Reprinted without permission from Impact, May
THE GREAT LATE BLOOMERS
With their magnificent new Superunknown album searing the charts, it looks as though Soundgarden's days as every-body's favorite non-superstar Seattle band are finally - and deservedly - over.
Back in 1987, before the local record store had been fitted with shiny CD racks, I picked up a copy of Screaming Life, an EP by a band called Soundgarden and the second release on a brand new label from a small Northwestern city. Back home, the 45 rpm, 12-inch slice of vinyl shook my speakers with six short, riff-ridden, dirgy, quirky songs fueled with punk energy, sinewy bass lines, and the formidable lung power of a vocalist pictured on the black-and-white jacket clean shaven and bare-chested, with long, curly locks, tattered jean shorts and ratty, untied basketball shoes.
That EP and the band's first full album, Ultramega OK, were part of the first real sonic wave from a bunch of ragged American Northwest bands who were reinventing some disparate '70s sounds - Black Sabbath, Led Zep, Aerosmith, Free, early punk. The seminal band Green River begat Mudhoney, who made their debut in '88 with the Superfuzz EP, Mother Love Bone, ditto in '89 with the Shine EP, and eventually Pearl Jam. And when Nirvana released its debut, Bleach, in 1988, Screaming Trees were already on record number four.
But the days of the local-only shindig were numbered. Major-label A&R VP's, truckloads of foreign media types and music videos saw to that. Still, platinum successes, worldwide stadium tours and scandals aside, the same bands have recently re-emerged with their artistic integrity intact, even as they move further apart along their own distinctive musical paths - and further away from the catch-all word that held them all captive a couple of years ago.
Yes, the days of cult status are long gone for Soundgarden and their musical brethren. Vinyl is on life support, Seattle is etched forever on the rock map, Sub Pop is signing bands from Moncton and Chicago, grunge is a full-fledged term in the rock (and fashion) vernacular and, with Superunknown, Soundgarden has finally harvested a hit record.
"It seems like we've been an up-and-coming band for about eight years," laughs that above-mentioned curly-haired singer, Chris Cornell, from a Seattle rehearsal space, a couple of weeks after returning from Australia's Big Day Out traveling festival, and a couple of weeks before Superunknown, produced with Michael Beinhorn, is released.
Indeed, while Pearl Jam and Nirvana have been in platinum territory for more than two years now, Soundgarden, which perhaps more than any other Northwestern band defined the Seattle sound, kind of got left behind in the juggernaut. They haven't exactly been rattling around in obscurity - 1988's Ultramega OK, on SST, garnered them a Grammy nomination for "heavy rock"; they signed to A&M and released their major-label debut, Louder Than Love, in 1989; and 1991's platinum Badmotorfinger saw them circle the globe umpteen times, opening for behemothically indulgent bands like Guns N' Roses, playing for daylight moshers at Lollapalooza in '92 and, of course, at their own headlining jaunts. But they haven't been able to make that leap - until now.
"[Badmotorfinger] was a great success, but in terms of having a hit, that's like having a single that charts, a record that hits the Top 10," explains Cornell. "Not just a critical or sales success, but something that is chart-topping, or identifiable by one song."
No sooner said than done. The new album's first single, "Spoonman" - with its stylish, arty video featuring the jerky dance improvs of Seattle's sidewalk-performing legend Artis the Spoonman, whose utensil rhythms are heard on the song - helped Superunknown rocket out of the box. Less than a week after the album's release, A&M Canada announced it had already hit platinum status here, just inches ahead of the U.S., where it landed at the top of Billboard's Top 100 albums chart (it also was only the second album to debut at #1 on Canada's The Record chart). Yet as the glowing predictions in the barrage of advance print interviews - many of which seemed to find the band wining and dining in New York City - come true, Soundgarden are safely away from the noise, in the middle of a European tour. When they begin the North American leg of the Superunknown tour this month, the band and their fourth full album should be in super-high gear.
Like many of the songs on Superunknown, the band's career has been about the slow build. And while much of their music is in your face, the band members have never grabbed headlines with non-music-related antics like picking bar fights or lapsing into comas. Perhaps their band's relative longevity has allowed them to deal with stardom gradually, rather than the too much, too soon fame and fortune of people like Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain.
In the past few years - with plenty of fodder - the media has continued to focus on the drug addictions, minor misdemeanors or uncorrected personality traits of members of Seattle bands Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice In Chains, to name a few. yet Soundgarden never shirks away from their strong connection to the city. "I don't go out much," Cornell simply says. "But in a way, I mean, we're always going to be intertwined with Seattle. We're never going to escape that. It's like being a British invasion band; the scene never goes away."
Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd do occasionally step outside the Soundgarden sphere to mingle musically with their Seattle homies. In 1991, Cornell, Cameron and members of Mother Love Bone (who formed Pearl Jam with singer Eddie Vedder) released the one-off Temple Of The Dog project, a tribute of sorts to MLB singer Andy Wood, who died of an overdose in 1990; the album caught a second wind when Pearl Jam's Ten entered the mega-platinum phase. Then the Singles soundtrack was graced with an unreleased Soundgarden track, as well as a gentle solo acoustic song from Cornell. And last year, Cameron and a guitar-toting Shepherd hooked up with guitarist John McBain, bassist John Waterman and singer Brian Wood (Andy's brother) for the enjoyably low-rent, cult pop fave Hater.
Hints of Hater surface on Superunknown in the form of Shepherd's two contributions, as well as subtler hints of the messier garage punk Hater played; indeed, for this album Soundgarden grazes on a wider plot of riffs, effects, recording techniques, harmonies and other musical nutrients than it ever has before. The band has perhaps never been captured better, thanks at least in part to Beinhorn and mixer Brendan O'Brien. The material seems to stretch back to the eclecticism of Screaming Life, while at the same time fearlessly diving into previously unexplored ground. As well, Cornell uses more of that deep baritone rather than the high-pitched wail that was featured on the band's earlier releases.
"It's all our record company," Cornell says. "They brought us some writers and a producer. In fact, I didn't even really play on it. None of us really did. I'm ghosted by this other singer. Actually, the truth is, I didn't even really show up.
OK, I'm sorry. I haven't listened to the record lately, I'm trying to remember what I was thinking. What the hell was I thinking? It's true, my vocals are different. I mean, I'm a songwriter more than a vocalist.
I'm trying to ease my way into my Vegas period. I don't want to jump right in, because I think that would be perceived by the fans as being a little unnatural and dishonest. So I'm just going slowly. Like Robert Plant - he just sort of jumps and all of a sudden he's singing like Elvis, and no one seems to like it. So I'm doing it slowly."
Well, the Vegas aspect may not be as evident, but touches of psychedelia, a warmer, more live feel, guest instrumentals, strong melodies and a sense of playfulness are some of the things that have caused more than one reviewer of Superunknown to use the Beatles as a descriptive reference. "You know, it's probably mostly to do with the fact that the record didn't seem focused, and that was a big Beatles thing," Cornell says. "I guess The White Album is the best example of that, where every member of the band was writing songs and have other people play on them as well. So from the beginning to the end of the album, they didn't really sound like a rock band on a stage. It sounded more like a soundtrack to a movie.
"When I say unfocused, I mean it in a good way," he continues. "With us, there was no preconception that we were going to make a particular kind of record. It's not a record where we ended up making the record that we ended up making, if you know what I mean. It was a matter of writing songs and recording them. And when we were done, that's when we knew what the record was."
Superunknown was recorded at Bad Animals, a relatively new studio in Seattle. "We were one of the first groups to record there," Shepherd says. "R.E.M. mixed their last album [Automatic For The People] there. We called them up and they said they really liked the room."
Although they did foreshadow some new tunes when they played on the Neil Young tour last summer, Soundgarden typically doesn't roadtest their songs - or even make demos, for that matter. "We do for each other," Cornell explains. "But we didn't go into a studio. If I bring in a bunch of songs that are already on tape, it's just kind of...there. People bring in tapes, finished or not. The ones we would bother demoing are the songs where someone had an idea and someone else finished it."
The short and snappy "Kickstand," a song Thayil wrote during Lollapalooza, was recorded almost exactly as it had been written, but other songs were more collaborative evolutions. "'Superunknown' was a musical collaboration between Kim and me," Chris explains. "He had a whole bunch of guitar parts that weren't arranged; he hadn't made a song out of them. So I took the parts, because they were all really good, plenty to make a song, and ended up adding a couple more."
One of Soundgarden's main strengths, both musically and image-wise, is that they are a solid collective of very distinct, nonconformist personalities. They all can articulately handle an interview, and they have varying opinions on the biz, music, food, etc. But it all chemically clicks. That was the case even in the early days, when bassist Hiro Yamamoto, whose last effort was Louder Than Love, carried the bottom end. "Hiro, Chris and I played together in 1984," recalled the gregarious axeman Kim Thayil in an interview two years ago. "I was playing bass to help out the guitarist, who was a roommate of mine. We'd play covers. Nobody liked this band, except the guy that started it. Chris moved in with Hiro when his roommate moved out. He being a drummer and Hiro being a bass player, they jammed together, and they wanted to play with some guitar players. They said, 'Let's try Kim - nah, Kim's too flaky.' And finally Hiro said, 'Kim likes really cool music, but he plays really goofy stuff.' But eventually we got together, and the very first day we played it was very clear that this was going to be a band. We knew because we could keep up with each other, and we liked the kind of material we were creating."
When Shepherd joined the chemistry was altered, perhaps creating an even more potent mix. "His songwriting fit really well with what we'd been doing up until that point," Cameron explained in the same session of interviews. "He added a different feel, a different voice, without straying too far from what we'd done in the past. There are similarities between Hiro and Ben that are really great - [like] the fact that they both do a lot of walking bass parts. Both guys play with a lot of soul and a lot of feel. Ben is perhaps a bit more aggressive than Hiro in his style. Ben likes touring, and Hiro didn't like touring, which was the main reason he left."
Shepherd, a longtime fan of the band, knew what he was getting into. "I was at their very first show," he says. "And Hiro sang. I was one of 10 people in a 68-person crowd that liked it. I still have the set list from that show." Shepherd is a true enthusiast and a documentor, not only of his own music, but also of bands he thinks are worth noting. He's kept personal notes about and set lists from hundreds of shows he's been to, including the 2,000th Ramones show, which he witnessed in Japan when Soundgarden was there in January. "It's history," he says. "And you really have to document it yourself, because nobody else will."
With the early success of Superunknown, an album that promises many more great singles, Soundgarden will have plenty to document this year. At this stage, Cornell says there are no plans for the band to jump on a monster heavy-rock bill like the ones they played on for Badmotorfinger. "I don't think any of those shows really expanded our audience," he says. "If it had been the case, we probably would have sold a lot more records when we were on those tours.
"I always try to approach any show from the same standpoint every time," he continues, "whether they like it or not. Usually the factors in a live show that make a difference to me are how things sound to me when I'm on stage. That's about it."
When the band begins its swing through North America this month, fans can expect to hear most of the songs from the 15-track Superunknown. "Everything seems to be coming off pretty close to what we had originally done on the record - which doesn't always happen," Cornell says. "But with this record, everything seems to lend itself well to being played live."
The long curly locks may be gone - apparently shorn for a bet, not for some deep spiritual reason - but Cornell, Thayil, Cameron and Shepherd certainly haven't lost any of the artistic strength that's put them at the top of this year's rock heap.