Graham Reid | | 5 min read
Soundgarden were getting used to, but wary of, all the praise they’d been getting over the years. They’d been called “Seattle’s heaviest contenders since Hendrix” by Spin magazine-- and Circus, a little less imaginatively but just as enthusiastically, said “they are destined to be the next big hip thing.”
Well, things happen fast in rock and in the past two months Nirvana, another band from around the Seattle region, have unexpectedly come through the middle, rocketed to the top of the American charts with their Nevermind album and are already that “next big hip thing.”
Without hype, Nirvana have revived the idea of raucous, guitar-smashing rock. Chris Cornell, singer with Soundgarden, sounds mightily relived the expectation is off his band that “next big hip thing” tag has been placed elsewhere.
“Yeah, we had that stuff for years and it worried me because it has been the kiss of death for so many bands...but with so many groups from Seattle now doing well it has taken that pressure off us,” he says.
But Nirvana’s success is having a useful spin-off for both Soundgarden and another Seattle band, Pearl Jam. Just last week Billboard magazine noted that Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger album – released late last year – had climbed 20 places to 72 on the charts after languishing in the lower regions. Pearl Jam’s Ten album also climbed.
Success breeds success as radio programmers and MTV execs cast their eyes around for more of the same sound...and that “next big hip thing.”
Soundgarden are different, of course, and while you hate to imprison them in that cliché just as they might have escaped it, it may be no less true. Just ask Hilly Kristal, owner of the New York club CBGB’s.
He says the band got “the biggest response since Guns N’ Roses,” when they played at his club. Or this from an anonymous fan almost two years ago after having seen them in New York. “Put it this way, they’ll be playing Madison Square Garden in a year and a half...”
And that’s nearly right because, and quite fittingly, Soundgarden have recently been opening in arenas across the States for none other than Guns N’ Roses. It’s a long way from those small club dates they were doing in Seattle four and five years ago when they were recording for the LA indie label SST before signing to A&M for Louder than Love in ’89 and Badmotorfinger. But Soundgarden are making that transition in scale very naturally.
“The intensity in the band’s music allows us to fill wherever we play,” says Cornell “and the larger the audience, the younger it gets and that makes it more vital.
“For younger people, it becomes a religion and that passionate intensity you project on to a band lessens as you get older. When you are young and figuring out who are and choose a band to be a fan of, you are investing your identity in it so there’s an intense energy you get from that audience.”
Soundgarden like some other bands from Seattle, are an interesting one for a young audience to invest in. A little alternative and a lot retro-seventies in sound.
Their pairing with Guns N’ Roses – the nearest most Americans have ever got to punk but a pure product of the LA hard rock scene – is not only appropriate but timely.
Soundgarden are “the sound of Seattle,” says Cornell half in jest and picking up a line from the press. But is there such a sound?
Perhaps, he concedes, although initially it was the visual similarity between bands which people picked up on – “long scraggy hair and normal clothes,” he says (“They are the first band I ever worked for that doesn’t care if it has a mirror in the dressing room,” says road manager Mark Sokol.)
“All the bands were in the alternative-based scene but we had Seventies influences which wasn’t happening anywhere else...so we were punk and alternative but because of the Seventies thing were considered a joke. But at some point the Zeppelin and Sabbath influences which didn’t go over well initially became attributes people raved about. Now I do interviews and that’s all people want to talk about.
And the Seattle scene is flourishing. There is even a Cameron Crowe movie, Singles made about it with Matt Dillon playing a musician (“he looks good in a wig”) and in which Cornell had a cameo role.
“There was this scene in what was supposed to be Dillon’s apartment and there was a tape there of his supposed solo recordings. The tape had titles on it. I thought it would give the director a buzz to have that tape so I went off and wrote and recorded songs to fit the imaginary titles. That sort of thing is exciting for me, to create something that didn’t exist before."
And Cornell is, by his own account, remarkably prolific. When it came time to record Badmotorfinger he had 30 songs written and there was brief but serious talk of the album being a double.
As the sessions progressed, it became apparent which material wouldn’t make the final selection, but there was also the realistic acceptance that, although this was their second release for a major label, they are still a “young band” and don’t have the fan base yet to support a double, unlike Guns N’ Roses, who could get away with two doubles.
“They have a metal following and an alternative one like us, so going out with them took us to both those groups. And Badmotorfinger, being only a single album, let us clarify a little further what we do. *
“We’ve loosened up more on record simply because we are becoming more comfortable with the studio and in knowing what we want. Having a new bass player who also writes has helped us evolve. This is a more free-sounding album and songs like Slaves and Bulldozers, Searching with My Good Eye Closed and New Damage all have looseness in the arrangement which allows us to ooze out the parameters.
“Rhythmically the album is more complex and back to that pre-Louder than Love period. It’s inhaling and exhaling, I wrote most of the material on Louder and was sick of playing quirky time signatures, so I was more interested in finding the groove thing ad working on that.
“Badmotorfinger is a mixture of both that straightforward thing, in songs like Rusty Cage, and the rhythmic shifts.”
If the band have suffered from anything in the past it has been the lack of obvious radio-play singles from albums. That has been solved this time out with the brain-scrambling Jesus Christ Pose (and accompanying eye-scrambling video) which was the unanimous choice of the band and the label.
A video for the new American single Outshined has been put on MTV’s Buzz Bin Rotation and when Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen spirit was given that treatment two months ago it went straight into the top 10.
“Lack of distribution has always the problem on an indie – we didn’t get good European distribution on SST, but we did get paid by them and nine out of 10 indies don’t do that. So we’ve seen things from both sides and now, although we are still considered a young band, we’re established. Our SST album was nominated for a Grammy and now we are going out with Guns N’ Roses playing arenas. It’s a good position to be in.”
The cover of Rolling Stone must be beckoning . . . and Madison Square Garden in 18 months for the next big hip things, wasn’t it?
Or is that now Pearl Jam?