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.
“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.”
So, why did this all work out?
“I felt like, especially now going back and listening to it, that we were pretty fearless,” Cornell explained to Rock It Out! Blog’s Sami Jarroush backstage at the ACL Moody Theater. From behind a pair of shades, the 49-year-old singer smiled and twirled his gorgeous head of hair, adding: “We were fearless in light of the commercial success of a lot of modern rock bands, and particularly Seattle bands. We seemed to kind of thumb our noses at that crap, and we never really steered into it much on Superunknown. It didn’t appear to me that we were trying to… ‘Okay, they know who we are, we sold two million records on Badmotorfinger, and we gotta go do that again.’ We went in a completely different direction.”
What a clusterfuck these Superunknown gigs must be for the band’s stagehands and guitar techs. While more popular fare such as “Spoonman”, “Black Hole Sun”, “Let Me Drown”, and “Kickstand” employs the easy-to-handle drop D tuning, tracks like “Mailman” and “Limo Wreck” work off CGDGBE tuning; “My Wave” and “The Day I Tried to Live” rewire the six-string in mind-blowing EEBBBB tuning; Shepherd’s “Head Down” and “Half” tweaks off CGCGGE tuning; and “Like Suicide” hits the veins with the equally ludicrous DGDGBC tuning. Then there are the odd, maze-like time signatures for each song, which Thayil has long insisted are incidental, as if it’s absolutely normal that 15 songs just so happened to range from 4/4 to 5/4 to 6/4 to, um, 15/8.
“That’s just how we write songs,” Shepherd explains, adding credence to Thayil’s miracle suppositions. “We don’t really think about what time signature it’s in or anything — we just play. I don’t think about it.” He pauses. “Here’s my rule: Never play the same thing twice. You can do whatever the fuck you want as long as you get the next part down and you know when it’s coming up. Michael [Beinhorn] would push those kind of envelopes — totally progressive and completely free to experimenting.”
“We were all trying to push the boundaries of what each of us thought Soundgarden sounded like,” Cornell digressed. “Think of it this way: It’s Pete Townshend, it’s The Who, it’s the early ’70s, and he’s thinking, Man, what do I do as a songwriter? Well, we were doing that times four. I think that’s a big reason why we could sort of transform from what we did on Badmotorfinger to Superunknown.” Cornell paid credence to post-production, a time where the album really finds its identity. He added: “Our records are really kind of beasts with their own life, and we’ve always been pretty good at allowing that to happen. No one individual or any of us collectively has ever seemed to assert an idea on an album, based on a discussion or thought or what’s happening around us. It’s never once happened.” A pause. “I don’t remember anyone saying, ‘We need to be more like X!'”
“We always try to grab the bull by the horns and put it into the direction we want,” Shepherd explains. “That’s always been our work ethic and one of our powers that we put in. We grab the situations and make it work for us.”
With regards to conception and collaboration, Thayil seems to parallel Shepherd and Cornell’s thoughts. “We don’t like to repeat ourselves. We like to entertain each other,” he says with ease. “I think we’re our own best audience. I know that when I play a riff, I want to impress those guys and make them go, ‘Wow, that’s cool.'” He explains that most of the band writes material starting with the guitar, which forces him to go outside his comfort zone and see how Cameron might visualize the songs behind the kit. He digresses a little more on this, adding: “We don’t present ourselves the same style or riff or music or key or rhythm; we like to mix stuff up.”
Stagnation is a common fear with each band member, and Thayil addresses this ad infinitum. He points to the trademarks and aural signatures of bands like Devo and Sonic Youth, insisting that they both exude a unique personality that separates them from, say, The Beatles or AC/DC or The Ramones. And while he appreciates each act with due candor, he acknowledges that Soundgarden have always refused to be pigeonholed with one particular sound, and they’ve carried out that mission through teamwork.
“Even Bowie had to draw from many wells: [Brian] Eno, Carlos Alomar, and all those guys that helped him find a voice,” he postulates. “But with us, there’s four guys who call bullshit on each other!” He laughs some and his voice heightens: “When one guy starts pushing, that’s when things go wrong. We’re not that kind of band, and that might have happened earlier in the career, and that can be problematic when there’s four guys in there.” Another pause. “We don’t just have one vision. That could be myopic. We keep things dynamic and open.”
Beinhorn believed in that drive, which explains why his role was less of a hired gun and more of an all-knowing coach, one whose relentless pursuit to capture the very best they could offer meant headaches and long hours — all out of love. “I was so impressed with these guys — not just as players, but as composers,” he writes. “I felt it was imperative that they expand their potential — individually and collectively — as far as they could.” He zeroes in on Shepherd, recalling that the bassist had “so much intensity and pent-up emotion” with a “deep, emotional core” to his writing, adding: “I was constantly on the hunt for that kind of visceral quality when we were making Superunknown.”
Such a process warranted its share of rewards for Beinhorn, who enjoyed his front row seat immensely. “No matter what we had been working on, I always remember listening back to the board mix at the day’s end, thinking to myself, Wow, this isn’t bad,” he admits. “Gradually, the volume would get louder, then I’d suddenly realize I’d been listening to the same song 10 times in a row. I recall that happening almost every day while we were making the record. No matter how arduous it ever got, the recording always gave back to me in this way.” Could you imagine listening to downers like “Let Me Drown”, “Fell on Black Days”, or “Like Suicide” again and again and again? Talk about a bleak reward.
Not musically, per se, but certainly lyrically. On paper, Superunknown reads like a bruised notebook that’s been left to crumple towards oblivion in a city gutter. It’s chock-full of The Truth, subject matter that humanity dwells on yet tends to leave in the hands of officials or the words of their weekly sermons. The album can best be summed up in the title track, when Cornell wails, “First it steals your mind/ And then it steals your soul.” There’s a transformation that begins on “Let Me Drown”, in which the song’s narrator embraces his inner darkness, asking to “stretch the skin over [his] head” in order to thrive in modern society. From there, the album oscillates between themes of judgment (“Spoonman”), paranoia (“Fourth of July”), decadence (“Limo Wreck”), insanity (“Mail Man”), and the acceptance of death (“Like Suicide”). It’s scary even, as further evidenced by the band’s landmark video for their most popular single, “Black Hole Sun”.
Directed by Howard Greenhalgh, the video zeroes in on a warped suburban neighborhood that falls victim to the song’s interstellar namesake. Its pastiche owes much to the likes of David Lynch with its pseudo ’50s overtones, though the finale’s Dali-stripped visuals go far and beyond the film auteur’s traditional horror. Altogether, it captures the band’s hypnotic terror in a brilliant way.
“Soundgarden’s videos were dark, on the side of a life in peril, but I thought with an undeniable beauty that was captivating,” Greenhalgh explains over email. “The video was trouble in psycho America Land, a delirious happy valley where… actually… everything was wrong. Twisted. I always love the idea that behind the curtains of the world’s houses something is going on that isn’t quite right.”
That duality speaks to Soundgarden’s true genius on Superunknown. At face value, it’s a catchy, melodic piece of hard rock, one that’s disparaging and even frightening. Yet, it’s not a downer of an album, at least if we’re to believe Thayil. Upon the album’s initial release, the guitarist told Everett True of Melody Maker that it’s “about life, not death,” adding, “Maybe not affirming it, but rejoicing—like the Druids [put it]: ‘Life is good, but death’s gonna be even better!'” It’s an intriguing position, and one that’s ultimately changed the way I listen to the album now. When I point out this dusty quote to Thayil over the phone, he laughs and says, “If I referred to the druids, it could just be something I read or learned.” But this quote sparks something within and he continues.
“I’m not into religion or superstitions, because those fields are full of answers, but I really do like questions,” he starts. “I love questions. I don’t like the assholes providing the answers!” So, I ask him one, not really hoping for an answer but perhaps a discussion: Why does he feel Superunknown was such a success?
“Whether you’re full of regret, shame, insight, loneliness, there are so many things that make up the human experience,” he answers. “I think that there’s a number of songwriters who want you to have a good time and dance.” He pauses. “I don’t think we’re very good at making people dance, but we don’t want to make people miserable. We want to make them know that they’re not alone.”
Shepherd feels they did a great job in that task.
“Soundgarden fans were the most open-minded,” he insists. “They were into everything. They were looking beyond just one scope. That gave our records legs in the long run, fans approaching and growing. In the ’90s, we’d see people in their fifties and little kids in the audience. There’s no stereotypical Soundgarden fan. There’s no look or uniform. Just people who like music. It was like capping off that whole ’90s generation that has since kind of disappeared along with that kind of rock.” A slow pause. “Nowadays, people are more into folk music or disco. The ’90s generation wanted the truth; they wanted the hardcore and totally honest. That’s what the kids wanted, and that’s why that stuff happened.”
He’s not wrong. There’s a reason EDM reigns and Soundgarden’s rock ‘n’ roll is relegated to classic rock radio. The darkness that Cornell sang about 20 years ago has swallowed everything up whole. Whether it’s school shootings, political injustices, global warming, overpopulation, disease, or religious fanaticism, our times are plagued with too many eyewitness horrors that were more or less campfire tales in the pre-Internet age of 1994. As Shepherd accurately puts it, ’90s youngsters starved for the Truth, but today, the kids are trying to run away from it. And why shouldn’t they? There’s so much to fear; we’ve dissolved into our own black hole, in which the inevitable is only one or two tomorrows away.
“I think we’re all slightly aware how fragile we are,” Greenhalgh writes. “War, comets, volcanoes… even fucking aliens… they could all take us away at any time. The more we know… the more we realize it could all end in a moment. There’s a dark curiosity and paranoia in most of us.”
Towards the end of our late-night conversation, Thayil stops me for a second to listen to a news bulletin on his television. He’s trying to find out more information about a recent car accident that took place near his home. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get an answer and says he’ll look into it later. Between the sun and the streets, I tell him, nowhere is safe.
“When you’re a kid, you joke around about shit, like weird scenarios,” Thayil responds. “And then I realized that anything I could think of that’s really bad has already been done. All the things that have happened are probably far worse than I could imagine! In terms of social things, like being caught in giant gears of a huge clock. I mean, it probably could have happened! Just like in war, it happened. Like you’re watching cartoons, you think there’s a glorification of cruelty… Are we laughing at it or with it?”
Neither of us can answer that.
Artwork by Dmitri Jackson. Photography by David Hall.