Chris Cornell Looks Back on 20 Years of Soundgarden's 'Superunknown'

The singer-guitarist on how the real "Spoon Man" changed his life, his relationship with Nine Inch Nails and what grunge means two decades later

Chris Cornell of Soundgarden performs
Paul Bergen/Redferns
Chris Cornell of Soundgarden performs in Landgraaf, Netherlands.
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"I never look back – ever," Chris Cornell says. "It wasn't until we did this reissue that I realized, for me, how good it is to look back."

Twenty years ago, Cornell and his Soundgarden bandmates released Superunknown, their fourth album and only Number One, just as grunge was reaching critical mass. Now they're celebrating the anniversary with a lavish deluxe reissue, which contains dozens of demos and B-sides to accompany hits like "Black Hole Sun," "Spoonman" and "Fell on Black Days," and a performance of the album in full in New York in advance of their tour with Nine Inch Nails this summer. We caught up with Cornell to find out what it all means to a man who doesn't like nostalgia, as well as his thoughts on the Seattle scene now and Kurt Cobain, for the issue of Rolling Stone on stands now. Here is the rest of what he had to say.

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You recently performed Superunknown in full at South by Southwest. What did you learn from the experience?
It brought me back in time to that specific moment of making the record. As a band that's been around for a while – since '84 – by the time we made Superunknown, we had a long history, a huge repertoire and a lot of different musical styles going on. So even though we wrote this album that was epic in length, we played maybe half of it live. It was interesting to concentrate on those songs. I felt like we made a bigger leap from [our 1991 album] Badmotorfinger to Superunknown than I was aware of before.

What song made you think that?
"Limo Wreck" was one of those songs where, if it were someone else's song, I would've thought, "God, why didn't I write that?" It's a complicated song. There are a lot of things musically working together that don't make any sense that shouldn't work really, but they do. Those things are fascinating to me. And doing the whole album in context, I'd forgotten that some of the songs that were even on that album. I had forgotten "Fresh Tendrils" and "Let Me Drown" came from there. So it's been interesting.

Why not play Superunknown in full on your summer tour?
Well, we're still considering it. There are a couple more shows where we will play the whole thing. Really, we could choose to do that at any one of these Nine Inch Nails dates at any time – or the whole thing. You never know [laughs].

When you listened to the demos included on the reissue, did anything surprise you?
On the rehearsal for "Black Hole Sun," I did something I really liked but forgot to do it on the album. I was using a spinning speaker for the guitar part, and on the demo, I would slow it down in the choruses. It gave it this really drunken, cough syrup-y feeling that I thought it made it more psychedelic. But if I did that on the version that came out, maybe that would have changed its appeal in terms of radio play.

"Black Hole Sun" won you a Grammy. Did you know it was going to be a hit?
No, I felt like it was one of those songs where it was a success unto myself, but I wasn't sure that it was right for Soundgarden. I don't think anyone in the band thought it would be a single. If you read the lyrics, it's very surreal, esoteric word painting.

When you were working on the movie Singles, Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament wrote five song titles on a cassette and you wrote songs around them. One of them "Spoonman." What did he think of that song?
Cameron Crowe gave me a play-by-play of how he responded to the songs, and what he said was just extremely flattering and warm. I never would have written that song or the other four songs that were part of that if the titles weren't compelling. Many times since then, I've thought, "Well maybe I should just write down 10 titles, write songs to those titles and make an album." And it's never that easy. So there was something in there to those titles, and I felt like he understood that it meant that to me. But you know, he's somewhat reserved. We never had a conversation about it. I did make sure that he was thanked on the album when it came out though, so it was specifically understood that that title came from him, and I was singling him out to be thanked for it.

When was the last time you saw the song's namesake, Artis, the "Spoonman"?
Probably the first national Audioslave tour. We played an arena that's in Everett, Washington, and he was there, and I invited him out. I don't remember if he played or not.

I have never been in a room with him when he wasn't the center of attention. I've seen him perform in front of seven people in a room and 10,000 people. I've seen him in a hospital bed right after he had a heart attack and listened to his stories. He was always an amazing person to be around.

He also changed my life. The only thing I do outside Soundgarden is a one-man acoustic show, and he was a big inspiration for that. I remember sitting in a room, with eight or 10 people, and he walked in with this leather satchel that he always carries and took spoons and stuff out of it. And everyone's jaw dropped. I thought, "This guy can walk into a room and get that reaction." And I suddenly felt kind of embarrassed and smaller, 'cause I felt like I call myself a singer, a songwriter, a musician – and I've sold millions of records and toured the world – but I can't just walk in a room, pick up an instrument and entertain everyone and their jaws drop. That stuck in the back of my mind, and at some point I started to pursue that.

Have you ever told him how he inspired you?
No. I didn't start doing that until the last couple years, and I haven't seen him.

You cut your hair between Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, two years before Metallica. Did you get the same sort of flak for it that they did?
At the time, I never left the house as far as I remember. But a blurb in the entertainment section of Time magazine mentioned that I cut my hair. It would have been different had we been pop stars, but we weren't. But yeah, I blazed the trail for Metallica by cutting my hair [laughs]. But then they set the bar higher by smoking cigars.

You're touring with Nine Inch Nails this summer, and Trent Reznor called your last gig together, in 1994, a "professional showdown." Have you ever felt rivalry with him?
No. What Nine Inch Nails was doing was very different than what we were doing. If there was competition, maybe it was on the charts but not really.

How do you feel about being lumped in the "grunge" genre 20 years later?
We're clearly pioneers of that genre. So imagining that we weren't part of it, if we were from somewhere else, when that story is told we would not have been part of it. That comparison could be Jane's Addiction or Smashing Pumpkins, who won't necessarily get mentioned when some new rock fan is researching these dramatic pivotal moments. So for that reason I feel whatever we had to put up with over the years, all the Seattle questions, it's worth it.

After the tour, what's next for Soundgarden?
Literally, in the last couple days, I started coming up with ideas for songs for a new album. I can't describe the direction it's taking, though. There's no album we've ever made where I would have been able to describe a direction it was taking while making it. Like Superunknown, I understood what it was near the end. King Animal [Soundgarden's most recent album] was that way, too. I really didn't understand the personality of the record until it was almost finished. Then I thought, "Oh, it's this. Awesome."

From The Archives Issue 1210: June 5, 2014