Reprinted without permission from KERRANG!, May 29,
Something strange is going on in seattle - the world's most miserable band are laughing. They are Soundgarden and, as Morat finds out, they've only gone and started doing Beavis and Butthead impressions as well...
It's Friday night in Seattle and Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil are doing Beavis and Butthead impressions. "Penis! Scrotum! Cool!" says the famously bug-eyed guitarist. "Soundgarden Rock!"
Yes, the four men who appeared to be so utterly grim-faced that they earned the collective nickname Frowngarden are not allergic to the odd laugh after all.
But then, you'll know as much when you get an earful of 'Ty Cobb', the neck breaking punk rock tune on the bands unreasonably brilliant new album 'Down On The Upside'. Not only does 'Ty Cobb' feature a hilarious mandolin duel between Cornell and bassist Ben Shepherd, it also uses the F-word an admirably indecent amount of times. So, you'd be wrong to call Soundgarden a miserable bunch of bastards after all.
You'd also be sadly misguided if you thought that soundgarden ponced around Seattle acting like rock stars. If it weren't for the gold discs hanging from the walls of their plush management offices, you wouldn't know if they were even a rock band, let alone one of the biggest rock bands in the world today.
No, even after selling five million copies of their last album 'Superunknown', Soundgarden remain remarkably unaffected by their own success. If anything, the world has changed around them. On the rare occasions that they go to a club, for instance, the DJ will immediately start playing their music.
"It's totally weird," says Cornell. "You realise that somebody's standing there watching you and they're trying to get a reaction. And some people will come up and start being really rude to you because they think that it's cool. Kurt Cobain used to get that too."
Today, even after a week of doing press to promote 'Down On The Upside', their mood is friendly. While Thayil and Cornell go 'Cool!', Shepherd flicks through the gig guide of a local rag, The Stranger looking for action. He pauses to sneer at an advert for Lazervana, a Nirvana 'tribute' band, then turns the page. LA punk legends Fear, whose classic 'I Don't Care About You' Soundgarden covered a few years ago for a Radio One session, are playing a show in town tonight. Ben says he'd go, but he doesn't like the owner of the club. Thayil says he'd like to go too, but being a brown-skinned rock star in a club where there might be nazi skinheads is not a good idea. The fact is, Soundgarden don't go to many gigs. Talk to any of Seattles grunge kids and they'll laugh or whine about how little Soundgarden are seen. But most of them just don't know where to look. Cornell, Thayil, Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron hang out with the same friends in the same places as they always have.
Ben will go to his regular haunt, the OK Cafe where he'll drink and play pool with his friends. Usually quiet and intense, but occasionally volatile and dangerous, Ben doesn't get hassled too much at the OK Cafe.
Kim, the philospher in a band of philosphers, will visit friends or sit up all night watching sport on TV. And he'll call his friend Brad later to talk about basketball.
Cornell and Cameron will hook up with friends or ride their motorbikes. The former can be painfully softly spoken and takes a long time to relax around people he doesn't know. The latter is possible the most outgoing member of the band, and also the most 'normal'.
The four of them has known each other for almost a decade. Thayil, who had moved to Seattle from Chicago can still recall their first meeting. "We didn't like each other," says Chris. "I believe we met through a mutual friend," say Kim. "I didn't like him either," says Chris. "Chris was really quiet and didn't open up much so it took quite a while to get to know him," recalls Thayil.
Chris worked in the same coffee shop as Andrew Wood, the late Mother Love Bone singer. Thayil studied philosphy and worked in the Department Of Correction's juvenile wing, where he was mistaken for an inmate by the rest of the staff.
Ben Shepherd was a friend of Thayil's younger brother. While Matt Cameron had left San Deigo for Seattle with Grotus' Adam Tanner, and quickly became a 'face' on the city's music scene.
"Ben was 12 years old, he was cute, and kind of lanky kid , and he was learning how to play the guitar," says Kim. "He knew a couple of chords and he had a kind of punk rock haircut. He was like a punk rock toy."
"When I first met Matt, he was already the best drummer in town," says Cornell. "He just seemed very confident and well-adjusted."
Indeed only Cornell seems to have reinvented himself over the years. Even if this has simply meant cutting off his long hair and keeping his shirt on for photo sessions. Once hailed as the grunge pin-up, Cornell is now seen first and foremost as a brilliant musician.
And it's music, as opposed to money or fame that has always been Soundgardens driving force. They don't find it difficult to keep motivated just because they are now extremely wealthy. Soundgarden are not flash. They do not drive a fleet of Ferraris, or host wild orgies in their rock star mansions. Kim was the last member of the band to buy his own house, and he's almost apologetic that it's so big. "A little bit," he nods "It was bigger than anything I'd ever lived in. I'd stay up all night because I felt very vunerable, like I was sleeping in a park with walls around it. It took me a little while to not feel bad about having money. My parents were both immigrants and they didn't have a lot of money, so my Dad was very meticulous. I still feel bad about not finishing everything on my plate."
Is it awkward having friends who're skint?
"Sometimes," he says "But my close friends don't really freak out; it's not like, 'Kim's my rich friend, we've known each other for 20 years, and I'm still working in this shitty job making 11 bucks an hour'.
There are some people who might feel envious, but they're big guys and they know that I've been doing this a long time. They remember when I was unemployed. If we'd got rich overnight like Nirvana or Pearl Jam that might've freaked them out more, but they saw all the time and effort we put into it."
"My friends are cool about it," adds Chris. "But then I gave them all motorcycles. One thing that's cool about having money is sharing it with friends."
Kim spends the next 20 minutes analysing the concept of vast wealth. But since none of us is likely to experience it, or understand a word Thayil says when he's in full flow, we just politely nod and let him get on with it.
Soundgarden will leave their normal lives behind in Seattle when they hit the road again in the near future. But when they arrive in a town near you, don't bother asking them to leap about onstage just like they used to.
"It's kind of hard to jump around when you're playing 'Black Hole Sun'," says Kim defensively. "At one point it was something that we naturally did," continues Cornell. "But after a number of years, you start to feel like you're acting. All those people who criticiseus for not jumping around should shut the fuck up, and when they come to our shows they should jump around and entertain us for a while. It's our turn," he says, slipping into a spot-on Butthead voice. "You know, 'Look at all those people jumping around, thats really cool! You guys rock!"
Which is where we came in...
From 1984 up to the 'Badmotorfinger' album in 1991, Soundgarden was a bit of a rock god. He had long hair and big muscles. This turned out to be a bad thing.
"All of a sudden, there's pictures of me with my shirt off in all these metal pin-up magazines," says Chris. "That shit gets on your nerves really quick. One photographer told me, 'It's alright, I know how to photograph naked bodies. I do pictures for Penthouse and Playboy'."
"The 50th time a photographer told me to take my shirt off, it was like, 'I'll wear lots of shirts from now on'," Chris continues. "I was kind of bummed out because it had nothing to do with the music. It was just the fact that I had long hair..."
"And nice tits!" hoots Kim Thayil.