Reprinted without permission from Raw, 1989
While some bands seem content to merely imitate Led Zeppelin, these 'Gardeners have become the very embodiment of the Zep spirit. With major label success imminent, the band review their roots (ouch!) and prepare to bloom (wince)...
"So tell me, why does Britain come up with stoopid bands like Kingdom Come?" inquires Soundgarden guitarist and Raj Neesh lookalike Kim Thayil, slap bang in the middle of a conversation concerning the cultural and drinking differences between the US and the the UK. When severely rebuked for his impudent lack of knowledge - KC are of course an American-German outfit - he falters... "I meant to say The Cult!"
The truth is that Soundgarden are what all aspiring Zep imitators would dearly love to be if only they could muster an ounce of originality between them. As outlined in last issue's review of the Seattle quartet's triumphant UK debut at London's School of African and Oriental Studies, Soundgarden have not stolen from the Zeppelin legacy, rather they've almost unwittingly become its very embodiment; innovative and challenging, with roots firmly planted in rock's finest traditions.
Described by SST (the label responsible for their first fully fledged album, Ultramega OK, released last year), as 'both horrific and holy', with live performances subtlely referred to as 'TOTAL F**KING GODHEAD', Soundgarden prefer to perceive themselves in more nonsensical and less divine terms slightly reminiscent of comedy metal merchants Manowar: "Mutant Vikings" as Thayil puts it.
When it comes down to the real nitty gritty, however, the point is that the foursome transcend virtually all the barriers summarily erected by both press and fans alike. They shave across Black Sabbath territory, feel like Zeppelin, lilt like Bad Brains and share the audiences of contemporary American underground heroes such as Die Kreuzen, the behemothic Killdozer and the masterful Screaming Trees.
"Fast hard rock on 16 (RPM). That's what we play," states vocalist Chris Cornell. "If you play our records back on 45 we sound just like AC/DC," he deadpans while attempting to encapsulate the SG sound into a neatly roll-off-the-tongue phrase.
Thayil's definition of the Soundgarden buzz as "heavy muddle" is perhaps more accurate. It gestures at the confusion conjured up by the quartet ( the band being completed by bass player Hiro Yamamoto and drummer Matt Cameron), emphasising above all that the Soundgarden shudder cannot be confined to the purely prosaic. It has to be experienced in person and at full volume.
Essentially, Soundgarden, along with Mudhoney and Tad, have emerged as the flagship of the burgeoning Seattle independent scene; a scene which appears to be constantly throwing up new and twisted shapes with its protagonists distancing themselves from their jangly UK 'indie' counterparts.
"Seattle has those jangly bands as well," states Kim, almost reassuringly. "They're really pathetic and they all try to sound like The Teardrop Explodes or something. They're always bitchin' about how 'New Wave and Punk Rock had a different aesthetic. You're totally violating the manifesto by turning towards this Heavy Metal stuff!' I mean, what's the deal? We're not Queensryche ya know! We're not Sanctuary or Metal Church."
In fact, therein lies Soundgarden's ethereal charm. Like so many of the current crop of American indie bands, they've bypassed the conventions of traditional metal and chosen to concentrate on the genre's initially challenging use of distortion and dynamics. It's something that appears to be true of the North West scene as a whole, with Seattle in particular being looked upon by those in the know as the fount of all things distorted.
Soundgarden themselves were there at the beginning some four years ago alongside The Melvins, Skin Yard and the now defunct outfits Green River and Malfunkshun; five bands that pioneered what Kim refers to as the Seattle grunge scene, appearing on two seminal compilations, Pyrrhic Victory and Deep Six, before developing their individual careers further. As far as Soundgarden are concerned, they were the first band to genuinely sign to the then embryonic Sub Pop label.
"A real funny thing about the Sub Pop thing is that I've known Bruce Pavitt since I was ten 'cos he comes from the same hometown as Hiro and I back in Illinois. We went to the same high school and we worked on a radio station together. We weren't the best of friends but we were amiable. He owed me a favour 'cos I went out with his sister, so he signed us!" chuckles the ever nonsensical Thayil.
Soundgarden's relationship with the catalytic Sub Pop organisation (who have since gone on to release a plethora of outstanding vinyl by the likes of Mudhoney, Tad, The Fluid, Blood Circus and Swallow) was not to endure, however; after two EPs amd a single, the band decided it was time to move on and head for the ever-expanding California-based SST label.
"When it came to switching labels it was an easy decision to make," begins Kim, "I love the Sub Pop label but we just couldn't make another record with them. They had no real distribution and very little money, and when our record went out of stock they had no way of re-pressing it. We were talking to SST at the time and they has St Vitus, Screaming Trees and Das Damen, who were all doing well, so it was an easy decision. They had the money and the distribution..."
The fruit of the quartet's relationship with SST is the aforementioned groundbreaking Ultramega OK album, a platter that Chris appears far from satisifed with...
"Production-wise we left Seattle and it showed. It wasn't exactly what we were after," he explains with hindsight. "Material-wise we went through the process that we always do, but the producer (Drew Canulette) wasn't used to the sound we wanted and didn't know what was happening in Seattle. We've tried to put it right with the new album, though, which we've just finished."
Which brings us to the latest label developments in the Soundgarden camp and the band's current involvement with A&M, a deal which would appear rather bizarre for both camps...
"Actually, we'd been talking to people at A&M almost a year before we went with SST, but we weren't interested in a major label deal that early in our career, " clarifies Chris. "We wanted to do more independent stuff first, get to design our own packaging and know the industry before people were in a position to tell us what to to do.
"As far as our choice of A&M goes, they've stuck with us for two years and they've allowed us to maintain our ideas and originality, as well as providing major distribution. So far with the new album (as yet untitled and with no specific release date) we've chosen and written the songs, designed the packaging and picked the producer. We've been very careful to make sure that we don't become a major horror story."
Whether A&M are capable of dealing with the Soundgarden whirlwind remains to be seen. For now the quartet hope to make a return trip to these shores shortly. Prepare yourself for the onslaught of Seattle's finest Mutant Vikings and keep 'em peeled for those longboats!