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POP MUSIC : Fertile Ground : Blending heavy-metal power and melodic intelligence, Soundgarden is cultivating both art-rock and mainstream fans

August 25, 1991|RICHARD CROMELIN | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar. and

"I remember stealing a stack of Beatles records from my neighbors' basement. They had thrown them on the ground and the basement flooded and all the sleeves were warped. And I took out all the records and put them in between paper towels and brought them home and started listening to them. I sat in my room for weeks on end listening to these records.

"There was no decisive moment when I thought, 'Wow, I want to do this.' That wasn't there at all. It just made me feel good."

Cornell took piano lessons and later turned to the drums, playing along to records by progressive bands like Yes and Rush as he grew up in rock 'n' roll suburbia.

"My neighbors--everyone in my neighborhood had boys for some reason," he recalls. "So there was plenty of rock and plenty of drugs and stolen cars and everything. Anything you wanted to be bad was as close as your neighbor's older brother."

Cornell stayed out of serious trouble, and after undergoing his punk-rock baptism he met Kim Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto in 1984. When they formed Soundgarden, Cornell was the singer and drummer, but he soon moved out front and Matt Cameron joined on drums. (Bassist Ben Shepherd joined the group in April, 1990, following Yamamoto and Jason Everman in that role).

Soundgarden immediately stood out from the pack on the Seattle scene.

"There was a real sort of dark, heavy quality to their performances," recalls Jonathan Poneman, then a local promoter and now co-owner of Seattle's influential Sub Pop label.

"Chris always had a very confrontational stage thing happening. It was unique in a lot of ways, because he did not calculate at all. The guy seemed so naive. . . . For one thing he was incredibly young; for two, it wasn't really considered hip or relevant to be aping Jim Morrison or Iggy in this situation. So it was pretty revolutionary."

"We were eclectic in our songwriting style," says Thayil, who has spent much of his time in interviews deriding the perception that Soundgarden is a Led Zeppelin clone. "In general, the trippiness and quirkiness and the humor and the acid qualities were best expressed when we made it heavy.

"There's nothing like metal parody mixed in with homage, as well as a few trippy hypnotic things that bash you over the head and really draw you in, as opposed to the jangly sort of college pop. That can be trippy, but it's more sublime when it's huge and engulfs you."

Cameron cites AC/DC's "Back in Black" and Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" as timeless models. "It's not a conscious thing where we try to sound like a certain style or a certain record," the drummer says. "We all were influenced by music that was heavy and had a real bone-crushing, low-end quality to it."

Soundgarden came to A&M's attention when Seattle's public-radio station KCMU sent the company a compilation tape of unsigned bands. Intrigued by Soundgarden's entry, Huttenhower headed north and caught a show.

"I had never seen anything quite like it before," he remembers. "They were very heavy, but in a melodic way. . . . And Chris' vocals were spectacular. It was like a sledgehammer. It hit you right over the head."

A&M financed some demos and helped support the group even while it was releasing independent records, first on Sub Pop, then on L.A.-based SST. Soundgarden suddenly became a hot item on the national touring circuit, and a record-company bidding war heated up. "We just hung in there," Huttenhower says, "and when the dust settled we ended up with the band."

Last year's major-label debut, "Louder Than Love," sold a modest 160,000, but established Soundgarden with a wider audience and offered Cornell--lean, bare-chested, head shrouded in curly hair--as a new-metal icon.

" 'The quintessential angry young man,' I got that a lot," the singer says of that album-cover image.

"I wouldn't dispute that. There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not really angry. . . . It's usually (about) my own lack of ability to accept things or to deal with things or change things. . . . I tend to react to things angrily first. I guess it stems from being impatient."

Still, Cornell, who has been married for almost a year to Soundgarden's manager Susan Silver, is more comfortable holing up than manning the barricades.

"If I didn't do what I do, I think for the most part I would have very few friends and be a shut-in most of the time," he says. "It's sort of a battle between that person and then the guy that wants to just let it all out in front of 2,000 people and rant and scream and say anything he wants."

Says Sub Pop's Poneman, "I think he's very much the same guy that he was back then, but, you know, people grow and change, especially given the conditions of their professional ascendancy. He's been adjusted to the spotlight in a lot of ways.

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