Reprinted without permission from Loud, ??
Once strictly an alternative chestnut, Seattle's Soundgarden has exploded onto (and over) the metal scene with the subtlety of a fifty-car freight train in a china shop.
Now MTV's taken the plunge (if not Riki Rachtman), and even the Grammys have given into quality instead of quantity. Correspondent Carlos Loera corrals guitarist Kim Thayil in the midst of a sold-out swing through southern California with Voivod, to get some insight into the modus operandi, past, present and future, before things really get out of hand. Meanwhile Eric Castenada points and shoots.
In these sad and troubled times, it is very rare that I get this cranked up for a gig. As a veteran music enthusiast, I've seen, or at least heard of, virtually every vicious facade that musicians try to pass off as their own creation.
Pick up almost any rock magazine at your disposal and you see what I mean: With the majority of bands preoccupied with being part of the latest fad; or the next one; or God only knows what else, it becomes especially gratifying to find a group of musicians with enough self-esteem, cohesion and determination to take their muses and turn them into something that is uniquely their own. Such is obviously the case with Soundgarden. The Seattle based quartet (Chris Cornell, vocals and guitar; Jason Everman, bass; Matt Cameron, drums; and Thayil) formed in 1984 and released their debut offering, Screaming Life, on renowned local indie Sub Pop in 1987.
As for the name, it comes from a scuplture of steel tubing in Seattle that was specifically designed to catch the sounds of wind. Of all the flailing attempts to capsulize the style and sound, the two words 'sound' and 'garden', fused together probably serve that task best.
Up to this point, my only exposure to the band is as an avid fan. A dubbed copy of the fiasco on Headbanger's Ball tells me something is definitely going on underneath. It merely requires a semblence of consciousness to get to it.
As a result of a breakdown in communication between the label's media liaison and Soundgarden's tour manager, my appearance at the foot of their tour bus stepwell came as a complete surprise. Soundcheck had just ended, and dinner was supposed to be next on the agenda. The last thing on his mind had to be doing an interview. But Kim welcomed us to the cozy environs of their tour baus for conversation and a couple of Simpaticos anyway. What follows is hardly verbatim.
The Led Factor
It was in 1987 when I first happened across Soundgarden. At the time, I was working for an independent label in LA. And while perusing through one of the weekly trades, a review that frothed at its literary mouth about "Plant-isms, pyschedelia and general fits of super-heaviness" grabbed me by my collar and dragged me to a record store to find it.
A noticeable gleam comes to Thayil's (pronounced Thi-il) eyes when he realises our conversation is starting off with talk surrounding the release of Screaming Life. I can sense the adrenalin flowing as he reflects back on early, primal reactions to the band.
"You know, it's funny...that whole Zeppelin thing in the beginning. It kind of took me by surprise. I really think that there's very little Zeppelin on that record." But when pressed further on what seemed to be an across the board reaction towards the realm of Page, Plant and co., and whether it helped or hindered the band, Thayil admits, "It doesn't (didn't) really bug me. Reviewers occasionally have a tendency towards capsulizing and defining things into a package...which is, I guess, part of their job. But at the same time we knew we weren't another Kingdom Come. And as time has gone on the comparisons to Zeppelin have decreased."
Indeed. It was in fact at about the same time that Screaming Life was getting off the ground that the shameless Kingdom Come fiasco was also picking up steam. Oh sure, they did Monsters Of Rock, but that was doomed from the start. Besides, we all know how their story has turned out.
Up through the release of last year's Louder Than Love, Soundgarden have had the seldom-used, and perhaps forgotten, luxury of recording a follow up record around the same time that the current recording is released.
It's an interesting practice if you've got the material ahead of time. It will relieve the pressure inherent with follow ups (look at G 'N' R), while making you look cool by giving the impression that you can write and record great material fairly quickly.
Hang on, this could get weird.
It's my impression that when Ultramega OK (their first full length album, released by SST in 1988) came out, the band was already signed to A&M.
Lighting a cigarette and pausing a moment to get the sequence of events straight himself, Thayil explains, "We signed with A&M a couple of months before Ultramega came out, but that was half a year after we'd recorded it, and nine months since we'd signed to SST."
That seems like a backlogging sort of thing, where the material for the following release is written, chosen and recorded ahead of time.
"Well, it's like what Husker Du used to do when they were on SST. Everytime they released a record, they had another one in the can; and Kiss used to do the same thing...They would go out there and tour in support and be ready to go out on the next one. It was always a step ahead of itself."
When asked if it was still holding up now despite their obviously busier schedules, Thayil just laughs a reckless but sincere 'no'. "I'd love to think that there are ten songs sitting there somewhere, but there aren't."
"But you know what happened? We recorded Louder Than Love over a year ago. It was recorded in November and December of '88, and January '89; amd mixed in the Spring of '89. By that time, I was like, I'm really sick of hearing this thing a million times, even though there are certain songs that still give me the creeps at night."
Changing Of The Gaunt
So where we now stand (or sit as it were), Ultramega has been released, Louder Than Love has been recorded, and the Ultramega tour is under way. But by the time the LTL tour got rolling bassist Hiro Yamamoto (who played on LTL) was replaced by Nirvana guitarist Jason Everman. From where I stood, it seemed like a pretty swift and final move, which is, I guess, the best way to handle these things. Nevertheless, I couldn't find anything on it anywhere, and I still wonder what went on.
"He left about a month before the LTL tour. It was a combination of a lot of things...he was not at all eager to go on the road again. In other respects, he's a smart guy and there's other things he could do. He decided to go back to college and study physics."
Taking a brief pause and reflecting back on these reasons, and how he can certainly relate to them, Thayil resumes, "It had been five years for Hiro and Chris, and I think he was just getting burnt out. Everything was getting more demanding, plus he quit drinking and smoking. And if you have the strength to stand by those kind of decisions, it's very difficult to be on the road and deal with these kinds of temptations."
Oddly enough, it was at this very moment that a couple of prime examples of these temptations strolled by the bus and broke our train of conversation.
"It's easy for Jason, who doesn't drink. He's a straight edge guy...well, he's not a vegetarian. I'd be a straight edge guy except that I drink beer and smoke cigarettes and I'm not a vegetarian." Except. "But I don't do other drugs, or other bad shit. The primary attraction there is the loud music and the beer, and the comradery."
The subject of mass marketing and demographics and other faceless and bland (but perhaps necessary) evils that rape the soul and integrity of a great deal of today's modern music, is not something that I believed they would feel at all comfortable dealing with.
As for Soundgarden, they have a noticeably different 'look' with Jason that the one they had with Hiro, although their outlook is probably even more resolved. Coincidentally (and I do mean coincidentally), this change came at the same time Soundgarden made their biggest (yet) stab at subjugating the vast metal audience. Crossing over as it were.
It seems to me that with Jason, the band has a more,,,mass-marketable, mass appeal qaulity to it. He has this very everyday, easygoing, natural look to him.
"It's the way he looks."
Yeah, but it's certainly more so than Hiro.
"See Hiro is a very attractive guy: six foot; gaunt features; well built; intelligent. A lot of people though he was the cute guy in the band because he had this really hard look, and a lot of guys would go 'Yeah man, Hiro, Mr Scary.' And a lot of girls thought he was really attractive. But Jason is a pretty guy. He's got the Rock Hair."
He's up there with Chris. Chris has some competition in this band now.
"I don't think so."
Well, Chris is like the 'poster boy' type.
"Yes he is."
But I guess what I'm getting at is, whether or not you think it will go in that direction, regardless of whether you want it to or not? I mean, you can't really stop those kinds of magazines from printing pictures of the band, especially as you gain more notoriety.
"Well, fuck, that only appeals to girls anyways. The kind of music we make, generally, only appeals to guys."
But part of it is the MTV thing. You've got the full-on, over the top, video entity going now, and I'm sure you realize that some kid in a rural area somewhere is gonna flip on his MTV and see (and hear) something that's going to be heavier without necessarily being heavy metal and with a very cool and relatively fresh look to it.
(Sarcastically) "Oh yeah! Some alcoholic with a beard and some drummer with a Brady Bunch haircut! He'd be a biker if he didn't smile so much!"
Yeah, but that's part of the band's alternative edge (visually); part of what separates Soundgarden from the mainstream pop. "We're not all pretty!" (laughter; him, not me). Exactly. You have your own 'look'...like the way Metallica did with Cliff.
"Oh yeah! He looked intensely hard."
This is a band doing what they want to do regardless of what (else) is going on.
"And Cliff definitely gave them that...not that James lacks it. He definitely has that. He's like the fucking American Lemmy!...But Cliff was a real person. Just judging from his attitude in music and fashion."
And therein lies the key: as a musician, you remain obligated only to yourself.
The tour with Voivod that zigzagged through North America from last December through March (the first and last two weeks also included Faith No More) was perhaps the first full length tour of it's kind. A daring endeavor that combined three vanguard acts with strong alternative tendencies as well as a metal audience.
"We played three shows in Canada, and it was kind of different for us. We didn't have people yelling for us...well, we did, (but) not in Montreal. In Ottawa we had a lot of fans there. But Voivod would come on and it was like (simulated crowd noise),'Yeah!' We played Detroit and there was 800 people in St. Andrews. People just went crazy, stage diving all over the place. We get done and 200-300 people leave. Then they (Voivod) start, and people start walking out. It's been that way for the past five weeks."
"We played Canada and we were intimidated. God - it's gonna be like this - we're not used to this. We're used to having a certain degree of success. Whenever we needed to play well, an important show or so and so is out in the audience, we played great. The bad shows were all inconsequential."
I have to admit that I was surprised that you guys weren't headlining, especially out here on the West Coast.
"It was supposed to turn around before Texas, but we're having too much fun playing and watching the crowd clear after we've done. If we headlined, then everyone would be burned out after Prong and Voivod, and maybe they'll start leaving when we play! So we thought, 'Let's just stay here. This is fine."
According to Thayil, the immediate future includes a European tour (which should be under way as you read this), another video (probably for Get On The Snake) and the release of a home video, Jonathan Will Like This, which will include footage recorded at The Whiskey in Los Angeles last December.
You know, now that I think about it, it's probably just as well that Soundgarden's set on this tour is limited to about 60 minutes. From the look of things inside the Country Club, there are a lot of folks getting their taste of Soundgarden live. Vinyl is one thing, but experiencing their lobotomizing aural assault in your face is a completely different matter. Have you ever been kicked about the head with steel toe capped boots for an hour? You're right, it's not a pretty sight.
We can all be thankful that they've held back for the time being (I hope) on the narly, earlier material. I've seen them go for 90 minutes without so much as slowing down to catch their breath. I know that I don't want to risk even the most remote possibility of being brought up on some obscure accessory charge as a result of what might happen inside.
I've got enough of my own problems to deal with; a sprained ankle and a slightly separated right shoulder; not to mention the various bruises and cuts that will show up tomorrow morning, along with what I can aready feel will be a very sore neck.
It's obvious that there's only one solution to my dilemma: quit going to gigs altogether; just stop completely, cold turkey.
...Well, at least until tomorrow night's show.