Reprinted without permission from Sounds, May 13,
Soundgarden's mutant rock springs from a post-punk mentality planted deep in trad metal. Roy Wilkinson watches them break the mould, and snaps the sonic diggers.
Soundgarden, Seattle's meta metal rock combo are truckin' through the prehistoric landscape of America's north west, chowin' on sticks of beef jerky and indulgin' in requisite male bonding rituals.
The band have a gig on the eastern side of the state and surely this Cro-Magon countryside is the ideal setting for their music! After all, most of them have long hair, they play guitars and they rock out madly. And their very name is rooted in rock mysticism. They took it from a sound sculpture on the Seattle coast.
Hmmm - this intriguing concept evokes images of giant, monster rock carvings and mysterious crystals, meditations and pyramids. Is the name designed to bring a mighty fusion of Rick Wakeman and Manowar, a head on collision between New Age and Stone Age?
Guitarist Kim Thayil: "That's interesting. At one point Hiro (bass) wanted to call us The Stone Age Alliance, but New Age started up and we didn't want anything to do with it."
A sensible decision, because Soundgarden are neither trad metal cavemen nor New Ageists. They're breaking the mould. The band do employ Sabbath-style doom riff technology and Zeppelin's way with a twisting rock progression, but they mix this with a Spartan post-punk leanness and a non-metal mentality. Their roots aren't in spandex.
Kim: "When we started the band we were all listening to hardcore and new wave: The Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Joy Division, Wire, Killing Joke, Bauhaus. At that time, in Seattle, The Melvins were slowing down their music. Malfunkshun, Green River and Soundgarden, all the bands that had started playing fast, started to slow down. This is, like, 1984 and everyone was sick of trying to be Minor Threat."
Chris Cornell, the band's vocalist and only native Seattlite: "We weren't listening to Sabbath or Zeppelin or Deep Purple then and we were a lot quicker. The rhythm changed a lot, as did the melodies. It was much more new wavy, less threatening. It became more fun to throb and thrash. It's much more fun to play live - it's more hypnotic."
Thus they became bizarre rock mutants with the bodies of insane death vikings and the minds of crafty post-punkers. But a definite relation to metal had been established.
Kim: "Then you get to very stupid and then there's a gap and then there's Whitesnake. And then there's MTV."
Hiro: "We don't use anything from the current MTV metalband formula."
Chris: "We could have similar influences - we've listened to Sabbath and Zeppelin and grew up in the same era - but we've also listened to Butthole Surfers and Black Flag and that's evident in our music."
Kim: "I guess we have elements of 60s pyschedelia, the 70s slow thing and the 80s wackiness of hardcore."
Moving from their post-punk position towards metal has given Soundgarden an ambiguity towards their music's metallic shards. Pieces like 665-667 from their current SST album Ultramega OK, clearly poke fun at metal's demonic conventions. Does this signify insecurity?
Kim: "That's just so we don't take ourselves too seriously. If we started taking the heaviness too seriously we might end up hurting people like, er, Dio. I think our music is sincere. Obviously it's music we all like and are moved by. There's a certain degree of self-consciousness about that which comes out in the humour. We take the risk of expressing ourselves in our songs but we get a distance from it so we're not praying to ourselves on stage.
"Some harcore bands take themselves as seriously as metal bands like Dio. It's silly, but you can't be too abashed about it. That'd be like walking past a mirror and looking at the frame."
Soundgarden marry Sabbath's slow drag rifferama to a diverse set of topics. But Ozzy himself was recently on telly explaining how doom riffs and lyrics about flowers don't mix. Is it wise to avoid traditional black metal themes?
Chris: "We avoid those just like we avoid singing about Middle Earth and Tolkien. But a lot of Sabbath stuff was socially relevant anyway. It was angry about real things."
Hiro: "The only 'demonic' song we have is Heretic and that talks about how ridiculous it is that scientists were persecuted in their times and appreciated years later. It's not about witches or Satan - even though it refers to them."
While Soundgarden shun sword 'n' sorcery, they note their debt to Led Zep. With Ultramega's cover of Howlin' Wolf's Smokestack Lightening they even induge in the sort of blues source acknowledgement that Zep themselves perfected with the covers of Willie Dixon's You Shook Me and I Can't Quit You Baby. In 1989, for a young band like Soundgarden, it seems an oddly antiquated gesture.
Chris: "We learnt the Howlin' Wolf version. We didn't know it had been covered a lot."
Hiro: "I did and I told you not to put it on the record. It's a bit crass, a bit like getting BB King to sit up on stage with you."
But with Kim's Indian parentage, Soundgarden must be in an excellent position to knock out their variation on Kashmir.
Kim: "I always thought it was a type of sweater. Kingdom of Cum have done their version and now The Cult have done theirs, so I think we'll pass on that one."
In fact, The Cult, along with Axl Rose (Ultramega was one of his ten albums of 1988) are Soundgarden fans. So is Soundgarden's current single, Flower, a cheeky riposte to The Cult's Wild Flower?
Chris: "No, it's about a girl. About a girl who becomes a woman and basically invests everything in vanity and then burns out quick. But, yeah, Soundgarden-flower is really part of our vegetation plot."
Kim: "The whole idea of the band is to subliminally support George Bush."