Soundgarden – Grunge for a new generation
Interview done for Norway Rock Magazine together with my great friend and music nerd Geir Amundsen on the eve of Soundgardens concert in Oslo Spectrum 7th September 2013. It was the last time Soundgarden would visit Norway.
It took almost seventeen years, but finally Soundgarden was back in Norway, with a no longer quite so new record in their luggage. We had a quick chat with drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Kim Thayil just before they went on stage in Oslo Spektrum in September.
Text: Geir Amundsen & Ørjan Wremer
Photo: Geir Amundsen
– It’s been a long time since Soundgarden was in Norway last, but you were here last year, Matt? Matt Cameron (MC): -Of course, I played here last summer with Pearl Jam. So I know my way around the backstage and city! Same backstage in the same arena, we even stayed in the same hotel last night as we did last year, at the Grand Hotel on the main street.
– How does it work out to play in two such big bands at the same time? Does it happen that one band has to change their tour or studio plans because you are busy with the other? MC: – It is sometimes very hard work for me, but both bands plan so far in advance that we manage to adapt the schedules to each other without significant problems. The time when we set out on one and a half year long tours is over, now we do it a little more intensively. Soundgarden ends the European tour in a couple of weeks, and then I have two weeks off before I start a new cycle with Pearl Jam.
– Yes, Pearl Jam also has a new record underway? MC: – Yes, it has been given the title “Lightning Bolt” and will come in mid-October. At the same time, we are starting a two-month US tour.
– Doesn’t this become quite schizophrenic? MC: – Of course sometimes, but we know each other so well and everyone is such good friends, everyone wants to make this work, not only for their own band, but also for the other. And sometimes it can get a little fuzzy for me, I think I have around 200 songs in my repertoire, with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, and especially Pearl Jam likes to change the set list from night to night – preferably at the last minute before we go on – or while we are on stage!
– Was it difficult to change teams from Soundgarden to Pearl Jam in 1998? MC: – Not really, I was technically the first drummer in Pearl Jam when I participated on the Mookie Blaylock demos in 1990. And I played with half of each band on the Temple Of The Dog album, so I felt welcome amd wanted in every way . The way I played in Soundgarden was a little different from how PJ’s arrangement were, but we eventually found out what worked best for everyone in the band. And now I’m in both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, a slightly schizophrenic existence, but mostly because of the schedules, not the music.
– If you look back at the early 90’s Seattle, was it all as inflated as everyone wanted it to be? MC: – We worked a lot in the early and mid 90’s, and since the end of the 80’s, we had toured more or less constantly. I never quite got the hype around town since I was so busy. There were exciting times when Nirvana and Pearl Jam became popular, and that we eventually also got the popularity and record sales we deserved. It was fun to see the mass of the audience getting bigger and bigger as we sold more records, and not least to see people digging our music. It was a good time to be in a band that got to play all over the world. Now Seattle is not such a good place to start a new band anymore, the label grunge still exists, and is automatically put on bands that play rock and come from Seattle.
(Then guitarist Kim Thayil – KT – rolls in the door and throws himself down on the sofa)
– When did grunge die? KT: – When Nevermind took off like a rocket in 1991/92, and Pearl Jam followed up with Ten, it was already then a feeling that things had started to go downhill. Don’t get me wrong, I love both “Nevermind” and “Ten”, and I think Soundgarden still delivered the goods, but the imitation bands had already started to make time on MTV. I will not throw too much shit about other bands, they had good musicians and good songs, but they were more oriented towards MTV and radio than we were. Grunge died as a cause of homogenization of hard rock, and grunge in particular, but there were other things that affected this. Kurt Cobain packed his suitcase for good, Alice In Chains faded with Layne Stayley`s drug use, and we left the scene in 1997 after being totally burned out and tired of each other. When the original bands fall apart, you are left with the bands that were most interested in money, and they were straight forward conformist boy bands that aimed for the lowest common denominator in the music to sell as many records as possible.
– Do you feel that there are many bands that imitate Soundgarden?KT: – Bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana have for obvious reasons more imitators than we have, there is more gold in those mountains there. There are some bands that have tried, but I think our music is stranger and weirder than most others, and thus harder to imitate. Plus there are few people with the vocal cords of Chris Cornell.
– But for Soundgarden, this is their first European tour since 1996?KT: – No, we were still away here last year – I think we were in Europe three times between May and October. MC: – No, that’s right, last year we mostly only played festivals… KT: – Yes, with a few own concerts. So yes, it’s the first European tour in seventeen years.
– First visit to Norway at least. MC: – We played at Sweden Rock Festival, and it was fun! With Candlemass and Mastodon and a few more of our favorite bands… KT: – Like Night Ranger and Sebastian Bach, haha!
– Yes, they have a happy mix of hard rock bands from the 80s and 90s. But the Oslo concert is the third on the European tour. How has it been so far? KT: – Brilliant! Surprisingly enough, considering that we are still struggling with jet lag and are completely out of the circadian rhythm. It takes time – I tend to use a couple of weeks before I’m on the schedule. MC: – Bummer, because in two weeks we will go home to the USA, and then you have the same problem in reverse!
– Which audience does Soundgarden draw at its concerts as of 2013? Is it the old grunge fans from the 90’s, i.e mainly guys in the 40’s? KT: – And your children! Those who grew up with their parents playing “Badmotorfinger” and “Ten” and “Nevermind” are now over 20, and get the chance to see these bands that they have heard all their lives. And there are also many young musicians who come to see us – those who stand and stare at our hands while we play. At least I guess it’s musicians. We probably had the same look even when we went and looked at our heroes, like Hendrix or Deep Purple. MC: – Yes, some younger people who have discovered us via the record collection of father or big brother, but also some who are older than ourselves, old fans who still have a nostalgic affection for us. So a little of both.
– Both those who come only to hear the radio hits from the 90’s, and the hardcore fans who want it as obscure as possible? MC: – Yesterday there was a large group of überfans right in front of the stage who went crazy and sang along no matter what we played, while further back sat a bunch with their arms crossed.
– Those who just waited for “Black Hole Sun”? KT: – Haha, yes, the four minutes that save their whole evening! But it’s okay, all that is part of the concert world.
– So how do the songs from the new “King Animal” fit into the set list? Are they well received? MC: – Yes, I think they slip right into this year’s setlist because they change a little character when they are played from the stage. Often a little faster, the guitars are louder than on the record, and the audience also gets the visual aspect that they have not had on these songs before. So at least it feels like they are well received. We play “Non-State Actor”, “By Crooked Steps”, “Been Away Too Long”…KT: – “A Thousand Days Before”, “Taree”… MC: – The first four songs on the album, in fact! KT: – Of course we get a more enthusiastic response to the more famous songs, such as “Rusty Cage” and “Spoonman”, but it is completely logical – these are songs that fans associate with something. They may have driven in their first car while listening to these, or were with their first girlfriend. MC: – But I always get very happy when we get requests for “Hunted Down” or “Ugly Truth” – songs from our first two or three records – from younger fans who were not even born when these records were released.
– Did you actually open yesterday’s concert in Stockholm with «Flower»? KT : – Yep!
– Quite daring! On the way here we discussed whether it was a printing error or not! But you have previously been quoted as saying that you had everything to lose by making a new record. KT: – Not exactly everything to lose, there is at least a certain risk associated with a new record. If a fan has completely canonized Soundgarden’s entire album catalog, and praised these records for twenty years, then it can at least disturb his impression of the band if there is suddenly a new record he has to deal with. With a dozen songs that he basically has nothing to do with.
– Did you consider just touring when you got together again, and not make a new record? KT: – Well, what would the fun be with that? Personally, I struggle to have respect for bands that choose the easy solution, to just rest on their old laurels. Those who only play festivals and casinos in the United States and make a lot of money from it.
– I spoke with Vivian Campbell from Def Leppard yesterday, and he defended exactly that by saying that no one is interested in hearing a new record from them, they lose money by going to the studio and releasing a new record, it no longer sells. MC: – I understand that way of thinking too. Our good friends in Faith No More did about a hundred concerts when they got back together a couple of years ago, and then they decided not to make a new record. So I can certainly respect that attitude of a band like them, but we decided to choose the creative path. This is what a band does; record records and do concerts. KT: – And in this band we have four guys who constantly write songs. Okay, if you do not feel like you have anything sensible to come up with, but we need an outlet for our creativity. Chris (Cornell, vocals) is extremely productive, just look at his solo records. MC: – And Ben (Shepherd, bass) has also just released a solo album. KT: – And you, Matt, throw in some songs here and there. So when we have the opportunity, we have the inspiration and creativity, then Soundgarden is our natural collective outlet. Faith No More I know has a completely different dynamic, a different way of making music. MC: – Yes, I do not want to put them in the firing line here, but they are a band I respect deeply even if they choose not to take that chance of ruining their legacy by releasing a record that may not be as good as the records they are loved for.
– But does this mean that we can expect more new studio records from Soundgarden? KT: – Definitely! I do not think it would be fun if we just toured and play old songs. I mean, we started in 1984 and released our first songs on a compilation album called “Deep Six” two years later, and our first own album “Screaming Life” on Subpop towards the end of 1987. And in those three years we hung close together, we did nothing but rehearse, write songs, drink beer and play occasional concerts. We recorded songs in the rehearsal room, listened to the cassette, made improvements, re-recorded it and listened to the cassette again… MC: – We were just like all other bands, who walled themselves inside their own garage and stuck their heads together to create something new and unique together. And that is where we are still mentally, creative and ready to go!
– Is not it a wonderful feeling to have, when you have now reached our age? MC: – I think we are older than you!
– Well, now I was just being kind here, but to still have this creativity and hunger when you have turned 50 – and know that you could draw as many, or more spectators at the concerts even if you had not released anything new? MC: – Yes, I think we will always have that, even though we have now become mature and respectable gentlemen, haha. I have a family now, and they are my first priority, but it is wonderful to have this musical family as an outlet for the creative urge. It’s a great job to have!
– So what are Soundgarden’s plans for 2014 and beyond, now that you will soon end the tour? KT: – We all have four other obligations in the immediate future, so we will probably not go straight to the studio to make a new record right away. But we have a catalog with records to take care of – our releases on Subpop in the 80’s have been unavailable for many years, so the EPs “Screaming Life” and “Fopp” will be re-released in November, on both CD and vinyl. We want to remix the debut album “Ultramega OK” and have it re-released. And I know the record company is talking about releasing DeLuxe versions of “Badmotorfinger” and “Superunknown”, maybe with a DVD or some live songs. And since 1995, I have threatened to collect all the B-sides and release them on a separate album together with some unreleased songs, we have more than enough material to take away to fill an entire, new Soundgarden album. Songs like “Cold Bitch” and “Birth Ritual”…
– What do you think of Johnny Cash’s version of “Rusty Cage”? MC: – I could hardly believe that it was true when I heard that he had recorded one of our songs – it is not exactly a logical song choice! But it was of course a great honor to be covered by a legend like Cash, and his version made the lyrics much clearer, and made people listen to the song with new ears.
– We have hidden the serious and existential question in the end. How many times did you have to film the closing scene, where you turn on the Segways, in the (funny and Dave Grohl-directed) video for “By Crooked Steps”? KT: – Haha, it did not take as long as you would think. But we struggled a bit to get it synchronized, because Matt never managed to turn in the same direction as the rest of us. If you watch the video, you see Chris and Ben and I turning left, while Matt repeatedly turned right, so the final version is cut together from several attempts.
MC: – That’s not how I remember it. But it was fun to work with Dave Grohl – and I was dead tired in my legs afterwards.
First published in Norway Rock Magazine # 5/2013