Reprinted without permission from Hard Music, January
INTO THE SUPERUNKNOWN
After many false starts vocalist Chris Cornell finally calls Paul Suter to tell him about Soundgarden's new opus and their upcoming Australian tour.
A single playback of the (obviously unmastered at the time) new Soundgarden album, the 70 minute Superunknown marathon, had been a source of some excitement for a writer who never had much time for Soundgarden's brand of grunge (or anyone else's for that matter). For this new record finds the band spreading it's wings and gliding smoothly into new territory, with a seemingly newfound focus on melbodic arrangements and textures. Guitarist Kim Thayil's rhythm crunch is still there of course, but the band's throwing some new shapes in addition. Long-time fans will have nothing to complain about when the new album arrives in stores, but they're now likely to be joined by many new faces when it comes out.
When you hear it for the first time, there's a feeling that a creative floodgate must have burst open in the Soundgarden camp, but Chris denies the opportunity to suggest some sort of epiphany in Seattle, coolly regarding Superunknown as simply the next step on the bands journey.
"We don't really monitor our growth from record to record, I guess we decided to include some songs this time we might previously have left out", he notes with a shrug. "We all write songs, and I don't think it's so much growth as much as chance - who's going to bring in what and how it might work".
But there's an undeniably clear vision of a more reflective side of Soundgarden music on this record, something which suggests the band reached a stage where it could afford to do more than just keep on proving how tough it is.
"No. I think what actually happened is that we wimped out," Chris says, deadpan. "Okay - it seems like over the last few years nobody's bothering to make a record unless they're trying really hard to be heavy. And we know we can do the loud guitars and the big drums - anyone can if they try - and I don't think that's an adequate basis for being in music. We're more interested in being songwriters.
Every record we make is completely representative of us at the time. With Badmotorfinger it was all new songs, nothing had been sitting around, and now again it's all new songs written at basically the same time. It's wrong to suggest it might be more representative than previous records of something we've always wanted to do - we've always done what we wanted to do, and this album simply represents us as we were when we were writing it."
However, he notes the writing process itself is changing, moving away from the 'four men in a room' syndrome of band compositions. "Were tending to write a little more on our own these days," he admits. "But it often only starts out that way - someone will bring in an idea and then someone else will take it home and work on it. After years of touring we're less interested these days in all sitting together in a room and hashing it out. The idea of shutting yourself in with the people you've just spent 18 months with doesn't seem quite as appealing as going home and spending some time alone."
"But once a finished song reaches the band we'll jam on it, try new parts and so on - everybody's still involved. Kim came up with some melody parts on this record in the studio, things we never heard before, just trying stuff out. This record definitely wasn't something pre-planned, we really didn't know what it was going to be like until the last day!" As evidence of the four members' even-handed involvement in the writing process, Chris cites Soundgarden's recent Sub Pop 'Single Of The Month' offering.
"Side A, the song called Room A Thousand Years Wide, had music by Matt (Cameron, drums) and lyrics by Kim, and on the B-side Ben (Shepherd, bass) wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. It's pretty much a band of equals - our saying is 'There is no Ringo', I don't know if that's exactly fair, Ringo definitely had his place, but you get the idea. Being the singer I tend to write most of the lyrics, but everybody in the band writes both music and lyrics. I like singing other people's lyrics."
Chris may be taking a very cool stance on the whole issue, but the fact is the new album contains music that could well be described as unexpected. And that poses a question. Given it's radio play and MTV rotation which signals to old fans that a band's back and propositions new fans too, which direction should Soundgarden take?
"It's a very hard decision for us," Chris admits. "I'm really resentful that things depend so much on singles and videos because we're an album band, no one track can ever sum up what our whole album is going to be like. If you hear a single and don't like it, chances are on the album there are still things on the album you would like. You can't guarantee that something's going to work, so you might as well have fun with it - and this time we have so many different things to choose from so I think it's going to be more fun than ever. Enough people have heard of us, we've sold enough records, that I think we can afford to do what we want rather than just fulfilling people's expectations. But I wouldn't ever want to do the most misleading thing and put out the most commercial sounding song on the record - or, equally misleading, put out the least commercial track."
"What would be really fun is six or seven singles, eight even - put one out every month! That way everyone could get a taste of the record. But I guess it would cost too much money and record companies don't like things like that - they want to make money, not spend it! They'd never make all the videos, but if there was one a month at least you wouldn't get sick of them - I think the schedule for heavy rotation on MTV now is 10 to 12 plays a day for two and a half months. What's the point in that?" he asks dryly.
"Then again, if they've seen and heard all that, they probably wouldn't feel the need to buy the whole album. So maybe no singles. In fact maybe we'll just quit. Yeah, you've just talked me into it, Soundgarden's history!" he jokes.
Superuknown finds a new producer at the helm, Michael Bienhorn (Soul Asylum, Red Hot Chilli Peppers), which seems to hint that Soundgarden stepped into this record with the intention of putting a different accent on their sound. But that's not the way Chris sees it!
"We simply wanted to check out someone new," he insists. "For me a big part of making records is working with different people, seeing what they do and learning from them. Since we always have a strong idea of what we want, we're not forced to rely on a producer's perspective - all our songs are already arranged and finished before we even start with a producer. And after two albums with Terry Date it was simply time to try somebody else. Using him again would have been too easy."
"We did want to go with some different guitar sounds, that was quite a big factor - but Terry could have made this record, he can do just about anything. We just wanted to get ourselves out of a comfortable situation, put ourselves in a position where we really had to try again, and I definitely think it worked -we've got a record that doesn't sound like anything we ever made before, and that was the whole idea."
There's inevitably a fear among bands that if they make a musical leap, their fans may not feel able to follow. Hence the stagnation of the late 80's - everyone realised this was the music business and wanted to retain their slice of the pie, so they recycled old ideas to old fans. In the good old days before that there was always the thrill of buying a new record by a favourite band just to find out what on earth they'd gone and done this time, and in a way that seems to be the direction Soundgarden's now taking. Superuknown is a thoroughly unpredictable record, but from end to end seems to offer at least something to please everyone.
"I'm really not worried about the fans taking this step with us," Chris says. "We had that in mind when we were sequencing the record, so there's always the next song if they're thrown by what they hear at the time - for four minutes we might be going in the 'wrong' direction for someone, but then the next four minutes will be in a different direction. It's not as if the album's leading you in one particular direction, song after song."
Consistently unpredictable in the way they do business, Soundgarden took a break in the middle of recording their album to do a 10 day US tour with Neil Young, and if that wasn't strange enough they rescheduled Australian and Japanese dates where even rush-releasing the record wouldn't help - the dates will inevitably precede the release of Superuknown and leave the band performing in a vacuum.
"We wanted to have it out in time, and we thought of cancelling the dates until after the release, but the promoters and the label said to come anyway," Chris explains. "We haven't really discussed yet what we're going to play, the old stuff or the new. I guess it's going to be important to play some of the older music. I think we'll lean in that direction - we're going to be touring when we would have been rehearsing so we'll have to work our way into the new album gradually. We haven't played much of it live yet."
"On the Neil Young dates the set was about half and half. Fell On Black Days (a real highlight of the new album) and Mailman were really fun - in fact I can't remember any of the new tunes not being fun to play, we were just really acclimated to them because we'd just been playing them in the studio."
One thing the band won't be doing is constructing a special set list designed to please the crowds they'll be encountering for the first time. Many bands touring abroad will scheme and calculate, putting together a completely different set to the one they normally play, in the belief that different cities, or countries like their rock harder, softer, whatever. That's not a game Soundgarden choose to play, but they do have another one.
"The only time we change the set around is to piss the audience off," Chris says with a grin. "Sometimes we're playing somewhere we really don't want to be, or with a band we really don't want to play with, and we'll play accordingly. When we started out we played shows we hated unanimously where nobody really got it - and there's something really fun about that, it's an experience worth repeating once in a while."
"It's fun to have everyone hate you, it becomes a big 'fuck you' kind of thing. It's not really necessary - well sometimes it is - but it feels good!"
So watch out for Soundgarden on a really short tour with somebody stupidly incompatible - they'll be doing it because they want to be hated for a few days. "Exactly - there's nothing like being hated!"