Reprinted without permission from Request, June
Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil spend a sleepless night in Seattle discussing the finer points of fame, fortune, and single-malt scotch.
Kim Thayil -- Soundgarden's Hirsute Guitar Wizard and all purpose theoretician -- has a powerful gripe with Seattle. It's got nothing to do with the indigenous music scene his band sprang from over a decade ago, nor with the interminable use of the word "grunge" that the success of Seattle-bred bands has fostered. It's not the gray skies and wet weather that have him upset. Thayil's bugged about the town's much lauded cups of joe.
"It pisses me off," he says, nearly seething while settling into a seat at an artily dishevelled warehouse-turned restauant. "This town has a really stupid approach to coffee. Everyone in Seattle likes to pride themselves on their ability to drink coffee, but it's all candy coffee, wimpy dessert coffee -- basically, coffee-flavored milk. What's a latte? It's milk with a rough edge. It's horrible."
He pauses for a moment and shoots an enquiring look across the table at his friend and cohort, Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell. The consummately placid singer calmly nods in agreement and sips at his cocktail, which seems to trigger another bit of Seattle-rant from Thayil.
"The drinking can be stupid too, here. We're supposed to be proud of all these microbrews up here, but it's all candy beer: peach ale and raspberry lager. It's crap. This town's given the country alot of good music, but we also pioneered dessert beers and bars that you're not allowed to smoke in. That's alot to answer for."
Lattes and lagers notwithstanding, Seattle remains a very happy home base for the four sturdy fellows of Soundgarden. A dozen years back, the band was a wild-eyed power trio, with Thayil riffing, original bassist Hiro Yamamoto booming and Cornell drumming as he sang. They made fierce arena-sized noises in the town's smallest, dingiest punk and metal clubs, and considered it an accomplishment to be drinking free beers, microbrewed or otherwise. But with equal measures of clear-eyed ambition, the Northwest workingman's pride of craft, and sheer, loud talent, the band has since made a slow, steady, almost sneaky climb up the rock'n'roll stepladder of success.
Other architects of "Seattle sound" climbed that ladder more quickly and with greater fanfare; Nirvana and Pearl Jam were on their way to becoming household names when Soundgarden's mix of smart'n'heavy was leaving both headbangers and grunge lovers deeply confused. But whereas Kurt Cobain's frailties were turned into a national tabloid tale, and half an Eddie Vedder mood swing still considered hot gossip, Soundgarden made it to the top of the rock heap while remaining the most Seattle-ish of Seattleites: solid, low-key, work-booted feet firmly planted on damp ground.
Along with Thayil and Cornell, Soundgarden is Matt Cameron, who began providing the band's man-monster beats in 1986, and Ben Shepherd, who was brought aboard to throttle the hell out of innocent bass guitars in 1990. This lineup, with little hoo-haw and hardly a tabloid hadline, has garnered platinum success (91's Badmotorfinger), multiplatinum success (94's Superunknown), a handful of Grammy nominations, and fans around the globe. With an extremely potent new album, Down On The Upside, about to be released, and a prime spot alongside Metallica on this summer's Lollapalooza, Soundgarden is now a rock band triumphant, poised to enjoy the searing glow of full rock stardom.
Which basically means that when Thayil and Cornell sit down to dinner these days, they can afford to ignore the insult of candied microbrews and head straight for the single-malt Scothes. Beyond that, the men of Soundgarden don't seem to be indulging any other rock'n'roll extravagances.
"What, you mean aside from the coke binges, wrecking the luxury cars, and the gold-card hookers?" Thayil asks. "That's just part of the job."
"Basically, our success has just meant an end to a certain bunch of worries," adds a more serious Cornell. "Food, rent, keeping the lights on. All the basics we need to get along are taken care of. And that's a good enough feeling. I'm not really comfortable with extavagance. I grew up in a total working-class environment, and that's still where I feel the most comfortable."
For a pair of guys who've sold several million records and who can expect to sell several million more, these two are indeed remarkably regular bubs. Still given to T-shirts, jeans, and, yes, flannel, Thayil and Cornell exude a relaxed confidence, a self-assuredness, but not a whiff of Big Rocker Attitude. Cornell has the dark good looks of a silent-movie matinee idol, but is completely without pretty-boy posturing. In his soft-spoken way, he is engagingly open and thoughtful. And Thayil isn't ever that far away from the freaky-brainy philosophy major he once was; likely at any point in a conversation to take off on some elegantly discursive thesis.
At the moment, Thayil is attempting to sway Cornell's choice of entree with a devilishly reasoned argument on the morality of veal ("Isn't it more humane to kill the cow sooner than let it live a longer life of misery?"). Cornell buys the argument and orders the more humane choice, scallopini, while Thayil skirts the issue with pork chops, another Scotch, and, for balance, a non-microbrewed light beer.
"We're not really ostentatious people," the guitarist says, "and most of the people in Seattle bands aren't either. To some degree, people indulge their pleasures because they can afford to, but sometimes that's just not very satisfying. I could buy a brand new pair of blue jeans everyday, but the old dirty ones are still more comfortable. Soundgarden is just not the kind of band that's going to have champagne parties on yachts. It's a big enough thrill for me that I could buy a car in cash and not have to worry about a payment plan."
In fact, Thayil has driven to dinner in the same van that the band was piling into ten years ago for it's transmission-busting club tours. The van is a rather large reminder of the caution, thrift, and rationalism that have marked Soundgarden's career from the beginning.
"It wasn't until we signed our deal with A&M that we had enough money to live off of Soundgarden," Cornell says. "Before that, I was cook. But the funny thing is that through the first couple of records for A&M -- when we were making good money because we owned our publishing and merchandising -- we still only paid ourselves $600 a month per person. We were so used to that. Everything else went into the bank. After Badmotorfinger went platinum, we splurged and kicked it up to $800 a month. And we're up to $1100 now. It's a matter of using what you need and not wanting to need anymore."
Those years of levelheadedness had the band well prepared for the gigantic success of Superunknown. "I suppose I kind of thought that something like that would change all the rules, might change the way we work," Cornell says. "But it didn't. We've always been so pragmatic about everything we had to deal with that it's been pretty easy. We've always given ourselves enough time to make decisions, and so far we've been happy with our decisions. No matter what happens to this band, we're stuck being four people that are going to overthink everything.
"And we've never been inspired by selling records, because selling records and becoming internationally famous has never been a real indication of quality," he adds with a chuckle.
"Suffice it to say that each member of the band has at times been deluded," Thayil elucidates. "But we've been fortunate in that we've never suffered from a complete band delusion."
Success didn't seem entirely likely for Soundgarden at the beginning of it's career. The band had an odd knack for being a few crucial months ahead of it's time. The first two Eps, Screaming Life and FOPP, were recorded for Sub Pop, but Soundgarden left the label just before it became the hot, high-profile indie label of choice. The band's A&M debut, 1989's Louder Than Love, showcased the kind of neo-metal roar perfect for the alternative market, but it was out a good year-and-a-half before the term "alternative market" was being freely kicked around. Soundgarden was the first of Seattle's grungers to pump it's music in arenas, but did so sharing bills with the likes of Skid Row and Guns 'N' Roses, a move that seemed to make them less hip with indie cognoscenti.
Contrary to some press reports, the members of Soundgarden never begrudged the success of such worthy Seattle scenemates as Pearl Jam and Nirvana. But by the early '90's, the band was witness to the odd phenomenon of lesser bands recycling Soundgarden-style riffs into greater sales and media attention than Soundgarden itself earned, the mention of which brings a heated flash of Soundgarden team spirit from Thayil.
"There's always a degree of flattery and a degree of annoyance that bands can cop licks from us and sell really well," he says, "but they're not going to be able to what we do because they don't think the way we do. They don't have the same attitude. A lot of guys can sing with that nice rich tenor, but they don't have the range that Chris does. And there's so much we're capable of doing while still having it sound like Soundgarden. I think most of the other bands doing our kind of thing tend to sound one-dimensional."
Cornell joins in with uncharacteristic fervor. "It would be impossible to sound like us because we don't even sound like us from record to record."
A bit of bluster from the both of them, perhaps, but the talk is backed up by the sound of the new album. On this night, the album is still nameless, as the band continues to search for the appropriately deep-rocking syllables to jam together a la Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. The music, however, is ultra-Soundgarden, ranging from the other-worldly metal pop of "Pretty Noose" to the disturbing atmospherics of "Applebite" on through to the ripping punk snarl of "Ty Cobb" (whose charmingly concise lyrics are "I'm hardheaded, fuck you all").
Cornell does indeed show off surprising range, straying far from his leather lunged screams of old in favor of sly understatement and even some gentle croons. Thayil unleashes a brand new arsenal of guitar assault, kicking into ear-bending frenzies when called upon, but also just as likely to move a song along with a powerful less-is-more approach. The album's 16 tracks uniformly demonstrate that Cameron and Shepherd into one of the largest, scariest rhythm sections since Led Zeppelin's John Bonham and John Paul Jones. This is at once a noisier and sweeter Soundgarden, with songs as graceful as they are fierce. The band has thickened and deepened. Thayil only hopes they haven't matured.
"That's one of the most irritating things to hear," he says with an irked shake of the head, "'a band maturing'. What the hell does that mean? You can sell to old people? Was there something wrong with your abilities prior to becomming 'mature?' 'That band's good but they're not mature.' 'Thank goodness that band has matured.' Those are things you hear from industry people, but they don't even know what it means. If 'mature songwriting' means Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits, then OK. But how does 'mature' apply to rock bands? Does maturing mean 'ripening' or 'rotting?'"
One measure of this groups ripenes is that for the first time the band members have produced their own record. In the past they've worked with the aid of the esteemed ears of Terry Date and Michael Beinhorn, but Cornell feels that this time around they got closer to the elusive noisier sound that's been the heart of their live shows.
"I always felt the producer was someone there working for me," the singer explains, "to help me get what I wanted. But I would be influenced by what they wanted and we'd end up with pristine performances of Soundgarden material. Once I realized that pristine performances were something I really disliked, it became really easy to decide to work without a producer. The noise wasn't an intentional addition on this record, it's just that it got weeded out on other records. As a live band we've always been noisy. That's what we're like. And its always bugged each of us to some degree when we made a record that somehow we missed that. That noisiness isn't something we had to create specially in the studio; it was just something we had to allow. Pick up the guitars, play it -- there it is. Next song."
Thayil gives his beard a thoughtful stroke. "Well, producers are concerned about their own careers as well," he says. "They don't want their peers to hear them putting out a 'noisy' record. It's the sound that we love, but to most producers, its shoddy workmanship."
A round of desserts is ordered: more Scotches, more beers, and some full strength coffee -- no latte`s thank you. Thayil and Cornell decide to move back to the one clubby room where the restaurant still allows smokers to indulge. As they proceed to fill up a pair of ashtrays several times over, the mysteries of Soundgarden songwriting are explored.
"We try to be the band where the formula is the anti-formula," Cornell says with a bemused shrug. "Its not easy to predict where songs are going to come from or what they're going to do when we get a hold of them."
Nor is it easy to decipher what's being sung about. Though Cornell delivers lyrics with unmistakeable passion, he tends to build blocks of inscrutable imagery rather than lay out simple narratives. And though he and Thayil both admit that there's some lvel of personal meaning to their words, it would be a mistake to try and read any of the band member's tunes as respective autobiographies.
"There aren't too many songs that refer to the street I live on or the school I went to," Thayil says with a laugh. "There's autobiography in there without getting into that 'here's what I did today' Lou Reed/Bruce Springsteen thing."
"I think that kind of specificity can be really cool," Cornell says. "Especially for a fan to be able to pull something out of the songs. But it also becomes kind of a yawn at some point. As a lyricist, I find that bands that work that way exclusively become really boring -- to the point of victimization of the listener: Here's me and you have to listen to me talk about me."
Thayil blows a stream of smoke and shakes his head disapprovingly. "There's this conventional wisdom that autobiographical is good. 'Miss or Mister Songwriter has the courage to divulge intimate parts of herself.' First of all, that's not the only way to be an artist, and secondly, as a listener, I'm sick of being divulged to. Look at the Ramones. They created this fantasy world of weird scenarios -- Nazis and KKK and mass murders and serial killers and cretins. I'm pretty sure that didn't all come from experience. It was just good songwriting."
The madness and monsters that pop up in Soundgarden tunes aren't so easily pegged, and Cornell prefers to keep it that way. He's not keen to elaborate on the state that Superunknown's title track describes and will go only so far as to say that "Rhinosaur", a creature who suffers a rather trenchant indictment on the new album, is best explained as a 'nose lizard.' In fact, in a time when a misunderstood lyric can lead to pickets and boycotts, Cornell seems to relish the notion that listeners might twist the meaning of his work.
"The thought that someone might 'get it wrong' doesn't bother me at all," he says. "I come from a background of being a fan of music where the idea is more or less escapism, and whatever facilitates that and wherever you escape to is your business. That's the only way you can really own the CD's you buy. Otherwise you're just borrowing. If you spend money on something that encourages you to come up with your own meanings -- visually, mentally, emotionally -- then its well worth the money. And for us as a band, its well worth the effort of recording it in the first place. I've heard songwriters complaining about people getting things wrong, but if you put something out there, obviously a certain amount of people are going to get it wrong. It's nothing to get upset or uptight about. If it's important to you to make some specific point with a song, I don't think that's very hard to do."
This point intrigues Thayil enough that he asssumes the questioner's role for a moment: "Well, Chris, doesn't it bug you if people politicize your lyrics and draw the wrong political conclusions?"
"Not necessarily" the singer responds. "When we did 'Big Dumb Sex' on the first A&M record, people drew very specific conclusions, and that was very entertaining for me, as well as very educating. The song was written to be benign and playful -- basically a disco sex song that had one particular graphic word which disco bands or Madonna always replace with 'love' or 'boogie' and that one word became an issue. To me it was just a disco tune, minus any cute euphemisms for intercourse. But it got some people very upset, including people at our own record company."
The band also managed to rile some sensibilities with Badmotorfinger's "Jesus Christ Pose," a jab at artistic types playing the holy martyr that was read by some to be an antireligious diatribe. Memory of the small tempest around that tune lights up Cornell's face with a broad grin.
"The best story I remember about that is that I went to buy this truck," he says, "and I was dealing with this young bornagain guy who was really excited because he thought it was an intense pro-Christian song. I didn't really try to change his mind, but I did buy the truck. The whole thing with 'Jesus Christ Pose' was very similiar to 'Big Dumb Sex', except that it got to the point that when we were touring England And Scotland -- where we were using a poster of a cyborg on a cross taken from that song's video -- we started getting death threats."
Thayil stops in mid-Scotch sip, his wide eyes widening even further. "We got death threats?"
"Yeah", Cornell says nonchalantly. "Amazing."
"Why didn't you tell me?" asks a clearly rattled Thayil.
Cornell shrugs. "It was just interesting to me to see the limits of what people were willing to understand about what we were doing, and the extremes to which they'll take it. Even though a bunch of words are poetic or metaphoric, they'll take 'em literally everytime."
If listeners are familiar with just one Soundgarden tune, it would probably be "Black Hole Sun", the breakaway single from Superunknown. But Cornell says that any attempts to understand or misunderstand that tune would be fairly fruitless. "That's the biggest hit we've ever had," he says, "and lyrically it's probably the closest to me just playing with words for words' sake, of anything I've written. I guess it worked for alot of people who heard it, but I have no idea how you'd begin to take that one literally."
It's 'Black Hole Sun' that's being blasted in a Broadway bar to celebrate the late-night arrival of local hero Kim Thayil. It's an hour after the final Scotches were downed and butts were extinguished back at the restaurant, and while an obviously sleepy Cornell was ready to call it a night, Thayil was up for a few more rounds in some neighborhood watering holes.
At a first stop, Thayil was greeted not with rock-star awe but as one of the regulars, with plenty of backslaps and handshakes to go around. But he came back from a trip to the john looking peeved.
"This place used to be alot cooler when it was an old man's bar. Kurt used to come in here, too. But there's just too many of the wrong kind of people now. I walked past this table that just stared at me like I was a freak, and then on the way back this guy says to his friend, 'You owe me $50.' Maybe I'm being hypersensitive, but I think these guys had a $50 bet that I was 'that weird guy from Soundgarden' or whatever. I'm the fucking horse they've got their money on. That's not a great feeling when you just want to drink a beer."
And so the move down the street to near-empty bar No. 2, where a gratis round of shots is delivered to Thayil's table as his opening guitar licks to his band's biggest hit are pumped up.
"Thanks, thanks very much," he shouts to the smiling bartender with a sheepish grin on his face. "But to tell you the truth, we've got 100 songs and there are 99 that I'd rather hear than this one."
Closing time rolls around soon, but Thayil decides that a proper nightcap has not yet been consumed. A plan of action is put together. A good friend's apartment is within strolling distance, and a six-pack can be picked up at an all night market along the way. In the market Thayil becomes an exciting celebrity-spotting to a few bleary eyed shoppers. The cashier seems tickled to serve a member of his town's rock royalty, and double bags Thayil's beer with a flourish. When Thayil stops at a magazine rack on his way out to glance at some guitar mags, he's approached by the security guard, an elderly black man.
"I know who you are," the guard says in a conspiratorial whisper. "Very nice work my man. Congratulations."
These words cheer Thayil immeasureably. "Sometimes it's worth it to be seen," he says outside the store. "That guy was very cool."
Finally, at his friend's pad, with a final, refreshing non-microbrew in hand, a Japanese fantasy film playing muted on a small TV, and with the sounds of Sub-Pop 200 album providing a fitting backdrop, Thayil offers a few more cogent thoughts on his town and his band.
"Seattle prides itself on being everything but Seattle. People point around and say, 'This is like London,' 'This is like New York,' 'This is so European.' Well, shut up. There's something so nice about the indigenous culture of Seattle, but people here don't always see it. I think people around the country got the idea for a while that Seattle was this super-hip, super-cool, rock'n'roll city, but really it took the town quite a while to appreciate what was happening here musically. Soundgarden got a big review in the Village Voice before it got attention from the local papers."
"The other side of that is that my band and our buddies and our peers definitely felt that we were part of an important scene. We knew we were doing something different from what was going on in New York or San Francisco or Austin, and we knew it was unique. We really supported each other, and I think we're all still really proud that some great music was created. And now the town is finally proud of 'grunge.' The Chamber of Commerce talks about it. I think there's a plaque up somewhere: 'Pioneer Sq, where bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam invented grunge.'"
He pauses for a chuckle and another suck of beer, and nods along with a Mudhoney single from all those years ago. "Its really kind of odd to consider Soundgarden's success," he says. "Its not like winning the lottery, because alot more goes into it than that. You design something you believe is good and you work very hard at it -- that much you can control. But then there's the caprice of the marketplace, which we don't pretend to understand or really want to understand. The bottom line is that there's a great deal of satisfaction in creating music that we love. There's satisfaction in delivering some rock pleasure to Soundgarden fans. And there's also just the basic satisfaction of having made a living at this for so long."
Thayil shrugs. "We entertain ourselves, we're proud of what we do, and the rest is just a bonus."