Soundgarden were one of the biggest of the big Seattle bands in the early Nineties, parlaying gloomy metal riffs, surrealistic psychedelia and punk into a trilogy of platinum albums.
The Seattle band's roots trace back to 1981, when after graduating from high school in Illinois, musicians Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto, as well as fanzine editor (and later Sub Pop founder) Bruce Pavitt, moved to Olympia, Washington, where they hoped to attend college. When their plan failed to pan out, the three ended up in Seattle, attracted by its nascent music scene.
After playing in cover bands, Yamamoto joined his roommate and sometime drummer Chris Cornell in his new band. Thayil signed on, and they called themselves Soundgarden after a noisy pipe sculpture in a local park. The addition of drummer Scott Sundquist in 1985 (he was replaced by Matt Cameron in 1986) freed Cornell to front the band. After contributing two songs to a local compilation, they signed with the new Sub Pop label. Their two EPs, Screaming Life (1987) and Fopp (1988), attracted major-label interest. But the band decided to stay true to its indie roots, signing to SST for debut album Ultramega OK.
For Louder Than Love (Number 108, 1990), the band signed with A&M. The higher profile of a major label increased sales and helped Soundgarden garner a Grammy nomination for Ultramega OK (for Best Metal Performance). Yamamoto left the band in late 1989 to go back to school (in 1994 he joined Truly) and Jason Everman, who had previously played with Nirvana, stepped in on bass. Everman was soon replaced by Hunter "Ben" Shepherd in early 1990.
The band began to take off in 1991, with MTV choosing "Outshined" — a track from Badmotorfinger (Number 39, 1991) — as a Buzz Clip and Guns N' Roses inviting the band to open for them on tour (the invitation came from Axl Rose, a longtime fan). Cornell and Cameron joined up with members of Pearl Jam to form Temple of the Dog, a tribute to the late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, which produced a sole self-titled LP. The following year, Soundgarden appeared in Cameron Crowe's love letter to Seattle's burgeoning rock scene, Singles; the band performed "Birth Ritual" in the film, and Cornell's solo acoustic song "Seasons" appeared on its soundtrack.
In 1993, during a break from Soundgarden, Shepherd and Cameron released an album with their side project Hater, a band that also included Andrew Wood's brother Brian. Cameron, Shepherd and McBain resumed their collaboration in 1997 under the name the Wellwater Conspiracy (in which Cameron and Shepherd were originally billed as Ted Dameron and Zeb, respectively).
Soundgarden returned in 1994 with Superunknown. The album debuted at Number One and spawned the band's breakthrough track, "Black Hole Sun." (Cameron even performed the song with the Seattle Symphony and experimental keyboardist Wayne Horvitz.) In 1994 "Black Hole Sun" won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance, while another Superunknown song, "Spoonman," took home the trophy for Best Metal Performance.
The musical evolution begun on Superunknown became even more pronounced on Soundgarden's followup, Down on the Upside (Number Two, 1996). Produced by the band, the album attempted to balance Cornell's trademark tortured lyrics ("Nothing seems to kill me no matter how hard I try"), metal touches and increasingly complex arrangements. Despite its initial success with the Number One Modern Rock hits "Burden in My Hand" and "Blow Up the Outside World," the album wasn't as popular as its predecessor. Subsequent touring was rumored to be rife with the kind of internal tension that had plagued the album's recording.
In April 1997, Soundgarden announced that they were disbanding. Explanations offered at the time included Shepherd's increasingly antagonistic onstage behavior, as well as divergences between Thayil, who wanted to stick to metal, and Cornell, who would have preferred to explore new directions. While Cameron joined fellow grunge survivors Pearl Jam, Cornell released a solo album, Euphoria Morning (Number 38, 1999), on which he displayed his love for Beatlesque pop.
Thayil went on to collaborate with Dave Grohl, as well as SunnO))) and Boris. He protested at the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle along with Jello Biafra, Krist Novoselic and Gina Mainwal, in a one-off punk band called No WTO Combo. Shepherd contributed to Josh Homme's Desert Sessions, played with fellow Seattle vet Mark Lanegan and released the second Hater disc.
In 2001 Cornell began recording with members of Rage Against the Machine in a project they dubbed Audioslave. The supergroup unleashed their self-titled debut the following year and went on to release two more LPs, 2005's Out of Exile and 2006's Revelations, before Cornell split from his new bandmates, reportedly over business disagreements. Casting out on his own once again, Cornell released the 2007 solo disc Carry On, but it was his 2009 effort Scream that brought a host of attention — some of it unwanted. Cornell teamed up with hip-hop and pop producer Timbaland for the album, which critics rejected and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor criticized harshly on Twitter.
While Cornell spent much of 2009 defending Scream, rumors of a possible Soundgarden reunion began spreading. In March, Cameron, Shepherd and Thayil came together onstage in Seattle and performed a trio of Soundgarden songs during a Tom Morello solo show, with Tad Doyle stepping in on lead vocals.
Cornell finally the Soundgarden reunion on January 1, 2010, with a Twitter posting that read, "The 12-year break is over and school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!"
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Caryn Ganz contributed to this article.
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