Reprinted without permission from Hit Parader, December 1994

by Rob Andrews

Rock and Roll has always been a medium where it's okay to break all the rules. You can get away with just about anything in popular music as long as you don't kill anyone in the process -- and you sell a lot of records. For Soundgarden, breaking musical rules has come easily; perhaps because vocalist Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron never spent much time learning the rules in the first place. They didn't know that it would be hard for a band to begin on an "indie" label then move on to major label stardom. They didn't realize that blending metallic riffs with pop-tinged melodies was viewed with derision by many factions of the rock world. And they didn't care that their new look and style was out of step with what was generally considered "hip" -- at least at the beginning of their career. Little did these Seattle rockers realize that their various "rule breaking" moves have now emerged as key factors in their chart-topping success status.

"When you start out because you love playing music, everything else is really unimportant," Cornell said. "We never sat down with accountants, managers, and press agents before we got a record deal. We just played because it was fun. The idea of making a fashion statement -- was just about the last thing on our minds. I think each of the people in this band got into music for a different reason than most musicians get into it. Nothing else but the music mattered in the beginning, and that's still the way it is now."

Yet with sales for their latest album, Superunknown, now past the three million sales level (and where it will stop, nobody knows) Cornell and his boys have been spending plenty of time with the accountants, managers, and press agents that they long tried to avoid. They may not like it, but they realize it's just a necessary part of rock and roll life -- an evil side of big time success. Unlike so many of their Seattle rock brethren (Pearl Jam and Nirvana, in particular) Soundgarden have come to grips with the petty problems of stardom, the sundry distractions that must be dealt with so that your main focus can be maintained. As Cornell admits, taking care of business -- both the important and the unimportant -- is a full time job.

"We've been a band for ten years, so we know a little bit about what it's like to struggle and wonder if a crowd is gonna show up for your concert. We've been pretty lucky in that we never had to go through real hard times. There was always somebody at our shows, even in the early days. But going through a gradual build in this band has allowed us the chance to grow up and get used to the idea of having some success. It's not like it is with some bands who suddenly find themselves at the top of the charts after they've been together a year. That's a real strain. That's when the burnout factor gets to work right away."

Some of Soundgarden's newer fans may not be aware of the group's decade long battle to gain national recognition, a struggle that saw them help launch the now-legendary Seattle label Sub-Pop. While they went through a series of roster shifts (only Cornell and Thayil have been there for the band's entire history), and released a number of albums and EPs that failed to generate more than passing interest from both fans and the media, Soundgarden always knew in their heart-of-hearts that they were in it for the long run. They had no immediate dreams of stardom, and few long-term goals other than to have fun by making the best music they could, but Cornell says that he always felt that sooner or later people would catch on to the group's special amalgam of rock reactants.

"When you've got four guys who really believe in each other, and really trust in each other, a lot of the other stuff doesn't matter," he said. "Once we got the guys who are in the band now together, we knew we had hit upon something good. We each have different interests and different approaches, but once we get together, we all just begin to feed off of one another. It's really special. We figured that if we stuck together and just kept doing what we do, people would find out about us. But we never worried about it. If they did, great. If they didn't, well, that was fine too."

Now, with millions of fans around the world just chomping at the bit to sink their teeth into Soundgarden's music, the last thing this band has to worry about is apathy. As they've toured the world in support of their latest platinum disc, Cornell reports that the group has frequently been overwhelmed by the sheer outpouring of love and devotion showered upon the band by their supporters. While they've tried to avoid performing in the "sterile" arenas that have long been the domain of superstar acts -- preferring to play off-the-beaten-track halls in many major cities -- -their fans have turned every performance into a special celebration of sight and sound.

"The fans have been really incredible," the vocalist said. "We've always had some very special people supporting us, but now it seems like there are a lot of fans out there -- and we like it. We've really enjoyed ourselves on this tour because we've been able to do what we want, and play where we want. But we didn't want to do one of those arena-type things. I always found them to be really strange when I went to them as a fan, so why would I subject our fans to that? I think we've played some very interesting and unusual places. It's been fun."

One of the most unusual places Soundgarden played on this tour was the New York Armory, a caverous hall that had never before been home to a hard rock concert. Of course, on the mid-summer night the band chose to schedule the event, 5,000 fans packed into the unairconditioned hall, turning it into a veritable sauna bath. Yet despite the swamp-like conditions, Soundgarden put on their customary two-hour show that left both the band and their fans totally exhausted.

"We always give it our all on stage," Cornell said. "There have been nights when it's been pretty hot up there, but that's unimportant. You just get into it and you don't even think about things like that. When people are reacting like our fans have been doing, you just live off their energy. That can keep you going forever." ****