Reprinted without permission from KERRANG!, August 31, 1991
'GARDEN OF EDEN
Imagine swallowing a dictionary along with a few dubious substances and you might come close to catching on to what happened when MIKE GITTER met Seattle noisemongers SOUNDGARDEN at Bear Creek Studios, where they were busy recording their new album. 'Badmotorfinger' is the kind of record your parents would hate and accordingly the kind of record that any discerning rock fan ought to turn right up to 11...
In heaven there are dogs. At Bear Creek Studios, some 40 miles north of Seattle, there are four. Three of them - Frida the German Shepherd, Little the Jack Russell Terrier and her son Robbie belong to studio owner Joe Hadley's family. Howdy the Pomeranian is owned by Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell and manager/wife Susan Silver.
Soundgarden are doing their overdubs in heaven. Howdy's discovering the joys and fears of being an outdoor dog - he's scampering like mad from a peturbed and quite territorial wild goose. Chris scoops the small furry interloper out of harm's way.
"Almost got beaten up by a bird, eh, Howdy?"
He smiles, returns to the studio, picks up his Les Paul and starts working his way through a looping guitar skree on the track 'Rusty Cage' that dangles somewhere between unrelenting and eccentric.
Not surprising; 'unrelenting' and 'eccentric' describe Soundgarden perfectly, the woodlands muck messiahs whose hard rock vision is terminally off-centre and shuddering. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Killing Joke, Bauhaus and Budgie on acid flashback. The horrific and holy. An unforgiving Heavy Metal sound, triumphant in its minimalism.
Kim, drummer Matt Cameron and new bass recruit Ben Shepherd are all slumped in the studio lounge watching the ballgame. Between innings, Kim Thayil flips from channel to channel, pausing for a second as MTV spits up images of Aryan AOR godheads, Nelson. Everybody sniggers.
Kim, the rock guitarist with a philosophy degree and an ever-present baseball cap that bears the legend 'Kill Whitey', offers a harangue: "Cowboy boots, hair extensions, fuzz guitars. Turn the volume down and they're the Carpenters."
A few innings later, one of the countless MTV guitar heroes is prostrating himself on the screen. Kim starts muttering.
"Fucking geek! It's just so much pretension, the sort of idiocy you hear from these guys who claim to be influenced by Eddie Van Halen and Johann Sebastian Bach. Fuck, go play some other kind of music! Sorry to break it to you, this is a pop medium not an art medium.
"This band has a certain degree of sophistication and part of that stems from the fact that we're able to embrace minimalism and we're mature enough not to overplay," the guitarist says, suddenly speaking up.
"There are always going to be certain degrees of showmanship, but as for saying, 'C'mon Matt, do a drum solo' or 'Kim, how about a 12 string arpeggio in D minor?' or 'Chris, nice falsetto!'...That's the sort of thing that pushed us into playing in punk bands because we hated what was on the radio. Still do."
Precisely! That's the vibe that stains 'Badmotorfinger', Soundgarden's fourth and most enticing disc to date. Where '88's 'Louder Than Love' major label debut did the trick of elevating 'em beyond the ranks of indie buzzdom, it was also the 'Garden's least adventurous work. It stayed too close to the notion of straightforward Heavy Metal, missing out on the beautiful quirks inherent in '87's 'Screaming Life' EP and '88's 'UltramegaOK' - the key random factors that made Soundgarden a lot more than mere Zep copyists in smarter couture.
Was this in any way - even subconsciously - just recording for a major label?
"Maybe," Chris concedes. "If we approached it less from a performance and arrangement standpoint and more like a live record, it would have probably ended up sounding a lot more dangerous and raw. If the new record has a lot more life to it than 'Louder...'. There's not one song that we aren't excited about playing, as opposed to songs like 'Power Trip' or 'No Wrong, No Right' that we'd been playing live for years."
This time, it's back to the notion of anything goes. Noisy as 'Face Pollution', eerie and eclectic on 'Searchin' With My Good Eye Closed', reaching absurdist pop-crescendos with 'Outshined'...
"It's the Heavy Metal 'White Album'!" Thayil exclaims sarcastically. "There's the same trippiness and quirkiness that was on the first coupla records. There's the heavy grind of 'Louder...'. It's 12 different ways of approaching the idea of heaviness."
A conscious return to the uncanny weirdness of 'Screaming Life'? A retro move to avoid becoming a retro band?
"In some ways," Kim nods. "But it sounds more live. There are a lot more noises, that's the only way I can put it. Noises! That's a lot cooler than reverb. Little squawks, feedbacks, little unplanned performance things that just kinda happen when you turn up loud and play it on 11!"
Lyrically, Soundgarden remain as cryptic as ever. When Kim's asked to explain the meaning of titles like 'Jesus Christ Pose', he groans.
"Crucifix, martyr, crown of thorns... but why am I telling you this? People get really pretentious when they start explaining their lyrics. Rock 'n' roll isn't particularly high on aesthetic content."
One marked improvement this time round is the more prominent and adventurous bass-playing of Ben Sheppard [sic], Soundgarden's latest bass recruit (replacing both veteran Hiro Yamamoto and touring replacement Jason Everman) who contributed considerably to 'Badmotorfinger's' writing. What does he bring to the thunderous equation?
"Hair!" Ben quietly deadpans. "Dirty boots. Soiled baby diapers..."
"Ben's been a fan of ours even from our earliest shows," Chris mentions, coming in with Howdy yapping at his legs. "He's still got setlists from the days when I played drums and sang. He's got this real out-of-hand playing style, like Captain Beefheart playing hardcore, and this real frantic way of playing parts and writing songs; he'll just sit down and play really fast and intense and strange.
"He's really fresh and creative," the frontman continues. When (Mother Love Bone vocalist) Andy Wood died, it was like this big rug getting pulled out from under me."
(Chris channelled his feelings about his former roommate into the side project, Temple Of The Dog.)
"He was a really creative guy and when he died it was just so much more important for me to be around people like Ben who had that spark of creativity."
Like his band mates, Ben isn't exactly the epitome of a Type A personality. Often sullen and withdrawn, his temperament fits in with Chris' privateness, Matt's cynical reserve and Kim's intellectual paranoia. Happy campers they aren't. Fiendish impressionists painting angry frescoes is more like it.
So what's the common bond, the spark of downcast inspiration that binds them?
"We're relatively suburban," Kim admits. "My dad was an engineer and my mother was a teacher - and they were pretty strong opposites. My dad was real stoic and rational, my mom was more cosmic and romantic. I've probably exhibited both traits in my upbringing as far as being romantic, arty, a politically sensitive idealist - with definite trendencies towards stoicism!
"Ben's mom has a huge book collection and his father was in the military," the guitarist continues before hitting the key. "One thing we all have in common is that we're all products of divorces within suburban families and grew up with our moms."
So are they a collection of intellectualizing mummy's boys out for revenge?
"No," Thayil spits back. "Aside from the typical immigrant-type parent 'You're going to send me to an early grave' guilt trip..."
Rumour has it that Chris Cornell still plays with GI Joe dolls. Is this true?
Kim laughs. "Yeah! I don't think he was always into it. I think it was sort of a tongue-in-cheek thing, road dementia.
"So what if we're all a bunch of well-educated 30 year olds who want nothing more than to climb back into the womb?"
Somehow that makes an awful lot of sense.