Reprinted without permission from Making Music, May
Did you know Soundgarden took their name from a giant humming sculpture? Tom Doyle ignores this fascinating fact, preferring to question the band about their rather good new LP.
Chris Cornell and Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden are both wearing huge grins - apparently a rare sight for members of a band who've been known to be moody, moany and difficult a lot of the time. The reason? They've just been told that their new album, Superunknown, has debuted at number one in the American LP charts. If that's not enough to put a smile on a temperamental rock band's face, the record's done the same in Australia and New Zealand.
After years of relative obscurity in the grunge swamplands of the US, it appears that Soundgarden have finally arrived. Soundgarden are the band who created the Seattle scene and it's claimed (not by the band, mind you) they were the inspiration for other rather better known Seattle groups Nirvana (RIP) and Pearl Jam.
Since the mid-eighties they've been refining their particular brand of dark Sabbath-inspired metal, gradually reaching a bigger audience with each release. Yet until their platinum selling, Grammy nominated Badmotorfinger album of 1991, they'd gone virtually unrecognised in the States, and had shifted even less records in the UK.
All that, of course, will change with Superunknown, an album which will even appeal to music fans who abhor grunge or metal. Solidly melodic, there are echoes of Led Zeppelin, Bad Company and The Beatles running though it. You can even dance to bits of it. What's going on?
"I guess we're growing up and realising the importance of melody", says singer/guitarist Chris Cornell, staring distractedly out of the window. He adds with a chuckle, "Maybe we've been listening to Bryan Ferry or something."
"The song, Superunknown, could probably be a Euro hit or something, because you can play it in a club. I was listening to it on headphones the other day while I was watching MTV, and there was this dance group on, and the beat of that song fitted! That was initially the aversion I had to that song, the beat. Kim (Thayil) wrote most of the guitar parts on it, and when I took it home it sounded new wave or something, and that is one type of beat I've tried to avoid for years, because I hate it. I grew to love it though, it was just that in the beginning it sounded to me a bit too, uh, chipper."
"It's our payback to DJs because we've been insulting them for years," laughs bassist Ben. "We'll go to a club, get drunk, and then about two hours later it's time to insult the DJ..."
There's no set pattern to Soundgarden's writing process, though the musicians tend to split into different little groups. Some of the material is purely written by Chris, on others drummer Matt Cameron writes the music and co-writes the lyrics, while further songs are written by Ben and guitarist Kim Thayil.
"This one's way more demo-orientated," Ben says. "We'd record tapes on our own and bring them in and different members would help each other out with their songs."
They've all got home recording set-ups to differing degrees. Chris has a 16-track, Matt an 8-track. "We all record separately or we'll go around to each other's houses," explains Chris. "My demos usually involve me playing drums, bass, guitars and then doing the vocal. But a lot of the time I don't enjoy working in isolation, because I get too involved in the writing and can't be subjective about it. Half of the songs I wrote for the album I loved and the other half I hated."
"We all play different instruments on the demos," says Ben. "Chris plays drums, Matt will play guitar and so on. A lot of the songs I wrote for the album aren't on it, but that's cool, because you put them aside. I've got four or five we can still use."
"We all have songs left over. It's good, because once we've drunk our memories away in coming years, we'll still have songs to do more albums with," Chris muses. "I can imagine me calling him up and saying [adopts croaky old man voice], 'Remember that song we wrote in '93? Let's put it out in our boxed set!'"
"I'll be like, 'What the hell are you talking about?'," says Ben.
Are you quite prolific or do you have hellish dark periods where you can't write anything and think you're crap?
Chris replies, "Well, I always think we're crap. But there's never any time goes by when one of us isn't writing something. To me, that indecision is part of writing - every time I pick up the guitar I always think what I'm writing sucks. In the end, you get a perspective on it and realise what you're doing is really stupid, or that it's really good."
Even though the music on Superunknown is more uplifiting and positive than previous Soundgarden outings, the lyrics are still dark. I get a picture of a band closing the curtains, drinking too much and getting paranoid when they're writing.
"That's a good way to describe some of it," admits Chris, "but I think this time around we've written a lot of happy songs. Spoonman is a real cartoon song. Compared to some of our other stuff, it's almost celebratory. Kickstand is light-hearted too."
After their initial writing period was over, Soundgarden gathered in Pearl Jam's rehearsal studio to work the numbers out. "During the rehearsals, and right up until we started making the record, we were constantly reworking things and bringing in new songs," states Chris. "The song Superunknown was brought in while we were in the studio."
Around the time of the rehearsals the band decided on producer Michael Beinhorn, whose previous credits include working with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Ben says, "We met him and got on instantly. The ideas that he had were quite adventurous and we felt that he was on our wavelength and could bring something extra to the group."
A lot of the time the producer comes to band rehearsals and changes arrangements - did that happen?
Chris: "No. I think it depends on what the band wants and how the producer's role is going to be defined. Sometimes the band define it by asking the producer to help out with all sorts of shit, but that doesn't really work with us."
Ben: "It was important to us that he wasn't formulaic, he didn't have his own trademark sound which he was trying to tack on to Soundgarden. His job with us was to get our best performances on tape."
Soundgarden recorded and mixed almost the whole of Superunknown at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle. Isn't it unusual for big budget albums to be recorded in just one studio these days, I asked Chris - don't bands usually enjoy a bit of globetrotting when they're making an album? "The reason we used Bad Animals is because now Seattle has a really good studio and we wanted to stay near home. There was never a decent studio in Seattle and now there's one with a Neve console, so it seemed obvious to use it."
"We tend to try and record songs in groups of two or three, so that everyone is working all the time," adds Ben. "We lay the tracks down individually - most of the time we don't record live - and this rotating system means that, for instance, Matt won't record all his drums in a week and be exhausted for two weeks after that. Everyone is very involved from day one to day whenever."
It doesn't sound like you use a click for the drums, as the tracks tend to move, speeding up and slowing down slightly. Chris nods. "It's got to sound human. When I play drums at home on the demos it always sounds bad rhythmically if you try to do it with a click track - you get to the point where the song's got to lift and take off, but it's being held down by a click track."
Louder Than Love
The guitar and amps set-ups used on the album are fairly standard - Les Pauls, Strats, Marshalls, Mesa Boogies. When it came to the vocals however, the group weren't shy of experimentation. "Ben actually sang his vocal on Spoonman through a Fender Twin Reverb," Chris says. "My vocals were all done with a Shure Vocal Master mike. It's just a piece of junk from the Seventies, but it sounds great. I wrecked about seven of them because I was singing up real close to get a grainy, distorted sound from it. The best example of that is probably Mailman - the vocal was done in one take and the mike was getting ready to blow up when I was doing it, so I'm basically singing through a fucked microphone by the end of that song. There aren't many mikes that can capture the full range of my voice, from the low to the high."
Do you find recording vocals easy, or is it a bit of a chore?
"Depends on the song totally," says Chris. "Something like Head Down was one take, Kickstand was one take. Mostly I do three or four takes and the producer compiles the best one."
Ben: "For us, these are the sort of things we leave the producer to take care of."
Chris: "What usually happens with me is I'll do a bunch of takes, but there's one that's really good anyway, and we'll maybe just repair the odd lines. My stamina for vocals is pretty good, I can usually do about two in a day. Mind you, it's pretty unpredictable - some days my voice just goes. My ears usually go before my voice, though, because I'm beating the shit out of my ears with the headphones."
Do you go through any particular rituals to keep your voice in shape?
He laughs: "Smoke a lot, drink a lot. I used to do daily vocal training, but for me it didn't work. I hate to say that in print and them some kid will go and wreck his voice, but I did learn a lot from my lessons. For the first couple of years though, I would learn the theory and then it would all just go straight out of the window as soon as I got on stage, I'd just start screaming again. Gradually though, it became automatic, knowing the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. It took a lot of years of experience to make my voice strong, and so now I don't even need to warm up, I just do the soundcheck and then go sing."
"There was one time we did 18 shows in a row, so I've put my voice through a lot of shit in the past and I think it's paid off."
How would you define your and Kim's different styles as guitar players, Chris?
"Well, the weird rhythm parts or the more melodic parts are the sort of stuff I'd write, and I'll play them on the record, while the heavier, more blues-orientated playing is Kim's thing. Mostly it's already obvious what parts we're going to play live. The only difference is when there's songs where Kim plays two guitars on the record, and he's got to try and mix that into one part for playing live. I used to simplify some of my guitar parts when I was playing live, but now there's some songs where I'm not playing guitar at all, so I can concetrate on the vocal."
For mixing Superunknown, Soundgarden called in Brendan O'Brien, because apparently Michael Beinhorn doesn't enjoy mixing. "Brendan was pretty cool because he wanted to mix fast - just sort of get in and get out," recalls Ben. "The mixing was the fastest part of the record. He has an approach to mixing which creates a great sound. For a start, he never mixes loud, everything's always quiet, and that's something we believe - if a record sounds powerful and loud when it's quiet, then it'll sound great loud."
"Everything sounds good in a studio when it's fucking loud - those rooms are made to sound good. But if you don't make it sound good when it's quiet, then it's gonna suck. Our record sounds a bit painful when you turn it up loud, everything gets broken up a bit more, but that's cool. That's the way we like it."
So is Matt really playing spoons on Spoonman?
"No," Chris smiles, "but close. Pots and pans."