Reprinted without permission from Jam, May 24, 1996
SOUNDGARDEN: FROM SUPERUNKNOWN TO SUPERSTARS
Still buoyed by the phenomenal success of their last album, Superunknown, Soundgarden is coping with all of the responsibilities that come with success. Poised to release their new album, Down On The Upside, the band is bracing themselves for another ride.
For a band, success brings with it its own set of demands. Sure, they're not the life and death considerations - like paying the rent, and keeping the van running so it can tour - that struggle to succeed requires. But once one has "made it," there's definitely more to life than finding a place on the wall for platinum records and basking in the glow of stardom. Just ask Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron.
"It seems a bit more like a corporation now," he says from his home outside Seattle. "I guess because we're trying to get more organized and everything that comes with success doubles and triples your workload as far as playing the whole business angle of it. So that stuff I'm adapting to- begrudgingly at times, because I'm essentially a musician.
"I was never trained for any of this stuff, but we've all come up together and learned how to deal with it. There are times when I get pretty frustrated with the demands put on my time - the non-musical demands. But it's better than working all the shitty day jobs I had. I'm not complaining."
Over the years, Cameron's toiled as a landscaper and in various positions "in the restaurant industry," among others. "When I moved up here I started working at Kinko's and then I kind of got into the print trade," he recalls. "Tad (Doyle, the portly leader of the now defunct band Tad) worked at Kinko's for awhile, that was kind of the 'rock' place to work."
It's been a while since Cameron's had to think about "off-season" jobs. And with the success of Soundgarden's last album, Superunknown, he's probably been able to start putting together a retirement plan.
With Superunknown, Soundgarden became genuine superstars. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart in the spring of 1994 and, buoyed by the successive radio/MTV hits "Spoonman," "Black Hole Sun," and "Fell on Black Days," went on to sell over five million copies worldwide. It earned the band a Grammy Award last year and put them in the middle of a media frenzy where even such trivialities as singer Chris Cornell's hair length were popular topics of discussion. It also established Soundgarden as not only the kings of the Seattle hill, but one of the world's "biggest" rock bands.
The success of Superunknown capped a decade-long climb for the quartet that began in grung rock obscurity with early indie releases like Screaming Life and Ultramega OK on the Sub Pop and SST labels respectively. Soundgarden's major label debut, Louder Than Love, put the band on the Billboard chart and out on the road from everyone from Voivod to Danzig.
The breakthrough follow-up Badmotorfinger, gave Soundgarden - rounded out by singer/guitarist Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, and bassist Ben Shepherd - its first taste of mainstream success, earning them a platinum record on the strength of "Outshined" and "Rusty Cage" and a slot on the second Lollapalooza tour. It seems that Badmotorfinger readied the launch pad to "rock star immortality" while Superunknown provided the spark that lit the engines. Soundgarden blasted off and hasn't looked back.
"After I listened to the record when we completed it, I kind of thought it was going to be a success - I wasn't completely surprised by it," says Cameron. "We've been working at this for a long time so the success thing hasn't seemed like it's been overnight. It's seemed very gradual, like we've been working for it.
"I think what we try to do is make music as strong as it can be, and if there are elements in there that a big audience can grab onto, then that's wonderful. We're lucky enough to have a really excellent singer and songwriter in the band. He connected with a gigantic audience with a couple of tunes on the last record, so that's a bonus. We didn't try to do that intentionally, it just grew out of what we've been doing musically over the years - it was kind of a natural step for us. It's nice to have a big audience and to have seen it grow over the years. That's been pretty fun."
Recently, Soundgarden has been preparing for the release of Superunknown's much-anticipated follow up, Down On The Upside, by handling the duties Cameron alluded to - like interviews and videos, as well as gearing up to rehearse for the band's stint on Lollapalooza '96. In talking to people, Cameron says he's already being given the sense that Upside would be making a big impact.
And with good reason. Where Superunknown may have had a couple of songs he felt "connected with a gigantic audience," Upside is pretty much a complete album capable of doing just that. Taking a cue from Superunknown, which saw Soundgarden moving away from the leaden droning of their earlier releases, Upside is a more mellow, more tuneful, and consistently inviting album that still maintains the band's intensity and dark aura.
The Kim Thayil penned "Never The Machine Forever" is really the only track on Upside that matches the sludge-like crush of material from Louder Than Love or Badmotorfinger. The other bombastic material here, "An Unkind," "Never Named," "No Attention," and the rip-roaring "Ty Cobb" - which actually matches Ramones-esque riffing with a mandolin twang - shows Soundgarden doing an about-face by playing with a surprise punk-like vigor.
The rest of Upside pretty much runs the gamut. There's the engaging pop of the first single "Pretty Noose" and "Burden In My Hand;" sparse, somber numbers like "Applebite," "Zero Chance," and "Boot Camp;" the folksy perkiness of "Dusty," which features the lyric the album's title was derived from; the Beatles-like psychedelia of "Blow Up The Outside World;" the trademark brood of "Rhinosaur" and "Switch Opens;" and the rousing mini-epics "Overfloater" and "Tighter and Tighter."
"I think some of the tunes on this record that could be viewed as radio songs are a little bit meatier than the ones on our last record - not taking anything away from those," says Cameron. "They're a little more involved, they've got a certain element of power that comes through - the brute strength of how we played the tunes - as opposed to "Black Hole Sun" which has a more complex melodic structure that doesn't necessarily require brute force to get the whole message of the tune across."
Indeed, despite the relative initial simplicity of much of Upside's material, repeated listens reveal subtle rhythmic twists and clever instrumental asides - like the mandolin on "Ty Cobb" - that make the songs stand well apart from standard pop.
"We like to texture our tunes as much as possible and that involves different parts that you can kind of bury in a tune and they'll come out in a certain spot or a certain rhythmic accent that doesn't hit you right away, but you'll remember it later on," notes Cameron, adding with a chuckle, "we always like to incorporate all those little tricks."
Another element one will discover in time is Chris Cornell's morose lyrical sense, which has always been a part of the Soundgarden sonic package, but here is darker and more sinister than ever, almost in spite of the engaging nature of Upside's music. He seems to like playing one against the other, matching his most disquieting thoughts - a number of tracks read like a sociopath's diary entries - with the most pleasant musical accompaniment.
"Burden In My Hand" stands as a prime example - light acoustic verses and punchy choruses provide the background for lines like "I shot my love today would you cry for me" and "So kill yourself and kill your health and kill everything you love." "Blow Up The Outside World," whose title really says it all, follows in a similar vein.
An exception, however is "Ty Cobb" whose lyrical rage - "Sick in the head sick in the mouth / and I can't hear a word you say / not a bit and I don't give a shit / I got the glass, I got the steel and I got the love to hate / all I need is your head on a stake" - is matched by the frantic riffing and pace.
For his part, Cameron, who wrote the music to "Applebite" and "Rhinosaur," is at loss to explain Cornell's motives, much less his inspiration. Like any fan, he merely finds Cornell's disturbing poetry fascinating and, well, cool.
"He just writes it like he sees it and, a lot of times, how he sees it is a private thing and I don't question it at all. The results are always stupendous," he says. "That's how he sees things. He's very poetic, yet he hits on the darker side of things - that's kind of beautiful and scary at the same time."
Soundgarden got to road test some of Upside's material last summer when the band took a break from recording to play some festivals in Europe as well as make up dates for a few shows that were postponed from an earlier tour.
"That was kind of cool, seeing people's reactions to songs they'd never heard before," says Cameron. "And it was cool playing the new stuff live, especially after you've been living with it in the studio for weeks (the band self-produced the new album). People seemed to dig the new material which was gratifying - and the break from the studio was definitely invigorating."