Reprinted without permission from Raw, December 8-21,
"LET'S MAKE A GRUNGE ALBUM!"
...cackle Soundgarden wickedly. They are whipping up a primal storm cutting tracks for Superunknown, their most diverse - and best - album to date. And it ain't grunge! CHRIS SMITH gets sleepless in a Seattle recording studio with vocalist Chris Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil.
Soundgarden's Chris Cornell (vocals), Kim Thayil (guitar), Ben Shepherd (bass) and Matt Cameron (drums) - have nearly wrapped up mixing the successor to their Badmotorfinger breakthrough album. Chris and Kim have taken a break from tending the Seattle-based Bad Animals sudio board to reflect. The topic at hand is the intial signing struggle.
"They wouldn't understand when we would say no," comments Chris, on the groping major labels. "They'd be like, 'I don't get it. Why is he saying no? Is it because he thinks he's too good for this label and he'll be a rock star on some other label?' But that was never the motivation. We figured that being an independent band, we were probably going to sell just as many records, if not more, without a major label."
"But they were dumbfounded," continues Kim. "The look on their faces was like, 'There are tens of thousands of people who would die to be in your position. They send us tapes every month, and they get rejection letters every month. There are tens of thousands of people who'd like to be sitting at this tabel with me. What's wrong with you?!'"
The typically verbose Kim Thayil is on a roll, even by his standards. "They'd go, 'We send a limosine to meet you at the airport and you spit on it! Why are you not excited? This band's got to be dysfunctional!' We'd try to explain that if we got excited, we'd be getting excited, sympathetically, for the prospects of THEIR future. That would be kind of foolish. We understood what we could do, what our future was . . . not how far we could go. Everything was in perspective."
'Far' has been far indeed. The new album, currently entited Superunknown, and due for a March release, is free-flowing, broader-reaching and more immediate than any of its predecessors; the type of thing you could imagine being hammered out rapidly, yet lasting for decades.
"What's funny is that we actually spent more time recording this record, but maybe not on the same things," offers Kim. "We probably spent about the same time writing and arranging. The extra time was spent getting sounds. We have different guitar sounds or drum sounds...or bass sounds or vocal sounds, all across the board. It was kind of like being a fish out of water, feeling our way around and trying to figure out what works and what doesn't, while at the same time dealing with a bunch of sounds we'd never used before."
Chris picks up the thread, ". . . and working with a new producer (Michael Beinhorn) created a situation where it took longer than we would probably have liked. Because we worked with Terry (Date) for two records in a row . . . by the time we were working on our second record, we were already acquainted with how he worked. It kind of made the process go quicker than the process on this record."
Michael Beinhorn produced Superunknown with the prolific Brendan O'Brien (Black Crowes/Pearl Jam/Kings X) coming in to mix the sounds. Were there problems with Date - who produced Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger - in the end?
"No," blurts Kim. "Terry was fine. I'm not saying Terry didn't understand us, he produced two great albums with us. We just thought we'd go for a change."
"Actually, before Terry, we had more problems with people not understanding us," continues Chris. "And we've had problems on the mixing where the guys underneath Terry were involved. The guys who mixed Terry's records . . . they come in after everything's been recorded, and you've never even met them before..."
"They don't listen to you," inserts Kim.
"No, but they'll listen to your last CD a couple of times, just because they got the job," insists Chris, "They're coming in with their own philosophy of doing things, as opposed to coming in with a philosophy that you're mixing a band that's already made a record."
Incredulity and frustration are rising.
"Some people actually came in thinking they were working on Soundgarden's first record. 'Here's a bunch of young, fresh faces making their little record on a major label,'" apes a still amazed Kim.
"As far as they were concerned it was like, 'We'll show them how to make a record. This is how the songs should sound...' And we'd have to explain, 'Yeah, well, this doesn't feature the elements of the song that were put there in composition. This doesn't feature the elements of the song from a band that has been put together over years of touring and playing together'. And it would end up in a big tug of war: 'No, records sound like this' or 'I don't care. Fuck Whitesnake!'"
Those frustrations are in the past. The band seem unanimous in their approval of both Beinhorn's production and O'Brien's mix. Superstrong performances abound, Chris' vocals dominate, and there are the beginnings of a distinguishable Kim Thayil guitar sound. Were the vocals something Beinhorn and Chris worked hard on?
"We did spend some time working on it," says Chris, "but it's not like I set up a vocal mic, got a sound and then used that on everything. I changed amplifier, used old amplifiers, four or five different mics. But I think it has more to do with the songs. The instrumentation clears out and there's room there, and you're just hearing the vocals more, because they're not fighting so much.
"Then there are some songs where it's pretty similar to the previous albums (both Mailman and Spoonman are good examples of this). Like from the last record on Drawing Flies, where as soon as the song starts, the vocals and guitars are just battling each other all the way through."
But what of Kim's newly pronounced presence?
"There's actually less guitars per song," says Kim. "Instead of four guitar tracks, there tends to be two, with some colour parts in there. In some songs there's only one, and in a couple of parts there might not be any . . . so that's kind of different for us. The less you put into it, the more you're able to discern individual things. But guitars are featured more prominently here and so are drums and vocals and bass!"
"But a lot of that only happened over the past couple of weeks," interjects Chris. "That's when I started feeling really good about this record, when I started hearing that in there."
In no place is this 'new style' Soundgarden more apparent than in some of the more varied material, like Superunknown and Black Hole Sun, which features Motown and Beatles influences. Heck, there are even fully-fledged vocal harmonies in there!
"When I was a kid I used to sing harmonies to everything and I was always really good at it," explains Chris. "Then when I started singing in a band, I really hated it. I've never really done it with Soundgarden. to me, it usally softens it up and de-emphasises the songwriting."
"You're talking about ELO, aren't you," accuses Kim jokingly.
Chris smiles, inhales and continues, "I dunno. Harmonies on a Soundgarden record. I dunno."
It seemed to work out alright.
"You can tell when it doesn't work out RIGHT AWAY! You play it back, and it's like 'UUUUUEUEUELLLGGH!'"
"With this record, I think it will be easier to take one song out of context and make it a single," comments Chris, returning to the pace.
"The problem with us, though, is that if we take one song out of the album's context and push it as a single, it wouldn't be representative of the album at all!"
"So that's the kind of juggling act. I don't really know what to do about it at this point. We're going to have to wait until the mixes are done and talk about it. But overall, it doesn't matter too much, because if word gets out what the record's really about, the only people who aren't really gonna know are like, shopping mall kids. I don't really care about them anyway. I'm not concerned about having fans who are interested in buying our record because they think we dress cool. Or we look cool, or we seem like we're like some other band they already like."
"We're not targetting those people," agrees Kim.
"We couldn't really function if we worried about what people thought," continues Chris. "Because we don't have the desire or the ability to pick a direction and fo that way. We don't have the attention span or the concentration for that."
Kim lightens the mood suitably. "Grunge, I hear, is really big in the States. Let's try to make a grunge album!"
Chris: "OK, which colour should I dye my hair?!"
Kim; "Where should I cut the pants off? Below the knee or above the knee? I have no flannels any more!"
Chris: "Yes, we have no flannels today!"
So with live work pending - licking off with a first-time tour of Austraila, New Zealand and Japan in January - what of the loathing of big stadiums Chris expressed to Raw's Mr Rees not too long ago? Lots of the above mentioned flannel folk could be out there...
Chris is more than willing to clarify: "I think it would work, if it sounded right, and if they WERE our fans out there. But in our situation, that's never been the case. We're always the opening freak show."
"We go up there and scream and jump around and be angry, and sort of have contempt for the audience."
"But the people who are Soundgarden fans are going, 'Yeah, I'm one of them!'," says Kim, eyes aglow. The final word goes to Chris:
"If you're gonna alienate people alienate large amounts of people!"
Superunknown Track by Track
FOURTH OF JULY
BLACK HOLE SUN
FELL ON BLACK DAYS
THE DAY I TRIED TO LIVE
MAILMAN (or perhaps 'Vietman')