The early ‘90s were pivotal years in music, with the rise of grunge, the demise of glam metal and, at times, an obscure vision of what rock was and where it was headed. All that changed with Soundgarden’s 1994 release, Superunknown, which brought alternative, punk and hard rock together in one seminal album. A success with fans and critics alike, the collection of songs now celebrating its 20th anniversary sounds as fresh and relevant today as when it was released.

“We didn’t sit and, like, have a band meeting and talk about reinventing ourselves,” lead vocalist and guitarist Chris Cornell explains. “We just started doing different things, all of us, bringing in new ideas and things that were a different approach. We had a big album to live up to, which was Badmotorfinger. It was an album that a lot of critics liked … but also a lot of really hardcore Soundgarden fans that had been around for a long time, that came to club shows where there were 40 people … those guys loved it. That was kind of the album they had wanted us to make for years and they finally got it.”

Commenting on the recording process, bassist Ben Shepherd says, “There’s a bunch of fragments of time where you go, ‘Wow—that’s cool.’ Like the first time Chris played us a little demo of ‘Black Hole Sun.’ It sounded completely different than how we wound up doing it, but when we first started working on it, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is cool. This is going to be a good song.’”

Guitarist Kim Thayil adds, “I think with every record we recorded, we always felt that there was something special there. There was always an excitement about the new material.” Discussing this album specifically, he says, “We have to trust our own judgment, the judgment of friends who have heard demos, and make a record that is going to be both novel, fresh for us and our fans, and at the same time, feel confident that the track selection was going to work.”

Speaking about one track in particular, Cornell says, “I remember when Ben played me ‘Head Down’ for the first time and we sat in my car and put the cassette in. And it was just on a cassette, a really rough demo he did at home. And I felt like it was one of the coolest songs that I’d ever heard. I felt like, ‘God, this must have been what Paul McCartney felt like when John Lennon brought in a song and played it for him.’ And I thought, ‘This is so awesome. This is what being in a band versus being a solo artist is all about. Guys all come together and bring in ideas.’”

Ben Shepherd discusses creating the “Head Down” demo. “I was sitting there with my old L-50 archtop Gibson. I had the headphones on and my little four-track, and I’m like, ‘That sounds great. The sound right now is perfect.’ So I just hit play and record and made up the song right on the spot—words, everything. It all just happened and then I overdubbed some horrible drums on it. And you can hear me set the headphones down and go, ‘What?’ and then I keep drumming. So when we did ‘Head Down,’ everyone liked the charm of those—[drummer] Matt [Cameron] and some other friends said, ‘Ben, you drum like someone falling down the stairs’ or something, because it was so off rhythm. So we tried to emulate that, in the studio, [percussionist] Gregg Keplinger, me and Matt playing drums. There’s three drum tracks on that to try to fake that messed-up-ness that I did on the original four-track. I don’t even remember—half was a song I’d written in case my daughter ever wanted to learn guitar.”

Cornell speaks about the album as a whole. “As soon as it was mixed and mastered, I completely switched my thinking and felt like, ‘Oh, this is amazing. I can’t believe we did this.’ And I suppose I’m still like that with everything. It’s like I’m stressing out all the time, and then when it’s all said and done, then I switch hats. Whatever that cynical and sort of overprotective person is that’s stressing out and trying to make everything perfect switches to just relaxing and listening to it, almost as if it’s someone else’s band in the can … ‘Wow, how in the hell did we do that?’”

Thayil adds, “By the time Superunknown came out, we had already had a pretty strong confidence in our abilities in the studio. Every album we’d made, we had a familiarity and a love for the material. Now we were excited to hear it for the first time on record, because the material had not garnered any response from peers, from live performances. So we’re taking a bigger risk.”

Cornell recalls, “When we were doing press on it, I think we were in New York at one of the record company offices doing interviews for three or four days in a row, and they had a listening room. And it was one of those sort of thin-walled offices where you can hear conversations in every cubicle. And so we could hear the thing playing all day while writers were inside listening to the record two, three times in a row before they’d talk to us. By day three, it had kind of changed in my imagination from our album that was about to come out, to like, something that had existed on its own and it had already taken on its own life—where I knew a lot of people were going to hear it and it was going to go on and do its own thing. And what I mean by ‘do its own thing’ is that I think songs, performances of them and particularly albums, they do have their own life. I mean, as time goes on, especially like … say new rock fans listen to this album—to Superunknown—they’re going to have a completely different list of references to kind of frame it. And it makes it a different piece of work. It makes the songs different. It makes the meanings different for this person. It makes everything different. This album and that body of work has literally its own weird Frankenstein existence that changes and mutates with time. And I think Superunknown maybe was the first experience that I had as a songwriter especially, that that’s what you do. You create these songs and these albums, and then it is your child, but it grows up like a child does, and it goes off and has a life like a child does.”

The recording process for Superunknown, the only Soundgarden album produced by Michael Beinhorn, was different for the group—particularly for Cornell as vocalist. “There were ideas that he introduced me to that I’d never done before, one of which was singing on my own. I think I did 21 takes of ‘Black Hole Sun’ and then he made this comp, this elaborate comp where he’s taking little—like, even syllables—from all of these different takes and putting them together. I listened to it and I just hated it. I was crestfallen. Singers go through all kinds of stuff like that, where you think, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t really do it,’ or ‘the song’s awful’—those kinds of things. At that point, he suggested that I just sit in a control room in the studio and record myself and just engineer it. So I started doing that and I ended up doing that on every record I’ve made since, with the exception of one, I think. It just worked well for me. That idea was like demoing at home. And I was very comfortable. I was comfortable with engineering. I would come up with ideas. Like the harmony on ‘Black Hole Sun’ that’s in there came from me just kind of sitting behind a mixing board for hours and kind of recording every little melody idea that I heard. And that was a big factor. It was probably a big factor in how the vocals turned out on the whole body of work, because I did almost all of it that way.”

Cornell gives insight on a couple other tracks. “A lot of stuff came together that wasn’t super labor-intensive. Like the song, ‘Fell on Black Days,’ we had attempted a couple of different versions of that idea, and I just had this lyrical idea that there was a mood to it and there was a story to it or an explanation to it, or an idea surrounding it. And one of the songs I wrote musically, it didn’t work. I think Kim and Ben or Ben and Matt had a musical arrangement, and I had tried a version of those lyrics to that. And with ‘Superunknown,’ I came up with a version that now everyone knows musically, and it just sort of came together.”

Speaking to one of their most well known songs, Cornell gives some history on how “Black Hole Sun” came to be. “I was driving home from a studio, and we’d been watching the news, and I heard this anchor guy say something, and I thought he said, ‘black hole sun,’ but he didn’t, he said something else. And then, as I was driving home, I just imagined what a song called ‘Black Hole Sun’ would be about. Like, ‘God, that would be a great song title. What would that sound like?’ And wrote the whole thing in my head melodically and everything, and all the chord changes and the whole guitar solo section. And had to kind of keep revolving it in my head so I wouldn’t forget it. Ran in the house and whistled all the parts into a Dictaphone so I wouldn’t forget it. And that really is how that song was written. The rest of it was just kind of fleshing out the lyrics.”

Reflecting on the impact the group has had, Cornell talks about music in a broader sense. “When I think of what it feels like to play music, I think of, in a sense, like it felt when I was a kid going into my bedroom and putting on a record, like I would imagine it feels for my kids when they’re listening to a song that they like, or even listening to one of my songs. There’s a sense of ’that’s where I belong.’ I think that that was the very first time, for sure, that I ever had that feeling.“

Shepherd also remembers his early exposure to music. “The first song I remember hearing was ‘Big River’ as done by Johnny Cash … or actually as done by my dad. And I remember shining his boots. He was getting ready to go to the base to work and he was playing an old acoustic flattop. I would crawl closer because I didn’t—I liked it, but I wanted it louder. So I’d put my ear on the guitar. I was a little kid with brand new hearing and that made that guitar sound meaner than hell. I loved it. It was like, ‘I got to play music.’ I always dreamed about it.”

Music came to Thayil by way of his father, as well. “I probably realized I wanted to be a musician, I think, sitting in the car with my dad with the radio on, driving around as a passenger.” He explains, “At a young age, I’d have strong emotive responses to pop songs, that my parents thought was really strange. Like, a certain song would come on the radio and I might start crying. Another song would come on the radio and I’d start laughing or getting more excitable. They thought it was a little bit strange. But my mom was a music teacher and she played piano, and I think she certainly had an appreciation for that aspect of music and was … I think she thought it was strange … but interesting that, at a young age, I would have responses to songs I had never heard before. Just something about the melody or the key.”

Apart from their immense talent, years of playing together and legendary songwriting that makes up the sound that is Soundgarden, the unique gear choices of each member play a part, as well. Gibson has released a pair of Chris Cornell signature ES-335 guitars, which are inspired by a few of his favorite instruments. They feature Lollartron pickups and few other details, as he explains. “I wanted clear knobs with no numbers on them, because I have a ’52 Gretsch that has clear knobs with no numbers on them that were made out of Bakelite.” Gibson was also able to come up with a color unique to his instrument that he had described to them. “They managed to sort of come up with it. And then this immediately became my favorite guitar to play because it sounded cool and it looked like I think an electric guitar should look. It should look like something that’s not really that friendly. It should look like something that’s not that easy to play, either, although these are pretty easy to play, I think. But that’s it.” He continues, “It has kind of a mid-rangy, rattley sound that cuts through a mix really well and makes, like, a riff-rock song sound like Soundgarden, as opposed to a metal band.”

Shepherd often plays one of his first basses. “That was the original bass that wrote all the early Malfunkshun songs, Andrew Wood’s old band before he joined Mother Love Bone and all that. I bought it to try out for Soundgarden. It’s like, ‘Wow! A real instrument. Oh, my God.’ You know, none of these hand-me-down, beat-up guitars that I was always playing. And I’d never played bass.”

Soundgarden’s 20th Anniversary Superunknown will be released on June 3, 2014, with two versions celebrating the album that earned the band two Grammy Awards and debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. The Deluxe Edition is a two-CD package featuring the remastered album along with a second disc consisting of demos, rehearsals, B-sides and more. The Super Deluxe Edition is a five-CD package featuring the remastered album, additional demos, rehearsals, B-sides and an additional mix of the album in Blu-ray Audio 5.1 Surround Sound. The Super Deluxe Edition is packaged including a hardbound book with a lenticular cover and liner notes by David Fricke. It also features never-before-seen band photography by Kevin Westerberg. The group may be seen live around the world as they continue their tour in support of their whole catalog of material.

Written by Troy Richardson / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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