Reprinted without permission from the Chicago Tribune,
October 18, 1989
SEATTLE'S BIG NOISE SOUNDGARDEN LEADS A ROCK INVASION FROM THE
They're on to something big in Seattle.
Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, Tad, Alice in Chains--the names of these bands may not mean much now, but they almost certainly will in the next few years. Just as cities far removed from the entertainment meccas of Los Angeles and New York (Minneapolis; Akron; Athens, Ga.; Austin, Tex.) helped define the sound of the '80s, Seattle is becoming a breeding ground for alternative rock in the '90s.
It all began when three graduates of Rich East High School in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest--Bruce Pavitt, Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto--took off for the Great Northwest in 1981. Pavitt started a rock 'n' roll fan magazine, Subterranean Pop, while Thayil and Yamamoto studied philosophy at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., before moving to Seattle in 1984.
There they formed Soundgarden with singer/drummer Chris Cornell, naming the band after a huge piece of park sculpture. Two years later, Pavitt started SubPop Records. Naturally, Soundgarden began making records for SubPop, and a "scene" was born.
"We were a punk band with long hair, and we played with a punk attitude, but the music was slower, trippier," said Thayil, Soundgarden's guitarist. The band's first EP attracted interest from major labels such as Geffen, Capitol, Epic and A&M, all of whom enticed Soundgarden with big money.
But "we didn't want to commit ourselves to someone's else's ballgame," he said. "We wanted to learn about the industry ourselves, instead of being caught off-guard."
So Soundgarden's first album, "Ultramega OK," was distributed by a far less wealthy independent label, SST.
"A lot of the majors were really disappointed when we did that," Thayil said. "Only A&M thought it was a great idea, and that's probably the main reason we ended up signing with them."
Soundgarden's A&M debut, "Louder Than Love," was released a few weeks ago, and it's an apt title for an album that is the rock 'n' roll equivalent of a Boeing 747 takeoff.
With Matt Cameron on drums, Cornell now concentrates on singing exclusively, and his voice has been likened to the banshee wail of Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant.
But the comparisons, while flattering, hardly tell the whole story. For one thing, Thayil despises one of hard-rock's cornerstones: the guitar solo.
"Most are annoying, self-indulgent," he said. "To me, a great guitar solo is Neil Young's on 'Cinammon Girl,' where he plays basically one note." Instead of emphasizing flash and technique, Thayil, in tandem with Cameron and new bassist Jason Everman, strives to create a groove.
"Our music is as much influenced by British bands like Killing Joke and Bauhaus as it is by heavy metal. In 'Get on the Snake,' we developed a great riff, but it turned out to be in 9/4 time (traditionally, rock is played in 4/4 time, or 4 beats to the bar; 9/4 tempo is normally associated with more esoteric music such as avant-garde jazz). You can't dance to it, but it sort of sneaks up on you anyway."
Even Soundgarden's hardest, loudest workouts have a subtle, sensual underpinning, an unlikely mix that makes "Louder Than Love" one of the most innovative hard-rock records to come skateboarding down the pike since Metallica's "Master of Puppets" (Elektra) in 1986.
Like Metallica, Soundgarden ferrets out the best elements of metal while spitting out the cliches. On "Big Dumb Sex," for example, they poke fun at a favorite subject of many one-dimensional hard-rock bands.
"It's a boogie-rock parody," Thayil said. "How many different ways can you say 'making love' in a song before it starts to sound silly. We just decided to avoid the euphemisms."
Soundgarden's bluntness at first "irritated Jerry Moss, the 'M' in A&M Records," Thayil said. "But eventually the whole label got behind the song because I think they realized what we were up to."
It did, however, cause the record to be issued with an "explicit lyrics" warning label.
"I think it was done to appease one of those watchdog groups like the PMRC (the Parents Music Resource Center)," Thayil said. "We're not interested in appeasing anyone, but the label has its interests to protect and Soundgarden has theirs."
There won't be any censors in the crowd Saturday, however, when Soundgarden plays Cabaret Metro. With fellow Seattle rockers Mudhoney on the bill, things couldn't be sweeter for Thayil and company.
"We've been all over Europe, the States," the shaggy-haired guitarist said. "When we get together with the guys in Mudhoney, we just look at each and can't believe how far we've come in a few years. It's a long way from Seattle."