In early 1994, Soundgarden were about to go from being another Seattle grunge band to a global rock force with the release of their breakthrough studio album, Superunknown. The record spawned five hit singles — plus that insanely memorable video for the MTV staple “Black Hole Sun” — and earned the band two Grammys. To date, it remains the group’s most successful album. Prior to its release, EW writer David Browne caught up with the band in New York City. As part of our coverage honoring Cornell, who died Wednesday at age 52, revisit that story below.
Kim Thayil cannot believe his ears. “The Today show?!” the Soundgarden guitarist nearly bellows, his eyes bugging out as they shift away from the menu in his hands. “Why the f— did they wanna know?” At this chow-down in an Indian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, an employee of A&M Records, Soundgarden’s label, calmly tells Thayil and two of his bandmates, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron, that, well, there is a rumor the Seattle band will be putting in a guest spot at a local club. And that, yes, a producer at the upbeat morning TV show was merely one of several media executives that contacted him about the speculation. And that, you know, Soundgarden are established enough for the likes of Katie Couric to know who they are and care where they’ll be next. In fact, this restaurant is the only place Thayil and his mates are appearing tonight — which is fine by them. Their next album, Superunknown, is nearly finished, and they have been flown 3,000 miles from home to prepare for its launch on March 8. They’ve endured a week of photo sessions and interviews with overseas publications. Still to come are meetings with merchandisers, video directors, and a prospective production manager for their upcoming world tour. “This is our only free night all week,” says Thayil, 33, an intimidating bear of a man with thick, long dark hair and a beard. Drinks and appetizers are ordered, and cigarettes are lit. Dave Lory, a rock-tour veteran hired to make sure the band keeps to its strict New York schedule, passes around copies of tomorrow’s itinerary. Maybe if they complete their dozen interviews and business meetings they can attend a taping of David Letterman’s Late Show. Shepherd, 25, a tall, lanky guy with the ambiance of a slacker surfer dude, scrolls down the schedule and smirks: “Wow — we get a 30-minute break.” Sitting next to him, Cameron, 31, a more reserved, deadpan sort, glances at his itinerary and adds dryly, “That’s so nice of them.”
GALLERY: Chris Cornell Through the Years
Soundgarden had better get accustomed to the attention since they are about to enter their very own superunknown. Ten years after they played their first show in Seattle, seven years after the release of their first record, and two years after earning a Grammy nomination in the heavy-metal category, the band is poised to become if not the Next Big Thing, then at least the Next Big Northwestern Thing. Superunknown, their fourth album, has all the band’s trademarks — lead singer Chris Cornell‘s Zeppelinesque wails and Thayil’s boa-constrictor guitar crunch, along with excursions into what could be called psychedelic grunge with Indian overtones. At a time when the more gnarled the music, the bigger the buzz, it will probably be huge. Soundgarden’s rise has been more gradual than Nirvana’s and Pearl Jam’s. They didn’t pass the million mark in sales until their third album, 1991’s Badmotorfinger. In part, that slow climb is due to their music. Cornell may have the voice and shirtless-hunk appeal of a young Robert Plant, but Soundgarden’s music is denser, sludgier, more enigmatic — a big, slowly grinding mass of silt. “We’re still different from all those bands,” says Thayil of his Seattle peers. “We don’t play party music.” Maybe not — but it is commercially viable. Since the last album’s release, alternative rock has gone mainstream, and grunge is a department in Bloomingdale’s. Temple of the Dog, an offshoot album featuring members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, went platinum, and Beavis and Butt-head play — and like — videos from Badmotorfinger. A&M is keenly aware of Soundgarden’s new level of esteem: Jim Guerinot, the label’s senior vice president and general manager, says they are shipping “way more” copies of it than of its predecessor-close to 1 million will go out. “The climate of the business has opened up for an act like Soundgarden,” says Guerinot. “The stars are starting to line up behind them.”
The drinks at the Indian restaurant are starting to line up too. Thayil orders several rounds of wine, Indian beer, shots of Cuervo, and cigarettes for himself and his boys, including singer Cornell, 29, who’s just shown up. He’d taken a nap at the hotel but was lured away by a phone call from Lory announcing that the record-company executive, who has since departed, had left his corporate credit card. Cornell has cut his long, curly locks — one of the band’s visual signatures — and with a goatee looks healthier, if a bit more satanic.
Before long, the rock gossip wafting around the table is as thick as the cigarette smoke. Topics include MTV’s Tabitha Soren on Jeopardy! (“She was so f—in’ dumb — she got all the wrong answers!” says Thayil), Van Halen bass player Michael Anthony (“the luckiest man in showbiz,” cracks Shepherd), a portly ’70s rock singer who hired a roadie to insert a certain substance up a certain bodily orifice, and their own participation in Lollapalooza ’92. “We were just playing for a bunch of twenty-nothings who’ll turn into forty-nothings,” Shepherd says offhandedly. To Thayil, that big-bucks traveling alternative circus/tour was “the biggest indication that alternative music was a fraud — a politically correct fraud.” An extra shot of something has found its way onto the table. “Should I be mixing drinks?” Cornell wonders, slouched sleepily into his chair. “Oh, what the hell,” he says, taking the glass. “My liver’ll sort it out.” “The way I see it,” adds Thayil, lighting his umpteenth cigarette and ordering another drink as the restaurant empties out, “you gotta live life the way you wanna live it.”
“You know why I leave that on?” asks Thayil, nodding toward the flickering TV in his hotel room. “It’s so they pay attention to this,” he says, now pointing to the “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door. “I leave the TV on and turn the bathroom light on and close the bathroom door, so they think someone is in there. I just don’t like anybody going through my stuff.” It is after 1 a.m. The band had practically closed down the restaurant; the waiters and maitre d’, happy about the $350 bill but probably happier to see them go, had waved with relieved smiles. Cornell, Cameron, and Shepherd check into their rooms to call loved ones or to go to sleep. Thayil, though, isn’t ready for the sandman, so he heads down to the bar in the hotel lobby for a few more nightcaps. “The goal has always been to make people come around to us,” he says, lighting up a fresh cigarette. “We won’t come to people.” Suddenly Thayil’s attention shifts to the big-screen TV over the bar, which is set to ESPN. “The Sonics won — yes!” he says excitedly. In a week of work and schmoozing, it’s a welcome reminder of home — of his house, girlfriend, and cats in a city that, he admits, is now “oversaturated” with “a lot of dumb grunge bands.” “We know the marketplace has turned around, for better or worse,” Thayil says, a little wearily. “You go through life saying, ‘This is me,’ and you’re not into trends or fashion. And the next thing you know, what you do is perceived as trendy or fashionable.” Shaking his head, he takes another sip of beer as last call is announced. “It’s really strange.”