Reprinted without permission from Melody Maker, August
THE GRUNGE BANDS' GRUNGE BAND
SOUNDGARDEN. Survivors. Rock gods. The prototype for an entire generation. 'One of the two bands left who matter.' Sullen. Intense. Brooding. Mega. Last year's grisly magnificent apotheosis, Superunknown, shot straight to the top of the US charts. On the eve of their headline appearance at the Reading Festival, THE STUD BROTHERS meet singer CHRIS CORNELL and guitarist KIM THAYIL in their hometown of Seattle to discuss Michael Jackson, Britpop, heroin, Kurt Cobain, metal, death and fakers. Portraits: KEVIN WESTENBERG
OFF THE WALL
Stuck at the lights, Soundgarden's singer/guitarist Chris Cornell contemplates it from the window of a pick-up truck. Suddenly his features contort into an almost comical parody of disgust and dismay.
"That f***ing guy makes me wanna puke," he spits. "Sending a statue of himself on tour: what the f*** is all that about? What a f***ing jerk. He's got way, way too much f***ing money. You know how much his piece of shit record is selling for? Fifty f***ing bucks. You know what I hope? I hope he's buggering Lisa Marie! That's what I f***ing hope and I'll bet he is f***ing buggering her, too. Shit, that asshole Elvis must be rolling in his grave, F***er."
The truck pulls away from the lights.
"F***er," he repeats by way of a farewell, the word this time used more quietly and meaningfully. Kim Thayil, Soundgarden's guitarist, looks watchfully on, a little bewildered by the outburst, but not entirely surprised. Cornell has never been one to mince his words.
It's Seattle's Annual Sea Fare and it seems like the whole US Navy's turned up to get drunk and do daft things in boats. The streets are lined with uniformed men ambling aimlessly around, looking for something to do, anything to do.
"God, I f***ing hate Sea Fare," says Kim as we pass a party of four sailors who are cheerfully flicking cigarette butts at each other.
"They're a new band," says Cornell. "A new Seattle band. I think they could be real big in the UK. They're pretty big over here but I think they'll be real big over there. For some reason..."
He laughs his slick, sick, cynical laugh.
"They're called Hallo Sailor, they'll be real f***ing big out there."
You Americans really don't like camp much at all, do you?
Cornell turns on his seat to consider the question, a Winston dangling contemplatively from his mouth.
"We like Blur," he replies, apparently entirely serious. "I think they'll do real well here, and Elastica are kind of cool, they've had a bit of success around here. And we like that band where the singer's kinda difficult to look at, er, what are they called..."
You mean Suede?
"No, not that f***ing difficult to look at," he grimaces. "No, no, Radiohead, that's them. They're good. They're gonna have a lot more success here. America's ready for British bands again. You know for a long time after the New Wave thing and the whole Boy George, Duran Duran, British Invasion, we just didn't wanna hear music with an accent."
Yeah, OK, but to get back to the question, you don't actually like camp much, do you?
"Well, I dunno you gotta consider that Poison and Warrant were real camp, and a lot of people in America liked them a whole lot."
You can tell by the way he says this that he wasn't one of the people in America that liked them a whole lot.
"What the Americans don't like," he continues, "is fakers. Like with David Bowie he had a huge following over here because he seemed like he really meant it. There was something kinda nasty about him, you know."
He turns away with a smile. It's impossible to tell whether he's serious or not. Cornell liking Blur, after all, is sort of like discovering that Lee Van Cleef has a soft spot for 2 Unlimited, unreal but not entirely implausible. Not entirely.
"There goes that band again," he says, pointing at another group of sailors. Well, OK then, maybe entirely.
At his venomous, vituperative worst (or best, depending on how you use it) Chris Cornell is enthrallingly brutal company. Full on, full throttle, Cornell hits you like a bad-ass truck driver from a Stephen King nightmare, a swaggering thug, saying the unsayable and (you suspect) doing the undoable. He probably means every word. But then again maybe not.
You see, Chris isn't normally like this. Normally, Chris is ice cold, Eastwood cool. Even on stage, enveloped in Soundgarden's scarred cathedral of sound, Cornell appears eerily self-contained. "Intense" is the adjective most often used to describe him and the band. A journalist, no great fan, recently wrote that they were "possibly the only cartoon Armageddon rock band that don't invite gales of laughter."
The reason being, perhaps, that there is nothing remotely cartoonish about them. Cartoons don't get this intense, this serious, no matter what some dweeb of a "Ren And Stimpy" tells you.
"We hated metal then," says Chris. "Metal for most people at the time was Whitesnake and Motley Crue, just mainstream pop. So overblown. When we arrived, people associated us with an earlier kind of metal -- Black Sabbath, Budgie, Led Zeppelin..."
"Which didn't help that much," adds Kim. "A lot of the underground was punk rock obsessed, they didn't like the slowness of the sound. Then again, any band that came out the punk, underground, independent scene that played a little slower got told they were like Led Zeppelin. Shit, even Green River [the Seattle band that Mudhoney and Pearl Jam came out of] got that. We never presented ourselves as metal and we were pretty defensive when people called us that. As far as we were concerned, we were an indie band. The thing is, at the time, to be alternative you had to Robyn Hitchcock, or one of those kooky new wave guys."
Sick of rock, or at least the preening pampered monster it had become, and reared on the British and American underground, Soundgarden were to become the first real grunge band. Their sound, a prototypical mix of molten, mogadon-paced metal and raw introspective punk, would -- long after they had left it behind -- become wearyingly familiar. In '86 and '87, though, it sounded like a minor revolution. According to Kim, it was Sub Pop supremo Bruce Pavitt's desire to release a Soundgarden album which led him to team up with Jonathan Poneman to set up Seattle's now legendary label. Soundgarden were the grunge bands' grunge band.
"We had a tremendous desire to succeed," remembers Kim. "We kinda convinced ourselves that we were strong, that we would stick by our guns, that eventually we would have a lot of success. We were convinced of that because we liked what we were doing and eventually we knew there would be a whole bunch of people that also liked what we were doing."
Nevertheless, the bands that they were to inspire -- Mudhoney, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam -- would all quickly eclipse them, pretty much in that order. Soundgarden, the progenitors of the scene, became for a while the runts of the litter.
"We never fitted," says Chris. "To the punk kids we were heavy metal and the heavy metal kids thought we were too punk rock. We weren't having any big indie success like Mudhoney, or pop hits like Nirvana. Our first record was only the second Sub Pop release but we were never seen as a Sub Pop band. We precede most of the so-called grunge bands, but people got to hear about us through the bands that came after us. To a lot of people, we were just bandwagon jumpers, which is kind of ironic. Subsequently, people grabbed on to us because we were a band that had remained pretty much untouched by the scene.
In 1989, Soundgarden signed to SST and then, a year later, to a major (A&M), once again demonstrating an unbelievably fortunate tendency to ignore any plans the scene might have had for them. By that time, Seattle had become saturated in punk's dubious low budget DIY ethic. Success and money were not something to be pursued, but something you had to be seen to deliberately and conspicuously eschew. The Slacker had some into his own. The Slacker ruled.
"It was a weird time in the US," says Chris. "Like, we were just about the only indie band around who signed to a major and near on every other little band, with the exception of the Butthole Surfers, were real critical of us. But the pitfalls they talked about we spent a long time worrying about, and trying to avoid. We looked at the examples around us, we knew we had total control over every aspect of the band, so we just kinda waited until the right people came along. Even then though, we had the deal we wanted and the company were real supportive but they didn't really get us. They were secretly convinced there was no real market for what we were doing. So they kinda decided we were metal. It took for Nirvana to blow before they realised perhaps there might be some people out there who dug what we were about."
Their first album release on A&M was the critically well received Louder Than Love. It sold respectable amounts in the US but was largely ignored in the UK. Where Mudhoney, at the time, could sell out the London Astoria, Soundgarden could barely fill the Fulham Greyhound.
"I guess that's how we got our reputation for hating Europe. You know that whole arrogant American asshole rock star thing. It didn't have so much to do with the European audience being inferior to the American audience, as the record company. The European record company pretty much didn't give a shit about us. There were a few people, a few exceptions, but mostly, they didn't give a shit. Like in the US we got so much support but over there we got less than most Sub Pop bands. But that's all sort of behind us now."
Chris thinks on this for a moment.
"It might also have a little to do with the snobbery of the UK," he adds with sudden enthusiasm. "The whole fashion as music, music as fashion thing. See, the first time we toured in Australia, Badmotorfinger had been out for a year but it started climbing the charts. But in the UK and Europe we toured our asses off and guess what? We still never sold any f***ing records. It was always 'go play more'."
Soundgarden admit that in the last year their attitudes to Europe in general, and the UK, in particular, have changed. Their last album, Superunknown, has turned them into a household name this side of the Atlantic [note: Melody Maker is based in London, England]. They no longer have anything to fear.
Does it feel like it's been a long hard ride?
"Well, yes and no," sayd Chris. "It hasn't seemed that tough, because every time we put out a record it was more successful than the last record. If that hadn't been the case, if say we'd had a certain amount of success, then less success, then I think we could have become real demoralised. We were never really poor either, to begin with we all had jobs. We were also real good at living on such small amounts of money. So it never really felt that bad.
"Even when we started making money we used to pay ourselves just $600 a month. Which is why we never had to sell publishing rights, or merchandising rights [their publishing company's called You Make Me Sick I Make Music]. We got used to being broke, so when people came to us offering advaces for this or that we could kinda tell them to go to hell, cos we didn't feel we needed that extra cash to buy soup or whatever. We put a bottom line on it, like 'This is how much money we're used to, so this is how much money we're gonna spend.' I guess if we'd all been pretty stupid with money, all had drug habits or something, then it would've been a different story."
And is the American music scene any better now than nine years ago?
Kim shrugs: "There are now a whole buncha US bands that are very sanitised versions of us, like Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. They do the poppy marketable version of Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain. But I guess that's OK if that's what they want to do."
Cornell nods: "The scene has opened up a lot and that's got to be helpful, it certainly helped us with Superunknown. But I dunno..." He pauses to drag on a cigarette. "It's kinda like one thing takes over from another thing, and it just keep happening quicker. It can't be much good for the bands. I honestly believe that the best way to get noticed is, you know, gradually."
"It's like a lot of these bands coming out today, Green Day, Offspring or Bush, those kind bands, they appear out of nowhere and suddenly they're being talked about like they're the new Rolling Stones or something cos they've had one hit on MTV. They're just gonna disappear. It's not real, it's just a matter of well-marketed videos. There will be no classic album to follow, just a new band with a new video. These bands have no history or substance. Looking at them, you know exactly what they're about, it's all marketing, all package."
The other are Pearl Jam. And yet the two bands are so staggeringly different in style and substance, they're worth comparing if only cos of that.
To begin with, if Pearl Jam's greatness comes from their breadth of vision (Vedder's need to anything and everything on), Soundgarden's is spawned from a ruthless narrowing of perspective: they are visionary because of the great many things they don't see, or at least refuse to see. Where Pearl Jam are an angry bright white explosion, Soundgarden are a dense brooding implosion. As we've said before, if Vedder comes over like a cross between John The Baptist and Robert Kennedy, then Cornell is his sullen saturnine antithesis. The single thing the two bands have in common is that both have been able to survive success and Seattle, a deadly combination if the events of the last two years are anything to go by.
The pick-up truck stops outside Soundgarden's newly acquired studio, a beaten-up shack that was once a fried chicken takeaway, but now houses (and masks) the band's mixing desks and Apple PCs. It is here that the band have spent the last few months rehearsing for this week's headline Reading appearance. Cornell slams the passenger door back on its tracks and jumps out. It's the kind of fiercely masculine all-American gesture that only a fiercely masculine all-American male could perform with any aplomb.
Once inside, Cornell cracks open a beer and settles into a large tattered couch. Opposite him, framed by a large window that overlooks the bay, sit sthe inexhaustibly affable Kim Thayil. Missing today are bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron.
"You see over there?" says Cornell pointing, past Kim, to a hill across the water. "That's where me and Andy used to live, you know, years and years ago..."
Wood is now dead, the first of Seattle latter-day names to fall prey to heroin. Wood was in a band with Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. He should have been a star, instead he's dead. He was in his early twenties and Chris Cornell's best friend. Last year, another one of Cornell's friends died: Kurt Cobain. The band were in Paris when they found out. They heard the news on the radio.
"How are you supposed to feel?" he asks lighting another Winston. "It was a weird and terrible way to find out about something like that. There's nothing much I can say..." He seems momentarily to lose his composure, and then, just as suddenly, it returns. "It doesn't offer any great secrets, there's nothing you can find out about the person or yourself. It's just a f***ed-up thing. That's it."
He seems ready to retreat into a stubborn silence. Kim tries to offer us a friendly, puzzled smile, but simply looks embarrassed.
"If someone wants to f*** themselves up with heroin, then that just fine by me, " says Cornell. "I'm not worried; I don't care.If someone wants to kill themselves, that's just fine. If someone wants to do heroin to make themselves feel good, that's fine, too. The really bad thing is when people do it cos they think it's hip. Now that is bullshit. And there's a lot of young bands out there who do that very thing now -- who do heroin just to embrace the rock lifestyle or try to get the right sound. They think if they don't do it, they won't get the songs right, and, hey, if the song sucks at least they got the drugs right."
But has Seattle had an influence?
"Only cos it's the focus, man. The only unique thing about Seattle's heroin problem is the amount of media attention it gets. Every city in this country has the same or even more heroin than Seattle, it's just that here, there have been two or three people who have died from it who were already receiving an irrantional amount of press. There are a lot of people all over the US who have real bad problems with drugs but no one thinks it's cool to write about them."
Did Andy Wood's death and then Kurt Cobain's affect your attitude to drugs?
"No," replies Chris emphatically, "cos that was never the idea. The idea behind the band when we started was we are here to play the music we wanna play and there ain't nothing gonna compromise us. As far as the drugs thing goes, it's no big deal, we just didn't wanna do it. It wasn't a group decision or anything, there was no band meeting where we decided that we weren't gonna do drugs. It's just the fact that, as individuals, we didn't wanna do it. I'm sure that if any of us had wanted to get into that stuff, we woulda done."
And how did you react to the death of your friends?
"The same as anyone else, I guess."
"I was confused. Like all these crazy things go through your head, the same crazy stuff that through anybody else's. I thought, 'I shoulda seen it coming', I thought, 'Too bad someone with that much talent had to die', I thought, 'Too bad he had a drug problem'. Then I guess I just thought about all the other kids that had died that I'd never hear about."
"You try to rationalise this shit, but there are no rational ways of looking at stuff like that. People ask me if I learnt anything from it, I don't really think I did because all the lessons that could be learnt, I had already learnt. I knew dope killed, that's why I didn't do it."
"To give another example, I was being interviewed by this little metal fanzine and this kid says, 'Do you think, now that Magic Johnson has AIDS, you wil lver change your lifestyle on the road and your attitude to sex?' And that made me real angry, the assumption that it would take a f***ing sports star and a huge national hero to contract a disease for me to get the idea that having sex with strangers is dangerous. Do you think that I'm that f***ing stupid, that I'm some kinda dopey cartoon character who'll stick his dick in anything until t either drops off or a national hero dies? Jesus."
"So these are things that you either learn at a pretty young age, or you never learn. The people that don't learn are dead, I guess, or getting there."
So that's how you managed to avoid the pitfalls, by simple old-fashioned reason?
Chris nods: "I guess."
"I think that's the reason we've stayed together as a a band for so long," says Kim. "Because we had similar individual constitutions and similar ideas. It's like if Chris had had a drug problem or I had had a drug problem, it's not like we woulda played together for years. It would have been too difficult to maintain the kind of relationship we have."
"Most of our activities outside the band aren't based on shared activities, we have to trust one another. Sure, we both have friends that are into some weird stuff, but we also have friends that won't drink a beer, and I mean one beer. Then we have friends who smoke pot all the time and friends who shoot heroin. Those are individual decisions. Neither Chris nor I feel it's our place to moralise about these things. We just know how we feel about them individually."