Reprinted without permission from KERRANG!, April 4,
Life for Seattle grungemeisters Soundgarden has changed dramatically in the last 12 months. Going from self-confessed underdogs to playing arenas to crowd hysteria while supporting Guns 'N' Roses has needed a great deal of adjustment for Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil and the band. The band are currently scorching around the Uk, but on the road Stateside, Steffan Chirazi feels that arenas are where this band shine, while drummer Matt Cameron is just concerned that they keep away from 'butt-rock'...
"Just don't forget your roots, man!"
Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil looks back aghast at the creature spewing this bile in the lobby of the hotel in Minneapolis.
"My roots?" splutters the quiet, calm Thayil. "I know my roots, thank you..."
This sort of thing happens a lot now that Soundgarden are out on tour with Guns 'N' Roses. The perception is that the band have sold out. Thayil is still talking to the fan, giving him more time than he really deserves. The final gem pops out: "Hey, couldn't I just talk to you for five minutes?"
"You've just BEEN talking to me for MORE than five minutes!" replies the exasperated Thayil, before retiring to his room for beer and bed.
Soundgarden are no nearer leaving their roots than they were three years ago. If anything, their roots are stronger now that they're playing 50 minutes of their very own special music to arena crowds, huge lighting rig hovering overhead between vast walls, off which the sound thrusts its way into a whole new set of ears.
Soundgarden belong here, so seeing them in the impersonal confines of their white-washed, breeze-block dressing room doesn't make sense. Vocalist Chris Cornell seems to be having a tough time of it. The man's a total moodster. Kim Thayil, on the other hand, remains cheery and ready for a spot of fun and a beer at any given moment.
"A lot of that has to do with the fact that I'm a little older. Years ago I was always getting into trouble, allowing people to get at me, but as time goes on you just realise that it isn't worth the bother."
For the record, Soundgarden are delighted at the way they're being treated by G'N'R. The bands get along when they run into each other, although schedules being the way they are that doesn't happen much.
Before the shows, Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd and sometimes Cornell will embark upon a serious warm-up, jamming song after song, including a lot of tracks by their friends Nirvana.
Shepherd is the most uncomfortable with Soundgarden's jump to arenaville. Tall, quiet, full of presence, Shepherd lives for his music. He doesn't enjoy talking about it, but you can see it onstage. The man is a complete bass-monster, the best since Flea, a spinning top of angry emotions. Beneath that stage persona is a man who likes home (Seattle), is concerned about the time he's missing with his young daughter, and is confused by the fact that people want to know about him.
"I've never really thought about it before but I guess it's part of the whole show," he says quietly. "The thing I love to do is play, and anything else just doesn't cut it. I never thought people would wanna probe into my character."
What are you getting out of this whole G'N'R tour?
"I'm testing myself, testing my threshold of anger and temper and my personal theories."
Would you like to expand on those personal theories?
"Not really," he sighs, "because those are mine."
"I remember when I saw Ben play I just knew he was right for this band," affirms Thayil, when I tell him what a superb bassist Shepherd is. "I kept on telling everyone, and they were reluctant at first but when they saw him they knew too.
"He's very intense and has a short temper. If you start fighting with him, he'll kill you. You could put him down six times and he'd still get up and beat the shit out of you."
Upon closer inspection of the Badmotorfinger LP credits, Shepherd's two compositions reflect the moods he carries. Face Pollution is the angry skull stomp, Somewhere is the dreamier, intensely poetic emotions of a man you should not overlook when you watch Soundgarden.
Drummer Matt Cameron is the easiest-going member of the band, but at what point does his tolerance give way when he's accused of selling out?
"That accusation offended me more when we were still the underdog band. We still are in some ways. Just because you have these opportunities doesn't always mean you have to take 'em. We gauge success differently - for us it's musical as opposed to how many records we sell or how many fans we have."
So there's a compromise between what's right for the band and your own personal beliefs?
"Sort of. I don't feel that we're selling out, but there are certain factors you have to weigh up when you go onto a major label..."
This is realism, and there are many people who could do with a dose of it the Soundgarden way. Cameron continues: "We did want to quit our day jobs and play music full time, which is considered disgraceful by a lot of punk theorists. We just wanted to be a full time band."
On your few days off, what are the questions you ask yourself?
"Well, this whole arena thing is frustrating because we've only played two good shows out of three weeks. Sound problems, problems communicating with the mainstream audience..."
Does Soundgarden's music only work in small venues?
"No, I think it fills up these arenas quite wonderfully - it's just a problem of us adapting properly to communicate with a bigger crowd, most of whom haven't heard us before. That's quite demoralizing, though it's always a challenge."
Does playing these size shows mean the new stuff you're writing is changing?
"Right now we're playing our songs as straight-ahead butt-rock, which seems to be the only way of communicating with arena crowds."
"Butt-rock is just the stupidest, basic, three chord rock that you can possibly play, and it works with big crowds like this who don't know you as a band. That doesn't mean that we would actually go out and write that shit - we're still going to write our usual weird stuff. Our style still encompasses 10-minute jams just as it does straight-ahead stuff like Flower."
One factor that always works with the masses is sex. On the second night of the two shows at Minneapolis Target Centre, the only banner hanging way up in the nosebleed seats reads: 'DO ME, CHRIS AND MATT.'
During one part of the set, Cornell goes up onto the ramp behind Cameron's head, arches back and stretches his hands out. The masses leap to their feet in recognition of this well-loved, arena gig rock-move and all roar their approval. They forget that minutes ago, Searching With My Good Eye Closed had swirled beautifully around their heads and that Cornell's voice exuded more sex than a month of ramp-top poses.
But that's why Soundgarden will break on through eventually; even if the crowds miss the sophisticated sexiness of their music, the band always have a couple of dashing handsome young bucks to fix onto.
Whilst G'N'R's backstage corridor buzzes with security guards, wardrobe folk and guests, the Soundgarden area remains ridiculously low key. Lifeless. Most of the band stay on the bus. Cornell wanders in to fix himself a peanut butter and jam sandwich, Thayil opts for a beer and Shepherd examines a new bass he's been waiting for.
"It's funny," chuckles Thayil, "some journalist the other day asked how much 'pussy' we were getting on this tour, how many 'chicks' we were fucking!"
If Soundgarden are living an existence of excesses, then it's a clandestine one. There are no 'chicks', only a little beer and no drugs.
"I smoke pot maybe four times a year," explains Thayil, "but that's about it. I used to do acid but then I had a terrible trip one time. Remember that Chris?"
"Yeah...", Cornell grins. "I remember dropping acid once and immediately thinking I was gonna have a terrible trip, which is about the dumbest thing you can do right after you've taken some, and it turned out to be a great trip. Then I took some when I was feeling really good and it turned out to be horrible. Funny how that happens..."
"I've tried pretty much every drug once," muses Thayil, "but never really got into anything. Except beer. I don't know what it is about beer..."
So don't you wonder if G'N'R's decadence is the opposite of everything Soundgarden are?
Shepherd: "I don't wonder, I KNOW it is..."
Thayil: "We're definitely introspective, constantly analysing and criticising ourselves. Otherwise we wouldn't be Soundgarden. One of the ways in which those arena shows could be considered sterile, is that it's difficult to relate to the band. If I walk over to Ben's side of the stage, he's waaay over there, like it's the other side of a boat!"
"I'm pretty self-conscious. I'll start thinking, 'Hey, I can't hear anyone, I can't see anybody - am I playing to anyone?' You fuck up and wonder how many people notice."
Guns 'N' Roses like Soundgarden, and the reaction from msot G'N'R fans who take to Soundgarden will be that Chris Cornell and Co are to be worshipped in the same way they worship Axl Rose.
Cornell: "It's uncomfortable when someone comes up to you, and they stand there with nothing much to say, they just wanna stand next to you. I don't really care on the whole, I don't care that kids might have my picture on their wall next to Axl's or whoever...it's not my wall."
Do you understand how this whole 'rock god' thing can happen?
Cornell: "Yeah, definitely. A lot of it is blown out of all proportion. With Guns, a lot of the reports about how they handle their success and what they do aren't true. They're down to earth, but people don't wanna think of them that way."
Soundgarden are remarkably low-key, though.
Cornell: "Journalists are always guessing what you're about; they always go for the most obvious or easiest thing...And they want you to support their definition of you, so they can say they were right."
Thayil: "It's obvious that they just want a story, in which case they should just write it themselves - without us! People expect us to affirm rock cliches now, like the 'pussy' thing I told you about..."
Cornell: "People have asked me if Kim and I have a fire-and-ice relationship, like we're Jimmy Page and Robert Plant or something!"
Thayil: "Don Dokken and George Lynch!"
Cornell: "And they keep asking it like they want it to be true. People like those stories of internal band friction..."
Thayil: "There's enough friction between the band and the rest of the world!"
Cornell: "Sometimes in interviews, people will try and steer you towards topics that are socially correct, topics which have nothing to do with the band or its music. Journalists form the opinion that we're smartasses or hostile, and so when they interview us they treat us that way."
Thayil: "A lot of writers seem to really want you to be their friend, second guessing you to get the best response, the best relationship, the best story, for whatever reasons."
At the end of the day, will Soundgarden forget this whole tour or draw on this experience?
"I'm certainly not gonna forget about it," insists Matt Cameron.
"The experience is great; it's a coveted opening slot which was given to us, and we're not gonna throw that in anybody's faces."
Cameron: "We're just trying to adapt to this situation ourselves."
With this taste of the high life, could you imagine turning into an egotistical wanker if you sold millions of albums and headlined arenas every night?
"Nah, we're more more mature and pretty much set in our ways - we're down to earth, non-wanking, non-butt rockers!"