Reprinted without permission from Hit Parader, March
SOUNDGARDEN: TO THE LIMIT
In the late 1980's, Seattle was a magical land of unwashed hair, goatees, tatteres jeans, coffee bars and perpetual rain. It was a place where bands created sincere, original music that was often confessional, angst ridden and introspective. But as is the case with stars that shine too bright, the music scene quickly burnt out and was replaced with costume jewelry versions of the real gems, substancesless, plastic copies that were parentally-approved and corporate-manufactured for mass consumption.
It also happened in the '80s when the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was followed by all these faux metal bands," remembers Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, phoning from the band's management offices. "But I didn't expect it to happen again so quickly. At the end of the '80s new things were happening here and everything was opening up. But a few years later, it became saturated and every record record company seemed to have its own version of Nirvana or Pearl Jam."
Despite being recognized as being one of the early sparks of the Seattle Music Explosion (they appeared on the 1984 compilation Deep Six, which also featured the Melvins and the early bands of the current members of Pearl Jam, Gruntruck and Mudhoney), Soundgarden have managed to avoid the dated "grunge" tag attached to many of their peers. They even inked a major label deal a year before anyone realised what was occuring in their hometown.
Still their success has been in spite of themsleves. Over the course of their four major releases (their major label debut Louder Than Love, the post-metal masterpiece Badmotorfinger, which Thayil once half-jokingly refered to as "the heavy metal White album", the platinum certified, Grammy-winning Superunknown, and the current Down On The Upside), their sound has evolved only to suit their own changing tastes.
"We recorded this album ourselves," says Thayil of Down On The Upside. "But it's what we have always done. Each of us in the band are Soundgarden's biggest fans. We like the idea of having a song published and then being able to hear it. We try to impress and wow each other with solos, riffs, and performances."
While many artists work on heavy aniticipated follow-ups to platinum selling albums have trouble dealing with the pressure of trying to recapture or outdo themselves, Soundgarden took a decidedly relaxed approach recording their latest effort. Although more raw than its major label predecessors, the album is the band's most consistant effort to date.
"It's not the Stooge's Funhouse or the MC5's Kick Out The Jams," concedes Thayil, "but it is much more spontaneous than our last two efforts."
"We discovered there are ways of being heavy without simply turning up the volume. Two of the elements often missing from commercial radio or MTV are wildness and chaos. It was the downfall of the glam metal bands - they didn't have that chaotic element. They weren't real rock bands, they were pop bands."
"A song like Ty Cobb sounds like it may fall apart at any second but it remains intact. That is an element that a lot of rock bands neglected. But punk rock has always had that element of barely being able to hold on to the steering wheel."
While Superunknown, the album that made Soundgarden superstars, featured a slew of radio staples including the over-played Black Hole Sun, Down On The Upside does not contain such an obvious single, a fact that has been continually reinforced in the eight months since the disc's release.
"The first single will be Pretty Noose, says Thayil. "After we considered Burden In My Hand and Blow Up The Outside World. It's been a very interesting process."
After a whirlwind year of touring and interviews, the band tired of the continual barrage of media attention and critical praise of Superunknown and began sniping at journalists, asking them if their previous efforts were really that awful.
"I don't think we were that upset by the positive press," explains Thayil. "We just felt very strongly about our previous albums. But there were a few hits on the last album and the line that we kept hearing over and over again was that 'we matured'. What does "mature" mean? That we have provided product that is easier to sell?"
Like many of Thayil's non-native musician peers, the guitarist originally ventured to the state of Washington for an education. After graduation from the alternative learning program at the Rich East High School just outside of Chicago, Thayil and classmate Hiro Yamamoto and (future Sub-Pop records) Bruce Pavitt headed to Olympia, Washington and enrolled in Evergreen State College.
After graduation, the trio moved to Seattle where Yamamoto placed the fateful advertisement in a local newspaper looking for a roommate. An aspiring vocalist, Chris Cornell, would answer, planting the seeds of Soundgarden. When Cornell was introduced to Thayil they discovered mutual appreciation Black Sabath, MC5, Bauhaus and Killing Joke.
They formed Soundgarden (named after a famed Seattle Sculpture) as a trio with Yamamoto on bass and Cornell assuming both drums and vocals. However the athletic nature of their music soon forced him to give up one of his duties. The word was put out that they were looking for either a vocalist or a drummer. Fortunately, a drummer was found first.
Drummer Matt Cameron joined prior to the recording of the band's first full-lenght effort, Ultramega OK, released by indie SST in 1988. When Yamamoto quit to turn his full attention to college in the late 1980's, he was briefly replaced by one-time Nirvana guitarist Jason Everman. However the final piece of the puzzle was put in place when Everman was dismissed and replaced by former March of Crimes bassist Ben Shepherd. Ironically, after relocation to New Jersey and playing with Old and Mindfunk, Everman retired from music, joined the army and is currently stationed just outside of Seattle.
When Soundgarden signed to A&M Records, the record company had little idea of how to market and promote the band. Thayil also reports that the group released their effort for the label, Louder Than Love, while A&M was being bought by Polygram Records.
"The record got lost in the shuffle," he remembers. "I guess we weren't Sting." Ironically, Soundgarden have since become one of the label's prized possessions. "It is reassuring that the marketplace can change and adapt to us and we weren't really required to change or adapt to suit the market, " says Thayil. "We knew we could pump out hits, but like most good bands, we were protective of our sound and style."
In doing so, Soundgarden have in, some ways, been their own worst enemy. Now that the marketplace has come to them, it has also given birth to a number of uninspired, substanceless clones.
"I know, I know," laughs Thayil. "It's frustrating. Especially when they sell more records than us. "
While many of those bands are in for the quick cash and will ultimately be answers to trivia questions in the next ten years. Soundgarden will still be around.