By Nadia Noir
Soundgarden have been a major part of our sonic lexicon since they broke out with massive hit after massive hit during the great grunge-era turning point that was the early to mid-’90s. When the Seattle-based band released Superunknown twenty years ago, the title was sort of a play on the band’s previous ten years of being a virtually unknown band. Superunknown was the band’s fourth album, but ironically (because of the title), the one that made them superstars. Other bands barely make it that long. Period.
“That’s their entire lifespan,” said frontman Chris Cornell to Kevin & Bean. At the time of Superunknown, Soundgarden was going through their “reinvention” period. This period (and others) was well-documented through different sources in Soundgarden’s upcoming 20th anniversary deluxe reissue of Superunknown. The album will include rarities, demos, live performance, and acoustic performances that were culled from the “archivist” brain of guitarist Kim Thayil and engineers, producers, and other band members. Kevin and Bean played a snippet of the acoustic version of “Like Suicide,” which sounded very different from the album version, and Cornell admitted that over the years classic Soundgarden songs will go through “dramatic reinventions.”
But this is fitting given that Superunknown came at a time in music that was going through it’s own dramatic reinvention. Cornell mentioned that the time signature for radio hit, “Fell On Black Days,” was a “weird” 6/8 while most straightforward rock songs before that time were “four on the floor.” He also said that lyrically “Black Hole Sun” was a surprise in terms of commercial radio appeal.
“I think we were fortunate in that we made this album that was kind of redefining the band and pushing the boundaries right at the time when we had everyone’s attention,” said Cornell. “It was a confusing time in commercial music. And, we actually had a lot to do with helping create that confusion. But, it was a surprise that it was as big as it was.”
Cornell’s attributes a lot of the band’s success in terms of breaking out on Nirvana and Pearl Jam and admits that even now, he has a little inner voice that says “you’re an idiot, you’re an a**hole,” when he’s in the studio trying to hit a certain note combo. Originally the drummer in the band, Cornell says that being in a “post-punk/indie” world of “anything goes” and being around supportive friends afforded him the luxury of picking up a guitar without ever learning how to play technically and contributing to the songwriting of the band “while still kind of being a chimpanzee on the guitar.”
Putting himself in that uncomfortable place in order to inspire raw energy seems like a common theme for Cornell. When asked about the band’s upcoming co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails featuring Death Grips, Cornell called the tour a “package” deal with “a group of bands where they’re not from the same genre, they’re not from the same place, so, whoever’s going to these shows is seeing three bands in terms of genre have nothing to do with each other but kind of make sense as a package.” So, some fans won’t be there to see Soundgarden. And that exhilarates Cornell.
“I don’t think being comfortable onstage in the world of rock and roll is really necessarily the best thing. I think some of that raw energy comes out of you because you have a fish out of water feeling. You’re under a microscope and you react weird and that’s probably why you ended up on stage in the first place,” admits Cornell. “At some point you had to decide that that was the way you were going to deal with life.”
For 49-year-old Cornell, a music lover who grew up with merely a bed and crates full of vinyl including an original import AC/DC‘s 1976 Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and a few different copies of Robin Trower‘s 1974 Bridge of Sighs, this is a way he’s been dealing with life since he was a teenager. He still doesn’t think he can keep up with Black Sabbath‘s Ozzy Osbourne or the Rolling Stones‘ Mick Jagger. He does joke that he’s never met AC/DC and that might be because the extraordinarily short band is intimidated of Cornell’s 6’3” stature.
He did have another story to tell about a short, infamous musician.
“I did see Prince at the Beverly Hills Hotel once. And it was comical, I was walking down the hall sort of towards where his room was and he was opening the door and pushing his room service cart out and he was sort of struggling with it a little bit. He had no shirt on and a purple headband holding his hair back. ‘Cuz he looked like Prince; he looked like he was onstage, but he was just pushing the cart out. He looked like that thing you would do when you’re pushing a cart out and you have no shirt on. You don’t want to see another human being. He saw me and he just started wrestling it out there because he didn’t want to see me and he slammed the door shut.”
Would Prince slam the door shut to work on Soundgarden’s work-in-progress new album with them? Probably not at this point in their success. After years of not releasing music, the band came out with King Animal in 2012 and said that “at this point” in their career putting out a new album will “naturally happen.” Cornell says that while they are doing promotional tours and haven’t had time for studio writing, once everyone brings in their song ideas it can go from “zero to sixty really fast.” Making a new album “Could happen tomorrow.”