Somewhere between a man beating himself bloody with spoons and a producer ripping a door off its hinges, Soundgarden made the record they’d been waiting nine years to unleash. Already beloved in the Seattle rock scene, and reaping the benefits of their town’s early ’90s grunge celebrity alongside their friends Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the band’s previous album, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, had gone platinum and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance. They’d helped spur Sub Pop records on to greatness, hit the road with Guns N’ Roses, and commanded the mainstage of Lollapalooza.
But the band that so identified with muscular, pistoning hard-rock believed they were also capable of a deeper pop melodicism, of more nuanced anthems. By the summer of 1993, frontman and guitarist Chris Cornell, a longtime Beatles and Pink Floyd devotee, and bassist Ben Shepherd, a blithely experimental hand with tunings and dynamics, had begun crafting songs that would defy headbangers’ expectations. They recruited the producer Michael Beinhorn — who’d helmed releases by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soul Asylum — to help realize their ambitions.
The six months of recording, engineering and mixing that went into Superunknown did not progress as in-step with that idealism. The band clashed constantly with Beinhorn — whose methodical repetition was at odds with their down-and-dirty recording habits — and all began to doubt the results. But their vindication would come, unsubtly, in the radio ubiquity of “Black Hole Sun,” two Grammy wins, and the enduring career the band had cemented for themselves as a result of the album’s success. Furthermore, the record handily dispelled any notion of Soundgarden being reductive metalheads: From the roiling surf-pop guitars of “My Wave,” to Cornell’s menacing, discomfiting vocal operatics on “Mailman,” to the tetchy, bluesy crawl of “Limo Wreck,” and the Gonzo nonchalance and psychedelic-pop agility of “Black Hole Sun,” Superunknown thrived in its eccentric outer limits.
Here, 20 years after the album’s release, is the story behind its creation from the people who were there, plus a Bill Nye the Science Guy cameo, because Seattle was pretty weird back then.
Chris Cornell, singer/guitarist: We started as a band in 1984, so I look at Superunknown as being kind of a later period, the moment when we were actually kind of reinventing who we were and pushing the boundaries of what we did, broadening our creative approach to a record.
Jack Endino, producer of Soundgarden’s 1987 debut EP, Screaming Life: Soundgarden was a really good band from the get-go, like Nirvana. It was just a matter of not screwing it up as a producer.
Tad Doyle, singer/guitarist of TAD: Everybody loved Soundgarden. They were hometown heroes. They were the first band to actually put out something on a major label.
Michael Beinhorn, co-producer of Superunknown: Back then, you just had a feeling about certain artists; you knew what was going to happen with their next record even before it was made. And with Soundgarden it was like, if they make a really great next record, their careers would be made.
Adam Kasper, assistant engineer of Superunknown: They’d already done a couple good records. It was definitely time to hit one out of the park. Chris was in his prime, songwriting and singing. He also pushes himself pretty hard.
Chris Cornell: I felt very proud to be part of a music scene that was changing the face of commercial music and rock music internationally, but I also felt like it was necessary for Soundgarden — as it was for all of these Seattle bands — to prove that we deserve to be on an international stage and we weren’t just part of a fad that was based on geography. I knew we had the ability to do that, and I also knew that the timing was important. This was the time. It was a mixture of these amazing moments of inspiration, and just the sheer sort of stress, and sweating bullets, and the actual grueling, nose-to-the-grindstone effort.
Jeff Ament, bassist of Pearl Jam: We were on tour with them the year before recording Superunknown, and Lollapalooza, and I just remember that being a blast. We had both been touring a lot: we had been touring on Ten, and they had been touring on Badmotorfinger. I think that Lollapalooza being the end of the cycle for both of us, it was just fun to hang out with your friends. They were on the side of the stage when we played, and we were on the side of the stage when they played. It’s one of my fondest touring memories.
Michael Beinhorn: My impression was that they had already pretty much decided on which producer they were going to work with — I think it might have been Rick Rubin — but I was kind of prodded to go in and take a meeting with them anyways, so I was like, “Ok, cool.” And we met and, somehow, we hit it off.
Adam Kasper: I was kind of the main engineer that was running Bad Animals Studio, which was a new, state-of-the-art room. That was one of the places that was doing a lot of Sub Pop rock stuff around town. I knew some of the band members of Soundgarden and when I knew they were working with Beinhorn, I reached out to him early on and said, “Hey.” Just introduced myself and was excited to work on it.
Michael Beinhorn: I wanted to take every possible opportunity to make the very best, most interesting, and most arresting record that we possibly could make, so that was my goal going in. I think that there was a lot of extra pressure, because I made it very clear to them how I felt about the project and what I felt this record meant to them. I mean, I didn’t even think about the long-term ramifications of something like that, although that kind of stuff is really, really important, too.
Tad Doyle: Soundgarden’s always been, to me, very innovative and always pushing the envelope for what they were trying to do. Especially when Ben Shepherd got in the band. That guy is an amazing songwriter on his own, so when they started writing together, it was something special.
Kim Thayil, lead guitarist: There isn’t one pilot of Soundgarden. If there were, it would be a lot easier to manage something thematically or have a particular vector that would sway our momentum or direction. There’s four guys producing material and providing criticism on the material, so it’s a very dynamic process.
Jack Endino: The lineup had changed a bit. You had Ben Shepherd in the band, and his songwriting contributions and creative input were sort of integrated in at that point. Chris Cornell was now writing more of the music. In the old days, a lot of the songs were written by Kim Thayil and [founding bassist] Hiro Yamamoto.
Ben Shepherd: When I joined the band, I started bringing in weird tunings. Everybody started adapting and doing their own songs in weird turnings. They’re all so smart and creative that they’d just go for it, and that was the whole point of being in a band together.
Jeff Ament: You could see a little bit with Badmotorfinger that Chris was starting to stretch out songwriting-wise. I think with Temple of the Dog, too, that gave you a sense that he could go a lot of different ways and he wasn’t just gonna be locked into doing a heavy, odd-time-signatured rock thing. He had a pop element to him, and then he also had kind of weirdo Syd Barrett melodies going on. I think once Matt [Cameron, drummer] and Ben got their influence on the record, that pulled it apart even more.
Ben Shepherd: This is one of the records where we actually brought complete songs in. You know, we didn’t jam them out to get the structures together.
Chris Cornell: “Head Down” was a complete demo Ben had played for me, where he’s singing on it and it’s very similar to what ended up on the record. That was an amazing moment because it was one of those times when I felt like, “This must be what it was like to be in the Beatles,” where one of the band members just walks in and drops a song like that — it’s already done and you don’t have to do anything, and you already know it’s going to be one of the best songs on the album.
Kim Thayil: Chris had a four-track — or maybe he had upgraded to an eight-track — so he would do the vocals and guitars and then present it to us to gauge our response. There was some material he wrote that we didn’t respond as enthusiastically to as, say, “Let Me Drown” or “Black Hole Sun.”
Michael Beinhorn: Going into it, I’m not sure if their intent was the same as my intent. I mean, I wouldn’t think for a second that they didn’t want to make a great record, but I don’t think that they wanted to devote the same kind of time and effort to it that I did.
Adam Kasper: Beinhorn had tons of equipment brought in, so we had several drum kits, all kinds of mics. It was really the biggest setup I’ve ever done or seen. I remember we took about two or three days trying to decide what kind of tape to use, how hard to hit the tape, how to align the machines, literally starting from that component. We’d have dozens of mics on the cabinet trying to find the one that worked. It was all driven by Beinhorn. We were used to working much quicker, so that was interesting.
Kim Thayil: I remember being inside the studio a lot while outside was a sunny and warm day, which is kind of rare in Seattle.
Michael Beinhorn: The very first song that we recorded was “Kickstand.” That was after spending about five days to a week getting the kind of drum sound that I was looking for. I’m going to say that Matt ran it down between 15 and 20-plus times, which is a lot to track a song.
Jeff Ament: A song I really, really love is “Kickstand.” I think that’s because that’s a song he wrote about his bike, and my relationship with Chris is forever tied to riding our bikes. That song really does something personal for me.
Chris Cornell: It does remind me of that period, too. I think after Andy [Wood, mercurial singer of post-Green River, pre-Pearl Jam glam-rock outfit Mother Love Bone] passed away, Jeff and I spent a lot of time riding mountain bikes through the hills of Seattle and talking. That’s one of my best memories from that period, really.
Jeff Ament: I probably got to know Chris the best after Andy died. We hung out probably twice a week. We’d go on bike rides, usually at night in some of the big parks in Seattle. They usually culminated with a fire on the beach and a bottle of something. I think it was a little bit of us trying to understand why Andy was dead. It helped us move through that. It was more helpful than going to a bar or just staying at home and feeling sorry for ourselves.
Chris Cornell: My history of singing has always probably been closer to a David Bowie approach than, for example, an AC/DC approach. I never thought of myself as being the singer that wanted to create an identity and then stick to that. As a child, I was this record collector/listener that would sit in a room and listen to the entire Beatles catalog alone, over and over and over again. I think that affected my vocal approach because there were four singers in that band, and I never knew who was singing what. I was a little kid; I didn’t really care. I thought that’s what rock music was and I thought that’s what making an album was: You sang in the style and with the feel that the song was asking for. Superunknown is a great example of that. From song to song, I would approach it in the way I felt was the most natural for it. Who was this person singing this song? What are they singing about? What should that person sound like? That’s how I would approach it, and often times, that would be the most difficult part of the whole process for me: finding the right voice that felt the most natural for that song.
Adam Kasper: Doing the vocals was challenging in a lot of ways. Chris sings full-voice on some of these songs, and one of the problems was being able to get the headphone mix up above his internal volume. So when you’re singing and you’re screaming, you can hear yourself, but you have to hear the music up above and it’s just so loud and feeding back.
Artis the Spoonman, musician on “Spoonman”: They were getting raves whenever they played in Seattle, but otherwise, I didn’t really know them. I knew, and still do know, Ben’s sister. I’d been [performing] on the sidewalks — I was very visible — and I remember seeing Kim. Kim’s about as visible as you can be when you don’t know him.
Chris Cornell: “Spoonman” wasn’t written for any album. It was just written for fun. The band had heard the demo that I had done at home, and I think someone, maybe Kim, approached me and the band and said, “This is actually a fun song for us to do.” The demo was just acoustic guitars and no drums, just kind of banging on pots and pans.
Ben Shepherd: That was a rocker. That was from that big setlist that Matt Dillon’s character [in the 1992 Cameron Crowe film Singles] had when they broke up. [Jeff Ament] had written down fake song titles for the band to have. And Chris was on set ’cause he’s in the movie, and his gift to Cameron was to write songs for that whole setlist, and “Spoonman” was one of them.
Artis the Spoonman: They invited me to do a spot between the Melvins and them in a pretty prestigious venue in Seattle. When I was there, Chris’ wife at the time and the band’s manager were backstage and told me that Chris was writing a song called “Spoonman” and would I like to record on it when it gets finished? I said, “Yeah, sure, no problem.”
Michael Beinhorn: Basically, Artis shows up and he’s wacky; he’s like a street musician. Basically, I guess, sort of homeless. And he comes in with a roll that he spreads in front of him, and it’s full of, like, spoons and these metal implements and stuff like that, and I’m like, “Oh my God, what the hell is going to happen?” He takes his shirt off, and he’s like, “I hope someone’s got a video camera here, because you’re going to want to film this.” We start running the track, and he just starts picking these tools up, and he strikes the living crap out of himself with them. I’m not talking about light slaps, either; some of them are big, hard pieces of metal. Within a very short period of time, there was blood flying everywhere. It was actually quite beautiful to watch because he was almost like a dancer; it was flowing and graceful. And, you know, he’s very talented with these instruments, but it was also incredibly brutal. I think we got like five or six passes with him, and he was just beaten bloody and exhausted by the end of it. It was really, really amazing. I mean, he’s definitely an artist in many senses of the word. It was one of those things I will never forget as long as I live. I wish everyone could have seen what he did.
Artis the Spoonman: I probably played one bottom spoon, maybe two top spoons, the same pair of sticks any time that I play them, and a pie-serving spoon. [In] the instrumental, the bell sound: That’s a pie-serving spoon. So I played a maximum of eight or nine spoons out of the 20-some I carry. I may well have played a wooden spoon; I can’t remember.
Adam Kasper: I was surprised that was chosen as the first single. I had heard when it came out that Artis was slightly underwhelmed or disappointed. He thought maybe there should have been more spoons, and louder.
Artis the Spoonman: The very first time I heard it, I thought, “Oh, you’re kidding right? Do not, do not go there.” You know, “Save me?” I mean, give me a break. Oh my God. It’s, like, way over-the-top exaggeration. You don’t walk up to anybody and say, “Save me.” You don’t walk up to your favorite general, or priest, or rock star. That’s pretty peculiar.
Michael Beinhorn: It’s funny because it wasn’t really my favorite song. I just thought to myself, “What’s the deal with this?” And then when it came out, people went nuts over it. It’s always cool to think that you may have a blind spot that other people can see. You learn something new every day.
Artis the Spoonman: One thing that really kind of disappointed me was when they received a Grammy. You go up there and you thank all the producers — which, you know, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But they didn’t thank me. I think they had a big screen of me playing in the background so they just ran out of time. Personally, it was one of my weak moments.
Ben Shepherd: I’m really bummed about that because Artis should have gotten a Grammy, too, and I didn’t speak in the microphone and thank my mom and everybody. Nobody mentioned him and he didn’t get one. I still regret that; I still want to get one made for him. He’s the namesake of the damn song; he plays on it, too. It’s only fair.
Michael Beinhorn: I didn’t even know we’d been nominated for a Grammy until someone sent me that — what is it? Not a plaque. A piece of paper. It was in a category where a producer doesn’t actually get an award [Best Metal Performance].
Artis the Spoonman: But who ever had a Grammy Award-winning song, a multiplatinum song about himself? The cross between the responsibility and just the joy and the privilege and the honor. I don’t know if I should use “honor,” but it is an honor. My goodness. All my life, I wanted to be a rock star. People laughed at me; I had no musical buddies as a boy. All I did was play along with my bongos or sing along with Elvis in my bedroom for many hours a day, just because I loved it.
Chris Cornell: “Black Hole Sun” was written in a car when I was driving home from the studio one night. Pretty much everything that you hear was written in my head.
Michael Beinhorn: That’s one of the best pieces of music I’ve ever worked on. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song. I remember when I got the demo for it. I got an immediate visceral reaction from it, like it just hit me. I felt like a house had dropped on me. I thought to myself, “This is the kind of thing that a person in my position waits years and years to basically have dropped in his lap.”
Chris Cornell: When I sing it, there are elements of the Beatles in it, and Led Zeppelin that I get from it, and also a little bit of the Syd Barrett era of Pink Floyd. I think the Beatles is one band that, if I’m working on a song arrangement or if I have some idea for a song and there’s a little bit of a Beatles quality to it, I never avoid that. I always will steer into it.
Ben Shepherd: I remember hearing it and just going, “That is the song. Now the gloves are off. Now we have songs to work with for this record.” Chris’ songwriting was just boom. Huge.
Michael Beinhorn: Since Chris had demoed all of his songs really, really well, he had given us a precise roadmap. Arrangement-wise, we made the most minimal changes to it.
Kim Thayil: I had a problem with parts of “Black Hole Sun,” especially the little delicate, arpeggiated parts at the beginning, the guitar part that kind of is reminiscent of a piano part. I think that part and myself, we were stylistically at odds. What does that sound like? Like a ballerina in her tutu kind of tiptoeing on a piano? And then I played that on guitar. That wasn’t really my style. It’s a lot of fun to play now, obviously.
Michael Beinhorn: After the first time Chris sang it, he turned to me after a full day’s worth of work, after listening to it, and went, “It’s not good enough.” I mean, it’s tough to say that to an artist, but when an artist says that to you about his own work, you’re like, “I love this guy. This is fantastic.” I was like, “Okay, man. I’m with you 100 percent. Do what you’ve got to do.” So he came back one week later, went back in, and did the vocal that you hear.
Chris Cornell: Lyrically, it didn’t seem to be something that would be that easily relatable. It was very stream-of-consciousness to me. I didn’t go over it and edit it. It is as it came out, and that’s it. It felt right, and I let it go. But it’s very esoteric and the only thing about it, I think, that makes sense, in terms of how it could have been an international hit, is singing the lines of the chorus. But when you don’t overthink it or even think of it in any way, just let it be what it is creatively, maybe that strikes a chord in people because there’s no analytical mind polluting it.
Ben Shepherd: It instantly reminded me of Stevie Wonder, who I love. It was like, now we’re really diverse; now we’re really stretching our abilities and styles. We’re not just this one stupid fucking grunge band.
Chris Cornell: One of the reasons why Superunknown has so many songs on it is because we didn’t really want to argue over what should be cut, because we didn’t necessarily have the same opinions. So we put everything on it and it was the max amount of time we could put on a compact disc at the time. After that, we didn’t really care what the singles were.
Kim Thayil: We didn’t know that it would change things, but we had a pretty strong feeling it was going to be a successful song. I think we heard a demo cassette of the songs that were going to be on Nevermind that those guys gave us and, immediately, we heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Ben went, “Oh my God, that’s going to be their hit. That’s gonna be huge.” And when we had the demo for some of the material on Superunknown, Hiro Yamamoto, our founding bass player, ran by the studio to say hi and he heard “Black Hole Sun.” He said, “Oh jeez, you guys, that’s your hit.”
Chris Cornell: The only time the singles became an issue was after “Black Hole Sun,” when the label wanted to release “Fell on Black Days” as the third single. “Black Hole Sun” became the second single because the radio stations just started playing it, and that was fine, but the thought of “Fell on Black Days” being the third single, to us, was wrong, because there were a whole lot of new fans out there and we didn’t want to give people the wrong impression of what the album sounded like, or who we were as a band. We felt like the last thing we wanted was to get a bunch of people to buy the album who don’t like it. The label cautioned us that if we didn’t choose that single that we would lose momentum on radio, and we would lose momentum on the charts, and start to sell less records, and then the life of the album would be shorter. We still insisted on it, and “My Wave” was the third single, and all those things happened. [Laughs] But we didn’t misrepresent it, and that was important to us.
Jack Endino: There’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen when you’re dealing with Soundgarden, because none of them are stupid and they all have really good ears. They understand the technology; you can’t slow them with bullshit. I mean, they’re smart people.
Michael Beinhorn: I’m quite positive that these guys didn’t really see the process of making the record from the same perspective that I did. And I think that caused a lot of friction. You know, and, the fact that these guys didn’t always get along so well. There was a lot of headbutting.
Jack Endino: The stories of him butting heads with Soundgarden are funny because I’ve always heard them sort of elliptically over the years, and I sort of roll my eyes and just go, “Yeah.”
Michael Beinhorn: I told them that I felt that they really needed to work harder and write better songs, for lack of a better word. You know, to make the kind of record that they needed to make. Right there, I think that created some issues. But I just felt so emphatically about it, you know: The potential here to make this great, great record was vast. If we could just make a tiny, little bit of it, it was going to be an amazing record.
Chris Cornell: I think that if there was any tension, it had more to do with producer issues than anything else. We were never a band that particularly needed a producer, anyway. We were always capable of making our own record. Producers often tended to just be there so that the record label would feel somehow confident that their investment wasn’t gonna somehow be wasted. [Laughs]
Michael Beinhorn: For whatever reason, I think that Chris felt very uncomfortable having me or anyone else scrutinize his vocals. So we created an environment for him where he was able to really do most of his singing by himself.
Chris Cornell: I think Superunknown had more tension than some of the records because it was a new guy we’d never worked with before who seemed to be really interested in trying to reinvent the wheel at every turn, and when it wouldn’t work, which was almost all the time, we just took the record away from him.
Adam Kasper: I think each individual player, particularly Matt and Chris early on, started making the calls as to what they thought was the take to keep. Matt just doesn’t do 49 takes, and Michael will push for that many. Matt has always been a two- to three-take guy.
Ben Shepherd: I remember Beinhorn piping in on the talkback mic a lot, and then we would just break into “Kumbaya.” Every time he tried to talk to us, we would just start playing or singing “Kumbaya.”
Adam Kasper: The door in the control room, which is the giant soundproof door, got ripped off its hinges by Beinhorn. It was less his power of anger and more it was just a big-ass door and, once he started to swing it in a bit of a huff, it just went all the way. Because we did it again on the next record. Kim was like, “I don’t even see how he broke it himself.” That was classic.
Michael Beinhorn: In the long run, you would think that, at one point, there would be a parting of the ways, because things would just get so untenable, like, “He wants to do this but we want to do that.” There were certain points where I may, in the back of my mind, have been going, “Wow, I wonder if the other shoe’s going to drop on this.”
Kim Thayil: But the conflict never came to blows.
Chris Cornell: It forced us to not rely on someone else and to become even closer-knit as a band and take responsibility for what it was we were doing. In a way, that might be one of Beinhorn’s attributes as a producer, because he definitely was involved in a lot of records that I thought were great, which is why I thought he’d be the perfect choice — and clearly Superunknown turned out great, but I think it might have more to do with the fact that we had this necessary adversary in the studio to pull us together as a group.
Ben Shepherd: We were always like that. We were always like that when we were together. It’s like, you are either with us or you’re not. And if you’re not in the band then, basically, we tell you “no.”
Chris Cornell: To be fair, though, I think that Soundgarden had an us-against-everyone mentality from day one, so it wasn’t just Michael that brought it out of us. Everyone always did. And probably still does.
Kim Thayil: One metaphor that either Ben or Chris came up with, I think, was that there are five fingers and we work well as a clenched fist. It’s not a bad metaphor if you’re talking about hard rock.
Michael Beinhorn: I can’t completely fault them on that one; I understand what drives a person to feel so precious about what they’re doing and not wanting someone to come in and say, “We’re going to do it this way.” But at the same time, it’s difficult for someone in my position because you want to do your job. You don’t want to just “yes” people you’re working with to death and make them feel good about what they’re doing — because that may be gratifying in the short run, but in the long run, it doesn’t create something that’s going to have meaning for anyone.
Adam Kasper: Everyone had moments of frustration, including Beinhorn. All of us. We were locked in a room for six months. But I will also say that we had a lot of great times and laughs. It was an emotional experience to be in there with six, seven, eight dudes all day long, cranking loud headphones — which is irritating after 12 hours – and trying to really push boundaries.
Kim Thayil: I remember Josh Homme coming by and I remember Billy Corgan coming by. Pearl Jam were hanging out. I remember Josh Homme really wanting to play ping-pong after Adam Kasper and I had just eaten a lot of Indian food. So we were all kind of sluggish and bloated and he was like, “Man, let’s play ping-pong!” and I was like, “If I play ping-pong, it needs to be against someone equally sluggish and bloated.” I remember that conversation like, “Come on you guys, let’s play!” and I was like, “Dude, I can’t move.”
Adam Kasper: Corgan was in town and something happened with their tour bus. They couldn’t make it from Portland because of a storm, so they were gonna borrow some of the gear we had, and he just sat there and checked out what we were doing. Other people would come by. The Nirvana dudes would stop in. I remember the Breeders were around a lot. Johnny Cash was pretty amazing. He was around there for awhile; there was a [Willie Nelson] tribute record being done and so he was in Seattle, just kind of hanging out in the studio. A lot of people would come through and just vibe out on the scene.
Kim Thayil: We had a PlayStation set up in the back. I do remember Chris playing some racing games and occasionally playing Doom. I remember sitting there for, gosh, maybe a couple hours, watching Chris play Doom; I was so engrossed with the graphics and the nature of the game — and it got me pretty dizzy because if you’re just watching a video game and not playing it, it’s like being a passenger in a speeding car. Yeah, I remember eating sandwiches and watching Chris play Doom.
Michael Beinhorn: I have some very good recordings of them doing impromptu songs on the spot, versions of KISS songs.
Adam Kasper: It was kind of like The Shining. We were throwing fruit at the speakers. You kind of go crazy after awhile.
Chris Cornell: We almost got Adam Kasper fired. He was the sole employee of the studio that was around us, the guy that we allowed to be around us. At some point, I think we just got really destructive and he didn’t stop us — pretty much destroying the control room — and he almost got fired. The one thing that stopped us and got us to put our behavior in check was the fact that we didn’t want poor Adam to lose his job.
Kim Thayil: Bill Nye was compiling an episode about sound, and they asked if they could get a peek at the machinations of a recording studio and we said yes. They got some video footage of the band and Adam Kasper hanging around by the mixing board. I think we described the whole recording process as being a giant drinking straw.
Ben Shepherd: So Bill Nye the Science Guy came in and we did “Kickstand” for them. I think it was right before we started mixing, so the record was done and we did a whole segment. Yeah, that’s a weird episode of Bill Nye, talking about sound with Soundgarden.
Kim Thayil: We always had a warm spot for kids’ educational television. We always said if we were asked to do something on Sesame Street, we would do it, and that’s no joke.
Tad Doyle: I don’t recall them being crazy partiers. Kim would have a couple of beers, but he never seemed to be out of control. Maybe Ben would have a few more than Kim, but it seemed like Tad were always a little bit more libated than they were.
Kim Thayil: There were some stories floating out there like, “Oh, all the guys are drinking or smashing stuff.” Yeah, but no more than we would do when we’re sober, you know? No more than professional athletes like doing in the locker room or politicians do in their office.
Ben Shepherd: I learned “4th of July” stoned — and I hadn’t smoked pot in so long, it was weird. I went back to the studio the next day to do my bass track and I was like, “My God! How did I even tune to this thing? What is going on?”
Chris Cornell: In those earlier times of Soundgarden, certainly through the Superunknown period, not touring was the time when I usually ended up drinking the most. And I had been aware of that. There’s so much adrenaline happening on a daily basis on tour that you didn’t really know what to do with yourself post-tour. That was something that I read many times about different musicians that toured a lot who were known to have substance abuse, that it was actually not so much the road that was a danger but being off. And it’s such a regret that I have. Though I don’t know if it would be smart to want to change anything, I think I could have been more productive through my twenties and part of my thirties had I not been a drinker. For example, not having to recuperate from the night before so that I could focus on creativity. Because I never wrote anything under the influence of anything; that never worked. The other side of that is when I quit everything, I didn’t have that crisis of, “Oh no! How am I going to be creative without help?”
Kim Thayil: I think the band had a particular hostility towards the indulgences of drugs, in general. I think I always hated that about rock, even when I was a teenager. It just got really obnoxious being a kid and seeing the way rock guys behaved in the ’70s and how they address their success with backstage antics. It’s a bunch of bullshit. I wish people would shut the fuck up and, you know, play their record. And that’s the thing, in this case, when you have acquaintances and friends who obviously are struggling and have some problems: There’s absolutely no reason to romanticize or glorify that. It’s really an unfortunate situation.
Jeff Ament: I remember going in and seeing them at some point at the beginning of the recording. And then we went on tour for what seemed like for a long time, and I remember when we came back, seeing, like, “Oh yeah, Soundgarden’s still in there.”
Adam Kasper: There were times when we weren’t sure what we had. There was some question, as it was all kind of done, of, “Wow, is this gonna work?” Because it was pretty extreme in terms of the sounds, back in that day.
Michael Beinhorn: I took the record to get mastered and the mastering engineer completely blew it — like, I was really stunned. It took two and a half days and he couldn’t master the record to save his life. I started to doubt my own ability and I was like, “Oh my God, I think I may have a bomb on my hands here.” Then the band took it to someone else and mastered it in a day. People were happy with it, and I got the record, and I wasn’t happy at all. I thought Brendan [O’Brien] had really missed the point of the record. So I was taken aback somewhat; I felt that it had been softened a little bit. But of course, I’d invested so much at that point that I think my objectivity was completely lost.
Chris Cornell: I think probably a week into mixing, I understood the scope of the album and how powerful it really was and what we created.
Michael Beinhorn: I don’t think we parted under the best of circumstances. By the end of it, I think everyone was just really tired and it was just one of those things that, you know, it was like, “Okay. It’s done. Now we’re rid of each other.” Well, I don’t think it was quite that extreme; I don’t want to say with animosity but, I think, everyone was done. It was definitely hard to make.
Ben Shepherd: My favorite song is Matt’s song “Fresh Tendrils.” Just playing-wise, I love that. I don’t like the mix of it as much. Probably my least favorite, sound-wise and playing-wise, is “Half” [which Shepherd wrote]. I’d have to agree with 95 percent of the fans that hate that song.
Adam Kasper: There is something I think is really interesting. Beinhorn told me that he always had this electronic music agenda when he was making that record, because he was from New York and he worked with [experimental musician] Bill Laswell and they were into a pretty electronic kind of approach to music back in the ’90s. I think he wanted to incorporate some of that into a rock record. I think he kind of did, with some of the way the snares and things are overly compressed. I listened to that today and I was like, “Oh yeah, it kind of does do that.” It’s cool.
Jack Endino: I’m not a big fan of the production. It’s okay. It’s kind of noisy now when I listen to it. The production captures a feel, which I think is good, but it’s an odd-sounding record if you listen to it with technical ears. Still, the point is, it’s a record as a piece of art and you’ve got to give props to Michael Beinhorn for capturing something, because he had some sort of vision of what it would sound like. It doesn’t really sound like any of the other Soundgarden records so, sonically, it makes me scratch my head a little bit as an engineer. But emotionally, it works as a record extremely well, and that’s really what counts.
Jeff Ament: You can really hear all the individual personalities in the songs. Sometimes they’re really playing with each other, and sometimes they’re really fighting each other. I think sometimes when they were fighting, when their parts were playing off of each other, you could tell that if a part was too heavy, then maybe Ben would be playing something super odd and weird against it. That is what makes the record so interesting to me. It’s a really beautiful record.
Adam Kasper: It doesn’t sound like a stale ’90s record. The sounds, the approach, were all very analog and organic, but also kind of pushing a lot of boundaries, so I think that’s why it still sounds good today.
Jeff Ament: The Ten record blew up so big that I think when Superunknown got huge, it felt like, well, finally the band that really deserves success is getting success, because I don’t think they had the success on Badmotorfinger that we had or Nirvana had on Nevermind. Personally, I always felt like Soundgarden and Mudhoney deserved more. They were so good at their respective things. As soon as I heard the record, I just knew that a couple of those songs were going to be massive.
Jack Endino: They were working hard, you know. I think this is ultimately why they broke up a few years later, because it just stopped being fun. You know, that’s kind of why the next record, the follow-up to Superunknown, was never going to equal it. [Down on the Upside] has always felt like a slightly depressed record to me. It definitely has a feeling of, “Wait a minute, what are we going to do now? How are we going to top this?”
Jeff Ament: It’s an amazing thing: I threw this record on yesterday when I was driving around and, even though Chris wrote the bulk of the songs, it’s such a band record. You can hear everybody’s influences on the songs and the record is all over the place. It almost has soundtracking moments, these big, ethereal middle bridge parts and intros.
Jack Endino: That’s what caught my attention about Superunknown: The songs are good pieces of songwriting. They’re great performances, too, but there is not a bad song on the record. Which is pretty good for a record with that many songs on it.
Kim Thayil: Some of my favorite albums, whether it was Space Oddity by Bowie or Rocks by Aerosmith, I still revisit them and they still hold up. There’s still a depth to them. And I like the way that Superunknown can sustain my attention and affection; that tells me that we’re doing something right.
Michael Beinhorn To know that it’s influenced so many people musically, that it’s actually touched people and helped them go further in their own lives, to me, is the single most proud thing. Knowing that I played a role in that, it means so much. I am forever grateful to have been a part of it in some small way.
Chris Cornell: We even surpassed my best expectations, which is pretty hard to do.
Ben Shepherd: I know one thing about Soundgarden: We’ve always aimed for 20 years. We really do focus on trying to make something that’s worth being out there. Our motto is, “We will always put our best foot forward.”