Reprinted without permission from The Chicago Sun
Times, May 19, 1996
ALTERNATIVE GARDEN GROWS: FIERCE SOUNDING QUARTET KEEPS ROCK
STARDOM IN PERSPECTIVE
Ask Kim Thayil why his band, Soundgarden, rarely smiles in photos or in videos and he'll answer, "We're not perky boys." That's the understatement of the year. Anyone who has ever heard the group's songs will never mistake the four-man band from Seattle for the wispy lads in Take That.
Soundgarden's thick, dense music helped create Seattle's "grunge" scene. Though they preceeded Nirvana and Pearl Jam onto that scene, the musicians watched as their colleagues earned fame and fortune, patiently waiting for their time to come.
That time came in 1991 -- seven years after Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto (who quit in 1990) formed Soundgarden. Badmotorfinger went platinum that year. In 1994 Superunknown sold 5 million copies and, for its encore, a couple of Grammys.
On Soundgarden's latest CD, Down on the Upside, which hits stores on Tuesday, fans will hear a stunning collection of songs that comes as close as you'll get to capturing the group's hard-rocking live shows without actually having to step into an arena.
And arenas are where Soundgarden play. They're one of the featured headliners on this year's Lollapalooza tour, making them the only act to have been featured twice on the alternative music fest since its 1991 inception -- first in 1992 and again this summer.
They're also one of the reasons why Lollapalooza's founder Perry Farrell (formerly of Jane's Addiction and currently in Porno for Pyros) disassociated himself from the festival. Farrell said that having bands like them and headliner Metallica on the bill took away from the alternative spirit upon which the fest was founded.
"I think it's silly for affluent American white guys to worry about this contrived polarity between metal and alternative music," Thayil said, phoning from his Seattle home.
"I think both these forms share more of the same spirit in terms of its demographics than, say, reggae or jazz or classical or various Euro techo music."
Thayil and Soundgarden have learned about the dangers of labeling music the hard way. Once stuck in musical purgatory -- where their record company preferred to promote them under the more popular "heavy metal" tag, as opposed to the relatively new category of "alternative" -- they at times were shunned by metal and alternative fans, who deemed them either sellouts or uncool.
But they persevered. Eventually, their videos worked their way onto MTV thought not in heavy rotation. They were most often played on MTV's metal show "Headbanger's Ball" and, ironically enough, its alternative show "120 minutes".
"When we started out, there wasn't a successful alternative market," Thayil said. "The record companies perceived all the money being in heavy metal, so they called us metal, and we cringed at the term back then. We really identified ourselves more with the underground or college scene that was going on then." Genre notwithstanding, the musicians have come into their own as artists and as superstars.
Unlike Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who never seemed to enjoy the status, Thayil, singer-guitarist Chris Cornell, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd appear to be comfortable with fame.
Though their multi-platinum sales have made them wealthy men (they own rights to publishing and merchandising), the musicians keep themselves on an $1,100 per month allowance.
Obviously, they don't have to worry about making ends meet anymore, but Thayil said they were used to living on so little for so long that they don't find extravagant lifestyles a necessity or particularly desirable.
Thayil's intelligence and wry wit belie his quirky, long haired looks (I've had long hair since I was 10," he swore. "I always got it cut around school picture time, though.") While his band is definitely of the Seattle kind, Thayil is quick to point out that he grew up in suburban Park Forest, where he attended Rich East High School.
"I was on the debate team there my sophomore year," said the articulate musician. "It was me and another long-haired kid. We weren't any good, but we were funny. We had some weird debates."
Thayil spent 1 1/2 years studying liberal arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago before transferring to the University of Washington, where he earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy.
"I took a lot of biology and chemistry my freshman year and sort of weaved in literature, philosphy and psychology," he said, taking long drags on his cigarette that were audible over the phone lines. "I really liked the whole process of psychology, but I realized how weak it was as a major."
Asked what Thayil the former psych student would make of a song like "Pretty Noose," the first single from their new CD, he laughed. "I guess songs could work as pop psychology," he said. "Sure, I can see it as being a surrogate Oprah."
Cornell, who writes the majority of the band's lyrics, has admitted that sometimes his songs are nothing more than just arbitrary words that sound good together. But that hasn't stopped fans and critics from analyzing the band's music, which is often bleak and chilling.
One of their best songs from the new album, The Stooges-esque "Ty Cobb" will never make it on American radio because of the "f" word being an integral part of the song. "The funny thing about it is we met the German representative for our record company, and he is dead set on having 'Ty Cobb' be the second or third single in Germany," Thayil said. "I said, 'In spite of the lyrical content?' And he said, 'What the hell! I really don't understand why it's 1996 and people worry about lyrical content especially in a country like the U.S. It's like the days when people were so bugged out about [the supposedly suggestive] lyrics to 'Louie Louie.' It seems so archaic."
Taking another long drag on his cigarette, Thayil pondered a more pleasant subject. "Hey do you like baseball?" he asked. "I can name the lineup for the '69 Cubs." And he did.
'UPSIDE' FAVORS LIVE SIDE OF BAND
All it took for Soundgarden to capture the recorded sound it had always wanted was to nix the producer. Guitarist Kim Thayil and singer Chris Cornell have stated that if their past efforts had any faults, it was that they sounded too clean. While their latest effort, Down on the Upside -- in stores Tuesday -- isn't exactly full of superfluous noise, it's the closest the band has come to capturing its vibrant live spirit. (Adam Kasper is credited with co-producing the album, but Thayil said he worked more as an advisor than a hands-on producer.)
A group that found mainstream fame via the power ballads "Fell on Black Days" and "Black Hole Sun," Soundgarden's latest effort doesn't have an obvious hit on it. The closest is the first single "Pretty Noose," which beautifully showcases Cornell's controlled wails. The 16-song, 66-minute CD is an ambitious effort where the songs have a cohesive groove to them, right down to the bleak outlook all the musicians seem to share. Though Cornell is the primary lyricist, all four members contributed tracks.
Soundgarden's genius isn't in its intricate guitar work or even in Cornell's tortured somber lyrics with music that is suprisingly uplifting and catchy, while also being raw and dirty. "Ty Cobb" goes form a gentle mandolin intro into a playfully obscene chorus. And "Rhinosaur" sounds like it could serve as this year's Lollapalooza theme. It seems to take stabs at rock stars and the throngs that idolize them: "I play, I'm sick and tame/Drawing the hordes I wait/ And show the lame the meaning of harm."