Reprinted without permission from KERRANG!, September 11, 1993
SHAVED 'N' DANGEROUS
Look and weep, girls! Yup, Soundgarden wailer Chris Cornell is now devoid of follicles! Prepare for mind riot as Don Kaye draws flies with Cornell and 'Garden guitarist Kim Thayil, to reveal tales of storms, Foghat reunions and bad skin conditions on their current US min-trek with Neil Young, plus the latest info on how ablum number four is taking shape! Will they ever be able to decide which songs to put on it, let alone agree on a title?...
Zzzzt. Zzzzzzzt. Zzzzzzzt. That's the sound my tape recorder makes as Chris Cornell runs it across the fuzzy surface of his head - a close-cropped buzz-cut having replaced his long curly locks. The same locks that were once the object of girls' lust everywhere Soundgarden travelled...
"It's so much easier to play without it," he shrugs. "I used to take a big gulp of air onstage and suck huge strands of hair right down my throat! Then I'd have to stand there and pull it back out!"
Chris doesn't worry about the teen magazine ramifications of cutting his hair. Like their roadmate, the unstoppable Neil Young, Soundgarden have never given much of a damn about anything except making their music and playing it well.
There's no room for glitzy excess on this tour. Iconoclasts, one and all.
Yes, Soundgarden are on the road again, doing eight outdoor dates with Mr. Young and taking a break from the recording of their fourth full-length album.
Bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron have headed for the bar after we discuss their new Hater project, leaving me with guitarist Kim Thayil and singer Chris, who's fighting one of those colds that always seems to accompany road trips.
We sit in the ultra-swank and ultra-bland Long Island Marriott - best known for being one parking lot away from Nassau Coliseum - and begin with the band's effect on their fans.
"We were in Rapid City for our first Neil Young show," chuckles Chris, shaking his head," and these two young Soundgarden fans - how old were they, 10 or 11? - both had hair that looked exactly like mine. Susan (Silver, manager) made this joke about me trying to look like them, but their sister said, 'No, I think it was the other way around!' It's pretty funny that someone would look a particular way just cos someone else does."
It's just one of the little incidents on this stretch of touring - Soundgarden's first time out in nearly a year.
"It seemed like it would be more unusual than it was to get back on the road," says Chris. "I guess if you've played for that long, even if you stay away from it for a while, it doesn't seem to make that big a difference. I mean, we were kind of rusty, and the shows haven't been our best, but it wasn't like we were on another planet when we came out and started to play. It felt pretty normal. A lot more natural and a lot more immediate than I thought I'd feel."
"It's always a little bit of an adventure going on tour," adds Kim. "But it was a bit awkward, cos we were kind of in a studio mode."
"That's the only problem, really, doing this tour," interjects Chris. "It took is maybe two, two and a half weeks to start to get into a studio head. and right when we started to get into full swing, where things were happening pretty rapidly, we stopped! But it's such a short tour that I'm sure we'll jump right back into it."
Doing the tour, which has also featured Pearl Jam and Blind Melon, came after several invitations from the god-like Young.
"He asked us three times previously, and every time it was the same situation..." begins Chris.
"Yeah, we were either in the studio or committed to some other tour," Kim chips in.
"This time," continues Chris, "we figured that because he had pretty much said we could choose any dates out of the full tour, it would be good to pick a small amount. It would have been cool to do the whole thing, but that wouldn't have been smart in terms of scheduling."
The leg of the tour that Soundgarden hopped on began in Rapid City, South Dakota, in the midst of a huge annual motorcycle rally that's been held there for an incredible 53 years.
"This year was the second largest one", says Chris. "Three years ago, when they had the 50th anniversary, that was the biggest, and this year's was the second largest. The bikers all come into town and stay in these big camping areas, owned by different organisations like the Hell's Angels and people like that. People just ride their bikes in from all over the country, or ship them from other parts of the world. Then they just hang out, watch races and go to bike shows."
"And see reunions of bands like Faghog...er, Foghat!" laughs Kim.
"Head East were there!" says Chris.
"Yeah!"says Kim. "And Sharp As A Pancake! No Blue Oyster Cult there though."
"What was that band that had that song, 'Stealin'?" asks Chris.
"Yeah, they played there too!" says Chris. "I mean, it's one of those things where there's almost no original members; Mick Box is the only one left!"
"I think I traded their 'Magician's Birthday' album when I was 17 for 'Blank Generation' by Richard Hell And The Voidoids," muses Kim. "I also got rid of my Faghog record and an REO Speedwagon record in the same breath!"
What was it like to be a modern, cutting-edge band, playing on the bill with all these Jurassic rockers?
"It felt really natural," deadpans Chris. "To be honest, there were a lot of Soundgarden fans there, cos we'd never played South Dakota before. There were people who knew the songs and had banners and stuff like that.
"It was more alienating to open for Guns 'N' Roses than to open for Neil Young in South Dakota! It made me want to come back and play there again by ourselves."
Next stop on the tour was Milwaukee.
"I can't remember Milwaukee!" says Chris. "But I remember seeing ads for the Milwaukee Death Metal Fest. It was mostly Christian bands, I thought! We played something similar in Holland - not with 50 bands, though; I think it was six metal bands and us. and the other bands were actual metal bands.
"There was one band that was almost exactly like Motvrhead. They sounded the same and the singer sang as close to Lemmy as he could, but the rest all wore funny Spandex and they used fog machines and keyboards. They really took it seriously. They were all angry with us cos we were the only band that got paid and got food. And we had no production or anything like that. So we were the unprofessional, shitty band!"
"Some guy kept throwing beers at Chris," recalls Kim. "But I think they still liked us! We got the best response out of everybody!"
Both musicians chuckle at the memory, along with that of once playing with a Salsa band in San Diego. "The only people that stayed were Matt's family!" says Chris. "The crowd went from 50 people to about five - and we knew them all by name!"
Almost with a touch of sadness, Chris remarks that those bizarre 'dues paying' shows are pretty much a thing of the past.
Not so getting sick! Chris came down with the flu at the Toronto show on this tour. "He ordered it six to eight weeks ago, but had to wait for delivery!" cracks Kim.
Now it's just part of touring that the singer has resigned himself to.
"There's a certain degree of stress whenever I leave for tour," says Kim. "Usually within a couple of weeks I'll get sick or I'll get this stuff on my fingers.." He points to a splotch of unhealthy looking skin.
"His skin starts peeling off!" exclaims Chris. "It's probably all stress-related. I mean, look at me - my hair fell out!"
It's hard to believe that there's still stress after nine years playing together.
"We're more reclusive when we're at home, that's a major part of it," says Chris. "You go from being around thousands and thousands of people a day, to not being around anybody for months and months. Then all of a sudden, you're back with crowds again. But it's not that big of a shock - I'm a lot more comfortable now."
What do you gain and what do you lose when you're playing to bigger audiences in festival and arena situations?
"Well, I think a lot gets lost, as far as what we do goes," answers Chris. "In a situation like Lollapalooza or opening for Guns or Neil, it's mostly playing for someone else's audience
"So we can play a set of 15 songs, where they might recognise three or four of them. We've always been a band where it takes more than one listen to our stuff to get it. So it's kind of difficult to imagine somebody getting it the first time they hear it live.
" When it's a headlining tour, it changes things quite a bit. Even if it's in front of that many people I don't think as much would get lost. If you're smart about it and emphasize the sound of the band and who you are, instead of emphasizing some sort of external production of lights and explosions and stuff like that, then I don't see much of a difference between playing a 3,000 seater and a 20,000 seater. If we were playing in places that were big, our priority in terms of a larger production would be making a place like that sound good, making the band sound powerful."
Don't forget the flashing Soundgarden sign that descends from the rafters! Surely there's a place for that in a large scale area show?
"If we can get that big, I'm considering getting tele-prompters onstage!" says Chris. "Not so that I can read the lyrics, but I think it would be cool to have them there to watch ESPN (a Stateside cable sports channel), with a game on! Especially during the football season cos they only have games on two days a week. If you're on the road you miss a lot of the season!"
"How 'bout a little foot switch?" suggests Kim. "You can run up to the front of the stage, make this big dramatic move, flick a switch and check out the scores!"
"That would be our version of Zoo TV," adds Chris. "Except we'd have all the monitors facing us, so we can flip through the channels while we're playing the song! 'Our next song is gonna be 'Rusty Cage', but before that there's something on the Discovery Channel I'd like to check out!'"
There are no TV monitors onstage the next night, at Jones Beach Theatre. There's not much of anything onstage - except water. Here, the rain blows in from the ocean and halfway through their set Soundgarden are deluged with sheets of whipping water as lightning flashes across the sky.
"We've got a great light show tonight," Chris tells the crowd. "Courtesy of God."
As the stage becomes flooded the sound begins to go. Ben Shepherd smashes a beer bottle with his bass in frustration while the rest of the guys cope as best they can. This is the second Soundgarden appearance at Jones Beach. Their first, at last year's Lollapalooza, was also drowned by a fluke thunderstorm.
What we do get tonight, however, is new songs. Five in all: 'Let Me Drown' (how ironic), 'My Wave' (!), 'Spoon Man', 'Kickstand' and the haunting 'Fell On Black Days'. All five show an increasing sophistication and organic growth in Soundgarden's songwriting: the sometimes jarring riffs flowing with more ease and power than earlier material.
As a fan, I anticipated these new songs with a mixture of excitement and fear, hoping I'd like them. From what I heard, the future looks bright.
After the tour finishes in Boston five days later, the group head home to continue working on the new album with producer Michael Bienhorn. They've got the platinum 'Badmotorfinger' to follow up and the current, trendy Seattle backlash to shake off.
Typically, Chris and Kim are merely concerned with making the best record they can.
"We've actually got enough songs for two albums, which makes it hard to tell you what the actual end result will sound like," says Chris. "We've kinda always done that, but this time it's even more extreme, because we have more songs that are finished. I think there's less of a super-clear idea which ones will work and which ones won't.
"It's a pretty easy to figure it out. You record a song, mix it, and a lot of the time the ones you thought were gonna be really great don't turn out that well. And the songs you thought weren't gonna be anything special end up surprising you!
"There were some songs recorded for 'Badmotorfinger' that we definitely wanted to be on the record, but the versions we recorded maybe didn't work out quite as well as we hoped. We didn't quite approach it right."
Where does the new material stand in relation to the 'Badmotorfinger' stuff? Does it take several steps away?
"There's definitely some songs that are steps away from anything we've ever done," continues Chris. "I think we've moved with every record in one way or another..."
"There's gonna be a lot of variety," agrees Kim. "The way I see it, it's just new ways of being heavy. I think there's still a depth to the songs - there always has been. There's an incredible variety amongst them, but they're all heavy. They all have a visceral element and they have an emotional and psychological element that give depth and a lasting appeal.
"None of them seem to be incomplete or shallow songs. They all seem to be thoroughly worked out. So we're happy and enthusiastic with most of the material. There was some stuff where the collective enthusiasm was less than on some of the other songs. But after having recorded them, the enthusiasm grew and it was great to see how the performances translated."
What it all means is that even the songs Soundgarden are playing live right now may not appear on the album. Or the titles might change. It's all very open-ended.
"Yeah, right now we're playing 'Spoon Man' live, 'Kickstand', 'My Wave' and a song called 'Mailman'," says Kim. "But all these titles... some are permanent, some are tentative. There's a song Chris wrote called 'The Day I Tried To Live' which didn't really do anything for me."
"Me neither!" grins Chris.
"But our drummer was really excited about it," continues Kim. "We recorded it and it turned out incredibly well. On the other hand, there's a song called 'No Attention' which I've been championing for about three years now. We recorded it and it's just not there. There's something fun about playing it live, but when we throw it on tape, it just doesn't happen."
"We're trying a lot of different approaches to guitar sounds and bass sounds on a lot of this stuff," Chris adds. "It have would been better to be halfway through recording before doing this tour, but either way, it's definitely a good thing to break away from the studio; get some perspective."
Chris figures it's time for him to get to bed and fight off the rest of his flu, while Kim and I decide to head for the hotel bar.
There, Ben, Susan and some of the crew are holding court in the middle of some kind of accountants' convention. Regardless, I ask for a tentative album title before the tape recorder gets packed away. This could be my big scoop...
"We were thinking about 'Three Years, Eight Days and Four Minutes In The Life Of Arrested Development'", offers Chris. "Or we might just cop out and call it 'Soundgarden'!"