Reprinted without permission from Mesa Boogie, 1996
INTERVIEW WITH SOUNDGARDEN
From humble beginnings, Soundgarden has stayed a course honest to their musical intentions. From their first recordings on Deep Six, a 1986 Seattle band compilation record, they have made music that follows no fashion or trend other than the creative vision of the musicians within the band. Chart success by mastering a radio-rock formula is not what these guys are about. With that in mind, Superunknown's debut at the top of the Billboard charts was all the more impressive, signaling to the public at large what their hard-core fans have known all along... Soundgarden makes music that matters. Following the release of Superunknown, Soundgarden flexed their stage muscles in Europe, Australia, Japan, and the U.S., playing to packed houses, fine-tuning the live delivery of their new material. Soundgarden members Chris Cornell (vocals/guitar) Kim Thayil (guitar) and bassist Ben Shepherd are somewhat reluctant to be interviewed, perhaps prefering to let their music speak for itself. However, we managed to catch them in an unguarded moment, somewhere on a monotonous strip of highway during the midwestern segment of their last U.S. tour.
Mesa: What is significant sound-wise on Superunknown, compared to what you've done in the past?
Chris Cornell: It's a lot more versatile than previous albums. We spent a lot of time getting different sounds and using a lot of different guitars.
Kim Thayil: I think the solos are more melodic and low key. As far as the rhythm sounds, they're a little brighter in tone, they stand out a little bit more.
Ben Shepherd: I went for a lot more straight sound, more of a motown sound. Flat wound strings and low end stuff. On Badmotorfinger I tried for a fretless sound. On this record it was actually more experimental.
Mesa: Do you think about how a song will be to play live when you record it?
BS: A little bit. But also you're thinking about the whole song and the whole life of the song. Like, 10 years from now will that part still be interesting? Has it opened a door and then closed it again? Is it going to grow or is it going to sit there?
KT: If the song seems like it doesn't have a live feel or it wouldn't translate live, we might be discouraged from pursuing it. as far as recording. In some cases, like Black Hole Sun, it doesn't seem to lend itself live, but we liked the song, so we just tried to make it work.
CC: Sometimes I might consider that. Even if the recorded version is completely different than what we end up doing live, I know it wil be a good live song. Other than that, I view them definitely as two completely different worlds. I wouldn't want to make concessions for a studio song so that it can be more like we play it live. It shouldn't affect what somebody hears when they're sitting in their room playing a song on the CD. But really, on our new record most of it is that way. Most of it is pretty similar to what we do live.
Mesa: Did you get a chance to play some of the songs live before you recorded them?
KT: I think a half dozen of them we got to play live on the Neil Young tour.
Mesa: Did that result in any changes in the way you recorded them?
CC: Not at all, actually. It just made us a little bit more efficient. I think if we had done a couple of longer tours, and played the material a lot it would have been like that. Usually by the time we finish up a tour all the songs have mutated to a degree, but it takes a long time for that to happen.
Mesa: What were you using in the studio?
KT: Rectifiers. I'd set them up differently for lead tones. They'd cut through better. But on a number of songs I used the wah-wah so that would give it a different tone. The channel switching is good. I can go between a clean sound and a louder more distorted sound.
Mesa: Chris, you're using two rectifiers on stage and in the studio, are you using the channel switching?
CC: Yeah, I use the clean channel on both amps for one song and then I switch between clean and dirty on both amps. I generally have a cleaner sound and a dirtier sound going on at the same time all the time and then some songs I just have both clean and some songs I have both dirty, any combination of what you can do with two amps.
Mesa: Are you using the rectifier tubes or silicone diode mode?
KT: I'm using the tubes It gets a warmer sound than the modern setting. It's a brightness but its a mellow brightness. It's not a brittle or percussive brightness. Maybe in my head I'm pushing away from the heavy bluesy thing and trying to find other ways of being heavy and aggressive. I still like the warmth.
CC: With the rectifier, generally, in the studio I could get what I wanted from song to song regardless of what kind of guitar I was putting through it. Consistently I could get as much of a crunch or heavy sound as I wanted to without it turning into this spaceship-sounding amp. If I wanted to sound CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival] I could do that, and if I wanted it to be a heavier or broader or more of a metal I sound I could get that too. But its still a lot warmer of a response. Using the Mesa stuff gave me what seemed like more of a vintage rock sound or a hard rock sound without it being a heavy metal sound.
Mesa: Ben, I noticed you're using a V-twin. I don't think that they really expected that to be used for bass. But its a real integral part of your sound.
BS: It's very warm and huge. Its got that tube sound, and a big sound and it's very controllable.
Mesa: Randy Biro [Soundgarden stage manager] mentioned that you change your sound for each song every night.
BS: Right, it's completely interpretational, and that's what's cool about the V-twin is that its got the capability to improvise. You can do whatever you want right then.
Mesa: So one night you might use a cleaner tone for one song and the next night you might decide to just rage on it.
BS: Get really dirty and loud. That's the dangerous sound. That's the sound I really like. The V-Twin has that without sounding fake, without sounding too modern. I try to think of Charles Mingus on PCP. That's what I would want to sound like.
Mesa: Are you listening to a lot of Mingus?
BS: No, Captain Beefheart, Spotlight Kids and You Am I... they're a really good band.
Mesa: What about you guys?
KT: Most recently I've been listening to Eleven, The Breeders, Masters of Reality, they've got amazing guitar sounds.
CC: I'm not really listening to anything specifically. Nothing anything particular that I would want to give as an example. There is so much variety of so many different things. I bring a ton of CDs with me and almost anything there would be a list of 70 to 80.
Mesa: For this tour you've cut back the amount of gear on stage, what was the idea there?
BS: I got tired of looking like a metal band and suggested we just tone down as far as our equipment out on the stage, but its just as loud. I never have a problem with my amp volume.
KT: People ue a lot of gear to make it look louder, to fill up the space on the stage. But then you see someone like Neil Young and he's got this small little amp over there. You just need to get your sound and the rest of it is mic'd. You should be able to hear yourself on-stage and that's about it.
CC: In terms of getting the best sounds, I've had better luck with less. They have an easier time mixing the band if you're using less gear, because they have less volume from the stage to compete with.
Mesa: Generally, Soundgarden is known for not doing product endorsements, what made you get involved with Mesa/Boogie?
KT: I've never wanted to endorse any products. Mesa/Boogie is one of the first things I'd endorse. I've been solicited by a lot of companies and I said well I could use the gear, but I'm not going to sign any contract and I'm not going to put your name on our record. We just use what we like.
BS: It seems like Mesa/Boogie is people that play music, and like music, and care and are still small. It's not like cookie cutter crap going on. I choose to try to live authentically. That's what's cool about Mesa, they're actually hands on, they care about their stuff, they care about what they put out. That's the authenticity of it. Their guys aren't riding on your back all the time. They're genuine people.