Reprinted without permission from Seconds #17,
SOUNDGARDEN - BEHOLD THE UGLY GROOVE
Far more than another of rock's perpetual flavors of the month, Soundgarden have established their mighty rep by strictly sticking to their own guns and staunchly playing by their own rules. Written off by some critics as a hardcore-enhanced '90s Zep sendoff, these vanguards of the so-called Seattle sound are neither punk rockers nor rock mongers; they simply combine their multi faceted influences to create a brutally nasty vat of music excesses that reek of soul and honesty. The Northwest's greatest musical export since Heart, this too-smart-for-their-own-good quartet blend intellectual wit, punk angst and super-stoopid bong hit-induced adolescent memories in their full frontal sonic assault. On their latest and finest album to date, Badmotorfinger, the men behind this madness - howling frontman Chris Cornell, intuitive axeman Kim Thayil (collectively, grunge rock's answer to Ann and Nancy Wilson), powerhouse skinsman Matt Cameron and silent but deadly bassist Ben Shepherd - are on the verge of very big things to come. At press time, they are gearing up to blow young minds nationwide on the opening slot of the much-heralded Guns 'N' Roses arena tour, while record units continue to fly out retail doors proportionally. Like the slow, arduous torture of all-night sex with an ugly heifer, 'garden's groove is nasty and unpleasant, but ultimately gets the job done in a perversely satisfying way. So let's get down to the meat of the matter, and meet the players in this evil litle game...
Unlike the majority of rock vocalists, Chris Cornell isn't another walking talking cliche. Sardonic and dry, yet attentive and brutally frank, Cornell's part sensitive artist, part gnarly rock dude and part articulate spokesman of this overtly intrinsic outfit. Best known as the shirtless sex symbol of the band, this drummer-turned-vocalist is a tough nut to crack. On any given day, you'll never know if he'll greet you with open arms or pretend he's never met you before. Some people would call that asshole behaviour or rock star posturing, but he's probably just more of an oddity than anything else. Chris is very proud of his paean Jesus Christ Pose, an attack on the stage affectations assumed by many of his contemporaries, but live, he comes dangerously close to aping the same moves he himself loathes. Guess he's seen Spinal Tap once too often to realize the difference.
Seconds: I first wanted to ask you about rock press hype and the myth of the rock star. All the glowing attention must be flattering and gratifying, but how much of it is distracting, excess baggage?
Cornell: To me, most of it is. I don't think there's anyone in our band that believes anything that anyone we don't know says about us. Especially the glowing and raving reviews; they're nice to hear and they're flattering and flattery is cool, but we tend not to be really convinced by opinions or ideas, other than by people we already know or trust. I think it would be more distracting if it was something we bought into. Sometimes it also seems that it would be better if we could do what we do and sell a lot of records without ever seeing ourselves in these hype situations because to me, what we do as a band seems like it comes naturally to everyone. But self-promotion doesn't seem to be like anything we've ever been about. Speaking with the records and the music and the songs seems to be a better way of approaching the whole situation, but that's not how the whole network of selling records has been developed. The network of selling records has been developed by self-promotion, and by the perceptions of what the record supposedly means, as opposed to what the record actually is.
Seconds: Rock 'n' roll performance has always been based on overtly outward expressions of energy - friendly stage banter and feigned positiveness as part of the success formula. But I always saw Soundgarden as big sounnding rock with a perversely inward energy and prescence. Is that accurate?
Cornell: I think it can be, more often than not. But it all depends. I mean, there's definitely a lot of nights where we've come out and been with the audience that we're with. We end up being kind of a moody band just by the nature of the people within the unit. I've heard from other writers whose opinions I respect that'll describe us as an inconsistent live band because of that, which I suppose could be true. We might be a different band from one night to the next, as far as how we approach what we're doing and how we react to the audience.
Seconds: How does that relate to the lyrics of the song Jesus Christ Pose?
Cornell: It doesn't necessarily fit into any philosophy, although I guess you can draw certain parallels. The idea of the song was based on seeing fashion models and rock stars being filmed and photographed in that pose. It just seemed that in the past year or so, I'd seen that so much that it started annoying me. It's just another way of emulating a rock star. I mean, Christ is pretty much the most famous rock star out. So Christ has an influence on rock stars and fashion models. That's fine, it's just the way they exploit that symbol, as if they're putting themselves into the light of assuming their self-persecution, which is irritating, especially when it comes to fashion models. They sold their souls for rock and roll, they sold their souls for really expensive shoes that hurt when they walk but look really good.
Seconds: Lyrically, a few of your songs are about sex without being the slightest bit erotic or sexy. What's the real relationship between sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll?
Cornell: Sexuality in music can come out in a riff as much or more than it can come out in lyrics. For me personally, it probably does more. Female artists tend to get exploited or exploit their sexuality more than most other musicians, but sexuality, for the most part, if it truly exists, is either gonna just be there or not. I mean, it doesn't really have anything to do with what you wear or how you position your butt when you're playing guitar, or even what you say or sing - if it's there, it's there. Like Madonna's obviously overtly sexual, so it really wouldn't matter what she sang. She could go out and sing 'Michael Row Your Boat Ashore' and still give guys boners. So, sex only has to do with rock 'n' roll what sexual feelings you get out of it. Anything else, like tight jeans and cleavage, are just distractions from the real sexuality that would be in it.
Seconds: You get hit with the '70s tag on your music, but it's much more subversive than your typical major label retro band. You seem to know which rock trappings to retain and which to discard.
Cornell: We've never really been a nostalgic band at all. Most of our influences when we started out were post-punk independent American bands. So, it just comes down to where people are gonna put the interpretation of the influence. If you're a new band and you play a slow and heavy song, are they gonna recognise the influences of Killing Joke or Bauhaus, or are they gonna nail you with Black Sabbath? Often, if they wanna put that tag on, they won't recognise those more remote influences. But we really never experimented with rock excesses to discard. All the dumb, silly, indulgent things that we earlier mentioned are easy to avoid; you just don't pretend that you're a rock god or that you're important, and those elements won't come with you either. You have to do what you like, not what you think you're supposed to do as a rock musician. But it's actually a lot easier to spend three thousand dollars on a producer and record a sonically brilliant record than it is to write a really good record and capture it live. It's a lot harder to go onstage, be charismatic, and deliver a powerful and talented performance than it is to go onstage with a sock in your pants and frosted hair and strut around in high heels.
Kim Thayil brings the noise to the mighty Northwest musical machine. this bug-eyed, hairy guitarist is the passionate psyche of Soundgarden, a metallized maniac well-suited to speak about advanced philosophical theories and American trash culture within the same conversation, and have it all make sense. Mellow yet intense, Thayil has no time for mindless interviews and is quick to blow off anyone who wastes his time on useless nonsense. When Kim's musical career eventually falls off the deep end (after the band compose their three-record-set rock opera and release a subsquent Live At Budokan greatest hits opus), he'll undoubtedly be the most successful of the 'garden lot, probably as a defense attorney for sleazy drug dealers or as Clarence Thomas' successor on the Supreme Court. Needless to say, he's got the brains to carry his share of the load - all the way to the top of the rock heap.
Seconds: Soundgarden has always been very conscious of retaining its punk/alternative undeerground credibility; after all, that's where you come from, and that's what you're most comfortable with.
Thayil: I don't think we've ever had to try to be that self-conscious about it because it comes naturally. But in terms of dealing with the industry and the press, that's still important to us because we don't want people to go and say we're something that we're not, and have it all steamroll. All the Zeppelin comparisons started that way. It was something that we came up with. There was a comment in our early press, and we put it in our promo pack. People read the promo pack and listen to the songs, and aped the Zeppelin critique. That's the kind of thing you expect Maximum Rock 'n' Roll to say - a punk rock band that's slowed down is Led Zeppelin. They said that about Die Kreutzen, Discharge, us, a lot of bands. So people continue to make those comparisons, and it's never really been the case. And things continue to snowball.
Seconds: As a guitarist with an intellectual approach, coupled with the aforementioned punk past, how do you deal with these Led Zeppelin comparisons to your music? After all, both Soundgarden and Whitesnake get compared with Zep, yet both acts have little in common. It seems that most modern rock bands missed out on the truly important contributions of Page, Plant and company, as if that band was little more than a fashion statement.
Thayil: Yeah, it seems that no one picked up on the feel, the mood, the riffage - the sublime qualities that Led Zeppelin possessed. All these bands tried to emulate the larger than life superhero qualities, which is totally empty in content. It's like putting on the Superman uniform and not having X ray vision. People picked up on the superficial elements, which are what's most apparent. But to us, those are the things we've always ridiculed - not because of something we didn't have or something we couldn't acquire, but because it was something that had no substance, and it was no way that we wanted to define ourselves. We're all relatively self-respecting, we all thought of ourselves as people who are creative and intelligent, so why would be want to demean ourselves by having people expect of us anything that was less than that? Why would people settle for that? Well, I guess it's easy to settle for that if you're a dopey, drug dependent, horny, shallow idiot who knows how to play guitar. I mean, what else can you expect? With us, I truly believe that as individuals, everyone in this band has a lot more to offer, and they're not gonna settle for that. I mean, we wouldn't like that for ourselves, so why would we expect our fans to like that? We like what we're doing, we're honest about what we're doing, and we do it well. There's absolutely no trick being played on the fans, no deception, and no aping or parody. So, if people like it, they're liking the same things we like, and there's no way we can really disappoint them.
Seconds: Is violence a necessary element of rock 'n' roll?
Thayil: Yeah, definitely. I mean, what could be more violent than being young, male and hating your folks and your school? Obviously, a lot of it has to do with shock, and there's always gonna be someone out there upping the ante. Is is necessary that rock - to really rock - be violent? I'd say so. It doesn't have to have violent themes; the music iteself can be as violent and visceral as it needs to be. But life in general is violent, so for rock to be real, it has to incorporate all elements of the spectrum of emotions. Aggression and testosterone is the true embodiment of violence. But at the same time, it's cathartic to release those pent up emotions.
Seconds: How would rock music be different today if it were not for drugs or the drug trade?
Thayil: Drugs are pervasive from top to bottom in the industry, except for someone in the middle like Soundgarden, that goes around it. We're like underneath the drug umbrella, although I'm not denying that beer and cigarettes are part of that whole circle. As far as payola and drugs go, I'm sure it has its influence, although it's not my job to investigate it - someone else can. I understand that people make exchanges like that. Whether it's corrupt or not is only if there's coersion involved. In our experiences, we haven't had to deal with those kind of things. But at the same time, if you took drugs out of the rock 'n' roll equation, you'd probably be minus Donovans and Hendrixes and Steppenwolfs and Stoneses. Don't get me wrong, drugs are really important culturally and socially in their influence over the years - on both sides of the issue, pro and con. But just like any other industry, there's a lot of commodities trading, and drugs are the commodity of choice for many people involved in the music business. Drugs are a monetary unit of disposal, and because of that, they've had a valuable place in the development of rock music. I don't think we or any other band will deny the major influences that these substances have played in getting rock music to where it is today. We're just kind of subterranean when it comes to acknowledging what it's done for us.
The man behind the backbeat, Matt Cameron, is the glue that keeps this band together. Reserved and articulate, he's the real workhorse of the unit, although he doesn't seem to mind letting the others grab the limelight, in terms of media attention and all its supposed glories. He also seems to be the most down to earth member of this zany outfit, and will probably be the least likely of the four to lose his mind and 'find God' once Soundgarden become merely a cool musical footnote like Blue Oyster Cult or Angel. In fact, when it comes time for Bill Graham's successor to book the 'Alternative Metal Revival Tour' in the year 2010, Cameron will probably be the one member to opt out, choosing to remain home with the wife and kids in suburban Spokane instead. By the way, if you have any doubts about his aforementioned drumming prowess, let it be known that Rush's techno skins wizzard Neil Peart considers Matt one of the best young players around. Professional praise like this speaks volumes about this neo-rhythm master.
Seconds: Do you feel people are making too much of this 'Seattle Sound' or do you feel that the emphasis is important and necessary to state?
Cameron: No, I think they're making way too much hoopla over it. I mean, there's not a whole lot of bands today that encompass what that style was originally, which is how I view it. The historical bands - Mudhoney, us, the Melvins, Malfunkshun and Green River -those who were there for this initial scene, in my opinion, peaked out around '87 or '88, as far as it being a strictly Seattle thing, because from there it went worldwide. It just seems that's a tag for journalists to use to label bands coming out of Seattle. But the truth of the matter is there's a lot of bands that want to have absolutely nothing to do with that so-called sound that are now starting out in Seattle, and they consider that label a hindrance because it tags them with all the other bands that they may not have anything in common with. So, for the most part, it's a tag that's definitely old hat, and if there's any new bands out there who claim to be part of the 'Seattle sound', they've gotta be somewhat derivative of what has already happened. As far as we go, I don't feel we encompass those elements that we had back in '88; I think we've grown a lot. We still have some inherent qualities that have always been there with Soundgarden, but I feel we've grown tremendously.
Seconds: If you had your choice, what would you do to change or alter the music industry, now that you've had a chance to experience its goods and evils?
Cameron: In strict musical terms, it seems that I've met many people who have absolutely nothing to do with the music industry who seem to know a lot more about what's really going on than people who actually work with music for a living. There seems to be a lot of people at labels who don't really seem to be aware of what are actually good and bad trends in music. But then again, that's only one side of how the industry works obviously, because those who actually go out and sell the trends don't actually have to be informed of why it's good in order to sell it. There seems to be a massive amount of bureaucracy that you have to go through. which can lead people to get discouraged and throw down their instruments and quit forever. However, I don't really know any answers to change it.
Seconds: In other words, when it comes to the marketing of rock 'n' roll, why do you feel these industry experts can sell grungy rock bands and not succeed in selling a hip new trend like, say, lambada?
Cameron: Well I guess the guys who go out and sell lambada records think that they can start this new trend - and for the most part they're right, because A&R people pretty much dictate what trends are gonna be exposed to the core listening audiences. In that sense, those people have too much power. So if we could branch out the power more evenly within a structure, and open up different formats for mass media exposure, then that would be a healthy trend. But it all seems to be so fucking constipated and locked up in this one tight little ball that no real laxative can get in there and open things up. So, I see the whole music industry as this crusty old dude trying to take a shit, and it can't come out.
Seconds: Much is made of this new generation of popular bands - Jane's Addiction, Faith No More, Soundgarden - who share a common punk past and 'average joe' image. But do you feel there's a chance that in a few years all you guys will fall into the same excesses that plagued the '70s rock stars to whom you're obviously a reaction against?
Cameron: Yeah, we all saw what went down in the '70s, and it was just disgusting. But I do feel a kinship to a lot of these bands because we're pretty much the same age, we have fairly similar backgrounds, and we started out in music for many of the same reasons - to play music, not for other motives. But like you say, ten years down the road we may become the idiot rock stars that people do not want to emulate. I could be the next Gene Simmons, with my purple leather pants and my cigarette stained teeth and fingers. We could turn into being part of a new breed of backlash on down the road. But that's cool because we don't exactly take ourselves too seriously. If the press starting getting bad and our records started getting bad and we were just getting fat and flabby, we'd just throw in the towel. It's no problem; we're painfully aware of our own shortcomings.
The newest member of the unit, Ben Shepherd, quietly gets the job done, with aurally powerful results. Ridiculously shy and to-himself, Cornell recently quipped, "If Ben tried to hide by sticking his head in a supermarket aisle, he probably would disappear." But once you get to know Ben, you realize that he posesses the same wicked tongue and negative outlook shared by his fellow band members - which is probably a major reason for his acceptance into this close(d) unit in the first place. A Seattle native and forner big Soundgarden fan, Shepherd is coming of age in this outfit; dealing with large crowds and showing an ability to display at least a modicum of stage presence (as much as anyone in this band, at least). On Badmotorfinger his four string rumble is powerfully simple and in-your-face, and a major reason for the band's noticeable studio maturation. Kim remembers that when he first met Ben, the lanky bassist's favorite songs were by Hendrix and early '80s post punkers, Angst, which obviously made him a natural for the 'garden gig. Shepherd ain't exacly made of rock star stock, but as you hear in the music, his actions speak louder than words.
Seconds: You've made the jump from small indie club bands to joining a band playing major stages. As we all know, as you start playing larger venues the average IQ of the audiences tends to drop proportionally - witness the attendees of any arena show. That said, do you feel the typical rock fan is smarter than they've been given credit for, or stupider than they're made out to be?
Shepherd: Stupider than people make them out to be? That'd be really fucking stupid. When they speak of intelligent rock fans they must be speaking more about the alternative college kids than they are about the true-to-the-bone rock 'n' roll fan. On the whole, I think people's mentality goes down when they listen to primal music, and that's part of the appeal of it. So I would say that they aren't as smart as people try to make them out to be. I don't think any human is very smart, really. They always try to make themselves seem smarter than they are, so I think that's a sign of stupidity.
Seconds: While we all know that punk had its day quite a while ago, people don't seem to let it die. You always hear about 'the new punk' or some new style that incorporates punk. Can we ever kick this habit once and for all?
Shepherd: It keeps mutating into some kind of cybernetic wizard thing that spits on people. I don't know, I feel that it was always there, and it wasn't always there, if you know what I mean. It's this quantum attitude that a lot of people have possessed over the years. Actually, I believe that the term 'punk rocker' had to do with some fucking gay kid on the streets of New York, some drugged-out derelict punk. A punk rocker was just some gay drug addict rocker with a punk attitude - and there aren't any very real punk atttitides around anymore. So, I'd say that punk is pretty much dead but mutating all the time, more like a virus than some actual social statement; a snide virus.
Seconds: So how do we rid ourselves of this virus?
Shepherd: Well, just like anything, you write it off by giving it more media attention, so it'll go away. Like the hippie movement, they did spoofs of it on tv shows and then all the credibility was gone. They tried to kill off punk by putting punk rockers on C.H.I.P.S. But for some reasom, it didn't really work. You've got to go out and co-opt it and make fun of it so that everyone really knows to take it to task. I guess they should try to do the same thing if they want to get rid of the Seattle scene. They should just start going out of their way to give it as much attention as possible if they want to finally get rid of all the hype. I'm real proud to be from Seattle, it's my hometown, but all this attention they're giving to this scene has got to stop, and they might as well get rid of the whole punk rock thing while they're at it. If I had my way, they'd just give a lot of overkill to all of this shit, and make the world safer for newer music to get a chance. Here in Seattle, it all started with some A&R guy accidentally finding his way up to our town, found a few bands that he liked, and it all went downhill from there.