Soundgarden was an American rock band formed in Seattle, Washington, in 1984 by lead singer and drummer Chris Cornell, lead guitarist Kim Thayil, and bassist Hiro Yamamoto. Matt Cameron became the band's permanent drummer in 1986 while bassist Ben Shepherd became a permanent replacement for Yamamoto in 1990.
Soundgarden was one of the key bands in the creation of grunge, a style of alternative rock that developed in Seattle and was based around the band's record label Sub Pop. Soundgarden was the first grunge band to sign to a major label, though the band did not achieve commercial success until Seattle contemporaries Nirvana and Pearl Jam popularized grunge in the early 1990s.
Soundgarden achieved its biggest success with the 1994 album, Superunknown, which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and yielded the Grammy Award???winning singles "Black Hole Sun" and "Spoonman". In 1997, the band broke up due to internal strife over its creative direction. Soundgarden has sold eight million records in the U.S., and an estimated twenty million worldwide.
Formation and early years: 1984???1986
Soundgarden traces its origins to a cover band called The Shemps that performed around Seattle, Washington in the early 1980s. The Shemps featured bassist Hiro Yamamoto and drummer and vocalist Chris Cornell. Following Yamamoto's departure from The Shemps, the band recruited guitarist Kim Thayil as its new bassist. Thayil had moved to Seattle from Park Forest, Illinois with Yamamoto and Bruce Pavitt, who would later start the independent record label Sub Pop. Cornell and Yamamoto stayed in contact, and after The Shemps broke up Cornell and Yamamoto started jamming together, eventually bringing in Thayil to join them.
Soundgarden was formed in 1984 by Cornell (drums and vocals), Yamamoto (bass), and Thayil (guitar). The band named themselves after a wind-channeling pipe sculpture, "A Sound Garden," located on NOAA property next to Magnuson Park, Seattle, Washington. Cornell originally played drums while singing, but in 1985 the band enlisted Scott Sundquist to allow Cornell to concentrate on vocals. The band traveled around playing various concerts with this line-up for about a year. The band's first recordings were three songs that appeared on a 1986 compilation album for C/Z Records called Deep Six. It also featured songs by fellow grunge pioneers Green River, Skin Yard, Malfunkshun, The U-Men, and The Melvins. Kathleen C. Fennessy of Allmusic stated that the compilation "documents a formative period in Northwest rock history." In 1986, Sundquist left the band to spend time with his family, and was replaced by Matt Cameron, the drummer for Skin Yard.
First releases: 1987???1990
KCMU DJ Jonathan Poneman was impressed after seeing Soundgarden perform one night, later saying, "I saw this band that was everything rock music should be." Poneman offered to fund a release by the band, so Thayil told him to team up with Bruce Pavitt. Poneman offered to contribute $20,000 in funding for Sub Pop, effectively turning it into a full-fledged record label. Soundgarden signed to Sub Pop, and the label released "Hunted Down" in 1987 as the band's first single. The B-side of the "Hunted Down" single, "Nothing to Say", appeared on the KCMU compilation tape, Bands That Will Make Money, which was distributed to record companies. Upon hearing the song, record labels began contacting the band. Through Sub Pop, the band released the Screaming Life EP in 1987, and the Fopp EP in 1988. A combination of the two was issued as Screaming Life/Fopp in 1990.
Though the band was being courted by major labels, in 1988 it signed to the lesser known SST Records to release its debut album, Ultramega OK, released on October 31, 1988. Cornell said that the band "made a huge mistake with Ultramega OK" due to using a producer suggested by SST who "didn't know what was happening in Seattle." Steve Huey of Allmusic said that the album is the "best expression of Soundgarden's early, Stooges/MC5-meets-Zeppelin/Sabbath sound." The band's first music video, "Flower" (?·)), was directed by Mark Miremont, and aired regularly on MTV's 120 Minutes. Soundgarden supported Ultramega OK with a tour in the United States in the spring of 1989 and a tour in Europe, which began in May 1989 and was the band's first overseas tour. Ultramega OK earned the band a Grammy Award nomination for Best Metal Performance in 1990.
After touring in support of Ultramega OK the band signed with A&M Records. The signing caused a rift between Soundgarden and its traditional audience. Thayil said, "In the beginning, our fans came from the punk rock crowd. They abandoned us when they thought we had sold out the punk tenets, getting on a major label and touring with Guns N' Roses. There were fashion issues and social issues, and people thought we no longer belonged to their scene, to their particular sub-culture." The band subsequently began work on its first album for a major label. Cornell said, "At the time Hiro had excommunicated himself from the band and there wasn't a free-flowing system as far as music went, so I ended up writing a lot of it." On September 5, 1989, the band released its second album, Louder Than Love. Regarding the album, Steve Huey of Allmusic said that the band took "a step toward the metal mainstream" with "a slow, grinding, detuned mountain of Sabbath/Zeppelin riffs and Chris Cornell wailing." Because of some of the song lyrics, most notably on "Hands All Over" (?·)) and "Big Dumb Sex", the band faced various retail and distribution problems upon the album's release. Louder Than Love became the band's first album to chart on the Billboard 200, peaking at number 108 on the chart in 1990.
A month before touring for Louder Than Love commenced, bassist Hiro Yamamoto, who was becoming frustrated that he wasn't contributing much, left to go back to college. He was replaced by Jason Everman, formerly of Nirvana. The band embarked on a North American tour that went from December 1989 to March 1990. On this tour the band served as the opening act for Voivod on the band's Nothingface tour, with Faith No More also serving as an opening act at the beginning and end of the tour. The band then went on to tour Europe. Bassist Jason Everman was fired immediately after Soundgarden completed its promotional tour for Louder Than Love in mid-1990. Thayil said that "Jason just didn't work out." Louder Than Love spawned the EP Loudest Love and the video compilation Louder Than Live, both released in 1990.
Bassist Ben Shepherd replaced previous bassist Jason Everman and the new line-up recorded Soundgarden's third album in 1991. Cornell said that Shepherd brought a "fresh and creative" approach to the recording sessions, and the band as a whole said that his knowledge of music and writing skills redefined the band. The resulting album, Badmotorfinger, was released on October 8, 1991. Steve Huey of Allmusic said that the songwriting on Badmotorfinger "takes a quantum leap in focus and consistency." He added, "It's surprisingly cerebral and arty music for a band courting mainstream metal audiences." Thayil suggested that the album's lyrics are "like reading a novel man's conflict with himself and society, or the government, or his family, or the economy, or anything." The first single from Badmotorfinger, "Jesus Christ Pose" (?·)), garnered attention when MTV decided to ban its corresponding music video in 1991. Many listeners were outraged by the song and its video, perceiving it as anti-Christian. The band received death threats while on tour in the United Kingdom in support of the album. Cornell explained that the lyrics criticize public figures who use religion (particularly the image of Jesus Christ) to portray themselves as being persecuted. Although overshadowed at the time of its release by the sudden popularity of Nirvana's Nevermind, the focus of attention brought by Nevermind to the Seattle scene helped Soundgarden gain wider attention. The singles "Outshined" and "Rusty Cage" were able to find an audience at alternative rock radio and MTV. Badmotorfinger was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 1992. The album was among the 100 top selling albums of 1992.
Following the release of Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden went on a tour in North America that ran from October 1991 to November 1991. Afterward, the band took a slot opening for Guns N' Roses in North America on the band's Use Your Illusion Tour. Soundgarden was personally selected by Guns N' Roses as its opening band. The band took a slot opening for Skid Row in North America in February 1992 on the band's Slave to the Grind tour, and then headed to Europe for a month-long headlining theater tour. The band returned for a tour in the United States and subsequently rejoined Guns N' Roses in the summer of 1992 in Europe as part of the Use Your Illusion Tour along with fellow opening act Faith No More. Regarding the time spent opening for Guns N' Roses, Cornell said, "It wasn't a whole lot of fun going out in front of 40,000 people for 35 minutes every day. Most of them hadn't heard our songs and didn't care about them. It was a bizarre thing." The band would go on to play the 1992 Lollapalooza tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Ministry, among others. In anticipation of the band's appearance at Lollapalooza, a limited edition of Badmotorfinger was released in 1992 with a second disc containing the EP SOMMS, featuring Soundgarden's cover of Black Sabbath's "Into the Void", titled "Into the Void (Sealth)", which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 1993. The band later released the video compilation Motorvision, which was filmed at the Paramount Theatre in 1992. The band also made an appearance in the movie Singles performing "Birth Ritual". The song appeared on the soundtrack, as did a Cornell solo song, "Seasons".
Soundgarden began work on its fourth album after touring in support of Badmotorfinger. Cornell said that while working on the album the band members allowed each other more freedom than on past records, while Thayil observed that the band spent a lot more time working on the actual recording of the songs than on previous records. Released on March 8, 1994, Superunknown became the band's breakthrough album, driven by the singles "Spoonman", "The Day I Tried to Live", "Black Hole Sun" (?·)), "My Wave", and "Fell on Black Days". Upon its release in March 1994, Superunknown debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart. The songs on Superunknown captured the creativity and heaviness of the band's earlier works, while showcasing the group's newly evolving style. Lyrically, the album was quite dark and mysterious, as much of it is often interpreted to be dealing with substance abuse, suicide, and depression. Cornell was inspired by the writings of Sylvia Plath at the time. The album was also more experimental than previous releases, with some songs incorporating Middle-Eastern or Indian music. J.D. Considine of Rolling Stone said Superunknown "demonstrates far greater range than many bands manage in an entire career." He also stated, "At its best, Superunknown offers a more harrowing depiction of alienation and despair than anything on In Utero." The music video for "Black Hole Sun" became a hit on MTV and received the award for Best Metal/Hard Rock Video at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards and in 1995 it received the Clio Award for Alternative Music Video. Soundgarden won two Grammy Awards in 1995; "Black Hole Sun" received the award for Best Hard Rock Performance and "Spoonman" received the award for Best Metal Performance. Superunknown was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album in 1995. Superunknown has been certified five times platinum in the United States and remains Soundgarden's most successful album.
The band began touring in January 1994 in Oceania and Japan, areas where the record came out early, as well as regions where the band had never toured before. This round of touring ended in February 1994, and then in March 1994 the band moved on to Europe. The band began a theater tour of the United States on May 27, 1994, with the opening acts Tad and Eleven. In late 1994, after touring in support of Superunknown, doctors discovered that Cornell had severely strained his vocal cords. Soundgarden cancelled several shows to avoid causing any permanent damage. Cornell said, "I think we kinda overdid it! We were playing five or six nights a week and my voice pretty much took a beating. Towards the end of the American tour I felt like I could still kinda sing, but I wasn't really giving the band a fair shake. You don't buy a ticket to see some guy croak for two hours! That seemed like kind of a rip off." The band would make up the dates later in 1995. Superunknown spawned the EP Songs from the Superunknown and the CD-ROM Alive in the Superunknown, both released in 1995.
Down on the Upside and break-up: 1996???1997
Following the worldwide tour in support of its previous album, Superunknown, the band commenced work on what would become the band's final album. The members of Soundgarden opted to self-produce the record. However, tensions within the group reportedly arose during the sessions, with Thayil and Cornell allegedly clashing over Cornell's desire to shift away from the heavy guitar riffing that had become the band's trademark. Cornell said, "By the time we were finished, it felt like it had been kind of hard, like it was a long, hard haul. But there was stuff we were discovering." The band's fifth album, Down on the Upside, was released on May 21, 1996. The album was notably less heavy than the group's preceding albums, and marked a further departure from the band's grunge roots. Soundgarden explained at the time that it wanted to experiment with other sounds. David Browne of Entertainment Weekly said, "Few bands since Led Zeppelin have so crisply mixed instruments both acoustic and electric." The overall mood of the album's lyrics isn't as dark as on previous Soundgarden albums, with Cornell describing some songs as "self-affirming." The album spawned several singles, including "Pretty Noose", "Burden in My Hand" (?·)), and "Blow Up the Outside World". "Pretty Noose" was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1997. Despite favorable reviews, the album did not match the sales of Superunknown.
The band took a slot on the 1996 Lollapalooza tour with Metallica, who had insisted on Soundgarden's appearance on the tour. After Lollapalooza, the band embarked on a worldwide tour. Tensions continued to increase during the band's ensuing tour in support of the album. When asked if the band hated touring, Cornell said, "We really enjoy it to a point and then it gets tedious, because it becomes repetitious. You feel like fans have paid their money and they expect you to come out and play them your songs like the first time you ever played them. That's the point where we hate touring." At the tour's final stop in Honolulu, Hawaii on February 9, 1997, Shepherd threw his bass into the air in frustration after suffering equipment failure, and subsequently stormed off the stage. The band retreated, with Cornell returning to conclude the show with a solo encore. On April 9, 1997, the band announced its disbanding. Thayil said, "It was pretty obvious from everybody's general attitude over the course of the previous half year that there was some dissatisfaction." Cameron later said that Soundgarden was "eaten up by the business." Soundgarden's final release, a greatest hits collection entitled A-Sides, was released the following fall.
Frontman Chris Cornell performing live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 2005.
Cornell released a solo album in September 1999, entitled Euphoria Morning. Later, in 2001, he formed the supergroup Audioslave with the former instrumental members of Rage Against the Machine and recorded three albums as Audioslave's vocalist (Audioslave (2002), Out of Exile (2005), and Revelations (2006)). Cornell departed Audioslave in early 2007, resulting in the band's break-up. His second solo album, Carry On, was released in June 2007 and his third solo album, Scream, produced by Timbaland, was released in March 2009, both to mixed commercial and critical success. Thayil joined forces with former Dead Kennedys vocalist Jello Biafra, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Gina Mainwal for one show, performing as The No WTO Combo during the WTO ministerial conference in Seattle on December 1, 1999. Thayil later contributed guitar tracks to Steve Fisk's 2001 album, 999 Levels of Undo, as well as Dave Grohl's 2004 side-project album, Probot. In 2006, Thayil performed guitar on the album Altar, the collaboration between the bands Sunn O))) and Boris. Cameron initially turned his efforts to his side-project Wellwater Conspiracy, to which both Shepherd and Thayil have contributed performances. He then worked briefly with The Smashing Pumpkins on the band's 1998 album, Adore. In 1998, he stepped in on drums for Pearl Jam's Yield Tour, and subsequently joined Pearl Jam as a permanent member and has recorded four albums as the band's drummer (Binaural (2000), Riot Act (2002), Pearl Jam (2006), and Backspacer (2009)). Shepherd was the vocalist on Wellwater Conspiracy's 1997 debut studio album, Declaration of Conformity, however he left the band in 1998. He has toured with Mark Lanegan and played bass on two of Lanegan's albums: the 1999 album, I'll Take Care of You, and the 2001 album, Field Songs. Shepherd and Cameron were part of the side-project band Hater while they were members of Soundgarden and in 2005 Shepherd released the band's long-delayed second album, The 2nd.
Regarding a future Soundgarden reunion, Cornell stated in an October 2005 interview that it would "probably not happen." He continued, "It's almost like we sealed the lid and said, this is Soundgarden and this is its lifespan, and put it out there. And it looks really great to me. I think getting back together would take the lid off that and then could possibly change what... to me seems like the perfect lifespan of the band. I can't think of any reason to mess with that." In interviews following his departure from Audioslave in February 2007, Cornell reiterated that the members of Soundgarden had no interest in reuniting, stressing the point further in a later interview with NME, where he stated, "When Soundgarden broke up, my discussions with the rest of the band was 'We have to have an agreement that we will never tour Soundgarden???Soundgarden will never exist???without it being a unanimous decision and that everyone who was in the band is in the band.'" In the 2009 book, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, Thayil, Cameron, and Shepherd all discussed their thoughts on the possibility of a Soundgarden reunion, with Thayil saying, "I don't see it. I'd imagine it could, it's perfectly within the realm of possibilities???everyone's still alive . But I don't see it happening." On March 24, 2009, Thayil, Cameron, and Shepherd reunited with Tad Doyle on lead vocals, to perform "Hunted Down", "Nothing to Say", and "Spoonman" at a Tom Morello solo show at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle. In a July 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Cornell shot down rumors of a reunion by stating that conversations between the band members had been limited to discussion about the release of a box set or B-sides album of Soundgarden rarities, and that there had been no discussion of a reunion at all.
Musical style and influences
Soundgarden was a pioneer of the grunge music genre, which mixed elements of punk rock and heavy metal into a dirty, aggressive sound. Soundgarden's sound during the early years of the Seattle grunge scene has been described as consisting of "gnarled neo-Zeppelinisms." The influence of Led Zeppelin was evident, with Q magazine noting that Soundgarden were "in thrall to '70s rock, but contemptuous of the genre's overt sexism and machismo." Sub Pop viewed the band as having an angle that featured "a hunky lead singer and fused Led Zeppelin and the Butthole Surfers." The Butthole Surfers' mix of punk, heavy metal and noise rock was a major influence on the early work of Soundgarden. Soundgarden and other early grunge bands were also influenced by British post-punk bands such as Gang of Four and Bauhaus, which were popular in the early 1980s Seattle scene. Soundgarden broadened its musical range with its later releases. By 1994???s Superunknown, the band began to incorporate more pop and psychedelic influences into its music. As a member of Soundgarden, Cornell became known for his wide vocal range and his dark, existentialist lyrics.
Soundgarden would often utilize alternative tunings and odd time signatures in its songs. Many Soundgarden songs were performed in drop D tuning, including "Jesus Christ Pose", "Outshined", "Spoonman", and "Black Hole Sun". The E strings of the instruments were at times tuned lower, such as on "Rusty Cage", where the bottom E string is tuned all the way down to B. Some songs use more unorthodox tunings: "My Wave" and "The Day I Tried to Live" are both in a E-E-B-B-B-E tuning. Soundgarden's use of odd-meter time signatures was varied as well; while such songs as "Jesus Christ Pose" are in typical 4/4 time, "Outshined" is in 7/4, "My Wave" uses 5/4, "Black Hole Sun" is in 4/4 and uses 9/8 in the bridge section, "Fell on Black Days" and "Somewhere" are in 6/4, "Never the Machine Forever" uses 9/8, "Beyond the Wheel" uses 9/4, "Face Pollution" uses 9/8 and 6/4, "Rusty Cage" uses 4/4 for the majority of the song and a repeated pattern of 3/4, 2/4, and 5/4 in its coda, and "Spoonman" alternates between 7/4 and 4/4 sections. Thayil has said that Soundgarden usually did not consider the time signature of a song until after the band had written it, and said that the use of odd meters was "a total accident."
Soundgarden was one of the early bands of the 1980s Seattle music scene and is regarded as being one of the originators of the genre later known as grunge. The development of the Seattle independent record label Sub Pop is tied closely to Soundgarden. The funding provided by Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman for Soundgarden's early releases lead to the expansion of Sub Pop as a serious record label. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was a fan of Soundgarden's early music, and reportedly Soundgarden's involvement with Sub Pop influenced Cobain to sign Nirvana with the label. Soundgarden was the first grunge band to sign to a major label when the band joined the roster of A&M Records in 1989. Soundgarden, however, did not achieve initial success; rather, successive album releases by the band were met with increased sales and wider attention.
Soundgarden has been praised for its technical musical ability and the expansion of its sound as the band's career progressed. "Heavy yet ethereal, powerful yet always-in-control, Soundgarden's music was a study in contrasts," said Henry Wilson of Hit Parader. Wilson proclaimed the band's music as "a brilliant display of technical proficiency tempered by heart-felt emotion." Soundgarden is one of the bands credited with the development of the genre of alternative metal, with Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic stating that "Soundgarden made a place for heavy metal in alternative rock." The band inspired and influenced a number of bands, ranging from Between the Buried and Me to The Dillinger Escape Plan and Evanescence.
Regarding Soundgarden's legacy, in a 2007 interview Cornell said, "I think and this is now with some distance in listening to the records but on the outside looking in with all earnestness I think Soundgarden made the best records out of that scene. I think we were the most daring and experimental and genre pushing really and I'm really proud of it. And I guess that's why I have trepidation about the idea of reforming. I don't know what it would mean. I guess I just have this image of who we were and I had probably a lot of anxiety during the period of being Soundgarden, as we all did, that it was a responsibility and it was an important band of music and we didn't want to mess it up and we managed to not, which I felt is a great achievement."