adds that the band rarely considers time signatures until after a song is already written: "It's a total accident."
Not so accidental is the diversity of material on Superunknown, partially a result of having four writers in one band. "The record represents more of what they're about as individuals," says producer Beinhorn. "I don't know if that's what they originally visualized themselves doing, but I know in the end that's the direction they felt really comfortable with." So is this Soundgarden's White Album? "You're the second person who's said that," laughs Beinhorn. "Well, it's four guys with completely different points of view about how they compose and what they like. They all had input to varying levels on this record, so it really has to be like that."
Shepherd's individual stock as a writer and singer rose with the recent release of Hater, his one-off side project with Cameron , ex-Monster Magnet singer/guitarist John McBain, singer Brain Wood, and bassist John Waterman. The addictive A&M LP reeks of classic '60s garage band charm and tunefulness a la Count Five, the Music Machine, Paul Revere & The Raiders, and the Seeds. "The idea was to go into the studio and record for the fun of it," says Shepherd, who played a '63 Gretsch Corvette and '67 Gretsch Roc-Jet for most of the sessions. "It wasn't an industry thing, but actually a backlash from so much touring, playing the same songs over and over."
In addition to the Shepherd composition "Show Me" from the AIDS benefit LP No Alternative, Soundgarden contributed a new version of "New Damage" to a Greenpeace benefit LP called Alternatice NRG. The newly revitalized track features a stunning solo performance by Brain May, which May over dubbed quite independently of the band. "The song's going along, it sounds like us, then all of a sudden Queen is on our song!" laughs Cornell. "It's an amazing solo, but it's funny in a way, like a weird nightmare you might have."
"You start realizing how guitarists really have peculiar habits," offers Thayil, "and often what makes guitars sound interesting or good is that they have their own distinct schtick, their peculiar habit. Take them out of their element, and they can sound really strange.
Making sure each song is a distinct entity is critical to Cornell, who heats up at the suggestion that certain songs might be a good "direction" to pursue: "One day this guy from another label walks up to me and says, 'I really like that song 'Seasons' (Cornell's solo acoustic tune from the Singles movie soundtrack). You should write more songs like that.' I just wanted to punch this guy. What a stupid thing to say. If I wrote more songs like that, who would care about that song? 'You should write more songs like that because I like it.' You should fuck off because I hate you. Probably why people would single out a particular song they like on this record is because it's the only song like that on the record. And if there were 15 songs like that on the record, ti would be a lame-ass record. It would suck."
Chris can rest assured; Superunknown doesn't suck. Opening with the visceral "Let Me Drown," which Chris describes as "the bridge between the last album and this one," the record moves into the punky chord-blast of "My Wave," with its hip open-string chorus figure and criss-crossing vocal lines. The smoky mid-tempo "Fell On Black Days" follows, graced by a warm, edgy rhythm tone and Chris' resonant baritone. Next is Cameron's "Mailman," whose slow, chromatic verse riff recalls the Sabbathy metal dirges of the band's 1988 A&M Louder Than Love.
The last three songs on the first "side" almost feel like a little psychedelic trilogy. ("A trilogy of sorts," Chris cackles when I suggest this.) "Superunknown," buoyed by Thayil's cleanly picked hammer-on lick, soars on Cornell's wailing, spring-reverb-drenched vocal line. The otherwordly flavor of "Head Down" recalls "See Emily Play," the classic Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd single. Cornell's majestic "Black Hole Sun" has a Magical Mystery Tour vibe that, coupled with song's elegant melody, makes it one of the album's high points.
Side two kicks off with "Spoonman," the first single, which features the percussive spoons of Artis the Spoonman, a Seattle street fixture for whom the song was written. ("Feel the rhythm with your hands, spoon man.") "Limo Wreck," an epic dirge in the vein of Badmotor's "New Damage," paints a bleak picture of a culture crumbling beneath its own greed, while a slow, walking guitar line maps out the harmonic changes. The cool, modal mood-rock of "The Day I Tried To Live" segues into the ultra-short, randy hardcore blast of "Kickstand."
The Cameron/Cornell composition "Fresh Tendrils" recalls Physical Graffiti-era Zep with its rhythmic punctuation and modal harmonies, while "Fourth Of July" features a scowling sub-harmonic rhythm part, as intense solo by Kim, and sledgehammer drums. "Half" is the insane child of the bunch, with a guitar part reminiscent of a bouzouki on overdrive and an eerie falsetto vocal. "Like Suicide," possibly the defining moment of the whole record, is a favorite of the band members themselves. Though Cornell's not letting on who the song is about, his yearning melody and Thayil's penetrating solo on the song's rideout create an affecting experience that lingers long after the last note stops ringing.
So the question remains: Will Superunknown be Soundgarden's breakthrough smash? Or will it just be another brilliant Soundgarden album? And does it even matter? "One of the theories I've always heard is that the third record on a major label is always the one," says Thayil with a touch of irony. "That's the way they used to do it back in the old days, during the AC/DC era. But with the exception of Pearl Jam and Metallica, it seems like there aren't really any true bands out there, just people that have a hit...or not. It's like, 'Where are they now? Remember back in '92 when so-and-so had a hit with 'Bumblebee Girl'?"