Sleepless in Seattle: Looking back at Soundgarden's Superunknown

Chris Cornell onstage in Vredenburg, Utrecht, Netherlands, 6th April 1994
Chris Cornell onstage in Vredenburg, Utrecht, Netherlands, 6th April 1994
(Image: © Paul Bergen \/ Getty Images)

It begins with a simple question. On the line is Ben Shepherd, bassist with Soundgarden, and a man whose speaking voice sounds like Tom Waits were his batteries running down. With a truck driver’s abruptness and heavily creased look, ‘rustic’ would be a good word to describe him. This evening Shepherd is on the stump to talk about his band’s fourth album, the timeless Superunknown, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. I ask him what it is he hears when he listens to the album now.

“I’ve never listened to it,” Shepherd says in a voice that sounds like a heavy door slowly creaking shut.

Right. What?

“I’ve never listened to it. I turned my back on it.”

Okay. And why did you do that?

“Because it went to number one. I thought, Oh crap, we’re now one of those bands. Fuck everything,” he says. When Shepherd says this, he sounds not like a well-cossetted rock musician who has earned significant wealth from his trade, but rather like his younger self: a man whose band were once signed to Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s avowedly do-it-your-fucking-self label SST, and who has never risen above this station.

“I don’t like the production of that record,” he says. “I don’t like how it sounds. I don’t like how it looks. If people like it then I’m flattered and I’m honoured and all that ‘make people happy bullshit’. But, for me, when an album is done, it’s done, it’s time to move on to something else.”

Here – and there is a reasonable chance that he knows this – Shepherd is talking out of his hat. Even before the passage of time had enabled listeners to properly separate the wheat from the Weetabix of the rock music released in the 1990s, it was obvious that Superunknown was the most exceptional offering from a band whose overall body of work is rarely less than exceptional. Painted on a canvas that may as well have been hung on the side of a 15-storey apartment building, the 16-song set cruised from the impossibly claustrophobic (Limo Wreck, 4th Of July) to the oddly anthemic (Superunknown, Black Hole Sun) to the downright playful (Kickstand). The album – as Soundgarden themselves would never dream of putting it – exploded into the sky, debuting at No.1 on the US Billboard Hot 200 chart and going on to sell more than five million copies in the US alone.

“Musically we were ready to try on a lot of new clothes, in a sense,” says singer and occasional guitarist Chris Cornell, a man whose squeeze-my-lemon looks and captivating voice gave his band an organic, classic rock quality. “Although we had only been known internationally for a couple of years, we had been a band for quite a long time by that point. So we needed to express ourselves differently… And for me personally, I finally had the tools to take the music I heard in my head and express it in the way that I really wanted to.”

The album that would elevate its creators to much the same level as some of the bands they initially influenced shimmered into view in increments, the fragments of which can be traced back well before its release in March 1994. Four years previously the group were riding on the Santa Monica Freeway when the radio station KROQ tossed Get On The Snake on to the air. The song was from the group’s second album and major-label debut Louder Than Love, as gnarled and testing a record as Soundgarden would ever make. Cornell couldn’t believe that his band were being played on a mainstream US rock station. He was also struck by how at home the song sounded on the radio, even though “it was different from everything else that was being played”.

Of course, this was at a time when the tectonic plates beneath the very foundations of modern rock music were soon to buckle and crack. The site of all this activity was not located on the San Andreas fault, but the hitherto unheralded and charmingly rain-soaked North-Western city of Seattle. Before you could say ‘the times they are a-changing’, Soundgarden had been joined at the major label table by fellow Seattle-ites and kindred spirits Mother Love Bone, Alice In Chains, Nirvana and, later, Pearl Jam. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic claims that it was Soundgarden’s decision to sign with A&M Records – and the advice given by the latter’s then-manager, Susan Silver – that had given his own three-piece group the confidence to sign with the Geffen label.

And then it all happened. Within four weeks of each other, Nirvana released Nevermind and Pearl Jam unveiled Ten, and suddenly scores of well-groomed hard rock and metal bands found that overnight their futures had been cancelled and their pasts negated. With what was at the time almost a footnote, on October 8, 1991 Soundgarden released their third album, Badmotorfinger, a record that, despite paling in comparison to these other two albums, would sell more than a million copies in America.

Suddenly – and it really was very sudden indeed – it wasn’t so much a case of the Jet City being placed on the map, but rather there no longer being any maps at all, just a handwritten sign that pointed to one destination: Seattle.

“When Nevermind came out and Ten came out, this was the year that we released our fourth album,” says Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil. “We’d been a band then for seven years. We’d toured the country more than once in a van. So I think we definitely did look at those albums and think, well we’ve definitely paid our dues, so it would be nice if we had a bit of that actual success rather than just critical acclaim, you know? At the time, we were getting by pretty much on positive [press] reviews alone. It would be nice to be able to buy a home, I remember thinking, because at that time I was living in the same place that I lived in when

I went to college. That kind of security would make the emotional and musical investment worthwhile.”

Cryptically, Cornell describes the writing process for Superunknown as being “as easy or as difficult as we wanted to make them”. Writing sessions began after the band’s appearance at 1992’s Lollapalooza tour. The process was reactive, rather than mapped out in advance.

“We’d listen to the material we’d gotten together and then analyse what we had, what we felt about it and what it said about where we were as a band,” says Thayil. “Nothing was premeditated. We weren’t the kind of band that talked about that kind of stuff.”

“I can’t say that we knew that what we had was significant in a wider sense,” says Cornell, “but I think we knew that what we were writing was different from what we’d done before. I knew that internally we were now really stretching our limbs.”

Recording sessions for the album began at Bad Animals Studios in Seattle in July ’93 and ran for almost three months. In an effort to fully re-imagine their sound, the band took the unusual decision to record each track one at a time. It was an exacting process. And in order to help shape their material in the unforgiving confines of the studio they enlisted the services of a producer whose pursuit of specific sounds for certain songs was recognised as being relentless.

Michael Beinhorn began his musical life as a musician in the 1970s. As a producer he made his bow with the great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, and by the time Nirvana had rerouted the musical A To Z, he had worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soul Asylum, among others.

“To me, Beinhorn was an innovator,” says Ben Shepherd – this despite the bassist claiming to dislike the sound of Superunknown. “He totally thought outside of the box. Then again, I’d just go in there, record my parts and then leave.”

Kim Thayil remembers the recording experience rather differently. The guitarist says that Soundgarden “were strong-headed enough not to do anything that we didn’t want to do”, and so Michael Beinhorn’s reputation as “a taskmaster wouldn’t really have worked with us because we would have stood up to that. He wasn’t a drill sergeant, but he could certainly be a monumental pain in the ass. If he got us motivated he did so by being the flea on the elephant’s bum.”

For example?

“He was difficult because he’d want us to repeat things over and over again, whereas we wanted things to be fresh; we certainly didn’t want to beat something to death. I remember I played the main riff to Limo Wreck for about two or three days, over and over again, trying to hone it down and to get the sound right. Now as far as I’m concerned, he’s the engineer, so he can be concerned about the sound. If he’s having me play a riff over and over again for three days trying to get a good amp sound, then he’s wearing out my fingers in order to impress his ears.”

In the intervening years other stories of complications of a different kind have leaked into the public domain. Several years ago, Cornell revealed that he was “drunk” for the recording of Soundgarden’s final two albums. On hearing this today, Thayil says: “Chris said he was what? Drunk?” in the same way he might say: “Chris said he was a sabre tooth tiger?”

“Alcohol was never part of our creative process,” says Cornell. “It was never an inspiration for writing songs. If anything, it slowed us down. But if a song was written, then I might get drunk in the studio. There is the thing of making things as difficult for yourself as you can. You still triumph, but if there’s no impediments in the way then sometimes you don’t really get a sense of achievement out of it. So making things difficult for ourselves was definitely something that we did.”

If Cornell – or any other member of Soundgarden, for that matter – was blind drunk during the recording of Superunknown, it doesn’t show. Mixed by Brendan O’Brien, it was unveiled to the rest of world on March 7, 1994 and a day later in the US. Reviews were effusive, and advance chatter volcanic. Better yet, in the three years that had elapsed since the release of Badmotorfinger Soundgarden had been the beneficiaries of that most precious of things: word-of-mouth buzz. The ground, clearly, was prepared for the eruption that followed. Within seven days the album was the most sought-after property in America.

For all their achievements inside and outside of the studio, there was a nagging doubt at the heart of Soundgarden. The profile of other bands from their home town both lessened and enlarged the impact of Superknown’s success.

“There was an impact that the record had that was definitely piled on top of all the other success stories that were coming out of Seattle at that time,” says Thayil. “We felt that what was good for Nirvana was good for us. Without that context, whatever success Superunknown would have had would have been more personal. But because of that wider context, it made the success a lot bigger, but also in some ways a bit smaller, if that makes sense.”

A corollary to this was a city-and movement-wide uneasiness regarding the pursuit of commercial success. This was a musical first. The alternative generation of the 1990s was a movement ridden with guilt. And despite the fact that Superunknown utilised the marketing and promotional tools of the day with some panache – with videos for the album’s five singles (most notably the magnificently creepy clip for Black Hole Sun) being shown on heavy rotation on MTV – this was a concern from which Soundgarden were not excused.

“It was the first time that successful bands became very self-conscious about what success would mean for them,” says Cornell. “We felt as if we had to explain ourselves. We came from a world where commerce was frowned upon and where it seemed that there had to be some of kind of deception involved in getting mass amounts of people to buy your music. That was the world that we hated. But not just that, we took a platform on the fact that we hated it, as in: ‘Look, we hate this – we hate commercial music.’ And then we became that thing. So now what do we say? That we were liars? It was a moment of crisis, although I think it was less for us because we weren’t a band that had had overnight success.

“But we toured with Guns N’ Roses, and saw what the ultimate end result of that kind of thing could be. And that wasn’t something we were comfortable with. It wasn’t something we aspired to; we were self-conscious on stage in a 60,000-seat stadium.”

But then everything changed again. Just a month after Superunknown had been introduced to its waiting public, Soundgarden were in Paris, on tour with another Seattle band, Tad, when their tour manager took a call from their then-manager Susan Silver relaying the news that Kurt Cobain had called time on the alternative movement by firing the finishing gun. What followed, according to Chris Cornell, “was a strange and emotional night”.

And that, really, was the end of that. On an individual level Soundgarden would continue apace, releasing one more album, Down On The Upside, in 1996, before disbanding the following year (they re-formed in 2010 and released the excellent King Animal album in 2013). But the passion and energy of the movement as a whole had been sucked from the room. Within months of Cobain’s suicide, listeners signalled a weariness with the tone of despondency inherent in much alternative rock. This they did by voting into power a related yet fundamentally different movement, spearheaded by Green Day.

What remains is music that has aced the test of time. Of this, no record stands taller than Superunknown, an album that, even a generation on, still stands coiled and rattling with turmoil, trouble and spite. On the subject of which, the final word goes to Ben Shepherd.

“You know,” he says, “I like playing the iTunes festivals for those Apple robber barons. We play Superunknown and people are all: ‘Yay, we’re happy!’ But then we get to Limo Wreck and suddenly they’re all: ‘Oh, Soundgarden is dark!… No wonder they never got to be as big as Pearl Jam.’ I like that some people don’t like us. I like that we’re smarter than them and that we’re darker than them.”