"I feel like I'm hallucinating and all of a sudden I've listened to this song 15 times in a row. I called Chris Cornell and said, You're a genius": producer Michael Beinhorn on the tensions and triumph of Soundgarden's Superunknown

Soundgarden in Japan, 1994
(Image credit: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

Soundgarden's Superunknown album is regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of the '90s, but as producer Michael Beinhorn reveals in a new interview, the Seattle band's fourth record had a difficult birth.

In conversation with music industry expert/YouTube personality Rick Beato, Beinhorn, who had previously recorded hit albums for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soul Asylum before signing up to work with Chris Cornell's band on the follow-up to Badmotorfinger, admits that when he was presented with the band's initial demos for Superunknown, he had tactfully tell them that they were not yet ready to make a record: "There were 11 pieces [of music] on it, and out of the 11, I think five were usable."

When Chris Cornell sent the producer another batch of demos, Beinhorn was even more dismayed, he admits.

"They were sounding like second-rate Soundgarden songs," he recalls. "Obviously his worst stuff is still better than a lot of stuff that people are doing nowadays right, but still it wasn't up to par of what we what I felt we needed on this record. So I I called him up and I spoke to him about it. I was like. What are you writing these songs for? And immediately I got to the to the bottom of it: he felt that he needed to make something familiar for Soundgarden fans."

"And I was like, that's great, but ultimately this record has to be for you, this has to be your expression; you can't think of what someone else you don't know is going to want.. forget that they're listening to you. The tail does not wag the dog here, you have to be the person who creates what people want to listen to. You already have an audience, give them something that comes from you. And somehow I made sense of it to him. And I said, What do you like? and he said, 'The Beatles and Cream.' I just said to him, Okay, well write a song that sounds like The Beatles and Cream."

Beinhorn remembers that the three weeks later, Cornell sent him a new four song demo cassette, featuring  Fell On Black Days, Tighter & Tighter (which the band would ultimately hold over for their fifth album, Down On The Upside), an un-named song featuring Alice In Chains' Jerry Cantrell, and finally, Black Hole Sun, a recording which blew the producer's mind.

"From the very first notes I was like what the fuck is this?" he tells Beato. " As a music producer my job, I feel, is to listen not for the things that are good but for the things that aren't working so from that vantage point you can imagine what kind of state of stress I was in at that point because I'm just waiting for... this song to go way off the rails, because so far what I'm hearing is one of the best songs I've ever heard my life."

"He hits the chorus and it's beautiful, and I'm getting these sensations in my body I've never felt before, it's taking me to all these crazy places, I feel like I'm hallucinating. And all of a sudden I've listen to this song four 15 times in a row. I kept calling all his numbers until finally I reach him, and I'm like, You're a fucking genius! And he's like [confused], 'Really? Why?' And I'm like, That song! He's like, 'What song?' Black Hole Sun! And he's like, 'Oh you like it?' And I was like, We're ready to make a record. I was waiting for that song to come."

For all his excitement about the new songs, Beinhorn admits that making the record wasn't easy for anyone involved.

"If you go on the Wikipedia page for this record, there's a quote from Chris about how he couldn't stand how anal I was, he used the word 'anal' and he was right: I was anal. But my mission was to make the best-sounding record I could with those guys and at that point - I didn't say this to them - but my attitude was, like, either you're going to fire me or you're going to let me do my job. If you want to be pissed off at me, be pissed off, but you've hired me to do this and I'm going to do it to the end." 

Superunknown would become Soundgarden's first number one record in America, selling over six million copies in the US alone. 

Watch the interview in full below:

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.