reprinted without permission from Guitar World, May
SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE
A sofa sits like an obelisk in the middle of a darkened room, its worn cushions retaining a jello-mold sag from years of couch surfing. A small end table looms nearby, covered with sticky beer-can circles that shine under the dim red glow of a nearby lamp. An ashtray lies buried under a mountain of cigarette butts; a tall indoor fern looks sick and in desperate need of daylight. As the visitor's eyes become accustomed to the room's faint lighting, he discerns several guitars leaning against a wall in random formation. An unmanned drum kit sits in a corner, like a child punished for making too much noise.
"Go nuts!" Producer Michael Beinhorn prompts Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, who is sitting back in the shapeless couch, a black Guild S-1 in one hand and a Budweiser in the other. "And none of that thoughtful, reflective bullshit either!"
Thayil warms his wah pedal with a few Ace Frehley licks as Beinhorn signals that the tape is rolling. "Kim plays better when he's on a couch," he deadpans, confessing that the setup, a replica of Thayil's living room (minus his extensive vinyl album collection and two cats) was constructed to coax a relaxed performance out of the studio-weary guitarist.
"It's true," Thayil confirms. "That's where I usually practice my guitar. I'm more comfortable playing that way".
He tears into an elaborate second guitar underlay on "Day I Tried To Live," a weighty, mid-tempo thumper with an odd time signature. Even though Beinhorn is joking with engineer Jason Corsaro, and appears not to be listening, his ears never miss a note. Thayil completes the solo.
"Kim, you're one of the greatest human beings I've ever met, but that was one of the most mindless, pathetic pieces of crap I've ever heard anyone play!"
"But I am someone," insists Thayil over the studio intercom. Beinhorn, who has developed a strong love for plastic coffee straws during the seemingly endless four month Soundgarden sessions, laughs without losing the stirrer wedged between his clenched molars. He isn't always so lucky; the studio carpet is covered with a mound of swizzle sticks chewed beyond recognition.
Singer Chris Cornell's miniature Pomeranian, roughly the size of a Blind Melon riff, runs past Beinhorn. It's two o'clock in the morning, and the producer wants to get the last solo of a 20-hour day on tape before taking his rest. Cornell, having tracked final vocals on several cuts 12 hours earlier, rubs the dark circles under his eyes and shuffles off to his own home and bed. Even the dog wants to call it a day. But work remains to be done; Thayil, who normally rises when the sun sets, wants to try another take.
The mood in the studio is light, despite the inordinate expectations that hang like a Seattle cloud over this follow-up to Soundgarden's 1992 breakthrough, Badmotorfinger. Everyone in the band's camp is acutely concious of the pressures surrounding Superunknown, an album which is hoped to propel the group to the same multi-platinum heights as their landsmen Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains. True to form, Soundgarden are taking their sweet, casual time recording the 15 songs that comprise the new album; they aren't all that nervous. Or so it seems.
Sitting squarely in the eye of the media hurricane that has engulfed Eddie and Co. and teen-spirited Nirvana, Soundgarden, to many the unsung MVP's of rock, exist in a realm that is just one great pitch away from the very Big Leagues.
"I could care less about the conceived worthiness of pop music and culture," says Kim Thayil flatly. "All I care about is this here guitar and the funny sounds I can make with it." He grins slyly.
Indifference? Confidence? Or just defensiveness? Whatever, the members of Soundgarden are aware that their place in pop culture could well be defined by Superunknown. A celebration of bare riffs, the album downplays the band's cerebral aggressiveness in favor of dazzling melody. Along with the mesmerizing doom and gloom ballads ("Black Hole Sun") reminiscent of the Beatle's glue-sniffing period, the album features thrashing punk ("Kickstand") and head-pounding rock ("Limo Wreck," "Fresh Tendrils"). Soundgarden are moving in strange new directions--accessible directions---whether anyone wants to follow or not.
"We're not throwing our brain at people so much this time," quips Thayil with less cynicism than he'd have you believe. "Now we're sharing our heart."
Thayil returns to the couch to add distorted one-note embellishments to "Limo Wreck," a straw-gnawing track with numerous mood swings. The lights are low, the tape is rolling. Beinhorn contemplates using coffee sticks to keep his eyes open. A trip into the superunknown can really wear a man out.
Guitar World: Tremendously high expectations were generated by the release of Superunknown. Do you feel that it is, in fact. a "make or break" album for Soundgarden?
Kim Thayil: I don't know. I don't know if we'll be this year's Pearl Jam or Nirvana. That people may have a lot of high hopes for us isn't going to make someone go out and buy our record unless they think it kicks ass.
Chris Cornell: I don't know what a "make or break" album is.
GW: Part of it may be the hope that Superunknown will be the album that puts the last nail in the butt rock coffin.
KT: [laughs] And you know, I don't really feel sorry for any of those kinds of bands. They were doing dumb, patronizing suck-up music the whole time. I won't miss them at all.
CC: Now there's this endless stream of shitty alternative college music. It's all politically correct and you're not allowed to be too aggressive or too soft. It's wimpy little guitars played by guys wearing spazzy glasses. [laughs] That's just as annoying as hair farmer rock. But there's always going to be a large amount of shit in any genre and a small amount of stuff you're actually gonna like.
GW: Prior to making the new album, you had reservations about working with producer Michael Beinhorn [Soul Asylum, Red Hot Chili Peppers]. In retrospect, do you feel Beinhorn succeeded in helping you get the album and performances you wanted?
CC: Yeah, I think he did. He sort of created a situation where he wanted us to get sounds that we hated, but between what he wanted and what we wanted--and because he fought so hard for his thing and we did for ours--it ended up somewhere neither of us expected, which is pretty cool.
GW: Why did you turn to an outside source to have the album mixed?
KT: Because Brendan O'Brien is a very good mix engineer. And he was willing to work with us to appease our demented and dissatisfied little crybaby needs. Michael Beinhorn had been working with us for four months and we felt that we needed a fresh pair of ears. Brendan was highly recommended by Stoney [Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard] and we liked what he did on the Pearl Jam and Black Crowes albums. The mixing process with Brendan was very painless. I'd definitely love to work with him again.
GW: My first impression of Superunknown is that it reveals a Beatle-like side to Soundgarden.
CC: Yeah, that's true for a few songs. But not overall. I hear it on songs like "Head Down." You should hear Ben's [Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd] version when he sings it-- it sounds even more like the Beatles, like John Lennon. I can't sound like that at all.
GW: "Head Down" is very Lennon-esque-- it sounds like something he'd do without McCartney messing it up.
KT: You're right. I think alot of it has to do with the drum sound, which, for some reason, reminds me of Revolver. "Let's rip off the Beatles so we can make some money." [laughs] The Beatles element, as with those of Aerosmith and Nirvana, is just something that turns up and has been an influence, either directly or indirectly. In terms of rock and pop writing lineage, sometimes the Beatles or Hendrix slips in there. I mean, you can exist in a vacuum and create music that isn't part of any rock tradition or lineage, and we've done that quite a bit. Some of the songs that Matt [Cameron, drummer] wrote for this record seem to be a little more independent of any pop tradition. "Limo Wreck," I think, pretty much comes out of that left field.
GW: It seems interesting, though, that these influences should become so prevalent at the same time when you're doing the most introspective work of your career.
KT: We looked deep down inside the very core of our souls and there was a little Ringo sitting there. Oh sure, we like telling people it's John Lennon or George Harrison; but when you really look deep inside of Soundgarden, there's a little Ringo wanting to get out.
GW: Would you say then that Superunknown is your Sgt. Pepper's or Magical Mystery Tour?
KT: I'd say it was our White Album. We were joking about calling it the White Out Album. [laughs]
GW: Some of your lyrics-- not to mention song titles like "Let Me Drown," "Fell On Black Days," "Black Hole Sun," and "Like Suicide"-- suggest that you're suffering from depression. It's a wonder that you didn't name the album Superbummer.
KT: [laughs] Soungarden: Fatalismo.
GW: Some of the songs make me feel like putting a gun in my mouth.
CC: That's why I don't have a gun! [laughs] I'm not depressed or angry-- at least not all of the time. But I don't get that feeling of "kill yourself." If I write what seems like a depressed song, it usually makes me feel better. It's hard to explain. When I was younger and listening to Killing Joke or Bauhaus or some other morose, dark and brooding music, I'd sit in a room, with the lights off, by myself. It never made me feel suicidal or depressed. I just liked it. It's like seeing a horror movie didn't make me want to kill my mother in the shower. But it's exhilirating in a way. A person is most vulnerable when he's writing lyrics and talking about how he's insecure or depressed or bunmmed out. And when you're being honest, it's more exciting because it's a little more dangerous. That might be an explanation, although I'm not sure. [laughs]
KT: That's the kind of band we've always been; we've always had an aggressive and angry side and a depressed, introspective side. And they're not exactly unrelated. We've always been introspective, but it depends on how you want to share yourself socially. You do that by being a little protective and presenting yourself as being angry, which we are, outwardly. The humor in our early work was simply a way to offset the overwhelming burden of our preoccupation with our depressing and angry thoughts. We play 45 minutes, bashing out something and punching a wall and smashing 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] We have to make sure to throw in a little bit of levity so we don't take ourselves so seriously.
GW: Musically, the emphasis on the new album is less on riffs and more on songs. The guitars are certainly present, but in a more supportive, less overpowering, role.
KT: Do the guitars really seem more supportive and less lead-oriented to you?
GW: Yeah, they do.
KT: God dang it. That sucks. Don't buy this record!
CC: The sound was intentional. We had been complaining about the fact that our last two records sounded more slick than we imagined they were. Kim would do two or three guitar tracks, and I would do one or two, until we had built this guitar wall. But I don't think it made things sound more rawor heavy; it had the opposite effect. It made it sound thicker, but in a bad way-- masking all of the imperfections of the guitar until it didn't sound real anymore. This time we went specifically for simplifying that. If you layer guitars and use multiple rhythms, you can't hear the performance of one guitar, which is a lot heavier and a lot more stark. When you can hear the guy fuck up a little bit and hear inconsistencies in the playing-- which we're good at-- it's just more powerful, heavier, more in-your-face. And it sounds like a band. There's even a song where we have only one guitar performance all the way through the track. We've never done anything like that before.
GW: Kim, your playing has become less self-concious, particularly on the solo in "Like Suicide," which is probably one of the best you've ever done.
KT: I think you're right-- I play naked a lot more this time. I really also like the solo in "Fourth of July." Actually, I like a lot more of the leads on this record than I did on Badmotorfinger. And I wasn't satisfied with my lead work on Louder than Love. But, as you pointed out, the guitar isn't as dominating or loud this time. We just pushed the guitar back a little bit and brought the drums up.
GW: There aren't as many obvious solos.
KT: No, there aren't. Every song has some noodling going on, whereas some songs on Badmotorfinger didn't have any lead work. Every song on Superunknown has lead work, but it's less pronounced, not "GUITAR!" or "My man, Ace!" There are no big lead-ins to the solos. There's maybe three true solo sections on the whole record and a lot of supportive leads done to accent and to get a song moving.
GW: Your playing style has taken on an Eastern tinge, particularly on "Half," where it sounds like you're playing a sitar.
KT: That's because I'm going back and discovering my roots, man. And when I look deep down inside of me, there's a Hindu Ringo wanting to get out. [laughs] Some of it happens just by accident because that's the way songs like "Head Down" and "Superunknown" are written, and they lend themselves to those kind of scales. I don't follow the rules of those scales, but just do whatever sounds good.
GW: Chris, you've been expanding your role as guitarist over the last two albums.
CC: I'm not really comfortable playing the guitar, and I don't play it very well. I plyed a lot of stuff on Badmotorfinger, but I cut back live because it's hard to play and sing at the same time; I didn't want to be strapped to a guitat the whole time. The new songs will need my playing even more because they're in the direction of two necessary parts. So chances are I'll be playing guitar a lot on the road.
GW: The drop D tuning Soundgarden pioneered doesn't figure too prominently on this album.
KT: The Melvins were the ones who came up with the drop D tuning.
GW: Yeah, but you're the ones who made it popular.
KT: I guess. I switched to a C tuning this time. And there's a couple of songs that are performed in regular tuning. The advantage to using alternatine tunings is you can get natural doubling or chorus effects, like a 12 string. I'm more comfortable with alternate tunings than with standard. When I'm in a D tuning, I do all that boogie sort of Skynrd stuff or some weird new wave thing.[laughs]
GW: Is that to compensate for a small amp?
KT: [laughs] Yeah, I have Peavey Envy!
GW: Your sound has changed in many ways besides your use of the C tuning. Your guitar tones, for instance.
CC: We changed our sound around in a day and a half. We were using new amps, Dual Rectifiers, but neither of us knew about its full capabilities because they can do all these things. They have modern settings, vintage settings, silicon diodes or tubes, two different kinds of tubes-- and this is all in one amp. They also have two different channels, and how you set that up changes the way each channel responds. We'd been screwing around with them for about a week and Kim finally figured them out. We knew we could make those things sound like us, but didn't know how.
GW: There are obvious Soundgarden effects like wah, chorus and some harmonics on the album, but what's that keyboard effect on "Black Hole Sun"?
KT: It's a Leslie cabinet. That was Chris' idea. We used a Leslie on an unreleased song called "Blind Dogs," but we've never recorded an interesting version of it. When we brought the Leslie cabinet into the studio during Badmotorfinger, it generated a lot of interest from the band as far as working our arpeggiated guitar parts through it. Chris borrowed a Leslie and was working on some Superunknown demos when he came up with "Black Hole Sun." The Leslie is perfect for that song; it's very Beatlesque and has a distinctive sound. It ended up changing the song completely.
GW: You seem to rely on that type of experimentation more than technology to alter your sound.
CC: Right. And it's more fun. [laughs] We've always struggled as hard as we could to continur to progress, sound-wise, without having to progress in terms of technology. We're not a technical type of band.
GW: Your stripped down gear seems to echo that sentiment.
CC: It may not be that as much as just not wanting a whole bunch of shit onstage. I was looking at Jerry Cantrell's [Alice in Chains] rig the other day and it reminded me of a rig I used to have. You look at it and think, "Wow, there's a bunch of fuckin' shit going on in there." But then if you just get down and check out what's in his rack, he's only got two Bogner preamps, two power amps, two digital delays, and that's it. No different than having two amps and two cabinets, except the amps and preamps are seperate. I used to have seperate preamps and amps. We'd be playing with the Melvins and people would look at it and go, "What do you need all this shit for?"
GW: There are several guest musicians on Superunknown.....
KT: Yeah. Natasha Schneider from the band Eleven plays keyboards, and Gregg Keplinger, the guy who makes snares for Matt, plays a drum track on "Head Down." Then we had Artis the Spoonman [a renowned Seattle street musician] play spoons on "Spoonman." Beinhorn played a little bit of piano on "Let Me Drown" and Mellotron on "Mailman." Matt played most of the Mellotron on that song though.
CC: If anyone has an idea for bringing someone else in, he'll mention it and we'll usually wind up doing it. We've never made a conscious decision to have a guest appearance. Since we don't do it very often, it's something we can get away with. I don't want to be in the later Beatles situation, where people played on half of the record. I'm not into that. But here and there it's cool. It opens up the record a little bit.
GW: It's interesting to hear Soundgarden augmented with spoons.
KT: A sterling performance, I must say! [laughs] Ben is an acquaintance of Artis the Spoonman and asked him to come by.
GW: Was the song "Spoonman" written about Artis?
KT: No, Chris wrote it during the filming of the Singles movie. Part of the riff was played on the acoustic guitar and used on the soundtrack to the record. Everyone in the band liked the song and thought it would be great if we Soundgardenized it.
GW: That song, with the spoon and drum rhumba break, is representative of the whole album in that it feels more percussive, with more rhythmic things happening.
CC: It depends on what you mean by "rhythmic." Matt experimented more on this record than he ever has before. He used two different drum sets and tried several different ways of recording them. And he did a lot of other percussion stuff outside of playing drums. I think drums can make or break an album and how you want it to sound. If you want a slick sound, or more of a grunge sound, or a completely abrasive punk sound, you almost always start with the drums. The drums on the Hater record [a Ben Shepherd/Matt Cameron side project] are fantastic; it's totally raw recording. I've never heard Matt play like that before. The sound is sort of garage-y and not very slick. And then all of a sudden he does a really incredible fill, and, in the context of such a raw sound, it just blows you away.It makes him sound that much of a better drummer. When I hear that, I know why [John] Bonham is so revered.
KT: Matt's always plyed cool stuff but the drums have often been hidden in the mix on our albums. The drums are present on Badmotorfinger, but they sound thin. On Louder Than Love, we tried to emphasize the snare drum, which is the standard dance and rock and metal way to mix. This time we wanted to hear Matt's whole drum kit, and it's the best drum sound we've ever had. But I don't think there's more going on percussively; I just think it's more audible in the mix.
GW: Superunknown will no doubt be compared to the work of your scene contemporaries Nirvana and Pearl Jam. How does that make you feel, considering that the Seattle sound probably owes more to Soundgarden than any other band?
KT: Ultimately, it's ironic. Things like this have always happened in the course of pop history. There's always someone who is the trend-setter or who establishes a style that other people run with. But there is absolutely no reason for us to complain, especially when when you see a band like Stone Temple Pilots achieving success while bands like Mudhoney and Tad, who are far more deserving because of the work they've put in and the quality of the material they churn out, haven't. Yet, as much as I might have a lack of affection for the Stone Temple Pilots, they are part and parcel of this whole alternative sound and I'm happy to see them having success instead of some of the goofy, cowboy-booted, hair farmer, strip club-frequenting rock bands that used to dominate the music scene.
CC: It would be narrow and prudish to suggest that Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains owe anything to Soundgarden. I mean, sure all those bands were influenced by us. But they wrote amazing songs which just punched a hole in music, and it didn't have much to do with us.
GW: Getting back to high expectations: Soundgarden was the first band out of the Seattle scene to get signed to a major label and it was widely believed that you would be the Next Big Thing.
CC: A lot of people were really critical of Soundgarden when we first signed to a major. And a lot of bands gave us shit. Every one of those fuckin' bands are signed to a major label now. Were we sellouts or visionaries? They were just chickenshits that wanted something that they were too afraid to shoot for. Either way, I don't care.
GW: You don't seem to feel much peer pressure by the success of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Nirvana.
KT: We don't want to be in someone else's shadow, but it's actually been an incredible blessing in disguise. When you see the kind of heat and weight that has been thrown on the shoulders of guys like Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain and their bands...well, I don't think that's a desirable burden to have to carry around. Although, not having experienced it, I don't understand the magnitude of their reward. We've definitely experienced moderate popularity--- to our detriment. It's annoying, getting recognized in the grocery store: "Yeah, he's got some toilet paper and cat food!" But I'll admit that sometimes I ask, "Why them and not us?" And then other times I go, "Why us and not them?" I feel splendid being in the shadow of Nirvana and Pearl Jam: it's almost like someone is firing ray guns and these guys have provided a dome shelter over us, taking all the fucking heat. But at the same time, they're getting paid pretty good for it. [laughs]
GW: Doesn't it bug you to see all of your friends stinking rich when you don't even have cable TV?
KT: [laughs] That isn't the case. I would be a complete asshole to not look at the fact that we've had a very good and satisfying successful 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 consider the success bands like Tad or Screaming Trees or Mudhoney deserve. They should have the success we have.
CC: I was really happy when Mother Love Bone started to get all the label attention, because previously we had been the only band out of the urban scene to get serious major label offers. We were the band to beat. When Mother Love Bone got all this attention and played music that connected with people a lot quicker and easier to take than Soundgarden music, it took a lot of focus off of us, which was great. We didn't have that pressure to be the biggest and best anymore. It was the big fish in the small pond thing. Now we can go be a miniscule brine shrimp in a polluted ocean, which is more fun to me. I'm not into the big fish/small pond trip at all. It's too hard to hide.
GW: What would happen if Soundgarden became a media commodity like Nirvana?
CC: I'd write some more depressing songs.