Reprinted without permission from Hypno, V15/I4,
SOUNDGARDEN: SEATTLE'S SONIC BOOM
Chris Cornell would rather subject himself to a visit to the dentist than do an interview. But as luck would have it, this day, the oft-recalcitrant Soundgarden singer proves surprisngly forthcoming and cheery - a conversation about his band's latest A&M records opus, Down On The Upside, is not like pulling teeth.
He laughingly admits recent interviews haven't all been pain-free, but he sure hasn't needed laughing gas. Earlier in the week, Cornell listened patiently as a journalist explained to the songwriter how Down was a 'concept' album. Cornell explains, "He thought any song on the record that is in some way critical is an expression of being pissed off about the music industry and the media because we sell a lot of records." Cornell chortles at the thought. Nope, not an especially angry young band.
But that's not where the conspiracy theories regarding 'Garden end. "One guy was suggesting a lot of the songs on the record were based on the dehumanisation of society as pertaining to computers and computer technology and the internet. And I was like, Noooo."
Then of course there's the opposite side of the coin, the more anti-intellectual take, as once expressed by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard. "When we were doing Temple of the Dog," recalls Cornell, "Stone used to get all my lyrics wrong. He'd go straight for the rock lyrics. On Say Hello To Heaven there's a line that said 'Lighter than a breath from a dove,' and he thought I was singing 'My heart is beating like a big bass drum.' [Sorry Stone, that line was by Scott Weiland, er, Mick Jagger.] Then in Wooden Jesus, where I sing '20 per cent of my future is sin' he thought I was singing '21st century woman'; straight for the wrong thing!"
For Down On The Upside, the right thing is neither simplistic rock jargon not high-tech anger manifested through music. The self-produced 16-song disc is even better, though slightly less aggro, than the powerful Grammy-winning Superunknown. The new album travels lyrical topics that range from childhood reflections to Applebite, brought in by drummer Matt Cameron and recorded and titled before Chris even had lyrics. "I basically just ignored the title," he recalls. "Switch Opens was finished without lyrics or vocals, and I actually wrote around that title as well as the finished song. Rhinosaur was finished without vocals or lyrics, and there was no title for that either."
The album title isn't a song - and it was one of the more difficult aspects of completing the record, the band's fifth full album in it's 10 year history. Cornell explains, "I brought it up at some point because the song that the title came from is Dusty. My title for it was Down On The Upside, but Ben wrote the music and he called it Dusty. So since we don't really like having song titles being the title of the record because it brings this weird undue focus to the song, I thought it would be cool to call it Down On The Upside." But it wasn't that easy. "We started thinking about all these other titles, and worrying about them describing the whole record without excluding anything," Cornell explains. "It's really difficult for us to do, especially on the last two records because if you have some sort of aggressive rock title or angry title, it might only work with four songs, or if you have a surreal title it might only work with two songs, if you have a gloomy title it's going to work with five songs. So it was the last minute and we were at a photo shoot for SPIN and someone called and said, 'We need your title now so we can start doing the record package,' so Matt brought up the title again, and everyone went, 'Yeah, that's it.'"
Given Cornell's reasoning, it's an ideal title for the multi-faceted record. Burden In My Hand is very Zeppelin-esque in its musical feel, Applebite is spacey weirdness, while other tunes are by turns aggressive and gentle - and sometimes both (Ty Cobb). As a rule, though, music biz pundits have placed the band in the alternative ballpark. While the band are probably loath to pigeonhole themselves, Soundgarden are essentially a creative, Sabbath-influenced rock band, but fans like them no matter how you slice it. Yet now they're on the 'metal' Lollapalooza with Metallica, which Cornell, clearly used to fielding questions about the traveling fest, laughingly refers to as "Metal-sexist-apalooza". He remarks, "I'll dress like a woman if it will make people feel better."
But wait, unless you're Pearl Jam, you can't survive without videos... or extensive touring, right? Maybe. Soundgarden actually has kept a low profile of late, and Cornell doesn't worry that people will forget about them. Actually, he looks at Soundgarden's place in the universe rather psychologically, although Thayil was the philosophy major in college.
"I wasn't worried about rushing into putting another record out," says Cornell, who took his time off to snowboard and watch old movies - though he admits he had to force himself to relax. "Some bands seem to nervously produce lots of records in a short period of time. Maybe that's good because the attention span is shorter and shorter and that kind of crap. Then there's my angle on it, which is, how much do people really wanna fucking see your face and hear about you? Maybe give 'em a year off. I think that's kinda healthier. There's a lot of ways to look at it. We've always tried not to overdo it. It's kind of like common sense. When a band comes out and starts selling a lot, we're pretty much one of the first people to go, 'God, I'm really sick of fucking hearing about them.' When we're doing this phase - the record's coming out and we're doing lots of interviews and we always get worried about that, thinking, 'Man, maybe we should try to limit it.' Because it's healthy to get the word out and have people know you're releasing a record, but there's a limit to telling the same story and having your faces show up everywhere and having your videos on all the time. Your image and your faces and your personalities have a shelf life, particularly with video, and we sort of reluctantly do that and try to do it as little as possible."
Which is part of the reason Cornell, with his matinee-idol looks, hasn't really pursued the acting thing - though it has pursued him. "I haven't done anything," he confesses. His offers have generally been "the rock guy thing" and after seeing the pressure put on Seattle writer pal Cameron Crowe for Singles, it "spooked" Cornell about the whole thing. "I have a lot of respect for good actors," he continues. "I don't think it's as easy as just being a personality and showing up and doing it. The only time I've been disappointed I didn't do something was Usual Suspects. You know the blond, elegant fence guy? They wanted me to do that. I don't think it would have worked because I think I'm too boyish-looking to butt heads with all these criminal murderer people, but I was flattered to be asked."
Of course, he didn't know the critical acclaim the movie would garner. "I actually rented the video [of Usual Suspects], and I didn't even remember the offer until I got to the name of the character. I was like, this is so familiar... fuck! This could have been cool. You just never know. A script is just words on paper, and I don't really know which directors are which."
He does, generally, know what he wants, and on Down On The Upside, Soundgarden got what they wanted without the music biz' own version of a director and a record producer. In the past, Terry Date (Pantera) had worked with the band, but this time, Soundgarden found that the lack of a knob-twiddler at the helm was a motivator. "I'm the mother hen a little bit," Cornell confesses, "but without a producer, everyone wanted to be there all of the time. We did writing in the studio this time. New songs were happening all the time so everyone had to kinda show up and do stuff. There's a lot of experimentation, so everyone was interested in screwing around. The very last thing we did was [the Thayil-penned] Never The Machine Forever, which was actually recorded while we were mixing the next to last song. As soon as that was done being recorded, we brought it in from the other room, mixed it and that was the end of the record."
And the beginning of another journey into the superunknown.