Northwest of Hell: Spin’s 1989 Soundgarden Profile
Chris Cornell, former frontman of Soundgarden and Audioslave, passed away May 17, 2017 in Detroit at the age of 52. In light of his passing, we are republishing this early feature with Soundgarden, which originally appeared in the December 1989 issue of Spin.
They’re Axl’s favorite band, one of the 150 or so that Ian Astbury loves and hopes to produce, and the folks Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees calls “four guys who wear clothes.” Soundgarden are all meat and hair and ripped knees, the band most likely to succeed from the Seattle scene. Spread out on the long beige-plaid couch on the long porch of a huge, old, white house, they are drinking Budweiser and talking about what to do this evening.
“So, are we gonna play tonight or not?” guitarist Kim Thayil asks. SubPop Records, which released Soundgarden’s first EP Screaming Life in ’87 and is the home to the grunge bands that define the Seattle scene (Mudhoney, Tad, Nirvana and the Fluid–heavy metal as played by people who listened to the Sex Pistols when all their classmates were into Foreigner), is hosting a two-day, eight-band blowout at a local art gallery. SubPop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman have asked Soundgarden to play a song or two after Mudhoney’s set. “Has anyone asked Mudhoney if we can use their equipment?” asks singer/sex god Chris Cornell, who, shirtless as usual, looks like a tan Iggy with Michael Hutchence’s old hair. Looking at new bass player Jason Everman, who’d been hired just the day before to replace retiring Hiro Yamamoto, Cornell asks, “Well, which of our songs do you know?” The new kid says he knows “Flower,” “if you still do it the way it’s on the record.” Thayil thinks it’d be great to do “Flower” that night, but Cornell doesn’t. Drummer Matt Cameron sides with Cornell. “Do you really want to get up in front of everybody with our brand new bass player and do a song that’s almost three years old?” Cornell asks Thayil, who takes a big swig from a can of Budweiser and belches in Cornell’s general direction. “Was that a yes or no?” Cornell asks. “It sounded like a yes, but smells like a no.”
It’s important to know that Soundgarden are a Budweiser band. Though there isn’t much difference between the taste of Miller and that of Budweiser, there is a marked dissimilarity between Miller bands and Budweiser bands. Miller bands, whose ranks include the Nightcats, the Paladins, the Wagoneers and the H-Bombs, have posters identifying them as such; Budweiser bands signal their allegiance by leaving behind little piles of red and white aluminum. Famous Budweiser bands include Beastie Boys, the Replacements, Butthole Surfers and Black Flag. When Miller bands are thirsty, they announce, “Hey, Beertender, how about sending up five Miller Genuine Drafts for the band.” Their motto, as stated on TV by one of Long Ryders, is, “You don’t have to be the greatest musician in the world, you just have to mean it.” The motto for Bud bands is “Hey, we didn’t pay $12 to see you assholes.” They’ll drink any brand of beer, but somehow it’s always Budweiser.
“Let’s do a cover tonight, something like ‘FOPP’ [by the Ohio Players],” says Thayil. Cornell lowers his bud and belches. “Is that a yes or a no?”
Soundgarden took their name from a huge pipe sculpture in Seattle’s SandPoint. When the wind blows through Sound Garden, the sculpture, it sounds like side three of Physical Graffiti. “O.K., let’s get the Led Zeppelin questions out of the way,” Cornell says, leaning over my opened notebook. “What’ll it be for openers? Do we think the comparisons are valid? Which Led Zeppelin record changed our lives? Why is my hair long and curly like Robert Plant’s? Do I wear my dinky to the left also?”
You could say that Soundgarden are tired of being compared to Led Zeppelin–they considered turning the joke on the critics and calling Louder Than Love, their A&M debut, John Paul Jones and Ringo. “When we first got stuck with that Led Zep tag three years ago, I thought it was O.K. Back then, everyone in Seattle was into the Smiths and the Cure and Led Zeppelin was very 70s, very uncool. We were outcasts from the goofy art rock scene, which was fine by me. I just figured, it could be worse, they could’ve compared me to Jim Morrison,” Cornell says. “Lately, though, all the Led Zep comparisons have become a thorn in the band’s side. I mean, Led Zeppelin was never a favorite band of anyone in the group and, to tell the truth, I don’t really hear much Led Zeppelin in us, except that I sometimes sing in a loud falsetto. We don’t write songs about wizards, swords or any of that dungeons and dragons crap.”
While on the subject of the rampant labeling, I ask the band if the “Seattle Sound” tag is accurate. “What gets called the ‘Seattle Sound’ should really be called the ‘SubPop Sound’,” Thayil says. “Sir Mix-a-Lot just went platinum; Queensryche and Metal Church went gold. Robert Cray and Heart sell millions of records. And then you have all the Pop Llama bands like Young Fresh Fellows and the Posies. None of those groups are considered ‘the Seattle Sound,’ but bands like Catbutt, Nirvana, the Fluid and Tad are. It’s that grungy stuff, you know, heavy muddle–that’s ‘the Seattle Sound.'”
Seattle has long been a city where metal rules, which is not hard to believe since its proudest musical export is Jimi Hendrix. Though a city kid who went to Garfield High, same as Quincy Jones and Bruce Lee, Hendrix is buried in the affluent East Side suburbs where his name has long been synonymous with God. “When I was growing up I had friends who lived in the East Side and all those guys ever did was sit in their rooms, smoke tons of pot and play along with Hendrix records, trying to match him note for note,” Cornell says. While his friends were listening to Axis: Bold As Love for the millionth time, Cornell found that Alice Cooper, MC5, the Stooges and Black Sabbath spoke more directly to him. “When I was in junior high, every Friday the teachers would let the kids play their favorite records. I brought in Billion Dollar Babies and they wouldn’t let me play it. They never vetoed anyone’s choice before. It was then that I knew that rock’n’roll could scare the fuck out of certain people.”
To get to the point where his own rock’n’roll scares certain people (and it does: check the reactions of passersby when you blast Louder Than Love through your Blaupunkt), Cornell listened to a lot of Killing Joke and Bauhaus. He met transplanted Chicagoans Yamamoto and Thayil four years ago, when Hiro answered his “roommate wanted” ad. In the first incarnation of Soundgarden, Cornell played drums and sang. When things started getting more serious, Cornell decided he couldn’t sing and play drums well, so the trio brought in powerful drummer Cameron, who’d caught their eyes while in Skin Yard. At one of their first gigs as a four-piece, Soundgarden completely blew away SubPop’s Pavitt, then a writer for the influential Rocket monthly. “Total Fucking Godhead” was Pavitt’s short, but to-the-point response. Pavitt’s partner, Poneman, was on hand at the same show. “I was in a band, but after witnessing the awesomeness of Soundgarden that night and knowing I could never approach that level of intensity, I decided to do something on the business end of music instead,” Poneman says.
Pavitt and Poneman looked at legendary regional labels like Sun, Motown and Stax, saw that they all had their own studios, staff producers and consistent album art, and formed SubPop Records with the same auteur philosophy. Ninety-five percent of SubPop’s releases are recorded at Reciprocal Studio with Jack Endino producing. Pavitt designs all the album covers with a penchant for hair-exploding live shots. The first release to get SubPop a measure of notoriety was by Green River, who later splintered into Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone. Soundgarden helped to firmly entrench SubPop on the indie landscape. “For awhile SST was the hotel label, then it was Homestead. Now it’s SubPop,” Thayil says.
After releasing one single and two EP’s on SubPop, Soundgarden was hot-breathed by several major labels but signed to SST instead to record Ultramega OK. “A lot of people thought we were being arrogant, telling the big labels to go fish, but we knew what we were doing. We wanted to make the record we wanted to make and we knew the majors would still be there after we made it,” Cornell said. For Louder Than Love, Soundgarden was given Complete Artistic Control and used Seattle producer Terry Date (Metal Church):
At 8:30pm we all pile into a red van and head downtown to the SubPop show. It seems kind of early, but Thayil explains, “By 9 o’clock that place will be packed.” Ironically, the Seattle club scene is pretty dead. The strict drinking laws forbid all-ages shows in clubs, so one-on shows like tonight’s are pretty much it for “the Seattle Sound.” Sure enough, when we arrive at the COCA Gallery, a huge art space currently displaying photos of tattooed people with pierced genitalia, the line is around the block. After waiting in line for three or four awkward moments, Cameron and Cornell sorta mosey this-away and find themselves, aw shucks, at the front door where they are swept in on the guest list. “They don’t have any beer in there,” Thayil says and suggests we slow our thirsts at a nearby bar.
When we enter Oxford’s, Kim waves to a table of at least 11. We head over and he introduces me to someone from Mother Love Bone, a couple of the Screaming Trees, one guy from Tad (Tad himself) and several other people from some band or other. “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul bounces from the speakers. “I fuckin’ hate party music,” Thayil says, dancing his index fingers around.
Four hours and three smuggled six-packs later, we are all, the entire “Seattle Sound,” standing in front of the COCA Gallery letting the cool breeze dry our sweaty bodies. The show is long over, and Mudhoney is loading their equipment into a van blasting Kiss Alive, but no one wants to go home. Thayil think we should all drive to Canada, two hours away, but Cornell suggests driving out to the lake and drinking the 12-pack he’s got chilling in the van. There’s still much to talk about this night.
Bruce Pavitt takes a break from helping Mudhoney load out and comes over and slips a Carling Black Label to his longtime pal, Thayil. They grew up, along with Yamamoto, in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest and graduated together from an alternative learning program at Rich East High School. Wanting to continue their education in a similarly progressive manner, the trio enrolled in Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Pavitt interned at OP magazine (now OPtion) and wrote about independent releases in his own Subterranean Pop fanzine. After graduating in ’81, Thayil and Yamamoto moved to Seattle. Pavitt followed two years later.
“When I first moved to Seattle, it seemed that every band wanted to be Joy Division, some of them even went so far as to affect British accents,” Pavitt recalls. “Artists in nonmajor media markets have real inferiority complexes, I think. Since they’re always reading about bands from England, New York and LA, they think those bands are better and lesser groups try to emulate those bands. Then there are some people who say ‘Fuck New York. Fuck LA. We don’t care what’s happening there, we want to make something happen here.’ And that’s what Seattle is about right now.”
Out of oppression and insecurity comes the best rock’n’roll. Backed into a corner it jumps out of the grooves claws first. It goes for the throat. It’s louder than love. It’s meat and hair and ripped knees. it screams and pounds and falls down. It uses a lot of duct tape.
You can smirk if you want to. It doesn’t matter.