Reprinted without permission from Hard Music, June
Built on hard work and cynicism, Soundgarden's ride to the mainstream has only been mirrored by the mainstream's growth towards interesting music. Carl Hammerschmidt digs around with a band who couldn't give a damn.
Uh, nah..., uh, yeah, uh, they're OK. Just depends you know." Kim Thayil, Satan's guitarist with Ben Elton's wit wrapped up in Tommy Chong's persona, is being down about the upside. He didn't exactly run to today's photo session and mildly amusing press gropes. You don't have to when you're in Soundgarden. But "yeah definitely" he feels good about his band's sixth album, Down on the Upside, and damn, he's gonna wanna play it loud when the time comes - this is all but part of the crap that comes with it, and by the way, what city did you say your band was from? Really? Do you like, hang out at the same 7-11 with Eddie?
Soundgarden will tell you the upside of being in a band from Seattle all started a long time ago, going on 15 years ago in fact. When Hendrix was still the city's biggest musical export and heavy metal meant Judas Priest. Long before the downside when everyone had special names for things, MTV had set up a live to air broadcast monitoring every two-bit bar band, and long before Brigitte Fonda tried to get Matt Dillon between the sheets because of some confused snag/fag routine. Most everyone's never been to Seattle and it's better that way, it just looks like any other American city you see in the movies that isn't LA or Miami, and you know Stone Temple Pilots aren't from there.
Kim Thayil knows the upside, and his band has spent a lot of their success telling us about the downside. Maybe dealing with it is the right word. But then again if five million people forked over their hard earned and asked me what it was like to come from Toongabbie every time I got out of bed to make a record, I don't know if I'd be busting as many balls. But then again...
Back in 1981, Thayil moved back to the city he was born in with one time bass player and founding member Hiro Yamamoto. They were glad to get out of Chicago where they had both just finished high school (coincidentally along with SubPop co-founder Bruce Pavitt), and Thayil wanted to continue study at the progressive Washington State University where he eventually scored himself a degree in philosophy. During those first four years though, while doubling study with work as a DJ at a local radio station, there was one theory he couldn't escape. I rock therefore I am.
"The band really didn't get started until '84, so for the first three years we were just playing in these real garage type bands, and it wasn't really easy to get shows because most of the places you could play has real bar-type bands, the boogie type bands," Thayil remembers with a chuckle.
They did as the Romans did, and the first real incarnation of Soundgarden was a short short-lived covers band called The Shemps. With Thayil on bass and his room mate at the time Matt Dentino, on guitar, they came across a 19 year-old seafood chef who "looked like he'd just gotten out of the navy". Chris Cornell was also a drummer at the time, but his aspirations were what pushed him into answering a 'vocalist wanted' advert in the local paper.
By '84 Dentino's obsession "with people who died" and the resultant string of Hendrix, Otis Redding and Doors covers all got too much. The Shemps were no more and Cornell moved in with Yamamoto to start jamming on their own material. Thayil was invited back in to the fold, a drummer called Scott Sundquist was enlisted to allow Cornell to get up front and they all thought that the name of a pipe sculpture near where they lived, and which made bizarre howling noises in the wind, would be a god name for their band.
"The first day that we played together, we played for about three or four hours and we wrote three songs," Thayil gushes. "Then the next day when we went back we wrote three more songs. We liked each other's style, it was spontaneous and natural, there was no question about it."
The band started gigging as Soundgarden but as Thayil remembers, "Because there was all those bar bands, nobody wanted to hear some aggressive weird band. But when we actually did begin to play regularly, the places started to pack out and for the first time it felt like a risk worth taking, offering our own sort of show."
And they weren't alone. In 1986 they contributed two songs to a C/Z Records compilation called Deep Six which also featured a big cross section of what was beginning to happen in the area. The Melvins were on there, Skin Yard (with whom future drummer Matt Cameron was playing) were on there, Malfunkshun (featuring the late Andrew Wood, close friend of Cornell's who played in Mother Love Bone with members of Pearl Jam) and Green River (the seminal 'grunge' band which would splinter into Mudhoney) were also in the house.
Legend has it that it was this record which attracted the first wave of major label A&R reps to the Seattle area. Romanticised or not, listening to it would probably give you a context for what was happening with these "weird aggressive bands" and where they'd come from. Where metal noise and punk ethos finally tripped over each other and sent the rock music world into paroxysms of joy.
"When I was real young I listened to a lot of Beatles," Thayil explains, "but then as a teenager it was all American metal like Aerosmith, Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent. Around the same period I got turned onto The MC5 and the Stooges, who I found a lot more satisfying in terms of their heaviness and aggression. Then eventually, punk rock broke and it all opened up. The Dead Boys, the Ramones, Richard Hell, Pere Ubu, Chrome, but at the same time I liked Devo, the B-52's and Joy Division and Bauhaus." Cornell also had a taste for the darker strains of the early '80s experimental bands, which when coupled with his Catholic background set a scene for the residual Gothic overtones that set their metal muscle and post-punk art apart from a lot of their peers. Although it's an aspect that often gets overshadowed.Usually by cheaper Led Zeppelin comparisons which, in looking for a Page/Plant pairing between Cornell and Thayil. still gives them the shits.
"It was this really goofy thing left over from the '70s rock trip with all the guitar virtuosos and pouty, hip swinging singers with high ranges," Cornell once complained. A year after Deep Six Sundquist left and Matt Cameron was lured away from Skin Yard, allowing the band to start work on their first EP for SubPop - only the label's second release - Screaming Life. A year later the Fopp EP, featuring a funk-metal version of an Ohio Players' song, followed. They were heavy, messy records and they reflected the feeling of the time. The dominant one being a big 'fuck you' to American FM radio and major labels. Their scene, they thought, was all they needed and the whole west coast glam thing could take a flying fuck.
"I hated that stuff with a passion because there was absolutely nothing heavy about it at all," Thayil laughs. "It wasn't particularly aggressive, it wasn't wild or chaotic; and rock'n'roll, really heavy, aggressive rock'n'roll needs to be more than just loud. It needs to be wild and chaotic, it should always sound like it is about to fall apart at the seams at any moment. But that glam stuff was all prim and proper. It was such teeny bopper stuff," he finishes up laughing again. only this time at the departure he's taken from his usual easy going nature. His Tommy Chong laughing at his Ben Elton.
It's not even ironic that so much of what's come out of Seattle has also become the pop sound for the youngest generation, and the band recognise that. For Soundgarden it's a matter of where the music people want to hear, becomes teeny bopper pap because all the hit and miss tactics that come with mass marketing.
"We knew we were offering what that scene couldn't offer. It was aggressive, intelligent rock," Thayil explains. "They weren't offering any of that, nothing of what they were doing was intelligent, nothing of what they were doing was witty or wild. So for us it was like, 'Oh, there's a void here', and all of that stuff is what we do."
"We weren't surprised that we had success, what surprised us was how quick and how over the top the success was with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and eventually Alice In Chains and us. We didn't realise it would take off that big. We knew popular rock really sucked but we didn't realise there was millions of people who felt the same way."
Before millions of people were involved though, there was the 1988 debut, Ultramega OK, which got them nominated for their first Grammy. As almost all their records since have. Raw and colourful, it was released by SST Records, a label whose bands, like Black Flag and The Meatpuppets (whose second album Thayil cites as changing his life), they had long admired for a hard work ethic.
"They came here in their vans and they were self-contained," Thayil has said, "you can see the influence they had on the Seattle music scene."
At the time of their first LP Soundgarden had already been courted by major labels, namely A&M, but allegiance to their roots was still strong. Nirvana and Pearl Jam weren't to break for another few years. The band and their peers didn't want to know about the growing attention, success and money were supposed to be things that you deliberately pissed on. But at the end of that year persistence had won out and the band signed to A&M, beginning work on Louder Than Love.
"We thought there was something wrong with us. Like for some reason we were wimpier or lamer than these other bands that we liked," Cornell said in reflection of being the first of their scene to sign, and of a lot of the flak they caught at the time. In fact he once noted that the only band who didn't lay the but 'you aren't our mates because you're no longer subversive' fangoo on them was The Butthole Surfers. Funny how things work some times, especially when only the fruitcakes can recognise the quality nuts. "We didn't really think that a major label knew how to reach the market that we figured would be interested in out music. Now there is an audience for alternative. That was created by a healthy independent scene proving it," Cornell said.
It was on Louder Than Love that Soundgarden's potential really started wrapping round people's heads. Here was a sound developing; dirty, forthright, powerful and intelligent. If life was having to move a sand dune with a pair of tweezers, then the heavy hypnotic power of that album made it all seem possible. Cornell was on the cover, in shirtless, lunging into a blanket of sound, in the grooves he's busting a dirt heavy baritone with range - and rage. It was all hard rock time and motion rendered infinite by psychedelic qualities. It also belied a shy, effacing and very level headed band that the world started to want to know. Surely a band who wrote Big Dumb Sex were animals to the core? Wrong.
They were the band who laughed out loud at Guns N'Roses when they supported them they were the band who from day one looked after their money (mainly by keeping their own publishing rights through You Make Me Sick Music), they were the band who never needed a drug habit in a scene renowned for it's love of heroin, they boasted about kissing off groupees, they were a band who usually, if they had nothing to say, kept their mouths well and truly shut. Making the dense, brooding implosion that their music was on Louder Than Love all the more significant. But also making them aloof. Why did this new breed of rock stars all of a sudden feel they were smarted than those who dug their music?
"Sexually, we wouldn't mind some bimbette riding on top of us, intellectually, we couldn't cope. And besides, who wants to see their syphilitic scars? 'Nice wound you got there bitch'." Kim once told an English reporter. "Morons come in both sexes though. They guys go, 'What strings do you use" and I just think, I a'int gonna help you'. Most of out fans our really intelligent, but those aren't the type of people that hang out backstage. And as far as humour is concerned, we'd have to dress up like the Tubes before people thought anything we did was funny."
"We're pretty close knit, we stay pretty far out of the gossip community and we don't read a lot of magazines about ourselves or anyone else. I can only speak for myself but it kinda washed over me," Cornell noted while in the studio for Down on the Upside, then proceeding to relate how people thought they'd broken up in the hiatus between Badmotorfinger and Superunknown because no one heard the bluster and rumble of any stop gap promotions machines. In fact Cornell is reclusive and evasive, as are the whole band; Doubled with the fact that his words, as one of the more pointed lyricist going around, do the talking, makes the guy ice cool by reputation and in person. He's not racked by futile self hate like Cobain, he's not flailing wildly at an immovable object of a system like Vedder, he's no bad motherfucker like Anselmo and many would argue he doesn't play up to the womanising pretty boy that Bach is.
Case in points being of their two big singles off 1991's platinum selling Badmotorfinger, Jesus Christ Pose, which stabs hard at the Messianic complex a lot of lead singers like to adopt. Funnily enough, it was with Badmotorfinger that the band also hit big time paydirt. It had taken Nirvana one EP and one LP, it had taken Pearl Jam one LP, it took five releases for Soundgarden, but MTV had made the stretch and Outshined was the one all the early arrivals got out of their seats for on the Guns N'Roses tour.
Original bass player Hiro Yamomoto had left just after the release of Louder Than Love. He was replaced by the sharp-edged, po-faced Ben Shepherd who brought with him not only a strict punk ethos from his last band March of Crimes, but a unique musical nous that the band believe gave. Badmotorfinger a lot of it's edge. Also an album which went up for Grammy nomination, it was harder and faster than anything they had done, earning them the metal band tag they never really wanted. "It's the heavy metal White Album," Thayil quipped at the time. "There's the same trippiness and quirkines that was on the first couple of records, there's the heavy grind of Louder..., but it's 12 different ways of approaching the idea of heaviness."
"We've never considered ourselves a heavy metal band," he continues, "it's just the way the companies and the retailers find it convenient to distribute and display our records. Because the time we were coming out in the late '80s, they didn't have a reference for alternative or whatever. I think to say that we are heavy metal limits by definition what we do. There's a lot more to it than that."
If Louder Than Love was rolling thunder, then Badmotorfinger was a big fuck off cyclone. The band were all writing the music and Cornell's lyrics were at their most corrosive. Songs like Drawing Flies and Rusty Cage were spiteful while Holy Water was morose. The upside had become sticking it to the downside. most everyone who was under 21 and into guitars agreed.
"We've always had an aggressive and angry side and a depressed introspective side. And they're not exactly unrelated," Thayil explains, his Ben Elton sending his Tommy Chong back to the van for a toke. "We've always been introspective, but it depends on how you see yourself socially. You do that by being alittle protective and presenting yourself as being angry, which we are, outwardly. The humour in our early work was simply a way to offset the overwhelming burden of our preoccupation with depressing and angry thoughts."
It was also on the back of Badmotorfinger that the band hit it out on their first Lollapalooza tour. Their second one happening this year with Metallica. "When Metallica were approached for the tour one of the things they said was that they would like for us to do it," Thayil explains proudly. "They more or less said that, 'If we are going to do the tour, the Soundgarden will be doing it with us'. Not so much in that it will be a Lollapalooza tour but in that it will be a Metallica tour, and we really enjoy touring with them. We had little interest in doing Lollapalooza tour as such, but when it became a Metallica tour, the we were much more interested."
Beautiful, pure rock'n'roll contradiction. A band who always said they weren't metal wanting to do a tour with Metallica, not a Lollapalooza. And the big kahuna metal band who want to sell more records than the five squillion they already have, want to play with a band, some of who's audience they know they haven't reached yet.
But if the Terry Date co-produced Badmotorfinger caught everyone choking the chicken for expansive power and trippy angels, then 1994's Superunknown was visionary to a fault. The critics went beserk across the board and the punters snaffled up in excess of four million of them.
It was the year Nirvana went off tour for good, Alice In Chains wallowed in addiction, Pearl Jam cancelled all their American shows because of a pricing dispute and Soundgarden's mutual respect allowed each of the members to bring their own, completely different ideas, to the studio - giving the band a new dimension.
"We're not throwing our brain at people so much this time. Now we're shaping out heart," Thayil told people at the time of an album that incorporated Beatle-like melody with their doom and aggressive, bare riffs. Black Hole Sun and Fell On Black Days, even if you were missing the power, had an undeniably earnest quality about them and if nothing else, showed accessible depth.
Songs like Spoonman and Limo Wreck, plain and simple, rocked hard and weird.
"Superunknown really pushed us over the top, our producer helped us make a really great sounding record, but it took so long you start wondering if it's necessary," Cornell noted while in the studio for Down on the Upside. "Michael Beinhorn [Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Asylum] was so into sounds, almost anal about it. By the time you get the sounds that you want to record the song you're sick and tired of playing it."
"Right," Thayil agrees, businesslike, "that's something we went for in production, was to, in the studio, to try and get things to sound a lot more natural."
Meaning that this time around, the best producer was no producer - apart from themselves. Maybe the fact the Beinhorn has gone on record saying that making Superunknown was "really, exciting, really educational and really abusive" illustrates that the studio is only big enough for the four members now. Thayil would rather say that the band has enough confidence in their abilities now to be able to handle the job themselves. Still, he's not mincing his words when it comes down to why anyway. "Basically, producers, the close they have with us has primarily been as a recording engineer anyway. They are not going to make very many creative decisions. also, when they do make their suggestions, rather than just spending all that time negating them, we could just go ahead and do what we were going to do anyway.
"I think mostly the idea was to have natural sound drums," Thayil continues, "and not to go in for the over dubs so much, because Superunknown, although it's a really good record and we really like it, I think it might have sounded a little bit slick for us. And so here we wanted everyone to produce it ourselves, instead of making a record with someone else's ideas about what it should sound like."
Ty Cobb is a Ramones-like potboiler grinding away under Cornell's "Hard Headed, fuck you all" and some mean mandolin picking. Rhinosaur has all the Black Sabbath rumble and groove that the band know will always be their ace in the hole while Blow Up The Outside World is Sgt Pepper's meets a melancholy Mudhoney. It's an album with a big sense of drift.
Where on Superunknown's The Day I Tried To Live Cornell sang "The day I tried to live/I wallowed in the blood and the mud/with all the other pigs", on Down on the Upside's Dusty he tells us "I think it's turning back around/And I think I like it/I think it's turning back around./soundgarden/Now I'm on the good ride". Hold the phones. Does this mean the band have given up their territorial pissings?
"I think there is definitely an anger there," Thayil counters. "I think lyrically there still might be that anger there, but it might just be less angry in terms of the typical heavy Soundgarden songs. We've definitely done less of that."
Recorded at close friend, Stone Gossard's personal studio, Litho Studios, it was definitely a band who were more at ease with the process.
"We felt really comfortable there. It's a warm sort of place, it was sort of like being in out living rooms. It took out mind off the fact that we were actually in a recording studio," Thayil smiles.
The difference also being that the five months spent in the studio for Superunknown was almost purely for recording's sake. For Down on the Upside, the "not even four months", included writing and rehearsal time. It is in many ways a big step back from the grandiose nature surrounding Superunknown.
"We anticipate that ir will do well, ultimately we'll have to wait and see. I mean they are a different batch of songs and it's hard to second guess what is ever going to happen in the States.
I put it to Kim that their success has proven that, but his response is noncommittal because he's got to go now, the downside is rearing it's ugly head again. He's got to get this photo session finished, and he's making excuses about someone's got to catch a plane or something. So what about expectations? You feel obliged to have another big record and carry some sort of torch?
"Not really", he says turning on the Tommy Chong charm one last time, "we just try to be natural and concentrate on what we like doing. There's no demand that we make another huge record... Well, I guess the record company probably doesn't think that way, and they probably want us to make another huge message, but we just want to do what we do - and do it as well as we can." That, you can assume, would be the upside.