Soundgarden: Into the Unknown

Soundgarden explore rock & roll's heart of darkness

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS684 from June 16, 1994. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

"There's one," says Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd. "Look at that guy with those two huge surfboards of bread." Most Americans driving through Paris would probably be craning their necks for a glimpse of some historic landmark right about now, but the members of Soundgarden are too busy scanning the horizon for stereotypical French people. The subject came up a few moments ago — thanks to the Old World picture presented by a craggy-faced gentleman who was watching the street from a window, eating his supper from a tin can — and it will be forgotten just as quickly. These are the sort of low-key observations that consistently keep Soundgarden in stitches and leave everyone around them wondering what's so funny. Nobody, they say, ever understands their sense of humor.

Soundgarden's tour bus lumbers on through Paris' red-light district en route to a show at the Elysee Montmartre, an old ballroom a few blocks away from the Moulin Rouge. It's April 8, and the band members have every reason to be exhausted. They spent January and February touring Australia, Japan and New Zealand; this European leg began in early March, and there's still a week to go before they return home to Seattle to rest up for a U.S. summer tour that begins on May 27. To make matters worse, a couple of them are still nursing hangovers from last night's festivities in Berlin, and some overzealous schmo with a jackhammer materialized outside their hotel at 6 this morning.

Still, Soundgarden are in good spirits. There's a bit of grumbling about the Cyclopean dentist's drill that interrupted their sleep, and Chris Cornell, Soundgarden's perpetually sleepy-looking frontman, is in I-don't-wanna mode, pestering the band's tour manager, D.C. Parmet, with a half-joking Top 10 list of reasons the band should cancel tonight's show. But otherwise, it's business as usual.

Almost. Though it's only sound-check time, 50 or 60 fans have already gathered outside the Elysee Montmartre; they're visible as soon as the bus rounds the corner. Lately, fans have been kicking up more of a fuss when the band is in their midst, and it's a ritual the members of Soundgarden find a little disconcerting.

"It can be pretty embarrassing," says Soundgarden's drummer, Matt Cameron, whose even-keeled disposition invariably prompts journalists to describe him as happy-go-lucky — a tag he says he's tired of. "It's something I don't feel worthy of. And it's probably gonna happen more now, on a larger scale than it ever has. I can normally get away with it 'cause I blend in. But Kim [Thayil, the band's guitarist] gets recognized instantly, and he feels kind of uncomfortable about it. And with his personality, it just magnifies it tenfold."

Thayil is something of an endearing curmudgeon; he always seems happiest when he's got something to grouse about. He's also probably the most paranoid member of Soundgarden — a trait he says has been with him since childhood.

"I just don't trust people that much," says Thayil. "In school, if someone did something bad in class and the teacher wanted to know who did it, I was always the kid whose eyes started shifting around: 'Maybe it was me, was it me? I don't think I did it, but maybe it was me.' She keeps looking at me. 'Fuck, I did do it, she thinks I did it....'"

Thayil normally tries to sidestep large groups of autograph hounds, but today, the guitarist steps off the bus and runs the gantlet with aplomb, even stopping to snap pictures of the boisterous throng with a disposable Kodak. Of the four, it's Shepherd who most looks as if he'd like to be invisible when the gathered mob starts screaming. The lanky bassist — a punker to the core who's weirded out by all manner of fandemonium ("Just skip my section of the article," he instructs. "That'd be cool.") — takes huge, quick strides toward the door of the club, unable to suppress a mortified smile. Inside, when he's asked if he'll ever get used to this kind of commotion, Shepherd shakes his head. "No way," he says, laughing.

It's been 10 years, four albums and three EPs, and mainstream-rock fans have just opened their arms — and their ears — wide enough to embrace Soundgarden's distinct brand of bombastic psycho-delia with the same fervor they've shown the band's Seattle brethren in recent years. The object of all this affection is Superunknown, a 70-minute, 15-song opus that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart on March 19 and has been hailed by fans and critics alike as the best record of Soundgarden's career.

"That's the ultimate compliment and the ultimate insult," says Cornell with a smile. "It makes you feel good to hear that, but at the same time, it's kind of like 'Oh, so our other records sucked?'"

Once Soundgarden are inside the Elysee, there's a frustrating development: a decibel-level law of which they weren't aware. Before they make it a few bars into "The Day I Tried to Live," a track from Superunknown, their soundman informs them that they've already exceeded the limit. Bummed, they finish their sound check and move to an upstairs room to eat.

Before long, the doors of the Elysee have opened and Tad, longtime friends of Soundgarden and the only Seattle band that can boast a frontman (the elegant Tad Doyle) as heavy as its sound, are bulldozing their way through their opening set. By the time they're through, they haven't been hampered by the decibel limit at all, but when it's remarked that they sounded pretty loud, Shepherd just laughs. "Not loud enough," he says.

Backstage in Soundgarden's dressing room, Cornell, who has discovered the goof value of baiting the local fans in their native tongue, is brushing up on his French. During a club show in Dusseldorf, Germany, earlier in the tour, Cornell mastered "Take off your pants" in German. (Many in the crowd eagerly complied; Thayil says several drunken U.S military officers spent the evening crowd-surfing in their boxer shorts.) Now, Randy Biro, Shepherd's bass tech and Soundgarden's resident French tutor, slowly repeats phrase he's teaching Cornell.

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From The Archives Issue 83: May 27, 1971