Chris Cornell tells stories behind classic 'Superunknown' songs
Today marks the release of the deluxe 20th-anniversary edition of Soundgarden’s landmark 1994 album Superunknown.
The band celebrated the release of the two-disc (or five-disc, if you’re fancy) monster with a show at New York City’s Webster Hall last night—cleverly, tickets were $19.94—where they ran through the album top to bottom, with an encore of “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage” tossed in for good measure.
To properly celebrate one of the crowning achievements of the grunge era, EW caught up with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who shared the stories behind some of the tracks from Superunknown.
Read on to find out how Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament led the band to “Spoonman,: and exactly what the heck a “Black Hole Sun” really is (or not).
“The lyrics aren’t specifically about Artis the Spoonman. I didn’t know Artis yet, so the title was based on a title that Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam had come up with when he was doing some graphic design for the film Singles. He designed a fictitious record package, so he made up some titles and ‘Spoonman’ was one of them. I had known there was this guy Spoonman — his business card was these little disposable wooden spoons you would get with ice cream — but it was an ode to an imaginary person in my head, because I didn’t know him yet. And the song was based entirely on the title, so what’s happening musically is the attitude of supporting this guy who stands on a street corner and plays the s— out of some spoons. Then the song became a reality, and we got Artis to actually play spoons on the song.”
“I love the ones that come in under the wire, because you tend to remember that moment of having to race to arrange and record some song that comes in at the last minute. ‘My Wave’ was very late. I think we were rehearsing to be able to play the stuff live after the album came out, but we weren’t done with it yet. It was kind of the end of a rehearsal—there are actually tapes of that rehearsal on the reissue—and I just started playing that riff that is the basis of the song and everybody kind of jumped on it and started playing.
When that happens, a light bulb goes off and you know you have a song. We all unanimously liked it. Even thought it was late in the process, we knew we had to finish it. So I went home that night and came up with the melody and the lyrics and the arrangement. I don’t really remember exactly where the phrase ‘Keep it off my wave’ came from.; to me it was just sort of the idea of territorial pissing. There was a band called the Surf Punks, and they had this really simple line they would repeat over and over again: ‘My beach! Off my beach!’ Just to reduce the attitude of a surfer to that simplicity—that’s what I was thinking.”
“Let Me Drown”
“Every time we make an album, in the back of my mind I’ll be thinking about live shows. So throughout the process, I’ll pause and think to myself, ‘What do we need? What kind of a song would make our show better?’ That’s where ‘Let Me Drown’ came from. We needed a song that’s kind of mid-tempo or upper-mid-tempo, riff-based rock song, because that would be fun. It’s as simple as that. It just needed to be a simply-written Soundgarden song that would make our set exciting.
Most of the darkness or moodiness or the aggressive tone of Soundgarden songs come from the mood of the song itself. We’ve never been a band that sat down to discuss what kind of an attitude we should have lyrically, we’ve just been a band that gravitated toward certain fields. The lyrics that I write tend to reflect that. It’s never been something that requires a whole lot of effort. I think it comes naturally. But I’ve always been a little bit cautious about it. I’ve been a student of music and records and bands since I was really young, and there were instances where I would notice that someone would write lyrics separately from music or even before the music, and the lyrics would kind of feel tacked on.
Two guys that write songs for musicals, there’s usually a composer and a lyricist, and they have to work together to compliment each other and find the right moods. In rock bands, that doesn’t always happen. For Soundgarden, I always kept that in the back of my mind that those worlds have to feel intertwined, that one has to feel born from the other. So a song like ‘Let Me Drown’ lyrically is just kind of coming from the music.”
“Black Hole Sun”
“I had misheard a news anchor, and I thought he said ‘black hole sun,’ but he said something else. So I was corrected, but after that I thought, ‘Well, he didn’t say it, but I heard it,’ and it created this image in my brain and I thought it would be an amazing song title. It was a thought-provoking phrase, and it became that song. That was a title that came before music, so the music was the inspiration that came from the images created by those words.
I didn’t think in terms of hits then, and I didn’t think tempo-wise or lyrically as being something that could be a hit. Maybe a single at some point late in the release, like an afterthought single. Sometimes when a record has been out for a while, right before the record company decides to stop promoting it, they’ll do one last single that’s different, like something for the fans or whatever. That’s what I thought ‘Black Hole Sun’ would be. But once we started mixing and mastering it and playing it for friends and the record company, everyone was singling that song out.
So it started to occur to us that it might be a single that would have broader appeal. But definitely not lyrically. When I think of hit songs, they have to be somewhat anthemic in the world of rock, and I didn’t see ‘Black Hole Sun’ as being that.”
“I think there are some songs on Superunknown that didn’t just redefine who we were, but define Soundgarden as a band that was its own thing that you can’t really compare to any other band. There are elements of those things on previous songs and previous records, but somehow we elaborated on them.
If you listen to the music of ‘Limo Wreck,’ it’s actually a complicated series of rhythms and melodies, and they go into these interesting places, and none of it is particularly based in any sort of rock tradition that I was aware of. Because of that, any idea I had melodically seemed really interesting to me. We really didn’t play ‘Limo Wreck’ much live previously, but in rehearsing it now, I really think it’s one of the more unusual songs I’ve heard in modern rock. It’s an accomplishment, and I can look at some of the slower, heavier, weirder melodic songs on Superunknown as being uniquely ours, without reference or root in anything else—any other period of music, any other band, any other records.
‘Like Suicide,’ ‘4th of July,’ ‘Limo Wreck,’ ‘Mailman,’ ‘Head Down,’ ‘Half,’ all those songs speak only of Soundgarden in my mind. That wasn’t something that we were attempting to engineer, and maybe that’s the part that’s the most interesting. We didn’t sit to try to write in a way that nobody had ever done. The reason why they have that uniqueness is the chemistry between us.”
“Fell On Black Days”
“I had the title and the idea I wanted to write about probably three years before that song was finally written. I was kind of waiting around for the right music, and there are at least two other versions of ‘Fell On Black Days,’ one of which is on the re-release, where the music is completely different, and even some of the lyrics are different.
It just wasn’t striking the right chord. Finally I was playing around on a guitar and came up with the riff that became ‘Fell On Black Days’ and that seemed like the right musical mood to support the lyrics, and that became the one on Superunknown. It just sort of wrote itself in the end. I found myself writing verses that described what I wanted to write the whole time.
Those words could never have come out before because they never matched what was happening musically. The attitude was all wrong. Suddenly the lyrics are coming out and I’m saying what I wanted to say, and it’s fitting perfectly. There’s an instinct.”
“The Day I Tried To Live”
“I don’t really remember writing it. I vaguely remember the verse. It was based on a tuning that Ben Shepherd had came up with. Lyrically, it was one of those songs that I thought everyone could connect with. ‘Fell On Black Days’ is maybe a sister song to it. It’s this feeling that could come over anyone, and has probably happened to everyone. ‘Fell On Black Days’ is the feeling of waking up one day and realizing you’re not happy with your life. Nothing happened, there was no emergency, no accident, you don’t know what happened. You were happy, and one day you just aren’t, and you have to try to figure that out.
With ‘The Day I Tried To Live,’ the attitude I was trying to convey was that thing that I think everyone goes through where you wake up in the morning and you just don’t know how you are going to get through the day, and you kind of just talk yourself into it. You may go through different moments of hopelessness and wanting to give up, or wanting to just get back into bed and say f— it, but you convince yourself you’re going to do it again. And maybe this is the last time you’re going to do it, but it’s once more around.”
“She Likes Surprises”
“I think [producer] Michael Beinhorn’s greatest thumbprint actually occurred on the song ‘She Likes Surprises,’ which was not on the album. That was the first song I think we approached him with during pre-production, and he attempted to get us to try a couple of arrangement ideas, and we hated them, so that was pretty much the last time we listened to him. So that was the end of pre-production, and then going in for the actual production of the album, it sort of forced us to kind of circle back and be us. We kind of shut him down right away. That was his biggest moment.
His other big moment for me was on ‘Black Hole Sun.’ He spent two days trying to compile 11 takes of the vocal, and I hated it. And he wisely suggested that I try singing and engineering myself and not having anybody else in the studio and just doing it the way I do it at home by myself when I do demos. Because I told him I liked the vocal on the demo so much more. So I did that, and it worked, and I ended up singing the whole rest of the record that way, and I’ve produced my own vocals on pretty much every other album ever since.
To his credit, that was his idea. I think one of his roles was to become this necessary adversary that pulled us together as a band. I don’t know that he necessarily understood where we were coming or what we meant musically, but when he was in the room, he gave us this one focal point for all of us to look at and we could stick up for each other. We had been that way in the past with other producers, and with him we were even more that way.”