By Brian Ives
Superunknown was both Soundgarden‘s most commercially successful album, and their most highly acclaimed. In an era obsessed with stringent notions of underground credibility, the band took risks by bringing a new sense of melody into the mix. Also helping: Chris Cornell added singing to his previously abrasive vocal repertoire. Soundgarden achieved the rare combination of sales and respect: Superunknown debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in the spring of 1994, going on to sell five million copies in the U.S. It got five-star reviews in Rolling Stone and metal mag Kerrang!; even the mainstream-leaning Entertainment Weekly gave it an A.
This year marks the album’s 20th anniversary, and to celebrate the occasion, the band is releasing deluxe editions of the album on June 3. This summer, they’re co-headlining a tour with fellow alt-rock legends, Nine Inch Nails. Cornell was thoughtful in discussing both subjects, including why the he doesn’t appear on the album track “Half,” why “Mailman” still resonates today, and how NIN influenced his band.
You recently performed Superunknown from start to finish at South By Southwest. Did you enjoy it?
That’s a pretty dramatic concentration of songs. [South By Southwest] was the first time we ever played them in a row. As we performed it live, every song was in a different turning, so we had to swap guitars after every song. That kind of gets in the way of the flow, but it was OK, it worked.
Does the fact that you’re coming off of a very strong and well-received album, [2012’s] King Animal, make you more enthused about a reissue project?
I think that there’s some validity to the idea that, had we not made a new album, we wouldn’t be so happy about anniversaries and re-releases and repackaging. But in the back of my mind, I always knew that if we got back together, we’re gonna start creating something new.
Superunknown was very different from your previous albums. Do you feel that you were progressing as a lyricist?
I think I was changing my focus a little bit. I wasn’t a lyricist when the band formed, it kind of happened out of default because I was singing. I don’t think that I had a lot of confidence as a lyricist, and I don’t think that I really wanted to tell my story. To me, Soundgarden was its own entity, this weird, gloomy, psychedelic creature. My lyrics, early on, were more atmospheric and were there to support the atmosphere that the music created. As time went on, I think I yearned to do more with it, and that’s when I started opening the door into who I am. Had that not worked, I would have slammed that door. But it worked! I think at some point you have to do that to really connect with your audience, that’s a very powerful thing as well. By the same token, always wanting it to be something not so specifically about me or what I think about things, so that whoever is listening to it can adapt it to their life.
“Mailman” was unlike anything you had written before.
I think it’s like this tiny voice of a forgotten person, or a person who feels forgotten or powerless. I think that there are bedrooms full of those people in the world, and especially here in the U.S., this is a culture that thrives on making a name for yourself, a face for yourself, we’re goal oriented, we’re achievement-oriented. And so we’re growing up in this culture feeling that we have to do something to distinguish ourselves in a country full of 350 million where it’s impossible for everyone to distinguish themselves somehow. That is one of the main reasons why we have these horrible incidents of somebody walking into a public place and shooting everyone. What happened to John Lennon was that. This kid that wanted to make a name for himself, he figured out that that was a quick way to do it, at he wasn’t wrong. It worked.
When Superunknown came out, some fans didn’t like “Half,” which [bassist] Ben Shepherd sang. I remember someone saying, it sounds like a B-side.
That’s what an album is, it’s not sixteen singles for radio! It was one of my favorites. I remember getting into a discussion with Ben, where I had to convince him to sing it. He sang the demo and played everything on it. And it was amazing and we all loved it, but I didn’t feel like I was going to capture what he was trying to do on it. He said, “If you don’t sing on it, and you’re not playing guitar on it, then it’s a Soundgarden song that you’re not even on.” And I remember thinking, “That’s what we should be trying to do,” which is make the song the best song it can be and not worry about anything else.
“Black Hole Sun” was almost a ballad, it was very different from anything you had done before, and it became your biggest hit.
Well, I remember us discussing what ballads even were. Somewhere in the ’80s, the commercial metal world created this version, this formula of a song about a girl, an ode, and it’s slow and melodic. “Black Hole Sun” isn’t a ballad, because it isn’t that. It’s more of a somber and melodic song. I don’t think we thought it was going to be a single, especially if you read the lyrics. The only thing that made it work as a single was that you could repeat the lyrics of the chorus as a mantra. Some of the more entertaining moments of my adult life have been listening to different versions. Like listening to Paul Anka sing those words [he covered the song in 2005]. Which he does great! I was shocked that the record label and radio stations wanted that to be a single.
When the Temple of the Dog album came out in 1991, people realized that you could actually sing. Were you hesitant to bring that to Soundgarden?
When Temple of the Dog came out, and I was a getting a reaction from people, “Wow, we didn’t know you could sing,” I was a little bit offended. How did you not know? Are you stupid? And then I had to stop and think, “Wow, I’m doing a lot of screaming and I’m avoiding singing.” But that was based on the music. I was careful from the very first song that we wrote together, [Soundgarden guitarist] Kim [Thayil] and [original bassist] Hiro [Yamamoto] and I, to support the music. Ultramega OK, Louder Than Love, Badmotorfinger, was not music that was asking for that kind of singing.
The box set contains the b-side, “Kyle Petty (Son of Richard.)”
I was imagining this other band and this other guy, which I do sometimes. A lot of the voices I’ve created, and how I’ve created a voice, is to ask, “What does this singer singing this sound like?” And try to figure out how to do that. That was one of the hardest things for me to do early on, and as time went on that became kind of easy. Maybe that’s more of a Bowie approach. I’m not worried about connecting with an audience based on who I am and “I want them to know the real me.” That’s not what music was to me. I was more of a Pink Floyd kid, I want music to take me somewhere else that wasn’t my bedroom. So “Kyle Petty” was this little sliver of me being able to be someone else for a second, this a–hole.
Soundgarden never seemed to quite fit in with “alternative.” You were somewhere between “120 Minutes” and “Headbanger’s Ball.”
When Soundgarden was just starting out as a band, and we were just struggling to get an indie label to release us, there was this notion of “alternative,” and “alternative” was a word, it wasn’t a genre. It meant an alternative to what was on the radio: commercial metal and Billy Joel. There were no rules, and then all of a sudden, you kind of had this R.E.M. moment and this idea that alternative had to be somewhat androgynous, you couldn’t be in any way aggressive, it was jangly, if you were a guitar band, you couldn’t have keyboards, you couldn’t have a trumpet, you couldn’t do anything, except for this rigid template. I always wanted to smash that, that didn’t make any sense. How did this whole generation of bands and musicians that came from a free-for-all of post-punk indie universe corner themselves in this attitude of, “We can only do these five things.” And the Pixies seemed to be the best version of that, so, why bother? The best version already exists!
In 1993 you shaved your head. That seemed like more than just a haircut, like you were trying to rebel against an image.
The fact that I shaved my head showed up in the entertainment part of TIME magazine. And I remember being disturbed by that. People really rely on this for important international news. Is that the best we can do? All of our lives being musicians and songwriters and killing ourselves to make this music and they’re writing about who did what with their hair. But it also made me glad that I did it. I didn’t want to march to anyone’s drummer, I don’t think Soundgarden was ever capable of it. Everyone was against that attitude from the very beginning. I think what happens a lot of times in popular culture, is bands start out that way, but if they become successful, they don’t have anything to fight against anymore. Musicians are mostly nerdy guys who weren’t good at sports. Or were socially awkward somehow. And ended up in a bedroom listening to records and playing an instrument. Sometimes when you’re accepted, that edge goes away. But other times, when you’re accepted, there’s a conflict. And that conflict is, “Oh, why now? You didn’t like me then! So, now, my ‘f – you’s’ are going to get bigger.” And I think Soundgarden was one of those.
You’re touring with Nine Inch Nails this summer. What was your first impression of them?
We chose video directors for “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Rusty Cage” based on the “Head Like a Hole” video. Because we saw that, loved the song, loved the video, and it was this different kind of approach to industrial/punk rock/metal, but maybe none of those things. I was a fan of industrial music, but you sort of had to suffer through the fact that there tended to be no songs. And, suddenly, here’s a song! It’s almost like a song that we could have done or written, but presented in a different way. It had this moment of influence on me.
If you were to trade songs with them on this tour, what Nine Inch Nails song would you want to cover?
I’d want to do “Head Like a Hole.” There’s a lot of them. But that was that first moment when I went, wow, this is special, this is different from anything.
How do you look back on that time period, when you, Nine Inch Nails, and so many other great bands were able to do your own thing, and still sell lots of records and play huge venues?
Well, I think it was the end of that moment. The last era of when you could develop doing what you want, and you wouldn’t disappear. Now there’s this YouTube phenomenon where you could really become an overnight success from your garage, but no matter what you do next, everyone moves on to the next thing.
On June 2, Soundgarden will perform “Superunknown” from start to finish at New York’s Webster Hall. Go here for ticket info. Soundgarden’s tour with Nine Inch Nails kicks off July 19 in Las Vegas.