23 Years Ago: Soundgarden Make Their Name With ‘Superunknown’
The album title is a bit of a misnomer. By 1994, Soundgarden had already enjoyed a breakthrough album with Badmotorfinger. But in the period since then, their Seattle peers Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains had surpassed them in terms of popularity at radio with new releases while Soundgarden fans awaited a follow-up. Come March of 1994, Soundgarden were ready to take their rightful place along side the other three thanks to their Superunknown album.
Soundgarden began work on their fourth album shortly after touring concluded for Badmotorfinger. They set up at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle between July and September of 1993 to record the effort. Why Bad Animals? Because Chris Cornell says the fact that the studio had a Neve console went a long way in selling them.
Helping the group realize their vision was acclaimed rock producer Michael Beinhorn. Guitarist Kim Thayil told Kerrang, “We just thought we’d go for a change. [He] didn’t have his own trademark sound which he was trying to tack on to Soundgarden.” Cornell added, “Michael Beinhorn was so into sounds. He was so, almost, anal about it, that it took the piss out of us a lot of the time. … By the time you get the sounds that you want to record the song, you’re sick and tired of playing it.”
Each of the band members worked on material independently, then brought demos to the other members and the spirit of collaboration was born. This process seemed to work, though Thayil admitted that more time was spent on recording the songs than usual. After the heaviness of Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden dialed it back a bit for a more introspective disc.
“They heavy thing, that’s kind of over,” said Thayil to RIP. “It seems everything is getting more wimpy, more sensitive.” Cornell chimed in, “It doesn’t really have anything to do with songs being heavy or light or wimpy or sad or happy. What it’s like in terms of genre or an idea doesn’t have anything to do with the songs. You could be the heaviest band in the world, and if you can’t write a song, no one’s gonna wanna listen to your stupid record. Or you could be the wimpiest, most politically correct band in the world, and if you can’t write a song, no one’s gonna wanna listen to your stupid record.”
Drummer Matt Cameron told Melody Maker, “It grooves and it rocks and everything is where it should be. I can listen to it. Normally, rock songs are about certain things – chicks, cars and dicks. But the lyrics to Superunknown are very introspective, very dark. They’re saying a whole different thing. Basically, it’s a big f–k you to the world, a plea to ‘leave us alone!'”
During the recording, Cornell was reportedly inspired by the writings of Sylvia Plath. Speaking about the lyrical content, Thayil stated, “A lot of Superunknown seems to me to be about life, not death. Maybe not affirming it, but rejoicing — like the Druids [say]: ‘Life is good, but death’s gonna be even better!'”
With the album good to go, Soundgarden began the rollout. “Spoonman” was the first song to arrive, landing in February of 1994 to build the momentum for the March 8 release of Superunknown. The track actually had a long history for the group, dating back to the band’s appearance in the 1992 film Singles. Pearl Jam‘s Jeff Ament received credit for the song title, as he was tasked with coming up with titles for the fictional band in the film. As the story goes, Cornell, who also made a cameo in the film, took it as a challenge to write songs for the movie using the titles, one of which was “Spoonman.” An acoustic demo version of the track can be heard in the movie.
But fast forward a couple of years and Cornell liked what he had started. The title initially came about due to a Seattle street performer known as Artis the Spoonman, and Artis would actually come to play spoons on the track itself. Cornell told Request, “It’s more about the paradox of who [Artis] is and what people perceive him as. He’s a street musician, but when he’s playing on the street, he is given a value and judged completely wrong by someone else. They think he’s a street person, or he’s doing this because he can’t hold down a regular job. They put him a few pegs down on the social ladder because of how they perceive someone who dresses differently. The lyrics express the sentiment that I much more easily identify with someone like Artis than I would watch him play.” In addition to the spoon work of Artist, drummer Matt Cameron can be heard playing pots and pans, while bassist Ben Shepherd offers backing vocals on the song. The track would eventually climb to No. 3 on the Mainstream Rock Chart, No. 9 at Modern Rock and would become an MTV favorite as well.
As the summer of 1994 arrived, Soundgarden had arguably the biggest song of their career waiting in the wings. The darkly sinister sounding “Black Hole Sun” unfolded over Chris Cornell’s poetic yet tongue-twisty lyrics. It’s a hit now, but there was concern by the band at the time at the creative leap they’d taken. Thayil told Billboard, “[That song] wasn’t safe as milk, but it wasn’t glass in someone’s eye either. It was the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Now it’s the ‘Dream On’ of our set.”
Cornell revealed that the song came quickly. “I write songs best when I’m depressed,” the singer told Melody Maker. “No one seems to get this, but ‘Black Hole Sun’ is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper, which is ridiculous. ‘Fell On Black Days’ is another one. ‘Like Suicide’ is a perfect example.”
Also aiding the cause, the band called upon director Howard Greenhalgh for a creepy looking video that was all over MTV. In the clip, a bunch of happy suburbanites gets sucked up into a black hole while the band plays amidst the debris in an open field. The clip would go on to win the MTV VMA for Best Metal/Hard Rock Video and also received a Clio Award for Alternative Music Video. By the time all was said and done, the song spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock Chart, hit No. 2 at Modern Rock and also received a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance.
The album also featured a trio of other songs released to radio. “The Day I Tried to Live.” “It’s actually, in a way, a hopeful song,” said Cornell to Rolling Stone. “Especially the lines ‘One more time around / Might get it,’ which is basically saying, ‘I tried today to understand and belong and get along with other people, and I failed, but I’ll probably try again tomorrow.’ A lot of people misinterpreted that song as a suicide-note song. Taking the word live too literally. ‘The Day I Tried to Live’ means more like the day I actually tried to open up myself and experience everything that’s going on around me as opposed to blowing it all off and hiding in a cave.” The song climbed to No. 13 at Mainstream Rock and No. 25 at Modern Rock.
With a siren-like guitar, “My Wave” also rode the radio waves, climbing to No. 11 at Mainstream Rock and No. 18 at Modern Rock. And finishing out the singles for the album was the somber “Fell on Black Days.” “Fell On Black Days was like this ongoing fear I’ve had for years. It took me a long time to write that song,” said Cornell to Melody Maker.”It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting – when all of a sudden you realize you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it’s just that you realize one day that everything in your life is f–ked!”
By the time the album cycle was done, Soundgarden were standing shoulder to shoulder with their Seattle brethren. Cornell told Request at the time, “What would be nice to hear 15 years from now is that Soundgarden influenced a large number of bands that ended up being household names, which is true, almost to the degree of saying we influenced an era of music.” It looks like Cornell got his wish as Superunknown was one of the more influential albums of the ’90s and solidified the band’s standing in the rock world. The album debuted at No. 1 and went on to be certified five times platinum by the RIAA.
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