Reprinted without permission from Sounds, July 28,
The Stud Brothers meet the only Sub Pop band who've made the leap from Seattle squalor to a major label and discover why the usual rock 'n' roll vices won't stop the group from playing stadia in a year's time.
Late last night, as Soundgarden sat silently in the bar of the Columbia Hotel negotiating a beer and jetlag, three girls wiggled in on stilettos and demanded some highly indecent attention. The band refused to oblige, treating the girls instead to their well-rehearsed brush-off. Basically, they were impeccably, disarmingly polite. "Respectful," says Chris Cornell, their singer and guitarist. One of the girls had flown all the way from Japan to get screwed by Cornell. His respect almsot reduced her to tears. Nevertheless, she checked into the Columbia and waits in hope.
She'll need a great deal more than hope because, you see, Soundgarden aren't very rock 'n' roll. They're one of those odd groups who wield an unimpeachably sound sexual politic. Soundgarden belong to a new generation of metallic pop. Like the excellent Beyond, and the less excellent but equally sound Warrior Soul, they've not only rejected the values of the tattooed millionaire, but taken on board a kind of punky humanism.
"We try to treat people with respect," says Kim Thayil, Soundgarden's guitarist. "We're all pretty private people, not really party animals, we've never been very big on that whole rock 'n' roll thing. Now we're getting bigger and getting a whole lot of girls at the shows and we're beginning to see what other groups must go through, but we're just not into it.
"At this one show in Oregon there was this girl, obviously fucked up on some kind of drugs, dancing right in front of Chris, pulling up her shirt, pulling down her pants. She grabs the microphone and starts yelling 'Fuck me!' Then she comes on stage and Chris puts his arm round her, walks her back into the audience, very polite, very gentlemanlike and goes back to the stage."
Amazing but true. All the more commendable because Soundgarden, unlike Beyond and Warrior Soul, are actually sexy. More, they're glamorous and downright cool. Chris Cornell, with his pop pout, streetwise smile and waifish figure (he's almost always pictured bare chested) looks like some androgynous mambo she-male. When he grins, Matt Cameron, their drummer, looks like the boy in Death in Venice. Only Kim looks unshaggable.
"It's weird what groupies will do to get to you," says Chris, sounding for all the world like a girl talking about boys. "One trick is, they'll stand there and insult us, they'll try to provoke us, tell us our music's kinda shit or that we're macho and sexist. And then if you react, boom, they've got you into a conversation."
Ironically, despite all their efforts to prove otherwise, Soundgarden have already been branded sexists. A song on their recent Louder Than Love album, Big Dumb Sex, intended as a parady of the libidinous rock song, has been given a perversely straight reading by various feminist music critics. Soundgarden treat such misunderstandings with untiring patience.
"The lyrics don't specify whether it's a man talking about a woman or a woman talking about a man," explains Cornell. "We're surprised it got such a bad reaction particularly because people like Poison and Madonna say pretty much the same thing everytime they use the word love. We just replaced the word love with the word fuck and the world went crazy. It's hypocrisy."
Early last year, Soundgarden signed to A&M, leaving the Seattle-based Sub Pop. They're probably the only band on Sub Pop who would ever have made such a move or indeed would ever have been invited to. Soundgarden, unlike Mudhoney or Tad, are palpably ambitious. Cornell, Thayil and Cameron expect total dedication. In the last two years this has caused them to sack two bassists.
"I think we're actually pretty understanding," says Chris. "We understand everybody's got their own idiosyncracies and temperament and we know you've got to let someone go once in a while. Anyway, our orginal bass player (Hiro Yamamoto) actually quit because he knew he wasn't concentrating and we were still dedicated. But had he not quit then we would definitely have fired him."
The replacement, Jason Everman, lasted little less than a year. His replacement, Ben Shepherd, a spaced-out Jim Reid lookalike, appears to be a permanent fixture.
Soundgarden are determined to succeed. Where most of Sub Pop's acts look from the gutter to the sewer, Soundgarden reach for the stars. They have an epic quality, they were from their inception designed, destined to play stadia. Their sleeves look like the sort of thing Neville Brody might come up with were he ever commissioned to design for a metal band. Their name appears as a banner headline and Chris Cornell's androgynous good looks, always dominating the artwork, are used shamelessly as sex bait. On record, even at their most wistful or ironic, even at their most fearsomely brutal, they maintain an AOR sheen.
Their new single, Loud Love, ostensibly a paeon to noise, though more likely a call to the barricades, has Cornell's gutteral cry soaring over shimmering Zeppelin riffs and shards of brilliantly tuned feedback. It's everything an anthem should be. Simple, heavy and thoroughly magnificent, it manages to be both rousing and awe-inspiring. There can be no doubt Soundgarden are heading for great things.
"Soundgarden," concludes Cornell, "is the only thing we cross the world to do. We hate air travel, so we must care a lot."
Soundgarden. Fighting for the righteous party.