Considering the events of the past year, members of the Seattle rock community can hardly be blamed for feeling that success comes with too high a price. Chris Cornell, 30, the singer and principal songwriter for Soundgarden, is no exception.
Superunknown, the band’s fourth album, was released last March and entered the Billboard chart at No. 1; praised by critics as the band’s best record to date, the album went on to sell more than 3 million copies. But three weeks later, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain shot himself to death. Two months after that, Kristen Pfaff, bassist for Courtney Love’s band, Hole, died of a heroin overdose. All of which brought back memories of March 1990, when an overdose took the life of Cornell’s former roommate Andrew Wood, the frontman for Mother Love Bone.
But Cornell, a Seattle native, can remember a time when his hometown wasn’t just rock-tragedy central, before the international press latched onto grunge as a fashion statement and as a talisman for generational ennui. The youngest son in a large Catholic family (“T’m Bobby in The Brady Bunch,” he says), Cornell took piano and guitar lessons as a child but began his band years as a drummer. “It was the only thing I had an attention span for,” he says. “When you’re young, playing drums is immediately satisfying ’cause whether or not you know how to play anything, the bottom line is that you’re pounding on something, so you’re happy about it.” By all indicators the Seattle scene is over. Cornell wears his hair short now, although his signature facial hair remains, along with a silver hoop in each ear. He says that despite their recent financial solvency, he and the other members of Soundgarden have allowed themselves few luxuries apart from a brand-new rehearsal space in a former travel agency on Aurora Street with a magnificent hillside view of Lake Union. “There is no ladder up here,” he says of Seattle. “Everything is kind of parallel. You either rent the house you’re in, or you own the house you’re in. But either way, it’s the same fucking house.”
Yet Soundgarden’s history and achievements are inseparable from those of Seattle. Screaming Life, Soundgarden’s 1987 debut EP, was the second release on the influential Sub Pop label (after Green River’s Dry as a Bone), and Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil can take credit for having brought together Sub Pop co-owners Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt.
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Cornell’s shoulder-length tresses — aptly named Sub Pop hair — and Soundgarden’s mix of ’70s heavy metal and ’80s punk ushered in a new rock & roll era. Kurt Cobain would later say that Soundgarden were the main reason Nirvana wanted to record for Sub Pop. (Guitarist Jason Everman, briefly a member of Nirvana, was later a short-term member of Soundgarden.) Cornell even married within the scene; his wife, Susan Silver, once managed the U-Men, a band considered grandfathers of the local scene. Today, Silver manages Soundgarden — Cornell, Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd, who replaced original bassist Hiro Yamamoto in 1989 — as well as another hot Seattle band, Alice in Chains.
Having spent the spring and summer on the road, Soundgarden opted in August to cancel further touring plans and returned to Seattle to write and relax. For Cornell, eating appears to be a favorite pastime (he’s a sucker for raw oysters on the half shell); watching basketball is another. We spend our last night together in Seattle watching the Supersonics squeak past the Utah Jazz in the pay-per-view season opener at a friend’s house. That night a small, friendly group of musician types, including Scott Sundquist, Soundgarden’s original drummer, invests all its energies in cheering the Sonics to a narrow victory.
“For some reason basketball pulls everyone together in Seattle,” Silver, also a native, says later. “Even more than bands, more than music.”
In retrospect, what’s your take on rock’s Seattle years?
It’s hard not to be a little bitter about it. We lost good friends in the process. And all of a sudden you realize that it’s turned into something that’s considered a fashion statement. It’s like mining. It’s like somebody came into your city with bulldozers and water compressors and mined your own perfect mountain and excavated it and threw out what they didn’t want and left the rest to rot. It’s that bad.
We benefited [as a band]. We’ve made any statement we wanted to make about music and about who we are. But it doesn’t really come across in terms of what Seattle was like. All of a sudden you see it on TV, and people that you know and love are getting the wrong idea because of what they saw on the news. You can’t help but think that somewhere, somebody’s been robbed. And I don’t even think it’s me. I think it’s everyone.
You can call it being naive, but there are genuine reasons to be optimistic about doing something that you truly believe in and succeeding at it.
Sure, sure. But it’s being a part of something and then having that be dismantled in front of you and not even having the chance to have it catch up with you. We’ve always been fairly reclusive and damaged.
We weren’t so much a part of it as a lot of other bands. No one really knew us, we didn’t go to parties. But at the same time, when a lot of other bands from Seattle started having success and getting attention, we were really proud to be amongst that and a part of that. And it felt really good.
But outside of the people that were involved with the Seattle scene when it was happening, the rest of the country and the world and probably a lot of the bands that play in Seattle now think that what the Seattle scene was about is Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains — guitar-based rock with punk influences and ’70s influences. Period. End of story. And that’s so far from what was going on.
What was left out was the completely experimental music, from free jazz to theatrical bands to a lot of very Gothic-bent bands. Other people who were part of the scene that we were in, a lot of them were either exploited or fucked over by the whole thing or completely passed on because they didn’t fit into the narrow perception of what Seattle had to offer.
What happened in Andrew Wood’s case?
It’s almost impossible to say when somebody that you know dies mysteriously. But what it felt like was that somebody came into your back yard and started fucking with your scene, fucking with your people. We thought that everything could remain intact and be true to itself, then just expand out with these tentacles, and that was naive.
How close were you to Kurt Cobain?
We weren’t even really friends. Ben and he were. Ben actually toured with Nirvana as a roadie. And Ben and Kim Thayil were what I would [call] friends with him. I just met him a couple of times; we played some shows together. But what Nirvana was doing we were really proud of, and we always knew how great a band it was. We listened to their very first demos, and it was instantly our favorite band.
Eddie Vedder has taken flak for complaining about Pearl Jam’s having done so well so quickly. Is there such a thing as too much, too fast?
Yeah, I’ve learned that from those guys more than in any other way. We have a lot to be thankful for because of that. Somebody can sit at home and say, “What does this guy have to complain about?” But at the same time it’s a comfortable chair to be sitting in and make those judgments. When all of a sudden you’re successful and sought after overnight, you are instantly opened to a lot of sides of humanity that the average person is never going to see. And those can often be pretty disheartening, and it can make somebody pretty lonely.
You’re written more than a few doom-laden song lyrics. Is it legitimate to read a songwriter’s demise into his lyrics after the fact?
When Andy died, I couldn’t listen to his songs for about two years after that, and it was for that reason — his lyrics often seem as though they can tell that story. But then again, my lyrics often could tell the same one. In terms of seeing everything as a matter of life and death — if that’s what you’re feeling at the time, then that’s what you’re going to write. It’s sort of a morbid exchange when somebody who is a writer like that dies, and then everyone starts picking through all their lyrics.
In Kurt’s case, whatever he was thinking and whatever he was writing, there wasn’t an arrow pointing at what his demise was. It’s a stream of thought, it’s a possibility — it’s definitely something that somebody was feeling when they were writing. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t, either.
Do you think heroin use is more prevalent within the Seattle music crowd than it is elsewhere?
It’s a nonissue. It’s a neat story is what it is. There are so many drug problems in so many places that have nothing to do with entertainment that the focus on literally less than a handful of individuals in this city or any other or in entertainment is absurd. It’s something that people want to talk about just because it’s famous people. It’s gossip. The biggest crime is that there are people who make no money, who nobody cares about, that have huge drug problems. Maybe the people who are getting uptight about it have too much time on their hands. Meanwhile, they don’t know that cousin Mickey is strung out on heroin.
Is “The Day I Tried to Live” on Superunknown a heroin song?
No, I don’t have any heroin songs. It’s about trying to step out of being patterned and closed off and reclusive, which I’ve always had a problem with. It’s about attempting to be normal and just go out and be around other people and hang out. I have a tendency to sometimes be pretty closed off and not see people for long periods of time and not call anyone.
It’s actually, in a way, a hopeful song. Especially the lines “One more time around/Might get it,” which is basically saying, “I tried today to understand and belong and get along with other people, and I failed, but I’ll probably try again tomorrow.” A lot of people misinterpreted that song as a suicide-note song. Taking the word live too literally. “The Day I Tried to Live” means more like the day I actually tried to open up myself and experience everything that’s going on around me as opposed to blowing it all off and hiding in a cave.
You’re originally from the Seattle area. Where did you grow up?
Up the street. You take the highway up about four or five miles. It was very Seattle-ish. For lack of a better word, it was white. Urban but not really urban, suburban but not really suburbia. It was lower-middle-class white. At the time I was growing up, it was the tail end of the baby boom, so there were tons of kids in the neighborhood. Tons of boys, young and old. So there was tons of drugs. The definitive Seattle neighborhood.
Did a lot of kids in your neighborhood get in trouble?
Yeah, we all got in trouble for years. Somebody stealing a car, somebody selling drugs. We were all selling drugs by the time we were 12, or doing them. Pot or pills or anything that was easily available. My neighbors to the south had two boys who were probably in their late teens when I was about 11, and they were just huge into drugs. I remember walking by the basement window one time, and this one dude who had like huge, poofy Lynyrd Skynyrd hair and a goatee and a mustache was shooting something at me from a syringe out the window. I don’t even know what it was, but it was shooting 15 feet, and I’m walking by, trying to dodge this thing. Those were the kind of people who lived near me.
Tell me about your first real band.
I lived on Jones Street, so it was called the Jones Street Band. We rehearsed in my garage. We’d play everything from contemporary-rock shit like Rush and AC/DC to whatever punk music was at the time — the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. There were some local punk bands that we would mimic. A band called the Farts — we’d listen to their records and try to mimic them. And as a drummer I was really into the Police.
Were you still in high school at the time?
I never went to high school. I never really finished eighth grade. I was kicked out of seventh grade once and eighth grade twice. Mainly for not showing up and not doing it. Then I went to an alternative high school for part of what would have been ninth grade and part of what would have been 10th grade. It was mainly for degenerate young people. It was the last ditch for kids that couldn’t go anywhere else. The concept for me was entirely wrong because it was sort of learn at your own pace, do your own thing, and my own thing was not school. So I’d go there and not do anything at all. It was just a waste of time.
From the time that I started playing drums at 16, I was already out of school. Working in restaurants, whatever, dishwasher, floor sweeper. I became a cook eventually.
Was that a tough time? Yeah, that was the toughest time in my life.
I went from being a daily drug user at 13 to having bad drug experiences and quitting drugs by the time I was 14 and then not having any friends until the time I was 16. There was about two years where I was more or less agoraphobic and didn’t deal with anybody, didn’t talk to anybody, didn’t have any friends at all. All the friends that I had were still fucked up with drugs and were people that I didn’t really have anything in common with.
What happened after that?
I started getting really serious about music, so I started practicing and taking lessons and playing drums. After that it’s like a blur of playing. I’d look up local want ads for bands and audition and play in these bands. And every band I’d audition for and play in, I’d play in for about a week, until I thought it was bullshit.
The first band I was ever in, I sang lead vocals behind the drums, and I would get good reactions. And I started thinking, “Shit, maybe I should just try this.” I answered this ad for a singer. The leader was a pretty good guitar player, but he was basically trying to put a band together so he could play bars and make money. His friends were Kim and Hiro. So I met those guys, and we played a couple of shows. I don’t think they liked me; I definitely didn’t like them. We all quit simultaneously and didn’t talk to each other.
Then one day [the guitar player] called me up, and I mentioned that I was having some trouble with my roommate at the time. He said that Hiro was looking for a roommate. I called up Hiro, and we became roommates. He was in a band at the time, but it was breaking up, and so we decided to start a band. The first day we jammed with Kim, we wrote three songs, and the second time we wrote another five, and within two months we had 15 songs. And that’s how Soundgarden started.
What was the dynamic within the band like back then?
It was equal in terms of what we gave to the band and also equal in terms of our dissatisfaction. I think we were all very excited about what we were doing and equally critical of each other at the same time.
We got along better as musicians than we did as friends. We did hang out together when we first started out because we didn’t know each other well, and there was such a strong music scene in Seattle. But in terms of things we do for fun, we’ve always done different things. I’m not the only one who’s reclusive. Ben’s really reclusive, and there have been times when Matt and Kim were, too.
Were you able to agree on what to do musically?
No, it was all sort of tossed off each other. There were bands we liked at the time, but they weren’t Seattle bands — the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, the Butthole Surfers. And there were European bands that we liked, bands that weren’t together anymore, like Wire and Joy Division.
Were you interested in early ’70s heavy metal?
Not at all. Not even slightly.
Nevertheless, Soundgarden get compared with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin a lot.
We wrote one song called “Incessant Mace” pretty early on that sounded blues based. It was very slow. Lyrically and vocally, it was very European Gothic. But I guess because we’re American and because of our influences as kids, it sounded to people more like Sabbath or Zeppelin, and people would hate it. That was the first reaction, really: that this was the most uncool thing anyone could do at this point in music in this city. That was a turning point in our career as a band. Because we could play any atonal, post-punk, ridiculous, quirky shit, and everyone thought it was great. But we’d play that song, and it would create more of a reaction. So we started doing that more.
The song “Big Dumb Sex” from Louder Than Love got a lot of criticism when it first came out because of its chorus: “I want to fuck you.” Now that Guns n’ Roses have recorded it, do you think it still holds up as parody?
I’ve learned that parody only works if you’re “Weird” Al Yankovic and that’s what you do. But in our case people were unsure whether they should liken us to post-punk hard rock or whether we just might as well be Aerosmith. If you listen to that song, and you don’t know the band, and you don’t know that we’re joking, then it is Aerosmith.
Soundgarden played an important role in the birth of Sub Pop and vice versa. How did that happen?
Bruce [Pavitt] grew up with Kim and Hiro in Chicago. Bruce was someone that I’d take tapes to and just play them to him and say, “What do you think?” He was like an A&R guy for bands who didn’t have A&R guys, because he’d be honest with you. I’d play him something we did, and then he’d play me something he liked and say, “I think this is the best shit out there. This is what you have to live up to.”
He and Jonathan [Poneman] deserve so much credit. Jonathan was the first person to ever tell us that we could be an international act. After Susan started managing us and we had just given him the masters for our first Sub Pop release, I remember Bruce putting his arms around us and telling us that Seattle was just going to be the hugest thing — before anybody had ever suggested it. Both those guys were visionaries.
When did Susan start managing the band?
It was just before we put out the Sub Pop record. We asked Jonathan to manage us, and he declined. I was dating Susan at about the same time. But it was, like, three years into the group. Before then there was no need, really. It went from us being a local band trying to do our first indie record to major labels calling us even before the first Sub Pop record even came out.
Has the fact that Susan is both your wife and the band’s manager ever been an issue within the group?
Initially, I didn’t think her being our manager was a good idea. But everyone agreed to keep a levelheaded attitude about it. And she’s so protective as a manager that I don’t think anyone’s felt they weren’t being taken care of.
There have been situations where I get caught in the middle because Susan will be angry with the band, and I come out championing the band and getting angry with her. And there’s been situations where it’s the complete turnaround. But if I wasn’t married to her, the other guys in the band would probably have a lot easier time feeling like they could call her an asshole if they wanted to.
Do Soundgarden have groupies now?
No, we’re not very nice. We don’t encourage it at all. It makes us self-conscious. On the last dates we did, we’d always have girls sitting outside, wanting to come in. But you know what? Those are the same fucking girls that go to any show that plays the same venue. It seems strange to me, the whole idea. Fans are fans: They’ll come to your show, and maybe they’ll hit up on you when you’re going between the stage and the bus and say, “I’m a big fan and just wanted you to sign my album.” You can tell there’s something in their eyes that says, “I’ve listened to your record a million times.” Groupies aren’t fans. Groupies have some sort of self-esteem problem, but it has nothing to do with us.
So I guess you’re not a rock star.
Whatever you do and however you do it and however famous you become, you still came out of some woman. You’re still part of the human race. You’re still as much responsible for what’s going on as anybody else. If anything, you become more aware.
Is that what “Jesus Christ Pose” on Badmotorfinger is about?
No, the key word in that song is pose. That was a response to seeing a bunch of different photo shoots of models and rock stars doing the Jesus thing, posing on a crucifix. I’d seen it so much that year, and it seemed silly. It’s silly for other people to use it in some way to project themselves.
I remember a girl once came up to me after one of our shows, and she had a painting of Andy Wood on the back of her leather coat. She said, “I respect you so much for recording a tribute to Andy Wood, because he was so perfect,” and then she walked away. Why would she walk away thinking that? Out of whatever songs he wrote and how he died, how did you get that? His lyrics basically said, line for line, “I’m fucked up.” He could have written a song called “I’m Fucked Up,” and it would have basically summed up a lot of the lyrics he wrote. And this girl wanders away thinking the guy’s perfect.
There’s a line in “Black Hole Sun”: “Times are gone for honest men.” Do you really believe that?
Yeah, I do. It’s really difficult for a person to create their own life and their own freedom. It’s going to become more and more difficult, and it’s going to create more and more disillusioned people who become dishonest and angry and are willing to fuck the next guy to get what they want. There’s so much stepping on the backs of other people in our profession. We’ve been so lucky that we’ve never had to do that. Part of it was because of our own tenacity, and part or it was because we were lucky.
Are you a fatalist? Are things bound to get worse?
If you look at things realistically, yes. It’s going to get worse before it’s going to get better. A lot of people will try really hard to change that, but the world is set on a course with European culture infiltrating the entire world, the U.S. becoming this world cop and every kind of pollution and consumption that there is. And we’re citizens of the big, bad guy. We’ve set ourselves on a course — we can’t just put on the brakes.
There was a rumor recently posted on America Online in the Soundgarden folder that claimed you and Susan were having a baby. True?
No, there’s no child on the way. There was also a debate on there about which Soundgarden songs I supposedly wrote while on heroin. The big argument was not so much about whether I had ever done heroin or not — it was an argument about what songs just had to have been written on heroin. Another funny one was someone talking in the Pearl Jam folder saying that I was married to Pearl Jam’s manager, Kelly Curtis. And there is actually substantial truth to the rumor that Kelly Curtis and I are expecting a child [Kelly Curtis is a man.]
Are you at all content at this point?
No, I’m pretty freaked out about what success means. Because people treat you differently. They think because they see you on TV that you’re a millionaire, which isn’t even true. But they think you are, and they seem to dig it. They like the idea that you’re some dude that rolls around in cash in your hot tub and drives Ferraris. And they’re disappointed when they find out you don’t have a Ferrari and don’t have the kind of money that could buy a hotel.
A couple of years ago I ran into a friend of mine from high school, and he said, “Wow, I’m so glad you made it.” I shook his hand and said thanks. Then I started thinking, “What the fuck does that mean — ‘made it’? Does that mean I can just go home and pick my feet up and make as many long-distance phone calls as I want? Can I be rude to all my friends and they’ll still love me in the morning?” It doesn’t make any sense to me.
Chris Cornell, lead singer for Soundgarden, has died at age 52. Watch here.