Just when you thought Soundgarden were safely relegated to the pages of Circus magazine between hair farmers with spandex-encased cucumbers--what's this?! Goth, post-punk and '60s psych-pop influences come roaring into your speakers from the Superunknown. What the hell happened?
Dave Thompson braves Lollapalooza-damaged waiters, a Brit-hating bass player and the ghost of Jimi Hendrix to find out.
"I threw up three times this morning."
Ben Shepherd appears almost pleased with himself. And he's not the only one. Matt Cameron, Shepherd's partner in rhythm, has a dose so lethal that even when he learns he may be playing a secret gig at CBGB's later in the week, the only sign of life comes when someone else checks his pulse. Another Seattle rock success story? Things aren't what they seem...
There's a wicked flu circulating Seattle and Soundgarden have to be in New York to conduct a mix down of their new album Superunknown. Poor Matt Cameron. Thirty-one years old today and he's up at the crack of dawn, hauling himself to Seattle's SeaTac airport at 8 a.m. Of course the flight's delayed, of course it's bouncy, and by the time he arrives at New York's JFK, it's nighttime again. Birthday? What birthday?
Ben Shepherd's flight is no better. Life on the islands dotting Seattle's Puget Sound sounds idyllic, and probably is, until you discover that you too have an 8 a.m. flight, and the only ferries to the mainland leave at 5 a.m. "So I stayed up all night," he says. I think it was Ben who groaned so pitifully when the stewardess announced the inflight movie--Sleepless In Seattle. (And you in the back, stop sneering, I'm not making this up.)
Kim Thayil is Soundgarden's premier White Knuckler, a pathological fear-of-flighter who has been known to spend entire journeys hiding behind his blanket. Either that, or taking a train. This morning he's better, a mixture of resignation and exhaustion. He got four hours sleep, and won't be snatching much more tonight either. There's Budweiser to drink, hotel rooms to sit in, writers to talk to, plus, the most garrulous member of Soundgarden is also the most readily identifiable, which is how we later meet Nicholas, a Florida-born waiter who chased a woman all the way to New York and is now looking for another to chase back again.
But we're jumping ahead of ourselves--there's one more member of the gang to bang, and no, I didn't recognize him either. One of Soundgarden's road crew pledged that if Chris Cornell shaved his head, he--the roadie--would follow suit. "But he never believed I would," cackles Cornell. "Never."
His hair has grown back some now, but it's still a shock. There I was looking for the Wild Man of Borneo and instead I got a High School Yearbook, which is absurd when you think that Soundgarden are now lurching towards their tenth anniversary.
There again, even Cornell's youthful looks pale alongside Michael Beinhorn. Producer of more names than you could shake a stick at, not forgetting two Red Hot Chili Peppers albums, Beinhorn has a reputation of a strong man, a hard man, and it only follows, an old man. Instead, he bounds in looking like, well, if he didn't mastermind Uplift Mofo Party Plan from his playpen, then I want what he's drinking.
Even four months sequestered in Heart's Bad Animals studio, producing the new Soundgarden album, Superunknown, hasn't aged him, and the thrill of being back on home soil, commuting from Connecticut to New York's Electric Lady studio for some final remixing, has simply knocked a few more years off.
But we're jumping ahead again. Backtrack to the airplane, to the movie, to Meg Ryan stepping out in front of a taxi while Tom Hanks recovers from an impossible sea journey, to Soundgarden reclining in the seats looking vulnerable and limp, I'm here, you're here, so let's do the interview at 30,000 feet, but they're all out cold. By the time Meg and Tom meet atop the Empire State Building, so am I. Yep, I slept with Soundgarden--and it was real good.
That night at 2:30 in the morning, Kim Thayil is still awake at the hotel, discussing his band's early days. The basics we know--Soundgarden were first-generation Seattle Soundsters, the reason Nirvana signs to Sub Pop, the first local act to attract major-label interest. So it's kind of ironic that Soundgarden was actually formed by two imported Chicago-ans, the East Indian-descended Thayil and original bassist Hiro Yamamoto.
Thayil was DJing on the University of Washington's KCMU radio station at the time, landing the job because every time the station had a contest, he says, he'd call up and win. "One day I went down to pick up my prize and they said, 'You're always around anyway, how'd you like to work here full time?'"
He aired what he listened to--British post-Gothers like Bauhaus, Joy Division, the first Psychedelic Furs album and the Cure's "Primary, "and those were the big influences on Soundgarden when we started," he says. He insists that the band's early gigs were attended by the white-faced Goth girls who habitually grooved to Specimen and Sex Gang Children, but found much the same magic lurking inside Soundgarden.
And just when I'm sure he's winding me up, he continues, "But we were also into the SST bands--Black Flag, the Minute Men, the Meat Puppets. The second Meat Puppets' album changed my life." It's no coincidence, incidentally, that it seems also to have changed Nirvana's--see their recent Unplugged for more details.
Soundgarden's welding of British art-school neuroses and American punk psychoses, its sense of purpose strengthened by the other bands who emerged alongside them, remains one of rock's most misunderstood mutants. Before the interview, I was warned that Ben Shepherd loathes the British music press for what they did to his local music scene--namely, give it a name and an image to match.
I'm British, I'm press, I'm guilty. I barely squeeze a civil sentence out of Shepherd in two days, and I don't mention grunge once, not even in connection with any of Seattle's other finest. But there again, I sulk to myself, why should I? Soundgarden are more likely to be bagged Heavy Metal anyway, both by their critics and by their fans.
When metal magazine Kerrang! wanted to discover the "Future of Metal" a couple of Christmases back, who did they put on the cover? When Spin wanted "the Metal band for people who hate Metal," who did they come up with? And when Almost Live, Seattle's infinitely funny answer to Saturday Night Live, wanted someone to represent "America's Heavy Metal Community" for its semi-regular "Lame List" feature (a bunch of hairy men bellowing "lame" every time they're asked their opinion on the issues of the day, who did they turn to?
"At the beginning, a lot of people thought we sounded like Led Zeppelin," Thayil continues, "mainly because we have a singer who can hit the high notes without sounding screechy." When Soundgarden were first picked up by the press, "That's what every writer compared us to, because that's what everyone had told them. By then, though, we'd moved on." These days, as Nicholas the Waiter puts it, the dudes just rock.
"Hi, I'm Nicholas, and I'll be your waiter tonight."
Thayil, Cornell, his wife and band manager Susan Silver, and I are in a restaurant somewhere in New York City's East 30s.
"Hello Nicholas," they reply.
"And what do you guys do?" he asks.
Curiosity piqued, he returns a few minutes later asking, "Are you guys in a band?"
Cornell swallows the bait. "Yeah. How did you know?"
"Ah, you have that space-cadet glow." And he's off again, leaving the table in shocked semi-silence.
"Space cadet?" asks Cornell.
"Glow?" shoots back Thayil.
"Perceptive!" laughs Silver.
Nicholas returns a few minutes later. "Which band?"
It turns out Nicholas saw them on Lollapalooza a couple of years back, down in Miami the night before Hurricane Andrew really showed the place how to rock and roll. He doesn't remember the female drummer or the English bagpipe player, but eventually he's convinced. Or so his volleys of "Wow!" "Damn!" and "This is so cool!" for a good portion of the evening would suggest. Thayil and Cornell take his incoherence in good heart--they're used to it.
"We opened for Mission UK in Seattle a few years back," Thayil says, reminiscing about fandom, "and there was someone backstage, a real Mission fanatic. And the Mission were just being so cruel to him, laughing at him, being really horrible."
"You almost got into a fight over that," prompts Cornell.
"No, that was Ben. He just waded into them, told them they were being really s****y to this kid, who then attached himself to us, and turned out to be pretty annoying after all."
But that's not really the point, is it? A fragmentary conversation between Shepherd and the band's off-tour tour manager, Dave, revolving somewhere between the unrelenting vileness of MTV and standard record company rip-offs ends with Shepherd murmuring, "The fans are the real bottom line, though. They're the ones who get fucked, and they're the most important people."
He takes his role in rock very seriously. "I'm just not interested in the bullshit." And he looks at me pointedly.
The night we arrived in New York, the city witnessed its first full lunar eclipse in a few hundred years. So 1 a.m. found four happy eaters, space-cadet glows and all, standing on an icy street corner watching the monster eat the moon. The last time this happened, we would have been burning each other for witchcraft.
"Have you heard of the cargo cults?" springs Thayil. As recently as 50 years ago, planes or boats stopping off at isolated islands to occasionally pick up supplies, on return visits, found that they had been deified by the baffled locals. In one instance, the natives actually constructed a life-sized replica from straw, whilst weaving a complicated legend around the pilot's last appearance.
The same notions resurface the following night as Soundgarden are watching MTV at Electric Lady. "There's a lot of bands who see someone else on MTV and think, 'We can do that,' and do so," says Cornell. Except instead of airplanes and straw, they use guitars and trick photography. That oft-played video from the band Dig appears, with that ragged, Kurt Cobain-looking blonde singer and a lot of activity surrounding a pool.
"I wonder if they'll throw a baby in there," Shepherd muses, and Thayil and I exchange glances. Smells like...nevermind. The cargo-cult syndrome, and in the home of cargo cults even! Has any guitarist inspired more slavish motivation than Jimi Hendrix, who built Electric Lady at the end of the '60s, but beyond a couple of demos, never got to use the place himself?
It's appropriate, though, that Soundgarden should be completing their new album here. Until no more than three or four years ago, Hendrix was still Seattle's best known rock export, and just last year, Cameron and Cornell joined forces with Pearl Jam's Mike McCready and Jeff Ament in the Temple of the Dog-like MACC (named after the initials of each of their surnames) to record "Hey Baby" for a Hendrix tribute album. "It worked a lot better than I expected it to," smiles Cameron.
Like kids in a particularly neat museum, they ogle the vast psychedelic mural which lines the basement walls, dismembered during renovations but impressive all the same. They point out the glass etching of Hendrix which overlooks the stairway, and despite themselves, they're impressed when an engineer tells them that Hendrix's ghost now haunts the studio, and that Studio C--where Soundgarden and Michael Beinhorn are remixing "Fourth of July"--was his bedroom.
It's cool, smiles Cornell. "They say that whenever you play here, he's always there beside you."
Do you believe it?
"I think it's bullshit."
But the myth is powerful, even if you are surrounded by a few squidillion bucks worth of recording equipment, the likes of which Hendrix could never have dreamed of. By the time they're finished with "Fourth of July" it even sounds a bit like Hendrix, circa Axis: Bold As Love. The song is a slow blues number through which Thayil's guitar does the one thing which the rest of Hendrix's fanclub never ever does--lurks patiently in the background and only really kicks loose when it needs to. This is the best track on Superunknown, one of the best albums Soundgarden has ever recorded.
"The original mix just didn't stand out," Thayil explains. "The only thing that caught your attention was the tempo." Now, as they put the finishing touches to it, Cornell and Beinhorn are squabbling over who is the stupidest person in the room. Cornell is trying to explain what he wants done with a single guitar passage. When Beinhorn seemingly complies, Cornell explodes. "That's not it at all! Can't you ever listen?"
"I listen," shoots back Beinhorn. "It's not my fault you can't speak fucking English properly."
Later, Beinhorn describes making Superunknown as "really exciting, really educational, and really abusive." A spirit of mutual mockery developed between Beinhorn and the band in Seattle, and both are still hard at it, a ceaseless battle of name-calling which not only lightened the band's workload, it also eased the band's possible (though unspoken) contentious, and certainly continuous, usurping of Beinhorn's authority.
"It's the only album I've ever co-produced with the artist," smiles Beinhorn, and though I can't tell if he resents the union or not, it certainly dovetails with Cornell's summary of the record:
"It's the first one where we've not been self-conscious about what we were doing," he says. "In the past, we'd only record songs if everybody in the group liked them--this time, we've allowed each other more freedom." The sitar-fired "Half," one of two Ben Shepherd songs on the album, seems a case in point. With buried vocals howling from atop a minaret, "Half" could not be further from the Soundgarden brief if it tried.
Cornell agrees, although he chooses his words very seriously, well aware that he's wandering dangerously close to a semantic minefield. "There was a sense that we were playing what the audience wanted to hear, rather than what we wanted to do."
In the past, songs which didn't fit the Soundgarden mold were simply taken elsewhere--Cornell used almost an album's worth of oddities for the Temple of the Dog; Shepherd sent his excess out to play with Hater; Cameron, drummer on both those projects, recently completed writing and recording the soundtrack to a skateboarding movie.
Now, anything goes. Aside from Shepherd's contributions, Cameron has made his debut as a Soundgarden lyricist, on the bitter "Fresh Tendrils." And with Thayil pulling out the kind of performances which even he seemed surprised to hear, it seems almost redundant to ask if he's intending a solo project of his own. "What would be the point? It would sound like Soundgarden, with a different vocalist."
Cornell continues, "I think it's a sign of growth. This is our fourth album, fifth if you count the one which Sub Pop made of the two EPs; we just did what we felt, rather than..."
What you felt you ought to do?
"No, because that makes it sound as though there was something calculated about it, and there wasn't. Maybe we just didn't progress as fast as we could have."
Part of that, he explains, was down to Hiro Yamamoto's departure following the band's major-label debut, Louder Than Love, in 1989. "He was losing confidence, in himself, in the band, in his own songs." Several latter-day Yamamoto compositions went unrecorded, not because the band disliked them ("They were actually among the best he'd ever done"), but because Hiro had no faith in them. "And it's difficult to move ahead in a band when your own bass player feels that way."
Yamamoto's replacement, blink-and-you'll-miss-him ex-Nirvana guitarist Jason Everman, didn't work out either; Ben Shepherd, after close to a decade on the Seattle punk scene, finally joined in time for Badmotorfinger. "But that was difficult as well," says Cornell, "because although we knew Ben and he was writing songs, there was very much a feeling, especially for him, that as the new boy he couldn't stick his neck out too far."
Superunknown, then, is Soundgarden once again feeling whole, more willing to be weird and, in many ways, reviving the old Led Zep comparisons they ducked out of almost a decade back. Oozing unheard emotion, there's a sense of sonic dynamism to the record which is quite at odds with the band's sludgy reputation. It's also at odds, if Cornell is correct, with most people's expectations.
But Soundgarden don't care. Cornell may speak in clichés ("It doesn't matter so much if people like it, so long as they listen to it before making up their minds"), but his sentiments are solid, and certainly make more sense than a band which just carries on making the noises its audience expects, too scared to change until the bottom's been scraped off the barrel.
It's that honesty which I would cite if I was called upon to defend Soundgarden's appearance on the cover of Alternative Press--as I'm certain someone soon will be. "Corporate rock suck-asses!" God, I can hear the crayons being sharpened now. But think about it first. Any band whose music may conform to the principles of one genre (say, in this case, Heavy Metal), but is nevertheless motivated by the principles of another (say, Goth and Punk) has got to be a cut above the norm. And the collision of the two, though it may not create a new sound, does at least forge new spirit, teen or otherwise.
Under those criteria, Soundgarden fit the Alternative bill like a glove, and fit it so well they can afford to be part of the "conventional" rock and roll landscape as well, creatively as well as financially.
Beavis and Butt-head say Soundgarden are cool--and proved it as we talked, by giving "Outshined" (from the platinum-selling Badmotorfinger) that evening's Snort of Approval. Guns N' Roses have just released their own version of Soundgarden's "Big Dumb Sex", and unanimously, America's critics reckon the original was better. Meanwhile, Sara DeBell muzaked two of Cornell's songs on last year's parody of Seattle's "grunge" on her album, Grunge Lite.
And Gene Simmons was apparently very keen for Soundgarden to appear on his "Tribute To Me" Kiss collection. They refused, says Shepherd, "Because his fans used to beat me up on the way home from school. I was into Led Zeppelin and things, which they all called Older Brother Music, so they beat me up."
The rest of the band don't share his phobia, but they were unanimous in saying no regardless. How's that for a definition, then? Soundgarden offer an alternative to doing the things other people expect you to do?
"They expect us to record, tour, do videos...it's a meaningless term." Cornell shrugs. "Sorry." He concedes only that he understands why people need these terms. It's so that when they join the Eight-CDs-for-One-Cent clubs, they know which box to check off--Hard Rock, Jazz, Alternative. "And that defines certain parameters. It's when you get to the edges that it becomes meaningless."
So, Soundgarden are on the edge?
"Either that, or it's meaningless."
And for the first time since we met, Shepherd starts laughing. One of the cable channels is showing a World Gymnastics bloopers show, and someone has just fallen splat on their ass.
Knowing that Soundgarden are considerably safer on their beam than the unidentified gymnast was on his, is a source of great satisfaction to Shepherd. Knowing that we're not even sure which beam they're on just makes him even happier.
Back to Articles Index…
Back to Main Page…