Reprinted without permission from Hit Parader, August
SOUNDGARDEN: RELUCTANT SUPERSTARS
Chris Cornell is a tough guy to figure out. Upon meeting Soundgarden's charismatic vocalist, one is immediately struck by the contradictions; Cornell is brooding yet friendly, handsome yet intentionally unattractive, open yet reserved. It's almost as if he's an artist in the midst of his own creation -- a work in progress. It is this same kind of contradiction that gives the music contained on Soundgarden's new album, Superunknown, much of its inherent strength; it is powerful yet melodic, insightful yet playful, overhwleming yet accessible. Quite simply, no band in recent memory has been able to present so many diverse musical messages at the same time and make them all work. Falling back on the by-now-standard line that "Soundgarden wounds like Black Sabbath crossed with the Beatles" is too simplistic and far too limiting. This Seattle quartet break down barriers rather than cross them. They shatter long-held notions rather than merely alter them. The fact is that Soundgarden sound like nobody other than Soundgarden, and as Cornell is quick to point out, that in itself is something worth celebrating.
"We wanted to make sure that we grew as songwriters on this album," he said. "That's what made us get excited this time. It seems that everyone has gone in a heavier direction in recent years, that's the trend of a lot of bands. I don't know if they're doing that to try and fit in, or to prove a point. But we had already proved we could do that. Just playing with loud guitars isn't enough of a justification to keep making albums. We still have loud guitars on this record, but there had to be more."
More indeed! On Superunknown Cornell and bandmates Kim Thayil (guitar), Ben Shepherd (bass) and Matt Cameron (drums) have created a dense, continually evolving musical landscape that shifts speeds and directions at an almost dizzying pace. Once one gets into the groove-oriented licks of "Spoonman" the need to quickly shift gears for the raw power of "Let Me Drown" and then get ready for the lilting charm of "Black Hole Sun." Working with new producer Michael Beinhorn, the band left behind some of the textural elements that distinguished their last two albums, Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger, to seek exciting new musical terrain. For Soundgarden, the whole point of making this album was to get away from what had quickly become a "safety net" for the band and to walk the musical tightrope with their necks squarely on the line.
"We were happy with the way the last two records turned out," Cornell said. "Terry Date produced those, and he's an amazing guy. He can do anything. But we had grown a little too comfortable working with him. We wanted to try something new where we felt we really had to push ourselves to the limit. That's the only way you can grow as a musician. If we just wanted to make another Badmotorfinger, we probably wouldn't have even gone back into the studio. We took a long time making this album because we wanted to really make sure we were doing it right. Sometimes working at that speed worked to our disadvantage because you lost a little bit of the flow. But in the end, it all worked out fine."
Judging by the frenzied response the album has gotten from both the fans and the media, Soundgarden's most recent artistic decisions have certainly hit a responsive chord within the music masses. Long viewed as the "other" Seattle band following the massive success of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Soundgarden has now usurped both of those in terms of critical support. While Cornell would sooner cut off all of his hair (oh, he already did that, sorry) than be viewed as the "flavor of the month," there's no denying that 1994 is quickly shaping up to be the year of Soundgarden. Despite the obvious benefits provided by such a situation, it's one an idea that doesn't sit too well with the brooding vocalist.
"I'm not particularly happy with the way the music business does things," he said. "We've had meetings trying to decide which songs should be singles and which songs we should make videos for, and that's stuff that gets me a little angry. I understand that it has to be done -- that's the way this business works. But when you've poured your heart into making an album, the idea that people are gonna judge it by one single on the radio or one video on MTV is something that is annoying. It's not fair. We've got something like 70 minutes worth of music on this album. Do you think a four minute single really gives you an indication as to whether or not you should buy the album?"
So what exactly is Soundgarden's mood as the summer of 1994 rolls into high gear? Much like everything else about the band, their mood often seems contradictory; they're happy about certain things, pissed off about others. But in general terms neither Cornell nor his bandmates can hide the obvious joy they feel over the creation of what is not only their finest album to date but perhaps the finest album released this year. While such high praise will only make Cornell lower his head and mumble, there's no doubt that as the sales of Superunknown continue to skyrocket (the album has already sold well over a million copies and seems certain to hit the two million level) and demand for tickets to the band's concerts continues to escalate, Soundgarden will soon have to confront the "demons" of stardom head-on. Hopefully, they'll react to life in the public spotlight better than have their Seattle brethren in Pearl Jam and Nirvana. But then, when you live a life that is so full of contradictions, perhaps we'll really never know if Soundgarden are enjoying their taste of stardom or not. Just the notion of such confusion puts a smile of contentment across Cornell's face.
"I don't think this band will ever do anything in order to be loved," he said. "We may do something to be hated, but that's a little different. If we can just be us -- be the band that we want to be and make the music we want -- and have people still accept us, then that's fine. But I don't know how comfortable we feel about all the nice things people have said about us recently. We've come up the hard way over the years. There were long stretches of time when people either ignnored us, didn't understand us, or didn't like us. Maybe we just got used to that. Now to hear everyone say how much they love us is a little strange. I'm as anxious to see how we'll react to all this affection as anyone else. It should be very interesting."