In the early ’90s, Soundgarden was—along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains—part of the big Seattle four, previously underground bands which rode grunge to the top of the Billboard charts.
The Straight was lucky enough to land two interviews with lead singer Chris Cornell back when he was one of the most famous rock stars in America. The first came for the essential Badmotorfinger, a record that today stands as the group’s masterwork: ugly, thudding, complex, and unlike anything that had risen out of the American alternative scene.
The interview was supposed to take place by phone on a rainy Sunday afternoon in early July. The call never came that day, taking place instead a few days later. When I finally got Cornell on the phone and asked him what had happened, Cornell told me that he simply hadn’t felt like talking to anyone that day.
A couple of years later, the Straight hooked up with Cornell again, this time for its commercial breakthrough Superunknown. The singer was in a decidedly better place that day, chatty and seemingly less tortured, right until the final question, which was “Do you remember where you were when you heard Kurt Cobain died?
What followed was complete silence, after which I had to diffuse the awkwardness with “I take it you’d rather not answer that.”
Cornell died yesterday in a Detroit hotel room. Medical officials described his death as a suicide.
Here, from the Straight vaults of 1992, is the first interview for Badmotorfinger, a record that landed Cornell on the cover of Spin later that year, along with the headline The Year of Grunge.
By Mike Usinger
Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell is subdued, suffering from a nosebleed, and not at all happy to be back in his native Seattle following a lengthy stint supporting Guns N’ Roses on its European tour. He is happy, though, to have had the chance to lose himself in some Pacific Northwest wilderness before returning to the city to prepare for the band’s Lollapalooza ’92 dates—which include a sold-out Thunderbird Stadium show on Tuesday (July 21).
“I came back here and just had to get away to the mountains,” he says. “I think maybe I got a little too far away, but you’ve got to do that sometimes. You’ve got to get away from that whole media barrage we’ve been under.”
That onslaught has come from all sides—in recent months Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Tonight, and USA Today have all come looking for stories in the city where the kids smell like teen spirit and the bands are louder than love.
“What they’ve done is make the ‘scene’ a separate entity,” Cornell says. “The bands don’t matter any more.
They talk about the whole city as if it was one band, and Soundgarden is like the sax player in that band.”
Things weren’t any better overseas.
“They’re in some ways even more interested in what’s going on here, probably because they’re so removed from it. A lot of people in Europe think there are two cities in the U.S., and Seattle’s one of them. They like to call it the Seattle movement, which to me sort of describes it as some kind of a unified approach to music. It isn’t that way at all—most of the bands are either acquainted with each other or friends, but everything we do is completely separate. The bands here can’t be compared stylistically.”
You can’t blame Cornell for being annoyed. Along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden is one of the Emerald City’s crown jewels. But that’s where the similarities end between Seattle’s big three.
Soundgarden—which sometimes sounds more like core meltdown at Three Mile Island than a band—is easily the least radio-friendly. Although Soundgarden was the first band from the mid-’80s Seattle scene to sign with a major label, the masses have just recently caught on to its sonic-sludgehammer sound. And while Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s platinum albums ride high on Billboard’s Top 20 chart, Soundgarden’s gold-certified Badmotorfinger has been more of a quiet success.
Touring the U.S. and Europe with Guns N’ Roses has helped the band win some converts, but Cornell is looking for Lollapalooza to really help Soundgarden reach new people.
“When we’ve toured with Skid Row and G N’ R, we probably turned a few people on to our music, but I get the feeling at one of those shows you might snag maybe 10 percent of the people out there. With Lollapalooza, I think maybe it’s a little more our ball game. And as far as the U.S. goes, we’ll be playing to more people than we did on the G N’ R and Skid Row tours combined.”
Cornell admits he’s sick of touring, but says he gladly turned down a summer vacation to hit the road with the Lollapalooza crew.
“If you look at bands like Ministry and Pearl Jam,” he says, “we may never have a chance to tour with either one of them again, so I couldn’t pass it up. We’ve also had a chance to tour with the Chili Peppers three times in the past and we never took that, so it seems like a good idea.”
Critics may argue that events such as Lollapalooza are killing alternative music by taking bands out of smaller venues and into larger, more impersonal arenas, but Cornell sees the event more as part of an ongoing evolution in music.
“Definitely, when you get into something where bands are playing for 30,000 people, it’s not like the post-punk, U.S. independent scene. A lot of people get into alternative music as part of their identity. It’s something that isn’t the mainstream, that their brothers and sisters don’t know about and that their parents don’t like. It’s something they can have as their own. With an event like Lollapalooza, it becomes less like this little cult or club that people belong to.
“I think independent-sounding or alternative music is becoming more accepted in the mainstream. I think that’s a good thing, because it’s going to create something new. Now people will have to start looking for an alternative to alternative.”