SXSW Interview: Soundgarden
Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 13, 2014
The members of Soundgarden have experience when it comes to performing under unexpectedly tragic banners. The band flew into Austin late Wednesday and woke up to headlines about fatal, acutely senseless events on Red River. “I read about it this morning,” drummer Matt Cameron says on-site at the Moody Theater, “I was part of the Roskilde Festival in 2000 with Pearl Jam.”
Cameron joined Soundgarden in 1986 and stayed through the band’s initial 1997 break-up. Since ‘98, he’s also been a full-time member of Pearl Jam. Roskilde is a Danish festival and one of Europe’s largest, but it’s also where, during an Orange Stage set by Pearl Jam 14 years ago, nine festival-goers were accidentally crushed to death under a hole of crowd-surfers. “Without being too glib about it or anything it changes your perception of what a concert is after going through an event like that,” Cameron says, “After Pearl Jam went through that we really changed the way that we dealt with going into a festival setting … music is all about coming together and bringing people together in a communal, positive experience. When tragedy like that is introduced, it changes the event.” Soundgarden is in town to perform its sound, mostly flawless 20-year-old masterpiece, “Superunknown,” as Thursday’s iTunes Festival headliner. The band will also be playing de facto soothsayer to a jarred conference as the night’s biggest name.
“We just have to trust the environment and trust the people that are in charge of security,” Cameron says, “We can only do so much as musicians.”
About that front-to-back “Superunknown” performance—Thursday will be a maiden voyage. “It was proposed to us,” co-founding member and guitarist Kim Thayil says of the commemorative anniversary party, “It’s fun for us because we’ve never done this—even in rehearsal we don’t just play the album.”
To this day, rock radio is perpetually peppered with Soundgarden singles, the vast majority of which (“Spoonman,” “Fell on Black Days,” “My Wave,” “Black Hole Sun”) stem from the aforementioned ’94 blockbuster. “Superunknown” has sold nine million copies, but more importantly is a ‘roided out benchpress of monster truck tricks. Give a copy to your 15-year-old nephew for which Imagine Dragons is a benchmark and watch his eyes bleed. Chris Cornell is probably, secretly Thor; the band is everything that general terms like “hard rock” are supposed to exemplify. Unfortunately, the band also gets blamed for the poor grades on the hard rock bell curve. The bargain bin post-grunge gruel. It makes sense considering how disjointed, hit and miss, buried by a mass exodus from album consumption modern rock has skewed since Soundgarden disbanded.
“It’s so weird to contextualize those genres,” Thayil says. “I’ve read reviews that hold us responsible, they’ve suggested that somehow we’re the originators of this lineage—Nickelback, Creed.” Soundgarden also pulses on the tail end of the classic rock radio playlists. They’re genre kings. Turns out it’s because it doesn’t pay attention to modern rock.
“I didn’t listen to commercial rock when we were making it,” Thayil says, “We’d turn on MTV and it’s like ‘hey there’s our video, there’s our friend’s video, there’s Nirvana’s stuff, there’s Pearl Jam’s stuff’ and then ‘click,’ I’d go back and listen to the stuff I want to listen to.”