Reprinted without permission from RIP Magazine, May 1990
SOUNDGARDEN: BRAVE, NEW ROCK N' ROLL
It becomes more precious all the time: that magical, mystical moment when a piece of music transfixes you, captures you with its raw power or subliminal beauty, lifts your soul and fills you with the joy of discovery. When you listen to a lot of music, such moments are fleeting.
Sure, there's plenty of good music around; lots of fun stuff that tickles your fancy or bobs your head or taps your toe for a few minutes. But there's less that leaves an indelible impression...like Soundgarden.
Strange name. Strange band. What they've got to offer is a primal rock sound that encompasses metal, punk, hardcore, the avant-garde and the X factor for a style and presentation unlike most others I've heard this year. Their first record, an independent six-song mini-LP on Seattle's Sub Pop label, was an interesting excursion into a demented Zep fan's dream: bottom-heavy monster rock with the tortured Plantisms of vocalist Chris Cornell smothered on top. Last year's full-length album, Ultramega OK on SST Records, was a far more diverse affair, but even heavier and more between-the-eyes than before. I've been championing this Seattle juggernaut for some time now, starting with praise for that first album, and now that the band is graduating to the big leagues via a deal with A&M Records, I see no reason to discontinue my campaign, especially in light of the magnificence of their recent major-label debut, Louder Than Love.
This eccentric quartet was formed in Seattle, where they're still based, and consists of singer Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil on guitar, new bassist Jason Everman, and Matt Cameron behind the drum kit. Kim tells how it all came together....
"Initially, when I came to Seattle, there was more of a New Wave, jangly, quirky type of sound here," says Kim, who was originally from the Northwest, but grew up in Chicago. "It was the same thing that was happening all over the States, except that Seattle was stuck in it a little longer than the rest of the country. But there were plenty of guys playing progressive stuff, and there was a hardcore scene, so these things naturally developed.
"Seattle is divided into two regions. There's the East Side. which is across Lake Washington, and most of the metal bands are from there--groups like Queensryche, Sanctuary and Fifth Angel. Here on our side, there was a lot more hardcore and punk, and these bands started to add more leads and double bass and just more of a speed-metal sound. The more progressive hardcore bands added different, artier elements."
Soundgarden arrived in 1984, and while many groups were still bashing out the HC, Soundgarden and peers like Green River were slowing the whole mess down, going for a thicker, sludgier mood. "It caught on locally," explains Kim. "And a lot of bands began to pick up on the idea of slowing down and making everything heavier. Not to say that the groups here all copy each other--because everyone's sincere about what they do--but there is a similar style that emerged. One American journalist called it Big Rock."
Big Rock. As good a name as any to describe Soundgarden and other Northwest outfits like the seminal Green River, as well as lesser-known outfits like Mudhoney and Tad. "It's like a real slow, steady, kinda sexy groove, but with a lot of distorted guitars and just a real basic rock sound with a different kind of edge," says Matt. "I guess a lot of bands around the country use those elements, but there's just something else that the Seattle groups are adding to that."
The name Soundgarden ("not intentionally meant to throw people off," laughs Kim) is supposed to represent the many oots of the group's style, a virtual plethora of cutting-edge rock that spans Sabbath, the Velvet Underground, the Meat Puppets and Killing Joke. There's some Zep and some Metallica; gothicism and sublime beauty. The almost ethereal flavor of the name betrays the brutality of the music but never pins Soundgarden in one corner.
"It's a name that conjures up powerful visual images, although at one point we thought it might be too soft!" says Kim. "But there was something about the name that we liked. One of our hopes is that people come to see us thinking they're gonna get something pretty, and then get their heads blown off and walk away feeling like they got more than they expected!"
Right from the start several labels were hot for the band--A&M and Geffen included--but the group put them all on hold.
"It was neat that they were waving this money in our face, but it was important to us to establish ourselves with the people who like us," says Kim. "It would be bad to develop an underground following and then suddenly turn up on a major label. It would be alienating. Being on a major doesn't even guarantee that you'll make a record, and we wanted to establish ourselves in the underground and college marketplace first, where the majors couldn't screw around with us."
With that philosophy in mind, the group signed a one-album deal with indie SST, which resulted in their first full-length LP, Ultramega OK. "So the labels all said, 'Why are you talkin' to us and making a record for SST?'" laughs Matt. "They were frustrated. But it made perfect sense, 'cause we developed as a band and laid a better ground base of fans to follow us over to the major. We've got a foundation, and we didn't jump to a big label just for the bucks."
The move paid off, building a buzz for the band that only increased when they inked with A&M. Now that major-label operations are in full swing, how has their approach to the business and to each other changed?
"Well, nothing's changed that much," says Chris, "because being involved in making independent records, you make a lot of decisions yourself, as far as everything goes--packaging, production, the label--it's all the same.
On a major label, it tends to be on a lot larger scale, as far as money goes, the amount of records pressed, the amount of promotion done. Everything is just way bigger, and you've got a lot more people to convince, a lot more people to deal with, a lot more different personalities."
"It's more frightening," admits Kim. "It's an intimidating situation. There's a lot more demands put on the band. There's an uncertain future. The only thing that's certain is the stress that's on you. It breaks up a lot of bands. Tours wreck bands too. This recent summer of tours caused a few bands here in Seattle to break up, and a coupla bands lost members. Swallow broke up, we lost a bass player, and Nirvana lost a guitarist."
They're not afraid to confront the possible pitfalls that lie ahead, now that they've got big money invested in them.
"At this point there's more demands on our time, yet there's that uncertainty about the whole thing. How well is the record gonna do? that type of thing," says Kim. "Where are we gonna be in a few months...?"
Kim's worries are smart, but Soundgarden have all the tools to ensure a long existence, most important of which is some mighty kick-ass rock 'n' roll. And they've got that equally vital core audience, although some of their earlier art-noise fans on the college circuit may be displeased with the heavier, more-metallic grunge of Louder Than Love.
"There are a few people who might feel that we've gotten too heavy or too aggressive, but they're still our fans," says Kim. "They have the new record and play it now and then."
"There might be some more collegiate-type fans that didn't like us after a coupla records but, really, we've been consistently heavy all the way through," remarks Chris.
"We may have been a little more arty, a little more punk-sounding back then," says Kim. "I'm sure some people feel that the punk or arty-sounding charm may have been lost. But they liked the band then, and I imagine they still do, because most of the criticism has been from friends who've supported the band the whole way through. Then again, there's new fans out there too."
The net question to analyze is the "metal" question. If you look at it head-on, are Soundgarden a metal band, or are they just treading that fine, murky line that's cropped up between metal and other types of music?
"Well, it's our name. Soundgarden. It doesn't sound metal; it sounds alternative--'They must have synthesizers in the band,'" says Kim with more than a trace of sarcasm. "'It must be R.E.M. or Green On Red.' But we feel comfortable straddling that line. Obviously we're not gonna come out with all the metal cliches that have been put on the radio for the past eight years. It we're going to patronize the audience that likes that stuff, we might as well be another Bon Jovi or Cinderella. If we are attracting different audiences, that's fine, because we did it by being what we are. If we were naturally a country band, I hope the country people would come out and listen to us."
"We haven't tried to appeal to all these different people," agrees Chris. "We've just written music and liked it; and what we've liked, we've recorded and released. It isn't like we're trying to aim for any particular audience at all. So it's interesting to see who becomes a follower and who doesn't--if the suburban metal guy likes it, and still the college guy who buys Red Hot Chili Peppers or the Sugarcubes likes it.
"But I can tell you, we don't get a lot of feminists, and we don't get a lot of yuppies."
Soundgarden are the brave, dangerous face of rock 'n' roll. Kudos to A&M for getting behind them, and special points for those of you out there, Cure fans or Anthrax fans or Bonnie Raitt fans, who check out Louder Than Love. If brutal music and brutally cynical lyrics are your bag, take a walk in the (Sound) garden. Any last words, guys?
"Don't wimp out!"