Soundgarden: Rock's Heavy Alternative

Is there life after Nirvana for the Seattle scene? These veterans of the Puget Sound may have an answer

July 9, 1992
chris cornell soundgarden
Chris Cornell of Soundgarden performs in the Netherlands.
Paul Bergen/Redferns

"I can remember hiding from my friends in here one time," says Chris Cornell, stepping into a long, dark tunnel beneath an overpass that seems out of place in the wooded area he's been walking through. "I crawled up in that crevice and waited until they went by."

It's pitch black as Soundgarden's charismatic frontman walks deeper into the woods, the treetops blocking out the moonlight. But Cornell's customary stride – huge, clomping steps, the toes of his combat boots pointed slightly outward – makes him seem like he ought to be hacking down plants with a machete. It's clear that he's been on this path often. Soon he reaches a clearing and the bank of Lake Washington, a quiet stretch of water that filters into Lake Union and eventually – via a lock and the Puget Sound – into the Pacific. "You could get to Hawaii from right here if you wanted," says Cornell proudly, sitting down on a boulder and pointing to a spot in the water. "You'd have to have a big boat, but you could do it if you had a big boat."

It's early March, and the members of Soundgarden are home in Seattle for a week. Cornell's band mates are scattered around town tonight, but the singer, not up for anything energetic, has chosen to sneak away to this bird and plant sanctuary, known as Foster Island, and be interviewed in relative peace. At week's end, Soundgarden will leave for London to headline a month-long theater tour. With a U.S. jaunt looming after that, followed by a European trek with Guns n' Roses and Faith No More that will return the group to the States just in time to begin the Lollapalooza festival in July, this is probably the only time off the band will see until fall. But a show in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a pair of gigs at Seattle's Paramount Theater will eat up the end of the week, and most of the group's time until then will be spent with reporters – many of whom will prove obsessed with a topic the members of Soundgarden are weary of discussing.

In recent months, mainstream America has "discovered" Seattle, and Soundgarden's quaint, folksy hometown has been war-torn by a cavalcade of A&R men with dollar signs in their eyes, out-of-town musicians hoping to be anointed on the city's fertile soil and journalists hot on the trail of the Next Big Thing – most of whose hasty dispatches have compressed Seattle's rich musical history into a superficial amalgam of coffee, beer, damp basements and flannel shirts.

"It's just the way that people are perceiving the whole scene right now that gets kind of annoying," says the band's outgoing drummer, Matt Cameron. "They don't understand the history of it or the importance of it. There's this blind acceptance for any band from Seattle."

Worse, a good many of the writers documenting the scene have suffered from historical amnesia. "The only time I get real miffed," says Cameron, "is when people think of all the Seattle bands out of chronological order. We were one of the first ones to sign a major-label deal to come out of that amazingly fertile scene that peaked around '86, '87. And we were kind of the guinea pigs for what was going to happen with a lot of the other bands. And here we are – we're still doing it. But they think that Nirvana's the first band from Seattle."

Not that Cameron and his band mates begrudge Nirvana its rocket ride to the top of the charts. They are friendly with the band, expressing only pride and good wishes over Nirvana's success.

Besides, having just begun to get a taste of mainstream acceptance and its privacy-gobbling side effects, the members of Soundgarden aren't so sure they want it. All of them – and especially Cornell, who says he is prone to depression and admits to being something of a hermit – seem put off by the heightened-recognition factor. They also wonder if the intensity of their music might be diluted by mass exposure.

"Sometimes I feel like it's cheapened by the process of spreading it so thin over such a wide area," says the band's bassist, Ben Shepherd. "People want to take so much, analyzing the lyrics and trying to figure out 'Did you really mean that?' or 'You said that to me, didn't you?' That cheapens it. That makes it old. Sometimes it makes you feel like you're living in a land of cows that just don't think."

Whether they would be comfortable standing in Nirvana's shoes or not, it's understandable that the members of Soundgarden – a band whose EPs on Sub Pop have been cited by Kurt Cobain as the reason Nirvana signed with the label to record Bleach – might find all this Seattle hysteria, with its bungled chronology, a little hard to take. Contrary to popular belief, Soundgarden didn't just spring into existence after "Smells Like Teen Spirit" turned Seattle into a wanna-be stomping ground. They've been around a little longer than that. Eight years, three albums and two EPs longer, to be exact.

"There was a certain Trippy specialness, you know?" says Kim Thayil. It's the day after Cornell's trip to Foster Island, and Soundgarden's amiable guitarist is piloting his beat-up van around Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood, outlining the band's history and occasionally pointing out his old haunts. "You'd go check out all your friends, the guys in Green River and Skin Yard and the Melvins. . . . Now it's like you're on one end of the country, and they're on the other. I really miss them. I used to be able to drive anywhere and see some friend of mine, hang out. Now every time I come home, I look around and go, 'Fuck, who the hell are all these people, where'd they come from?'"

As best as anyone can tell, the seeds that would eventually become Soundgarden were sown in 1981, when Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto (who would serve as the band's bassist until 1988), living in Park Forest, Illinois, and having kicked around in local bands for a few years, graduated from Rich East, an alternative high school. Wanting to continue their educations in a similar manner, the two set out for Olympia, Washington, planning to enroll at the progressive Evergreen State College. Unable to find jobs once they got to Olympia, and admiring the crop of bands that had sprung up in Seattle, where Thayil had lived until the age of five, they moved there instead. Thayil enrolled at the University of Washington, where he eventually earned a degree in philosophy.

Probably the earliest incarnation of Soundgarden was a short-lived cover band called the Shemps, which was founded by Thayil's roommate, a guitarist named Matt Dentino. Cornell, then nineteen, had started out as a drummer, but he wanted more musical input than drummers were typically allowed. "I always figured I would just end up being such a good drummer that the best band in the world would ask me to be in it," says Cornell. "I guess I lost that attitude pretty quick." Deciding to try singing, Cornell answered Dentino's vocalist-wanted ad. When Cornell joined the Shemps, Yamamoto was playing bass; he subsequently quit and was replaced by Thayil.

"When I met Chris," says Thayil, "my first impression was that he was some guy who just got out of the navy or something. He had real short hair and was dressed real slick. He had a great voice – even though we were doing shitty material." As Thayil tells it, Dentino was "obsessed with people who died," and the Shemps' repertoire consisted almost entirely of Doors, Hendrix, Otis Redding and Buddy Holly tunes. Their only original was a snappy Dentino composition called "Marilyn Monroe" ("We're all looking for Marilyn Monroe/She's just a girl that I could go for . . . ").

Cornell and Thayil often crossed paths with Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd around this time. Cameron was drumming in a band called Feedback, which would eventually evolve into Skin Yard, and Shepherd was the guitarist for a local hardcore outfit called March of Crimes. That band's biggest claim to fame, says Shepherd, was a tape that sold a few copies in Finland. "And," he adds, "we got to meet Jello Biafra [of the Dead Kennedys] because he liked our name."

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