Reprinted without permission from the Sydney Morning Herald, January 24, 1997
BIG DAY OUT
There is cool, seriously cool and then there is having one of your songs covered by Johnny Cash. On his new album, the man in black take's Soundgarden's incendiary "Rusty Cage" (from the Seattle quartet's third and breakthrough album of 1991, "Badmotorfinger"), and turns it into a death march country blues song.
The most impressed listener is Soundgarden's frontman, Chris Cornell.
"It's a pretty amazing transformation of the song," says Cornell. "[Johnny Cash's producer Rick Rubin] ...asked me a couple of years ago to try to do an arrangement that Johnny Cash could do because they thought lyrically, it was a song he could do. I couldn't imagine it but he basically turns it into his own song, exactly what a cover should be."
The Cash version is another blow to those who have been frustrated by not being able ot keep Soundgarden in the box labelled "dark-browed, thundering metal heads." While Badmotorfinger's propulsive force dragged together the fans of grunge and Black Sabbath/Led Zepplin, 1994's "SuperUnknown" began the shift away from that style with some almost Beatlesque melodic breaks (for example, "Black Hole Sun") and arrangements which didn't just blast and blast some more.
Last year's "Down on the Upside" took it further. There were riffing guitars there, but also Moog (!) synthesisers, more conventionally structured songs and even some optimism. As with Metallica, who last year attempted a similar shift in musical effort away from brute force, the explanation is not so much a band winding down but brains winding up, saya Cornell, who still dominated the songwriting.
"When we were a younger band, when I brought in a finished song, no matter what it was it was approached in the same way by the band," he says. "Kim [Thayill, guitarist] would play with his normal sound and his normal way of recording it and I would do what I normally did. We would make it into a Soundgarden song and, if it didn't fit into that way we work, it wouldn't work.
"After Badmotorfinger we were done with that. It was close to a unanimous decision to get deeper into these songs and we started getting into what the original inspiration was, taking the demos and trying to capture whatever that was."
Cornell is a serious man. A man who isn't so much humourless as so intense that he often forgets to relax into humour. He has developed a reputation as almost a sullen, and definitely reluctant interviewee, someone wary of any openness. But it's notor lack of thought - just an aversion to simplify matters which don't get any clearer when retold simply. But he knows what he wants from this band now.
"A lot of songs have been killed by putting them through the Soundgarden machine," he says ruefully. "A lot of what has happened now is an an understanding of what made a song heavy. There was a perception in the band for a while that big guitar sounds and several layered guitar tracks over the top of each other would make this huge sound that would be heavy."
"To me that was kinda tiresome and it wasn't that heavy to me. Sometimes there's nothing so heavy as listening to one guitar and drumkit and a bass playing, because you can hear every nuance. It's not a battle for sonic space."
"In order to create the illusion of space there has to be space to compare it to. A lot of Soundgarden songs would start totally against the wall and I would be screaming through the whole thing or singing in a high register the whole time, and there would be no drama involved. It wasn't dynamic. It was just like getting clubbed over the head."
That's the way Soundgarden came across on their previous tour of Australia for the Big Day Out in 1994 - a blunderbass that left little variety for light or shade. This time, as well as greater variety and flexibility to their undeniably powerful form there will even be room for some songs of some hope, such as "Dusty" ("and nothing's gonna put me out/it's backing down and under") and "Blow up the Outside World ("nothing will do me in before I do myself").
Put it together with compadres You Am I and it suggests nothing less than, gasp, an enjoyable show. What would the gloom and doom merchants make of that? Cornell doesn't care to know.
"We've been confused over the years about what to do, but we were never confused about the fact that it was going to be what we chose. We had to make a change, and we did it and it worked."