Reprinted without permission from Melody Maker, May
Kurt may be gone and grunge may have copped it, but Soundgarden live on, louder and fiercer than ever, ready to blow the likes of Terrorvision and Northern Uproar away with their raucous new LP, 'Down On The Upside.'
Kurt Cobain Was Murdered
I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel Kurt Cobain's presence every moment I spend in Seattle. I remember his friend, Screaming Trees' singer Mark Lanegan, remarking a couple of days after his death, on a particularly stunningly sunny morning: "I swear, Kurt never would have killed himself if the weather had been this nice last week". Ever since then, my every visit to Seattle seems to have been dogged by beautiful weather - very untypically for a city notorious for its rainfall. The week I'm in town to interview Soundgarden is no exception. From the snowpeaked Rockies to the Space Needle (built to commemorate the 1964 World Fair) to the First Avenue Terminal Sales Building home of Sub Pop (the label which started it all) to the spacious, leafy street of Capitol Hill, all of Seattle is thrown into sharp, gleaming relief by the sunshine. Yet the only thought which keeps going through my head is: "If only Kurt had been alive to enjoy this."
The evening before the Soundgarden interview takes place, Bruce Pavitt makes public his resignation from the day-to-day running of Sub Pop records, the label he founded eight years ago with Jonathan Poneman. He feels the label no longer bears any relation to what it started out as, that it - more than any other - is indicative of the appropriation of the US underground by corporate record companies. And that's something he no longer wants to be held responsible for. (He'll still retain his share in the controlling interest, though - which, considering Warner Music Group paid $20 million bucks for the label only last year, is a fairly healthy sum.)
The split has been a long time coming, but no one could deny it was probably made irrevocable by the death of Kurt Cobain. For, as far as endings go, Kurt's suicide was pretty irrevocable. After all, Sub Pop was the label which launched Nirvana's career. In his suicide note, Kurt cited the pressures of stardom as one of the major contributory factors for killing himself. He, like Bruce - and Bruce's old fanzine partner, Calvin Johnson, boss of Olympia's K records, originators of the International Pop Underground, a major influence on Kurt - was deeply unhappy with the commercialisation of the music he loved.
Bruce's close friend and Soundgarden guitarist, Kim Thayil, later tells me that, the night of Kurt's death, the label boss kept walking around his house, driven beyond anxiety.
What does this have to do with Soundgarden? You mean, aside from the fact that, not only were they the band Sub Pop was created for, they were also the main inspiration behind Nirvana's signing to the label? Well, everything and nothing, I guess. (Aside from anything, Kurt wasn't the first nor the last of the Seattle musical fraternity to meet a premature end. Simply the most famous.) It can't be denied, however, that almost all the questions I throw Soundgarden's way - about The Death Of Grunge, How To Cope With Fame, The Pressures Of Success, etc - are influenced by what happened to Nirvana.
Indeed, when I meet Kim Thayil, prior to the interview, in the sumptuous offices of Soundgarden's management, he grills me for 20 minutes straight about Courtney Love, a person I know nothing of any more. The interview even begins with myself, Kim and singer Chris Cornell looking over a recently published pamphlet detailing the addresses of Seattle's more famous musicians plus the sites of infamous drug busts and deaths, with matching photos - a kind of Seattle equivalent to Hollywood's Map Of The Stars. The interview then moves onto a weekly cable public access TV show called "Kurt Cobain Was Murdered", the gist of which - ah, you guessed it...
Sometimes, it seems that none of Seattle's musical community - myself, included - will ever escape the shadow of Kurt Cobain's suicide. However famous some of us have become. And yet before Nirvana, there was Soundgarden. And Soundgarden are still a great, great band.
Soundgarden Bite One
Why do you think "Superunknown" (the band's previous LP) went straight in at Number One in America?
Ben Shepherd (bass): "It was just the times. It was logical, but also totally illogical. There was so much attention on Seattle at that point, that anybody here who put a record out then would have had the same thing happen."
Do you really want to know Soundgarden's history? Let's cut to the chase. "Down On The Upside" is the band's fifth full-length album. It's rawer, messier, has much more of a live feel, than its Grammy Award-winning predecessor. It's dirtier, harder hitting. More diverse, too.
"Superunknown" - crucifyingly great album though it was - was a little too polished for the band's liking. So this time round, there's less emphasis given to the overdub, more attention paid to the feeling. Room is allowed for the band to indulge their melodic whims, without the edges being polished off too much.
If you've heard the single ("Pretty Noose"), you'll know what to expect. Sheer intensity. Never mind the fact that certain songs on this album use mandolin and Moog, while others sound occasionally like early Pink Floyd and prime R.E.M.. This is rock (grunge, even, if you want to use that much reviled word) as I always understood it should be played...with drama, with ceremony, with imagination, with f***ing PASSION! Songs like "Blow Up the Soutside World", with its chilling refrain "Nothing seems to kill me no matter how hard I try", and the all-out furious attack of "Applebite", have been rockin' my world for weeks.
The 'Garden are back, and I don't want to hear no more of this nonsense about how Britpop bands can rock out. Bullshit. A f***in' rocking chair can do that if you place it on the porch - it doesn't mean it ain't still wooden. Put a Northern Uproar or Mansun or Terrorvision song next to one of these muthas, and they'll curl up and shrivel in shame. Yeah. F*** history. The 'Garden are BACK!
Jesus Christ Poses
Your new album seems a little bit...
"Too sober?" asks Chris Cornell.
I was going to say, more diverse.
"Yeah, that's sort of true," he agrees.
It seems like your earlier albums have a humorous streak running through them ("Big Dumb Sex", a cover of John Lennon's "One Minute Of Silence) - dark, but humorous nonetheless. Yet you haven't recorded any songs like that for some time. Why?
"I don't know," replies Kim Thayil honestly. Unusually, Chris and the guitarist have agreed to do this interview together. Being fiercely democratic, Soundgarden normally split all promotional duties equally between Chris, Kim, Ben and drummer Matt Cameron. Not this time, though. The three of us are talking in some posh millionaire's club which is so exclusive I had to sign an agreement not to reveal its name. All right, then, I got drunk and forgot. Suffice to say, it makes the 19th Century opulence of the Brighton Pavilion look like the inside of Graham Coxon's bowels the morning after by comparison.
"It's just been the case that we haven't recorded a song we thought was silly," Kim explains. "We're pretty f***ing heavy and serious normally, you know - and, if anything, we recorded those songs just to offset that. So we did a few pisstakes."
I can't tell whether he's being serious or not- about being too serious. Probably, being a philosophy graduate'n'all. Plus, Soundgarden used to be angry young men, and angry young men are nearly always far too earnest for their own good. I must say they never came across like that in the early days, however.
"It was more as the mood would strike us," Chris recalls, before adding: "It doesn't seem so appropriate now." That's cos you're bona fide Rock Gods, I remark, only half-joking. (I've already stated in print that I can find Chris Cornell intimidating. Not just cos his chest is so much hairier than mine and he's married to one of the top rock band managers in the US, but also cos he's one of those very rare people who naturally radiates a star-like quality, an aura.) Chris disagrees that their posing is in any way contrived: "We are who we are, and everything else comes naturally through that."
Fair point, guv (see previous paragraph).
"Think about how inappropriate it would've been for us to be humorous the past two years," Kim points out. "Things got a lot more serious after Kurt. It's not that we were consciously being po-faced, it's just that it wasn't an issue."
"I don't see that we were ever goofy," complains Chris. "There were bits of humour..."
Yeah, but you had a few goofy moments.
"I can't even remember the last time we were like that," he tuts. "A long time ago."
Whatever. This album sounds a lot more energetic than "Superunknown". To my ears, it's more similar to the Soundgarden of old. "Mmm," Chris replies. "Someone said that yesterday. I can't see that."
The overall mood isn't as dark as before. "I agree with you there," the singer replies. "Several other interviewers have given us the opposite idea. The mood isn't so bleak on this record. I agree with that. It depends on the individual song, obviously, but overall... some songs are actually almost positive - not in a normal way, or a happy rock way, but optimistic. A song can be aggressive, angry, but at the same time there'll be love present."
"Even on 'Never Named', the lyrics are self-affirming, confident. Even though there's that one line, 'I'm getting all depressed/I'm just a baby who looks like a boy, which people have told me carries more weight [in the wake of Kurt's suicide]."
"'Overfloater' sounds dark, but that too is totally self-affirming," he adds. "It sounds like it shouldn't be, but it is."
Why the change? I seem to remember on "Superunknown", you had some pretty f***ing depressing lyrics (see: "Black Hole Sun", "Like Suicide" obviously, "Fell On Black Days" - Chris' original explanation of the lyrics behind that song now resonate uncannily with the pathos in Dirty Three violinist Warren's spoken stage introductions, ie: "Everything's F***ED!). Does it reflect a change in your personalities?
"It could be that or it could be that we just had different ideas working this time," Chris replies. Nearby, a waitress hovers discreetly with a platter of duck pate for Kim. Duck pate?! That's not very rock'n'roll, is it? "Personally, I haven't changed much at all," he continues. "Maybe it's more enjoying being inspired to write lyrics. To a certain degree, it has to do with aging - I still see ourselves as being as angry as we ever were, but I think sometimes as you get older, after a while, that anger which still remains..."
"You tire of bruising your knuckles hitting the same wall," the guitarist sums up.
Soundgarden Bite Two
Do you ever regret recording "Black Hole Sun"?
Chris: "I don't know why you'd ask me that."
Cos it's the one song everyone knows.
Kim: "That's not really our concern. It hasn't become our 'Stairway To Heaven.'"
Give it time.
The Death Of Grunge
Jon Selzer made an interesting point in his review of "Down On The Upside" in last week's Melody Maker. He stated that he loved the record not because of any dubious notions of "authenticity" or because it heralded any sort of return to the rock values they once used to be trumpet so loudly on albums like "Badmotorfinger" and "Ultramega OK", but for precisely the opposite reasons. Finally, he said, Soundgarden have learnt to lighten up and play to the galleries, to stop feeling so goddamn alienated.
I'm not sure I'd go quite that far; Seattle bands definitely still have an "attitude" about them - something in the water, perhaps, or something about the city's relative isolation (stuck in the top Northwestern corner of the States, shielded on one side by the Pacific, on another by a mountain range and on a third by the Canadian border). Maybe it's the lingering belief that for some reason they have more "cred", more "soul" than their East Coast counterparts. Or maybe it's a simple legacy of Kurt's death. Whatever. What there is no denying is that "Down On The Upside" is far more diverse - and easier to listen to - than 1994's richly rewarding, yet often suffocating "Superunknown". Not that I'm suggesting for one second that Soundgarden are back to their old ways of lighting their farts in hotel rooms and inviting drunk UK journalists up onstage - their office nickname of "Frowngarden" is well-deserved - but it does seem that the mood of their music isn't so unremittingly bleak as it once was.
Jonathan also compared Soundgarden to "corporate whores" such as Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox while praising the immediacy of their "pop moment". Doubtless, he had in mind songs such as the almost R.E.M.-esque "Burden In My Hand" (a probable future single) and "Ty Cobb", with its jaunty mandolin. He certainly couldn't have meant the bleak, overpowering "Blow Up The Outside World", a song which is as burdened down with worry as the mighty "Black Hole Sun". Fair point, groups should always be judged on their song, not on their pedigree... and although citing Stone Temple Plagiarists is going way too far, I applaud Selzer's anti-snobbishness. Yet Soundgarden have always had a melodic Sixties counterpoint to their sheer metal power; it was only on the last album that the raucous physical force of their music threatened to overwhelm everything. Jonathan also made a reference to the long-heralded "death of grunge", saying that "the grunge experiment had been well and truly laundered". And that's the weird thing: grunge dead?! I don't think so. Only if you're speaking artistically (and how anyone could've ever called either Tad or Mudhoney artistic, God alone knows). It's certainly not dead in America, where grunge is bigger business than ever. Just check the bands mentioned above, plus Bush, Silverchair, Green Day, Offspring...
And what about Ash, Reef and bleedin' Smashie Pumpkie? Grunge dead? 'Fraid not, Jonathan.
Flogging A Dead Goat
So. Grunge. You're responsible, right? "Now we get that dead goat tied round our necks, too, do we?" Ben Shepherd - the man responsible for most of the music on Soundgarden's new LP - complains.
"Um, I don't think so. Wasn't that Catbutt's fault?"
Yes, a band with that name did exist, readers. They were on the initial "Sub Pop 200" compilation - the record which brought Sub Pop to the UK, and thus the world. "Bart Simpson has more to do with grunge than we do," the bassist continues, taking a sip of beer as we sit in a First Avenue bar round the corner from Soundgarden's management offices. "That whole new wave kid thing. I just say we're a loud band. Loud. That's my whole take on Soundgarden."
To be as loud as possible? "No, no..." Ben shakes his head with annoyance. "That would imply we're trying. We're just loud. Even turned down quiet, you can tell how loud it is. It's f***ing...rock. Get up and go. I'm not afraid to rock out any more."
Later on that evening, I ask Kim and Chris the same question - are they ashamed of themselves for inventing grunge?
"That was your creation, wasn't it?" Chris shoots back. Yeah. I read that somewhere. Entertainment Weekly, I think it was. But I'm sure it was Mudhoney who first told me how Seattle's streets were paved with grunge... "It's weird," muses Kim. "It didn't seem like it was over, then all of a sudden it was. All of a sudden, something happened and it was finished, established. The milestones, the landmarks, the deaths, the sellings had all happened."
The take the British press had on it was that Oasis' popularity is partly down to the backlash against Seattle rock bands. I say "Seattle". I'm sure everyone knows what I mean by that description. That whole whiny, I-hate-myself-and-I-want-to-die, depressed rock star shtick. People are fed up of it- they want a reason to celebrate, feel good about themselves once more. Some unashamed hedonism. Oasis, in so many words. "Rock'n'Roll Star", with its "Tonight, I'm a rock'n'roll star" line, is the first song to adequately explain the sheer thrill and adrenalin rush of getting up in the spotlights for years. "I can see that," agrees Kim. "It was fun for a while, then it became too concentrated in terms of media attention and repetitive stories. But even Sub Pop hasn't been involved in anything cool for so long. It's all just collegiate jingle-jangle crap nowadays. People have moved on."
"I respect that view, too," his singer adds. "There again, The Bee Gees could have been a reaction against grunge, for the same reasons." "It doesn't devalue grunge's impact, or its honesty either," says the guitarist defensively. I suspect he's using a more artistic definition of the definition "grunge" than the one that's been rammed down our throats by MTV since (before) Kurt died.
"It'll happen again. It always does. It was interesting that it survived so long - how could the industry support something so fundamentally self-destructive for any period of time? It should turn around."
"The end of the century's going to be weird," he continues. "There'll be little hit packs of Eddie Vedders and Courtney Loves... the only thing I can say for us is I don't think we've ever been that far gone. We've never been that festering cultural boil."
Soundgarden Bite Three
Ever think about moving out of Seattle?
"Oh yeah," says Ben heavily. "All the time. But I probably never will."
The Pressures Of Success (1)
Do you feel any pressure on you, the way Soundgarden are marketed as Rock Gods? You know, in all those moddy, windswept photos of Kevin Westenberg's (the band's personal photographer and sometime Maker smudge), Chris with his shirt off, flexing his pecs... "Yeah, I don't like that part," affirms Ben. "What I see in Kevin's photos is more ambiguous. I'd rather not see a picture of us again. If I was a kid, I'd rather not see shots of the band again and again. F*** the musicians and what they look like, listen to the music."
It seemed at one point - when "Superunknown" went straight in at Number One in America - that you might have imploded. It seemed like the strain of being a successful rock band was too much. "That wasn't a strain," replies Ben. This, from the man who - when I met him in Japan at the end of Soundgarden's year-long world tour at the start of 1994, shortly before the release of "Superunknown" - was probably the most depressed musician I'd ever interveiwed. And I've met quite a few.
"We were in England for the whole period it was at Number One over here," he continues, "so we missed the whole big deal about it. I don't think it would have pressured us anyway. I'd hate to be in a band where it did, where it became f***ed up and scary, where it became like a huge bad drug trip." When I saw you play at the Reading Festival last year, I was so happy cos it seemed like you were all finally enjoying yourselves again...
"Oh, I was dangerously depressed there," Ben laughs. "I just totally closed off. I didn't talk to anyone. I was so depressed, I just hid out. But everything worked out." He sighs. "In Japan, I was road-burnt for sure," the bassist reveals. "I was ready to jump out of one of those windows. I was on a downward spiral. I thought it was all falling apart. There's that weird delirium I get if I have a lack of sleep going on where everything becomes too surreal and too fragile. I had to get my bearing. I was bummed out - I thought I'd ruined everything, but it turned out all right. I guess I'm just a lucky guy," he adds, with only a slight trace of irony. Hmm. I'd say. Do you agree with the people who describe Soundgarden's music as "depressing"?
"Everything is sometimes," he remarks. "We're like that. If you want us to be. 'Superunknown', I thought was pretty optimistic, inspirational. It might have spoken of dark things, or a dark feeling, but there was always something in it, even lyrically, that suggested - 'Hey, you've hit the bottom now, there's only up.' I see it as offering people a chance to get dark without having to be there. Having said that, I've never written a song that'd make you laugh. I don't think like that. I don't write happy songs, either."
It's more chaotic than your previous two albums. "Yeah, to me, too. It's like a dust devil or something with different objects floating. That's the shape I'd describe it as having." Damn, I was going to ask the shape question next.
Soundgarden Bite Four
Are you comfortable with the idea of being famous?
Kim: "As famous as who?"
Well, for want of a better comparison...as famous as Soundgarden.
Chris:"Oh, them. I try not to worry about it."
The Pressures Of Success (2)
"The type of fame we have is pretty ideal," Soundgarden's singer explains. "Not only did we have a long period of time where we slowly crept up to where we are, but it's never been that frenzied, frantic kind of fame where you have one group of fans freaking out over you and another group of people who hate your guts cos their little sister's suddenly bought your record. We're in a sweet situation, where we have success but we don't necessarily need to be cloistered away. With the exception of the Melvins, we're the oldest band from the Seattle scene who are still making records. There are all these other bands that became more successful than us who came afterward, and then there were scores of bands copying them... Shit, we should be that iconic, the definition of a scene we totally missed. It's one thing reading about how we're not as big as other bands, it's another being unable to go out..."
"We're not dead yet," his guitarist succinctly interrupts, as the grandfather clock chimes the witching hour.
"Er...exactly," says Chris, momentarily taken aback. "There's nothing about our fame that is overdone or underdone. There's no jealousy or anger within the band toward any one member. There's no one self-important guy with two or three Lear jets following him on tour in case he doesn't like the colour of the interiour of the first."
I prefer pale blue, thanks.
"Pink for me," the singer laughs. "you need to keep a proper perspective. The media can make you out to be more important than you really are. Cultural shifts don't last very long. Ultimately, does it really matter if we've affected the way people dress for a few years?"