Reprinted without permission from RIP Magazine, June
SOUNDGARDEN: PAINTING BEAUTIFUL PICTURES
"This is the most accurate picture of what Soundgarden actually sounds like, more than all the other records," asserts Ben Shepherd, puffing on a cigarette. "It's way more raw. It's way more honest. It's way more 'responsible' -- for lack of a better term."
It's just minutes after Soundgarden's completed their fifth full-length album -- recording, mixing, and then finally sequencing at A&M Studios in Hollywood. Everything's done except for the artwork and album title -- "I'm worried about that fuckin' title," Shepherd adds. Weeks later, and down to the wire, they go with the lyric -- and lyrical -- approach, Down On The Upside, from a new song called "Dusty."
Barely able to take a breath after their triumphant birth, bassist Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron seem not only exhausted and overwhelmed, but also almost as eager to talk as they are to catch a plane back to Seattle. "It was under our control from start to finish, so I think we were more emotionally involved with it, and the results were better because of it," says Cameron. "I'm really happy. I think we're all kinda hearing things that we could do better, or differently, but it's nice to have it all done."
"This was a pretty challenging record. We didn't have anybody to blame in terms of responsibility except for us. Every aspect of the record is our fault," quips Chris Cornell, allowing himself a quiet, almost nervous, chuckle. "Most of the records, I felt like [my] parts were pretty much produced by me anyway. And songwriting and arrangement have pretty much been kept separate from the producer. Generally, we spent most of our time and energy talking about the fact that the producer was somebody we usually had as a necessary adversary, to keep the band focused. The other aspect of the producer is he's the guy you have around that can say no, too. That's probably what brought us to the point of doing it ourselves."
Although not exactly gregarious today, Soundgarden's normally shy frontman/vocalist/guitarist is congenial, witty, and extremely talkative. Given a few minutes to relax at his swanky hotel, with the L.A. lights twinkling far below, he sits in front of a quiet TV watching the weather channel, smoking cigarettes, and drinking the honor bar beer out of a hotel wine glass. "I guess [the producer] never really kept me focused. I'm usually the first guy, when it comes to something I'm recording, to say I don't like it -- usually way before any producer. Every time I'd get something I liked, the producer would generally say 'That sounds great, that sounds fine. You like something? Good. Next.'" Cornell laughs again.
Credit on this one goes solely to Soundgarden, as they flew solo in Seattle -- producing themselves at Stone Gossard's Studio Litho with engineer Adam Kasper, and mixing with Kasper at Bad Animals. With a shy smirk, Cornell jests, "There probably will be a lot of producers out there who'll listen to the record, knowing it's self-produced, and think it sounds like shit, but those guys don't buy records; they get them in the mail for free."
While Nirvana was credited with the explosion of grunge and the Seattle sound, and Pearl Jam reaped the most benefits monetarily, Soundgarden were responsible for laying much of the groundwork. In the mid-80's, spandex-wearing, cowboy boot-kicking, make up-glamming metal-heads were rawking out to Motley Crue and White Lion across the States. Not everywhere. Not in Seattle. Some eleven years ago, four guys started playing around the Seattle club scene calling themselves Soundgarden -- they were wearing flannel (for warmth and comfort). More than that, they had a different sound: heavy, sludgy, wild and frantic. No one really knew what to make of their sonic blast, which was truly set apart by the incredible vocal stretch of Cornell and the guitar work of mercurial-minded Kim Thayil.
Sub Pop saw the light and released the Screaming Life and Fopp EPs in 1987 and 1988 respectively. Major labels then woke up and started the chase -- but before they let themselves be caught, Soundgarden let loose with two SST releases: the full-length Ultramega OK in '88 and the 12-inch Flower in '89. Then came the big signing and the subsequent release, Louder Than Love, in '89. "We made A&M chase us around for two years before we finally signed," Cornell remembers. "Part of that was because we weren't sure a major label was going to reach the audience we had at the time, which we were correct in thinking. And the other part of it was trying to make it clear to them that we were going to do what we [wanted], period. No one is going to understand us, but us."
They were also correct in thinking that, because no one really knew how to categorize Soundgarden -- they were completely unique. In fact, in a 1990 RIP interview, Thayil said Soundgarden "straddled" the metal/alternative fence. "Back then, 'alternative' -- to the record companies -- was anything that wasn't glam rock. Then again, 'metal' was anything that wasn't punk. I think all that changed in 1992 with Nirvana," Thayil theorizes. He pauses to think, through his head cold, about what side of the fence they're on. "I think we're just Soundgarden."
Even through two further major-label releases, Badmotorfinger (1991) and Superunknown (1994), each more successful than its predecessor, and now, on the verge of their latest offering, Down On The Upside, they're still creating unique musical portraits.
The multi-platinum (5-million sold) Superunknown meant that Soundgarden was no longer the untapped jewel in Emerald City. It was MTV, commercial radio, and arena rock, a long way from being an opening act for the likes of Danzig and Guns N'Roses. Now they're slapped on the cover of Rolling Stone as quickly as Jennifer Aniston's bare body and Green Day's smirks, are about to co-headline with one of the heaviest commercially successful bands, Metallica, on what will probably be one of the biggest money-making tours of '96, faux-alternative Lollapalooza, and they're selling truckloads of records. Does all this make them commercial?
"I guess, yeah. We're not a hit-oriented band, but we're a commercially successful band. To me, it almost seems like the ultimate situation to be in," Cornell says, smiling.
"I think a lot of what we were doing, even back in '88 and '89, was allowing the market to come to us. We saw what was up and we saw how we were growing in popularity just by touring. I think the whole idea [was to] allow the market to come to us, not [just] to cater to it," Thayil continues. "In '92, a lot of bands that you normally wouldn't hear on the radio or MTV got a lot of attention, especially after the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. I mean, Stone Temple Pilots and Silverchair probably wouldn't be having the success they're having right now, had it not been for the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. So, I wouldn't consider us a commercial band, but Superunknown sold more records than any previous record we'd made. Then again, there are bands like Queensryche and Metallica that sell a lot of records, but I wouldn't really consider them commercial either."
"Outside stimulation, for me, seems like the worst thing. It's just distraction. To rent some chateau in the mountains? -- the last thing I would to do is be creative. I'd want to go out and wander in the woods, and be really into the surroundings," Cornell admits. "The best luck I've had writing is being in a room with few windows, and disgusting white stucco walls. That's why people write so many books in prison; What else are you going to do there? You're going to have nothing else to do except escape through your imagination. I don't think there's a need to be in some serene, beautiful atmosphere to express yourself, because the opposite is probably always going to be true." He pauses, then jests, "I must commit some sort of felony and go to jail, and then write."
While all four members of Soundgarden have substantial music and lyric credits on Down..., Cornell is the main lyricist. And as the lyricist, he gets all the "what's-this-song-about?" questions, which he tries to "wiggle out of" with "I don't remember what I was thinking when I wrote it. It was a long time ago."
"I guess I think about it more in terms of songs, and specific songs. 'Fell on Black Days' [from Superunknown]: That's where I kind of nailed a whole song in terms of a specific idea; poetically, without using a lot of words. I mean, some people are intimidated by the idea of writing a book because there are so many pages to fill, and you take these ideas. I wouldn't be intimidated by that because I've spent my whole career as a writer trying to [express] large specific things in a very small amount of words, and do it poetically. That, to me, has always been the challenge and the focus," Cornell admits. "You have to figure out a way to do that using a small amount of words, and really nailing it -- you almost have to be more obvious -- or too obvious -- so that it gets the point across."
And what song on this record do you feel fulfills completely what you set out to accomplish?
"Probably 'Blow Up The Outside World.' It's not the same [as 'Fell On Black Days'], but it's a much longer song. But it isn't very wordy, either," Cornell says. The lyrics ("Nothing seems to kill me no matter how hard I try/Nothing is closing my eyes...") are similar in vibe to "Fell On Black Days," as is the feel -- a heavy guitar and drum presence, but with more focus on the melody.
"To me, music should be escapism. It should be confrontational sometimes, to a degree. And if it's done correctly, it can be really powerful. More than being politically or socially aware, it should serve as something that doesn't have to be touched by outside problems, something that's immune to what we perceive as normal humanity. If I started writing songs based on what I saw around me, in the social or political arena exclusively, then I'd start feeling like a puppet, as if whatever happens tomorrow is going to dictate what I write the next day," Cornell laments. "And I don't want to live like that. I don't want music to mean that to me. I want something else, where tomorrow I'm going to create something that never existed anywhere, and the next day somebody is going to hear it. To me, that's a lot more exciting."
But it seems there are songs here that display more social awareness or political leanings -- such as "Boot Camp" and "No Attention."
"'No Attention' is kinda more personal. To me, 'Boot Camp' is a little bit more out there than that. But I could see why you would hear that," says Cornell as he pours another beer. "I think 'Boot Camp' and 'Never Named' were more songs out of my childhood, which is something I've never done. The line, 'I'm just a baby who looks like a boy' I always looked really young for my age, but I never wanted to. I could always get away with acting younger, because I could pull it off. With such a boyish look, I could get away with ridiculous shit like going to school fucking high out of my brain and no one would ever figure it out, because I didn't look like somebody who would do that."
Now that you're "big like the sky," to quote "Never Named," aren't you happy that you have those boyish looks?
"As you get older, sure. I'm happy I get carded now and then," Cornell laughs, looking at his beer on the coffee table. "Yeah, definitely, then you kinda wonder if it's the way you're looking or the way you're acting. Do you look younger or do you just act like you're younger? Why do I want to be more mature? I look at my dad and think, 'That's no fun. Why should I do that? I don't want to do that. What's the reason to do that?' It's more socially responsible, but how? I make my own bed, and everything is fine."
Standing, an indication that he's wiggling out of any discussion of lyrics, Cornell smiles at me. "'Boot Camp,' there's a funny anecdote to that song. The second line is 'I must be tame and cool.' I wrote the lyrics and sent them to the [A&M] office and they typed them up. When I got it back, it said: 'I must obey the rules I must be tame and cook'." Cornell walks out of the room shouting over his shoulder, "Well, I never thought of that. 'I must be tame and cook.'"
"Probably what bummed me out on the last record, as far as questions go, was that the song that was most focused on was 'Black Hole Sun.' That was probably the song with the most ambiguous and the least focused lyrics," Cornell admits.
Ahh, but it was the hit. "It's funny because hits are usually sort of congruent, sort of an identifiable lyric idea, and that song pretty much had none. The chorus lyric is kind of beautiful and easy to remember. Other than that, I sure didn't have an understanding of it after I wrote it. I was just sucked in by the music and I was painting a picture with the lyrics. There was no real idea to get across."
You used the word "beautiful." Did you ever think, back when you started in '84, that your heavy music would be "beautiful?"
"Not at all," Cornell says, laughing. "I've heard that from myself and members of the band about bands like the Butthole Surfers. But I didn't use that word too much [about Soundgarden]."
Thayil has a different take on the description. "Actually it was [used]. Back then, people very close to us referred to things we were doing as beautiful, I mean in terms of the vocals, guitar. Every song had a different element to it. People would say, 'You guys are very heavy, you have a visceral element, you have a beautiful element that compels you toward the songs -- not just something that you stomp your feet to, or play guitar really fast to, or run around the mosh pit to, or whatever.' There was that element to it; it had more to it, a greater depth, a visceral style. I think that was pretty much handed to us in '87 or '88.
"I mean, look at our name, Soundgarden," continues Thayil, emitting a coughing sort of laugh. "We called ourselves after a sculpture. I mean, even Soundgarden evokes a certain imagery."
A far cry from the more accessible Superunknown and Badmotorfinger, Down On The Upside definitely has a different sound -- a more obvious comparison would be with the raw and heavy vibes for their indie releases. This is not a regression, or a need to be indie-cool; it's an evolution that sees Soundgarden using freaky layers and textures in an unpolished and real way.
Cornell likens their approach to that of artists in the '60s and '70s. "You may not, when you're listening to it, understand how the guy came up with it, or what the exact layering of the instruments is. It sounds like you're sitting in a room hearing it. It sounds like it'll sound if you go on tour. We just went for the most natural version of us recording a record." Seemingly distracted, he fiddles with the unlit cigarette in his hands and stares across the hotel room. Lighting the smoke, he firmly continues: "And then, in saying that, it almost gives you the idea that this record will be our most stripped-down and simpler melodically, in terms of parts and colors, and it's actually not. It's probably more colorful. I mean, we did spend a lot of time making this record, it was just the way that we recorded those parts, the way that we approached that diversity. We probably could have done it at any point in our career. It's just a big confidence thing, where you think you need a producer, you think you need a producer, you think you need a producer, you let three or four records go by. Then you start thinking back and realizing we're almost entirely self-produced anyway."
"I've seen producers who want you to overdub something when there's some unnecessary noise. There just seems to be a lot of energy spent cleaning that stuff up. Anyone that's ever seen us live knows that that's a pretty big job," Cornell jokes. "We're totally noisy and loose and out-of-hand live. Sometimes, after playing a tour and listening to the record that we just toured off of, it doesn't eve sound like the same band. It's like, How did we even end up making that record when we're the band that we are?"
The live sound on Down... is also attributed to a loose attitude. "When I was younger doing this, I used to, as far as singing went, beat myself up way too much, singing way too much, and the songs would end up sounding sterile because of it. My voice would get tired and I wouldn't give in to that . I'm gonna keep going, and going," the vocalist explains in a mock tired voice.
Removing his boots from the glass coffee table, he heads for the honor bar: Miller Time.... Back on the sofa, he continues: "I guess it kind of comes down to realizing that on previous records, a lot of performances I did vocally on demos I usually ended up liking more. I didn't give a shit. I wasn't worried about it being something that was forever, because to me, at the time, it was just the demo."
With that in mind, several of the songs on Down On The Upside actually contain parts that started as demos between Cornell and Cameron. "The demos always have this sort of freshness. I tried to emulate the [demo] process, which is a period when I may have never sung the song before -- and the first or second time I sang it is the one we've kept. I think that process fits better with my attention span than previous records."
Without that "necessary adversary," the producer, some bands might be in trouble. Whose word is law? The whole "sharing-the-same-vision" kind of thing.
"We're telepathic," Shepherd admits.
"Whoever the songwriter was on the particular song you're working on, they would have some say in how the guitars should sound, or what tempo it should be at," explains Thayil. "Less dictatorship than authorship."
"We approach it more like the song helps the sound. The song helps everything else. The song makes it," expounds Shepherd.
While self-production certainly had a major impact on Down..., the layering of acoustic guitars under electric and the use of a few un-Soundgarden-like instruments on the smooth and disturbing "Overfloater" (Cornell on the Rhodes piano); the tempered, loping and brooding "Applebite" (Cameron on Moog); and Disney's Country Bear Jamboree-bears-on-serious-speed-heavy-ecstasy "Ty Cobb" (Cornell and Shepherd on mandolin and mandola) yielded some new textures to their already unique sound.
Although "Ty Cobb" is one of the album's strongest songs, it will no doubt be missed by radio-tuned-geeks, thanks to the in-your-face repeated lines "Hard headed fuck you all," penned by Cornell. But it was Shepherd who wrote the music, and who ultimately decided to incorporate additional instruments. "When we were tracking it, I realized the guitar sounds didn't sound like my demo. It sounded too typical, southern California, punk-rock bullshit," Shepherd explains.
"I do think it's pretty unique that there's basically a hardcore song with mandolin and mandola walking all over it," adds Thayil, who penned the most hardcore and SST-friendly song on the album, "Never The Machine Forever."
"While we were mixing it, I was like, 'That's so fucking SST' -- meaning [the way] that time period, that record label sounds, like spot drum sounds," claims Shepherd of "Never The Machine Forever." "Sounds like old Soundgarden. He wrote it the last goddamn day too. Finished tracking and then put it into the mixing."
"That's sort of the big fist or boot for the album," admits Thayil. "It seems to be perhaps the heaviest thing."
So are you the big boot in the band?
"That may be. I'm the guitarist, " he replies chuckling. "On Superunknown, the heavier songs are 'Mailman' and 'Limo Wreck,' and Matt wrote the main riffs. There's less of that on this record. There's a different kind of aggressiveness on the fast-tempo songs. That sort of heavy, grinding riff thing is a little less present, but that is still a strong part of our sound."
"There's certain flavors with different songwriters...." Cameron begins.
"One thing, even if the song is written before we come in [to the studio], we allow each other room to do things on top of the song, so everyone adds their own flavor. So it's still more of a band, even though it appears on the credits as 'this person wrote the song,' so therefore that style is his way," explains Shepherd. "We're pretty harsh critics of ourselves," he continues.
"It's a matter of how it sounds. It's not like, 'This isn't unique enough,' or, 'This sounds too much like that.' It's a matter of how it clicks. It's a very natural flow."
"All we've ever done is bring in songs, one song at a time. If it sounds too much like something else we've done, chances are, whoever was writing it won't even bring it in," Cornell stresses. "I strive for something that makes me feel inspired. The magic of a song is that it just taps into someone's emotions, that it draws them out of where they are when they're listening to it. You can't strive for that, you can't decide to do that. It's a matter of dedication to that art and, I guess, being in tune enough to know when you get it by just putting yourself in that position by allowing it to happen as opposed to forcing it."
There's that ever-present fine line between commercialism, commercial music, and being commercially successful. Whatever or wherever that line is drawn with Soundgarden, Down On The Upside does not sound like an insta-commercial success -- there's no "Black Hole Sun" for the radio masses.
"I'm sure there's some gristle in there for them to chew on too," Shepherd says wryly.
"I think we've got songs [on Down...] that would work on the radio, it would just be a different style. 'Black Hole Sun' was just a huge departure. I mean it's a wonderful song, but... We have some songs that encompass the same theme and the same kind of pop structures," Cameron postulates.
"I don't see it not being a commercial record as far as a lot of people buying it. Just from the feelings I get from listening to the record, and from what I see out there, I'd be really surprised if it wasn't successful," Cornell says with conviction. "I think there's a lot on this record that people are going to want to hear. It's just not like anything else, but it doesn't sound like we're out of touch. We're obviously clearly in touch with who we are, and with the music."
Although the success of Superunknown was a complete surprise to the band after working away for so many years, it wasn't designed to cater to the high-school/collegiate crowd that bought it up by the backpack-full. Timing is everything, and since Seattle loves Nirvana, and Pearl Jam were the delight of every high schooler in '93, it was only natural that Soundgarden -- and Alice in Chains -- would follow. Soundgarden, or even more accurately, Chris Cornell, was perfect for MTV. Good-lookin', charismatic, mysterious frontman of heavy band out of Seattle. Sounds like the wet dream of every A&R executive. Unlike the other Seattle-ites, Soundgarden and Cornell managed to keep it focused on the music, and not on their personal lives. They weren't interested in becoming media darlings and MTV showpieces.
"I've done a really good job of that," says Cornell, laughing at his incognito image. "People, when all of a sudden they get success, get giddy. The phone's going to ring, whether you answer it or not. And if you start picking it up every time and saying 'yes' to everything, then, uhm, you're going to go that way. And if you don't, you won't. It's as simple as that. It's really easy to do.
"There are certain cases, like with Pearl Jam and Eddie, where it's like they actually stopped making videos, they actually stopped touring a lot, they stopped making a lot of appearances, but it just didn't matter. All of a sudden there are 20 bands where the singer is trying to copy him. It's just so unanimously grasped onto, there's nothing they could do to keep that from happening," Cornell groans. "I don't want to be that way. I don't want to be a part of that. I guess it's selfish in a way, but I don't see any reason why I can't just make records and make music. And if I want to have as much anonymity as I can get away with, and be involved in as little as possible outside of what the band does, I think that's fair."