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Soundgarden: Rock's Heavy Alternative

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"I was thinking, 'Okay, is this gonna be some stupid domino thing, where people think that I'm hostile toward reporters in general, female journalists in specific?'"

Kim Thayil, relaxing in the living room of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, a law student, is discussing Soundgarden's disappointing showing recently in the Media Darlings Derby. It is fitting that Thayil address the issue, since he is the band member that has been most sorely plagued by it. In a recent Spin article, Thayil was described as "hostile," "edgy," "suspicious" and "petulant." Worse, he unwittingly gave the impression of being a card-carrying sexist when, asked by the writer of the piece about hard rock's being a "male-dominated subculture," he replied with characteristic facetiousness, "As it should be – fuck, there's plenty of waitress positions open." Unfortunately, the writer thought he was serious.

There was also a nightmarish Sassy article, most of which was devoted to the band members' girl-toy qualities and the rest given over to lurid detail about what "weenies" they were to interview. (The most face-saving aspects: Cornell, who was heard at one point muttering, "This reminds me of Spinal Tap," and a piqued Thayil, who responded to yet another sexism-in-rock baiting with a philosophical lecture on the role that societal reward plays in dictating stereotypical male and female activities – and capped it with "My favorite color is red.")

"We've done interviews for years, and we've had no problems," says, Thayil. "Now all of a sudden, this weird sort of other world wants to know about us. When you're used to communicating with certain kinds of writers and you're used to being yourself, and then you get this whole different kind of animal that doesn't understand you when you're being yourself . . . It's like, they're trying to figure out about us, but they don't even know what Sub Pop is."

If the members of Soundgarden have occasionally come across as "weenies" in interview situations, it is probably because a few of them have wiseass tendencies that bubble to the surface when they are presented with less-than-challenging questions. (Asked by one reporter, "What was your reaction to getting the Guns n' Roses tour?" a deadpan Thayil responded, "It wasn't really any different from any other reaction. It was just kind of like 'Oh.'") And, although they are courteous when it's warranted, they don't bother to hide their contempt for reporters who insult them. "We're not cartoon characters," says Cameron. "I guess the audience that likes to read about rock bands tends to go for the ones that are more cartoony. I guess that makes better press than seeing some philosophical dissertation on art from a rock musician."

The band members also harbor a distaste for the mainstream media's influence on society in general – "The media is president," says a disgusted Shepherd; "I'd rather watch people" – and for the effect that it has begun to have on their audience. On many nights during their tours supporting Guns n' Roses and Skid Row, the fans of those bands sat woodenly through Soundgarden's set, only to erupt into a frenzy when the band played its MTV hit "Outshined."

"It made me hate the song," says Shepherd, "'cause it means they've been watching too much TV."

"That's what happens in a society when music is exposed and hyped one song at a time," says Cornell. "Whatever song they grab the ball and run with is the song they're gonna remember you for. There are a few songs that sound like Soundgarden in a nutshell. I don't think 'Outshined' is one of them, but that's the one all the kids cheer for. You might play a song that you feel is the best thing you've done in a while, and it kind of falls on deaf ears; then you play that song half-heartedly, and they love it. It can be depressing if you let it."

Though it's disheartening for the band members to see fans responding to the song in their set that is least representative of their body of work, Cornell chooses to see Soundgarden's growing audience within the mainstream as a challenge. "I don't have that elitist attitude that I want to handpick the people that listen to my music," he says. "And if something that I do artistically moves somebody that I wouldn't necessarily like or get along with, I think that that's great. Almost more so than somebody who's gonna agree with me."

What does he hope the band's newer fans are getting from Soundgarden? "Well, what I hope they're getting is that we're an alternative to what people would like them to listen to, that they can believe in," says Cornell. "And when I say believe in, I mean there's not gonna be a time when we're gonna be doing a Nike commercial or selling Coke to their parents because they bought the record.

"But what I know some fans get out of us," he continues, "is like 'Guys with long hair on television.' And I think in terms of little girls showing up wearing body stockings and hanging out to meet the band – it's not just girls, there are young guys who feel that way too – it doesn't matter what you're playing. Just the fact that you're on MTV, that's like this surreal transporter room into a world they can't be a part of and they're trying to get to. And in that case, we're a completely interchangeable band. We could be anybody. And that's too bad."

The members of Soundgarden have little patience for glad-handing and picture taking – something they've been called upon to take part in more often of late – and it's a safe bet that more than a few fans who've attempted to waylay them have come away with the impression that they're grouches. "That's how we come off sometimes with overzealous fans," says Cameron. "We're not the kind of band that will try to cater to everyone in our audience."

Shepherd says that he tries to give fans the benefit of the doubt, but that there are times when he assumes a mantle of unapproachability to ward them off.

"It's something to be denying people," says the bassist. "When I was a kid, I'd stick up for the underdog; if I saw some kid sitting alone, I'd go talk to him. From that, I know people all over the place, from all different walks of life. Nowadays I'm meeting strangers all the time, and that's a totally different ballgame." With a tense laugh, he adds: "I know all the people I want to know, now. I don't know if I want to meet any more people."

Cornell thinks the band's music should speak for itself. "If someone makes a great album or writes a great book or makes great paintings," he says, "and you meet that person in a hotel lobby and that person is the biggest asshole you ever met in your life, that shouldn't make you hate the book or the record or the painting.

"I don't mind if someone who I don't like likes my band," he adds. "I think that's good. But by the same token, I sure hope that they wouldn't expect to have to like me to like my music. I can assure you that a lot of those people would not like me. And the larger the audience gets, the less chance there is of them liking me."

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