Reprinted without permission from Raygun, June/July
The streets of Seattle have their own little surprises. For the young men in black who are Soundgarden, slouching inconspicuously towards a nearby recording studio, that means having their brisk after-dinner stroll blessed by some stranger, some thirtysomething Joe-Blow-Q-Public-Everyman walking past them in the shadows and shouting over his shoulder: "Hey, I love your albums!"
A casual remark, really, but certainly an unsolicited vote of confidence as tell-tale and rewarding as the crowd of desperate hardcore fans who have stalked their comings and goings these last several months at Bad Animals Studios, clutching their CDs and posters and magazine covers and vinyl discs ready to be autographed by passing rock stars.
"Hey, thanks a lot, man," says guitarist Kim Thayil, smiling through his beard at the mysterious stranger.
But a few steps later, Chris Cornell laughs. "Later on, he'll be talking to his friends, going, 'Hey, I just saw the Foo Fighters!'"
It's a fluke that Soundgarden is out here at all tonight. As of yesterday, the band's newest album was finished: a long, nine-month project, finally, or practically, put to rest. A few hours ago they were still haggling over possible album titles (TeleChaos? Straight Outta Concrete? Bad Bad Leroy Brown?). And then there were all those band photos and album cover mockups to consider, and that magazine photo session and everything else. But the bulk of the work is done on Down On The Upside, even if Thayil was still flying back and forth to Los Angeles earlier this week to finesse the final sound mixes.
The result is Soundgarden at its hardest and most sophisticated, 16 tracks of sledgehammer rock, straight-ahead punk, acoustic subtlety, and moments of absolute heaviness that Plant & Page haven't managed since Led Zeppelin burst 16 years ago. The Zeppelin comparisons don't bother Soundgarden so much anymore (it wasn't exactly what they were aiming for back in 1985, when Black Flag's hyperangst seemed a more viable model) -- Soundgarden has not switched gears towards booze-metal, but Cornell and Thayil and Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd now recognize that they're making music on an epic scale. "Grunge" hardly seems an appropriate description now, if it ever was. Superunknown, the band's last album, revealed a band superceding its own spectacular growth, roaring out a collection that swarmed the charts as well as the cars and bars of millions of new fans. Songs like "Spoonman" and "Black Hole Sun" glided along a grim, quasi-psychedelic groove that earned comparisons to the Beatles. But not even in his darkest moments did John Lennon crawl this deep into the pit of humanity, to sing this unmistakable message of the song and video: Exterminate the brutes!
This kind of anger could not be further from Cornell's mind at the moment, as he steps into the Bad Animals lobby and almost immediately grabs a studio engineer and playfully lifts him off the ground. The pressure's off Soundgarden tonight. They've traveled back to the studio tonight not to work, but to pay a casual visit to say hello to some friends in a little band called R.E.M., who are tinkering with an upcoming album of quasi-live songs recorded mostly during soundchecks on their recent tour, spicing things up with fresh bits of guitar and vocals.
As Soundgarden stumble into the big back studio for a beer or two, R.E.M. and their crew are taking a break, watching the movie Dr. No, where Sean Connery as James Bond again saves the planet with the aid of a bikini-clad woman. R.E.M. are the perfect hosts: guitarist Peter Buck (now a proud resident of Seattle) in his polkadot shirt offering your choice of beverage, singer Michael Stipe chatty and friendly and looking more and more like Vincent Van Gogh in his cropped hair, blond goatee, and colorless T-shirt.
Even after Cornell and Thayil stray into an empty room, R.E.M. keep their coolers of beer, coke and water open to repeat visits from the Soundgarden guys. Cornell steps back in with some brews and twists one open with a smile. "Southern guys are really hospitable."
Despite being busy these last few days with nagging details, Thayil and Cornell seem perfectly relaxed as they sit down to talk about Down On The Upside. As with Superunknown, the new collection is more than an hour's worth of sound and visions, loud guitars and mysterious words. That much material used to be enough for a double album, before the age of the CD. I wonder if they can be so relaxed about whether or not the new record will be greeted with anything near the mass adulation that Superunknown inspired.
"We so much don't care," says Cornell, almost irritated with the subject. "As soon as you start caring about that you're fucked. You put yourself in such a trap. If we like it, we figure someone else is going to like it, and if they don't it doesn't mean that we were wrong."
"We have four totally convicted personalities who know what we do and don't like, and if we can agree on a collection of songs and actually perform them, that's a way bigger hurdle than going, 'Okay, here's what the market is right now, we can do this....' That's easy."
Even as the band moves in a more refined musical direction, lyrics (mostly written by Cornell) still show no interest in pandering to the arbiters of the hit parade. With Down On The Upside, America's dysfunctionals will be buzzin with the anger and despair of "Apple Bite," or "Blow Up the Outside World," with its slow buildup to a loud, frantic chorus, and lyrics like: "nothing seems to kill me no matter how hard I try."
"There's plenty of dark lyrics. I'm not going to pretend that there isn't," Cornell says. "But there's more than that." It's not something he wants to talk about, though, figuring, like so many other lyricists, that too much explanation undermines the listening experience. Figure it out for yourself.
"There's no way anyone's going to instantly understand it," he says. "it's not like AC/DC or even Nirvana, where you get what you get and you understand it right away. We're not that kind of band, and I don't think we ever will be."
If Thayil is the band's most talkative member, ready to rant or praise at length on a variety of subjects, Cornell's demeanor is quiet, and a bit guarded. His black hair is cut short, to match a trim Svengali beard, and somehow reflects his and Soundgarden's new precision. Gone is the old rocker look from the band's earliest days, the long hair that draped over his bare shoulders. But there's something of early Soundgarden's energy that's been resurrected for Down On The Upside. Like bassist Ben Shepherd's mean riff-rock thrash on "Ty Cobb," and other tunes built on a throttling, organic rock groove that Cameron says are "for anyone who was bummed out by any of the songs on Superunknown."
Superunknown was a fine experiment, a place to introduce their new brand of explosive psycho-delia. But the band felt there was still something distant about that album. For the followup, Soundgarden wanted to feel it as much as hear it. "It wasn't like we were trying to get more stripped down in terms of arrangements, or in terms of what we play or how we write," says Cornell. "It's about getting those aspects down in a simpler, liver atmosphere."
"By the time we were finished, it felt like it had been kind of hard, like it was a long, hard haul. But there was stuff we were discovering."
The long haul has ushered Soundgarden straight to edges of the final frontier. The four of them are gathered in a small room painted to look like a scene from outer space, with scattered stars and planets. Above them hangs a giant metal sculpture shaped like a flying saucer, as a photographer quietly hovers about, snapping pictures of them sipping at their Rolling Rock beers.
Cornell kicks his boots up onto a table and riffs on the true meaning of Star Trek. "Jim, you wouldn't understand," he says, mocking Mr. Spock himself. "But Spock, Spock, Spock, but Spock. I just like saying, 'But Spock.' Hey, didn't he just do a book?"
"Yeah," says Thayil. "It's called I Am Spock. And he did another book years ago called I Am Not Spock."
"I wish he would figure it out."
In showbiz jargon this place is called the Green Room. Not that there is anything at all green in sight (except, maybe, that giant paper mache scorpion waiting outside the door), but this is where bands await the stage at Moe's Mo' Rock'n Cafe. Soundgarden has never played here. They're just here to do some pictures and discuss album cover art and other pressing business. But the very existence of this place, with it's multiple rooms, bars, and floors demonstrates just how far the Seattle music scene has come - a scene that Soundgarden helped create.
In Seattle today, there is a rock club on virtually every block. Peter Buck's wife runs a fine little club called the Crocodile, just around the corner from Bad Animals. Back in the mid-'80s, clubs were few and rarely lasted very long. Many gigs by the likes of Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, the Melvins and the U-Men were performed on the run, at sites designed to last only a few nights before moving on (due to the city's anti-rock 'n' roll ordinance called the Teen Dance Regulations). Bands who would later go on to epitomize the popular image of Seattle rock (Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam) did not yet exist, and Nirvana was just getting started.
Into this scene arrived the future members of Soundgarden. Thayil had lived in Seattle until he was five, when his family (originally immigrants from India) moved to Park Forrest, Illinois. By the beginning of the '80s, Thayil returned, enrolled at the University of Washington as a philosophy student, and brought along friend Hiro Yamamoto. On the nights when he wasn't spinning punk discs as a deejay on the college radio station, Thayil joined bassist Yamamoto and a local drummer named Chris Cornell. By 1984, they were calling themselves Soundgarden, named after a giant wind sculpture in Seattle's Magnuson Park.
Drummer Scott Sundquist was soon recruited to get Cornell up in front of the band. "That really gelled, really pushed Chris' energy out front," Sundquist remembers. Sundquist is a few years older than the others and had been inspired by limey drummers Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, and John Bonham. But even that didn't explain those first, alarming comparisons to Led Zeppelin in the local music press. Without question, the players of Soundgarden saw themselves as far more inspired by the Ramones, Bauhaus and the Butthole Surfers, and all those great bands signed to SST Records that always seemed to be passing through town: Black Flag, Minutemen, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, etc., etc.
"When I learned how to play guitar in the first band I was ever in, it was Ramones songs and Pistols songs," says Thayil. "It was years later that you were picking up on Zep and Budgie. I was too alienated, too socially retarded for that to be part of my social life at that time."
Whatever it was, the music instantly connected with the small Seattle underground rock crowd. "Once we started playing, we were getting called to play all the time, in a city where it's really hard to get a show," says Cornell. "We actually had to say no, because we realized there were only so many people. If you could get 200 people that was amazing, and we couldn't get those 200 people to show up every weekend."
Other bands in town may have played as much as possible, overexposing themselves to the same set of music fans, but Soundgarden kept their appearances to a minimum, always sure to have some new material ready for the next show. "If we played one show a month that was the most," Cornell remembers.
Adds Thayil: "A lot of bands insisted they had to play enough to keep their chops up and earn some money. Money? What do we need another $50 for?"
"There was no preoccupation with being successful on any level other than writing songs that you like, and that your friends like," says Cornell. The inspiration behind all this music, he adds, was at least partly the city's "isolation factor. There was no carrot. Whatever you played, there was no chance that you would ever be famous doing it. There was no record company people showing up to sign the next band. All there really was here was either a new wave bar band like a Tommy Tutone thing going on, or the scene we were in - there was nothing really in-between."
At that moment in the city's history, at the birth of the modern Seattle scene, there was nothing - no sound, no fashion - that bound the bands together other than their own enthusiasm and mutual respect. Shows were typically best attended by members of other bands. The so-called grunge code of ethics didn't yet exist. It was a Seattle scene more open, and with more in common with the quirky independence of the Presidents of the United States of America (who were signed out of Seattle just a year ago to great success) than with that army of would-be grunge bands crowding the local clubs now. And it wasn't just Seattle, of course. By the mid-'80s, rap impresario Rick Rubin and Def Jam were blowing up with Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, Metallica was breaking through, and Faith No More had made it to MTV. "The world was just changing," Thayil remembers fondly.
Soundgarden ignored the irritating advice from those days that a band weren't serious as long as they stayed in Seattle. Maybe their friends hadn't discovered it yet, and neither had the rest of the music world, but Cornell understood something spectacular was going on in this city. He knew it every time Soundgarden traveled on one of their cross-country tours, stopping in Los Angeles, Austin, New York, San Francisco and all these other towns reputed to be enjoying active music scenes.
"We'd get there and there was nothing really going on," says Cornell. "We started realizing there were 20 bands at home that blow all these bands away. That's when we started realizing there's something really cool here."
By then Matt Cameron had replaced Sundquist on drums. And the major record labels had caught on to what was happening in the great Northwest, sending representatives up to see and hear for themselves all the noise emerging from beneath the giant Space Needle, the city's epic tourist beacon.
In 1986, Soundgarden recorded four tracks for the Seattle rock compilation album called Deep Six. The Screaming Life EP for Sub Pop Records came the following year; by then the band was already being courted by the majors. "It took almost two years from that point before we actually signed a deal. One of our major concerns was that, 'You guys see that there's this indie marketplace, but we don't believe that you're going to reach the people that these indies know how to reach.'"
The band even found themselves being courted in the fabulous Capitol Records building, overlooking Hollywood, but instead chose to go with the ultimate indie label at the time: SST. The album that emerged from that deal, 1988's Ultramega OK sold about 220,00 copies and was nominated for a Grammy. In 1989, they signed to A&M Records, put out Louder Than Love, and sold 180,000 copies. While touring Italy, some fan asked, "So what happened to you guys?" When informed of the A&M release, he said, "Yes, but you cannot find it in stores." Their worries about a major label's ability to reach the indie crowd had been justified. "If we had signed any earlier it would have been a really bad thing," says Cornell.
That's all changed now, of course, as all sorts of businesses have tried to aim their marketing plans at that crowd of consumers dubbed Generation X, the 20-Somethings, Slackers etc, etc. To Thayil, it's clear the mainstream still looks down on the newest generation of spenders, even with their car commercials featuring an earnest Cobain-lookalike as a TV pitchman; or Larry Bud Mellman in plaids, a knit cap, and wig, shilling long-distance phone calls: "Hey, dude!"
"All record companies were surprised that there was an audience there in general," says Thayil. "That probably had a lot to do with Nirvana's success. They've really been marketing to the same demographic for 30 or 40 years: Kids that bought records in the '60s. They grew up, and over the years they kept selling to those same people. Now there's a big demographic bulge."
"Everything else, including TV and magazines, was directed at that demographic. What happened is that, as Nirvana pointed out, there is a large record buying public that really hadn't been solicited. I don't think any of the record companies really knew any of those bands: the Nirvanas, the Soundgardens, Husker Dus or Faith No Mores. They were surprised when they had hits."
This is a favorite Thayil diatribe: exposing examples of the ageing Hippie-Yippie-Yuppie crowd, that generation which congratulated itself for the 1992 election of Mr. Bill Clinton, finally elbowing aside the World War II generation. "The Oliver Stone extravaganza film series that's so annoying," he chimes, going off, "that stupid sentimental nostalgic look at their petty nostalgia; the big chill, which was a whole bunch of people who had nothing to do with anything, anything critical... 'Yeah, remember when we marched?' You didn't march! You were probably working at some drugstore and looking out the window and recognized some friends of yours in some class: 'Yeah! Right on dude! Oh, the national guard shot you? That sucks! Hey, power to the people!'"
The guys harbor as much disappointment, if not the same kind of anger, over what has become of the Seattle scene they remember. Just as soon as a few bands saw success, things changed dramatically. Young musicians began migrating to the Northwest, and those that were already in Seattle, well, some of them just weren't the same either. Thayil says a half dozen "bands that we loved" all of a sudden adapted their styles to the new profitable grunge thing that Soundgarden, Nirvana and others had taken to the charts. "We were real disappointed with at least three or four bands that seemed to change and become more like us," says Cornell. "As soon as you try to imitate, you start to lose who you are."
"Our hats have to be tipped to the U-Men and the Melvins," adds Thayil. "Those guys did what they did regardless of what anybody else was doing. They didn't acquiesce, they didn't lack confidence in their vision. The Melvins are still one of the most amazing bands."
But those fine bands are just a small part of a monster of a musical movement that somehow emerged from a handful of once-ignored bands in Seattle. Nowhere in the ocean of new acts covered in plaid, knit caps, uneven facial hair and expensive work boots, and who make music indistinguishable from one another, is there anything Soundgarden can still identify with. Soundgarden's members don't sound bitter as they shake their heads. Maybe it's something closer to embarrassment.
"Nothing can come closer to the caricature than the imitator," says Cornell of the popular, cliched image of the Seattle musician. "They're taking the most obvious, or the most easiest fashion end of it or the most obvious musical side of it and wear the right clothes. Those are the bands that we laughed at."
What kind of victory is it to see the likes of Bon Jovi and Whitesnake replaced on the radio with your favorite brand of music, only to watch as it, too, becomes a shallow, repetitive, prefabricated joke?
"The scene that we grew up in has been so exploited and overdone in the last couple of years, to a point where you can imagine not wanting to hear it again for a really, really long time," says Cornell. "When they started to exploit it commercially, the first thing I thought was that there's going to be a point where this is so overdone, so exploited and so copied it's going to be entirely and totally nauseating. I couldn't even imagine what that would sound like, or what that would be like. Now, years later, we're totally there. Now I can tell you the names of those bands. Now I can see why I would never want those elements of music on my stereo."
A different slice of Seattle's sound rings in our ears as Soundgarden crowd over a table covered with plates of bread and Italian pasta. The soft jazz from a nearby piano player seems to be getting louder by the moment.
Cornell is looking down at his plate as he explains Soundgarden's involvement in this year's Lollapalooza festival, which is destined to be headlined by Metallica. Ringmaster Perry Farrell has bowed out this year (reportedly unhappy with the overall direction of his brainchild), but Soundgarden, at least, has taken the opportunity to give some credit to the band who made any of this possible: the Ramones. The godfathers of punk from Queens, New York, are being brought back from the dead for this tour, after saying Adios, Amigos last year.
Soundgarden is the only group who will have played Lollapalooza main stage twice, but they only agreed to return if the Ramones would be there, too. The two bands had spent some time together on the road in Australia on Soundgarden's last tour. "They said we could have any band we want play. And we said the Ramones. They're a great live band."
Not that Soundgarden's music has a lot in common with the pure punk euphoria of the Ramones. The sound is too big, too complex (though Cameron and Shepherd's side-project, Hater, comes a lot closer, with a spare rock sound equal parts Velvet Underground, T-Rex, Wire-like minimalism and '60s grunge). Cornell says there's little premeditation on Soundgarden albums, but it's not "Hey, ho, let's go," either. "Recording it and getting it ready to put on the record is not fast," adds Cameron, who marks his tenth anniversary with the band at this dinner (Shepherd joined in 1990). "It takes time and a lot of hard listening."
During the sessions for Down On The Upside, some songs naturally stretched into jams, though they're usually faded out on the album. "We barely had enough time to fit all the songs on this record," says Cornell, "so it makes it difficult to have these long instrumental pieces."
As it is, the new album is uncommonly long, and that is no accident. "This is not an era of music where you're getting a whole lot of quality per CD you buy, so I'm pretty proud of the fact that when someone buys a Soundgarden CD you're getting an hour-plus of music they can sit on for a long time."
"We could make a 30 minute album that was great. But we'd be cutting off a limb somewhere," says Cornell, "and none of us would be able to agree on which ones."
Which tracks would you cut? Nothing here seems extraneous. The explosive mix of acoustic and electric guitar of "Dusty"? The rolling piano, electric folk of "Burden In My Hand"? The funky guitar waves of "Boot Camp"? It will never happen. As shortcomings go, being a over-inclusive is a guilty pleasure most of their fans will joyfully forgive.