Reprinted without permission from Hit Parader, October
GETTING DOWN WITH SOUNDGARDEN
It's certainly no secret that Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, and Matt Cameron - collectively known as Soundgarden - rank among the most respected, honored, and successful bands in contemporary music. Over the last decade, these seminal Seattle rockers have packed concert arenas around the world, sold millions of albums, and won countless industry awards. Still, when it comes to creating new music, Soundgarden is no more immune to criticism and controversy than the myriad lesser lights that currently fill the rock domain.
From the moment of it's arrival in May, Soundgarden's new album, Down on the Upside, began generating ripples of heated discussion throughout the rock world. Those long-time group supporters who feared the band's latest would continue down the pop-oriented path frequented on the group's last disc - the triple platinum Superunknown - have been richly rewarded by the album's harsh, often vitriolic musical and lyrical approach. Those, however, who more recently rallied to the band's cause on the strength of their previous effort's Beatles-meets-Sabbath charms, Down on the Upside has come as something of a shock, presenting it as does the true, gritty reality of Soundgarden's music. Cornell and crew are well aware that their new disc runs the risk of ruining much of the musical goodwill created by Superunknown - but they're more than willing to take that chance.
"We are what we are musically," the vocalist said. "We never try to match what we've done previously - or top it. Once you try to do that you run the risk of competing with yourself; what's the point of that? Each album kind of exsists in its own little world for us. We never set out to make an album heavier than the last one, just as we never set out to make the last one more commercial. We just go in and play what we feel. Whatever comes out is what we live with."
With Down on the Upside making a Number One chart debut, and the band drawing rave reviews during their "special guest" stint on the Lollapalooza tour (where Metallica headlines), few can argue with the groups decesion to take their sound in a harder, heavier direction. While there may not be a cross-over radio hit along the lines of "Black Hole Sun" to be found anywhere on their new disc, such tracks as "Pretty Noose" have helped to once again define Soundgarden's role as hard rock's most continually challenging unit. Certinaly much of the grittier sound evidenced throughout this album can be attributed simply to the group's somewhat surprising decision to produce Upside themselves. Recorded in Studio Litho, the Seattle-based facility owned by Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard, Soundgarden's new collection shows a band brimming with confidence, daring, and intelligence.
"I think the people at the label weren't that thrilled by the idea of us producing this on our own," Cornell said. "It scared them a little bit. But what they didn't realize is that for the most part we've produced all of our albums. We have a great deal of respect for the producers we've worked with, but the fact is that we've always had the final say in the songs, the arrangements and the mixes, and when you get right down to it, that's what a producer does. We also wanted to move things along at a better speed this time, and keep a lot of the spontaneity in the music. That was very inportant to us."
With seemingly every aspect of their career now under total control (not only are they producing themselves, but Cornell's wife, Susan Silver, also manages the band), as 1996 begans to head for home, Soundgarden have set out on a creative path few other rock and roll acts can match. They've already announced their own world-wide tour that will follow hot-on-the-heels of their victorious Lollapalooza outing, and they're planning a number of multi-media experiments seemingly guaranteed to further increase the band's high profile visibility. Such an approach has already begun to yield a bumper crop of dividends, including those derived from the precedent-shattering contents of the "Pretty Noose" video, a clip that magically melds animation, music and fantasy into one of the most visually exciting packages on recent vintage. Working with visual artist Frank Kozik - who never directed a video prior to working on "Pretty Noose" - Soundgarden has set a standard against which many future animated clips will now be measured.
"It's unlike anything else we've ever done," Cornell said. "In fact, I think it's unlike anything else anyone has ever done. Working with someone like Frank was really interesting because his approach was so fresh - he didn't know the rules that he's supposed to play under. He made the video what it is. It's really interesting and colorful. It's the kind of video that's still fun to look at after you've seen it a few times. That was very important to us. At this point in our lives, part of the challenge is to try new things, not to fall into the pattern of playing it safe. We did that on the video, and we did that on the album too."
It should be fascinating in the weeks and months to come to see how Soundgarden's bold artistic moves will be viewed by mainstream rock society. It was that often fickle group which so embraced the band with Superunknown, turning that disc into one of 1994's most successful releases. But now, with the band taking a harder musical turn and a more advantgarde video stance, perhaps Soundgarden run the risk of leaving that mainstream in the Oasis-craving dust. If such is to be their fate, these guys can live with it. Though Cornell is far from secretive when admitting his fondness for selling millions of albums. He and his bandmates indeed do love success - as long as it comes on their own terms.
"I think some fans were expecting this to be a real fun, up-beat album," he said. "Well... it's not. It's a really good album, and we're proud of it. But it's not our attempt to go even more commercial. I know some fans felt the last album was a little too slick and polished at times. I don't know if I agree with that, but I can safely say that they won't feel that way about this one."