Reprinted without permission from Rolling Stone, May
After 12 years, Seattle grunge pioneers quit amid turbulent band relations and disappointing record sales
On April 7, Soundgarden's lead singer, Chris Cornell, telephoned Al Cafaro, chairman and CEO of A&M Records, to inform him that the band was no more. "I was shocked but not surprised," says Cafaro. "It was getting harder and harder [for them] to keep a shared vision."
Two days later, Soundgarden faxed out a terse press release: "After 12 years, the members of Soundgarden have amicably and mutually decided to disband to pursue other interests. There is no word at this time on any of the members' future plans."
If the band's split was not as entirely peaceful as the press release implied, it was nevertheless a relatively muted end for one of the seminal bands of the '90s grunge revolution. And while the members of Soundgarden have refused to comment, those close to the Seattle group suggest that the breakup was caused by a blend of creative differences and personnel problems.
According to Cafaro, Soundgarden's insistence on producing their last record, Down On The Upside, only served to point out the band's diverging artistic aims. The album's arduous recording stretched out over nine months and was "pretty complex and intense," Cafaro says. "Getting [it done took] an extraordinary amount of work." Another source close to the band says that clashes occurred over Cornell's desire to move beyond the band's signature heavy riffing, which guitarist Kim Thayil considered central to Soundgarden's identity. The band's lack of artistic cohesion was audible on Upside. "The creative spark wasn't happening between them on the last album," says Daniel House, a friend of the band's and the head of C/Z Records. "I thought it sounded like 'grunge for grownups.'" Many Soundgarden fans evidently agreed. Despite a major promotional push, the album sold only 2.3 million copies, almost 4 million fewer than the band's previous release, Superunknown.
Soundgarden's subsequent tour only aggravated their internal problems. Never a band that enjoyed the road, Soundgarden embarked last November on a tour of 39 dates. Observers noted a lack of chemistry on the tour. "I saw them in L.A.," says Grant Alden, formerly the managing editor at Seattle's music biweekly The Rocket. "They just didn't look like they were having any fun. There was a lot of space between them onstage -- no connection."
Problems also cropped up with bassist Ben Shepherd, who is considered the band's punk standard-bearer. "Offstage, Ben's a soft-spoken, laid-back guy," says House. "But there are demons there." Indeed. Shortly before Soundgarden's tour launched, Shepherd had dived off the stage during a Seattle performance with his side band, Hater, and physically attacked a heckler. It was, by all accounts, a sign of things to come. On the Soundgarden tour, Shepherd grew incresingly belligerent: "Flipping the audience off, swinging his bass at people, playing with his back to the crowd," says House. Things climaxed on Feb. 9, in Honolulu, where Shepherd went ballistic, smashed his speaker cabinet, stormed off in midset and, reportedly, flew home alone. Cafaro concedes that Shepherd's behavior during the past year was a warning sign of the breakup to come. "It was a symptom," Cafaro says. "But it would be grossly simplistic to say that's why the band split."
By tour's end, band communication was apparently at a low. In late March, after Soundgarden returned to Seattle, Diane Podolak, manager for a fledgling Seattle band, Devilhead, issued an eyebrow-raising press release announing that Shepherd had joined Devilhead "long term." Soundgarden management contacted Podolak, who issued a hasty retraction. Then, less than two weeks later, Cornell, after meeting with Shepherd, sat down with Thayil to discuss the band's options. "It started to be about what's next," says Cafaro. "'Do we do this again?' There was an acknowledgment by all of them that they needed a change. They knew that next time around, creating a record was going to be even more difficult."
While the reasons for the breakup remain murky, simple exhaustion clearly played a part. Soundgarden manager Susan Silver, who also is Cornell's wife, once said that Soundgarden had to work twice as hard as any other band for everything they achieved. Formed in 1984 by the 19-year-old Seattle native Cornell (then on drums), Thayil on guitar and original bassist Hiro Yamamoto, Soundgarden were one of the first bands signed to Sub Pop, in 1986, and the first grunge band to land a major-label deal, with A&M in 1988. But while bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam flew to the top of the charts on the strength of singles from the major-label debuts, Soundgarden got there in a slow, effortful climb.
In fact, it was not until 10 years after they formed that 1994's Superunknown made Soundgarden full-fledged stars, debuting at No. 1 and going on to sell 5 million copies. Still, Soundgarden never quite achieved the megastatus of bands like Nirvana and Metallica. One source close to the band says that "the only thing keeping Chris from superstardom was that he was in a heavy-metal band. If he could somehow step out of it, he's groomed for the mainstream." All four members remain signed to A&M for solo projects, but it has been speculated that the mediagenic Cornell is the one whom A&M is betting on to succeed. Cafaro admits that in the week after the split, he had spoken primarily to Cornell -- and not at all to Thayil. "Chris will be writing alone for the first time, not for another group of guys," Cafaro says. "That's spooky for him, a little scary -- but also exciting."
Give Soundgarden's proud past as one of Seattle's first grunge bands, it's hard not to see the group's demise as an epochal moment in the slow death of grunge. "It's a marker in the story of this city's music scene," says House. "They were the granddaddies of that scene." Other Seattle denizens, however, decline to imbue Soundgarden's passing with any broader significance. "It doesn't really affect me at all," says Charles Peterson, the former in-house photographer for Sub Pop whose blurred 1985 shots of a dark-maned teenage Chris Cornell remain the best visual record of grunge's roots in the tiny back rooms of Seattle's once-innocent music scene. "I guess, in Seattle, after so many people dying, it's like, 'If they wanna break up, more power to 'em.' In the immortal words of an early Soundgarden song, 'I've really got nothing to say.'"