Soundgarden: Times Are Gone

Michael Roffman falls into the great black hole of the past.


    Rock and roll is dead, and we’re next. It’s a late Chicago evening, and this is all I can think about as my eyes zone out the window and towards the faded portrait of stars above. Some 93 million miles away, the sun is nursing a coronal hole, which Space’s Mika McKinnon calls “a depressingly mundane name” for a rare phenomenon on the sun’s surface that releases gusts of solar wind “that can impact the interplanetary magnetic field.” She explains, “If a hole is facing us on Earth, the wind buffets our magnetic field, producing aurora” — in other words, pretty lights. This particular hole, however, has formed too far south on the sun to affect us. Naturally, I can’t help but think about “Black Hole Sun”, Soundgarden’s blockbuster third single off their multiplatinum-selling 1994 album, Superunknown — partly because that video still tortures my dreams but also because I happen to be talking to guitarist Kim Thayil. The universe works in mysterious ways.

    “I think the darkness we talk about, specifically, isn’t about events but unwanted entities,” the 53-year-old guitarist tells me over the phone. I’ve already mentioned the stellar coincidence, addressed my fears with nature, and asked about his own. “There are natural events and behaviors that are terrible, but ultimately, there’s no real implicit cruelty involved. What’s disgusting is human cruelty towards other humans and animals and children.” This isn’t the first time I’ve spoken with Thayil, so I’m hardly taken aback by his more philosophical approach to dialogue. But shit gets deep pretty fast: “Human beings are a wild composite of temporal events and insights and motivations and restrained behaviors… and memories both delusional and accurate… so [the fears] are in there somewhere, but you explore these things often in terms of mood or relationships and if they have a function or not. I like ideas, there’s a greater beauty and horrors… Probably more beauty we stress; horrors only come in human exchanges.” Does this guy know how to party or what?


    Yes and no. Since their mid-’80s formation, Thayil and his Soundgarden brethren have always existed on the fringe — spiritually, lyrically, and musically. While neighbors Mudhoney and later Pearl Jam spent most of their time toying with irony and the headlines, respectively, Soundgarden scratched at something more primordial and all around darker. They reveled in the psychedelic lunacy of Black Sabbath, the Detroit fires of MC5, and the gnarly, faraway mysticism of Led Zeppelin. Hell, their debut album, Ultramega OK, surfaced on Halloween 1988 through punk rock label SST Records, sporting macabre anthems like “Nazi Driver” or “Head Injury” and sludgy tunings that would give the likes of Kirk Hammett chills.


    Despite their shaggy apprehension, Soundgarden were the first of their kind — *gasp* a “grunge band” — to sign to a major record label: A&M Records, who issued their sophomore album, Louder Than Love. By then, they had attracted not only a strong cult following but line of critical detractors, specifically the Dean of rock ‘n’ roll criticism, Robert Christgau, who called Louder an “AOR reclamation job,” adding: “It isn’t Led Zep because they’re interested in (good at?) noise, not riffs. Covertly conceptual, arty in spite of itself, and I bet metal fans don’t bite.” Boy was he wrong, and he would admit such an error come 1991 in his review for Badmotorfinger, which began with the line: “OK, OK, I admit it. This is a credible metal album.” But their history with critics and fans is not what I’m interested in for this story; instead, I’m more intrigued by Superunknown, the bleak rock ‘n’ roll behemoth that captured the world with its intensity and onslaught of FM radio hits.

    That’s what they’re focused on, too. After all, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the album, and the band’s celebrating its existence with an exhaustive reissue that collects demos, rehearsals, and B-sides, in addition to exclusive performances across the nation in which they’ll perform Superunknown front to back. Their debut performance of the album took place this past March at South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, TX, as part of the iTunes Music Festival. (If that’s at all confusing, and it should be, that aptly sums up the whole experience down in the Texas capital. Trust me.) In my review, I praised the performance, insisting that it “felt less like some rare affair and more like a demonstration to young rockers that excellence can be achieved over 70 minutes and with a solid producer.” I tossed out what I still consider to be an important hypothetical question: “When was the last time a rock album of this magnitude came out?”


    It’s the same question I asked Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron hours before the event at ACL’s Moody Theater. But here’s the thing: Shit happens and my hard drive crashed a couple of weeks later, and the full 20-minute interview went into the digital hell that now includes my full iTunes library, rare photos of my deceased dog, and some unflattering selfies that probably deserve to be there. In other words, the conversation’s lost, gone, kaput, and while that’s disastrous in some respects, especially for this story, it’s not the end of the world. I do have my memory, and while I can’t remember specific quotes (let alone the type of sandwich I ate two days ago), I do recall both Thayil and Cameron perplexed by the question. Eventually, Thayil offered up The Black Keys’ El Camino and Cameron suggested Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light. They’re both agreeable choices, but neither hold a candle to the expansive nature of Superunknown.


    Then again, the whole album is like an anomaly — at least on paper. It’s 70 meaty minutes over 15 tracks that carry an average length of a whopping four-and-a-half minutes. Yet somehow it not only spawned five Top 20 singles (two of which nabbed Grammys) but also received universal acclaim from critics worldwide. Twenty years later, I can’t think of a popular mainstream rock album, with the exception of Radiohead’s experimental OK Computer, that can boast those stats and accolades, and it’s this strange characteristic that I wax on and on about as I start discussing the album with Thayil over the phone.

    shepherd-soundgarden“We just didn’t want to exclude any good material,” Thayil admits. “We didn’t want people to walk over to the bar when we were playing; we wanted people to stay and want more. That was kind of the thing. [Laughs.] We could have taken half of it and released another album the next year!” He pauses. “The songs were very strong, but we weren’t acting like a band. It was a long process of writing and producing.” He alludes to the album’s multiple contributions from singer Chris Cornell, drummer Matt Cameron, and then-newcomer Ben Shepherd, who had only played bass previously on one album, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, offering a bold example to the old adage of being “at the right place at the right time.” Thayil adds, “The album has everyone’s voice and signature in the songs, though I think we’ve always done something like that. I’m not sure why it so prominently stands out in Superunknown. Maybe because of the material? It’s a hard rock record, with metal and punk and psychedelic, but it’s somewhat eclectic within those genres.”

    These sentiments echo those of Shepherd, who I spoke with over the phone only an hour earlier. Similar to Thayil, the 45-year-old bassist digs deep into his thoughts, offering long-winded responses that wring each question dry. When I ask him about his own work on Superunknown — he penned both “Half” and “Head Down”, the latter of which remains a top anthem in the band’s catalog — he lights up like a baby boomer in a BMW showroom. “I loved that time period,” he gushes. “The pre-production of that stuff was great. We were in full stride and we just pushed record and we played and that was it. You know? It was just like, holy fuck, songwriting-wise we jumped leaps and bounds.”


    Granted, that isn’t exactly true, especially since both Cameron and Cornell have been pretty vocal in the past about producer Michael Beinhorn’s call for multiple takes and torturous recording sessions. Still, I’m surprised at how insistent the band was about involving Shepherd creatively, going so far as to include his two-minute lo-fi track, “Half”, which Rolling Stone‘s J.D. Considine would go on to call “the virtual definition of a B-side” in his otherwise glowing four-star review. Admittedly, Considine isn’t wrong, but contextually, the song’s inclusion speaks to the band’s trademark kinship and adds a layer of eclecticism to an already eclectic album.


    “I was the new guy,” Shepherd admits. “We bounced [“Half”] onto the four-track, and it just kind of happened. The other guys wanted it in the record and I was like, ‘Yeah?’ They didn’t care that it was just me. That’s what we were like: we had no boundaries. I felt that it was so cocky putting it on the record, too arrogant. But it showed how progressive and accepting those guys were about having a new songwriter.” He digresses a little on how the idea of a lo-fi recording on a big studio album was “ahead of its time” given that most big label rock acts aimed for legendary studios and top-of-the-line producers, adding: “These records were getting big, videos were getting big, and we had this lo-fi stuff!”

    In today’s era of independent recording, lo-fi is the norm, an introductory crash course into music, which has its benefits and limitations. Back in Austin, this is a subject discussed at short length between Cameron, Thayil, and myself. I ask them if they’d ever wish to revisit the four-track and try to knock out a full Soundgarden album, particularly their eventual follow-up to 2012’s reunion record, King Animal. Both expressed interest, but the truth is: it wouldn’t work. Having spent so much time with their deluxe reissue of Superunknown, specifically the coarse demos and scattershot rehearsal recordings, there are barriers that weaken the songs. Thayil’s guitar work never leaves the shallow end, Cameron’s fills are distant and stunted, and Shepherd’s basslines whisper in and out. The only one with character is Cornell, whose vocals slice through to the top, not surprisingly. A rough take on “Like Suicide” hints at a future of a studio-less Soundgarden, but it’s not very intriguing. Or influential, for that matter. It’s doubtful any prospective rocker would glean much from a muddled sound, and that’s a disheartening thought.


    “When you hear Soundgarden, you know Chris’s voice, you hear all of the other elements, but the songs cover a cyclically broader spectrum,” Thayill explains. “Recently, I did a promotional interview for Spotify, and someone added a few comments about how influential the ‘Fourth of July’ was and how it influenced so many doom bands.” He pauses. “That’s a great deal to us. There are math rock bands — and maybe that’s not a fair name — but they love Soundgarden because of the weird time signatures and rhythmic things. I love those bands, and that’s so cool that we could have influenced them.

    “If you turn the thing around and look at it from different sides,” Thayil continues, “[Superunknown] is a three-dimensional record. I think Michael’s production and [Brendan O’Brien’s] mixing really brought out that 3D quality in our music. Michael anticipated that; he heard our earlier stuff and knew there was a depth. We had a trumpet on some of that stuff! Guitars with different voices! Michael heard that, and he was like, ‘Man, we gotta bring those out!’ Superunknown added a lot of color and depth, and it’s in the production. It’s in the mixing.”

    Over email, Beinhorn, 54, extrapolates on the album’s production, insisting that he wanted to “create a piece of work that would have substance and depth,” and while he contends that Badmotorfinger remains a classic, he felt it “presented a terrific surface veneer but didn’t go far enough.” He adds: “I wanted to go deeper with them and explore their capabilities beyond what helped fit them into their perceived musical genre and sub-genres. It’s important, when making a record, to see the artist first as opposed to the style of music they play.


    “To me,” Beinhorn says, “this methodology is what set Superunknown apart from its predecessors. I posed various questions to myself as I immersed myself in their material. Where was I feeling emotional disconnects in their music? How could their music be more expressive? What were signature aspects of their work that I could exploit and hype to set the band even further apart from other artists? Once the principal songs for Superunknown were there, these elements became even more clear and the path to take was evident.”