Soundgarden is one of several new heavy metal acts to emerge from the Seattle area since 1985. After years of trial-and-error recording on independent labels, the four-member group found national success with the 1989 album, Louder Than Love, a major underground hit in 1990. Soundgarden’s intriguing combination of psychedelic hard rock, speed-metal, and post-punk is admittedly not for sissies, but it is a step ahead of standard “party hearty” metal fare nonetheless. A favorite of college radio stations, the rebellious Sound-garden offers some of the hardest rock played on the planet today; as Arizona Republic columnist Salvatore Caputo put it, the music “isn’t ‘loud’ as in a jackhammer, but ‘loud’ as in a 747 jetliner at full speed crashing into a skyscraper.”
Lead guitarist Kim Thayil describes his band as “basically a bunch of punk rockers that kind of realized there [were] psychedelic and dynamic elements that could be dealt with if they slowed it down a bit. You tap into that sort of heartbeat, that sort of psychedelia. There is a reference point that is definitely visceral—you come
Band formed in 1984 in Seattle, Washington. Original members included Kim Thayil (guitar), Chris Cornell (vocals, drums), and Hiro Yamamoto (bass); drummer Matt Cameron joined group in 1986; Yamamoto left the group in 1989 and was replaced by Jason Everman , who was replaced c 1990 by Hunter “Ben” Shepherd; songwriting is a collaborative effort.
Signed with Sub Pop Records, 1987, and released EP Screaming Life. Moved to SST label, 1988, and released album Ultramega OK. Moved to A&M Records, 1988, and released Louder Than Love, 1989.
Awards: Grammy Award nomination, 1990, for Ultramega OK.
Addresses: Record company —A&M Records, 1416 North La Brea Ave., Los Angeles CA 90028.
up with something that hits you in the heart, the head and the groin.” With far-ranging influences, Soundgar-den offers a crushing assault on the senses that still manages to avoid the usual metal-band bombast. Houston Post contributor John Voland observed that the group “manages to steer its sledgehammer intensity into some pretty interesting areas, like ambiguous sexuality, depersonalization and even … the environment.”
Soundgarden was founded in Seattle in 1984, but its roots lie in Chicago. Two of its founders, Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto, grew up there and graduated from high school together. With a third friend, Bruce Pavitt, Thayil and Yamamoto moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1981. Pavitt started a rock ’n’ roll fanzine while Thayil and Yamamoto studied philosophy at Evergreen State College. Eventually Thayil and Yamamoto found their way to Seattle, forming the band Soundgarden with drummer-vocalist Chris Cornell. Pavitt founded an independent label, Sub Pop Records, and by 1987 had recruited Soundgarden and several other local bands to make records with him.
Soundgarden’s name is borrowed from a sculpture in a waterfront park north of Seattle. When the wind blows, pipes in the sculpture make a spooky, hooting noise. Thayil liked the sculpture and named his fledgling band after it. It is more or less a coincidence that Soundgarden’s members began playing together at a time when the music scene in Seattle was beginning to attract attention. Although the group has often been lumped with other Seattle outfits such as Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Mother Love Bone, it bears little resemblance to those bands. Thayil told the Chicago Tribune: “We were a punk band with long hair, and we played with a punk attitude, but the music was slower, trippier.” Cornell told the Los Angeles Daily News: “A lot of people hated us, which I dug a lot. Sometimes it’s fun to be hated. When you’re always liked, you become self-conscious.”
One person who did not hate Soundgarden was Axl Rose, frontman for the premiere quality-metal outfit Guns n’ Roses. Rose attended his first Soundgarden concert in 1988 and was especially impressed by Cornell’s keening vocals. By that time the group—with a new drummer, Matt Cameron—had pressed an EP on Sub Pop and were readying another album, Ultramega OK, for the SST label. Almost from the outset Soundgar-den was courted by a number of major recording companies, including Capitol and Epic. “We didn’t want to commit ourselves to someone else’s ballgame,” Thayil told the Chicago Tribune. “We wanted to learn about the industry ourselves, instead of being caught off-guard.”
The group also wanted to make its music without being manipulated by profit-hungry producers. The hands-on style evident on Ultramega OK proved quite attractive to speed-metal fans, and the album earned a 1990 Grammy nomination in the metal category. Soundgar-den finally moved to a major label in 1988, cutting Louder Than Love with A&M Records. Released late in 1990, Louder Than Love drew raves from critics and a sales-enhancing “explicit lyrics” sticker for a track entitled “Big Dumb Sex.” The group promoted the album with a national tour through the summer of 1990.
In his Rolling Stone review of Louder Than Love, J. D. Considine wrote: “Soundgarden takes its cues from metal’s new primitivism, eschewing virtuosity for the brutish efficiency of simple aggression. That’s not to say these guys don’t have chops…. But they do seem more inclined to beat a riff into submission than strut their stuff by playing rings around it. As a result, the songs on Louder Than Love are mean, lean, and fighting fit.”
The hurricane-force groove notwithstanding, Soundgarden’s members reject what they call the “paint-by-numbers” sound of most metal music. Soundgarden has been known to parody its predecessors in songs like “Big Dumb Sex,” but the band also tackles subjects rarely found in heavy metal such as pollution and power madness. “Like Metallica, Soundgarden ferrets out the best elements of metal while spitting out the cliches,” wrote Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune. “Even Soundgarden’s hardest, loudest workouts have a subtle, sensual underpinning, an unlikely mix that makes ‘Louder Than Love’ one of the most innovative hard-rock records to come skateboarding down the pike.”
Having achieved an international reputation, the members of Soundgarden are determined to keep the bite in their act. “We’ve come through a lot of buzz and hype,” Thayil told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “You can’t let it go to your head.” The guitarist added: “I don’t think we [have] prima donna attitudes. We’ve been at this five years. We’ll take it in stride. Ultimately, you come home and eat dinner like anyone else.”
Screaming Life, Sub Pop, 1987.
This Is Our Art, Sire, 1988.
Ultramega OK, SST, 1988.
Louder Than Love (includes “Big Dumb Sex”), A&M, 1989.
Badmotorfinger, A&M, 1991.
Flower (EP), SST.
Cornell and Cameron, with former Mother Love Bone members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, also released Temple of the Dog, 1991.
Arizona Republic, February 15, 1990.
Boston Globe, January 19, 1990.
Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1989.
Circus, October 31, 1989; May 31, 1990.
Elle, April 1991.
Daily News (Los Angeles), February 17, 1990.
Houston Post, November 28, 1989.
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 22, 1990; January 24, 1990.
Rolling Stone, March 23, 1989; October 19, 1989; January 11, 1990.
Rough Mix, August 1990.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 6, 1989.
The State (Columbia, SC), August 24, 1990.
Washington Post, August 19, 1990.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Formed: 1984, Seattle, Washington; Disbanded 9 April 1997
Members: Matt Cameron, drums (born San Diego, California, 28 November 1962); Chris Cornell, vocals (born Seattle, Washington, 20 July 1964); Ben Shepherd, bass (born Okinawa, Japan, 20 September 1968); Kim Thayil, guitar (born Seattle, Washington, 4 September 1960). Former members: Scott Sundquist, drums; Hiro Yamamoto, bass (born 13 April 1961).
Best-selling album since 1990: Superunknown (1994)
Hit songs since 1990: "Outshined," "Black Hole Sun," "Fell On Black Days"
Seattle's grunge movement marked the crossroads of punk and classic rock, but Soundgarden set themselves apart by injecting heavy metal into that already-potent mix. With a sound that combined the sludgy riffs of Black Sabbath with the frenzied spirit of the Stooges, they attracted an audience that found Nirvana's sensitive soul-bearing too abrasive and the posturing of pop-metal bands like Poison too silly. Their primary accomplishment lies in bringing heavy metal back to earth: by the late 1980s, the genre had descended into irrelevance with the proliferation of bubble-headed glam-rock outfits. Soundgarden's later work added a dose of psychedelia to the punk metal sound, resulting in a vivid and visceral series of albums that resonated with a loyal following.
The Dawn of Grunge
The roots of Soundgarden extend back to the dawn of the grunge era. Childhood friends Kim Thayil, Hiro Yamamoto, and Bruce Pavitt moved to Olympia, Washington, to attend college after graduating from high school in Illinois in 1981. Thayil and Yamamoto began playing in bands in the burgeoning Seattle underground rock scene, and Pavitt founded a fanzine (a local and independently produced magazine). The fanzine became Sub Pop, the record label that helped to initiate the grunge explosion. Yamamoto, a bassist, founded a band with his roommate, vocalist Chris Cornell, and the pair recruited Thayil to play guitar. They added Scott Sundquist on drums and chose the name Soundgarden. Over the next two years the band hit the Seattle club circuit and earned a devoted following; they eventually replaced Sundquist with Matt Cameron.
The band signed to Pavitt's newly formed label and released the EP Screaming Life in 1987. The cover photograph captures what became the archetypal grunge image: Cornell in midwail, his long hair falling wildly over his shoulders. The music on Screaming Life is similarly striking, driven by Thayil's swirling guitar chords and Cornell's grandiose, rock-god vocals. The plodding assault of "Hunted Down" and the tense "Tears to Forget" provide the clearest examples of their developing sound, with thudding guitars propelled by punk rock rhythms. The sound is at once familiar and strange, with the signature repetition of metal applied to the deliberately twisted song structures of underground rock. They jumped to the legendary punk label SST for their first full-length album, Ultramega O.K. (1988). The album finds the band becoming much more comfortable with their fusion of metal theatrics and punk fire, but the material tends to wallow in its own sludgy texture. What sets the album apart from Screaming Life is the psychedelic flavor of songs like "Flower" and "Head Injury" and Thayil's growing prowess as a muscular, inventive guitarist.
Soundgarden continued in the punk-metal vein on their major label debut Louder Than Love (1989). The cover photo of Cornell careening on stage harks back to the image that graces Screaming Life, but with more inspired energy, and the music follows suit. "Ugly Truth" opens the album with an aggressive guitar attack that provides appropriately grand accompaniment for Cornell's otherworldly howl. Cornell's vocal dynamics veer from high-pitched screech to a low, mournful croon, a range that lends the imposing music an emotional texture usually absent from metal. Cornell chants, "If you were mine to give / I might throw it away" over a barrage of Thayil's psychedelic notes. "Loud Love" and "Hands All Over" surge with Thayil's deep grooves, and "Gun" seethes with rare anger. Despite the band's increasing success and growing audience, Yamamoto left Soundgarden to return to school; he was replaced in early 1990 by Ben Shepherd.
Breaking Out of the Cage
Soundgarden's third album, Badmotorfinger (1991), proved to be a major creative leap forward, their breakthrough work. The album was released on the cusp of the grunge revolution, in which punk-influenced rock from Seattle surged in mainstream popularity; the band's association with the city brought them a great deal of media attention. Grunge became a catchall term for any guitar-based rock recorded by younger bands, and many groups bristled at the misleading label. The grunge hype, however, could not diminish the artistic strength of Badmotorfinger, a focused and confident set that stands among the best albums by the Seattle pack.
Badmotorfinger opens with "Rusty Cage," an intense, jittery rocker that announces the arrival of Soundgarden's evolving sound with the defiant chorus "I'm gonna break my rusty cage / And run!" Thayil's guitar commands attention as he strips away the sludge of his previous work and conjures a wiry and rhythmic approach that refocuses the band's music with a new energy. This dynamic, coupled with Cornell's bold vocals, sends songs like the darkly anxious "Jesus Christ Pose" into the stratosphere and makes for their most consistent and ambitious set of songs. Indeed, despite the growing commercial viability of grunge, Badmotorfinger represents Soundgarden's most arty and cerebral work, and the hard-hitting approach connected with an audience in need of new, heavier thrills. "Outshined," the band's first major single, crystallizes the frustrations of the "slacker generation" with its deathless lyrics ("I got up feeling so down") and catchy, rhythmic attack. "Room a Thousand Years Wide" is an atmospheric epic that reinvents the mysticism of Led Zeppelin for the postmodern age ("Listen, hear, he is inside / One who lives while others lie"), and the nervy "Drawing Flies" pulses with the intensity of the best punk rock. Badmotorfinger helped to define the public's perception of grunge, but it also placed Soundgarden outside of any simple categorization.
Soundgarden spent the next two years on tour, including a stint on Perry Farrell's well-timed Lollapalooza festival. In that summer of 1992 the band won more followers with their savage set, which included a reading of Body Count's controversial antipolice anthem "Cop Killer. "
Touring and the surprise success of Temple of the Dog (an album recorded with the members of Pearl Jam) led to a commercial blockbuster, Soundgarden's fourth album, Superunknown (1994). The album debuted at number one on the pop album charts and produced the hit singles "Spoonman" and "Black Hole Sun." Superunknown finds the band branching out even further into eclectic territory, abandoning metal almost entirely to perfect their union of postpunk and psychedelic pop. Freed from the blitzkrieg guitars of Louder Than Love, the record showcases Soundgarden at their most experimental and compelling. Thayil tones down his guitar to a skeletal riff for the aching "Fell on Black Days " and ratchets up for "The Day I Tried to Live." The album's key track, however, is the mind-bending "Black Hole Sun," a classic of neopsychedelia that matches rubbery guitars to morbid yet colorful lyrics ("Black hole sun / Won't you come / And wash away the rain?"). The album is a sprawling, nuanced work, featuring their most accomplished songwriting and their most vivid production techniques.
Soundgarden's next album, Down on the Upside (1996), was a less ambitious production than Superunknown. Although stripped down, it hardly represents a return to their former sound. Instead, the band focuses on tight song craft, eschewing the sonic detail of their previous two records and letting the laser-sharp structures speak for themselves. The effect is dark and jarring, with an unadorned anger that, whether intentional or not, provides the logical endpoint of grunge. "Pretty Noose" features one of Cornell's most inspirational vocals, with angular guitar work by Thayil. "Ty Cobb" is the most spare and cutting song in their catalog, and "Blow Up the Outside World" provides a bleak, bare-knuckle update of their signature epic approach. Down on the Upside is a troubling work, crafted in the teeth of significant intraband tension; it sounds like a breakup in process. The band toured in support of the record and announced their split the following year.
In 1997, the band released A-Sides, a retrospective that included every single from their recording career. The set provides a clear view of their rise from protogrunge innovators to ambitious sonic explorers. Thayil contributed his signature guitar work to a number of obscure acts, Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam, and Cornell embarked on a solo career. After issuing the largely ignored album Euphoria Morning in 1999, Cornell resurfaced as the front man of Audioslave, a band he formed with the former members of Rage Against the Machine.
Soundgarden will likely be remembered for the experimental neopsychedelia of Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, and for their stature as one of Seattle's big three (along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, despite the bands' marked musical differences). Like the best bands of the grunge explosion, they transcended the constrictions of the genre to produce timeless music.
Screaming Life (Sub Pop, 1987); Fopp (Sub Pop, 1988); Ultramega O.K. (SST, 1988); Louder than Love (A&M, 1988); Badmotorfinger (A&M, 1991); Superunknown (A&M, 1994); Down on the Upside (A&M, 1996); A-Sides (A&M, 1997).
Soundgarden, “grunge” band that set the stage for Nirvana. Membership:Chris Cornell, voc, gtr., drm. (b. Seattle Wash., July 20, 1964); Kim Thayil, gtr. (b. Seattle, Wash., Sept. 4, 1960); Hiro Yamamoto, bs. (b. Okinawa, Japan, Sept. 20, 1968); Matt Cameron, drm. (b. San Diego, Calif., Nov. 28, 1962); Jason Everman, bs. (b. Aug. 16, 1967); Ben “Hunter” Shepherd, bs.
If the musical terrain of Seattle during the 1990s was fertile, Soundgarden was one of the bands that provided the fertilizer. Mixing hard-rock influences like Led Zeppelin with a punk attitude and Rubber Soul-era Beatles psychedelic lyricism, the band developed a unique and special sound that took 10 years to reach a pop audience but ultimately became hugely popular.
In the early 1980s, Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto left Ill. to attend Evergreen State Coll. in Olympia, Wash. Lured by the growing scene in Seattle, they never finished school. Instead, Yamamoto started rooming with drummer Chris Cornell, and they began playing together. Yamamoto brought Thayil into the group in 1984, and they named the band Soundgarden, after a sculpture made of metal tubes in a local park that made noise whenever the wind blew. With Cornell both singing and drumming, the band lacked a focal point so they brought in several drummers, settling on Matt Cameron, allowing Cornell to move up front.
The group became a popular attraction on the Seattle scene. They were featured on several local compilations before releasing their first EP, Screaming Life, in 1987. The record came out on Seattle’s Sub-Pop records, co-run by Bruce Pavitt, a friend of Yamamoto’s and Thayil who had come out west with them. They followed this a year later with the Fopp EP; its success inspired several major labels to start chasing after them. Instead of taking a big-money deal, they released their full-length debut Ultramega OK on southern Calif, punk powerhouse indie SST in 1988 Garnering impressive reviews and decent sales, they signed with A&M to take them to the next level with 1990’s Louder than Love.
Soon after they made the album, Yamamoto grew tired of the band and returned to school, eventually getting a Masters degree in physical chemistry. The group needed to hire a bassist quickly to prepare for a national tour. They took on former Nirvana guitarist Jason Everman. He lasted for the tour and recorded one track for their next album, a cover of the Beatles “Come Together.” Ben “Hunter” Shepherd replaced him for the rest of 1991’s Badmotorfinger.
Badmotorfinger broke the band, with the thundering tracks “Outshined” and “Jesus Christ Pose” getting hefty amounts of MTV airplay. The album rose to
39 and eventually went double platinum. The band hit the road with Guns ‘n’ Roses, then became a major attraction on the second Lollapalooza tour. Taking a break, Cornell and Cameron joined Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and Mike McCready on a tribute album to Andrew Wood, the late singer of Mother Love Bone, a band that featured Gossard and Ament. The album Temple of the Dog hit #5, eventually going platinum. Shepherd and Cameron also released an album by their side project, Hater.
With all that exposure, Soundgarden’s next album, 1994’s Superunknown, hardly lived up to its title. The record topped the charts its first week, eventually going triple platinum. The songs “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman” became major rock and alternative hits, the latter earning a Grammy for Best Metal Performance and the former earning the Best Hard Rock Performance statuette. The record eventually went quintuple platinum.
The follow-up, 1996’s Down on the Upside, while maintaining their power and momentum musically, only went platinum. This might have been due to the amount of time the band members were spending on other projects. The group finished touring the album in the winter of 1997 and decided to take a break. By that spring, they had announced the break would be permanent.
Screaming Life (1987); Ultramega OK (1988); Fopp (1988); Louder than Love (1990); Badmotorfinger (1991); Superunknown (1994); Songs from the Superunknown (1995); Down on the Upside (1996).