Reprinted without permission from Rip It Up No. 198,
Soundgarden have been strangely silent of late. After releasing Badmotorfinger and touring with everyone from last year's Lollapalooza roadshow to Guns N'Roses, the band seemed to have toned its activities down a notch or two. Yet this has all been a front really, they did manage to get in some much deserved down time but Soundgarden have hardly been idle. First up there was Hater, the garage-punk side project of drummer Matt Cameron, bassist Ben Shepherd and some buddies. Now this slightly tweaked release has been followeed by an even more tweaked release, and that's the new Soundgarden record.
It's called Superunknown and was produced by Michael Beinhorn (who worked with folks ranging from the Red Hot Chili Peppers circa Mother's Milk to white bread grungeliters Soul Asylum). From one listening I would commit myself to saying it's not only a pretty fine album but it's an interesting shift from the sound of Badmotorfinger. Not that we should be surprised by Soundgarden mixing things up a little. They have, after all, made a career of it. From humble beginnings on the then-tiny independent labels SST and Sub Pop, Soundgarden took their sonic collision of Black Sabbath and Black Flag to a major label before it was standard practice for any sullen layabout with a flannel shirt and a distortion pedal. Yet as the world decided that grunge would replace spandex and poodle hair, Soundgarden were pushing on ahead. They avoided the sensitive slacker/loser who could, at times, approximate 'rocking out' (refer back to Soul Asylum) and released Badmotorfinger, a truly marvellous boys-with-guitars moment. Vocalist Chris Cornell had discovered he really could sing, the rhythm section finally clicked and Kim Thayil began turning riff rock into something very nasty. It was a twisted version of all the great fat denim bands; Mountain, AC/DC, B.O.C et al, except filtered through punk and cheap drugs. Soundgarden out-rocked the alternative crew, yet they were too strange and bleak for the metallers. They had found their own little niche from where they could fuck with everyone, and with Superunknown they once again do just that. The dark intensity of tracks like 'Drawing Flies' or 'Slaves and Bulldozers' is still there, but now it's been tempered with a more melodic approach to songs and a reasonable production. Gone is the dense sludge of guitars and bass and in its place is a strong band sound: you can hear drums, vocals and guitars all working off each other.
But of my developmentally retarded observations. A very tired Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil are here in a semi-darkened room deep in the A&M complex in order to explain the album and such stuff. It's a task they've been working at all day for a stream of earnest looking Eurojournos, but they brighten somewhat upon seeing an issue of Rip It Up complete with an ad for the show they're playing. Both Thayil and Cameron seem pretty enthused by the thought of playing in NZ and particularly by the SG/Breeders/Urge/Pumpkins bill (a better show than most we see here in LA). They are also happy to expound on why the new album has led to a new sound. Surely a new producer helps?
Cameron: "It's partly Michael and partly us in the studio. We just wanted to get a better overall band sound, more depth in our music was something that had been missing as far as creating the whole picture."
Thayil: "The vocals have changed, they're less... less up there. It's a little more restrained on the guitars and vocals definitely. The drums are better presented too."
Cameron: "Finally! I think that's something that's been missing in the past."
Those guitars are an important part of all this as previously they've really defined the Soundgarden sound. Big, multi-tracked walls of guitars have been toned down on Superunknown and the songs given room to stretch out and go just a touch experimental.
Thayil: "The songs on this album are definitely less assembled. I think part of it is the change in the sound, the presence of the drums and the vocals. It means now when guitar leads turn up it's not "Here's the section for the solo". They come in as accents to get the songs moving where it seems appropriate to do so."
The songs do move too. Sure, there's still some classic Soundgarden moments like "Mailman" and "4th of July"; dark, slow and heavy, but there's a wealth of hooks too.
Thayil: "Before the hooks were in the riff, now they're in the vocal and lyrics as much as in the guitar, drums and bass. In a lot of ways the focus is less on the riff and more on the instrumental aspect, vocals included, of the band collectively."
Hardcore fans need not despair, however, it's not as if the band has knocked out the proverbial Radio/MTV friendly M.O.R. deal, it's just that they've fooled around with some new approaches. There's even a totally twisted little thing called 'Half'. It's sort of like vicious psychedelia, Soundgarden's attempt at a Mahivishnu Orchestra piece and I liked it a lot.
Cameron: "That's our weirdest left field deal. We weren't sure if it was going to make it onto the album as it's only half a song."
Thayil: "The title existed independently of that too, so when it came down to inclusion it had the perfect title! I wanted the whole thing to be on there, but the second bit is still kind of unfinished, but it will be out some time and it's really heavy."
Cameron: "It's the rock version of the first bit, but there was a problem with the tempo that made it sound sort of stuck together. Initially we thought we should just aim to release 13 songs but once we had recorded and mixed all 15 we decided to put it all out. It worked well as a record, everything fits well. There was only one song we didn't finish tracking so everything we tracked we put out, which is definitely a first for us."
And what about the assorted side projects? It certainly seems as though Hater has had its effect on the band.
Thayil: "I definitely think so. I think a lot of what Matt and Ben did with Hater had its influence with Chris and I as well."
Is Hater just a one-off thing or is it going to continue?
Cameron: "We'll see. Hopefully we can do some more records because it was fun and it was so easy to do and took so little time. I guess it was just an offshoot of us recording at home, it was a bigger version of that. We all doa lot of recording on our own but our main focus is the and."
Will we ever see a Kim Thayil solo record?
Thayil:"Oh yeah, I've thought about it but most of what I do is Soundgarden-like in nature, so I couldn't imagine doing ten songs for a separate project as most of it would be more appropriate for Soundgarden. I'd have to work with stuff that perhaps wouldn't get its best voice on a Soundgarden record. The thing is that as a founder member of the band, Soundgarden is very much part and parcel of whatever I express. It's my solo thing in a way. Even the songs I haven't written, like "Mailman" or "Limowreck" that Matt wrote, are songs I'd envision myself writing so maybe it wouldn't work so well, although I do hear things like the Hater album and think "Man, I wish I'd written that!'"
One thing that seems to set Soundgarden apart from the currept crop of alternorock is the fact that the whole band are quite capable of writing great songs. It's no "Mr Frontman and his backing musicians' here, the whole band seems integral in creating the sound.
Thayil: "We'd definitely be lost if anyone in this band just wasn't there. That certainly was a problem when Hiro left the band. It was a really difficult thing to face and obviously Jason didn't work out but what Ben did was pretty much redefine the band. He fitted in better with Hiro's absence to begin with, and he also gave us a new element to help redefine what it was we were doing as a band and as musicians, he gave us new style and structure."
Soundgarden's style has always been an interesting thing. I put it to them that they've never really fitted in, the band has been too left field to really connect with the rock audience.
Thayil: "...and too testosterone infused to be a college band, yeah, that's true."
You once described yourself as Zen Metal which seemed a pretty fair description.
Thayil: "Yeah, I suppose that's true of a lot of bands now, the Smashing Pumpkins to the Stone Temple whatevers, it's all basically metal warped in one way or another."
Cameron: "We've never really fitted in but we have a bigger audience now. We've got out and toured and worked to get people to see us and now we've sold a million records so I think we're fitting in slowly. We'll have to wait and see. Personally I think this record is friendlier than our others, it's the best sounding and warmest. I think it'll click with a lot of people although I don't see our fan's parents liking it, although that's probably a good thing!"
And on that note, we leave them to their own devices. All the analytical stuff aside, Superunknow sounds like a damn fine album, Soundgarden are undeniably a great live act and they are in New Zealand's neck of the woods very soon. Sounds like a good deal to me.