Reprinted without permission from RIP Magazine, April
SOUNDGARDEN: THE BADASS SEED
The integrity of Soundgarden comes across loud and clear in every note they play on their latest album, Superunknown. The disc has a dense, transcendent, rather retro vibe that's been riveted together out of the best musical elements of their past but still impresses one with its freshness. As the dust from the Seattle music explosion finally begins to settle and the one-hit wonders fade into oblivion, Soundgarden stand tall, as vital and powerful as ever with ten years of bandom behind them and a bright future ahead.
RIP met with the guys shortly before Christmas, while they were mastering Superunknown at Hollywood's A&M studios. Bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron had flown back to Washington so that their side project, Hater, could open for Pearl Jam. This left vocalist Chris Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil to fend for themselves. In marked contrast to Soundgarden's uncompromising, intense musicality, Cornell and Thayil have an easygoing camaraderie, and their take on the world is irreverent, smart and sarcastic. In Cornell's case, his quick quips and sometimes recalcitrant approach seem to stem from shyness. He'll rarely look you in the eye, except to make sure you know when he's pulling your leg--which tends to be quite often. It took a bit of coaxing and 120 minutes in a locked conference room, but we eventually managed to get around his and Thayil's reluctance to blow their own horns and were able to glean some serious info about Superunknown and the merrymakers behind it.
RIP: It seems that on Superunknown you guys have gone kind of backwards, more toward Louder Than Love than that heavier, Badmotorfinger sound.
Kim Thayil: That heavy thing, that's kind of over, that sort of thing when metal ruled the earth. It seems everything is getting more wimpy, more sensitive.
Chris Cornell: It doesn't really have anything to do with songs being heavy or light or wimpy or sad or happy. What it's like in terms of genre or an idea doesn't have anything to do with the songs. You could be the heaviest band in the world, and if you can't write a song, no one's gonna wanna listen to your stupid record. Or you could be the wimpiest, most politically correct band in the world, and if you can't write a song, no one's gonna wanna listen to your stupid record. You could put tits on the cover, and if you can't write a song, nobody's gonna care. Or you can have artificial leather boots on the cover and say, "Save the rain forest," but if you can't write a song, nobody's gonna care about your stupid record.
Kim: People are trying to be wimpier and more tender, but not us! There's definitely heaviness all over this record, but I think we turn the visceral element down a bit.
RIP: What do you mean by the visceral element?
Kim: The physical, the driving, the punching, dancing.
RIP: Did you sit down and talk about a direction?
Chris: Not at all. Never have, never would--ever. If we do, it never happens that way anyway, so it's a waste of time. We could try to be idealistic and say we want to be this type of band, and then it never happens.
Kim: We never wanted to be anything other than how we work together. The only direction that made itself visible is that there were 15 songs that all four of us liked. There were some songs that maybe one of us liked, but that wasn't enough to justify the band doing them.
RIP: That line in "Black Hole Sun," "No one sings like you anymore," who is that directed at?
Kim: Is it about John Lennon?
Chris: I ate some cottage cheese that turned, and I wrote those lyrics. I don't know; it's just sort of a surreal dreamscape, a weird, play-with-the-title kind of song.
RIP: Do you free-associate when you write, or do you sit down with a beginning, middle and end in mind?
Chris: I used to sit down with a cup of coffee, with usually the title in mind. When I start lyrics, that's what I always do; I start with a title.
RIP: Did you write any lyrics on the album, Kim?
Kim: No, I didn't.
RIP: Ben has several songs on Superunknown. Is it easy for you to admit that someone else's stuff is better than yours, Chris?
Chris: [Joking] No one's stuff is ever better than mine! Actually, Ben's songs were my favorite on the record for a while, because I like music that makes me feel that way, and we had really never done anything to that degree in that direction, so I was really happy.
RIP: Are the lyrics to "My Wave" or "Let Me Drown" directed at anyone?
Chris: No. "Let Me Drown" is about--I didn't want to say this, because Nirvana put out that _In Utero_ album, with the fetus all over it--but it was originally about crawling back to the womb to die.
RIP: What triggered that particular line of thought?
Chris: Well, salmon always do that. They go back to where they were born, then they die. I think it would be cool if humans could do that too.
Kim: All those silly neo-Freudians suggest that an orgasm is like a near-death experience. What you're doing is digging a way to try to get back into the womb. These are the coolest lyrics thay we've had, cooler than on the previous record. They're more honest. They're deeper.
RIP: Did you try harder, Chris?
Chris: I always try really hard with lyrics. Sometimes it's a struggle, sometimes it isn't. Like "Superunknown" and "4th of July," I wrote lyrics for both those songs on different days. It took me a whole day to write lyrics to "4th of July," then it took another whole day to write lyrics to "Superunknown," I hated the lyrics, so I rewrote the whole thing in like 20 minutes with a completely different idea and different vocals and everything, and I liked that. Then I went to do "4th of July," and I hated what I'd done on *it*, so I also rewrote that in 20 minutes.
Kim: There's a lot of similarity between your lyrics and Ben's. It's a similar vibe. His, though, are more childlike--like [author J.D.] Salinger, not like _Sesame Street_.
RIP: Can you explain what the "Superunknown" concept refers to?
Chris: No. It's a record title.
Kim: As Frank Zappa would say, "The big note," which is his reference to the void, God, death.
Chris: The title came by accident. That's the biggest problem with having ambiguous or somewhat indirect lyrics--you spend a year after you write them answering questions about them. So next record, straightforward.
RIP: Chris, do you ever get writer's block?
Chris: Yeah, sure. It doesn't tend to last any chunk of time though. Sometimes I think I'm having a writer's block,and I'll write a bunch of songs anyway, and a couple cool songs come out. Writer's block for me-- as opposed to being that I can't write or be creative--is that what I'm writing, I don't really feel is inspired, or it's not inspiring me, even though it might inspire someone else. I tend to write faster when I'm in a bad mood. It'll happen really fast because I'm not as self-conscious about it. I'm in a bad enough mood that I don't really care. Usually I like the song a lot when that happens. Those are some of my favorite songs. Maybe it's more immediate.
RIP: I was listening to your album on cassette, and I was struck by the fact that, since the demise of vinyl, there isn't so much a clear-cut side one and side two. Does that change things for you?
Chris: On our last record, I heard that a lot. I played it for Cameron Crowe [writer/director of _Singles_] and Eddie [Vedder], and they both liked side two better. I was that way, too, when I was a kid. I'd usually listen to side one. But we're an album band, so that works for us.
RIP: The lyrics to "Mailman" make you sound sort of noble.
Chris: I don't want to tell you what it really means, 'cause it makes me look worse! Anything that makes me look noble, I'll stick with that.
Kim: The lyrics on this record have a depth to them. They're colorful, and the meaning is left up to the listener. There are poly-entendres.
Chris: I don't know what that is.
Kim: There are so many ways you can take it--socially, personally, spiritually. It can refer to a specific experience or something deeper and more spiritual. But I hate using that word--spiritual--because it's often used in a way that refers to really corny things. It's spiritual without being mystical, without *magic*.
RIP: "Times are gone for honest men" is one of your lines, Chris. Do you believe that?
Chris: Yeah, definitely. It seems like noble people are squashed.
Kim: I think it's a great line. I think it's great that someone said that.
RIP: Is there sitar on the album? Who brings in the Middle Eastern vibe?
Chris: Matt does. Nope, not one sitar on the whole album. There's violin, viola.
Kim: Those Eastern-type influences turn up in both of Ben's songs. I've only played electric sitar, not a real one. For some reason, playing a sitar, in India, is like studying kung fu in China--you do it for years, and when your teacher decides you've mastered the instrument, you get a certain title.
RIP: Like a black belt.
Chris: That would be a cool superhero--Sitar Man! Every time the villain committed a crime, you'd hear this wa-wa sitar music.
RIP: There are some weird tunings on "4th of July."
Chris: Let's figure out the tunings, shall we? Got a pen? [He scribbles.] We have eight tunings out of 15 songs. We had seven tunings on the last record. There are three tunings on this record that weren't on the last record and two tunings on the last record that weren't on this record. So all together there are ten tunings between the two. Sonic Youth probably beat us. They carry like 13 guitars.
RIP: Pretty trippy.
Chris: One time I was on acid, and there were voices ten feet behind my head. The whole time I'd be walking, they'd be talking behind me. It actually made me feel good, because I felt like I was with some people. At one point I was looking back, and I saw that one person was wearing a black shirt and jeans, and the other person was wearing a red shirt. They were always there. It was kinda like a dream, though, where I'd wake up and look and focus once in a while and realize there was no one there. I'd go, "Oh, fuck, I'm hearing voices."
RIP: Do you write a lot of songs on acid?
Chris: No, but "4th of July" is pretty much about that day. You wouldn't get that if you read it. It doesn't read like, "Woke up, dropped some acid, got into the car and went to the Indian reservation."
RIP: What were the highlights and low lights of Lollapalooza?
Chris: Highlights? The last day. We trashed everything. I drank bile beer on that tour. I don't remember meeting any famous people.
RIP: Which famous people would you like to meet?
Chris: I would have been really happy to meet Frank Zappa. His death fully bums me out. I always wanted to meet Freddie Mercury because Andy Wood [Mother Love Bone vocalist] was a big fan of his. We die meet Brian May [Queen guitarist] though. I think it would be cool to meet Tom Waits.
Kim: The ironic thing is, Frank Zappa said that Brian May was one of his two favorite guitarists. He said that in an interview in the '70s though. He may not have thought that after the Van Halen years.
Chris: I had always wanted to meet Neil Young, but when I did, we were both really uncomfortable. It wasn't like sitting down and getting to know him. That's what it's like when you meet a celebrity. It would be like if someone I didn't know met me 'cause they liked what I did.
RIP: Do you ever ask for autographs?
Chris: Never. I feel if you have one, you have to become an autograph collector. I'm kinda obsessive that way--you either do it, or you don't. I don't take Polaroids of myself with famous people, either.
Kim: You'd have a whole book of yourself standing next to people who have been more successful than you. It would always remind you of your inadequacies in life. "Here's me with Axl Rose. Here's me with Nikki Sixx. Here's me at the 7-Eleven. Here's me and my wife, pregnant with our fourth child. Here's my trailer home." Why would anyone want to do that?
RIP: You guys clearly have wacky senses of humor. Why don't you integrate them into your music or presentation?
Chris: Then we wouldn't have anything left to do on B-sides.
Kim: I think there's some humor in "The Day I Tried To Live" and "Full On Kevin's Mom."
Chris: "Kickstand"'s kinda spritely. So is "She Likes Surprises," which you've never heard--it's on the international version. It's simple yet funny. The thing is, you can only put 77 minutes on a CD.
RIP: What do the outside musical projects [Hater, Temple of the Dog] add to or take away from Soundgarden?
Chris: They always take away a couple songs, but they always bring the realization of more possibilities to the band. It's really been nothing but a positive thing for us. It helps us avoid any kind of rut, as far as other people's perceptions of what we can get away with and what we're capable of. It enables us to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it as Soundgarden, and people aren't going to be totally surprised or freaked out by it.
RIP: Kim, any side project brewing?
Kim: Kim Thayil's Hammer. No, nothing. Okay, there's going to be a very independent single coming out called Dark Load. It's me and the drummer from Tad and [Seattle journalist] Jeff Gilbert singing. It's tongue-in-butt-cheek! See, if I were to do a solo thing, the problem is I can't sing--or at least have no interest in singing-- and all the singers I'd want to work with are doing fine by themselves, thank you.
Chris: Vince Neil has that solo thing going.
Kim: All the Seattle tenors, like Chris and Kurt [Cobain] and [Mark] Lanegan and Eddie, they're all doing so well. Besides, most of the material I'd write would be in the Soundgarden vein anyway, and I'd want it to go to the band--unless I do that country record I'm threatening, of course. But, no, after nine years, anything I write, I pretty much have Chris in mind.
Chris: I actually thought a lot about doing a record with another singer, doing an album where I don't have to sing, 'cause being a singer sometimes seems like a hassle. If you get sick or hung over, your voice doesn't work. It seems like it's more work sometimes. You have to be the guy. If someone else in the band wants to connect with the audience, they can, but if they don't feel like it, or they're in a pissed-off mood, they can just come out and play their instruments and smash away and not look at anyone. But when you're the singer, you're expected to connect--both the audience and the band expect it. I always thought it would be cool to go on tour and not have to worry about that. If I don't want to speak, I don't have to. But you also get more rewards as a singer. You feel gratified, and more people focus on you. But that's also part of the hassle factor. Andy Wood was someone who would totally dig that attention--the more he could get, the better. For me, I'm more like the rest of the band. I'm not really more extroverted than anyone else. I love singing on the albums though. This album is totally great because of the diversity of the material. Knowing more how to record my voice, I could experiment. That's really gratifying, especially when you get the finished product. It's mostly the touring thing that seems so hard.
RIP: Is that your least favorite aspect of being in a band?
Chris: Yeah, probably. Not playing live; it's more the waiting around to do it and being away from home.
Kim: Traveling, eating, sleeping, meeting.
Chris: I would never consider us to be people who don't show gratitude to other people in the industry who help us out or to the fans. It's just that we don't naturally take to those situations. We're not super outgoing or social or comfortable. It almost comes down to moods more. I think sometimes fans or record-company people or journalists will get the idea that we don't appreciate them, and that's not true. We're just not good at expressing our gratitude. For some people, it's how they are.
RIP: How far into Soundgarden's future do you think?
Kim: We wouldn't want to speculate.
Chris: Considering that we've been a band for ten years and that it seems like we have as much creative freedom and allow each other as much creative freedom as the first week we started, it gives you the idea that it's just as infinite now as it was then. The only difference now is that our exposure to an audience is that much further developed, and there's always a question of how much and how far do you have to go before that audience isn't there anymore or the audience changes.
RIP: Do you worry that your audience will go away?
Chris: I don't worry at all.
Kim: We're pretty versatile. We can grow and develop in a way that keeps the interest of our audience. A lot of these bands that are kind of nowhere now, they really were one-trick sort of bands. That one trick was over, and they went away. I don't think we're that kind of band.
Chris: That's why I don't worry. I'm sure there's gonna be a point some day when we may not want to do it. We might still have an audience, but we'll be tired of it.
RIP: Soundgarden has managed to avoid the scandals and gossip plaguing other Seattle bands.
Kim: I have this problem with coffee...
Chris: I think a lot of it is that we don't spill our guts. We're not the kind of band that's going to show ourselves in a publicized situation in a way that's going to end up seeming scandalous. It's kind of like us against the world, and it's nobody's business but ours.
Kim: Our growth's been gradual enough that we can take the new, difficult situations in stride, whereas some of our Seattle counterparts have had to deal with things really quickly and have been incapable of doing it, so they might react in a way that makes them look petulant or discontented with their situation. Maybe they are, or maybe they're just trying to figure it out.
Chris: We can definitely be provoked by an extreme situation, but we haven't had too many of those.