Reprinted without permission from KERRANG!, April 8,
In the past, the city of Seattle, Washington has given us the likes of Queensryche, Fifth Angel and Sanctuary. Now add a fourth name to that list: a hot new act called Soundgarden. Look beyond that 'ethereal' moniker and you'll find a whole bunch of unremittingly brutal music, advises Don Kaye...
Soundgarden. Strange name. Strange band. Their first record, an independent six song mini LP on Seattle's Sub Pop label, was an interesting excursion into a demented Zep fan's dream: bottom heavy monstor rock with the tortured Plantisms of vocalist Chris Cornell smothered on top.
This year's full length album, Ultramega OK on SST records, is a far more diverse affair, but even heavier and more between-the-eyes than before. But that was all in the record review. I'm here to introduce you to the band.
Soundgarden formed in Seattle, where they're still based, and consist of the aforementioned Cornell, Kim Thayil on guitar, bassist Hiro Yamamoto and Matt Cameron behind the drumkit.
It's with Kim and Matt I'm speaking tonight, getting my first glimpse into half the mental force behind this disturbing and passionate band.
"Initially, when I came to Seattle, there was more of a New Wave, jangly, quirky type of sound here," says Kim, who was originally from the Northwest but grew up in Chicago.
"It was the same thing that was happening all over the country, except that Seattle was stuck in it a little longer. But there were plenty of guys playing some progressive stuff, and there was a Hardcore scene, so these things naturally developed."
"Seattle is divided into two regions. There's the East side, which is across Lake Washington, and most of the metal bands are from there, groups like Queensryche, Sanctuary and Fifth Angel. Here on our side, there was a lot more hardcore and punk, and these bands started to add more leads and double bass and just more of a speed metal sound. The more progressive, hardcore bands added different, artier elements."
Soundgarden arrived in 1984, with Matt joining in '86. While many groups were still bashing out the HC, Soundgarden and peers like Green River were slowing the whole mess down, going for a thicker, sludgier mood.
"It caught on locally," explains Kim. "And a lot of bands began to pick up on the idea of slowing down and making everything heavier. Not to say that the groups here all copy each other, because everyone's sincere about what they do. But there is a similar style that emerged, and one American journalist called it 'Big Rock'."
Big Rock is as good a name as any to describe Soundgarden and other Northwest outfits like the seminal Green River and lesser-known outfits like Mudhoney and Tad.
"It's like a real slow, steady kinda sexy groove, but with a lot of distorted guitars and just a real basic rock sound with a different kind of edge," says Matt.
The name Soundgarden ("Not intentionally meant to throw people off," laughs Kim) is supposed to represent the many roots of the group's style, a virtual plethora of cutting edge rock that spans Sabbath, Velvet Underground, Meat Puppets and Killing Joke. There's some Zep and some Metallica; Gothicism and sublime poetry. The almost ethereal flavour of the name betrays the brutality of the music but never pins Soundgarden in one corner.
"Our music is progressing really well with each successive record," offers Matt. "On the first EP we were at a certain level, and it was pretty raw. Then we did the SST record, and we're still developing and refining a few things, but still keeping our edge, which is important. And the latest stuff we're working on... it's just gonna kill."
Soundgarden recently inked a deal with A&M Records for their next album.
Both Kim and Matt are positively aglow with enthusiasm over the new material they are laying down for their major label debut, due in August. That'll make two records within a year's time for these hardy souls, and they report that the deal with A&M was in the can almost before their SST album came out!
Kim: "A&M had heard a tape and were interested in us for a long time. They came up to see us and liked what they saw even better than what they originally heard. So they started pursuing us, but we already had a contract with Sub Pop to do our mini LP, so first things first."
"Now at the time the mini LP came out, we did some shows with St Vitus and a few other SST bands and they all recommended us to the label. They all played our tape for the label head, that sort of thing. SST was a label we'd always been into, we'd liked a lot of their bands, and so we talked with them and ironed out a one album deal, which is what all their deals are."
Meanwhile A&M were still hot for the band, Geffen was on the trail as well, but the group put them all on hold.
"It was neat that they were waving this money in our face, but it was important to us to establish ourselves with the people that like us," says Kim. "We wanted to establish ourselves in the underground and college market place first, where the majors couldn't f**k around with us."
"So the labels all said, 'Why are you talkin' to us and making a record for SST?' " laughs Matt. "They were frustrated. But it made perfect sense 'cause we developed as a band and laid a better groundbase of fans to follow us over to a major. We've got a foundation, and we didn't jump to a big label just for the bucks."
Now Soundgarden seem to have everything in place, right down to the unprecedented move of A&M lending their support and promotion to the SST release of Ultramega OK. But the plan's not without its thorns. For one thing, A&M are not exactly a label renowned for their expertise with hard rock, and secondly, Soundgarden aren't your average three chord wonder. They fall into that blurred category with mutations like Jane's Addiction, Danzig and maybe Masters Of Reality: a limbo where the musos flirt with the conceptions and structures of heavy metal, along with its trademarks, but stay just slightly to the left and outside the accepted norms.
"A&M haven't worked with much hard rock but they are a label that takes risks." affirms Kim. "They've taken risks with the Police, Squeeze and even Budgie in the past, and that was something that attracted us to them. At least we know we don't have to compete with anyone for the company's affection."
The group tour the States in the Spring before heading for the UK in May for their first overseas visit.