Reprinted without permission from Melody Maker, March
JOURNEY INTO THE SUPERUNKNOWN
EVERETT TRUE catches up with Soundgarden in Japan and watches as they veer between drunken outrageousness and near-suicidal despair.
Arrive at hotel after 16-hour flight. Everything's very clean. Big. Modern. Neon. Industrial. Westernised. Strange. Turn on shopping channel to find pvc-clad dominatrixes advertising electric fires. Hotel has a heart-shaped swimming pool. Whiff of sewage from main road. On the streets, fur-coated men offer tickets for girls to numerous US servicement and Japanese businessmen. Unvandalised vending machines on every corner. Signs mix in Japanese phrases with the odd English word. The local pizza parlour has a better selection of whiskey than any New York bar. Drivers wear surgical-like masks as protection against car fumes.
We're here to meet Soundgarden on the Japanese leg of their never-ending world tour. I'm nervous, worried about how the band will greet me. Singer Chris Cornell can be particularly intimidating - not least because he was about the first genuine rock god I ever encountered.
Last time we met - in Groningen, Holland 1989, when Soundgarden were touring to promote their debut album Ultramega OK - we were more or less on an even footing. Then, Chris dragged me onstage to do back up vocals on the fearsome Beyond The Wheel and t-shirt seller Eric brought me down with a rugby tackle. Now, Eric tour manages Pearl Jam, and Chris' pectorals have been plastered across countless billboards. And I'm still a hack.
Back then, Soundgarden seemed Seattle's Band Most Likely To. They were the band pretty much responsible for Sub Pop's existence, after co-founder Jonathan Poneman caught one of their early adrenalin-charged live shows. They were the first to leave (to SST) and, subsequently, the first to sign to a major. Their next two albums, 1989's Louder Than Love and 1991's Badmotorfinger - saw them being marketed as the new saviours of heavy metal, much to the disgust of the band, who couldn't see what the fuck they were supposed to have in common with Poison or Bon Jovi.
It wasn't even an especially successful marketing strategy. Even though Badmotorfinger made the US Top 10, Soundgarden's record sales were soon eclipsed by subsequent releases from fellow Seattlites Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. The market was mutating, 'grunge' was the new international buzzword. Soundgarden were left out in the cold - too metal for the alternative kids, too alternative for the metal kids.
Superunknown, their new album, should change all that. Recorded at the Seattle studios owned by Heart's Wilson sisters, it's by far the most accomplished record they've released. And not just for the Beatles' style guitar breaks, either. Sure, it still has Chris' incredible high-pitched wail and plenty of Kim Thayil's Sabbath/Metallica style guitar riffing. Sure, it recalls some of the finer moments of Led Zeppelin, without the extended guitar/drum solos. Sure, it's passionate, powerful, righteous and rocky. And very, very male.
But it's power goes way beyond that.
As Matt puts it: "It grooves and it rocks and everything is where it should be. I can listen to it. Normally, rock songs are about certain things - chicks, cars and dicks. But the lyrics to Superunknown are very introspective, very dark. They're saying a whole different thing. Basically, it's a big fuck-you to the world, a plea to 'leave us alone! '"
Basically, it's metal as I always understood it could have been played. That's to say, it's painful, intelligent, sincere, mature, depressed, holy, informed ('zen metal' as Chris half-jokingly calls it). It also boasts some genuine, surefire, wordlwide hits. The truly anthemic Black Hole Sun, the almost Urge-like Fell On Black Days and the tearing The Day I Tried To Live. These songs, I'm sure, could make all the difference. These songs are going to ensure Superunknown multi-platinum status by the end of 1994. Or I'm a Suede fan.
"When we released Louder Than Love," Chris tells me in his Tokyo hotel room, "everyone wanted us to be heavy metal, because that's what was big. The record company, the publicists...the heavy metal magazines especially, who were having a pretty serious time trying to find something worthy to write about because all the bands sound exactly the fucking same, sing about the same shit and have nothing to say. It's a totally lacking genre.
"Part of that categorisation was our fault because Louder Than Love was a metal record and, being our debut for a major, was the one that made the impression. Badmotorfinger led away from there, but probably not enough. To us, it never made any sense because we knew where we came from and the songs we would write."
Even in those early days, Soundgarden were always far closer to the aggressive, melodic post-punk sound of SST labelmates Das Damen than the pomposity of Guns 'N' Roses.
"But that doesn't bug me, cos we are who we are and people will figure it out eventually," he continues. "This new record is the 'eventually' part. There are risks on this record - more than any record we've ever made. Our first record wasn't a risk, cos we'd never done anything. No one knows who you are, it doesn't matter if you fuck up. Everything beyond that was sort of like what was expected of us. This record is the risky one."
Tokyo, Night Time
In the van on the way to tonight's concert, the band start ribbing me about my presence here.
"How come you suddenly like us again all of a sudden?" tease Chris and Kim. "Is it okay to admit to liking Soundgarden again? Hmm, where are we? Japan. What a coincidence!"
No. No coincidence. It indicates that your recored company really do have faith in your selling power this time around. That they too believe in this record. Why do I like you now? Maybe it's cos you've finally made that bona fide classic album you've been threatening to make since Ultramega OK. Ever thought of that?
The lecture hall-cum-venue for tonight's concert looks very sterile. No one is allowed to leave their seats, and there's apparently a strict ban on dancing. The band's performance is equally restrained: Ben spitting and knocking mic stands over in his disgust, Chris resorting to sarcasm and false cheerleading of the frankly bewildered audience. For the finale, they can't even be bothered to play a song - instead they fool around with distortion and feedback for an eternity.
"Standing onstage tonight was like listening to a record that's had a thumb placed on the turntable," Kim remarks later, annoyed with himself. "Or listening to a tape recorder whose batteries are running down."
Afterwards the whole entourage go clubbing in American bars with - as Ben puts it - "a load of has-been models with more attitide than looks." Kim gets into a brawl with a male model, girls dance on bars. Some of Smashing Pumpkins road crew and The Ramones show up - Soundgarden have just finished touring Australia and New Zealand with both bands. We could be back in Seattle.
Later that night, photographer Kevin Westernberg is woken up by the sound of a 20-minute orgasm from the room next door.
Welcome to Japan.
The Next Morning
At the train station, female Japanese Soundgarden fans greet us bearing gifts, CD sleeves, smiles. They're polite, enthusiastic, respectful. The band members graciously sign when requested. "When you get too big, you'll have to hire three guys to swat them away with rolled up newspapers," the tour manager warns.
We catch the bullet train - past Mount Fuji, up into snowclad, mountainous Japan, down again to neon-bright Osaka. It's a totally smooth ride. Your ears pop like you're flying. Waitress service provides the most surreal meal either me or Kevin have ever seen. Kim shares a beer with the journalists: he hasn't stopped since last night. A few crew members join us. The guitarist continually recounts the story of his skirmish, unabashed. He pokes gentle fun at Billy Corgan, whom he met in Australia.
A long line of fans are waiting for the band in the hotel lobby when we arrive in Osaka, glad for a chance to see their rock idols. They obviously don't care if Soundgarden aren't as famous as certain other Seattle bands. It seems strange Soundgarden haven't sold as many records as Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains. Especially as they helped originate their sound.
"Yeah," Chris nods in acknowledgement. "People say that , and I never ever agree. There's nothing on Badmotorfinger that has the same overall appeal as certain songs that Nirvana or Pearl Jam have written. Even Alice in Chains - who have elements in their style which are influenced or similar to us have this formula chorus-type part where, at some point, the song becomes very singable. Metallica might have sold a lot of records with a similar style to Outshined, but they did it over a period of many, many years."
Osaka, Day One
Out late, drinking triple-strength Long Island Iced Teas at the eclectic Underground Club. I shatter Ben's concept of Western culture by informing him that it's Jane Fonda, nor Raquel Welch, who stars in Barbarella - one of several, mostly kung-fu films starring Bruce Lee showing on screens behind us. We have a long drunken discussion on how we both see people as shapes, blurred impressions, rather than actual figures.
It's snowing gently as we walk back from the club. Ben throws a glass. It shatters on the street. "Respect the country," a female voice admonishes us. "Fuck off, you stupid cunt!" Ben wittily replies. Crew members score, as crew members do. Meanwhile, Kim is tucked up in bed, recovering from the excesses of the previous 36 hours. Soundgarden are - as I keep noticing - a very male band. But this, in itself, isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Soundgarden are a very male band. Right, Kim?
"Right," agrees the guitarist over a JD and Kerini in the hotel bar the next evening. "We went through a time when we denied it, went through a time when we apologised for it, and then we just realised, 'What the fuck! We're macho and there's no way around it.' We're also incredibly fair and intelligent. We're not criminals, we're not abusive. We don't exploit women or our position with the people we come into contact with. Maleness is no more an obnoxious quality than being effeminate.
"Maleness in terms of what? We're not these pick-up driving, beer-guzzling, 'Hey look at the pussy on her!' guys. Our maleness comes a lot from our creativity, our aggression, our intelligence. When I was younger, I had a real problem with maleness. Between the ages of 18 and 25, I thought that was the thing that sucked most. I was so offended by male behaviour. And I was very protective towards the women I came into contact with.
"But it's very macho to behave like that," he continues, sighing. "It is. It's also very condescending. It's one thing to repect someone, it's another to be someone's dad and say, 'Women should be treated like this! Homosexuals should be treated like this! And those dumb pig men shouldn't do this!' Yeah well, that's probably true, but you shouldn't treat people like children - that's also a very male, heterosexual thing to do.
"Maleness is something we, as Soundgarden, wrestled with for a long time. 'We're intelligent, we're sensitive, we're honourable, we're commited. Why do people keep saying we're sexist?' It basically stems from insecurity - you already know that Chris is insecure, I'm insecure. It's no trick to see Ben's insecure. The most secure guy in our band (Matt) is the least macho guy in the band."
Osaka, Day Two
Chris spits on the floor of the dressing room: "That's the only good thing about touring," he remarks, "being able to not care about the mess you leave - that, and getting to hang out with the crew."
I decide Chris hides his vulnerability and insecurity behind a mask of rock star intimidation. Indeed, of the band, only drummer Matt seems happy with himself. Then again, he's a drummer, and drummers are always the most well-adjusted. They can take their frustrations out on their instrument.
The show is much wilder, despite being set in another lecture theatre. Soundgarden clearly haven't mellowed out over the years. Chris' scream still tears straight through you, Ben's bass still rings out harsh and true. Matt's powerhouse drumming still threatens to send speaker stacks toppling. Some kids actually dance; Chris repsonds by jumping into the audience, over the heads of the stony-faced security.
I have tears rolling down my face - either because songs like Mailman and My Wave from the new album strike a rich seam of near-suicidal despair, or because I'm overjoyed to hear old songs like Jesus Christ Pose and Beyond The Wheel again, or because I'm in so much pain from Japanese and American hospitality the previous night. I can't work it out.
It's a great show, but when did Soundgarden get so dark?
"I write songs best when I'm depressed," Chris tells me. "No one seems to get this, but Black Hole Sun is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it's almost chipper, which is ridiculous. Fell On Black Days is another one. Like Suicide is a perfect example."
We're they inspired by specific events?
"Fell On Black Days was like this ongoing fear I've had for years. It took me a long time to write that song. We've tried to do three different versions with that title, and none of them have ever worked. Someday we might do an EP...
"It's a feeling that everyone gets. You're happy with your life, everything's going well, things are exciting - when all of a sudden you realise you're unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There's no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it's just that you realise one day that everything in your life is FUCKED!"
Chris shouts the last word.
"Like Suicide was specific once I wrote out the lyrics. I was writing the music to that in may basement when I heard this loud thump from above. I thought someone was trying to break in, so I was going up the stairs to investigate when I heard it again - a loud THUMP!
"When I got to the door, there was this beautiful female robin writhing on the ground. She'd broken her neck flying into the window. It was obviously broken, flipped back, but she was still breathing. So I went and found this cinder block and smashed her head with it. Then I went back downstairs, and with the title of that song in mind I just wrote about the incident. It seemed opportune - someone, or someone else's misery, can often be a great opportunity for a song."
Later That Night...
Out to a gay bar to break up a wedding party. Free drinks, courtesy of the owner. Matt table dances. Meanwhile, back at the Underground, Kim - the dancing bear - gets into a second fight. "Fucking American model pushed me!" he'll tell anyone who'll listen. (Kim, believe it or not, is one of the sweetest men I know.) In the hotel, a few members try visiting the 13th floor, after hearing rumours that a cult committed mass suicide there. Thwarted by locked doors and blocked windows, they decide to disturb the journalist, who emerges triumphant in kimono and clutching a beer.
"My hand's sore, and it's not from playing guitar! Stupid!" Kim berates himself later. "I didn't do this shit in Europe or the US. Maybe it's something about the way Westerners act in Japan - always hitting people or walls or signs or fences!"
The Next Morning
As the band sign autographs for their ubiquitous female fans at the railway station, I ask for their impressions of Japan.
"What's the best thing about Japan?" asks Kim rhetorically. "I don't know. I'm trying to be polite. The etiquette of the fans is overwhelming. The society emphasises the collective over the individual. The best thing is...I don't know...they're servile?"
"I like Japan," states Matt, "but I wouldn't want to live here. It's kinda sterile. I dig the architecture, the way it's laid out. It's all new and shiny, but underneath is where the problems lie. It's a very racist society, very sexist, they don't allow women to get high positions in corporations. There's a lot of repression, but there are also lot of younger kids who want to cut loose when Big Brother isn't watching.
"The fans here are very courteous," he continues. "They don't get in your face while you're having dinner or having a conversation, like they do in Detroit. They're into white people entertaining, just because Japan is a barren culture as far as that goes. When they see the real thing, they go a little crazy."
And you're the real thing! Soundgarden: the Pepsi of rock bands!
Once inside the bullet train, we soon reach white-out stage: the sky outside indistinguishable from the blizzard-hit countryside.
Photo session in front of rennovated temple. Snow cascades off roofs like we're in a damn cartoon or something. It's cold. Very cold.
Ben spies a couple of mountain deer to the side of the temple. "Look at them totally checking us out," he remarks to me. "I much prefer animals to people. I hate people. They're not like those deer. Human beings just get all jumbled up. And human beings run the world. It's kinda stupid."
Chris' fellow songwriter is suffering pretty heavily from the cold, lack of sleep and depression.
"I used to feel way more into this whole business," he says later in his hotel room, speaking so slowly and monosyllabically, it's almost painful to hear him. "It used to really mean something. Now I play the songs and get the fuck out of there. There's always something slowing the whole process down, there's always some dumb kid whacking some other kid in the head. It never stops."
What does Soundgarden mean to you?
"Pain in the ass," the bassist replies. "I'd much rather be at home right now. Why? Because I need to establish what home is to myself before I start dragging it all the way round the world with me. Things used to be way more in swing for me. Now they aren't. Somewhere along last year, we were touring so much, I got out of whack and I haven't gotten back. Seems like we've never gotten off touring."
We're all becoming fed up with the ever-present, ever-bland CNN 'news' cable channel. Even more annoying and strange is the Japanese porno channel. The public exhibition of pubic hair and private parts (both male and female) is forbidden in Japan, but violent fingerfucking is definitely in vogue. So they show it in a curiously non-sexual way, with all the relevant sections scrambled.
"It's dubbed," Matt laughs as we discuss it over coffee. "They dub in gurgling noises. It's weird how you can't see pussy, but you can see the guy's jizz on her face. It's like the comic books, where these giant weird creatures fuck these little girls with a dick going through their mouths - these violent fucking weirdo fantasies that people buy here. They don't show pubes, but they do show these little girls getting raped by a moth. There's definitely a weird underlying sexual tension to this culture."
Nagoya, Night Time
Tonight's show is in a shopping mall: downstairs in the toy shop, the soundman buys a much admired moving Godzilla. We all look aghast at the counter selling 'real vinyl' models of 16 year old girls - a pedophile's delight. Right next to them is a gun counter. "Weird underlying sexual tension"? I think Matt's got it right.
Back at the hotel, I ask Chris for his final impression of Japan. "One of the coolest things is the way the fans here have got to eat shit to support you," the singer comments. "They have to spend an absurd amount of money to buy your records, see you play (last night's show cost $50), and then they have to deal with ridiculous restrictions where, if they move, they're gonna be tossed out. It makes me wonder why they even like rock 'n' roll, cos their cultire doesn't embrace it all all."
I guess it's cos Western culture is still perceived as cool in most areas of the world.
"Well, when I ran into those guards last night and was pulling them over and jumping around on people... even though I was knocking people in the head, they loved it. The kids definitely didn't want to be structured and anal. They want to be free and have a good time. It's not the people who are uptight. It's the culture they're surrounded by."