Reprinted without permission from Musician, April
SOUNDGARDEN HYPERVENTILATE AND SEE STARS: THE GODFATHERS OF GRUNGE
"Look at this thing," smirks Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd. "Evidently people have offered over a million bucks for it. If it were mine, I'd sell it to 'em quick." He turns around, raises his eyebrows far above his sleepy pupils and whispers "Reeeeal quick."
The mural that encompasses an entire wall of Electric Lady studios might have pleased one-time owner Jimi Hendrix, but after 25 years it does look pretty damn cheesy. It's a sprawling galaxy as seen through the eyes of aliens traveling on the deck of a spaceship - all the splashy colors of a command module contrasting with the inky depths of the universe. The captain and crew look like lava lamps with heads, drawn by a bad Peter Max imitator.
Though the graphic is hokey, Shepherd might dig the idea of the painting: new mysteries of experience always there to be fathomed. Soundgarden is driven to explore new terrain, from pits of depression to peaks of ecstacy. In their music, vivid colors of fierce guitar rock contrast with emotional black holes. For these Seattle vets, friction and intrigue are irresistible. They investigate both on their new record, a tour de force called Superunknown.
It's a week after Thanksgiving, and along with the rest of the band, Shepherd is taking a break from listening to producer Michael Beinhorn's remix of "Fourth of July," a rumbling, near-ritualistic track. Like the best of their songs, it has its disturbing qualities, especially when you hear isolated elements come lunging out of the monitors one by one. Upstairs in another studio, Beinhorn presses a button and only Kim Thayil's guitar is heard. The riff is a sludgy growl, and Thayil wants him to put some extra warmth into it. After some tinkering, they boost the blood count and move on to Chris Cornell's vocal. Vocals actually - there are three of them, each with enough delay to echo forever. The blend is what's important, and Cornell's intent on each voice coinciding. For a few minutes it sounds like a Lee Perry outtake, an evil-assed dub incantation with a killer bottom. Drummer Matt Cameron has fashioned a severe back-beat for the song, and it bolsters the menacing atmosphere. Soundgarden is rethinking their usual processes, not only tweaking the details of their music, but running with new ideas. By the sound of it, they've come up with a richer strain of grunge.
"It's our diversest album," offers Cornell, quickly questioning, "is that a word?" No, it's not, but he's dead-on regarding the album's breadth, with plays the line between safety and peril. "I'm the wreck of you/I'm the break and the fall," wails Cornell on "Limo Wreck," setting the tone. Pistons of guitars and voice have been the band's trademark since back in the mid-'80s, when a SubPop EP called Screaming Life earned then national attention. These days, the band has taken on an appealing agility, learning to probe as they pump. The effect is often dizzying, as if their tensile roar has caused the musicians to hyperventilate and see stars.
"That's true," says Thayil, "a lot of it is quite different than stuff we've done on our previous albums. There's real depth to it, you can put your hand into it, fish around and get something. It's less bombastic than usual. I hate the term 'maturing,' it's a record company term that means 12-year-old girls will like your stuff. But in this case there is a degree of maturity at work. You can hear it in our decision not to rev the engine so high. In the end I think it's more powerful."
Badmotorfinger, their last record, revved the engine. It went gold, got nominated for a Grammy and secured Soundgarden big-league status. They've toured with Guns N' Roses, led the Lollapalooza pack with their home-town pals Pearl Jam, and earned industry respect. But there was something stiff about the album that did it. Their stock-in-trade has always been the almighty riff, and though the tunes on Badmotorfinger offered their share of memorable guitar signatures, they sometimes shackled the spirit of the performance. It was a linear affair: everything racing in one direction, occasionally to numbing effect.
Superunknown is wide open. A variety of musical lines intersect to form a labyrinth of remarkable detail. Thayil describes it as "an M.C. Escher kind of thing. It would be wild if you could stand in one place and hear one thing, then move to another spot and hear something new that was still connected to the first part. That's the kind of continuity that we're aware of in some of these songs. It was happening while we were recording them, and with all the layering that's taking place, we don't want to lose it."
Producer Beinhorn, whose rep for untying musical knots began over a decade ago with his production of Bill Laswell's Material projects, concurs: "In any production, things usually define themselves, create their own framework, and that goes for texture as well. On Superunknown we were lucky because we had textures that worked well together on many levels: contrapuntally and in sonic terms as well. Take the end of 'My Wave.' The free-form aspect offered about a million ways to play itself out. But we struck a balance on it. Kim's doing a backwards tape thing, and, in reality, he had no way of knowing where the downbeat was. He just sort of navigated by a sixth sense - or in his case, sick sense - and it turns out when we flipped the tape back over, there was this gorgeous melody created. He completely hit it."
"That's indicative of the whole record. There's more freedom, less rigidity. This is not the prototypical Soundgarden disc; it's more like what these guys are capable of. To a degree, I think they were in danger of becoming how they saw Soundgarden the entity, rather than being the sum total of four creative individuals."
Cornell, who was the drummer in the band early on, is sure that it's a confluence of styles that makes Soundgarden's identity unique. "As guitarists, Kim and I are opposites," he points out. "I come from a slashing, arrhythmic point of view, and he's more of a swirly guy. And because Matt's so good, I can almost play anything and not trick him up. I don't care if I fuck up on guitar, but when the drummer loses it, that's bad. All in all, we're very cohesive on this record - much more so than before. Ben changed the bassline on one song, and it amended the whole feel, opened it up tremendously. The record's not all that complex; the difference is that everyone's participating."
"Fell on Black Days" is the tune Cornell's referencing, but he could say the same about many songs. At the end of "My Wave," the band form a sonic web so think with roaming basslines, intricate guitar bleeps and a circular vocal. The result is so extravagant and heady that writer's should be abandoning the '70s references they've used on the band since day one, and drop back a decade. The group who initially personified the G word are embracing the P word, psychedelic, and doing it impressively. Sounds like a turning point. "That's what we think, too," concurs Cameron with a confident smile.
"I don't necessarily like most of the music that I would consider in the same genre as Soundgarden," offers Cornell. "Most of these late-'80s Metallica-ish metal bands - you hear their records and you can tell that all they listen to it other metal bands. It's the same thing in the interviews: 'Yup, Deicide still rules.' But then you read a Hetfield interview and he says his favorite guitarist is the guy in the Butthole Surfers, and it's 'Okay... yeah... that makes sense.' That's why Metallica have some depth; they look around."
Cameron takes it a step further: "I don't think we've changed that much, just refined elements which have always been in our stuff. If you ask me, the psychedelic vibe has always been there to a degree. Before I was in the band, when these guys were a three-piece, they struck me as being a full-on psychedelic trip-out head fuck band. We're investigating that a bit on the new album."
"We've always had weird uses for arpeggios and the rest of that guitar stuff," Thayil adds. "Maybe it's more pronounced now, and that's why you're talking about psychedelia. I think we have more in common with acid rock - not the black light stuff, but the psychological/emotional ideas - than we do with heavy metal, that's for sure."
Work on Superunknown began after Soundgarden finished the '92 Lollapalooza Tour, but slowly. Ten months of volcanic rocking can wear you out, and once home from the grind, the band took a breather.
"Every time you come home from a tour, you have to remind yourself how to act normal," Cornell grins. "You don't know what's changed back in town. Pets have run away, friends have moved. I was home for about eight weeks this time and they told me my great-grandmother died. She was 103, and they forgot to tell me. Plus, people always mess with your things, borrow stuff. 'Oh, he won't be home for a while, I'll take this and bring it back later...' My brother once gave away our dog."
Up in the offices of A&M Records, the band is checking out hilariously bad shots from a photo session and recalling how the record came together. When I mention that a Superunknown listening party a few days prior found one fan expressively picking along with a particularly nasty cut sans instrument, Thayil immediately perks up. "Someone was playing air guitar?" he asks. "If they do that on the first listen, it's a good sign." Kim can't keep it together. He didn't sleep much the night before, and not only has he got the giggles from the silly pictures, but a case of "hot eyes."
"I'm coming down with something," he says, "you know how it is when your eyes are warmer than the rest of you."
Not really, but Thayil's a pretty individualistic guy. When he comes across another contact sheet where the photographer has captured Cornell at his bent-body worst, he bursts into laughter. "You know him from the film Freaks," he points at his pal.
"These shots will kill off your sexy boy persona," I tell Cornell.
"Waddayamean," counters Chris, "that's totally erotic."
Cornell has recently cut his trademark tresses; his hair-in-the-face whirl had become a Soundgarden logo as much as any grungy riff. Now he looks like just another devilish schmo, wisecracking without a grin while scoping out the hallway for a coffee urn.
"These days Seattle has a slew of bands with stupid names," he announces.
"Should we get into the subject," I wonder.
"It's a whole bag of worms," says Cameron.
"You mean can of worms," counters Cornell.
"Right, Bag of Worms is one of those bad Seattle names," launches Thayil. "One of those carpetbagger bands."
If that comes off as a snipe, understand what a boomtown the city has become. The film Singles attempted to capture the vibe of the '80s mating ritual in the local music scene; Cornell had a moment or two under the creative eye of director Cameron Crowe's cameras, and Superunknown's "Spoonman" wafted through the background of the soundtrack. Since their first encounter with Musician back in '89, where Thayil described the then still-congealing Seattle sound as "heavy muddle," the style has been formalised, the unlikeliest of stars have been launched and many, many checks have been cashed. Grunge is now as identifiable as rockabilly or Motown, with its own tenets, attitudes and history.
At this point every primary band from the '80s Seattle scene has been recorded. The first days of '92 found Nirvana selling more records than any other artist in the country. Pearl Jam did the same in '93. In between, a scad of groups have put a personalized spin on the general blend of punk and metal that are the building blocks of the genre. Screaming Trees recently hit a zenith with Sweet Oblivion, a pop record wrapped in hard rock armor. With Inhaler, Tad continues to place a tenacious roar on top of their priority list. Mudhoney investigated the pliability of gnarled funk lines on Five Dollar Bob's Mock Cooter Stew, and with Hoodini, the Melvins have concocted a slag-heap of recalcitrant art sludge. With new bands like Seaweed coming out of the Northwest, the scene is still fertile.
But not perfect.
"You can tell from a band's bad name that their lyrics are going to suck," says Cornell. "If they can't think up one to four words that create a vision, how are they going to write a song?"
"Seems like their music's going to suck too," deadpans Thayil.
"Who came up with the carpetbagger tag?" I ask.
"Five hundred bands moved there in the last two years," Thayil says authoritatively.
"The latest count has over 1000 bands in Seattle," agrees Cameron, "and about 200 clubs. It's getting close to a pay-to-play situation. That's our prediction."
"It wasn't like you woke up one morning and found out that it was happening," says Cornell. "If you were living in Michigan, looking at magazines that all of a sudden were covered with Seattle groups, it might have seemed abrupt. But we're there, and we heard all the groups and watched 'em make great records, and we knew something was going to happen. It was a hotbed for a while. We figured it was real and that it would go forward. When you're in the trenches, that's the kind of thing that keeps you going."
"Are you guys viewed as big brothers these days?"
"Has-beens," smiles Shepherd, "dinosaurs."
"Butt-rockers," concurs Cameron.
"Mark Arm once called us the Rush of Seattle," nods Cornell.
"Bands starting out in town see us as part of a paradigm," Cameron says, "but they're missing the whole point of how the scene started: friends getting together and writing original music. You hopefully got a show at the Central or the Rainbow, and then you went to see your pals in their bands. The idea was to be happy with that, and not stake out turf for the big claim."
"We had a lifestyle as much as we had a band back then," says Cornell. "No one thought we'd be making records for a big company. It wasn't like going to college to get a degree in Seattle Rock so we could be stars, like some of the bands do now."
Yet it couldn't have been all horrible. There must have been some kind of upside to the inundation of bands and A&R people.
"Simply in the bands being able to do what they'd wanted to do for years," says Cornell, "have a voice, and a career. I think it would be tragic if someone like Kurt Cobain couldn't write songs for a living. If he had to be a logger instead, and we never heard his stuff. It makes it worth putting up with the down side, because all the carpetbaggers will be gone after a while. They'll be part of the Tulsa scene."
"And how has the exposure changed the scene's principals how that they each have made a major label record or two?"
"Well," reflects Cornell, "they shouldn't be judged by the fact that it's a major-label record. Take Pearl Jam's Ten. You have a perspective on it one day, and then you go back to it a year later and your has changed simply because so many million people liked it. That kind of sucks. I remember seeing a picture of the stick figure guy on Pearl Jam's first single - it was painted up all over town when it was released. There was this huge swell behind them because of the tragedy of Mother Love Bone. They made something cool of it. Great. But a year later all the stick figures had a circle and red line through them. It became so big you couldn't own it anymore. It was the same record with the same songs - the music didn't change. But everyone's perception changed. My favorite Nirvana album is the one they did on SubPop, but I definitely like the newer records a real lot, too. Sometimes it's just a case of being naturally reactionary. Another part is being over-exposed to something. If you really like a song, and every time a car drives by you hear it, or you're watching football and it's on the commercial, it gets stale. Another key indication is if your parents like it too. That's a bad sign for a lot of groups. If your stuff is played at football games, your music's not too dangerous."
So far that's not a problem for Soundgarden. Though they recently enjoyed a plug from those media mavens Beavis and Butthead, who deemed their videos "Outshined" and "Rusty Cage" heavy and cool. "I don't have cable, but they sent us tapes of that," smirks Thayil. "At first I thought, 'Here are some goony, idiot guys who are cast as goony, idiot guys,' and I thought it was dumb. But it turns out they hate shitty music, too. That's fine. I love AC/DC and Metallica, so their judgements aren't far off."
In a pre-Christmas jaunt about town, Shepherd and Cameron are out looking for gifts at the Strand book store and Forbidden Planet comic book shop. It's freezing out, and windy too, so we decide to get some cider at Sin-e, an East Village coffeehouse. It's easy to forget they're big-time rockers; both are somewhat demure, and wholly amiable. However, the car and chauffeur that drives them around all day is a reminder that they have gold records at home. In conversation, they trade off from each other quickly. That's a rhythm section for you.
Both have submitted songs to the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin collaboration, and are waiting to hear back: Shepherd, with an earnest look on his face, says quite seriously that he'd like to hear the Man in Black get together with a band like Discharge. At 25, he's the youngest member of Soundgarden, a go-for-it punk from the old school who lets his emotions call the shots. At one point on the Lollapalooza Tour, the bassist didn't dig the extrapolations that the group got into one afternoon, so he came careening across the stage and leapt into the drum kit. That got things back on course.
"I thought I was going to get thrown out of the group," he says in a sheepish mumble, "but those guys all thought it was great."
When they got back from the youth culture traveling circus, Shepherd and Cameron put together a band called Hater, which also featured John McBain, once of Monstermagnet. "Kind of shows you where our minds were at after that Lollapalooza gig, huh?" queries Shepherd with a smirk.
Talk turns back to the progress from Badmotorfinger to Superunknown. "The way the last one sounded kind of beat you up," Cameron says. "This one's more natural sounding. It sounds real. We went into this record with the idea that we wanted to hit more of a Syd Barrett vibe on some songs."
I ask how they perceive Barrett's legacy.
"I think of a crazy guy on drugs," Shepherd says, "who was articulate but couldn't get it all out."
An often neglected part of psychedlia is improvisation. Since Ben joined the band, Soundgarden have incorporated that.
"As a rhythm section we're able to fuck with our songs and still land on our feet somehow," Cameron agrees. "If I was in a band where they wanted me to play the drum beats from the record the whole time, it wouldn't be much fun."
"You'd be doing covers basically," Shepherd says.
"Improvising is about having options unfold in front of you," Cameron continues, "and setting up new ones in their wake."
Superunknown makes a statement of being literally sensational.
"That's a part of the psychedlia," Shepherd says. "Ministry's a good example of modern psychedlia. They're chock-full of textures and sounds that assault you and make you feel a certain way."
"I'd like people to just go flush when they listen to our record," Cameron says. "Sensations are crucial."
"The sound of a guitar coming out of an amp in a room is completely sensual to me," Shepherd continues. "It's personal. One of the reasons I like this record is because it's personal and expansive at the same time."
A P.A. is being set up around us, and the conversation is interrupted. "What's the story here?" asks Cameron. "I think it's folk music or maybe poetry," I tell him. "You mean spoken word," he corrects with a dubious grin. "I don't do spoken word. We're outta here."
The next night it's up to a midtown hotel to scrutinize video reels by prominent directors. Pawing through the pile of cassettes, checking to see what each indicates, Cornell's face goes into full-tilt scowl. "Look at this," he mumbles, "they should know better than to send us a show-reel with a Coca Cola ad on it. I mean even if we like this guy, the very first thing's hyping Coke; nobody in the band is going to get into it. We're hopelessly punk rock when it comes to that kind of stuff."
He picks up a tape by Mark Romanek and says, "'Free Your Mind' is an amazing video - partly because of En Vogue's performance. Those leggy, sexy women screaming and strutting seem really confident. They also seem like women, where most groups in that genre seem like high school girls. En Vogue are mature, like maybe they know something you don't, or at least they don't care if you know something they don't. Kiss should have made a video that looked like that."
Soundgarden had a snag with their last clip. It was done by a pro, Matt Mahurin, but it didn't turn out the way they wanted. According to Cornell, the director was concentrating on Metallica's epic "Unforgiven" while putting together the footage for "Outshined," the lead track from Badmotorfinger. "He does people on the street, social underbelly crap, but it's pretend underbelly. The clip was in the MTV Buzz-bin for a few weeks and then it fell off. About two months later he sent us the real cut, and it was fantastic, way better than the one that got on the air. It was frustrating. The unseen version was dangerous; the released version was a standard hard rock video. He kind of winged it, he was too busy with Metallica."
Cornell seems satisfied with the success of the band, but he also knows that a good showing with Superunknown will boost their visibility. When Temple of the Dog, a one-off band with Matt, Eddie Vedder and other locals had a hit with "Hunger Strike," Chris' voice secured its largest radio audience so far. He isn't ashamed of pragmatism regarding the biz one bit.
"The highest chart position for the new record will probably be when it's first released, unless we have a hit," he explains. "Bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana - their highest chart positions are when the records come out. From there on, it's a steady fall. Instead of a thing you're working towards, it's a thing your working away from, which is strange. We didn't build our album around a hit single. The video age has made that worse than ever, because you can sell platinum off of one song. No one cares what is on the rest of the record."
"Our sales represent a million fans that we really earned, and although our sound has been amended a bit, we haven't abandoned the initial Soundgarden thing, so most of those people will buy us again. I don't think that too many of those people were buying based on Seattle hype."
"I think that Nirvana did amazingly well by relating to the audience - our band doesn't do that job well. They look like their audience, and that audience related to them that way. Pearl Jam was like that too. The players needed to ben seen for the music to take on the right context. Their new record isn't that way. It's pretty damn original; they've been a band longer and they're settled into a feel. Especially the rhythm; the way they approach songs doesn't fell like anybody else to me. Their rhythm section is one of the most recognizable since the Police."
Nirvana and Pearl Jam may be peers from Soundgarden's neighborhood - but they're also two of the biggest bands in the world. Celebrity turns even the most sincere musicians into recognizable rock stars.
"Celebrity is odd," Cornell says carefully. "The fans find out where you're staying, I don't know how. Say it's 7 a.m. and you've been on the bus all night, and you've gotten drunk and fallen asleep. You wake up and all of a sudden you're surrounded by people, and you can't figure out what they're doing there, because you're just a normal jerk. They're not necessarily that polite and they give you some shit sometimes. You feel obligated in a way. I don't handle that well, we all have the ability to be rude or abusive in that situation. A lot of bands like it. You see clips of Trixter or Slaughter mixing it up with the fans. Just because we don't enjoy that kind of attention doesn't mean that we think we're better than the fans or they don't deserve appreciation. There's no member of our band that doesn't appreciate them. We're just socially awkward."
"I've always been a bit reclusive, and I've always thought that was a bit unhealthy and have tried to be around people. Now I have an easy excuse to be on my own. It affects Kim a lot; he's a real social guy and a real recognizable guy. He can't go anywhere, and it bugs him."
Cornell has had to work at self-doubts about his singing in public, too. He explains, "I always used to waver between secure and insecure, which is the nature of a vocalist, because the voice isn't like other instruments - some days it sounds better than others. My voice has progressed over a long period of time, just through screaming. We would write songs where it sounded like the singer should do something extreme. If I was singing in a higher range, I'd push my voice so it would break up because I like the way it sounded. After awhile it didn't break up, it went to the note - that's basically how I got my range."
"When I first started singing as a front man, I'd never done it before. It wasn't like I knew how, or wanted to do it. First time I sang for Soundgarden without being the drummer, I had a fever of 103. I don't even remember the show. I went crazy. I do remember not wanting a lukewarm response - either let them think it's great or think it's shit. Ever since then I've taken it the same way. I'd much rather be hated or loved than simply be okay."
Down in the basement of the New York Sheraton a VCR has been located and the video clips are finally being perused. Thayil and Shepherd amble in as k.d. lang walks through her "Constant Craving" circus scene, and Kim says with respect, "k.d.'s got balls."
"Well," Cornell smiles, "she's got sideburns anyway."
A consensus regarding directors is never reached that evening. The catchy "Spoonman" is plenty evocative for anyone with an imagination; it's the likely candidate, just another strong song from an album that, as Shepherd reminds, "took off from little ideas."
From those ideas, Soundgarden has amplified their persona. Superunknown not only confirms that they're unafraid of change, but that they know what changes best suit them.
"It's about opinions," says Shepherd. "There are plenty because we've made a point not to paint ourselves into a corner. Stylewise, there aren't that many marketplace expectations of us. Fans will probably be able to go where we go. I mean, you won't be hearing our stuff in the Gap. S'cuse me, do you have size 32? Gnngg, gnngg, gnngg, da-da-da-dop. No way. So all we have to please is ourselves."