Reprinted without permission from US Magazine, July
Another day, another photo shoot. The members of SG are sitting on a ratty old couch in a studio overlooking seattle's Puget Sound, being photographed for the alternative rock magazine Raygun. Chris Cornell, 31, the group's lead vocalist and guitarist, in head-to-toe black, with dark spiky hair, chiseled features, olive skin; long haired, swarthy guitarist Kim Thayil, 35; leather wearing bassist Ben Shepherd, 27; and blond drummer Matt Cameron, 33, are perfectly pleasant but palpably bored. They're waiting for the session to end so thy can go home and watch the Seattle Mariners game on television. They'll do their job, but they don't have to look happy about it.
Soundgarden's rise to this particular moment in time, a moment when they are doing back to back shoots to promote Down on the Upside, the band's fifth album and the follow up to it's Grammy winning Superunknown, has been slow and steady: They had been playing together for eight years and had attainted midlevel success when Nirvana burst onto the scene, only to tragically fall apart. In 1988, amid cries of sellout, Soundgarden signed with a major label, A&M Records, after releasing only one indie LP, Ultramega OK. That move has resulted in a career move more fruitful than that of those who waited untill the early '90s to contract with the big league. And while fellow Seattlites like Pearl Jam rage against the machine of commercialism Soundgarden make videos, talk to the press and play Ticketmaster venues. Sometimes they even look happy about it.
What if the band had become a hit in that blazing overnight way? "We'd probably be cocaine addicts," Thayil says, half joking. Cornell chimes in: "We probably would have had the same problems most people have. We would have been more inclined to believe the intitial hype."
If Cornell sounds a little world weary, it should come as no surprise. Raised in suburban Seattle, one of six kids, he moved in with his granparents when he was 13, right before his mother and father divorced. "After my parnets got divorced they had too much shit to deal with to worry about me," he says, "so I was pretty much left alone to do what I wanted."
In fact by the time he reached puberty, Conrell's wildest days were already behind him. He had quit the piano and guitar lessons he started at age 10 ("it felt too much like school") and had taken up drugs. "My friends' older brothers all did drugs," he says, "and if you were curious, they were like, try it. I smoked pot pretty much all the time. I took hallucinogens." By 14, he had quit on his own. "I started having flashbacks without drugs," he says, "And although I liked taking drugs, I liked being in control, so when that happened I got scared. "
Having lost his social scene, Cornell went through a stage of near agoraphobia in his early teens. Then when he was 17 he rediscovered music, dropped out of school and moved into a house he rented with friends. "I started playing drums," he says "They didn't seem to require lessons, and music started changing too. With punk bands, you didn't have to be as good as Eddie van Halen to do it."
Cornell's father, who worked in a drugstore, was not pleased with his son's career choice. "He showed me his check stub, suggesting that if I had a college education, I'd make more money," Cornell says. "But I was very much into being a musician. Without realizing it at the time, I was the only one of my friends that even had a focus."
Thayil's father, an engineer, was equally sketpical about his son's future. "He was like, go to law school, go to graduate school or look for a job," Thayil says. "'You can't just go play guitar with your friends!'"
Thayil had recently moved from Chicago to Seattle where he was attending the University of Washington, when he first met Cornell. "I thought Kim was kind of a jerk," Cornell recalls. "I was negative back then," Thayil says. "He hasn't changed," Cornell shoots back jokingly. (Indeed, though Thayil has mellowed, his diatribes in the press can be severe; he holds forth on subjects like the cockiness of Oasis and the idiocy of the media.) Putting their differences aside, the two began collaborating with Cameron and bassist Hiro Yamammoto, who left the group and was replaced by Shepherd in 1990.
Soundgarden played together in Seattle clubs for nearly three years before making an album. Career-minded musicians migrated from Seattle to Los Angeles and New York in search of record deals, urging soungarden to do the same. But they ignored the conventional wisdom and were thus in their hometown for the Seattle feeding frenzy of the early 90s. "I'd get in arguments about if I'm going to be a musician, I have to go to NY or LA and play in Madonna's band," says Cornell. For their first two EPs, they paid themselves $600 a month. "And then we got sassy and switched to $800 a month," Cornell says. "I remember the first time I had $2,000 in the bank. Tha's when I could afford to buy a decent car that ran."
Clearly the band needed a manager, and she came along in the form of Susan Silver, who was a promoter of underground rock shows when Cornell, then 21, walked into the vintage clothing store where she worked. Soon after, Silver and Cornell started dating. "I was coming out of a bad relationship, so my view of the world was pretty slanted," says Silver, 37, who looks more like the owner of an art gallery than a rock and roll business woman. "He seemed like a true and good human being, which turned out to be right."
Silver ended up managing the band by default. "I didn't have any intention of doing it," she says. But there were no takers, so she stayed on. She also married Cornell. "The best thing is how much more of each other's lives we get to share," she says. "But we do need to try not to work all the time becuase we love what we do."
In the past year, Soundgarden have been in the studio full time, recording Down on the Upside. With songs written by all four band members, this new album is a touch heavier than their last. Witness "Ty Cobb," a speeded up, noisy number with the chorus "Hard headed fuck you all," and "No Attention," a reaffirmation of the punk rock attitude. "It's about ignoring useless advice," says Cornell, who wrote the song. Which begs the question: Is there such a thing as useful advice? "Barely," he says. "When you're 6 years old, there probably is. But you end up not understanding it until you learn it yourself. When I was 2, I pulled an iron down on my arm. I'm sure my mom told me to stay away from it. But it didn't do any good because I didn't know what an iron was."
Silver is peering out the window of the well appointed offices of Susan Silver management, which overlook Puget Sound and the mist shrouded Olympic Mountains in the distance. She's hoping to catch Cornell before he gets in his car and heads to their house in the West Seattle hills. "I want him to bring the dogs home," she says, referring to the bevy of tiny Pomeranians that has been scurrying around the office. But Cornell has already left the parking lot.
A notorious recluse, Cornell won't often be found checking out new bands. "When you're onstange, you're in the public eye," he says. "Maybe I'd be less of a recluse if I didn't have the other end of the pendulum to swing to. If I was an accountant, I'd be wanting more human contact and I'd go to cocktail parties in avocado leisure suits."
The legndary Seattle scene is not as tightly knit as one would expect. Soundgarden's peers are busier than they were in the early days; the younger bands are more diffuse. "There isn't one Seattle music scene," Thayil says. "I'm in touch with what our peers are doing, but there are so many more bands. There's a number of different cliques, and I'm not part of any of them." Though Thayil still enjoys seeing bands, going to shows isn't as much fun now. "Rather than see the band, you spend all your time entertaining people's questions," he says. "It ends up being more a political-social thing."
Such are the duties of a local celebrity. Not that fame was ever Soungarden's ultimate goal. "I think everyone fantasizes about playing the biggest theatres in the world and having money fall out of the sky along with naked women," Thayil says.
"And really shiny, really pointy shoes," Cornell adds.
"But by the time we were in Soundgarden," Thayil continues, "all that we were excited about was playing music that we liked."
As it turns out, they're also playing the biggest theaters in the world.