Pop quiz: Of the four bands that embody the Seattle rock sound in the public mind--Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden--which was there first?
You win a ratty wool hat if you said Soundgarden. The quartet predated the others and has outlasted nearly all its original cohorts from the mid-'80s, when it was gathering its audience in a music scene that was energized, diverse and undiscovered.
Now, seven years after its first record, with the "Seattle sound" a dominant force in rock, Soundgarden is finally partaking in the commercial success of the movement it spearheaded. Its fourth album, "Superunknown," is by far its best-selling, entering the sales charts at No. 1 in March and remaining in the Top 10, with total sales near 2 million. The group headlines the 6,000-seat Grand Olympic Auditorium tonight.
Soundgarden--singer Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd--voices the mood of apocalyptic dread that has been embraced by rock's new generation, but with an individuality and invention that have made it the most critically favored of the Seattle bands through the years (this side of Nirvana)
In a recent phone interview, Cornell, 29, assessed the evolution of a Seattle music scene that he believes has lost its diversity and cohesion, and told how he has avoided the pitfalls that have ensnared many of his colleagues.
Question: What do you remember about those early days in the Seattle clubs?
Answer: I know that there are plenty of misconceptions about what it was like. 'Cause, really, out of the four main bands that people base the Seattle scene on, three of them weren't actually bands at all during the period of time when it was a real scene, when no one outside of Seattle knew anything about it. Bands like Alice in Chains and Nirvana came out of that. They were influenced by that. They weren't in the middle of it.
The Seattle scene at the time wasn't at all anywhere near what it's perceived as. There were a lot of different styles of music happening that weren't totally guitar-based or male-based. It was a large variety. There were as many effeminate, almost European-influenced bands as there were bands with broken guitars with KISS stickers on them.
Q: Has that changed now?
A: I still live there, but we're not playing shows in clubs with other bands every month, so I really don't know where it's at.
I do know with Soundgarden and Green River (a progenitor of Pearl Jam and Mudhoney), we had real good luck with audiences with selling out shows and that kind of thing. I think a lot of other bands at the time started kind of trading whatever it was about them that was really unique and started to drift more toward this guitar-rock kind of thing because it was working, or because all of a sudden we're getting good reviews, or all of a sudden someone from a record label is coming to look at us.
That was the beginning of the end really, I guess some sort of weird greed or jealousy thing, where people either started to dislike us because we were getting attention, or people were trying to sound like us because we were getting attention.
Q: A lot of reviews of your new album mention a Beatles influence, and Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath are constantly brought up. Is that a fair summation of your influences?
A: Most of our influences have never been cited in the press, because most of their readers don't have any idea who those bands are. Usually in a situation where somebody says Beatles or Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, they're stepping over like 15 other bands that I listened to way more than those.
Q: Like who?
A: Like the entire post-punk movement of music. . . . In the U.S., Black Flag, the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Scratch Acid, Big Black, Butthole Surfers, that kind of thing. . . . Or some of the British stuff that was happening around the same time or a little bit earlier, like Wire and Killing Joke, Bauhaus, Joy Division.
Q: What was it about that music that you responded to?
A: I never heard anything like it before. And aside from the fact that you could see those bands in small clubs all the time in Seattle when they'd come through, they were putting out records all the time. It was really exciting because you could go out and buy a new record and bring it home and it was really vital, it wasn't a reissue of some (expletive) or a record you'd heard on AOR radio 3 million times. . . . It was sort of a constant for a while.
Q: What about the emotional tone of your new album? Is it fair to characterize it as dark, despairing, apocalyptic?
A: Well, you'd be overlooking some songs if you said that. I mean, there are songs that are lighter-hearted than anything we've ever done before, like "Spoonman," "Kickstand," "Superunknown." So considering that, in some ways it's less dark overall, as a package. Previous to this, it seemed like lyrically everything was sort of that way.
I think sometimes people take aggression in music as being like visceral and almost celebratory or something, regardless of what the lyrics are saying. And the impression now, since it's not as aggressive, is that it's dark and gloomy because it doesn't have that visceral edge to it. But I'm not trying to say there isn't a bunch of dark and gloomy lyrics, 'cause I suppose there is.
Q: That tone and those sentiments have obviously struck a chord with a young audience. Is that a generational thing? Are you sharing experiences you've all grown up with?
A: It's hard to tell. It could be. I'm sure it's partly a generational thing. And then I'm sure there's more of a human part of it where it doesn't matter really what age you are. Probably what would keep it generational is that someone's interest in really loud or really aggressive music is gonna change as they get older. But lyrically I don't feel as though I'm a representative of a generation particularly. I mean I think it goes a little bit broader in terms of the human experience.
Q: Do you want to be an important band--the kind that helps an audience define itself and its outlook?
A: That's always by accident. The ones that try never seem to do a damn thing, and the ones that seem to wish it wasn't happening are the ones that make all the difference.
Q: Do you feel any pressure to be a spokesman?
A: I don't know where that pressure would come from. I'm not sponsoring Gatorade or anything.
Q: From the media? You constantly read about Eddie Vedder feeling the pressure of that role.
A: Yeah, but that's an entirely different case. That's somebody who's thrown into that position and basically titled that. If you called me that tomorrow and everyone said, "He's our man," then I'd probably feel some kind of pressure.
Q: When you see him struggling with that role, and then consider Kurt Cobain's suicide and see other colleagues of yours going through drug and other problems, how do you explain your ability to carry on without succumbing to any of that?
A: I think the core of it has to be at some point as a kid probably I became sort of defiant and sort of unwilling to be directed by anybody for any reason. I don't really listen to anything anyone says. . . . I just don't feel any pressure. Why don't I feel any pressure? I think the reason is because I don't care or even really know what other people think or expect of me, because it's never really concerned me much.*
* Soundgarden plays tonight at 8 at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, 1801 S. Grand Ave., (213) 749-5171.