Soundgarden: "We never got used to the success"
Think of the Seattle scene and you think of Nirvana. But it was Soundgarden who led the grunge explosion. CR caught up with them to look back at the band that killed glam metal
When Soundgarden’s world tour wrapped up in 1997, it seemed like the end of just another successful record-tour cycle for the band. Their latest album, Down On The Upside, was a global hit, they had become the first ever band to appear twice on Lollapalooza, and they had just wrapped up a lengthy headlining tour of their own. But behind the scenes it was an entirely different story. “The [recording] sessions were certainly strained,” drummer Matt Cameron remembers. “So I knew something was up, something was certainly going on. And then once when we started touring for that record, the shows were just increasingly bad. It was just horrible; a lot of drinking, a lot of bad vibes, a lot of temper tantrums, a lot of rock-star bullshit. I was actually thinking about bailing at that point. It was really tough. We couldn’t get through a show, basically, without someone storming off the stage. It was so not about music.”
On February 9, Soundgarden played the final show of the tour, at the Blaisdell Arena in Hawaii. On April 9 the group announced their break-up.
Before their demise Soundgarden were one mean rockin’ machine, a leading light in the world of grunge. Equally influenced by Black Sabbath and Bad Brains, the band perfected a style that had its origins in the early 80s with the likes of The Melvins and Black Flag – slowing down punk’s fury to a sludgy crawl. And while Nirvana were the band that blew the roof off the 90s Seattle rock movement, Soundgarden were the ones that did the legwork. They were one of the first groups from the scene to record for the Sub Pop label, tour nationally and sign to a major label. Soundgarden were also responsible for some of the 90s’ best rock albums (Badmotorfinger and Superunknown) and songs (Rusty Cage, Outshined, Black Hole Sun…). Along with Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Nirvana, Soundgarden effectively exterminated glam metal.
Frontman Chris Cornell, a former cook, and guitarist Kim Thayil, a philosophy graduate, were the men who put Soundgarden together. Both from the Seattle, Washington, area, Cornell and Thayil had crossed paths thanks to a mutual friend, Hiro Yamamoto. Cornell was a roommate of Yamamoto’s and they played in a band together, The Shemps (for whom Cornell played drums); Thayil and Yamamoto were friends since their early days in Chicago, before they relocated to Washington together to go to college.
In 1985 the trio decided to form their own band – Thayil on guitar, Yamamoto on bass, and Cornell ‘doing a Phil Collins’ and handling both drums and vocals. Taking their name from The Sound Garden – an art installation in a nearby Seattle park – Soundgarden were born.
The three-piece line-up only lasted only for a few shows, however, before drummer Scott Sundquist joined and Cornell focused solely on vocals. “I played the drums and sort of fell into singing by accident,” recalls Cornell. “I was playing drums and singing and we didn’t know which was easier to find – a singer or a drummer, so we looked for both. The decision was based on the fact we found a drummer first, so I became the singer.
Producer Jack Endino happened to catch the band’s debut gig as a quartet. “They played half the set with Chris on drums, then he came out, and said: ‘Okay, we want to introduce our new drummer, and I’m just going to sing now’. Scott came out, finished the set, and Chris just stood there and sang. It would have been one of their very early shows – probably in early ’85.”
Endino, who was then a member of another up-and-coming Seattle band, Skin Yard, recalls Soundgarden’s early sound: “Scott was an older guy. He had a Ginger Baker touch on the drums, a rolling, jazzy sort of feel that was really dynamic and very fluid; it wasn’t so ‘conventional heavy rock’ as they became later. It was a slightly psychedelic kind of vibe. And at times it was really pretty amazing. Even though technically he wasn’t anywhere near the drummer that [Matt Cameron would be].
“After they got Matt in the band,” Endino continues, “they became more focused, and zeroed in on the sound they became known for later. Soundgarden were a little inconsistent live, you never knew what was going to happen. There was definitely an element of chance going on, craziness, and fun. There were some amazing Soundgarden shows in the early days.”
In addition to becoming Soundgarden’s focal point on stage, Cornell was also quickly becoming the group’s chief songwriter. Cornell recalls realising early on that life in a band was not as simple as he had thought. “I thought it would be a lot easier than it ended up being, to write and make records of quality,” he says. “It shouldn’t be in-fighting; there shouldn’t be clashing egos; there shouldn’t be this constant editing of ideas out of fear of what other people might think, all that stuff.”
1986 was an important year for Soundgarden. The band made their first ever appearance on vinyl – the CZ Records compilation Deep Six – and experienced the first flutter in their line-up. It was becoming obvious that the band would have to venture outside the Pacific Northwest region to further their career, so Sundquist (who was a husband and father) opted to leave. It was a decision that enabled Matt Cameron to occupy the drum stool.
“I’d seen them play a few times, and they were my favourite band in Seattle,” Cameron says of early Soundgarden. “I heard that Scott left, and I called Kim. I said: ‘I’d like to try out.’ And I did. I knew a few of their songs – there was one called Heretic that I knew, and I knew Incessant Mace, and a few others – so I showed up semi-prepared. I remember Chris really liked the way I played – he said that I played everything perfectly. They had a gig in a week’s time at the Central Tavern, so it was baptism by fire. I just threw myself in there and never looked back.”
Making believers out of local rock fans, the band left a profound impression on one admirer, a man by the name of Ben Shepherd. “They were playing a show down in Olympia, one of those daylight shows,” he remembers. “There was a bunch of bands. Seattle was totally cool back then. The music scene was totally happening; people were fun, life was cool as fuck, and there they were. So that was the first time in Olympia getting to see Matt play. It was like: ‘Wow, they’re the real thing now.’ Chris was just singing, and Hiro and Kim – that was the true Soundgarden. The very first show I saw, they blew some national act away.”
With the Cornell/Thayil/Yamamoto/Cameron line-up now in place, Soundgarden set out to go beyond the demo stage and undertake a professional recording. Already pals with Jack Endino, the band asked the producer – who had landed a job at the nearby Reciprocal Recording Studio – to oversee the sessions.
Endino: “We worked very hard at getting the right performances. We spent a ridiculous amount of time mixing it, just making it exactly so; just as good as we could possibly get it with the gear and the budget that we had available – nobody had any money around here. Sub Pop didn’t really exist yet. I think it was something that came up partly through the recording – ‘Oh, these guys we know are talking to us about maybe releasing it’.”
Recorded quickly and mostly live (Cameron recalls that they “only had three or four days to get the rhythm tracks done, because we had day jobs”), the six tracks were released in October 1987 as the Screaming Life EP, through the Sub Pop label, which was co-run by Bruce Pavitt (an old pal of Thayil’s) and Jonathan Poneman.
“I remember listening back to the mix of Nothing To Say,” Cameron recalls, “and I just couldn’t believe that I was playing in a band so good at such an early stage of development.”
Shepherd agrees with Cameron’s assessment. “Screaming Life is still my favourite record of theirs. That’s what Soundgarden sounds like to me – dark, black and blue. It sounds like the overcast days of Seattle. They sounded huge, and the riffs weren’t stupid or anything – there was something more to them, something disturbing.”
Wasting little time, a follow-up EP, Fopp, was issued through Sub Pop in August 1988. Working with producer Steve Fisk, it was recorded at Seattle’s Moore Theater during an afternoon with a mobile truck. Fisk recalls realising that Seattle’s buzz was growing: “At one point, a jackhammer crew went to work on pavement, and we couldn’t hear anything in the truck,” he says. “We got the crew to move and come back later in the day, because although they didn’t know who Soundgarden were, they knew Seattle bands were starting to get some attention. So they moved to be cool.”
With major labels starting to sniff around, the band opted to stay independent for their full-length debut, and Ultramega OK was released in November ’88 via Black Flag’s SST label. (The following year the album would go on to be nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy Award.)
Cameron remembers more rapid-fire recording. “We had a little more money to record with. We went down to a home-made studio that was pretty good. It was in this place called Newberg, Oregon. Again, we didn’t have a lot of time – I think we had two weeks to do it all. We recorded some up here in Seattle, in an abandoned warehouse, recorded some drums there, then we finished the rest in Newberg.”
With other Seattle groups following Soundgarden up the ladder (Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Nirvana, Mother Love Bone), the band decided that the time was finally right to sign with a major label. After signing to A&M, Louder Than Love (produced by Terry Date) was released in September 1989. It wasn’t the record that broke Soundgarden commercially, but it certainly helped, with the videos for both Hands All Over and Loud Love receiving late-night MTV rotation. It was also supported with a year’s worth of live dates.
But it was a period that was far from smooth sailing, with Yamamoto leaving the band when the album sessions were wrapped up. With an extensive American tour looming with Faith No More and Voivod, Soundgarden arranged try-outs for prospective bass players. They whittled the competition down to two – ex-Nirvana guitarist Jason Everman and ex-Nirvana roadie Ben Shepherd.
“They were crunched for time,” Shepherd remembers. “Once we got to the rehearsal room, I didn’t say anything; I just walked over to the amp, turned it up and started playing. We jammed for three hours – we didn’t play any of their songs. We didn’t even talk, we just played music the whole time. They took Jason because he knew the songs. He was more connected and on-beat with it.”
While Soundgarden completed the ensuing tour with Everman, they soon realised they had chosen the wrong bassist. Upon returning home in the spring of 1990, they asked Shepherd to join. He was pushed straight in at the deep end.
“We rehearsed for a couple of weeks, then we went straight to touring Europe,” he recalls. “The first place I played was the Roskilde Festival [Denmark]. We come on stage and the crowd is chanting: ‘Hiro! Hiro!’ I’m like: ‘Oh, goddamit!’ We did this three-week tour, then we came home, then we had another tour all ready to go. So it was like jumping right into the fire. It was awesome. So fucking fun.”
After a tour with Danzig finished in September, Soundgarden focused on their next studio album, which was again to be produced by Terry Date. But since their previous recording, something had changed; there was something in the air about the Seattle scene, which Shepherd remembers noticing: “You could see everybody was ‘on music’ at that point. Music was suddenly alive again and doing something. Sometimes it’s film and writing that does that culturally, but that time it was music.”
Shepherd remembers the sessions – at Studio D in Sausalito, California (at the behest of their Faith No More pals) – being extremely laid back: “It was so fun, we invented this game – it takes a Frisbee and a Nerf ball to play, two-man teams. We’d play that all the time when we weren’t tracking. A home away from home. It’s way outside the city, a cool old barn turned into a recording studio.”
Just as the sessions had been completed, a side project that included Cornell and Cameron (plus former members of Mother Love Bone and a then-unknown Eddie Vedder) released the Temple Of The Dog album. It was a tribute to Andrew Wood, the singer of Mother Love Bone, who had recently died from a drug overdose, and would also prove the launchpad for what would become Pearl Jam. “It was initially my idea because of a couple of songs I recorded,” Cornell explained at the time. “It didn’t feel like a morose project. It felt sort of celebratory.”
Cameron: “Chris and Andy had been room-mates. I think the original idea was to do a single on Sub Pop in tribute to Andy. We got together, and just started to write more songs. Chris had a bunch of really cool songs, so we decided just to do it. So it was, once again, organically produced. A&M really liked it and put it out.”
Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, released in October 1991, was where it first all came together for the band in the studio. It was their strongest and most consistent album. It also didn’t hurt that it came out right as grunge was really taking off, helped hugely by the recent releases of Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind (and, earlier, Alice In Chains’ Facelift). Additionally, Soundgarden landed some prime touring spots.
In the same week as the release of Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden played alongside Metallica as part of the mammoth Day On The Green Festival in Oakland, California. Two months later they played a string of arena dates opening for Guns N’ Roses, who were still in all of their out-of-control glory, followed by dates with Skid Row. “We were in the metal trenches at that point, just fully paying our dues. We were kind of ‘the opening act’ for ’91/’92,” Cameron says.
Despite coming from opposite ends of the spectrum to GN’R, Shepherd remembers the tour with them fondly: “We had a blast. The whole crew of theirs and their whole band are really fucking nice. And me, I’m a punk rocker fuck-up, and I’m all cantankerous – my nickname was Manimal back then, and we were called Frowngarden. We weren’t rock stars and shit, we’re not like that. I’m all grumpy – ‘Goddamn it, these guys are nice, I can’t even fucking hate ‘em! I hate their music, but they’re nice.’ Same thing with Skid Row – fucking hated their music, they knew it, but they’re all so fucking cool. Pissed me off, now I don’t even have a reason to be pissed off. What the hell is this? My life is going to shit and it’s beautiful at the same time.”
It was also around this time that rock photographer Ross Halfin began working with the band: “The thing about them – they were all actually quite quiet. They were very nice, but they were one of those bands that as soon as they started drinking… It got to a point where they ended up getting security in England. Ben was walking across Camden Town, there was a bunch of guys outside a pub, and he’s like, ‘Fuck you assholes,’ and they came over and whacked him. So security was needed because they would just go off when they drank.”
With such songs as Outshined and Rusty Cage getting significant airplay, Badmotorfinger served as Soundgarden’s commercial breakthrough. And as a reward, the group nabbed a spot on Lollapalooza II in the summer of 1992, alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers and their pals Pearl Jam. “That was our payback for opening for all these weird heavy metal bands that we had nothing in common with,” laughs Cameron. “Once we got to Lollapalooza, we were back with our friends. That was a really fun tour.”
But it was also during this time that Shepherd began hitting the bottle heavily. “I would hang out with the Jesus & Mary Chain, I was the only guy that would talk to them – share my whisky with them or whatever. I started drinking too much on that first Guns N’ Roses tour. I would just get really depressed and that was the only way out, or so it seemed. A lot of touring is ‘hurry up and wait’ – you get there and then you wait. You’d see guys that had been out for a couple of years in a row – you hit this wall where it’s like: ‘Why go back? Why go home? There is no home, there’s nothing! Let’s just keep going, we’ll play another show.’ It gets really surreal.”
By the time their 1991-92 tour was at an end, there were three Soundgarden-related albums on the charts – Badmotorfinger, the Singles movie soundtrack and Temple Of The Dog. Having toured non-stop for over a year, Soundgarden took a much-deserved break for most of 1993, during which Cornell ‘celebrated’ by shaving off his long hair, and Cameron/Shepherd launched a garage rock band, Hater. In fact, the only shows Soundgarden played the whole year were two weeks’ worth of dates opening for Neil Young in August.
The majority of the year was spent at Seattle’s Bad Animals studios with producer Michael Beinhorn, preparing the album that they hoped would be the final push over the top.
“I think creatively we were really peaking at that point,” says Cameron. “All pistons were firing – we were writing really cool music and we were playing really good together. I think the arc of the band was fully peaking at that point. We really wanted to be prepared and we rehearsed a lot. Worked on the arrangements of the songs and everything.
“I remember those sessions being pretty intense – it took like four or five months to track that record. There was a lot of wheel-spinning going on – like we would spend three days on a guitar part. It got really silly. We knew we had a good record in there, but I think we were all just sick of it, we just didn’t care anymore. Then Brendan O’Brien mixed it, and he did it in about two weeks – the complete opposite of the way we were working. Just knocked it out. At that point, when I took the mixes home, I realised we had a really good record.”
Shortly before the album’s arrival, a press release was issued, in which Shepherd explained: “Bands like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin made records where every song counted, and I think that’s what we did.” He wasn’t kidding: Superunknown was not only one of the greatest rock albums of the 90s, but of all time.
Released in March of 1994, Superunknown would debut at the top of the US album chart, and prove to be a worldwide smash on the strength of such hits as Spoonman, Fell On Black Days and, especially, the moody-yet-melodic Black Hole Sun.
Cornell recalls that the latter song helped the group start thinking outside of what was musically ‘expected’ of them. “At some point, there was an idea that we had to decide: ‘Is this or is this not a Soundgarden song?’” he remembers. “And after Badmotorfinger it was like, Black Hole Sun? No, it’s not a Soundgarden song. So we had to look at ourselves and go: ‘It is if we play it’.
“Black Hole Sun was a song that I wrote and recorded entirely in my basement, 16 hours a day and then offering a tape of a song, already finished, to a band that then learns it. It was refreshing and kind of cool for a moment because we hadn’t worked that way and we came up with ideas that did sort of reinvent us as a band. But in the long run, even when I look back at it, some of it was a lonely, miserable time. Only half of what I might have worked on would end up being liked by other members of the band. It’s weird for any band member to be dictated to: ‘Here’s [the] song in a final form – learn it’.”
With the album’s worldwide chart success, Soundgarden were now part of rock’s elite. But a month after the album’s release, the world was shocked by the suicide of Kurt Cobain, which spelled the end of Nirvana. Couple that with Pearl Jam losing the plot and touring less (in part due to a battle with Ticketmaster), and suddenly, Soundgarden were the leaders of the pack.
On March 1, 1995, Soundgarden took home two Grammy Awards – Best Hard Rock Performance for Black Hole Sun and Best Metal Performance for Spoonman.
How did the group handle their new status? Halfin remembers that the band “were fine with that, I just think they didn’t care. It’s very much that ‘down’ Seattle mentality. One of the things I think they had over Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam, despite all their anti-everything stance, still very much liked the trappings of being rock stars. The bodyguards, the this, the that. Whereas Soundgarden didn’t really have that – they were very accessible where Pearl Jam were: ‘Keep everyone away’.”
Despite the success, Cameron remembers the first chinks in the armour showing around this time. “For the most part, the tour was pretty fun,” he concedes, “and then towards the end of that tour, the whole fabric of our group was starting to unravel a little bit.
“We weren’t really getting along that good. The pressures of touring so much, just being on the major label machine of record-tour-record-tour sort of took its toll after a while. After that, I think we took a little break, then we started to try and get some songs going for Down On The Upside.”
Produced by Adam Kaspar, Down On The Upside was released in May, 1996. While the album peaked at No.7 in the UK charts (No.2 in the US) and contained its share of highlights (Pretty Noose, Blow Up The Outside World), it didn’t exactly measure up to its stellar predecessor.
“It was my idea to record it at Studio Litho with Adam Kasper,” states Cameron, “because I felt our last situation was so kind of intense with all these big-name producer guys involved. It just wasn’t our scene at all – we just went back to the homemade method of making records with our buddy Adam. It was good, but we weren’t all on the same page. I was certainly trying to keep everyone motivated and just try to get it off the ground, but if people don’t want to do things, it’s really hard to get them going. I just think that at that time, we just weren’t enjoying the process as much as we had been.”
And as Cameron recollected earlier, things only got worse once Soundgarden hit the road in support of …Upside, first as part of Lollapalooza once more, and then their own headlining tour. By the time the tour was winding down in Australia and Hawaii, Halfin could see the writing on the wall. “Ben kept walking off stage halfway through the last few shows – you got an idea they weren’t getting on. You’d be in Australia, and they’d just be holed up all day – Chris would just stay in his room all day, you never saw him.”
Shepherd recalls what put him in such a foul mood during their last few shows. “That last show we played in Hawaii was the night that I found out it was our last show. Because our bass tech, I’d gotten him out of rehab, which is another harsh thing about our family that was going on – but that’s a whole other story. But anyway, I got him over to Hawaii, and he called a band meeting. He’s the only guy besides one of us that can call a band meeting – he had seniority. He goes: ‘What’s this shit I hear that this is your last show and you’re breaking up?’ And I’m like: ‘What?!’ And everyone didn’t rebut that, they just sat there. I was like: ‘Oh my God, what the fuck’?
“And of course, my equipment died that night. It completely died, and the other opening band had already left, so there was no other fucking equipment in the building. So I got all pissed off and smashed my bass. I was totally out of my head – angry and pissed off, drunk. I left the stage because there was no sound. I’m not going to stand up there and monkey around like I’m playing. It was almost right away; I think I got to play six songs, if that. And I was so lividly sad, because that was the end of the tour after my honey had left me. And that was it, the last show of the tour that she should have been with me on. It was the most creative and destructive music that I’d ever heard or been part of. The final magic.”
Two months later, Cameron was surprised to find a mystery visitor one morning at his Seattle home. “I took my dog out for a walk, came back, and Chris’s truck was in my driveway. I was like: ‘Cool, Chris never comes to visit. Awesome man – we’ll work on some stuff. What a great opportunity.’ So I go into the house, and my girlfriend – who’s now my wife – she goes: ‘Hey, Chris is in the basement.’ I go down there, and he just reeked of alcohol. I think he’d been up all night drinking, and he looked a little odd, so I said: ‘Hey, what’s up man?’ And he was like: ‘Well, I’m here because I’m leaving the band’.”
Shepherd also recalls getting a similar visit from Cornell that day. “We’re all standing in my living room, and my friend goes: ‘Today’s the day The Beatles broke up.’ And Chris goes: ‘Here man,’ and hands me the bottle of whisky. I take a swig, we go down to my car, and he says: ‘I’m quitting, I’m breaking up the band. How do you feel about that?’ I looked down at the ground, I spit, and I went: ‘Alright.’ That’s how I joined the band – they asked me: ‘Do you want to join the band?’ I looked down at the ground, I spit, looked up, and said: ‘Fuck yeah!’ So it was kind of fitting for me.” Just like that, one of Seattle’s finest was over.
In Soundgarden’s wake, Cornell initially launched a solo career, before uniting with Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford of Rage Against The Machine as Audioslave. Cameron has remained busy with another garage rock outfit, Wellwater Conspiracy, as well as keeping the beat in Pearl Jam. Shepherd kept a low profile before returning this year with a belatedly released second album from Hater, and focusing on an all-new band, Unkmongoni. Thayil on the other hand appears to have vanished completely, as his ex-bandmates do not even have contact info for him. Jack Endino offers this update: “Kim is basically hanging out, reading books, watching TV. I’m not sure what he’s doing.”
Looking back at Soundgarden’s split nearly 10 years later, it’s clear the group did the noble thing, and shut things down at their peak (à la The Police and The Beatles). Cornell agrees: “I feel like the entire career of Soundgarden, if you look at it in a capsule, I couldn’t have imagined it artistically going better. I mean our last record is my favourite record. It sold, like, two million copies. We didn’t sort of meander into obscurity and continue going on the road and making records that I wasn’t proud of. None of that ever happened.”
Ultimately, the band fell victim to their own phenomenal achievement. As Cornell admitted at the time, Soundgarden’s break up was a “an act of self-preservation. We were so self-contained in the beginning, but I don’t think we ever really adjusted to the success part of it.”
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock #83.
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