Reprinted without permission from USA Today, March 11,
SOUNDGARDEN WON'T BE STAYING SUPERUNKNOWN
SEATTLE - Spring may find Soundgarden in full bloom. The least visible supergroup to spring from Seattle's grunge hotbed returns this week with its fourth album, Superunknown, a title befitting an unacknowledged catalyst in the Northwest's overmined underground music scene. Touted as 1994's breakthrough, Soundgarden is poised for chart domination with its timely hybrid of Zeppelinesque metal, ragged punk and instrumental experimentation. "Of all the groups in the Northwest, Soundgarden is the one everyone thought would break to huge levels 3 1/2 years ago," notes Charles Cross, editor of nationally prominent Seattle music magazine The Rocket. "The big question is, will the new record push them to this megalevel? My answer is yes. They may have been ahead of the audience, but the audience is catching up."
It was the quartet's mid-'80s EPs on Sub Pop that led a fledgling Nirvana to the respected Seattle-based label. Though behind Nirvana and Pearl Jam in sales, Soundgarden was the first Seattle group to sign (almost begrudgingly) with a major label (A&M).
Fans, peers and college radio were aware of Soundgarden's influence and patient climb - 10 years this summer - but mass media paid scant attention, mislabeling the band heavy metal and mistaking it for another pretender in the parade of Nirvana-bes that trailed Smells Like Teen Spirit.
On the brink of stardom for years, Soundgarden, which Spin anointed "the metal band for people who hate metal," earned a Grammy nomination in 1988; 1991's Grammy-nominated, million-selling Badmotorfinger prompted industry predictions of big-time status.
That didn't happen, even when Soundgarden, named after a pipe sculpture near Seattle that howls when the wind blows, garnered a third Grammy nod in 1992, joined Lollapalooza's high-profile sophomore outing, and opened tours for Neil Young and Guns N' Roses.
The band, looking forward to headlining a U.S. theater tour this summer, doesn't resent its decade of paying dues.
"(We) never stagnated," says guitarist Kim Thayil, 33, during a break in rehearsals at the drafty Moore Theater downtown. "There are plenty of great bands that aren't doing half as well as we are. We didn't hit the sales jackpot first, but we feel pretty fortunate."
Superunknown, a diverse batch of desolate, psychedelic rock-metal, could be the final boost to the top. Its 15 songs, clocking in at a generous 70 minutes, span the sonic spectrum from blues (4th of July) and post-punk (Kickstand) to grunge pop (first single Spoonman) and mood pieces (Half).
Chris Cornell, whose once over-strenuous vocals now show greater range and emotional depth, provides the album's unifying thread: dark, poetic lyrics that are especially potent in songs like Let Me Drown and the gorgeously bleak Fell on Black Days.
He plumbs his gloomy nature but stops short of all-out confessionals, preferring verbal impressionism. "When you're concerned with how words flow and fall and create rhythm and energy, it seems almost impossible to be 100% autobiographical," says Cornell, 29, a rock-hunk vision in hoop earrings, black jeans and a twisted, forklike pendant.
"Besides, if a song gets too preachy or personal, I think, 'Why should I care?'"
Though prone to depression, Cornell says he keeps his self-destructive streak in check.
"I don't act on it. I'd either go that way and self-destruct or do what I'm doing now. I wouldn't go on and on having a miserable life and screwing up every opportunity I had. Some people enjoy being preoccupied by drug problems, relationship problems, health problems. I'm not like that."
Thayil, born in Seattle and reared in Chicago, entertained notions of becoming a scientist, baseball player, writer or comic-book artist before returning to the Northwest to get a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington. He began playing guitar at 16. "I loved the fact that electric guitar was loud and a way to flip everyone off," he says. He pursued rock, to the chagrin of his music-teacher mother, who complained, "Why are you wasting your time? Why don't you go to law school?"
Though devoted to music, the players kept day jobs for years. Thayil worked at a film processing lab. Cornell was a seafood cook. Drummer Matt Cameron worked at a Kinko's copy center. The original bassist (current Ben Shepherd is their third) fixed bicycles.
Despite infrequent concerts, Soundgarden's reputation flourished, and major labels courted the band in earnest. "It was a few years before we committed," Thayil says. "It was like on the first date they're trying to get in our pants. Nope! Let's put it off till we trust you."
Pleased with A&M's minimal interference, Cornell feels his anti-corporate stance paid off. "Being suspicious and paranoid's kind of a drag. It's time-consuming and causes a lot of grief and anguish, but ultimately it can benefit you."
Outwardly cynical and sonically harsh, Soundgarden as a group is a model of trust and harmony. "We're the kind of people who show loyalty and commitment in all our relationships," says Thayil, who's had the same girlfriend for nearly 10 years.
Cornell, who cut his hair while on tour and mailed the shorn locks to his wife, says his potential as a groupie magnet has not strained his marriage.
"Girls don't just make their way into your dressing room," he says. "You have to facilitate that, and we don't. And as the manager, my wife gets all the fan mail, so if naked pictures come in, she throws them out."
Heavy-metal hedonism is the most vexing misconception about Soundgarden - but it's not entirely inaccurate.
"We were typed as macho and testosterone-fueled, and for years we thought it was unfair," Thayil says. "It's unfair that we have a metal tag, but in the past year or two I've realized we are a pretty macho band. We're macho like Clint Eastwood, as opposed to macho like Andrew Dice Clay."
Band collegiality is sometimes tested by singer Chris Cornell's four-year marriage to Soundgarden manager Susan Silver; it's a delicate situation with an overwhelming plus:
"I know we're not getting ripped off," Cornell says. "But I do get caught in the middle. If she's pissed off at the band, I'm defending the band. If the band's pissed at her, I'm defending her. It's hard on everybody because you can't get too critical or too angry. The benefit is that I can't imagine a better manager. She's thorough and careful and intelligent with our career and money."