reprinted without permission from Reflex, December
BLOWING EARDRUMS AND BLOWING MINDS
[note: the same issue of Reflex included a flexi, one side of which contained Soundgarden's "She's A Politician"]
Gnashing, subterranean youth culture on the verge of intellectual upheaval, coming to awareness in late '70s decadence, and coming of age in the post-anarcho-punk revolution, Soundgarden was birthed as a bastard child in the musical vacuum of the early '80s, thumbing their noses at authority as well as tradition, on a runaway train to a new musical order. Blaspheming classic rock with an injection of sheer nonconformism, this Pacific Northwest quartet pioneered the coupling of thundering hypnotism with aberrant structure and syncopation--interpreting, reworking, and injecting a nitro blast into the mollified music scene with their own version of a working relationship between intellect and reality.
Soundgarden's roots are firmly entrenched in the suburbia of the Midwest. It was there, in a small town about 40 miles southwest of Chicago called Park Forest, that guitarist Kim Thayil and ex-bassist Hiro Yamamoto (along with Bruce Pavitt, the founder of Sub Pop Records) grew up. An adorable little town with quaint Indian names for the streets--like Blackhawk, Nokomis, and Shabonah--where the greatest excitement is when the carnival comes to town and sets up in the parking lot adjacent to Osco Drugs and across from Marshall Field. It is a place that reeks of family and tradition, where things remain the same and the only changes from year to year are the size of the trees in the front yard and the price of a six of Bud over at Garofalo's (formerly Rudy's) Grocery Store. I should know. I'm from there, too, but I got out early.
Thayil, Pavitt, and Yamamoto graduated from the alternative learning program at Rich East High School, the same place where my mother was a cheerleader in the '50s and my cousin tormented his teachers in the '80s. Park Forest is the kind of place where you either get married and live forever, or get the hell out and see what the world has to offer.
The trio took the road out, traveling to Olympia, Washington where they enrolled in Evergreen State College. Pavitt interned at OP magazine, and wrote about indie bands in his own Subterranean Pop fanzine. After graduating in 1981, Thayil and Yamamoto moved on to Seattle. Pavitt followed in 1983 and began writing for The Rocket before forming his own label, Sub Pop, with Jonathan Poneman. But I'm getting ahead of the story.
While the others were planning their exodus from Park Forest, a young drummer by the name of Chris Cornell was doing his thing in Seattle. He began drumming at the age of 16 with no formal training. His decision to make music his career came easily.
"I was in a band after only a few months of playing the drums and was fairly involved in it," says Cornell. "I got into a lot of other groups really quickly and was sought after by a lot of people locally really quickly. It seemed like I got the rewards really fast without having to really do anything. And then, once I got the rewards, it seemed like I got the taste for it, and started to crave that side of it. It sort of allowed me to mellow out and actually work at [drumming], and concentrate on something--whereas, before that point, I never really could. I couldn't concentrate on anything. I didn't have the patience to do anything."
The meeting of the master players came soon after, when Yamamoto answered Cornell's "roommate wanted" ad. Soon, Yamamoto, Thayil and Cornell found they shared an affinity for The Stooges, MC5, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Dead Boys, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. They became the grand fusion of the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest in one angry and volatile form. But, being a three-piece, Cornell found it a bit difficult to both sing and play drums when their compositions were of such a physically demanding nature. Chris talks about their first show as a quartet.
"It was pretty unusual," states Cornell. "I was really sick and I had a temperature of 103, and I can't really remember any of it. People were telling me stuff that I did that I couldn't remember. But, we got a totally overwhelming response, which was pretty uplifting for everyone in the band, because nobody was really even sure that was the best thing to do, you know? We were actually looking for a singer at the same time as a drummer, because I was pretty much doing both, and it didn't really matter which one replaced me. One of my good friends was a drummer, and he was into what we were doing. We got along with him really well, so he just sort of filled that spot. The first show answered the questions, I think, for everyone in the band as to whether it would be such a good idea or not."
It was at one of the first four-piece gigs that Thayil and Yamamoto's old friend Pavitt, then writing for The Rocket, penned the phrase that would come to describe the Seattle quartet's sound: "Total Fucking Godhead." Pavitt and his partner Poneman had already achieved a bit of notoriety on their label Sub Pop with a group called Green River (who later split into Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone). Pavitt and Poneman soon signed up the band that was known by a moniker taken from a sound sculpture at Sand Point Park, just north of Seattle on Lake Washington--Soundgarden.
Sub Pop released the band's first EP, Screaming Life, in 1987, as well as a series of singles and 12-inches. Even at this early stage, the group had interest from those in the major leagues. But they decided it would be best to stay indie, release their stuff to the underground, and build their following, while keeping their day jobs. They didn't want to be swallowed by a "big meat-grinding operation," as Cornell once called the majors, nor did they want to partake in the starving-artist syndrome.
"We never did that, and I never did that, personally," the singer states emphatically. "I've been in a lot of bands with a lot of people who had, and would say, 'Man, to be a musician, you got to do it all the time.' And we'd end up playing in shitty bars doing cover songs just so we could make money so that those assholes could pay rent, which was ridiculous. I mean, you could make a living doing manual labor, just like anybody else, which is what we did and what I did. And I paid my rent and I had equipment, and I had to work my ass off to do it that way, but it made more sense to me. We all had places to live. We all had food on our table. We all had equipment. We had everything set up because we took care of ourselves, and we made sure that end was covered. You can't necessarily concentrate on music, and music isn't necessarily going to be this outlet and recreation for you if you're having to play it every single night, seven days a week, playing cover songs, or going in and auditioning night after night after night. When we did Soundgarden, that was our recreation--our escape from our regular jobs. If you're a musical hustler, then you end up really bitter about the whole fucking things because you have nothing, you're doing nothing, and it becomes more desperate that people like what you do because you're counting on that they will. We didn't have to count on that. We just did what we did. We didn't knock anybody's door down. We just stayed in Seattle and did shows, and people started calling and noticing us. I think a big part of it was the fact that we didn't have to worry about anything other than entertaining ourselves with the music that we wrote."
Matt Cameron soon began pounding skins for Cornell and crew and in 1988 they jumped from Sub Pop over to SST to record their first full-length LP, Ultramega OK, even as the majors were still knocking on their door. Here was a band of musical malcontents who were so good at their hobby that it became a career, but they still weren't going to let anybody push them into anything they weren't ready for. They were breaking out of the Seattle scene via the college network, and being embraced by everyone from punks to hardcores, from alternative babies to metalheads.
Leading a new generation through the psychedelic wonderland of angst-ridden subliminal revolution, Soundgarden became the hip-to-love buzz band of '88. On Ultramega OK, each composition was an amalgam of emotion and frustration, electrified and pushed through a Marshall stack. Droning tunes like "He Didn't" and thrashers like "Circle of Power" seemed tainted by the limitations the purveyors of certain genres tried to push their way. But, Soundgarden was actually surpassing them, embarking on a path into the starkness of the formulated music machine-on their own terms, with a performance akin to a visual manifestation of Jungian dream-image symbolism. They were blowing eardrums and blowing minds. After gaining the security they felt they needed from the indie scene, Soundgarden signed on the dotted line that same year with A&M.
1989 saw a flurry of activity. They released their major-label debut, Louder than Love, while their songs were included in the soundtracks of Cameron Crowe's Say Anything ("Flower" and "Toy Box") and Hugh Hudson's Lost Angels ("Get on the Snake"). Seemingly everywhere, Soundgarden was blossoming into the big time. And there were some changes: Yamamoto was out and Jason Everman was in on bass. Metal audiences claimed them as their own as the band toured endlessly with Faith No More, Prong, Voivod, and Danzig. There was even a Grammy nomination in the new metal genre. Was the band surprised?
"Not really," states Chris matter-of-factly. "Because I've always been a fan of metal, to a certain degree, ever since I was a kid. The first bands that really kicked my ass had some sort of metal edge to 'em--like Black Sabbath. Kim had metal influences, as well as a more alternative hard-rock influence, which we both had from MC5 and The Stooges and the [New York] Dolls and that kind of shit. So, it was obvious that what we did was gonna have a metal side to it. In metal--up until just a few years ago--the rules were so strict, and you definitely had to sing a certain way, write lyrics a certain way, and structure your songs a certain way, and it was really boring. I think at some point there needed to be bands like Soundgarden and Faith No More and Voivod--there's a perfect example of a band that used their metal influences in a completely different way, who metal people really embraced because it was news."
But soon there was to be a changing point for the band. Until 1989, my only experience of Soundgarden was recorded, and I was thoroughly excited about flying out to see them in LA at Concrete's annual metal convention, Foundations Forum. There, I witnessed an amazing performance at a venue called Hollywood Live, an old converted Masonic hall located across the street from Graumann's Chinese Theatre. Here, shrouded in anonymity, I could preempt the role of music journalist and enjoy the show as every audience member was meant to--as a rabid, dancing Soundgarden fan. I so thoroughly enjoyed the show that I willfully repeated the experience the very next night at Scream, this time from a vantage point in the rafters. The band had the entire club pulsating and sweating in a scene I had only seen before at Jane's Addiction performances. This was a phenomena in the making, and I became determined to document this foursome's trek through rock and roll. I had a sense this was going to be something big. That show was the first point at which I had any contact with this soon-to-be-huge Seattle-based combo.
The promoter was throwing a party back at her apartment after the gig, so I tagged along to help her transport the numerous cases of beer. No one had arrived yet. While the promoter was on the phone, I was sitting on the couch trying to fend off the effects of two days of exhaustion and jet lag. Without realizing, I dozed off. The next thing I knew, there was someone shaking me, saying, "Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!"
I opened my eyes to see Chris Cornell and the rest of the band, as they had stopped by briefly to talk with the promoter. I was wondering if I had died and gone to heaven. Everyone enjoyed themselves and I was glad I had had the chance to say hello.
A few months later, in February 1990, I was working on a road story, traveling with Faith No More. They were touring clubs with Voivod and Soundgarden on what had to be the rock critic's dream bill. I was sitting in the front of the Faith No More tour bus and we were somewhere between Boston and Philadelphia. It was the dead of night. The bus pulled into a truckstop for a gas-up and munchie quest. Soon, I heard a voice saying, "I'm McHungry. We're at McDonald's. Do you want McSomething?" A bunch of the guys were rallying around the bus discussing food and falling into McDonald's was among the least difficult of options.
The next evening was the last night of the three bands touring together, culminating in a huge party back at the hotel. We had a great time enjoying the festivities as partygoers were given tours of various hotel suites. Up the steel spiral staircase, into the boudoir and out onto the balcony, a few members of this three-band touring machine walked along the parapets of the hotel roof, alternately peeping into other patrons' windows and pretending to fall off. Things were definitely getting a little out of hand and security threatened to evict all three bands from the hotel. Spirits were high and the drink was flowing, but no one could anticipate the reality check that was to come down on this parade in the days to come.
After the tour had officially come to an end (Voivod had already left), Faith No More and Soundgarden were making up a gig playing a rescheduled date in a tiny restaurant/bar called Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ. The tour had been fun, with many power-packed, event-filled shows, but now the mood was somber. Something was overshadowing the performance, and I was curious to know what was going on.
Soundgarden was sequestered in their tour bus, and there was a rumor that they were gonna cancel their show. Apparently, there was a conflict with the local powers that be and it was uncertain, at that time, that there was going to be a gig to stick around for. But there was also something heavier people were dealing with. Chris seemed particularly morose and brooding. This didn't seem like the usual hangover-vibe or the somebody's-pissed-off mood that happens on a tour. Something seriously uncomfortable was in the air and intensified by the situation or not, the bad vibes were pretty thick.
It became obvious via hindsight that there was indeed something more than tour trouble marring that evening. I found out later that, back home in Seattle, a friend of the band, especially close to Chris, lapsed into a drug-induced coma, and they didn't know if he was gonna pull through. The singer for Mother Love Bone, Andrew Wood, was fighting for his life. I understood why they felt so affected, as I realized how close the band was to Wood after years of friendship and what an impact he had on me even though I met him only briefly some years earlier.
Soundgarden took the stage of Maxwell's and did the show despite what Chris was going through. He talked briefly about the traumas of drug addition and dedicated the set to Andrew Wood. The crowd that evening didn't make the connection, not knowing what had transpired, but as I look back, I could appreciate to a much greater extent, the overwhelming anxiety the band must have been experiencing.
Cornell and Wood had been roommates. "Just like six months or so, right before or right when Love Bone started," Cornell says. His need to resolve Andrew's death took the form of two songs that he wrote about Wood: "Say Hello 2 Heaven" and "Reach Down." Chris demoed the tracks and played them for his drummer, Matt Cameron, and Mother Love Bone's Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. With the addition of Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready and vocalist Eddie Vedder, the six became Temple of the Dog, named after a lyric in one of Wood's songs. Rehearsals and jams were so inspired that before long, there was a whole LP's worth of material, released by A&M earlier in '91.
"It was initially my idea because of a couple of songs I recorded," Chris explains, "but the idea was mainly to do a single as opposed to a whole record. And the thing was, the rest of the guys in Temple, they sort of thought, well, maybe we should make it a little bit longer project, like an EP or something. The more we talked about it, the more songs kept flying out, and it ended up being an album. It didn't feel like a morose project. It felt sort of celebratory."
The passing of Andy had a distinct, maturing effect on all who knew him. It caused the strengthening of the bonds of camaraderie and a time of mutual reflection. Says Cornell of the grieving and healing process--and in light of the many semi-religious topics on the Temple album and the latest Soundgarden record: "It didn't affect the way I felt about religious. topics or the way I thought about my own life at all, but it did affect the way I felt about other people in my life. Because of the loss of somebody that I thought was brilliant, it sort of directed me towards worrying about relationships that I have with people who I feel are important, as opposed to wasting my time with people who don't seem to be, who are just sort of trying to be energy vampiressucking whatever they can out of you. It helped me define differences between the two, and definitely made me a little more aggressive towards avoiding that kind of person."
That he was re-evaluating the relationships in his life was obvious, as the past year saw him wed longtime girlfriend/manager, Susan Silver. It was a question of priority and importance. The Temple of the Dog project also gave Chris and Matt the clarity of new perspective in relation to Soundgarden.
Their new album, titled Badmotorfinger, is simultaneously a pare-down and beef-up approach to music as we know it. There is an abundance of noise on the new disc, along with driving beats and outre lyrics. It's 12 songs of sonic brutality, recorded at rural Bear Creek Studios, north of Seattle.
"Most all the material is actually new," says Cornell excitedly. "Some of it I wrote on tour, and the rest of it the band sort of collaborated on after the Danzig tour was over. During the time when Matt and I did Temple of the Dog, we were writing then. We pretty much wrote all the way up to the time that we started recording it."
Included on Badmotorfinger are the patented tongue-in-cheek lyrical jabs often termed cryptic by critics, which are really inside jokes to the band, An example was "Big Dumb Sex" from Louder than Love.
"A lot of people never got it, but that was okay," laughs Chris. "I mean, it was humorous to me. On Ultramega OK, '665' and '667'...covering 'One Minute of Silence,' that sort of had an element of humor. There're definitely songs on Badmotorfinger that have an element of humor in them as well. But there's also sort of more classic Soundgarden vibe songs, which are a little more sublime. It's every feeling that we've had in previous records, but I think at times it's a little more outrageous than things we've done before. Lyrically, some parts are a little more straightforward, and actually describing a certain moment or a certain situation in a way that can be understood the first time you hear it, and then there are other songs that are more subliminal than I've written in the past."
Don't believe it? Check out "Searching with My Good Eye Closed" or "Drawing Flies," or "Jesus Christ Pose...."
There have been more obvious changes to the band this time around. Most noticeable is the absence of touring bassist Jason Everman and the addition of their old friend Hunter "Ben" Sheppard from local group March of Crimes, who originally auditioned for the spot two years ago. Ben, as he's known, makes some major contributions to the band, like on the tune "Somewhere." His bass sound fattens up the rhythm end of things and complements Thayil's guitar work. That's because Cornell and Co. share the songwriting chores equally, and Sheppard had a chance to contribute as well, though Chris dominates the word end of things.
And those words serve to both inspire and confuse ... is he a closet intellectual out to baffle his listeners?
"I don't have a real good idea of how I'm perceived by other people, but I suppose I wouldn't consider myself most of the other options besides intellectual, so I guess that would put me in the category of being intellectual," laughs the 26-year-old singer. "I think about everything, but I don't use my music as a pulpit or an instrument by which to achieve any particular change that I would deem appropriate for my generation or anybody else. Music is not just an outlet, it's also a means of expression. It's mainly for entertainment. If you can educate somebody with it, that can be positive, but it can also be tedious and pretty vain and overbearing. Most of all, music, for people who listen to it, is an escape, and those people who listen to it for that should be treated with respect, really, as opposed to preaching to [them].
"I think that's where metal suffers in a lot of ways," continues Cornell. "It's sort of fashionable for young metal bands to come out and sort of scream their angry social or political attitudes over the songs. Most of those people at that age have very little idea about what is going on socially or politically, so it kind of gets irritating. You don't need a 16-year-old kid that dropped out of high school to tell you what you are or aren't paying attention to, or what you do or don't know. It's just sort of insulting."
Thank God we get no preaching from Soundgarden. Sandwiched between the layers of feedback, distortion, and noise are the throaty vocalizations of Cornell. Soundgarden is more akin to late '60s head music than speed-tripping metal or ecstasy-happy alternative. "New Damage" is a prime example of how you can take a trip without ever leaving the room. And there's not a throwaway track on the entire LP. No filler. No bullshit. We're talking an "album" here. Even the combined writing effort on "Room a Thousand Years Wide" (lyrics: Thayil, music: Cameron) is as close to single material as a Soundgarden tune can get, clocking in at 4:06. But what happens when the creative juices just ain't flowing?
"Anything you can do, I think, is the best thing," says Cornell in all seriousness. "I don't have too much of a problem. A lot of the time, if I'm not in the mood, or not feeling creative, I'll just sit down and try and force it and screw around, and if it doesn't work--if I just sort of persevere--at some point I'll stop, I'll start, I'll forget that I wasn't really into it, and something will sweep me away, and I'll get into it. Other times, it's just doing something that can change your perspective on things. Like, I'm not condoning drug abuse, but sometimes that helps. There was a point during the writing for Badmotorfinger where I just spent every single day for a couple of months just working on it and working on it and working on it, and it got to the point where I didn't have any objectivity over any of the shit we were doing. One day I just took off and bought a bottle of Jim Beam and drank it all myself. I got really drunk. It really kind of spun my perspective around, and I was just looking at it through different eyes. But the thing is, the next day I remembered every different thing I had thought. I don't drink on a regular basis, so that isn't my reality. That's an alternative, and...uh, for a lot of musicians, an alternative would be not drinking and not taking drugs. That would help change their perspective."
If nothing else, perspective is something this band has an obvious awareness of. And while this perspective, and the methods by which they keep it in sight, may be ever-changing, elusive, and sometimes hard to grasp, these are the characteristics (among others) which separate Soundgarden from the rest of the bands out there trying to make a name for themselves. Is Cornell happier now that both the Temple of the Dog project and the most recent Soundgarden efforts are at last and finally put to bed?
"I'm not unhappy," replies the chestnut-maned vocalist. "I'm not happy, either. But I'm not miserable....I'm not cleaning the gun or anything."