Reprinted without permission from KERRANG!, December 7,
SOUNDGARDEN: ARE THESE MEN FROM SEATTLE THE FUTURE OF METAL?
Both DON KAYE and Boss Barton reckon that Seattle noisesters SOUNDGARDEN's latest LP 'Badmotorfinger' is the album of the year. Mr. Kaye even rates them as "the most brilliant band to hit the planet since Slayer unleashed 'Hell Awaits'". The band themselves are more laid back about their new-found status as industry faves, but after securing the GN'R support slot and attracting a music biz buzz louder than a thousand bee hives, 1992 will surely be the year that CHRIS CORNELL and Co make it enormous...
I'm sitting with with Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron in New York, the day after a much-heralded industry showcase, weeks before the band are scheduled to commence their stint as opening act for Guns N' Roses. Their new album 'Badmotorfinger' is out, and the acclaim for it, Chris Watts notwithstanding, is nearly universal.
Myself, I reckon along with Geoff Barton that it's the album of the year, hands down.
I could go on for pages about why I think Soundgarden are the most brilliant band to hit the planet since Slayer unleashed 'Hell Awaits' on the world six years ago. Maybe I will later. But for now, suffice to say that the buzz around this band is at its highest level since the group began making noise in 1984. With fellow Northwesterners Alice In Chains notching a Gold album in the States, and Nirvana streaking out of the box and into the stratosphere, the vibe is that Soundgarden, who first introduced the music industry to the now redundant 'Seattle scene', could be next.
"It kind of varies, the buzz," sighs Chris, unfazed. "It's like, one day you'll hear a lot of positive things and then the next day you'll hear negative things. It inhales and exhales. Sometimes there are moments when it seems like there's this sort of storm cloud of Soundgarden hype ready to burst and rain down on everyone, and then other times it seems like we're still lost, we're still in the background and not really necessarily accessible enough to any large amount of people to get excited about us."
"There's definitely more focus on us now and more of a willingness to embrace Soundgarden than there ever has been before. I'm sure that's for a lot of good reasons and a lot of superficial reasons..."
The superficial were out in force at the industry show. Soundgarden showcases are a very hip place to be these days, and Chris admits that the band approach them differently now.
"We go into it with a different attitude. There's a big difference between playing in front of several hundred fans and several hundred industry people. Although a lot of them may be fans as well, but if you work in the music industry, you're eventually going to perceive music and performances in a different way because you're exposed to so much of it."
"It's more of a zoo exhibit than a performance. You just have to perform for each other and it's almost like an attended rehearsal. We play more to ourselves and have fun that way. Like it or not, you simply don't get a lot of energy and a lot of reaction from an industry audience. The biggest risk of being involved in the music industry is that it may change your perception, or make you jaded or dislike things that you would otherwise like."
Much of the same fate can befall bands. But for Soundgarden, who have been so determinedly independent since the beginning, the encompassing numbness that can accompany full immersion into the corporate structure of rock'n'roll hasn't occurred...
"I suppose it could happen for a young music executive coming up in the ranks," says Matt. "You know, having to listen to and criticize tapes every day. But for us, we pretty much keep to our own means. We definitely keep track of our careers, but not to the extent where we get burned out on music and get bogged down by the industry side of things."
Is there any more pressure on the band now that it seems like things are in place for a sizable Soundgarden conquest of the masses? Does it extend throughout the band's label and promotional mechanisms? Is it felt even within their inner circle?
"We've been dealing with that since the Seattle scene thing," says Chris. "No one's telling us that we have to do something that we don't really want to do. Most of the things that it required as far as functioning as a band in this situation we understand anyway and no one's trying to force us to play any particular role. But ever since we've been a recording band and even on a major label...I don't think anybody knows where Soundgarden fit or how Soundgarden operate anywhere near as good as Soundgarden do! And it's good that people don't try too much to enforce their interpretations on us."
"We just try to control it as much as possible and not let any 'suits' tell us we should write a power ballad with Desmond Child," adds Matt. "When we came to a major label, we had a history of doing things and succeeding in doing them really well. So I don't think it's ever been a real problem with having people try to change gears on us."
"In almost every interview I do, people ask us if we've had to compromise," says Chris with a trace of exasperation. "If A&M Records have tried to impose anything on us. And every time I answer the question the same way - no, they've let us do whatever we've wanted to."
"We've made two records now without any kind of influence whatsoever. And what I'm realizing is that no one ever prints that. If they don't get the story that, you know, big brother is imposing on little brother, then it's not a news item and they throw it out. I've never read an interview where I say that we're having a good experience on a major label. I'm not supporting the general consensus when I say that, so it's not printed."
One hears so many bands bitching about their label that the Soundgarden perspective is refreshing. Then again, nearly nothing about this band meets the preconceptions of so many heavy rock groups. Even aside from their minimalist, intellectual approach to the traditions of Metal, the four members of the band (guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd are the other half) project a calmness and reserve that's equally intriguing and frustrating.
Not the easiest interview in the world, nor the self-idolising flashmasters that promotion people dream about. Soundgarden have no urge to fill those shoes. Some people perceive that as arrogance...
"We've all suffered the problems that you suffer from having that kind of personality even before the band ever had attention, you know," muses Chris. "People will assume arrogance even if you're a bank clerk and you come across lukewarm or don't have a smile on your face. With the attention we're getting and the more we have to deal with the media, you definitely have to try harder in certain situations. But at certain points we reach maximum overload and it becomes too much."
"We're not actors and I don't think any of us can really go too far out of our way to be something that we're not as far as handshakes and well-wishing and remembering everybody's name goes. If you don't remember someone's name and if you don't come off as being really pleased to see someone, or if you're not in a really good mood, they'll always assume it's them. But I've never had to do something businesses or meet someone where they're the problem. If I have a problem myself, it's not anybody else's problem..."
"People really want to believe the rock star myth of every band, every musician being like Keith Moon, this party animal syndrome," contends Matt. "They'd rather believe that than believe that there can be reserved, reclusive types that are in a really popular band..."
Slayer's Tom Araya has told the story of being accosted in a supermarket, buying necessities like toothpaste and food, and being asked what he was doing there. It's almost as if stars become icons, not really human beings who have to eat and shit and wipe their arse.
"You can help that situation by not letting that interpretation dictate to you how you will eventually end up acting." smirks Chris. "For some people, they'll assume that role eventually. If you don't assume that role, then you're doing a service to the people who might interpret you wrongly."
"So far we've been pretty good about that. I don't think we've really changed as individuals, but then again, we don't get recognized when we're in the supermarket so maybe that will change. I've been hoping for years that at some point I won't have to shit any more and I won't have to wipe my ass, but..."
"What Matt was saying about how people like to believe in the myth of the party animal rock star is really true. I mean, you see it especially when you hear about a band, old or new, and their biggest new story is how they've all gone through rehab and they're all clean now. That's like the latest trend in bands - they'll put a couple of records out and be drug addicts, then quit and use that for a new story for as long as they can, until somebody OD's again or something..."
Interesting, that last remark especially coming from a musician who lost a friend and fellow singer (Andrew Wood) to heroin addiction. What's the official Soundgarden line on drugs?
"It's pretty much down to the individual," remarks Chris. "Personally, I've had a tough time settling for the results I get out of life while I'm functioning on any kind of drug abuse. I don't get the kind of results I've ever wanted out of what I do, if it's music or personal relationships or whatever. They simply don't work very will when you're doing drugs or abusing alcohol or anything."
"If somebody functions on a level that's acceptable to them while doing it, then that's their business. I'm not gonna condemn it. That's not my right."
"I don't tell people what kind of toothpaste they should buy and I'm not gonna tell people what they should and shouldn't take...unless they get too high and step on my toes - then I'll punch them in the face and they'll learn that way!"
Matt shares a similar view: "I've had some great drug experiences, although I definitely don't take any one thing at all - besides coffee. But experimentation is part of growing up and I think that if people want to experiment, they should, no matter what any right-wing group is telling you. But if it gets to then point where you can't really do anything else any more, then it's a problem..."
"The wreck is going down/Get out before you drown...' goes the chorus of 'New Damage', one of the highlights of 'Badmotorfinger' and a song that attacks, albeit subtly, the right-wing government of the States. There's plenty of anger in Soundgarden's music, but it's rare when the subject is so neatly defined.
"The beauty of something like 'New Damage' is that if you can say something like that with the smallest amount of words possible, it has more impact and it becomes less of a sermon..." says Chris.
"The first time I read 'New Damage', I was like, politically it totally speaks for me," adds Matt. "I think it speaks for the whole band - as do most of the other songs. We totally trust Chris' instincts as a lyricist and we don't even have to think twice about them."
Has there ever been a point where the rest of the band took issue with a lyrical sentiment?
"There haven't been too many situations where lyrically there was something that bothered the band or somebody was irritated by a particular idea. Probably because we don't lace our music with a lot of agendas or political attitudes. To me, it's a defeatist syndrome when it comes to songwriting because music, for the most part, is something that should draw you away and draw you into this other world. It's outside of your job and your apartment and your failing relationship - whatever it might be."
"When somebody's preaching to you in that (other) world, it breaks those illusions down. Lyrically, if I started adding more social and political convictions to it, then it would start to step on the rest of the band's toes."
Well, I'm clear out of space and I never did get to tell ya about how brilliant I think this band are.
Oh, well, you can sort it out for yourselves. Just get on your 'Badmotorfinger' and ride...