Reprinted without permission from Q Magazine, October
Straight in at Number 1. Millions of LPs sold. Nookie on tap. And are Soundgarden happy? No, they've got a collective face like a warthog sucking a nettle. "These days, we just stay on the bus, in the hotel and do the show," they tell John Aizlewood.
"Do you know," bellows Soundgarden's bearlike guitarist Kim Thayil, with a grin even imps might regard a touch impish, "once or twice a day I wish I was so fucking strong that if I was in a room and I hit the walls, the whole building would fall down, or that I could pick up a street. I wish I could be omnipotent, but I wake up and realise I'm just impotent. I want to know everything and be able to do anything. That's why I joined a band. I wanted to say, Fuck you, to play so loud and aggressively that people would die. I wanted to be as loud as a helicopter."
"I wanted to make music so interesting that you're compelled to it, but so mean that it crushes you as if you're a fly who's so sick of being a fly you put your head in a little hydraulic press. I really hated rock'n'roll, the bands that were popular. I wanted to win without having to play the rock game, to not buy into the sexist, racist, party-down, hey-isn't-America-wonderful trip. If you hate something, you go do it to make it right. To a certain degree, we've achieved that."
Strange coves, Soundgarden. It's been a long, steady haul from Seattle's nascent grunge scene to their magnificent fourth album, Superunknown, entering the US charts at Number 1. "I felt a little bit smug," grins Thayil smugly.
"It has the word 'unknown' in it, so I can't answer that," declares singer/guitarist Chris Cornell.
"It's all those things that come to be known," tries Thayil.
As they've risen, they've radically overhauled their music - for the better with each passing album - without diluting an essentially slacker attitude, ladled with lashings of cynicism.
Soundgarden are playing St Paul, Minneapolis' so-called Twin City. The place looks to have closed down for the 4th of July holiday weekend, although it's difficult to tell how the natives would notice. It is chocolate box America at its most twee, especially the rather beautiful bridges over the Mississippi. Soundgarden would no more dream of going out for a look than they would appear on Pop Quiz.
"Arrogance, isolation, stagnation," chants Thayil, "They're the pitfalls of success. I've certainly experienced two of those things but my arrogance won't let me see the stagnation. These days we just stay on the bus, in the hotel and do the show."
He is the nearest Soundgarden have to a resident joker.
In 1985, Seattle was just another city in Northwest America, with Jimi Hendrix as its sole musical legacy of note. Then, according to Cornell, apropos of nothing, came Guns 'N' Roses. His manner is oddly diffident. He is seemingly incapable of eye contact. His voice is hushed, but his words are confident.
"For a decade," he whispers, "youth culture was represented by guys who presented themselves as really decadent: a drugs, alcohol, women, limousines lifestyle in front of all these kids. Starting with Guns 'N' Roses, when they were just a rock band, before they were stuffing $100 bills in their pockets, the kids realised that there were people who looked like their friend at school who can represent them in some way, playing the sort of music they like and can deal with. Ultimately, people would rather go out and buy an album by a kid with long hair and a backwards baseball cap than a 37 year old balding guy in spandex."
Firmly middle class, Cornell's interest in music began at school.
"Most of my friends had pretty weird tastes," he explains slowly, "always drawn towards lyrics that were between intellectual and drug-taking. We were the slacker generation before it existed. Tastes would go from AC/DC, through more fucked up Yes records, to Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. It was stoner music, man. You could smoke pot and listen to Black Sabbath."
Soundgarden were there at the beginning of grunge. Listening to Wire, Joy Division, Killing Joke and, er, Bauhaus, they spent what must have been a ghastly year for the neighbours jamming like demons. By 1986, the then drummerless trio were gamely popping their heads out of the trenches, albeit once a month, for $20 a night.
"After our first live shows," continues Cornell, "people responded instantly and we were turning down shows. We played whenever we wanted."
"We were all buddies," remembers Thayil of that early Seattle scene, which included Kurt Cobain's heroes, The Melvins, the long lost U-Men, Tad (who support Soundgarden in St. Paul) and Mudhoney. "It was very collective, fraternal and supportive."
Punk rock fan Ben Shepherd saw those early Soundgarden shows: "They were very powerful, very moody, like Bauhaus but more satisfying," he reckons.
After the compuslory spell on Seattle's hippest label, Sub Pop, the band found themselves a permanent drummer, Matt Cameron, and signed to another independent, SST. Nationally, Soundgarden, even if they'd robbed a bank and buggered the manager, couldn't get arrested.
"Nobody from a major label ever went to see an alternative band," claims Cornell. "We were just jerkoffs, an urban wankfest - you couldn't dance to it, it didn't remind you of anything on MTV and it didn't sound like Huey Lewis or A Flock Of Seagulls."
Enter Guns 'N' Roses and their megahit album, Appetite For Destruction.
"It was nothing, nothing, nothing. Then all of a sudden it was A&M and Warners at the same show," says Cornell.
Soundgarden signed to A&M in 1988, the first of the new Seattle bands to go major. The fraternal scene became bitchy as Seattle slackers like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and Mark Arm proved that deep down they were as nakedly ambitious as the most venal corporate raiders.
"Now all the other guys have been signed, we don't look so bad," chuckles Thayil, "but the stigma hung for a bit - They're dating another city! They're dating a whole country! They're whores!"
Bassist Hiro Yamamoto left to become a phsyics major after the major label debut, Louder Than Love. "I was really pissed off because I thought they were breaking up," remembers Shepherd, the Lyle Lovett lookalike. Luckily, after a few shows with one-time Nirvana member Jason Everman, Shepherd himself joined. Soon eclipsed saleswise by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden found themselves slogging across the small clubs of America, digging themselves into a monotonous metal hole. Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger were both black and white affairs, packed with power but free of melody. They seemed perennial losers.
"Every time we toured, we had more people coming to see us," reasons Cornell. "Every time we put a record out, more people bought it than the last one. The whole country, not just Seattle, was going through huge musical changes. Now, it's club bands selling millions."
Chris Cornell married band manager Susan Silver and Superunknown changed everything. Now brimming with melody, at one bound it pushed Soundgarden, blinking warily and grumpily, into the spotlight, into the mainstream. Now they are big business and just about out of the metal hole.
"That hole has filled with dirt," states Cornell, as firmly as he states anything. "Just after Hiro left, I was the main songwriter and although it was something I was liking, now there's no way any one member of the band can push us in any direction."
Now they're part of the only three American musics - rap, country and grunge - to sell in significant quantities. All three are indigenous to America and distinctly working class. It's like The Beatles or anyone British never happened.
"Garth Brooks is as much music of the people as we are," shrugs Shepherd, with a rueful grin.
The gig is a moderate success. Number 1 album or not, they can't sell out a 4,000 capacity hall. Soundgarden play for two hours, which is a good 30 minutes too long, and for every moment of Superunknown wonder, there's a tuneless, shouty oldie. There is little communication between band and audience; indeed, Thayil never moves, never even blinks. Some of the audience fall asleep, others enter the mosh pit (people don't die, but by any reasonable reckoning they should, for it is hell in there), others dismantle the red steel chairs and place them in a distended pile in the middle of the hall.
It's a primal scream but an oddly unsatisfying afair and it showcases Soundgarden's main problem: there seems to be no joy here.
"I can see that," scowls Cornell. "I understand why you might say that, because sometimes it seems that way to me. Everybody seems so bummed out all the time. None of us are that comfortable socially and it comes off as us being really msierable. We all tend to be pretty moody, and on any day, one of us is going to be acting up."
"We've been fighting all the way to never reach the point where people get sick of us, but I think what we're doing is becoming dangerous and people will get tired of the bummed out guys. Still, if nobody would have us any more, we'd be airily content sitting around in caves and being bummed out. I've always been reclusive, being hassled when I'm out gives me an excuse to stay home."
"We're not party people," understates Thayil. "There are miserable things - all around us, people are gaining happiness, money or enjoyment or some kind of recreation or entertainment from us."
They tried a joke once. Big Dumb Sex on Louder Than Love had a cheery chorus that went "I want to fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK YOU." It fell so flat, people chant for it at shows like St. Paul. They won't try this joking business again.
Backstage, after the show, the scene is wholesome. Matt Cameron swings his sister around into a filing cabinet, various family members mill around. Not Cornell's though. His mother is an astrologer. He won't let her do his stars.
"I wish my parents wouldn't come to the shows. I know they don't like the msuic so what's the point?" he grimaces.
There is no sex, no drugs and very little rock'n'roll. "We're sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll without the sex and drugs," reckons Thayil. "That's not to say we don't like sex or drugs. If you like fucking, you stay with one person and fuck with them all the different ways you can. Why be seduced or distracted by the lifestyle?"
The gaggle of fans who've been waiting for a word for an hour after the gig, are summarily dispatched into the dark by security, without so much as a nod. Soundgarden don't like their fans very much these days.
"I used to think people liked us because they thought we were aggressive, intelligent and strange," says Thayil, a philosophy graduate. "Now our fans like us because we're on MTV. Popularity breeds popularity until it breeds contempt. It's difficult to enjoy the fruits and rewards of our labour."
"I talked to some fans the other day," admits Shepherd, as if confessing to owning Go West's entire back catalogue. "I was rejuvenated and inspired."
"Some days," breathes Cornell, a picture of abject misery now, "I get worried we're too big. When we were in Seattle, we knew all our fans, had all their phone numbers. Now they're jock-looking. You do know that if we'd made a record with a couple of singles and the rest was shit, we'd have sold just as many copies, don't you?"
Soundgarden are not, it seems, part of the rock 'n' roll circus.
"Don't go for the same old snow and fucking all the time bullshit," admonishes Shepherd. "Get into the art of music. If that sounds faggy, then...whatever." Never mind.
Christ. As if things weren't bad enough, Cornell is cursed with cheekbones and a physique. Women, apparently, like these things as much as MTV, and Soundgarden might have sold fewer records if their frontman remembled a troll.
"Hmmmm, I don't know if that's true," muses Cornell, rubbing his faintly ludicrous facial hair. "Although there's been attempts, I haven't been presented as Jon Bon Jovi, the guy with the million dollar smile and the band named after him. There's more to it than having nice cheekbones. It's charisma, perhaps."
"Our music is helped by the fact that little girls go all wet when they come to our shows," states Thayil sensitively.
"Chris is better looking mentally," adds Shepherd, the punk rock kid.
What are they like, these Soundgardeners? What do they do at home? What makes them laugh?
"This might sound boring..." Cornell begins. Oh no. He's not going to say that he 'plays music' is he? "...but I play music a lot. I spend a lot of time avoiding people."
"I like staying in," gushes Thayil. "I go out primarily to drink. I go see a show once a month and that reminds me I don't like going out."
"Me and my girlfriend go see our friends Jody and Alan once a week and that's it," confesses shepherd.
Nothing, it seems, makes them laugh.