It was hardly the dawn of the Seattle movement, but the 1992 Lollapalooza tour was the biggest, wildest celebration of it to date.
Pearl Jam, just breaking, was the second band on the main stage and generated pure stage-rushing mayhem at 1:30 in the afternoon. A few hours later, the more veteran Soundgarden, pioneers of this new fusion between post-punk and '70s hard rock, aka grunge, demonstrated a more metallic and refined version of the Northwest sound.
That was the last time we saw Soundgarden anywhere near Pittsburgh, as the band was just a few years from venturing into a black hole.
Forming in Seattle in 1984, Soundgarden created rumbles in the underground by putting a punk edge to Sabbath and Zeppelin on early albums "Louder Than Love" (1989) and "Badmotorfinger" (1991). Too punk for metal and too metal for punk, Soundgarden fell between some cracks, at least until Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains jumped in with a more commercial take. In 1994, that wave lifted Soundgarden to No. 1 on the charts with "Superunknown," an album filled with such brooding singles as "Black Hole Sun" and "Fell on Black Days."
Soundgarden won two Grammys in 1995 and starting playing bigger venues, but the good mojo didn't last long. The making of the band's fifth album, "Down on the Upside," was marred by internal conflicts about how heavy versus how accessible the album should be, and after its cooler reception and a contentious tour, the band split in 1997.
Singer Chris Cornell, he of the stunning multioctave range and movie star looks, toned down the metal on his solo albums but found his best success with Tom Morello in Audioslave. Drummer Matt Cameron became the drummer for Pearl Jam, while bassist Ben Shepherd and guitarist Kim Thayil worked on more low-key projects, the latter jamming with Boris and Dave Grohl's side project Probot.
In 2009, rumors started of a Soundgarden reunion, and then in April 2010 the band played its first show since 1997 in Seattle before going on to headline Lollapalooza that August. In November, Soundgarden released "King Animal," its first album in 13 years, starting with a slashing guitar and Mr. Cornell wailing, "can't go home, no, I swear you never can."
And yet it sounds like it did. Soundgarden picks up right where it left off, making no concessions to age -- the singer is 48, the guitarist 52 -- or 13 years of musical trends. Rolling Stone wrote that "the sound manages to be as ageless as it is anachronistic," just the thing fans probably wanted from Soundgarden.
Last week, we talked with Mr. Thayil, who was ranked by Rolling Stone as the No. 100 greatest guitarist of all time. He didn't remember much about the last time Soundgarden played here, but somehow, from previous stops here, he conjured the name "Primanti's" and recalled a hotdog shop near the university -- that would be The O -- where you could get anything you wanted. He might be stopping at one of those places when Soundgarden plays Stage AE on Sunday.
So, I don't think you've been in Pittsburgh in 20 years.
I think you're right.
It was Lollapalooza '92, one of the most memorable concerts I've ever been to. What do you remember about that?
Not much about the Pittsburgh show, but as for the tour, the bill was really cool. It was Pearl Jam, Ministry, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Jesus and Mary Chain, us, Lush. That was the main stage. There was a pretty good sense of camaraderie. Of course, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam go back to before Pearl Jam made a record, and three of the guys in Ministry were originally from Seattle and were in a great band called The Blackouts. And, of course, the Chili Peppers, we had met them back when we were doing our indie band thing. So it was just a lot of fun.
And the crowd was crazy.
Oh yeah, it was, because if you remember, it was the time when Nirvana broke. And right before we started that tour, Pearl Jam started getting huge. We hadn't yet, we were kind of like better known than Nirvana and Pearl Jam until their records went through the roof. So we were playing later in the set. Pearl Jam was huge so people were coming early to see Pearl Jam and staying for the whole thing, so you had an excited, well-attended and populated crowd in every city.
Did you feel like Soundgarden had to work harder than those other bands to break big?
Yeah, we did regardless of whether we felt that way or not. We've been together since '84 and recording since '85-86. And our first record with the Soundgarden rubric was "Screaming Light" in '87. We've been touring since '88, so I guess there was no Pearl Jam yet, no Alice in Chains, and I think Nirvana was around but they were about to release "Bleach." The records that were mostly played in our van were Nirvana "Bleach," the first Fugazi record, Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" and the Meat Puppets' second record.
Gotta have the godfather of grunge in there, right?
I didn't think of him as the godfather of grunge. When I was younger I thought of him as that hippie folk music.
Since I brought it up, what did you think of that term "grunge" when it was applied to all you guys?
Never liked it. I think a few people used it simply as an adjective. My buddy [producer] Jack Endino had used it and the guys at Sub Pop had used it clearly as an adjective, and then it became, uh, this noun. And a label. And it was just kind of nonsense. Even though these bands were all friends of ours and they were all from the same city, there's just no way that Mudhoney sounds like Alice in Chains. There's no way that Soundgarden sounds like Pearl Jam. There are distinct differences between all those bands, and then Nirvana is probably somewhere between us and Mudhoney. And then Alice in Chains might be a little bit like us, and Pearl Jam has all these rock 'n' roll chord songs, and so did Nirvana, so I don't know.
What brought you guys back together when you did?
It was a gradual progression, starting with dealing with the logistics of some financial and catalog issues. We were really concerned about the fact that we neglected our merchandise over the decade of the 2000s and late '90s. We kind of let our merch catalog slip. There were out-of-print records, there were some projects we were interested in doing that we never did. We never put out any DVDs for commercial retail availability. We had no merchandising relationship regarding posters and T-shirts.
We had friends who had kids that were going to junior high and learning how to play guitar or piano or drums. And they're getting into us and their dads or moms would take them to the store, and they want to grab a Soundgarden poster or T-shirt, and there were none of them. They'd find Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins or Alice in Chains shirts but no Soundgarden. We were getting asked that, and Chris and Matt were new fathers, they noticed the same thing. So we thought we need to do something about this, our entire legacy is being neglected.
From there people heard that we were starting up a fan club and merchandising again, and many, many people misinterpreted that as our being reunited, and consequently offers to play festivals started coming in. We considered it, thought, "Let's go jam together and see how it works." So, we went from like dealing with business concerns to being performers, entertainers, but none of that is ultimately satisfying until we behave as a creative entity. Eventually, we started jamming together, playing new stuff and eventually recording, so we never really said, "Let's get back together," we just kind of started taking on new interests and challenges.
So, you didn't feel pressure messing with the legacy?
Nope. No. We didn't feel pressure. We thought that the aspects of the legacy that were neglected, like the fan club merchandise catalog, we had to deal with that. If there was any twinge of concern regarding recording new material or performing live, that was set aside by the writing process and our confidence in our abilities and the material we were coming up with. There are four guys in this band who voice their opinions about the material we are producing. There's not one guy, say, like in Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins who kind of directs the band creatively or does most of the writing. A band like that could very easily make a misstep, take a turn or take risks that alienate their fan base or legacy. It would be difficult for us to do that, because if one guy had a goofy idea, then three other guys would point it out to him. We're a little more democratic and collaborative, which can keep us vital and prevents us from doing goofy things like that. But that democratic, collaborative nature of Soundgarden leaves us vulnerable to the kind of conditions that had us break up to begin with.
Do you have any regret now about that down time?
Um, yeah. The primary regret is what I mentioned earlier: neglecting the catalog and letting that stuff lapse. That was kind of crappy. As far as creating new material, no, I did other stuff and there was no pressure for me to maintain a pace that we were at when the band broke up, and that was fine with me. There are plenty of bands and artists that I have worked with, and people I have met over that decade, which has placed me creatively and socially where I am at now. And I don't regret those relationships or projects at all. I think everyone else feels the same way. I think Chris, with the records he made and getting to play with Audioslave, and Matt is still having a great time with Pearl Jam, Ben has done a lot of projects, so everything is fine. I think we're old enough to where we can take it or leave it. Our identity is not secured by being a member of Soundgarden, like it may have been when we were younger.
I was on my way home today and a Soundgarden song came on the radio, coincidentally, and I thought, "Your guitar and his voice is a pretty great combination." Is that the ideal voice to go with your guitar?
You know, it is. When I thought about doing solo records, which I didn't do, there were two things that came to my mind: One was if I write the way I wrote in Soundgarden, which, to me, would be very natural and honest, I would then be left with a situation where I would have to get a drummer who met the kind of standard and had the ability that Matt had. I do know some drummers, they're not as tech prominent, but they're out there. Now, to find a singer. People with Chris' ability and range vocally don't always have that same range creatively in terms of what they might produce or what they might reference. So, if I found someone who had the vocal skills that Chris had there's a strong likelihood that we would not share the same influences and inspirations. So that was one concern if I did write the way I did in Soundgarden, if I did make a record, it's likely that it would've been instrumental.
I wanted to ask you about Jeff Hanneman of Slayer.
[On the day of his death, the Soundgarden guitarist had yet to hear the news. He expressed his shock and asked a bunch of questions about what might have happened.]
I wanted to get your opinion of him, being a metal guitarist.
I hadn't really thought of myself or considered myself a metal guitar player, because the kind of standards of proficiency that many metal musicians are preoccupied with do not interest me and some of the sourcing in the way they play, which are often baroque stylizations of classical music. To me, that way of playing guitar solos sounds like a way to patronize one's mother or high school music teacher, and I'm not interested in that. What I like about metal is the riff writing and the combination, if it's a good band, of the viscera and the psychedelia. The ones that don't interest me are the ones that pay attention to the viscera and not the psychedelic aspects of what they're doing. That's kind of what makes Black Sabbath great. Slayer is amazing on a social and cultural level, because of the intensity of the ideas they are presenting.
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: scottmervis_pg.