Reprinted without permission from KERRANG!, February 12,
BLIZZARD OF OZ
Bar brawls! Booze binges! Crazed fans! Projectile vomit! It's all a blur as Soundgarden blitz Australia! A sun-fried 'n' hungover Morat is in tow, doing his best to dodge the flying puke and the flying bodies!
Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd leans abruptly from the window of the parked van where he is trying to find some shade, and throws up for the third time in less than half an hour. The short ride from Melbourne city centre out here to Footscray in the suburbs - where the cult movie Romper Stomper was filmed - is notable mainly for its silence. The temperature is way up in the 90s, and everyone here sits gazing at the passing scenery from behind dark glasses.
Slowly the memories from last night emerge, and you begin to understand that Soundgarden aren't being particularly unsociable or aloof this afternoon - they just have really ferocious hangovers!
After headlining The Big Day Out festival in Melbourne yesterday, the band decided to check out the venue for tonight's club gig, a 2,000 capacity sweat pit on the outskirts of town. As a result, they all saw sunrise this morning through the bottom of a bottle, and eventually the photo session we've come out here to do has to be abandoned.
Ben looks extremely pale and has difficulty standing up for long. He can't recall much of last night, but the rest of the band have all too vivid recollections of him turning the club DJ's records off midway through and spraying him in beer because of his poor taste in music! There is also something about him trying to start a fight with the bouncers...
"I was just kind of unwinding," he tells me later. "It's been pent up for a week or so, and I think the booze set me off so bad because I hadn't eaten at all for two days. I was too wound up. I wasn't feeling good before the show, and I was an idiot and went out and drank. I don't usually overdo it like that!"
So the photo session dies a lingering death with everyone melting in the heat, interviews for today are cancelled because no one is capable of speech and Soundgarden crawl back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.
Five hours later, they are still feeling frayed round the edges. They play a very slow, loud soundcheck, like some bizarre catharthis, and then everyone except guitarist Kim Thayil retreats to darkened hotel rooms.
Kim nods off for a while until the dressing room becomes too loud for rest and then decides that this is a kill or cure situation - and opens a bottle of Jack Daniel's.
After the gig, so hot that the walls perspire, so packed you need a shoehorn to get to the bar, and, ironically, probably the best I've seen them play, Kim and vocalist/guitarist Chris Cornell hang around for a while to sink more beers and finish off that bottle of JD.
Cornell is much bigger than you'd expect from his photos, solidly built like he works out, and it soon becomes apparent that he is far from being the poser you might imagine. He has a couple of Harley Davidsons, not because they are rock star accessories, but because he enjoys riding them. One of his first biking experiences, the one that made him get his own bike, was when he got spat off the back of a friend's Z1000 Kawasaki and landed on his head, filling his helmet with dust.
We chat for a while longer, Kim revealing a ridiculous sense of humour, and then with plans of drinking the hotel bar dry, we take the van ride back to town. The driver does a bad job of losing some fans, who are following in a car, and then we have to get past the mad woman who is stalking Chris, only to discover that the bar has a strict dress code and doesn't allow scruffy oiks like us in.
Next morning, the mad woman is still outside the hotel, fat and sweaty with milk-bottle-top glasses and a glazed, psycho look in her eyes.
"I felt kinda guilty, cos I wouldn't let her shake my hand when we were leaving," says Chris later. "But I shook her hand three times already! After the show, there's nobody to make sure there's not somebody between me and the bus. Anybody could be back there who wants to kill you, or somebody who's insane like her.
"They're not normal fans; there's something weird about them, like their life isn't enough so they latch onto a celebrity to a point where it doesn't even make sense. "
Did you ever hang about to meet bands as a kid?
"I went backstage at a Kiss concert when |I was 14," puts in drummer Matt Cameron. "I saw the guy sawing Paul Stanley's guitar neck so it would break properly."
"I never met anyone famous and never even tried," shrugs Chris. "Even now, I don't like to meet famous people. It's awkward, cos there's no common bond; you can't sit down and have a conversation. It's not like meeting someone in a bar - that's cool, but it's so different from meeting a famous person where he's drawing a conclusion about you, or you're drawing a conclusion on them based on the views of other people."
Soundgarden seem forced into a Catch 22 situation, where they avoid all the rock star limo-and-bodyguards bullshit, but at the same time are recognised, and to some degree pestered, everywhere they go. While doing a photo session opposite Sydney Opera House, a boat goes past full of screaming girlies and the band wave back briefly but look kind of embarassed. As a result they can appear rather insular, sometimes unfriendly or rude.
"A lot of the public wouldn't want to meet us," laughs Chris, "because we won't always be agreeable or happy. It's not that we don't appreciate fans, it's just that we're that way with each other, friends and family sometimes. We can't pretend, we can't be game show hosts just when somebody tells you."
"Musicians aren't naturally PR men," adds Matt. "Labels just expect musicians to be able to act in videos and promote their bands, and it's extremely awkward. It's so far removed from learning to play your instrument and then coming out and having your band accepted by a crowd."
Indeed, all of Soundgarden seem to have different ways of coping with the situations that their music throws them into. Cornell, in a way, is both blessed and cursed with good looks.
"I think he forgets that he's that way and that people look at him like that," muses Ben. "Like, when he plays a show he doesn't see what the fans are doing. Chris didn't see the girl last night almost fainting because she almost touched him. God, it's so silly! I usually kick girls like that or spit on them when I see them pull shit like that, but I don't think Chris even notices!"
Ben, on the other hand, can seem withdrawn and very quiet, until it all comes bursting out - like in the club the other night or the incident ar a recent meet-and-greet party.
"This girl stole Matt's drum sticks, and I said, 'Give 'em back or I'm gonna give you a flying headbutt!'" remembers Ben. "It all went quiet and she goes, 'Are you serious?' I said, 'Yeah, I'm serious; we're not these little toys that you can totally disregard, and think just because we're stars we're gonna be nice to you and think you're gonna help sell records! We didn't write them for you,bitch!' I said, 'Don't disregard us; if you're asked to give them back, then give them back'. She said no, so I dove across the room over these people at her!"
Cornell admits to being pleasantly surprised by the reaction to Soundgarden headlining festivals in the land of Oz.
"We've had the other end, where we went to Europe with Guns N' Roses, playing in front of 60,000 people who didn't give a shit about us," he smiles. "This is kinda the opposite feeling."
"The first time we went to New York, it was just amazing," Matt tries to put things in perspective, "because we played CBGB's and we just had this blue vinyl single thing out, and people actually knew the words to our songs! That was a completely freaky experience; that was a pretty magical moment for me personally, but it's cool coming to Australia, somewhere we've never been, and seeing people know the lyrics and stuff."
Shepherd, however, who joined the band later and maybe sees things from a different angle, is a little more sceptical. Doesn't it make you feel good knowing that there are all these freaks on the other side of the world into the same things as you?
"Yeah," he ponders, "but a lot of those freaks are the same fucking assholes who used to give you shit in high school for liking what you liked, and now it's 'cool', now they're there, way after the fact, cos now the whole alternative underground thing is out of the closet.
"In a way, it's kinda cool to see people getting into new music, but all those fans, I'd suspect, are more close minded than the '70s rock fans! The more people you get together the stupider they are. I have nothing in common with any of those kids, and I wouldn't be caught dead going to one of those shows!"
Instead, Ben used to hitch hike 28 miles with his older brothers (both he and Cornell come from families of six kids) to see punk rock shows in Seattle.
"My brothers were in a pretty progresive crowd," he says. "Especially for where we lived, in a small redneck town. Once people found out we listened to punk they totally disregarded us as human beings. They thought I was a faggot cos I read too many books, but I knew they were full of shit.
"I had my friends, and we had bands off and on all the time. Everyone hung out at my house and when kids ran away from home they'd come to my house, cos my parents were cool.
"Our family were the freak family!" chuckles Ben. "Very rarely you'd come across another punker at school - most often with a black eye. I wonder if a lot of these kids even know how much shit punk rockers used to get. I don't think they do; they don't get it the same way."
Did that make you stronger and more determined though?
"Yeah, that's how I figure it," nods Ben. "You learn how to fight without throwing a punch, because you learn to believe in what you stand for, and hopefully you learn not to do the same shit that's been done to you. I try not to be bitter, but I guess I am."
While anger, bitterness, joy or any number of other emotions can come across in Soundgarden's music, sometimes situations are just plain funny. Like when they're at a rock club and one of their songs gets played.
"All that happens is people get off the dance floor," laughs Chris. "We'll be at a club and the DJ'll recognise us; everyone'll be having a good time and then he'll put it on - and everyone will leave to get a beer! We've always liked that; it's like the subversion thing.
"That's the one detriment to getting bigger and selling more records," Chris smiles into his beer, "it's less likely you'll end up playing in front of some crowd that just hates you. We used to do that all the time and it's a great feeling sometimes, especially if you're playing well. If you're into what you're doing and everyone hates you it''s like 'Fuck you!' We've had bottles thrown at us and shit, the whole audience has been against us, and those are some of the really memorable shows. We've always been, sort of, us against the world!"
That being the case, both Chris and Kim are on familiar territory this evening. We head to a bar with various roadies and members of Primus, who are also playing at The Big Day Out, and the place is jam packed with redneck jocks.
Just walking into the bar we attract unwanted attention, the kind of attention where you wake up with a large crowd around you! Chris seems oblivious to the unpleasant looks we're getting, while Kim, who is apparently into human psychology and "the excesses of human behaviour," finds it all intensely amusing.
He expounds about how there's unlikely to be trouble because this is a tourist bar - no one feels territorial about it so no one feels the need to defend it. Anyone who's consumed one less beer than Kim can see that there will undoubtedly be trouble - simply because about 2,000 pissed-up jocks are in the same place at the same time.
Kim also points out, rather unnecessarily, that he is the only brown-skinned long-hair in the whole bar. Yet another reaon to add to the many reasons why we might get punched, although having known Thayil for only a couple of days he is so instantly likeable that if there was a fight you'd back him up like an old friend.
Sure enough, after most of our party has dispersed, there is a crash of broken glass and a large brawl goes off on the terrace outside the bar. Incredibly, Kim suggests that we take a closer look; y'know, all those sunburnt jocks beating hell out of each other and the one massive Samoan bouncer who's trying to break it all up. Common sense prevails for a few moments though, and we stay put until the fists stop flying.
Unfortunately, at Kim's recommendation, we then move onto a smaller jock bar complete with neon disco lights and dismal music. Almost immediately, an irate jock grabs my sleeve and announces viciously that his girlfriend wants to fuck us.
"That's interesting," ponders Kim, obviously far more drunk that I suspected. "He's angry at her, but he's directing his aggression at us. That's a bad sign; he could get aggressive. Let's study his behaviour!"
Let's not, I insist. Let's move to someplace where we can at least throw a punch at the fucker if he comes near us again! Almost reluctantly, Kim agrees, and we finish our beers and leave. He seems totally unpeturbed by threats of violence from our jock friends! Somehow you get the feeling that this is just part of the Soundgarden sense of humour!
The following day in Sydney, the show doesn't go too well. The band, miles away from home, play an immense show with screaming feedback and awesome renditions of their songs, but most of the 20,000 strong crowd don't seem to get it at all.
Cornell, word perfect, even quotes them a line from Mad Max 2, which was filmed only 4 hours from here - and yet instead of a roar of approval, he looks out at a sea of blank faces. A brilliant Jesus Christ Pose sees people leaving in droves, and deep inside you get the feeling that this too is part of the Soundgarden plan, even though it annoys them initially. If people don't understand this, then they certainly won't understand the new album Superunknown, that everyone's waited so long for.
Later, Chris, Kim and Matt sit in the darkness on Coogee Beach looking out over the Pacific Ocean. They laugh about the possibility of doing Top Of The Pops or a show where they have to mime, and swapping instruments so Chris is on drums, Matt's on bass and Kim's singing.
"But they told me the singer was cute," hoots Kim, mimicking the expected reaction. "He's not cute - he's a bear!"
Eventually we adjourn to the hotel lobby to be joined by Ramones bassist CJ Ramone. After more beers and some ludicrous arm wrestling (Soundgarden versus The Breeders), someone suggests we play film quotes; someone recites a line from a film and we have to guess the film; everything from Monty Python to Bladerunner.
Chris Cornell tries his Mad Max 2 line again, word perfect...and no one gets it!