Soundgarden - Biography

One can't necessarily contend that Soundgarden were an underrated band in their heyday, as they were nominated for a total of three Grammies and their final three albums went platinum. But as far as grunge bands go, they have certainly not been granted the same immortality that Nirvana has, perhaps because Kim Thayil's guitar parts were not as catchy or accessible as Kurt Cobain's. Nor were they ever met with the same affection and adoration that Pearl Jam has become used to, perhaps because Chris Cornell's songwriting was not infused with as much relatable emotion or pain as Eddie Vedder's. But they did take the template of grunge, a word that is more about location and style of dress than style of music, and eventually pushed it to boundaries that were never explored by either Pearl Jam or Nirvana. It's been over a decade since they disbanded, and today, it's entirely feasible for a young music fan to claim he's never even heard of Soundgarden. But, once he does, he is in for a treat.


Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamomoto graduated from the same high school in Park Forest, Illinois. Along with their friend, Bruce Pavitt, they moved to Olympia, Washington, to attend college. It was 1981. The three of them quickly became utterly lost in the local music scene, with Thayil playing in bands, Pavitt starting a fanzine, and Yamomoto starting a band with his roommate and then-drummer, Chris Cornell, a Seattle native. Thayil soon joined them on guitar, and they named themselves Soundgarden after a pipe sculpture in Seattle. They played their first gig at the club Top of the Court. Chris Cornell played drums and sang at this show and a few others before Scott Sundquist was acquired to fill in on the drum seat. Sundquist quit in 1986, and the band began courting Matt Cameron, who was currently drumming for Skin Yard. After some persuasion, they convinced Cameron to leave Skin Yard and become the full-time drummer of Soundgarden.


What began simply as a fanzine of Bruce Pavitt's had now evolved into a record label called Sub Pop, thanks in part to Thayil introducing Pavitt to the label's other eventual co-founder. After releasing three songs on the Deep Six compilation for C/Z records, Soundgarden became the first band to be signed to Pavitt's new label in 1987. Sub Pop released the song “Hunted Down” as a single, and the EP, Screaming Life, followed later in the year. In 1988, another EP, Fopp, was released. Both EPs became underground hits and were released on one CD in 1990. Major labels were looking to sign Soundgarden for the release of their debut album, but they instead went with a California-based indie label. Ultramega OK was released on SST at the end of 1988, and was met with good reviews from metal and alternative magazines. It was eventually nominated for a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Metal Performance.


Mainstream label A&M records had been pursuing the band, and in 1989, they became the  label that would release the final four Soundgarden albums. 1989's Louder Than Love came first, and, on the strength of good reviews and word of mouth, it reached number 108 on the charts. After its release, Yamomoto left the band to focus on his schooling. Jason Everman, who had done a stint in Nirvana on guitar, filled in on bass for a short while until the band realized the arrangement would not work out. By the end of the year, Ben Shepherd became their full-time bassist, completing a line-up that would last for the rest of the band's career.


By now, the general consensus among spectators of the music industry was that Soundgarden's next album would be a huge crossover hit and would break down the doors of grunge. Although Badmotorfinger (1991 A&M) was their most well-received album yet, reaching number 39 on the charts, Nirvana's Nevermind, released the same year, stole the spotlight from them and became the definitive grunge album. Things were still going particularly well for the band in the grand scheme of things, however, as sales were up and Axl Rose, who had previously championed the band, invited them to support Guns N' Roses on their Lose Your Illusion tour.


On March 19th, 1990, Cornell's one-time roommate and lead singer of Mother Love Bone, Andrew Wood, passed away due to an overdose of heroin. As a tribute to the man, Cornell formed and fronted the band Temple of the Dog, enlisting Cameron on drums, and a couple members of Mother Love Bone, Jeff Ament (bass) and Stone Gossard (guitar). Wood's two former bandmates had a new group called Pearl Jam, and their singer, Eddie Vedder, contributed back-up vocals to the band's self-titled release in 1991 (A&M).


In 1992, Soundgarden were featured in Cameron Crowe's film Singles. They are shown in a club playing the song “Birth Ritual,” which, along with a solo effort by Cornell called “Seasons,” appeared on the soundtrack. Later in the year, the band joined the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam for the Lollapalooza tour.


1993 saw the members of Soundgarden taking a break, not from each other, but from being Soundgarden. Cameron and Shepherd played together in a band called Hater and released an album. Cornell and Cameron recorded a Jimi Hendrix cover with Ament and Mike Mcready of Pearl Jam for a Hendrix tribute album called Stone Free. So, it was not much of a break, but apparently the only respite they needed before composing what is revered by many as nothing short of a masterpiece.


Superunknown (A&M 1994) debuted at number one on the Billboard charts because the group's popularity had been rising leading up to its release. It stayed on the charts because it was a hit-generating machine. Five singles, “Fell on Black Days,” “Spoonman,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” “My Wave,” and what is now the signature Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun,” all reached the top 20. The music video for the latter song won for Best Metal/Hard Rock Video at the 1994 Video Music Awards, and the song itself won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. “Spoonman” won them another Grammy for Best Metal Performance. The album showcased a newfound ability to blend their psychedelic tendencies with their heavy metal foundation and transcend that sound into something beloved by the masses.


The band followed their breakout hit with 1996's Down on the Upside (A&M). Sales were initially strong and the album debuted on the charts at number two. The singles “Burden in My Hand” and “Blow Up the Outside World” reached number one on the charts and “Pretty Noose” hit number four, and yet this release was not considered a smashing success, only because of what a commercial monster its predecessor had been.  


Soundgarden went on to co-headline Lollapalooza and followed this with their own tour of America. Rumors arose that the band were not getting along, that the manner in which Shepherd conducted himself onstage had become intolerable, and that Thayil's desire to stay in the realm of metal did not agree with Cornell's need to explore other genres. And so, on April 9th, 1997, Soundgarden announced their break-up, two months after their final show in Honolulu. 

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