Reprinted without permission from Juice, June
BEYOND THE UNKNOWN
SOUNDGARDEN, the quiet over-achievers of alternarock, return with a new album and a cohesive vision. Guitarist Kim Thayil explains their subtle growth to Craig Matheson:
Soundgarden knew something was up. It was January 1994 and a media storm was swirling around them, a tsunami of newsprint and MTV news grabs flashed in front of their perplexed faces. It was a serious matter: vocalist Chris Cornell had had his luxurious black tresses cut away. Not since John Lennon ran clippers through his hair in 1970 had a musician's haircut assumed such vital importance. It was at this stage that the quartet knew their concept of success and fame was about to undergo a serious revision with their then-imminent fourth album, Superunknown. "That," reasons bearded guitarist Kim Thayil, "was a strange indicator."
The group - Thayil, Cornell, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron - escaped to Australia, where they headlined the Big Day Out with an apocalyptic guitar symphony and thunderous backbeat. Superunknown debuted at number one as the tour finished. When they returned to America the same chart-topping result occurred there. When the pure negation of the single "Black Hole Sun" became an across the board hit single, the transformation was complete. In the space of a few frenzied months, Soundgarden had gone from assured cult success to platinum superstardom. And they didn't like where they were hanging from.
"It was a bit weird, but we're over it now," Kim Thayil genially explains of their acclimatisation to fame. "We're all used to it. It was difficult at first having your friends and family treat you differently. I suppose it's your true friends who treat you the same."
It's four in the afternoon and Thayil is reclining on a couch in his Seattle home, having just finished a conference call with his musical cohorts to discuss the running order and finer points of cover art for the band's fifth album, Down On The Upside. "I'm fairly articulate when I'm not hungover," he wryly points out after saying hello. Thayil is still sensitive to the light of the outside world, having only just emerged from eight months buried inside Seattle's Studio Litho (which is owned, and lived in, by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard).
Recording Upside has been an altogether happy experience for Soundgarden. SubPop veterans, they have no concerns about the commercial performance of their new song cycle. The focus has been fully on the creative side, with many prospective cuts falling by the wayside until the band were hapy with a final bundle of 16. "It's exhausting mentally and emotionally," confirms Thayil. "And sometimes physically when you work through the night and next day to finish an idea that you want to bring to fruition. There's still an element of mystery to recording an album, but on another level we understand the process much more now."
Sufficiently so, it would appear, to do without an outsider acting as producer on the album (although Superunknown technical offsider Adam Kasper did provide assistance). In Thayil's eyes it's a natural evolution, with Soundgarden's opinions coming more to the forefront of proceedings.
"Producers just want you to play the same thing over and over and beat it into the ground - which we ourselves sometimes did - but in general a good spontaneous performance can come from simply taping the rehearsals. What you don't want is emotion by numbers," says Thayil. "Mostly we saw ourselves as not spending as much time in the studio recording, we wanted the process to be a little more spontaneous. And generally people felt more comfortable talking about what we were doing."
The last point alludes to the growing creative input of Shepherd and Cameron on the album. Since the rhythm section wrote and recorded their own side project, Hater, in late 1992, they've increasingly added their input to Soungarden. Both have songwriting credits on the album, shared and solo, reversing the previous hegemony of Cornell putting lyrics on arrangements he'd worked up with Thayil. "Hater has brought something to Soundgarden: different elements which are refreshing," adds Thayil. "The band has a nice egalitarian feel these days. As long as the songs are good we're all happy".
As an album, Down On The Upside consolidates the maturity and breadth Soundgarden brought to bear on Superunknown. There's an impressive clarity to cuts like "Burden In My Hand" and the relentless "Ty Cobb", while the new vistas opened up on the likes of the fascinating "Dusty" and "Applebite" complement Thayil's still impressive mastery of massed ampage.
"In the traditional Soundgarden vein - the heavy, riff-orientated thing - there's less of that. I think it's important for a band to hold onto their identity; we're not a country band or a blues band, we have to remember that, but at the same time you can't give in to the tyranny of style. So this time there's more dynamic songs that go from mellow to heavier," Thayil assesses. "It has a harder edge in different ways. It certainly doesn't have a softer edge."
Kim Thayil, who can back up his opinions with a degree in philosophy from Seattle's University of Washington, has been surveying the ground occupied by contemporary rock before Soundgarden step back onto it. He doesn't like what he sees.
"At some point a group of bands will spontaneously go, 'Everything sucks, this is boring, what's going on?' A new, fresh, aggressive, vital strain of rock & roll will emerge," claims Thayil. He rightly calls 1991/92 (and no, he doesn't utter the word grunge) as the last time there was an outbreak of this virus.
"But radio and MTV have this cyclical thing where after a few years they take this passion and make it a little safer, a bit more homogenised. I see and hear that happening right now," he quietly declares. "Get your Nirvana-lite! Get your Soundgarden-lite! It's kind of discouraging, because there were a lot of great bands becoming more prominent four or five years ago. There are still a lot of great new bands, but the ones becoming popular are soft-edge."
So you're a big Hootie and the Blowfish fan, then?
"I think most people find them scary," laughs Thayil, "although they do sell a lot of records. They write their own material, and they're sincere about it, but five years ago you had the emergence of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails and Alice In Chains. The softer element of what they did has come to the fore now."
Nonetheless, Soundgarden aren't about to return to obscurity. That said, with the release of Down On The Upside they're no longer looking to maximise their momentum by spending a solid year touring. "I don't think anyone in the band is interested in doing that," confirms Thayil. "We've been at it constantly since 1987. We'll do some tours [with Australia planned, but not yet scheduled] but we'd get bored having to wait two and a half more years before we could start another album."
One of the side-effects of starting their last world tour in Australia on the Big Day Out was that Soundgarden became enamoured of our own You Am I, to the point of having them open for them on the US tour which followed - approximately 25 sold-out dates across the country. Reflecting on what he saw, You Am I's straight-shooting bassist Andy Kent described the pressures on Soundgarden several months after the Sydney trio's return. "I think it would be a bit of a nightmare to be honest, having seen what Soundgarden go through. Chris [Cornell] has had the rock star [trip] inflicted on him, but he's shy and he doesn't like being hassled," Kent noted. "If we all went out after a show, Soundgarden would have to have this big guy - Bill the Security Man - with them at all times. So Chris wouldn't go out because it was too much bother. He was confined to his hotel room."
Certainly Soundgarden's aims for a low profile when off the stage tally with the rumours that Shepherd, a hardcore punker before joining the group in 1989, was discouraged by the attention and adulation they received last time around and was considering leaving the group. In 1996 Soundgarden want nothing more than to play to their fans - and they'll have plenty more after releasing such a strong album in Down On The Upside - and lock themselves back in the studio before they get too much older. But then they've never exactly been media whores.
"It's true, we're not out there OD'ing or shooting up," cracks Thayil. "It's not a constant hype. We're not constantly putting out publicity and stories to keep us on the tips of everyone's tongues." He pauses, growing more serious. "All that matters in the end is that when the four of us sit down in the rehearsal room the music is still great."