Reprinted without permission from The Music Paper,
SOUNDGARDEN: NO HYPE ALLOWED
In the last few years, alternative hard rock has undergone a profound transformation. It wasn't long ago that the world of popular hard rock was ruled by pretty, partying, womanizing rocker dudes whose song lyrics centered around sex, parties, women and more sex. Turn back to 1989. Creative, alternative hard rock bands with vision were in existence and making music, but only for a limited audience. Several years ago, the Red Hot Chili Peppers only had their underground core of fans; Nirvana and L7 were safely harbored in indie obscurity; Pearl Jam didn't exist yet; Mother Love Bone only had expectations and Alice in Chains had yet to record Facelift. Only Jane's Addiction was making a crack in the surface of pop music but cracks grow bigger with time. Aside from Jane's, there was Winger, Whitesnake, Great White, Warrant, Cinderella and a countless number of clones trying to be Motley Crue, Van Halen, Guns'N Roses or something in between.
Then like a ray of light peaking through the doorway of a dark and dingy room, a new captivating sound burst out of the underground. It started with one song with a magnetic chanting riff and a powerful, captivating voice wailing, "You stay down/But I won't be quiet/ I want something to explode!" It didn't sound like anything else in the mainstream, but it was "rawk" enough to sneak by. Soundgarden's "Loud Love" from their major-label debut broke through to hard rock/metal radio. This band was intrinsically different from their counterparts who shared the airwaves with them. They didn't market themselves with images of half-naked idolizing women. Lyrically, they even tackled the American government's heavy-handed policemen of the world impositions -- not exactly your average metal band. This tone had previously thrived in the post new-wave, modern-rock category, but Soundgarden rocked! And while Nirvana blew the door wide open for unadulterated visceral, liberating hard rock in 1991, two years earlier Soundgarden planted the seed that would allow it.
That said, fast forward to 1994. In January when they finished Superunknown, their sixth release and their third A&M Records album, the band packed their bags and headed for Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Europe with Tad before the disc even arrived in stores.
"We were offered Australia so we went there and to Japan 'cause we'd never been there. The record came out early over there, so we tried to be there during that time," explains bass player Ben Shepherd. "In Australia it came out the last day we were there, but by the time we were in Europe, the record was out for a while. The fans were singing the songs; they totally knew the record."
This record is Soundgarden's most diverse and sonically expansive to date. Its songs are more subdued and melodic than past efforts, especially Badmotorfinger. The music's more paced and it has soul. Kim Thayil's guitar lines aren't as grinding and relentless as before, although they're still very memorable. Chris Cornell has toned his high-pitched shrieking; his voice now displays more emotion and depth. What hasn't been toned down, though, is the level of passion the band puts forth.
"We're pretty much the same band," says Shepherd. "[In concert] we got [the new material] mixed up with some older songs in the middle. The mood is like seeing a Soundgarden show, but it's more complete; there are more moods to it. And there are some songs that don't seem heavy on record, but play 'em live and they are." He won't say which those songs are. "Oh you'll see if you go to the show. I'm not gonna give anything away," he quips.
"Limo Wreck," "Superunknown" and "The Day I tried to Live" are the hardest heavier songs on Superunknown, the songs that are most like the older material. "Kickstand" and "My Wave" are fast, driving, upbeat numbers. There are also the softer, tuneful songs "Fell on Black Days" and "Like Suicide," which are more subtle in their attack than the older songs, but they're just as powerful in their impact and maybe even more so. "Head Down," one of Shepherd's compositions on the album, is a surreal-sounding delicate song which greatly emphasizes the drums. Shepherd says it came about very spontaneously.
"I had people over at my old house and I just said, 'I'm going down to the basement to record.' I went down, grabbed my guitar (the mic was set up by my four-track), hit play and record, then I started playin' and that's exactly what came out - all the words, everything," he says. "After I did the vocals and guitar, I forgot I had that tape. I watched this movie on the Beach Boys and then I just put the rest of the song down -- another guitar part, drums and bass. Then I brought that down to show those guys.
"When I did the drum track on my demo, I couldn't hear anything so I was just playing totally random drum beats. When we recorded the song, we tried to get that same effect. There are three drummers on that song: me, Gregg Kaplinger (he played on the Hater project also) and Matt."
The uniqueness of the 15 different songs on Superunknown shows that Soundgarden has a wide range of influences. "Doesn't everybody?" asks Shepherd. He does. Bands that earn a hint of excitement in his voice range from the Germs to Screaming Trees to Husker Du.
On Hater's self-titled A&M album (Shepherd's recent moonlighting project with Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and friends), he displays another side of his musical vocabulary. There he played guitar and shared vocals on bare bones, pure, simple appealing rock 'n' roll songs that sound like something between The Yardbirds and T-Rex.
The Hater side project came about last year when Shepherd and Cameron got together with bassist John Waterman, ex-Monster Magnet guitarist John McBain and vocalist Brian Wood (brother of the late Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone) to record some songs. Shepherd and Cameron had been toying with the idea of a side project for some time.
"This guy, Stuart Hallerman, asked me to record a single for the label. I was totally freaked out by it." relates Shepherd. "I asked Matt what he thought [and he said], 'That's a great idea.' Then a couple of years later, we thought of musicians we'd like to [record it with]. So we ended up with a cast of characters, Brian Wood, the other singer, was added the day before we went in. By that point, that whole single idea was dropped, [so we did the Hater album]. It was all about having fun doing it, to get away from the industry side of things."
Shepherd joined Soundgarden in early 1990. right after touring with Nirvana as a second guitarist. The band had released Louder than Love a few months earlier and was already making waves. What mattered to Shepherd, though, was that Soundgarden was a cool band, or "cool as hell' as he says.
"When Kim asked me to join Soundgarden, I didn't know that they recorded yet. I knew Kim before he even made the band," says Shepherd. "Then I saw them. I'm really hard on my friend's bands when I see them. I don't, like cuddle up to my friends, 'Oh these are my friends; these guys are gonna be ruling,' you know. I go the opposite way. Hopefully, they're so good that they can break my prejudice down. Soundgarden was. They blew my mind."
They blew a lot of people's minds. Badmotorfinger, Shepherd's first recording with the band, sold over a million copies and established Soundgarden as a major creative force on the music scene, leaving the Warrants and Wingers by the wayside. More significantly, the band took their place in the mainstream without losing their underground appeal in the process.
Though not concerned with the band's commercial promise before joining, Shepherd was well aware of their artistic potential. "I saw them outlasting the whole dying punk-rock scene, but not being decadent, stupid rock stars either, not doodle guitar player weirdos," he says. "They were not Killing Joke, and they're actually intelligent people who don't follow along with everyone else."
The band filled a void. "I think the whole generation of people from 35 down got tired of all the bull, and music was infiltrated by bull for years and years and years. It was always cultivated by the industry, how the fans idolized people. Most people that I know played music primarily because they didn't like what they were hearing. I think that's a perfect way to learn. Once you think that, then you're playing," says Shepherd.
He couldn't have asked for a better job. "They made it really easy to join the band; they made it really natural. Kim's a really old friend and I got along with Matt instantaneously. Once I joined the band, they expected me to write songs. We were all writing, all playing at the same time. That's the difference between Louder than Love and Badmotorfinger, Chris wrote most of the songs on Louder than Love. Badmotorfinger was written by the band collaborating with each other. Superunknown is even more that way, everybody writing."
Soundgarden's spawning ground, Seattle, has been hyped endlessly for producing garage bands with distorted guitar sounds that play real loud. Hype aside, Shepherd only acknowledges Seattle as being a geographical meeting place for the members of his band. "A lot of cities about the size of Seattle and away from industry towns like Minneapolis, in the mid 80's were having a blossoming music scene of people involved in the underground. I think every city has some blossoming thing. Soundgarden got signed from Seattle and Jane's addiction from LA."
As for being heralded leaders of grunge -- which started as a term referring to the so-called "Seattle sound" of guitar distortion, but has grown to encompass a fashion trend of flannel shirts and Doc Marten shoes -- Shepherd is understandably turned off by the word. "I think it's an English word. Some journalist made that up, and that was about Mudhoney because that's who they were writing about when they commented on it. I think they got the word from a raunchy-sounding guitar. It wasn't a fashion statement," he says. "The English people look at fashion more than anybody else, I think. They try to put some meaning behind how somebody dresses more than any other culture. I think it's a nonsense word."
Having taken a short break after touring overseas, Soundgarden is again preparing to go back on the road in the US in support of Superunknown. This tour which includes Tad and Eleven, will undoubtedly bring them ultramega stardom. "Spoonman" and "Black Hole Sun" have already been embraced by new-rock, AOR and metal radio. And with 15 equally strong songs to choose from on the current offering, Soundgarden will be on the airwaves and in America's households for a long time.
Shepherd looks at the band's success with a grain of salt. "I don't think anything's really changed, but I could be totally ignorant. We were in Europe when we heard we debuted at #1. That's all on paper. Fame is just another word."
Aside from the higher income, he doesn't see the success the band has experienced thus far as having a significant impact on his life. "It's not really different than when I first joined the band. It takes more time to be in a band that you wanna take seriously. It's a 24-hour thing. You have to be dedicated in order to get up at 5:30 in the morning so you can catch a 7:00 flight to go somewhere to play a concert. Sometimes you talk yourself into thinking it's not [worth it]," he admits. "But that's just when you're too fatigued or something. We're really pessimistic about everything. We wouldn't know a good time if it bit us in the ass."
Shepherd also has a hard time with compliments on Soundgarden's music. "I don't now if it is that good or not. I'm getting tired now, when I'm tired, I'll start putting it down and get all bummed out and not write a song for awhile." His feelings don't come as a big surprise, though. After all, you'd be hard pressed to name a happy Soundgarden song. Shepherd isn't really in a state of depression though. "I see inspiration in the lyrics, kind of like, "Life sucks; grit your teeth and bare it,'" he says.
Grit you teeth , bear it and make amazing music is more like it. It seems the members of Soundgarden have to convince themselves that they're miserable to write and play. Whatever they do, they do it their way and for themselves. Shepherd doesn't pretend to be doing anything other than that. Soundgarden doesn't work for the industry or for their fans. When it comes to what their fans think about their shift in musical direction, Shepherd says," I don't really care. That might get in the way of getting to where we're going."
And where might that be? I don't know yet," he says. "None of us know yet. We'll find out. That's pretty much really how it is. It depends on what moods we come up."