In 2014, Soundgarden issued a 20th anniversary edition of their landmark Superunknown album. To mark the occasion, frontman Chris Cornell sat for two extensive, revealing interviews with Rolling Stone to reflect on how the record was made, his mixed feelings on grunge and where his head was at when the band was at its biggest.
At times, he was earnest, and at others he was funny. By his own admission it was the first time he’d ever seriously reflected on his past work. The band had dug up demo recordings, B sides and rehearsal recordings for the release, and they’d even played the record live from front-to-back for the first time. In the interviews, he marveled at some of the things he learned in hindsight about both the album and himself at the time.
Portions of the interviews previously appeared in Rolling Stone magazine and others online. What’s below is a supersized director’s cut of everything the late frontman had to say about a crucial time in his life.
Do you look back on the era surrounding Superunknown fondly?
I never look back, ever. I’m always looking ahead, working on the next thing. This is the first time I’ve [worked on a reissue], and it’s most interesting because when Soundgarden made Superunknown, we had been a band for a long time – like, over eight years. Superunknown was one of the most dramatic shifts in what we were doing musically. I don’t think I realized it at the time.
What did that period feel like to you then?
At the time, at least for me personally, it was a time filled with a tremendous amount of responsibility and pressure to prove who we were. We wanted to show that we stood alone and outside of what was becoming a convenient geographic group that we were inside. I never felt bad about being lumped in with other Seattle bands. I thought it was great. But I also felt like all of us were going to have to prove that we could also exist with autonomy, and we deserved to be playing on an international stage, and we deserved to have videos on TV and songs on the radio, and it wasn’t just a fad like the “British invasion” or a “New York noise scene.”
Superunknown was that for me. It was showing what we were not just a flavor of the month. We had the responsibility to seize the moment, and I think we really did.
How was it following up your third record, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, which was also your breakthrough?
Somewhat stressful but also exciting. We were doing a follow-up to a huge record and a ginormous year for our town and all of our friends’ bands, and it was really surreal for us. It was like, “Wow, all of our dreams are coming true in ways we maybe would have never expected.” We were just an indie band, and that’s what we thought we’d always be. So there was pressure. The music came one song at a time. We were not a band that would sit down and discuss a direction of an album before we started writing. We just focused on song after song, and, as we would arrange them and learn more, the album slowly took shape. Superunknown, maybe more than most albums, didn’t reveal itself to be what it was until the very end – literally until we were three quarters of the way through mixing it.
A song like “Black Hole Sun” was more mainstream or traditional than those on Badmotorfinger. Was that a concern?
I don’t know if I thought about it in that context. I had done songs for Temple of the Dog, which for me were my hobby songs – ones I had written without having a destination for them. They were in more of a straightforward blues-rock style, with traditional arrangements and obvious choruses. I had introduced that a little bit on Badmotorfinger with something like “Outshined” – it clearly has a chorus and instrumental breakdown. I think the structure happened by accident.
I think one of the bigger focuses, to me, was that I wanted to embrace the fact that all four of us would contribute music. What that meant was a little bit like the White Album, where if somebody like Matt [Cameron, drums] brings a song he demoed on guitar, why not have him play guitar? I don’t know even if that happened, but that’s what I was thinking. So it was, “Let’s try to steer more into the initial inspirations and make the song a priority.”
Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about?
As an example, I think of “Half” as one that embraced that the most, because I’m not even on it. I remember having a brief conversation with Ben about me really thinking he should sing it, because his singing on the demo was so amazing to me. The whole mood of the song was never going to be as good if he didn’t do it, and his response was, “If I sing it, and you don’t, then this is a Soundgarden song on our album that you’re not even on.” My response was, “That’s what I’m talking about. This is about the album. This is about the songs. This about the song’s best foot forward, and that should always be the most important thing.” I thought it would help us expand and push the boundaries of what Soundgarden was at the time and do it in a way we’d never done before. I think it works well on the next album, Down on the Upside, as well as King Animal; they had “anything goes” approaches.
What was your headspace at the time of Superunknown? A lot of the lyrics are dark.
I don’t know if I would say I was in a particularly dark or moody headspace more than other times. I feel the lyrics have to be born from the music. Or if I had a lyrical idea, separate from Soundgarden music, I knew if it would work with the band because it tended to reflect what the music was and what the feeling of the music was – which was usually somewhat dark and somber or moody, or over-the-top, visceral, aggressive angry.
So it wasn’t an especially dark time?
No, not that I remember. No more than usual. I think that I always struggled with depression and isolation, so those could come out. I think that the mood of Seattle to me, and the way that I always interpreted that mood was something that was always a little bit introspective and dark. And I wouldn’t say “depressing,” but introspective in a way that could be moodier and darker.
This reissue includes several versions of “Fell on Black Days,” which is pretty dark. What inspired it?
Well, I had this idea, and I had it for a long time. I’d noticed already in my life where there would be periods where I would feel suddenly, “Things aren’t going so well, and I don’t feel that great about my life.” Not based on any particular thing. I’d sort of noticed that people have this tendency to look up one day and realize that things have changed. There wasn’t a catastrophe. There wasn’t a relationship split up. Nobody got in a car wreck. Nobody’s parents died or anything. The outlook had changed, while everything appears circumstantially the same. That was the song I wanted to write about.
No matter how happy you are, you can wake up one day without any specific thing occurring to bring you into a darker place, and you’ll just be in a darker place anyway. To me, that was always a terrifying thought, because that’s something that – as far as I know – we don’t necessarily have control over. So that was the song I wanted to write. It just took a while.
The box set contains several early demo versions of songs. What struck you about them when you heard them again?
That during the demo process, I have no objectivity at all. I don’t know if something is good or bad or what it is. So it was interesting hearing how similar they were to the final versions or how they’re different – like on “Black Hole Sun,” there was one particular thing I did on the demo that I just simply forgot to do on the album version.
What was that?
There’s a Leslie cabinet [a guitar amp with a spinning speaker] I was using – a specific one – and I used it on the demo and album version, and it had a two-speed control. On the verses, it’s this very fast spinning speaker and it gives it that sound for the melody, and as the chorus hit, I would click it and the speaker would slowly slow down, so the arpeggio part of the chorus would have this sweep that’s changing speeds and slowing down throughout it, giving it this really drunken, cough-syrupy feeling that I really like. I forgot to do it.
Thinking about it later, I thought, “Wow, that really made it more psychedelic.” But then of course I thought that could have been the one element that might have changed the appeal in terms of radio programmers wanting to play it, and they all did.
Did “Black Hole Sun” feel special when you were demoing it?
No, I felt like it was a success unto myself, being a fan of music and always wanting to write a song that would make you feel like that. I wasn’t sure if it was right for Soundgarden. I’m not sure if any of us were. Everyone responded really positively to the song, but I don’t know that any of us were a hundred percent confident it should be on a Soundgarden record until we recorded it.
I don’t think any of us – including [co-producer] Michael Beinhorn or [assistant engineer] Adam Kasper – thought it would be a single. If you read the lyrics to the verses, it’s sort of surreal, esoteric word painting. It was written very quickly. It was stream of consciousness. I wasn’t trying to say anything specific; I was really writing to the feel of the music and accepting whatever came out. I don’t know what it’s about, so how is it that this large pop audience is going to listen to it and immediately connect to it? It’s still a mystery to me, kind of.
I’m sure you were happy it was a hit.
I was glad. Considering all the different songs we had, I really liked the fact that this song, stylistically, sat outside of any genre, and it wasn’t really comparable to anything anyone else was doing at the time or before or since. It seems to stand on its own. And it very much did seem to lend itself to Soundgarden. But I don’t think for one second I have the ability to sit down and write a hit song.
The song you workshopped the most was “Like Suicide.” In the liner notes, you say it kind of became a metaphor for how you were feeling at the time about late Mother Love Bone frontman Andy Wood.
Yeah, the lyrics were actually this simple moment that happened to me. I don’t know that I ever directly related it to Andy, though there are a lot of songs that people probably don’t know where there were references to him or how I was feeling about what happened with him. I just think that that was something that happened to me that was a traumatic thing and that I had a difficult time resolving it. I still never really have. I still live with it, and that’s one of the moments where maybe in some ways it could have shown up, but I’m not really sure specifically where.
You said the lyrics were literal?
Yeah, the narrative is not a metaphor. It’s a big moment that happened while I was recording the song. I had all the music and was recording a demo arrangement in my basement. And when I came upstairs, I heard a thud against the window, and it was a female robin that had fallen into the window and broke her neck, and was just laying there. I didn’t know what to do. So I ended up smashing her with a brick, putting her out of her misery. I didn’t want to sit there and watch her suffer. Then when I went back down to finish recording, I decided that would be the lyrics to the song. As much as it sounds like I’m singing about a person and the metaphor is sort of the bird in flight and then [it] dies … it was literal [laughs].
There’s a story about “Spoonman” that Jeff Ament wrote those words as one of a few fake titles on a cassette for Singles and you decided to write a song with that title. What was his reaction to you presenting the song to him?
By the time it came out, he’d already known I’d created songs out of his five titles. My first recollection of his opinion about that came from Cameron Crowe, who gave me a play-by-play of how he responded to the songs. It was just extremely flattering and warm, and I felt very supported by him. I wanted to reciprocate that; I felt like these titles were brilliant. They inspired me. 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 looked back on that moment and thought, “Maybe I should write down 10 titles and write songs to the titles and make an album.” It’s never that easy. So there was something in there. I never had a conversation about it with Jeff; I did make sure that he was thanked on the album when it came out, though.
When is the last time you saw Artis the Spoonman, who inspired the song?
During the first national Audioslave tour. We played an arena in Everett, Washington, and I invited him out. I don’t remember if he played or not. Every memory of Artis is a fond one. I have never been in a room with him when he wasn’t the center of attention. He’s a force of nature, and I’ve seen him in a lot of different situations. 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 in that the only thing I do outside of Soundgarden is this one-man acoustic show that I tour with. He was a big inspiration for me that anyone can do that. I remember sitting in a room, probably with eight or 10 people, and he walked in with his leather satchel he always carries with him and took out spoons. Everyone’s jaw dropped. I thought, “It’s amazing this guy performs at festivals, fairs and street corners.” This guy can walk into a room and get a reaction. Suddenly, I felt 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 do what he can. I can’t just walk into a room and pick up an instrument and perform and entertain everyone and their jaws drop. So that stuck in the back of my mind, and at some point I started to pursue that. He was the main inspiration for that.
You recently played Superunknown in its entirety with Soundgarden. Did you gain any new insights on the songs?
“Limo Wreck” is one we haven’t played since getting back together in 2010. It was one of those where if it were someone else’s songs, I would have thought, “God, why didn’t I write that?” or “How brilliant is that?” And it’s complicated. There’s a lot going on, and it’s in a strange tuning and there are a lot of things musically that don’t make sense; those things are fascinating to me. I was listening with fresh ears, so I was maybe not quite as cynical.
As for doing the album in context, I’d forgotten some of the songs that were on there. I’d forgotten “Fresh Tendrils” and “Let Me Drown,” which I’d viewed as an older song, came from there. Then the songs we played a lot, like “My Wave,” in the context of the album in order [were] interesting. I had a really welcome feeling that it belongs on the album; it rescues it from too much of other moods. Usually when we play it live, it’s bunched into a bunch of midtempo rockers, and it isn’t as important there.
Between Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, you cut your hair. Was that a symbolic gesture?
When I did it, I was writing songs, isolated and never left the house, as far as I remember. A blurb in the entertainment section of, I believe, Time magazine mentioned I had cut my hair. And it was a really strange thing. It would have been different had we been pop stars, but we weren’t. We didn’t even have an enormous hit. So it seemed on the one hand to show that there was something culturally valued in what Seattle musicians and bands were doing, but it seems backhanded and ridiculous that they would choose to focus something as silly as a haircut.
If you understand there’s a cultural value, why not figure out what that is? I remember seeing an interview with Mike Nesmith of the Monkees when I was probably six, and they asked him a question: “Do you think that all young people should have long hair?” And his answer was, “I think they should have their hair any way they want.” Fast forward to 1992, I was thinking news media didn’t grow at all. From ’67 to ’92, nothing’s changed. Nobody’s gotten smarter. It’s strange and funny.
People made a big deal out of Metallica cutting their hair.
Yeah, I blazed the trail for Metallica when I cut my hair [laughs]. But then they set the bar higher by smoking cigars.
Speaking of the media, what do you think about “grunge” now?
I can’t look at it as anything but positive. My view of rock history now includes grunge as a major genre shift in the history of rock, the same as you would look at punk rock or the British Invasion. And we’re clearly pioneers of that genre and are recognized as being that. When the story is told – which it will get told over and over and over and over – we will be there as opposed to maybe not being there. And that comparison could be like Jane’s Addiction or Smashing Pumpkins, for example, that won’t necessarily get mentioned when some new rock fan is researching these dramatic, pivotal moments. So for that reason I feel like whatever we had to put up with over the years: the Seattle questions and the Seattle-sound questions and the Seattle-scene questions, it’s worth it. Every time I do a Spanish interview, we still get, “Tell me about grunge.”
About a month after Superunknown came out, Kurt Cobain died. How did it color that time for you?
I wasn’t one of his close friends. Kim [Thayil, guitar] knew him better and Ben was very close with them and with him. He had toured with them early on; there was a time when he was going to be a fourth member of Nirvana, but he didn’t do it because he wasn’t really necessarily invited to write songs.
It was something in a way similar to losing Andy, or losing friends that died after that. It’s not so much the person and the relationship with them, but the creative inspiration that person has and I would get from that person. My perception of the world of music at large artistically shrank, because suddenly this brilliant guy was gone. I’m not even talking about what he meant culturally; I’m talking about his creativity. It was super inspiring from the very first demo I ever heard. It broadened my mental picture of what the world was creatively, and suddenly a big chunk of it fell off.
And that’s how you felt about Andy?
Yeah. The tragedy was much more than the fact that I would never see him again – it was that I would never hear him again. There’s this projection I had with Andy, Kurt, Jeff Buckley and other friends of mine that died of looking into the future at all these amazing things they’re going to do. I’ll never be able to predict what that is. All this music that will come out that will challenge me and inspire me – that sort of romantic, dramatic version of the perspective. When that goes away, for me in particular, it was a really hard thing. And it continues to be a hard thing.
There’s a large part of Soundgarden history, to me, that’s wrapped up in that conflict of losing these incredible creative lenses of what I imagine is this incredible, infinite world of the power of creativity. These were people, and people you could share experiences with while you’re learning what your power of that creativity is.
So part of my memory of every record, and certainly Superunknown, there’s an eeriness in there, a kind of unresolvable sadness or indescribable longing that I’ve never really tried to isolate and define and fully understand. But it’s always there. It’s like a haunted thing.
Then there were these miraculous moments existing around a similar time, one of which is Eddie [Vedder] showing up and starting a new band with your friends that just lost this amazing person and having that creative output and outpouring be so phenomenal. The degree to which it changed the face of rock music in the world is this pretty incredible thing. There were these huge, amazing ups, but also these difficult conflicts I’ve never been able to resolve.