Reprinted without permission from M.E.A.T. Magazine,
Super -of high grade or quality;
Bold. Engaging. Grooving. Clever. Mindbending. Striking. Magical.... need I say more to describe Superunknown?! From the moment I received the advance cassette, it has been glued into the tape deck. It transfixes you from the first opening note of "Let Me Drown," astonishes you with their brilliance on the forthcoming mega-hit "My Wave," takes you tightly by the jugular with first single "Spoonman," and the list goes on -- 73 minutes of hard music excellence that is poised to redefine rock in the '90s, as Soundgarden demonstrates an unparalleled diversity and growth which marks a new chapter in their 10 year career. Once Superunknown is unleashed to the public, Soundgarden will rightfully earn the title of "supergroup."
[I boldly predict, due to the mega-crossover potential of this record, that sales in Canada and the U.S. will topple triple platinum, if not more -- and it will gain them a third Grammy nomination (maybe a win this time)]
Oblivious to all this is 25 year old bassist Ben Sheppard, last to join Soundgarden (replacing original bassist Hiro Yamamoto, and temp bassist Jason Everman) before the recording of their last outing, the platinum selling Badmotorfinger from 1991. From the outset Sheppard was a full-fledged member.
"It was really natural and easy to feel a part of this from the beginning," he recalls. "Suddenly I went from home to touring the world in a rock band. It was really cool 'cause we're all friends."
After the underrated Badmotorfinger, Sheppard, and 31 year old drummer Matt Cameron, were able to release their tension on the critically acclaimed Hater release from last year. Yet other than rigorous touring for Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden have been relatively out of the public eye for nearly a year now, culminating that out-of-sight time into the excellent tunes that comprise their new 73 minute / 15 song opus.
"We were off the road for just two months, if that, after Lollapalooza '92, before we began work on Superunknown" says Sheppard. "It was during that time, and afterwards, when we wrote. It took a while to write them out, some of them. It never really dawned on me till this year, that we just toured and recorded, and toured a lot more."
And it wasn't as if he didn't have the opportunity to slow down and relax, as he and Cameron steamrolled right into side project Hater, which also included Monster Magnet member John McBain and two Seattle friends. "That was in that two month period after Lollapalooza '92," says Sheppard. "Basically Hater was just for the fun of it. It didn't really change anything, but it's kind of a bizarre thing to try and separate the two. The song "Down Undershoe" (on Hater's LP) was one I was originally going to try to get Soundgarden to do. But at that time I hadn't finished recording it."
Possibly, with Hater being for the fun of it it took the heat off Sheppard and Cameron as they headed into the new Soundgarden project? "I personally don't (feel the pressure)," attests Sheppard. "Maybe I'm way off track with everybody else, but I don't see any difference between this time and the last time. I've seen the pressure around us, with the people that deal with us. You know, record label people try to not put pressure on you, but they did. It's all internal -- if you want pressure then it's going to be there. But we were pretty focused, we just wanted to record."
Did the absence of any group pressure allow the band the freedom to explore new diverse sounds as those heard on Superunknown? Sheppard responds, nonchalantly, "I don't know, to tell you the truth. It was just sounds we were interested in doing. Things just began to happen."
But they must have felt while recording Superunknown that they were touching on something new soundwise? "I don't know," Sheppard repeats. "Well, maybe in tempo and variance of mood, but it really doesn't feel that much different. Next time we do an interview maybe we can go back and say, 'Hey, you're right,' or maybe not. I really just don't know. That's the kind of thing that you just can't tell."
So what came first, the sounds of the songs? "It all comes with the song," claims Sheppard, "and the song comes about any number of ways with four people contributing. How we recorded it is another thing. This time recording was different than Badmotorfinger. We recorded the rhythm first for the whole record, one song at a time -- got the drum tracks down, then the bass tracks and then when Matt and I were done, Kim (Thayil, guitar master, 33) and Chris (Cornell, godlike vocals, 29) did their parts. This time we actually took it in four song blocks -- and did the four song's drums tracks, then we'd go back to the first song and I'd put my bass on it, and Kim would put his guitars on, and then Chris his vocals. Then we'd go to the second and work on that, and so on. So we just concentrated on one song at a time. That freed us up to get a method going where each song was treated as its own song. That's why you'll hear different guitar tones -- you know, some of those tones took a few days to get! Amazingly enough, communications or technical difficulties, or the exact opposite of it, would add or detract at the time to the song."
So basically each got its own treatment. "Yeah, exactly," affirms Sheppard, "and that's why I don't really see this record being that much different from Badmotorfinger 'cause, even on that recording -- even though we did the formulaic drums, rhythm tracks first -- we still always treated the song like 'that' song. This time, however, we were more condensed in treating that individual song."
But to do this for an album of 15 tracks, and over 70 minutes long -- that's almost like doing a double album! "Yeah, but it didn't really seem like it to me though, personally," Sheppard proclaims. "It went by quickly. Maybe for the other guys, with Chris singing a lot and what not, there were certain songs that lasted longer than others, having to do another take. Certain things that take a lot of emotion may seem long."
Many acts are now putting out EPs first, then full-length albums. Why not break it up to this? "This record was treated as a whole," emphasizes Sheppard. "I think it's cool for fans to get a complete, brand new picture of what was done since the last time they saw us. And we didn't have to cut any songs. Sometimes you have to. There was a song that was supposed to be on Badmotorfinger, and it wasn't, 'Cold Bitch' -- it's one of my favourite tunes that we've recorded. It's been released on a few other things, yet it feels like the alienated child from the family, or the one that was left behind. It's a feeling of 'that's the one that would have proven the point a little bit more,' or 'it would have pushed it a little bit further.' Philosophically, that why I like the whole thing coming out at once."
Is there a meaning behind the title? "Yeah, it's that feeling when you scratch your head and go 'Huh, what?'" reveals Sheppard. "In that sense, the song 'Superunknown' isn't the title track 'cause that's kind of how the record felt, so the title wound up suggesting itself. The cover kind of suggests the dark side of the unknown, like when you look at a forest -- you don't know what's in there, but it's somehow appealing to go in. And there you go -- Superunknown."
(Incidentally, speaking of meanings, the name Soundgarden comes from an Oriental sound sculpture of arranged steel tubing designed to catch the sounds of the wind, ie. windchimes.)
How about a theme to the tracks? "It's a collage, all in the same jungle; all in the same solar system," says Sheppard. "There's no kind of technique or any feeling that thematically. holds anything in except each song. Each song represents itself. That's what the whole thing is -- things you can't hear on the record; things you think are themes aren't themes. That's why you can listen to it more and more."
Previously, Thayil has referred to Soundgarden's music as "Zen Metal" and "Acid Punk" -- terms which have a place, but now do not put a finger on the band's sound as a whole. Does Sheppard, in retrospect of the recording, feel the growth of the band? "Not yet," remarks Sheppard, "but I haven't listened to it for a long time. When we rehearse it feels comfortable, as we're a unit playing. I feel better about our band now than I ever have, which is kind of arrogant thing to say, being the new guy."
Does he feel there's an expectation level that their fans expect from them? "We're pretty much disconnected from that network of hearing about what they expect, or what label we're categorized in," contends Sheppard. "We pretty much blow by that because we're our own people."
Expectations are, in reality, extremely high, as the preorders for Soundgarden look to be putting them in league with Pearl Jam's record of shipping nearly a million copies U.S. (in Canada, advance orders could topple double platinum!). "Wow! I didn't know that," exclaims Sheppard, sincerely surprised. "You see, I'm a total slouch about that. I never pay attention to that stuff -- I just delegate it off. It's like, when I hang up with you after this interview, that's one more part of my job done. The real nitty gritty for me is that (the record) has already been recorded."
Surely they've played it to fans and friends. What's their reaction? "Friends like it a lot," says Sheppard. "And they have really high expectations for it. You know, by touring and stuff, this is a feeling I have -- I learn not to get excited about touring with a band, or not getting to tour with a band or something, until it is actually happening, until we're actually walking on the stage. So I have no expectations (for the record) until it's where it's at, and then I hear that. I gauge what people feel like. I'm interested in how they feel about things."
Has the word "classic album" been used in their presence yet? "No one has said that to us," contends Sheppard, "but I did read a review yesterday that mentioned that. That would be cool, though, to be a part of a record that was considered a classic. But I think everybody's definition of a classic is different now. It's not hard to get 'classic' in the minds of people. Yet maybe it is? I don't know."
If anything is surely classic, it's Soundgarden's distinctive sound. "I think we've always had a distinctive sound," stresses Sheppard. "It's Kim playing guitar, it's Matt playing drums, it's me playing bass, and Chris singing. Four people doing that will sound different then four other people doing that, even playing the same songs. We could do the same song as the Ramones, but it'll sound like us. There's no way around that."
Speaking of their sound, a recent cover story in the magazine The Alternative Press quoted Cornell as stating, "There was a sense that we were playing what audience wanted to hear, rather than what we wanted to do." What are Sheppard's thoughts on this statement?
"That's that Lollapalooza type of feeling," claims Sheppard. "The feeling was that it as a turning point in playing live. Basically I didn't to pay those shows because it wasn't a show that I'd pay to go see. A lot of it had to do with where it was at, and a lot of the fans seem the same over every area. So basically what the tour was was paying two or three guys and giving them a lot of money to tell the kids what was cool, and those kids already knew and already expected what was cool, no matter who was on stage, as it didn't fucking matter. They knew they were cool for just being there and what not. I think that it's maybe partly what Chris is talking about."
Could Cornell have been taking about the term "alternative" as well? If anything will come of this album, it's the realization that Soundgarden -- if they are to be categorized as such -- are expanding this new era/genre of metal to yet another realm, if not a realm of their own. One element that may have contributed to this breakout is producer Michael Beinhorn (Soul Asylum). How as it working with him?
"One reason why we chose Beinhorn is because he felt that we've never been recorded like we sound," says Sheppard. "So maybe 'the label' will catch up to us at some point, but I thin maybe it won't because of the way the sound as recored. Overall, he was cool -- he laid back when he needed to lay back, and he pushed when he needed to push. He knew how to get sound from us. That's pretty much a producer's job, and working with us was probably pretty testing because we'll say no when a lot of people won't say no. Or we'll say do this, where a lot of other people wouldn't have any idea to do that. He was pretty much up on all the songs before we even recorded. He was at rehearsal, so he was definitely a part of it all."
Soundgarden have a well-publicized reputation of being very y stubborn. "Yeah, we kind of intimidate people actually," admits Sheppard. "Yet that's one of the things we liked, (Beinhorn) wasn't intimidated -- he just came in to do his job, and told us what he wanted to do."
As much as the label 'alternative' hangs on their backs, so does the sign that reads 'Seattle.' While this Washington state city has become the hotbed of new metallic sounds in the '90s, this reporter makes a comment to Sheppard, stating my feeling that all dominant music trends throughout recorded times have come during certain times from certain areas, and that bands from the 'Seattle/alternative' scene all sound distinctively different from each other.
"That's what I've always said too," responds Sheppard, appreciating the connecting point of view. "There's really no 'one' sound out of Seattle, or any other town for that matter. Why Seattle has done so well has to do with Soundgarden somewhat, because before I joined them they were one of the first bands to be pursued here. And it came at a time when there was lull in the music world -- (the industry) knew something was up, yet they couldn't figure out how to cap the underground flow that was going on. And suddenly there was this big blanket in sales from bands, say like Warrant, and there was a drop in rock. They probably started watching indie labels and saw how well they were doing. After Soundgarden started getting pursued other people started coming to Seattle -- the bands that were out here were just like all the other bands around the country. It's easy to cap and guide -- 'The epitome of the sensitive angry young man of the world' was going on around here. All the bands hitting each different sense, I guess. Hitting different nerves."
But now Soundgarden have broke bigtime, or have they? "I don't think we feel that way," suggests Sheppard. "We wouldn't know a good time if it bit us in the ass. We know we believe in ourselves and our career, and it's just been a slow process. We know that things come and go too, so we're not living an illusion. One day you grab it and you go. I don't think we really feel like we've ever made it. Literally, probably like every other band that gets signed or gets a chance to go for it, when you can quit your day job and go, 'Wow, now I can play a bar chord or the same song a lot, and somehow not have to pay rent by going and doing this or that,' that's when you know you're onto something."
They've just recently returned from live dates in the Orient and Australia. With the depth of the album being what it is, will they become one of these bands that will tour for two ears before having the chance to record again? "I don't think it will be that long for us -- we won't all for that," asserts Sheppard. "Somewhere in there we'd like to get into recording during the touring process if we have songs to do it, which I don't doubt as there are already songs leftover that are being worked on. But as it is, we're just going to basically tour in chunks of a month, and then a few weeks off. We're going to Europe in March for some shows, and then we come back, have some time off, and then we'll start the North American tour in April -- this is our homeland, and this is where we want to perform. We haven't decided whose going out there with us here, but in Europe it's going to be Tad. A bludgeoning show! They're good guys. I can't wait. Our shows that we just completed were pretty manic -- seemed the more we tried to be tight the more loose we began to get."
Where will Soundgarden play in North America? Arenas? "We don't want to play those arenas anymore," he divulges. "Basically, think of a show and what kind of place you would want to see a show, and that's where we want to play. We're the same kind of people as our crowd, except that we're a little older now. But it's basically the same -- theater size, 3000-5000 seaters where there is room enough for people to get wild, still get a drink of water, and still be able to go to the bathroom. That kind of club atmosphere -- where it sounds good, looks good, everyone can see, it's not overcrowded and fucked up. We're not into putting big money into promoters pockets, and that's what arenas are all about."
Currently, the only visual aspect for Superunknown is their video for the new single, "Spoonman." When asking what the next video was -- "It's 'The Day I Tried To Live'... no big deal," responded Sheppard -- he then turned a question onto me, asking, "Out of curiosity, what song would you pick as a single?"
"My Wave," I responded, without hesitation.
"Yeah, man, that's what everybody says," he quickly remarked back. "There 's been a huge 'My Wave' camp for the first single, and that's what I was going to say. Two camps -- one for 'Spoonman' and the other for 'My Wave' -- but the guy besides me that wanted 'Spoonman' first said, "'My Wave' is more of holder to wait on'... blah, blah, and all that stuff. I was just curious."
Yet "Spoonman" is a great first choice, as it just jumps out at you instantly. "That's why I like it," agrees Sheppard. "You know how you listen to a record and there is one song that literally seems to leap out of the speakers -- well, 'Spoonman' did that to me."
As the newest member of Soundgarden, what has fame done for the band, and for Sheppard? "Our lifestyle is different," he admits. "By the way, for Badmotorfinger -- Canada was the first country where it went gold. Thanks! We were told it went platinum here in the States, but we never got an award (laughs). Otherwise, regardless of the success we've reached, every one is still as they were when I first met them years ago. No one has any strange drug habits or sexual deviance that they didn't have before (laughs). Kim I've known for ages -- he was friends with my little brother when he first moved from Chicago to Seattle, and I'd see him at punk rock shows that we'd be going out to, or that I would be playing at. We would talk and hang out. We'd go see bands like Black Flag. After a while Seattle got more punk rock oriented, then it kind of branched out. Basically you'd go and see Fear, and there would be weird bands opening up for them and they wouldn't be punk bands -- they were college radio music. That's how Seattle was. It wasn't self-conscious. Most of the crowds were bands playing for bands."
And from this hybrid emerged "alternative" rock. And now, in the mid-'90s, is alternative taking over? In the last few months we've seen the latest from Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and now Soundgarden -- bands who are unleashing a calibre of music that is undoubtedly one of the most exciting evolution's ever in the history of rock in the past 20 years. And if these releases are any indication of a takeover by alternative music, then hasn't the alternative takeover already occurred?
"Wee everything is an alternative to something else," responds Sheppard. "The dinosaur values that have been held onto for too long by many have just finally fallen, and there's whatever is left over. And whatever's new is still going, and getting stronger. Anything that never attributed to that dinosaur value is what is now called alternative.
"Personally, I don't think I even knew any rock fans in the '80s," he adds. "There's now more of a 'do it for yourself' thing happening with musicians 'cause there's less money for kids to choose what to buy, though there are more choices. There's more capability to hear a lot of different things, and there's a lot of musicians that are a lot like their peers, their fans. There's a lot of people listening to older people too -- not enough, though. There's never enough young kids listening to their grandparents, or their parents. Nobody listens to the old folks enough, just like the old folks never listen to the young kids."
Yet many find these new fans of rock much more worldly and open-minded than the previous generation. "Exactly," stresses Sheppard. "That's the difference to this generation from the one before. I'm a little to close to this generation to give a factual knowledge of it, but kids grow up a lot faster now."
And so do bands.