Reprinted without permission from The Rocket, December
SOUNDGARDEN: THE HOME TEAM WINS THE WORLD SERIES
The photographer is asking the four men to smile, to loosen up, to emote, which at first seems like it's going to be as hard as getting Rush Limbaugh to vote Democratic. But despite most of the pictures you've seen of Soundgarden -- lined in a row looking serious and angst-ridden -- this is not a serious band nor one without a sense of humor. After they take a few more shots with their game faces on, they loosen up and even take turns playing each other's instruments. Matt Cameron does a hilarious impression of Chris Cornell. When they start laughing, the photographer reminds them of a Rocket photo shoot back in 1988 (the first time they were on the cover of any magazine), that required the band to stand in the middle of Green Lake for an hour.
"That was horrible," says guitarist Kim Thayil.
"But it was a great picture," adds Cornell. "It was really colorful. Those lily pads and all."
"I even remember that one," chimes in bassist Ben Shepherd, who wasn't in the picture or the band at that point.
"We were standing in this mud and I was afraid of what I might step in," laughs drummer Cameron.
"Hey, I was in the water too," adds photographer Charles Peterson.
"We're never going to do that again," says Thayil, who begins relaxing when he realizes that for this particular photo session he won't be required to strip naked in muddy water. "I think there were bugs in my butt after that," Thayil says. "That was awful."
It's been a long decade for Soundgarden, from Green Lake photo sessions and shows at the Ditto Tavern in front of 50 people, to huge coliseum tours and the top of the Billboard charts. That 1988 Rocket feature was headlined "From a Whisper to a Scream" and the same headline might work today for a retrospective of the band's ten year history. If they'd already made "scream" by 1988, in 1994 they became "the scream heard around the world." Superunknown was their first record to debut at No. 1 on the charts, and in the last nine months it's sold over four million copies, placing it on the short list of top selling albums of the year. "That's what some guy from Billboard told us," Cornell tells me. "We're up there with The Lion King and Ace of Base, if you can believe that."
What's significant about the sales figures are not just their sheer bulk, but the fact that the band outsold nearly every other Northwest group during 1994 (even Nirvana and Candlebox) and they found this success with an uncompromising, brilliant album. But as has been their luck during their entire career, the victory was bittersweet: Fate had it that the year Soundgarden finally got their due was the year their accomplishments would be overshadowed by other tragic events. They saw friends die, other bands decompose, and the headlines go elsewhere. The ultimate irony was that as one of the hardest working bands in the Northwest (along with the Melvins), by the time they finally made it to the top of the charts, national critics were already rolling out the death shrouds for the Northwest music scene. They laugh at those naysayers. "We didn't make four records that all sounded the same and the fourth one sold a lot," says Cornell. "If anyone looks back at our history, our fans who have been around know we're not going to pull the rug out from under anybody."
A couple of hours after the photo shoot I'm sitting around Soundgarden's rehearsal space trying to get the band excited about their accomplishments this year. The response I get is best described as disingenuous. To be fair, this was Soundgarden's attitude even back in 1986, and it has served them well over the years.
It is their strength and their anchor. It's not exactly humility -- they talk with pride about the new album -- but it is almost as if they are superstitious about acknowledging their success, as if like a feather it will blow away.
I remind the band that this year Soundgarden outsold the Rolling Stones. I repeat the fact several times, hoping it might sink in, but no one in the band jumps at it with more than a smirk. When I bring in the sports metaphor ("it's like watching the Mariners win the world series"), Cornell finally bites and says, "That's cool. But we might go on strike." He adds that the success today has been tempered by years of struggle. "It could be that it's taken us so long to reach this level of success that our own perceptions haven't really caught up with it yet." Thayil follows up the point by saying, "We've always been more interested in the respect we have for each other than anything other people have to say about us."
At times you get the sense that this band is more comfortable rooting for other groups from the region than they are espousing their own attainments. "I was definitely proud when we were watching Nirvana's success unfold," Cameron says. "I was extremely proud they were homegrown and that they created a whole new way of selling records."
"We were fans of some of the local bands that did really well," Cornell adds. "Part of it was that they're from your hometown and part was watching a band you like..."
"...bump off Michael Jackson," Shepherd jumps in.
"That was bitchin'," adds Cameron. "That's court of justice right there."
A few days earlier Kim Thayil, Henry Shepherd and I sit in a Seattle nightspot talking about politics, pop culture, testosterone, sociobiology, the economy and comic books. Shepherd, Ben's brother, is a video artist who directed the wonderful "My Wave" video. It's a testament to the power of MTV that even though Soundgarden was a huge band for them in 1994, the station decided not to put "My Wave" into rotation, even though it is one of the most creative videos of the year. "What can you say?" says Shepherd with a shrug.
Thayil is probably the most recognized member of Soundgarden, not just because of his distinctive beard, but because of his trademark throw-your-big-hair-over-your-head-move, a technique perfected on "The Lame List" from "Almost Live." "We get letters from kids all the time who say, 'isn't that Lame List guy in a band?'" notes host John Keister. But though Thayil may be the most public Soundgardener on the Northwest scene, he's also shy and self effacing, traits endemic to all of the band. There are two things about Thayil most people don't know: He has a degree from the University of Washington in philosophy and he went to high school with Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop fame. If he's not the most intellectual guitar player in all of rock 'n' roll (both as a player and as a person), he's in the top three.
Thayil's summation of Soundgarden's 1994 sounds more like the ruminations of a Buddhist philosopher than it does a guitar player with a hit record. "Around the time Kurt killed himself, the Sonics, the team with the best record in the NBA, lose in the playoffs. Tad calls me up and says hi label dropped him. At one point, you had four bands from Seattle entering the charts at No. 1 within half a year and then, all of a sudden, one of these bands is gone forever. Then baseball season is canceled, aborted right in the middle of it for the first time in years. But then, amongst that period of time, our record enters at No. 1, goes gold, and we're on the cover of Rolling Stone. There were these incredible high points in our career and incredible low points in our personal lives and in the careers of other bands. It was hard to make sense out of it. Were we supposed to feel good or bad?"
Thayil has another attribute you find in all the members of Soundgarden: They are all freaks about other Northwest bands. Though they'd be the first to argue there isn't a unified music "scene" in the region, they have a strong relationship with the community of musicians and there's a regional boosterism laced into everything they say. And from what other musicians have to say about them, the respect is mutual since Soundgarden are almost always noted by other bands as one of the most admired Northwest groups ("We're just respected because we're reclusive and we don't go to their keggers and puke in their bathtubs," jokes Cornell. "They don't know we're idiots because we don't show up at their parties. 'Maybe they are cool,' people think. We're not, we're idiots.").
In Thayil's philosophic world, 1994 has required a retrenching. "Look at the shitty things that happened this year: Nirvana, permanently off tour. Pearl Jam gets into this big thing with Ticketmaster and cancel thier summer tour. Alice in Chains, they are MIA. So three of hte four big band sin Seattle are just not around this summer. We're touring in the summer and we end our tour because Chris hurts his voice. Then we decide to just keep it that way and work on another record. I think, wait a minute, we're the 'together' guys out of these bands? We're the smart ones, the responsible ones? So why are we cancelling our tour?"
Part of Thayil's analysis seems designed to lower the expectations of Soundgarden. He argues that one of the reasons the band drew so well during the summer was because few other Northwest bands were out on the road. "Because these other bands aren't touring, it seemed we were getting a bigger hunk of the touring market." But in a year when Pearl Jam, and even Nirvana released records, I ask him to explain why Soundgarden sold four million copies of Superunknown.
"Four million?" he asks. "I haven't seen Billboard in a couple of months but I don't think it's that much. I think it's three million. But maybe it's four million worldwide." I tell him the latest press release from A&M says four million worldwide.
"You sold four million records this year?" chirps in Chepherd, sarcastically. He's been friends with Kim since the early days. "God, I had no idea you were so important."
Thayil pauses for the first time in the conversation, as if to let that extra million settle in, then he cracks a smile. "Four million. That's a big deal, I guess."
Back at Soundgarden's rehearsal space (hidden away in a nondescript building in downtown Seattle, sort of like the Bat Cave), I go downstairs looking for something to drink. From most of the interviews you read with the band, usually conducted backstage while they are on tour and in a prankster mood and just as likely to take a pee on the cold cut tray as answer a question seriously, you'd expect the refrigerator to be filled with beer or some other libations. But downstairs instead, I find Cornell making coffee, and a fridge with 23 bottles of Gatorade. Though Cornell does his Green Day impression a little later by firing off a Nerk machine gun, the end of 1994 finds Soundgarden in a melancholy mood. They normally don't do interviews when they are off tour though they say the hance to look back offers some much needed reflection on a year that was a whirlwind.
The Gatorade is yet another piece of evidence that Soundgarden don't exactly live up to the rock 'n' roll nihilism myth. They take their music and their career very seriously, and though they are known to knock down a few beers here and there, they talk about touring as an "occupational health hazard." While sipping coffee Cornell weighs in: "A lot of those metal bands in the early '80s looked at touring as one of the perks. You could go out and do a lot of partying and you could get drunk every night, and you had no boss, and you had 16-year-old groupies sneaking into shows and you had people bringing you drugs. In a lot of ways that was considered a benefit. And for us, not being involved in any of that, the only benefit was being able to play. Everything else was a drag. You're not distracted by something that you went out there for instead of music: Like being famous." One recent profile of Cornell was titled "The perils of being a happily married, non-drug-abusing rock star." Cornell would probably even argue with the "star" description.
Both Cornell and Thayil cite the SST bands of examples of the "hard work ethic" and role models for Soundgarden. "They came here in a van and they were self-contained," says Thayil. "You can see the inlfuence they had on the Seattle music scene simply because they made the effort to lay here when many other people didn't." That work ethic is in everything Soundgarden does, from recording to touring to taking time off during this break to do charity work (they recently went on a CD-shopping spree with a cancer patient). When the band faces a challenge, they simply work through it. "It seems like there's always some adversity they are facing," manager Susan Silver told me once. "But they don't look at it as adversity, they just look at it as their jobs."
We talk about their most recent work, Superunknown, certainly their most mature album and a record that was almost universally acclaimed. Though every member talks fondly of the record, at present they aren't sure how it will sit. "You might want to give it a few years," says Cornell. "Wait until 1999 when we're all partying with Prince and see how it holds up," chimes in Shepherd. "It's definitely a meaty record," add Cameron. "There are a lot of elements and hopefully those will pass the test. Since we just came off a tour you probably don't want our opinion of our own record." Most conversations with Soundgarden are conducted this way: Tag team.
The subject of what's ahead for the band elicits more enthusiasm. Thayil says they are presently taking a sabbatical (he's looking for a stereo system and getting cable installed in his house), and early next year they'll begin rehearsing. The process of recording for the band has been the same for a number of years: They all bring in their own songs and try to impress the other members with their work. "We don't like repeating ourselves," says Cornell. "We try to trust each other and ourselves with riffs and stuff. We all respect each other's tastes and inlfuences. We are probably one of the few bands in popular music history where everybody in the bands adds a lot creatively as writers. I remember talking to a friend who was complaining about his band's lack of that, how much they argue, how much shit they give each other over songs. I said, 'We really didn't have that problem much. Even if we didn't like each other's songs we always tried.' He said, 'Well you guys probably respect each other.' I didn't give it much thought at the time but it's true."
As with every new Soundgarden record, the band members have set a goal to break all the preconceptions. "To perceive us one particular way isn't going to hurt us as much as other bands because we're just going to come out with another record that's going to defy the previous categorization," states Cornell. "To categorize us is kind of insulting. With this lastest record some people were saying, 'I was really surprised to hear this kind of record from you guys.' Well, 'fuck you too.' What's that supposed to mean? Were we supposed to make Back in Black Two? People's expectations aren't going to be based on actually listening to your band, they are going to be based on casual listening."
"Depth has to do with longevity of a career," says Cameron. "If you run out of ideas, you eventually run out of a career."
Thayil takes a more historical approach, pointing out that the band has always supported each other's contributions. "I remember saying to Hiro [Yamamoto, original bass player] and Chris, after we'd been together for a year, just how excited I was to be in a band with them. We were really happy with the material we had. Whatever I wrote, those two guys liked. Whatever they wrote, I liked. It was natural."
"The biggest thing early on was just to be together in this band. The key to our success is our longevity and our ability to get along. We've had small victories but never big ones. And we didn't become complacent."
The pride that Thayil uses when talking about the Northwest is so overflowing it's hard to imagine he ever lived near Chicago (he says Bruce Pavitt was a music freak even in high school). But he is quick to note that he fears the Northwest has changed in the past few years, and some of that change has been precipitated by the music scene here. "There was a point about four years ago, when the U of W had a record number of out of state applicants," he says. "These 18-year-olds weren't interested in the Northwest because of Boeing or Microsoft. They all wanted to come here because of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and the music scene."
At times Thayil talks about that influx as if he were speaking of a herd of locusts. He calls the growth in the area "a miner's rush." "There are people who moved here thinking they'd become friends with Eddie Vedder."
Thayil tells a story about Cornell that sums up both the reality of the music community and the myths. "Chris was walking downtown," Thayil says. "He was going to a music store, and a bus had just come in from out of town. This kid gets off the bus, just coming out of Kansas or something, and the first thing he sees is Chris Cornell walking by him. So unfortunately all his stereotypes about Seattle are reinforced: He thinks that's what Seattle is about and that he's now arrived."
Though Thayil laments the days when the scene was made up of a handful of bands who were all friends, he also obviously loves to see the region get international attention. "When we entered at No. 1, Billboard called us up to interview us, and they told us that Seattle as a regional music scene had more force than Liverpool. We'd made it into the list of the legendary rock towns," he says like a new parent talking about his kid's little league team. In the course of our conversation, Thayil talks with pride about two dozen Northwest bands from all genres, from the Walkabouts (who have been sitting behind us), to Sir Mix-A-Lot. "When Mix's record went gold on Nastymix it was the first time the RIAA had to come up to Seattle to award a gold record. It was a huge deal!"
When you ask Kim to talk about how the other members of Soundgarden have grown over the years, his fondness is uncontainable. "Chris is a great singer who has really developed. Ben's been in the band for four and a half years and he's world class. Matt is God's drummer."
"Someone once said to me, 'Kim you make the band arty, Matt makes the band professional and Chris makes the band commercial.' I've seen bands with great ideas and great singers but without a great drummer they weren't able to pull it off."
One of Thayil's favorite stories about Cameron concerns two reporters from Sassy magazine who had a crush on Matt. He didn't flirt back with them and they unfortunately found both Chris and Kim to be flippant. "They didn't like Chris and me because we didn't look at their face the whole time. They asked us really stupid questions about whether we thought 'girls could rock.'" When the article appeared, Soundgarden had been described as the "ugliest band in America" by Sassy.
Back in Soundgarden's rehearsal space, the night has grown quiet. Thayil has left and Cameron, Shepherd and Cornell are sitting in front of a Christmas tree watching the first snow fall of the year come down on a sleepy Seattle. It seems like a good time to talk about how sleepy the Northwest music scene was when the band began. "There weren't many shows and there were no records," says Shepherd, who was in several notable bands before Soundgarden, including March of Crimes. "You had to go to the shows to see a band live. You couldn't buy a tape or anything back then, you had to see it live to hear it at all. You'd see them live and you'd get their gist. And the best bands, you'd see them get it down."
"That added to the community spirit as well," adds Cameron. "It wa smore of a live event then instead of the packaged listening party environment. To even hear a band, you had to go see them, so you got to know everyone."
One of the early challenges for Soundgarden was finding all-ages venues to play. "We probably had a larger group of fans who were under 21 than we had over 21," Cornell says, "and nine out of ten shows we couldn't play for those people because we had to play the Rainbow and the Central and the Ditto. People had to stand outside and look in through the windows, which is what I had to do as a kid."
"It helped kill off a lot of bands," adds Shepherd. "It was one more added struggle. You had to make sure you attracted the kind of crowd that drank so you could get gigs."
All the members of the band talk about a couple of early Bumbershoot shows as being turning points because they saw how numerous, and how young, their fans were. "We were shocked," says Cameron. "It was surprising to me to see the age of our crowd at that point and to see how rocking out it was. We had no idea."
The band does talk about those early years with frustration when they remember how hard it was to be from Seattle and get any sort of recognition even in the area. "I remember bands would come to town who were pretty much unknown," recalls Cornell, "and local bands, some with larger followings, would have to open for them. It was just the perception that stuff outside of Seattle is cooler than stuff inside of Seattle, and that Seattle will always look to London, or New York, or San Francisco, or L.A., before it will look in its own backyard."
Soundgarden's first years on the road only reconfirmed to them what an exciting scene the Northwest had already developed by 1988. "When we first started touring," Cornell remembers, "we were really excited to go to places like New York, San Francisco, Austin and Athens. But we'd get there and check it out and think, this is okay, but things are so much cooler and the scene is so much more vibrant in Seattle where you could go to any club -- and there were only a few then -- but there'd always be someone playing. Even though a good show was only 200 people, it was still a pretty amazing scene. There wasn't the audience at the time to create a larger scene, but there was a consistent audience and we suported each other heavily. Maybe that lack of attention allowed it to germinate more. Maybe that was a good thing."
Cornell says that as the scene started getting notice outside the area, it began to change for the worse. "Once there started being the label attention up here and the international attention, that's when things started taking a big dump. A lot of bands started getting self conscious who weren't getting that attention."
"You had some bands trying to be stranger than necessary just to get attention," says Shepherd. "Without having the inspiration to be strange," adds Cornell.
For a while we talk about Sub Pop vs. A∓M, about Faith Henschel's Bands Who Will Make Money cassette, about how great Dave Grohl played on "Saturday Night Live," about early shows at the Vogue and how frustrating it was to watch bands like the Wipers work so hard and be so influential without getting their due. At any given point when Soundgarden's own success comes into the conversation, the band moves the topic back to other groups they came up with that deserved attention and didn't get it. And then the subject comes back to Soundgarden's current fear: watching the continual marketing and co-opting of a music scene they helped form. They see it on MTV with other bands trying to capture a sound and a look that they don't understand historically. "You first see the things that are easy to take on as influences like instrumentation, what people might wear, how people might look, what people might put into their songs or what they might leave out," Cornell says. "But it's pretty difficult to copy a band that was inspired because you can't copy inspiration. You either have to be inspired or not." "I guess our trailblazing days are over," says Cameron. "But musically I think we've got a lot of territory to cover. Now it's just trailblazing within our own means. We're not trying to win an audience as much as to keep doing interesting things and that's the way it's always been." "Which is what a band should be doing anyway," adds Shepherd.
It's getting late and there's enough snow coming down that I start to worry about ever being able to leave the Bat Cave. I try once again to get the band to say something like, "Yeah, it's been a great year -- we deserve this huge success. Hell, we should rule the world!" But they don't. Cornell goes the opposite route and again talks about how he considers Soundgarden a lone wolf, not part of any larger whole. It is the attitude the band has had for ten years and the one that has protected their vision all this time, from shows at the vogue to playing to thousands in hockey arenas. It's the only way they know how to be Soundgarden. "It seems to me like we're probably a lot lower on the list of the international perception of what this area means in terms of music, even though we are probably more involved than most of the bands in the history of this area musically," Cornell says. "There are two sides to the coin: One side is we maybe aren't getting the recognition that we might think we deserve. And that's the negative aspect. And the positive side is that we're kind of under the radar on the screen. We're not responsible for a scene or an area either. We're just our own band. We're not touted as the band that 'made this area an international hot spot.' We don't have that kind of responsibility or a flag to wave. We've just got our own Soundgarden flag to wave. That's more attractive to us ultimately. That's the attitude we've always had."