Reprinted without permission from Raw, September
"I DON'T CARE ABOUT PERFORMING FOR 20,000!"
With Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden discovered the alienation of Stadium Rock, the vagaries of censorship and a label which read 'grunge'. Do they want to go through it all again? Frontman Chris Cornell gives PAUL REES an exclusive update!
Chris Cornell is in Toronto, Canada. Like every Alternative Metal Band of the moment, Soundgarden are supporting the last American rebel, Neil Young, on eight dates of his North American tour.
"Maybe it's part of a new American programme for younger artists to help aging artists," laughs Cornell down a trans-atlantic phone line. "This was the fourth time he'd asked us to tour with him, and every time previously we were either making a record, or it was just bad timing."
"We were recording this time as well but we just figured that we'd better say yes at some point. So, we've taken a hiatus from the studio for eight shows. On the day this tour's over, we're back in there."
Back in the studio, in Seattle natch, where Soundgarden (completed by bug-eyed guitarist Kim Thayil, manic bassist Ben Shepherd and clean-cut drummer Matt Cameron) are currently preparing their follow up to the million-selling Badmotorfinger with producer Micahel Beinhorn (RHCP, Soul Asylum).
"It's sort of typically to an extreme," says Cornell of the work in progress. "We've already got 26 songs, and I don't think any of us agree on which ones should be on the album. So we're probably gonna record most of them, cos you don't know how they'll turn out. There are a lot of titles, but I don't wanna give 'em to you cos I haven't really got an idea what's gonna be on the record."
"I guess the material is sort of in the Badmotorfinger vein, but a lot more diverse than anything we've ever done before. There are a lot of varying guitar sounds and different vocal approaches the way things are going. Hopefully, there'll be more experimentation in every direction you can think of. From one thing being more of a Pop song, to something else being more of a completely atonal, noisy song. It's been pretty surprising so far."
As yet untitled, this next Soundgarden record won't see the light of day until early 1994. Unlike Badmotorfinger, it will be released into a post-grunge world. A world which has turned the many bands from Seattle into one neatly packaged fashion accessory.
"Yeah, to a degree it's cool to be part of something, but every one of those bands would probably have been better off if they hadn't been lumped together."
"The chances are that we wouldn't all have been thrown into the same bag if we weren't from the same town. I could say that there are comparisons between Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, but other than that, every band is pretty distinctive."
Which is more than can be said for the many bands who have emerged with flannel shirts and Doc Martens in the wake of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Nirvana. Stone Temple Pilots, for instance.
"You see, I think that's a good thing," Cornell counters. "It's like, OK, here's this other band that's trying to do this thing that was categorised as grunge, and they seem to have elements of almost every Seattle band there is in one song or another, but they're not from Seattle. And they've already sold a million-plus records in the US."
"In one way, it is the commercialisation of grunge, but in another it takes the emphasis away from Seattle, which is good. See, I'm not really worried about the title 'grunge', because I don't think it applies to any of the bands it was put on. It applies more to bands that are gonna come out now, like Stone Temple Pilots, cos they've been influenced by the media perception of grunge."
He might not be bothered by the terminology, but Cornell has surely been affected by the media overkill. The Sex God of Grunge has shaved his head. Is this Chris Cornell fighting off the pre-teens who've covered their fading Jon Bon Jovi posters with his picture?
"I dunno. I just wanted to do it for a long time, so one day I went for it," he sighs. "I haven't really been out much since I shaved my head, so there hasn't been much of a reaction. They did write about it in Newsweek, though, which seemed really strange to me."
That's the sort of thing that happens when you get pressed in platinum. There are dangers and frustrations as well. Soundgarden courted both when they joined the Stadium Rock club, supporting Guns 'N' Roses in the US and the UK to promote Badmotorfinger. The quartet's reaction to the stint earned them the nickname Frowngarden.
"I think that might have been a name we deserved on that tour," Cornell reflects. "It wasn't a whole lot of fun going out in front of 40,000 people for 35 minutes every day. Most of them hadn't heard our songs and didn't care about them. It was a bizarre thing."
"They had this thing where they'd send a guy roaming into the audience with a camera, trying to get girls to show their tits. And they'd put it all up on screens. That was a big thing in the US, two hours if intimidating girls. They way they did it was really imposing. They would walk up to a girl, try to get her to show her tits, and if she wouldn't do it they'd get 30,000 to 50,000 people to scream at her until she did. It was pretty crazy."
It's an experience that Chris Cornell has no intention of repeating.
"I'd rather not do the sports stadium kind of thing. It would be nice to go play in front of 5,000 for the rest of my career, cos I don't really care about performing in front of 20,000 or 60,000. First of all, the kind of music that you have to play isn't something we're either interested in, or capable of doing."
"We figured that playing those gigs would be a good way of exposing ourselves to a lot of people who may never have heard of us. Especially in a situation like the one in the UK, where didn't get as much organised record company influence. But I don't think it really helped. I don't think we sold any more than records than we'd have done if we'd just done our own tours and worked it ourselves. When you're opening for a band like Guns 'N' Roses, they'll be very few people there who'll care who the support band is anyway."
And no matter how hard you try, you cannot rage against the machine. Try to shout out loud, and you'll get the heavy hand of censorship slapped across your mouth. The evidence? Ask Chris Cornell about Soundgarden's Jesus Christ Pose video.
"It ended up being the first video that MTV wouldn't play on The Beavis and Butthead Show, cos it didn't meet their standards. It turned out that it was the religious imagery that they were afraid of. They don't seem to get uptight about rap bands rapping about killing people and raping women, but religious imagery..."
"Actually, I'd imagine they're even more intense about that in the UK. When we were over there touring, they'd got this poster of a skeleton nailed to a cross all over the place to advertise the single, and we were getting death threats at the shows. If anyone's gonna be sensitive to, or offended by something like that, then I think they're a little too serious about what they believe in..."
Back to the future... in the grand tradition of Temple Of The Dog, Cornell and his colleagues busied themselves away from Soundgarden before reuniting in the Seattle studio we spoke of earlier.
Shepherd and Cameron hooked up with John Waterman and Brian Wood to form Hater ("I love their record," Cornell offers), while the band's chief songwriter has donated two songs to the forthcoming Alice Cooper album, and handed Flotsam and Jetsam the lyrics to The Message (a track off their recent Cuatro set). Contrary to various rumours, however, he has not been collaborating with Alice in Chains guitarist, Jerry Cantrell.
"I haven't really done anything with Jerry," he explains. "We see each other every one in a while, and I recorded a song of his in my basement a couple of months ago just to check it out."
Nor will there be a solo record in the future, despite the critical acclaim generated by his accoustic contribution to the Singles soundtrack, Seasons.
"No, Soundgarden takes up all my time at the moment. I could easily do one at some point - I have enough material - but that's for later. The atmosphere we've had in the band about side projects has been really cool; everyone's been really good about it, and no one's got uptight. So something like that is obviously possible. It's good, cos it broadens the audience's idea of what we can do as a band, and what we can get away with."
It also heightens awareness of Chris Cornell as a songwriter amongst his peers. Now that Seattle and grunge have become an integral part of popular culture, how long will it be before a Bon Jovi or a Poison look to the sons of Seattle for a hit?
"I've already had calls like that, but not from those guys," Cornell reveals. He ain't about to reveal names though, "Erm, I'm not really sure that I can even remember who they were, but there have been quite a few. I've never gone and sat in a hotel room with someone I've never met before and tried to write songs. It doesn't seem a very natural way of coming up with something you'd like."
"I'd just like to be able to write and record songs that inspire me, as well as the rest of the band. I don't want to have to worry about much beyond making records. It will be ideal if Soundgarden can continue along the same path. We've been pretty successful so far just by doing what we do."