Reprinted without permission from PULSE!, March
IN SEARCH OF THE MONSTER RIFF
Kim Thayil grabs a cigarette from his just-purchased pack, lights up, and then tosses one across the table to his pal Chris Cornell. They both take long, thoughtful drags on their smokes and kick back, momentarily relaxed, in the Los Angeles offices of their label, A&M Records. Having just completed work on a dark-themed, 15-song opus named Superunknown, these sludge-slingers from Seattle's premiere grunge group Soundgarden have earned a little down time. But Thayil suddenly sits bolt upright with a wicked brainstorm.
"Hey, let's go out and sexually harass some workers here at A&M," proposes the bearded, beefy guitarist, who--at 6'1"--looks as intimidating as your average Hell's Angel. Lanky vocalist Chris Cornell, who is taller still but nowhere near as menacing, immediately joins in his bandmate's gag.
"Some males," he offers.
"Let's grab 'em and go, 'Hey, where you goin'?'" Thayil parries, his eyes all aglitter. "And if they try to get away from you, you just hold 'em real tight."
"Or grab 'em by the back of the hair and go 'You've got a really cute mouth! Have you ever done it with a man?'" says Cornell, rolling with it.
"And then say, 'Oh, silly me! I shouldn't be asking such questions!'" Thayil finishes, content with the denouement of their drama. And these guys aren't laughing, either, just smiling subtly in some unspoken communication, generated and nurtured over a decade's worth of music-making and friendship. Outsiders get the message only gradually.
This is Soundgarden's world--one which envelopes you in a cerement of Thayil's thundering, processional riffs and Cornell's black-humored, death-obsessed lyrics, which flap around in the gloom like a distempered bat. And when you slowly sink into the void of Superunknown's dirges like "Limo Wreck," "Like Suicide," "Let Me Drown" and "Black Hole Sun," the whole project feels as intense as a pressure cooker that's about to blow. Hence the need to release a little steam with some droll offstage antics.
"I don't think I've ever really been happy, not for more than a few moments," says 29-year-old Cornell. "But I don't see life as being the pursuit of that anyway. Whenever I've been around someone who's been consistently happy and carefree, it's always made me extremely uncomfortable." Last year, upon discovering that "every single person in Seattle started looking like me, all the young white boys with long curly brown hair and facial hair," he immediately trimmed his tresses. At the interview, he's sporting a wavy pompadour, and--when not bantering with Thayil--he answers questions while staring morosely at the floor, occasionally looking up to emphasize a point.
"I'd like to think that life isn't so much the pursuit of happiness, but the avoidance of pain," says Thayil, who admits to being a couple of years older than his partner. "And a lot of Superunknown seems to me to be about life, not death. Maybe not affirming it, but rejoicing--like the Druids [put it]: 'Life is good, but death's gonna be even better!'" For four albums and as many EPs, Thayil's Grand Guignol guitar style has practically defined the now-overhyped Seattle/grunge sound, if not actually inventing it.
"But I still don't think we sound like anybody else," Cornell insists. He's got a point. Other Seattle supergroups may have beaten Soundgarden to the multi-platinum goal line--Nirvana with its acidic punk; Pearl Jam with its common-man charisma; and Alice In Chains with its dour druggie depression--but this band's got the riffs. And the vocals. Two years ago, Cornell first revealed a soulful, r&b strut on Temple of the Dog, a Seattle-musician tribute (featuring Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron) to the late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, Cornell's roommate for several years. While other Soundgarden albums (Ultramega OK on SST, and Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger, both on A&M) feature his testicle-in-a-vise screaming over Thayil's brawny grind, Superunknown finds him actually crooning, deep and dusky, getting to the cold bleak heart of each song via sheer emotive prowess. Eddie Vedder, eat your heart out.
"People said to me after Temple of the Dog, 'I didn't know you could sing like that,'" recalls Cornell, propping his logger-booted feet up on the conference-room table. "And I had a hard time explaining that, actually, Soundgarden records are much harder to sing. And the reason it seems like it's better is because, rather than being up against the wall all the time like usual, I'm being mellow and flying under the radar, so the points when [my voice] shoots up will seem more aggressive."
Thayil is quick to compliment. "Of all those great Seattle tenors, Chris has the best range," he says. "And that's why Stone Temple Pilots have such a hard time imitating us." The two start chuckling at this bilious barb. Cornell takes it one step further. "If you listen to our new album and then consider the imitators of the past who've followed us in different directions, well, this ought to create more challenges for those bands. Like, 'How are we gonna do this now?' It's funny to watch groups try to wear single influences on their sleeves. We're a band with four songwriters, and this record, especially, is so diverse. So what element are they gonna latch onto? Because that's how copycat bands always do it, they latch onto one element, usually one of the superficial ones."
Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd (who moonlight in another A&M act, Hater, with Wood's brother Brian) each contribute a track, as well as the traditional stampeding-bison-herd Soundgarden rhythms. Thayil claims cowriting credit on three tracks, but the rest is pretty much Cornell's show, for his aptly named ASCAP publishing company, You Make Me Sick, I Make Music. That's a dramatic change from '91's more democratically penned Badmotorfinger, but it might explain Superunknown's unity--a strong sense of structure that includes mindless riffing and more recognizable hooks, bridges and choruses. Thayil calls it a "dynamic new musical sense...a responsiveness to the other instruments." Cornell says it all happened "by accident, totally by accident. But six or seven songs into the recording of it, it was evident that it's all work."
"Let Me Drown" rips open the record with a Thayil/Shepherd assault and Cornell intoning his spooky, aloof poetry: "Stretch the bones over my skin/ Stretch the skin over my head/ I'm going to the holy land." And that's as optimistic as things get. In the funeral ballad (yes, that's right--a ballad) "Fell on Black Days," he notes in a baritone rumble, "Whomsoever I've cured I've sickened now," and the song segues into the gargantuan riff-from-Hades-laden "Mailman." Cornell, of course, isn't studying some typical well-paid postal worker--he's singing about the one guy on the job who's gone over the edge and bought a wrath-of-God pistol to even the score. "For all the times when you made me disappear/ This time I'm sure you'll know that I am here," he threatens, unleashing his fabled castrati wail on the chorus: "I know I'm headed for the bottom/ But I'm riding you all the way."
Cornell--who often turns up the amp volume when he's working on material at home, much to the chagrin of his neighbors--is becoming as terse and visceral a tunesmith as Leonard Cohen himself. "Black Hole Sun," which has a perky, Beatles-savvy mix and aqueous axe lyrics, extinguishes any candles of hope with charcoal phrase fragments--"In my disgrace/ Boiling Heat/ Summer stench/ 'Neath the black/ The sky looks dead." Even the uptempo "Spoonman" (a funky guitar-stuttering rocker chosen as the first single) functions on this words-as-weapons level. "Feel the rhythm with your hands," Cornell bleats amid a clatter of percussion from a real Seattle spoon player named Artis. And Shepherd, his voice electronically distorted, answers "Feel the rhythm while you can." The cut proceeds in this call-and-response fashion, recreating the cold, metallic precision of a rivet gun.
Cornell says he has trouble fielding craft-related questions like, 'What are you thinking?' "That's because I never wanted anyone to know--it's kind of like my secret world." Those who've ever seen the band live can testify to the frontman's star quality; Cornell anchors the band from center stage, legs splayed, long hair whip-cracking in time to each riff, voice skyrocketing into glass-shattering crescendos. He says he became aware of his skill at an early age. "When I was 15 or 16, I didn't even think in terms of the future. I would play with guys who would also try to do Top 40 tavern gigs to make enough money to buy guitar strings and cigarettes, and that never made any sense to me. They weren't musicians at all--they were just dishwashers with guitars. So I learned early on that I wasn't going to allow muci to be this thing I used to pay the rent. It was mine, and more sacred than that."
Thayil recollects a similar coming-up. "The 9-to-5 thing I failed at, at a very young age. I didn't even like going to school, and I would never do things with the other kids except go over and wreck their contruction sets." Uh-huh. Fledgling rock guitarist forming here.
Cornell is laughing now, loosening up a bit. He deigns to discuss some of his work. "Limo Wreck," he confesses, was inspired by an earlier L.A. trip. "We were on a high way where you could see more limos than cars, and I had this image of how cool it would be to see a couple that had just smashed into each other, burning. You get this idea from limos you see on the highway that it's the president and normal rules of life don't apply to them because they're not in a normal car. But they're just as susceptible to car crashes and drive-by shootings."
Other pieces, like the title track, for instance, originated more simply. "'Superunknown' is dyslexia, that's all," Cornell chuckles, scratching his little Van Dyke whiskers. "I looked at a video that said 'Superclown' and I read it as saying 'Superunknown' and I thought it was a cool title. I'd never heard it before, never saw it before, and it inspired me." And the "One more time around might do it" chorus from "The Day I Tried to Live" diatribe? Does it concern reincarnation? Soundgarden's slow rise to superstardom?
"Or maybe heroin?" Cornell offers, not mentioning any drug-touting groups in particular, but figuring you'll get the idea. For emphasis, he breaks into mock lyrics from this unnamed outfit: "'Killing myself with drugs/ Feel sorry for me/ Come on, give me more money,' It makes 14-year-old girls cry in their bedrooms while they look at your poster, because they know you're suffering."
Cornell is heavily influenced by author Sylvia Plath. He says he enjoys her analytical style. "But we're pretty analytical, too," Thayil points out. "Although people use the words 'growth' and 'maturity'..."
Soundgarden started struggling for its recognition in 1984. After '87's Screaming Life EP and its '88 successor, Fopp, the quartet (then including bassist Hiro Yamamoto) watched as its debut album Ultramega OK was nominated for a Grammy and a major-label bidding war slowly heated up. Critics adored the 1989 A&M bow Louder Than Love, and '91's Badmotorfinger earned similar praise as well as gold status and another Grammy nomination. Aren't growth and maturity what these two--along with most artists--seek?
Thayil is incensed. "Who told you that? It's people who can benefit from marketing and selling what you do. Record companies tell you that. So do book publishers and gallery owners. Those aren't the artists! They're people with a vested interest in you being able to produce product that more people will want to buy."
"And they can't tell you how to do it, either--that's the weird part," adds Cornell, his long, wolflike features growing tense. "It's not like, 'Go write a thesis on this.' It's more like, 'Go create something that I can sell and make me like it!'"
He has good reason to be worried. Seattle--as a fashion scene and musical movement--has been bought, packaged and mass-marketed to the point where department stores are selling pre-ripped flannel shirts. One inncoent casualty, Cornell feels, was Cameron Crowe's Seattle-set intellectual comedy, Singles, in which he and Eddie Vedder played cameo roles. "Because it was released a year later than it was supposed to be and the scene had already exploded by then, it came off as being more exploitative than it was meant to be," he sighs. "It was originally very much about Cameron and how he felt, and it was going to be his independent movie."
As we all know, this Northwest phenomenon has so far culminated in the astronomical sales figures of Pearl Jam's Vs. album. Can Soundgarden match nearly a million copies sold in a single week? Is there any pressure, external or internal, to do so?
A&M's official stance, according to Senior Vice President and General Manager Jim Guerinot, is laissez faire. "Our whole point of view is to let the record do the speaking and shut the fuck up," says Guerinot. "The whole thrust of our campaign is to remove all the stupid bullshit things companies try to do in the absence of having great music and get this record to as many people as possible."
However, the most important question remains, "Will Beavis and Butt-Head like it?"
"They better, those little fuckers!" cracks Cornell. "If they don't I'll track 'em down and erase 'em! I think that's kind of a silly trap to get into--'Why didn't we get ours?' is kind of dumb. We didn't make a record, in my opinion, that was as universally accessible as the last Nirvana or Pearl Jam records, and that's why we haven't sold as much. But I think if you took them out of the equation, we'd still have sold the same amount of records on Badmotorfinger and we'd still be right where we are today. So, in a way, I feel like we're fortunate. Just being in the same vicinity as Guns N' Roses and Pearl Jam, I kind of get the feeling that we don't have even a fraction of the hassles those guys go through."
Axl, Slash and crew recently paid Soundgarden the honor of covering the outrageous Louder Than Love anthem "Big Dumb Sex," sandwiched into T. Rex's "Buick Makane," on GN'R's latest, The Spaghetti Incident? "I think they ran out of people involved with mass murders who wrote songs, so the next step was us," Cornell chuckles.
Soundgarden, in turn, is no slouch when it comes to the song-cover department, which is about the only time the band's musical poker face cracks to let a brief smile break through. It's renovated everything from Devo's "Girl U Want" to "Big Bottom" by Spinal Tap to Cheech & Chong's '70s classic, "Earache My Eye," all set to that particular Godzilla-huge schematic.
Thayil likes that idea, that Soundgarden are primeval Jurassic Park behemoths, crunching through the sonic forest and destroying anything stupid enough to step in their path. "And pausing only to excrete", he adds, looking mischievous again.
Cornell doesn't miss a beat: "I like that! Keep talking like that! Turn out the light!"