Reprinted without permission from KERRANG!, August 12,
BLACK HOLE SONS!
Have Soundgarden gone AWOL? Is guitarist Kim Thayil an alcoholic junkie? Did bassist Ben Shepherd quit? Are the band really locked away in Pearl Jam's studio? And will they make it to the Reading Festival this year? Morat hits Seattle to find the answers! Poor ol' Seattle...
Soundgarden's first ever gig was at a club called Top of the Court in Seattle. Don't go looking for it if you ever get the chance to visit this fair city. It's not there any more.
Many of the clubs where Seattle's Grunge superstars first sweated it out have since changed hands, so those looking to play on the same stage as Nirvana would probably find themselves standing in a fancy restaurant. Things move on.
On the far side of town is Litho Studios, owned by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard. Here, Soundgarden - arguably the finest of Seattle's estimated 1,000 bands - are working on the follow-up to their three million selling Superunknown opus.
The pace seems really leisurely, but maybe that's because it was vocalist/guitarist Chris Cornell's birthday yesterday and everyone is nursing hangovers.
Drummer Matt Cameron wanders off to record some drum tracks for a mid-paced yet frantic tune called An Unkind, while everyone else thumbs through dictionaries. "Most bands do drugs in the studio," observes guitarist Kim Thayil. "We do crosswords!"
Cornell and I adjourn to the roof for a chat in the Seattle sunshine. It doesn't always rain here.
I put it to him that Soundgarden seem to have gone very quiet since last year. "We do that," nods Chris. "If we're not doing anything, you don't really hear about us."
These long periods of silence from Soundgarden do leave room for rumours to spread. Some interesting ones have been flying of late; firstly that bassist Ben Shepherd had left the band. "Yeah, we heard that. Then we looked around and Ben was still there!" smiles Chris. "He never voiced any interest in leaving."
Another rumour was that Kim had turned into an alcoholic junkie! "Kim's about the last person I could ever think of that would turn into a junkie!" hoots Chris. "I'm not even sure what an alcoholic is! I think an alcoholic is somebody that stops taking responsibility for the fact that they're drunk all the time! They just decide they're alcoholics. 'Sorry I crashed my car into your house, but I have a disease! It's not my fault!'"
Clearly, Kim is not an alcoholic. He just enjoys a good drink like anybody else. So how does it affect the band when you hear rumours like that?
"It doesn't really affect us," Cornell shrugs. "We're pretty close knit, we stay pretty far out of the gossip community and we don't read a lot of magazines about ourselves or anybody else.
"I can only speak for myself, but it kinda washes over me. If I thought it was really true, y'know, if I thought Ben was really serious about leaving the band then that would really bug me. But we never seem to get much of it compared to a lot of other bands. We only end up with a few weird, nasty rumours here and there! It seems to me we're getting off easy."
Naturally, there were all kinds of rumours when Soundgarden cancelled last year's European tour and an appearance at the Reading Festival. What exactly happened?
"I think we kinda overdid it!" says Chris. "We were playing five or six nights a week and my voice pretty much took a beating. Towards the end of the American tour I felt like I could still kinda sing, but I wasn't really giving the band a fair shake. You don't buy a ticket to see some guy croak for two hours! That seemed like kind of a rip off.
"We've never been the kind of band that cancels a tour when somebody breaks a finger. It would have to be something fairly extreme - and to me, that was. Plus, as a singer you've gotta be careful. If your voice is fatigued you could probably still go on, but then if you do a bunch more shows, all of a sudden you might never get to do a show again or make another record!
"It's pretty weird, dangerous and ambiguous territory, cos nobody really knows, y'know? The doctor will say, 'Well, your voice is fatigued.' Thanks, here's 200 bucks - I already knew that!"
How do you feel about all the kids who booked time off work or bought non-refundable tickets for Reading? "I'm not happy about it," sighs Cornell, accepting a cigarette. "I appreciate our fans and I wouldn't ever wanna be in a position where we're screwing somebody over.
"It definitely didn't make me feel good. I wasn't at home drinking margueritas under an umbrella thinking everything was great. I was pretty bummed out about it for a long time. It takes a lot to make a decision like that, especially when it ends up being all one guy's fault. I mean, I was totally supported by the band, but the bottom line is that the tour was cancelled because I had a problem!"
You're definitely doing Reading this year. Did you know it used to be a big heavy metal festival?
"No," Chris grins. "Well, we're gonna wear big spiky boots and I'm gonna wear a wig!"
"I don't know," he ponders. "It seems to me like Lollapalooza, only more diverse. The shows that we've played like that have always been kinda cool. You're playing in front of an audience that's not entirely yours, which to a degree I've always liked."
Right now, Soundgarden are in positive mood. Probably because the new album's coming along very nicely indeed, thank you very much. Basically, Soundgarden aren't dicking around with this record.
"We've always done demos and then we'd make a record and spend the whole time trying to capture the essence of the demo. It seems really stupid! Why not just make the demos your record?" Chris smiles.
"This album's been way faster and way easier. Plus there's no expectations; like 'Oh shit, we don't have a hit record, our label's gonna drop us!' There's always been a certain amount of pressure, not directly from the label, but an assumed pressure. Like, you know how the business works, and even though they're being cool, in the back of their mind they're saying 'If this band doesn't make money we don't support the band'.
"At this stage it wouldn't matter at all cos we'd just go and sign a huge deal with some other label, but a couple of years ago it would have mattered. There's a lot of great bands out there that have been dropped. Unless you're independently wealthy, that's what you need a record company for."
Record companies got their fingers burned a few years ago in the clamour to sign something, anything from Seattle. No one will ever know if fame and acclaim were dished out to the right people, but such is the influence of bands here that even the tourist maps show the Sub Pop megamart and mention 'the famous Seattle sound.'
"It's a little strange, but it makes sense," ponders Cornell, eyeing my crumpled map. " At least the city is embracing the idea that the local scene is something that people outside of Seattle might be interested in. It's taken a long time, but we're still under seige here, because there's been this neurotic music bill that's basically designed to stigmatise any kind of music that a group of people consider harmful to minors.
"They keep trying to pass this bill year after year," he sighs. "It started in Washington State. Seattle had the biggest rock music scene in the world and in Washington State they're trying to criminalise music!
"A few members of our band, plus Krist Novoselic and a few other bands actually went and lobbied in the state capital. They talked to senators and said, 'Here's the figures on how many millions of dollars the music community has brought into the state.' You tell these guys and they almost seem surprised!
"It's not just local bands playing in pubs. We're talking about international recording artists who bring a lot of money back into this community. They're being entirely overlooked as part of the state's economy. They're trying to pass legislation that will make it really difficult for us to do what we do. A lot of it has to do with the fact that they don't realise what's happening."
But doesn't rock music need something to fight against?
"Yeah," Chris nods. "Once your parents like it, it's not rock any more! That's my philosophy! I hope your kids will like music that you hate! Dad hates it, it must be cool!"
Chris Cornell, you can't help feeling, has changed little since the early days of Soundgarden. Visitors to the studio this afternoon are mostly bikers (both Chris and Matt ride), or just old friends. Brad, an ex member of the punk band Officer Down, shows up and he and Kim share memories of moving to Seattle with original Soundgarden bassist Hiro Yamamoto. On their first day in the city, Kim, Brad and Hiro found an unopened six-pack in the park; welcome to Seattle!
Later we end up at Brad's place drinking and watching Judas Priest and Danzig videos. It's good to know Kim still has friends who have hilarious video collections and nasty things growing behind their toilets!
But how do you work out who's a friend these days, and who just wants to know you because you're famous?
"The best rule of thumb is just to hate everybody!" laughs Chris. "I don't know. I end up making friends with people who sell you beer at a store.
"As time goes on, meeting people in the music industry and famous people, or people who've heard that you're famous, gets more and more false. It's a situation you wanna be in less and less. If I was more outgoing I'd proably meet tons of amazing people who could enlighten me in ways I could never comprehend. But it doesn't happen. I just end up having a beer with grocery clerks and I feel great about it.
"I think people growing up in different cities have different attitudes," ponders Cornell. "In New York being famous is a really important thing, culturally. I mean, when we played Madison Square Garden opening for Guns 'N' Roses, fans would be saying, 'You're playing Madison Square Garden!' Like it was a huge deal. It wasn't the pinnacle of our career. We were opening for this other band, playing short sets in a half empty arena. "
So what is the pinnacle of Chris's career?
"I think the closest to that is when our record debuted at Number One in the US. We did it without having to be pop stars. That's probably the moment when all of what we've tried to do and everything we felt about music brought us to a point where we were successful.
"Hopefully that will stand out as inspiration to other people who play music they think no one's gonna like. They should take heed," smiles Chris. "You don't necessarily have to sound like somebody else to get people to hear you. There's always gonna be a certain amount of people who wanna hear something fresh. Then once they're big rock stars, they'll have to deal with everyone thinking they suck!"
Work in progress! Soundgarden's new LP at a glance!
* Soundgarden have begun on their new LP at Litho Studios, Seattle.
* Litho is owned by Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard. Upon entering the studio you will find a photo of the studio owner schmoozing with his idol, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page!
* Their last LP, Superunknown, was produced by US wunderkind Michael Beinhorn. At the moment the band are producing the album themselves. "Michael Beinhorn was so into sounds. He was so, almost, anal about it, that it took the piss out of us a lot of the time," comments Chris Cornell. "By the time you get the sounds that you want to record the song, you're sick and tired of playing it."
* As yet Soundgarden do not have a title for the album, nor do they have any track titles apart from An Unkind. "We've got the basics for more than half an album," reckons Chris. "We've just started, but we're working at an incredibly faster pace than our last couple of records."
* This album is more spontaneous, and direct. Does this mean Soundgarden are back taking risks? "I think this record, done this way, is gonna cost significantly less than the last record so we can afford to take the chance of it being complete shit!" laughs Chris. "If we end up a month from now being finished with it and half of it's shit we can go ' Well, alright, I guess we can try it the other way again'. We have the time and the financial ability to make big sweeping mistakes more than we used to, but it doesn't feel like it'll be a mistake!"