Other Seattle bands, from Pearl Jam to Alice in Chains to Nirvana, have gotten more headlines, but it's Soundgarden that's the most enduring, stalwart presence in a music scene whose sound and outlook have come to define the restless heart of '90s American rock.
The quartet released its first record nearly a decade ago, and was one of the first of the "grunge" bands to sign with a major label. It has since endeavored to escape the constraints of the sound it helped forge, bringing an array of pop and psychedelic influences to bear on its hard, moody foundation.
Soundgarden--singer Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd--went beyond cult status when 1991's "Badmotorfinger" sold a million copies, then exploded with 1994's "Superunknown," which more than tripled that total in the United States. It won two Grammys without diminishing Soundgarden's critical standing as one of hard rock's most inventive bands.
With the new "Down on the Upside" just released by A&M Records (see accompanying review), and with a spot set in the lineup of this summer's Lollapalooza tour, Cornell, 31, talked about Soundgarden's rising profile and the state of the music the band helped generate.
Question: How important was the commercial success of "Superunknown" to you?
Answer: If it had been "Badmotorfinger Stage Two" and it had sold a lot of records, I would have been worried. But the record that really went over the top sales-wise was a record where we went in a lot of new directions, experimented a lot more and took a lot more chances. I think the perception of the band is that these guys have something going on, and they're capable of making diverse kinds of music record after record and there's still quality there. So having done that and been successful with it, we were a lot less apprehensive about this record. This time it was just no holds barred, anything goes.
Q: Was there anything you didn't like about "Superunknown"?
A: Well, it leans on the sterile side I think, if you compare it to what we like and what we can do. A little conservative in certain aspects. There's always wild moments on everything, but overall it's not as experimental, not as free, and the performances aren't quite as motivated. You just hear a little bit of the studio environment influencing the record. I've come away with that feeling on almost every record we've done. . . . Each time I think we gain a little bit of ground, but we didn't completely get it where we wanted it.
Q: What's an example of an album with the kind of freedom you're talking about?
A: I think "Raw Power" by the Stooges does it incredibly well. It doesn't really lag anywhere, there's nothing wrong with it. They didn't sacrifice anything to get that. The production is amazing, the guitar sounds are amazing, all the performances are fantastic. There's nothing you'd want to do to change it that would make it better.
Q: Do you think this kind of music has reached the point where it's become cliched and watered down?
A: Sure. But it's not our job to worry about that. That's the record companies and the baby bands that are influenced by the music. They take the most obvious elements of it, and are encouraged to do so by radio and by record companies and eventually by record buyers. That's definitely been going on for a couple of years. There's a lot of bands that sound really specifically like certain Seattle bands that have sold a lot of records, and in a sense have trivialized the music.
Q: A lot of Soundgarden's music deals with dislocation, dread, fear of the future. Do you see that as your essential theme?
A: I don't put Soundgarden in the category of speaking to a large group of people about how we feel or how they feel in terms of society, in terms of culture. . . . I think there's elements of that in there. I think there's also a lot of ethereal elements, a lot of personal elements that aren't really going to translate to a large group of people--which is probably the reason why "Badmotorfinger" sold a million records instead of 8 million. There's no quick plugging into the consciousness of that many people, because there's a lot of diverse feelings and ideas and obscure feelings and ideas, and some of it is based on getting feelings across, some of it is based more on escapism and entertainment.
Q: Do you see anything happening in the world or in your life that makes you more hopeful about things?
A: I think anybody's outlook is gonna be somewhat influenced by a lack of control of things outside their own lives. And at this point, in this society anyway, we have very little of that. There's a certain amount that we can control, but there's so much that influences our lives that we have no control over. And I think that more people are recognizing that, and that's a big part of what spawned those types of feelings, whether it's in literature or music or the visual arts.
Q: There seems to be a backlash to that darkness and cynicism--a sort of "stop whining" attitude.
A: That doesn't make sense to me, especially when it comes from older musicians that had success like in the '60s or something, who were very much anything goes--you know, "Say what you're gonna say and feel what you're gonna feel." But now all of a sudden it's like, "Wow, what you're saying and what you're feeling is kinda bumming me out, so why don't you cheer up?"
I don't have any interest in being pessimistic and gloomy all the time just for the sake of it, and I always try to find things to celebrate or be happy about or to feel good about. But I'm not living in a cocoon and painting it with bright colors and putting up little fiesta bulbs. I am aware of what's going on around me enough to be disturbed by it at some point on a daily basis.