Reprinted without permission from SPIN, February
What happens if the next great neometal hope turns out to be just another bunch of Neophytes With Attitude? Popular infotainer ANN MAGNUSON gently probes the soft underbelly of Seattle's hardest rockers.
Whay the hell was I interviewing Soundgarden? I knew as much about the metal scene as George Bush knew about the homeless. Though I doubt the 41st President has ever set foot in a soup kitchen, at least I had spent my formative years chasing Jethro Tull around the eastern seaboard -- they deserved that Grammy, goddamn it. Granted, back in high school I missed an entire Uriah Heep concert due to what was either PCP or elephant tranquilizers, but I'll never forget the last Motorhead show, which yielded not only my most cherished tour T-shirt but initiated what will no doubt be a lifelong relationship with my chiropractor.
So why had SPIN called? Because I had to go and open my big mouth and admit to fantasies involving long-haired and shirtless rock gods from Seattle. Hey, I wasn't talking about anyone specific -- I thought everybody in Seattle was long-haired and shirtless.
It was obvious that I had a lot to learn about that Seattle Thing, that Sub Pop Thing, that Alternative-Grunge-Thrash-Whatever-You-Call-That-Flannel-Shirt-Thing Thing. I needed answers fast and the first question was, Who is this Soundgarden, and why should I care about this vaguely metal band with the neo-Nugent stud singer?
My quest began in Los Angeles at the Marriott Hotel on the road to the airport. A fitting start for our story as airport roads nationwide are the quintessence of American alienation, debauchery, and transience -- a purgatorial pit stop of strip bars and rent-by-the-hour motels. Jimmy Swaggart fell (repeatedly) from grace in Baton Rouge on one of the country's gnarliest airport roads.
Such bleak urban waste was the setting for the Third Annual Concrete Foundation convention, where, for the past three days, hair and hormones ruled. New and old metalheads mingled amid the moussed and spandexed retinue, shamelessly marketing bands they hoped would be the next big thing. Yes, that was Kim Fowley I saw as my cohort and I dashed into the first available elevator where we were cheerfully greeted by a pudgy dweeb in an Anthrax T-shirt.
"Hey, are you two lesbians?" he chortled and guffawed under the harsh fluorescence, which clearly exposed his bad skin.
"Yeah...now," I thought, assuming that my unconscious choice of jeans and a T-shirt constituted Active Dykewear in this parallel universe.
I wondered if it would be fair to say this guy was a typical representative of that highly coveted "wider audience" that comes with a major-label distribution deal. Still clinging to the naive hope that something fresh and new wrapped in a flannel shirt and cut-off fatigues would change the world, I fled to the outer parameters of the mosh pit in front of the ballroom stage where Soundgarden had just plugged in.
Tearing into a loud if perfunctory set of songs from its new album Badmotorfinger, the band roared like the bankrupt Pan Am widebody jets rumbling overhead. I thought of those lumbering 747s taking off and landing nearby where one small pilot error or cleverly disguised explosive could mean disaster (read: excitement) and perversely hoped the next Alitalia flight would slam into the Marriott. The carnage would have been an appropriately Wagnerian background for Chris Cornell's awesome set of pipes that can blast a note with more force than if Paul Bunyan had accidentally dropped his ax on a toe while shrieking "Timber!"
Drummer Matt Cameron and new bassist Ben Shepherd poured a concrete foundation even Jimmy Hoffa would be proud of, as guitarist Kim Thayil pounded his ax with furrowed brow. A lyrically revamped version of Black Sabbath's "Into the Void," renamed "Into the Self," sent the moshers into overdrive and, as Cornell caterwauled, one question burned in everyone's mind.
"When's he going to take his shirt off?"
Before you could say, "Sweating, gleaming pectoids," Cornell delivered. Launching into the rock'n'roll Chippendale's schtick that's made him a dorm room pinup, the Captain Morgan Rum hunk look-alike sang about a "Jesus Christ Pose," struck more than a few of his own, then called it a night.
I rediscovered the true meaning of rock'n'roll through Soundgarden's 1989 release, Louder Than Love. After a parental dressing-down from a TV producer for a "bad attitude problem," I cranked up Love's "Big Dumb Sex" on the car stereo, a song I found was not only an anthem for a species but the perfect antidote to authority. Singing along with the chorus gave me nearly as much pleasure as giving my dad the finger behind his back when I was 16.
I only wish the interview had been as much fun.
Seated in a "yupscale" Mexican restaurant, I alternately prodded the band and two green corn tamales, hoping against hope that my opening question would do more than just break the ice.
SSIf you could legally murder anyone, who would it be?
Kim Thayil: (Immediately hostile) You can't legally murder anyone.
SPIN: But if you could.
Thayil: You can't.
SPIN: Tell that to the U.S. Army.
Thayil: I did tell that to the U.S. Army.
SPIN: Did you get drafted?
Thayil: (On edge) No, I didn't register. Why would sanctioning it play a part in my decision to murder someone? (Edgier) Whether it's legal or not to murder someone, you'd want to murder them anyway. (Beyond edgy) I'm not going to go out and murder someone if it's legal.
(Yeesh! Chill out, Descartes, it's just a hypothetical question. Gee, Ted Nugent wouldn't have had any problem with that one. He would've wasted an entire Texas town, plus bagged and gutted Bambi and Thumper in the process)
SPIN: Is Soundgarden politically correct? Ecologically sound? Are you vegetarians?
Thayil: No, I'm probably in most cases actively anti-political correctness because the ideals are not thought out very well.
(Okay, so these guys aren't political finger-waggers like Fugazi, but they clearly aren't candy-assed hair farmers like Warrant either. Are they heavy alternative or alternative metal? Are they a fresh new hybrid ready to blossom and mercilessly plow my aural field or -- dare I say it? -- more of the same in threadbare flannel shirts?)
SPIN: The Los Angeles Times said that "Soundgarden is poised to ride a unified hard rock and art rock audience." My question is what's the point, besides higher record sales, of unifying these two audiences?
Chris Cornell: (With studied disinterest) We have no intention of unifying anyone really.
SPIN: What is the largest audience you've played for, and do you think that the size of a venue is proportionate to the development of a messianic complex. In other words, which biblical figures do you identify with?
Thayil: Paranoia is necessary to develop a messianic complex. I guess paranoia goes up in a really large venue.
SPIN: You've said that "Jeses Christ Pose" [the first single and video] is not religious. It just has to do with people exploiting a symbol. In what particular ways has that symbol been exploited?
Cornell: You just see it a lot with really beautiful people, or famous people, exploiting that symbol as to imply that they're either a deity or persecuted somehow by their public. So it's pretty much a song that is nonreligious but expressing beig irritated by seeing that. It's not that I would ever be offended by what someone would do with that symbol.
SPIN: Don't you think that there is a ritualistic, religious quality rock stars have that makes them surrogate prophets for spiritually malnourished youth?
Cornell: Whether they like it or not, probably, yeah. For the most part, that's where people are going to turn, especially at that age. So a lot of times it's going to mean being the most outrageous or most shocking to that young person's role models up to that point. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, but I wouldn't worry about a young person believing what Slayer writes about, because eventually people will find things that make more sense and can help them be more productive.
SPIN: At what point did you decide metal was cool?
Thayil: (Suspicious) I never thought it was cool. Are you talking about our youth or something? I think we stopped thinking it was cool before the band was formed. Probably something we outgrew.
SPIN: And now?
Thayil: It's fun to play. It's loud.
SPIN: Is there some particular brand of ennui that only white suburban males experience that is essential for the creation of metal/hardcore/grunge? Would the focus of white rock'n'roll be "We're bored and want to have a fucking good time"?
Thayil: (With mounting vehemence) Why do you think it has anything to do with boredom? Only indie bands have the lives with rich mommies and daddies who are in the military, just fucking bored. Go ahead, sit the fuck around and live off your Brown University tuition or whatever. And write songs, and try to be really dumb and working class. Yeah, you can survive on an indie label 'cause you know where your money is coming from. Your dad will always give you a job at the firm when you coe back home... (Sardonic) Lest anyone believe an indie band is comprised of prostitutes and junkies.
SPIN: I could name a few like that. But I think there is real angst and anger that comes from the suburbs now that the American dream has gone completely sour for so many people.
Thayil: (Very sarcastic) I don't have any angst or anger, do I?
SPIN: You tell me.
Thayil: No, I'm not angry. What do bored kids do when they don't play rock'n'roll? They torture cats, they do burglaries.
SPIN: If you weren't in a band, what crime would you be serving time for now?
Thayil: (Dismissive) I wouldn't be serving time for any crime. But I probably wouldn't be bored.
SPIN: Do you have any women in your audience?
Cornell: We've had women stage-divers; they're pretty dainty about it. We get different kinds of females at our shows. There's the fifteen-year-olds who try to dress like prostitutes. Not a lot. Then the Sub Pop-looking girls, who have flannels and baby dreadlocks. There doesn't seem to be any type of person predominately male or female that makes up the majority of our audience.
SPIN: Do you like L7? Babes in Toyland?
Thayil: I like L7. I like the Hole record, too. How come you asked? Is that a nice way of saying, "Do you think women can rock"?
SPIN: I only ask it because it's an obviously male-dominated subculture.
Thayil: As it should be. Fuck, there's plenty of waitress positions open.
SPIN: And what would your order be?
Thayil: (Petulant) I was just joking.
(Well, I guess I had better leave the cheap pop theorizing to Joe Carducci [author of Rock and the Pop Narcotic]. Time was running out and patience wearing thin. There seemed to be only one option left.)
SPIN: How do you make a blonde's eyes twinkle?
Thayil: Who cares?
SPIN: Shine a flashlight in her ear.
(Laughter and hilarity hemorrhages from the table like David Cronenberg's last celluloid ejaculation. Eureka! I've hit paydirt!)
Thayil: (Lighting up like the Fourth of July) How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
SPIN: How many?
Thayil: (Imitating an angry feminist) That's not funny!
(More hearty chuckling from all concerned. Even the stoic Ben cracks a smile -- what is it about these strong, silent bass players?)
Thayil: (Gathering steam) What's the first thing a blonde does when she wakes up?...Goes home.
SPIN: (With budding excitement) Shit, I can only remember the punch line...I'll go backward..."She opens the car door."
Thayil: (Completes joke with fever-pitched climax) How can you tell when a blonde is done having sex?
SPIN: (Basking in the afterglow) So you were up for a Grammy. Did you attend the ceremony?
Cornell: (Perking up) That's the famous ceremony where Milli Vanilli won Best New Artist [in 1989]. We saw them "perform."
Matt Cameron: (You remember him -- the drummer) I don't know why anyone was surprised that Milli Vanilli didn't really sing.
Cornell: Music like that shouldn't pretend to have integrity.
Cameron: The line has gotten really close to the movie This Is Spinal Tap.
Cornell: The process Spinal Tap went through to write Smell the Glove is really no different than when bands write albums now.
SPIN: Chris, how do you feel being labeled a sex symbol?
Cornell: (Unconvincingly) It doesn't matter, because I'm not. There might, like, be a minority, but that's not what the majority of people feel. It's not a popular consensus.
SPIN: What was the last song you heard that you wished you had written?
Cameron: "On a Plain" by Nirvana.
Cornell: I haven't heard that one.
Cameron: It has a chord in it that I used in the last song I wrote and I just figured, "Fuck, why didn't I think of that?"
(Oh, he's so cute and nice. I wish the rest of them would disappear and I could just finish up this interview alone with Matt Cameron and a spunky little Zinfandel. Not only is he the only band member to make an appearance in my dreams -- yeah, one of those -- but he also once played in a Kiss cover band, complete with full makeup.)
SPIN: (Back from her daydream) Is there a dilemma posed in opening for a band like Guns N' Roses? Did you see Sonic Youth open for Neil Young?
Cornell: We probably would have had the same problems as Sonic Youth on the Neil Young show, except that I think we are a little bit more versatile musically.
SPIN: Boy, did they piss off the Neil Young audience. I've never heard anuthing like the roar of disapproval that came after their set. I think it was fantastic. I heard that in Princeton Kim couldn't wear her flag pants 'cause the school thought they were offensive.
Cornell: The twists of righteous flag defense was always amazed me. I think it's a symptom of the economy and everybody is getting scared and wants to feel secure in that conservatism. I just don't think the heavy-duty right-wing thing is gonna last. At some point chaos seems attractive to people.
SPIN: I don't know if this is a touchy subject, but Chris, in light of your friend Andy Wood's death, do you feel a responsibility to your audience to deglamorize heroin use?
Cornell: No, I don't feel a responsibility to my audience for any reason, whether it be about his death or about anything. I think that musicians', artists', or even writers' only responsibility really is true expression.
SPIN: Has there been a moment rectly where you felt such blissed-out happiness that if God struck you dead at the moment, you knew you would die happy?
Cornell: (With a sly smile) No.
SPIN: How do you feel about being on a major label now? Has anyone ever accused you of the proverbial selling out?
Cornell: A long time ago.
Thayil: People say that.
Cornell: There were a lot of indie bands that would say things behind our back, and now it seems like almost every one is signed to a major label. We didn't sign for about a year ot two so we could decide what we wanted. We got lucky with the Seattle situation because we were off Sub Pop about the time when the big buzz was happening. The only ones that are negatively affected are the ones who jumped on the bandwagon. Like if you took Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Mudhoney -- all the new releases -- and put them all on one disc and you ddn't know where they were from, you wouldn't assume that they were from the same scene or the same city.
Cameron: Is this your first interview?
SPIN: No, but it's probably my last.
The interview was over, as was my career as a pseudo-gonzo rock journalist. I slapped my official promotional Soundgarden bumper sticker onto the import, then headed home, where I lit my official promotional Soundgarden "Jeses Christ Pose" candle with my official promotional Soundgarden key chain-lighter, shaped like the spark plug on the official promotional Soundgarden logo, still wondering what in the hell it all meant?
Thinking about Soundgarden, I wished I could have liked the more. Then, I wished I could have hated them more. But most of all, I wished something would come along and cut through all this infernal indifference.