Reprinted without permission from Melody Maker, June
SOUNDGARDEN: THE MUTATE GALLERY
Everett True [yes, him] meets the most aggressive metal marauders to escape from the sub pop label, whose new single, "Flower," sounds like Das Damen covering Big Black.
You all know about Seattle by now, I'm sure: the Northwestern hardcore capital of America, birthplace of Hendrix, The Sonics and Sub Pop, with its rock cast as tablets of stone to be hurled out as gospel into the adoring multitudes. They're speed demons with long hair flaying, whose revivalist, left-of-centre, metal is flung in our faces with an enthusiasm and awareness of heritage that's hard to resist. Mudhoney, Screaming Trees and Tad are the heavyweights of rock. Literally, in Tad's case.
Now it's time to button down your lapels and let loose your senses, cos there's a new name to add to the Radio Caroline Hall of Fame: Soundgarden, the band that are the reason for the Sub Pop label being set up, after Jonathan Poneman, one half of Sub Pop's executive team, saw Soundgarden in '86 and suddenly realized that the last five years of his life had been a total waste.
Their reputation for possessing no-nonsense, plangent kick-ass guitars in the style of Das Damen ("hard rock without solos") and wild screeching not heard of since the day of Ozzy, Sabbath and early Dinosaur (Jr) has preceded them wherever they go. Soundgarden make the rest of the Sub Pop rosta [sic] sound positively laidback.
The band's slogan, "TOTAL FUCKING GODHEAD," is no empty promise. Their live shows are unforgettable. [Did anyone here see them in their early days, in a small club?] I met up with them just after they'd spent an evening scaring the life out of half-a-dozen Dutch Feelies fans.
Soundgarden first met at a teen hop in Seattle. Chris Cornell, vocals and bare torso, takes up the story from the depths of a youth hostel bedroom in Groningen: "We were playing in a band called The Champs, dressed in tuxedos," he says. "We threw our guitars down in disgust and quit, because we weren't expressing ourselves as we wanted to. So we formed a three-piece band where I played drums and sang, and Hiro (bass) sang backups and Kim played guitar and did the doo-wops.
"We started writing jangly, creepy-crawly songs, giving them names like "Blood" and "Open Sesame" and "Bury my Head in the Sand." We supported Husker Du as a three piece, blew them away and got into a wrestling match with them afterwards. The drummer sat on us and spilt Rice Krispies in Kim's beard. All we wanted was the crowd to cheer and carry us around on their shoulders."
Soundgarden are now a primeval four-piece based in Seattle. Bassist Hiro Yamamoto and bearded adolescent sex-god Kim Thayil originally came from Chicago. Hiro and Chris became roommates and coerced Kim into the fold. Sometime after, Matt Cameron joined on drums. They're a sardonic, multi-racial, fun-loving bunch, who grew up liking Black Sabbath, Minutemen and Killing Joke.
The band have released three records on Sub Pop and a debut album for SST, the patchily astounding Ultramega OK. The first single off the album is "Flower," a metallic maelstrom of mutilation, which sounds like Das Damen covering Big Black. The single should've been the epic "Beyond the Wheel," which would've really alienated their "alternative" following, but, as Chris explains, the band have mutated so much already, their audience is now used to their sonic assaults.
"We started worrying after that about whether to get a drummer because we were starting to change our style and write really slow numbers which had great tunes at the same time. Kim didn't want to do back-ups anymore as it wasn't guitar hero style. I mean, you could hardly imagine Jimmy Page singing backing vocals. That was the point when we stopped wearing matching suits. We kept our cloaks going, though.
"We'd previously asked Matt to join us, but he'd lost our number, so this time he came crawling up to our doorstep with flowers and candy, begging us to let him in. And that's pretty much all our history."
Soundgarden have the unique distinction of having signed to three record companies at once. While they were doing the Sub Pop record, they signed to SST. While they recorded the SST record they were asked by Sub Pop to do a quick EP. And, at the same time, they were also signed to A&M.
Kim: "We were just signing anything and everything! Everyone kept coming up to us with these little pieces of paper and we'd sign'em just to make them go away!"
Matt: "Basically, we signed to A&M prior to the release of our SST record. So, at this point, all we had out was a Sub Pop record and we were touring, supporting two Sub Pop records, anticipating the release of an SST record, while all the time being signed to A&M."
The best of Sub Pop material is their first EP, Screaming Life, a thrusting, primal scream of articulated rage.
Amid the hard rock overkill and mindless metallic marauding, the new album contains a cover of John Lennon's finest ever moment, "One Minute of Silence."
What made you decide to cover that?
Hiro: "We had a minute to fill on the record."
Chris: "We appreciated the Lennon arrangement so much."
Kim: "We thought it was so good, we could add a little something to it. It's the heavy metal version."
Chris: "The real deciding factor was that we knew there wouldn't be any publishing problems, because you can't copyright silence."
Then there's the psychedelic, spooked-out instrumental, "665-667," which fits neatly either side of "Beyond the Wheel."
Why not 666? Chris explains it's all down to Kim's predilection for black masses in his bedroom.
"One day Kim was in a trance levitating above a shopping mall," he says. "When he came down he had this crazy idea that if 666 is the number of the beast, then how all-encompassing the numbers either side of it must be! He thought that once it was played, the Pentagon would actually levitate."
Kim: "It was a little bit of studio wizardry, actually. We just think that whole idea of metal being obsessed with black magic is totally ridiculous."
So you don't mind taking the piss out of what you do?
Chris: "Not at all! Do you understand the album's title, Ultramega OK? Like, absolutely, unbelievably not bad? Well, the British version was going to be called Ultramega UK!"
Who did you model your singing on for "Beyond the Wheel" and the astonishingly over-the-top "All Your Lies"?
Chris: "My mom screaming at me to take out the garbage or hide the pot plants when the police came round. She just generally screamed at me like that."
Soundgarden's live performance includes a version of The Beatles' "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey" and "Smokestack Lightning." That somehow seems to sum them up. At Groningen, Holland, in the heart of friendly, mellow CD land, they thrash the barren government-assisted Vera Club into near total submission as stacks of speakers threaten to topple from their towers in deference to the sheer volume alone.
Soundgarden still play to a predominantely non-Kerrang! audience. Catch them now before they totally cross over.