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Band formed in 1984 in Seattle, Washington. Original members included Kim Thayil (guitar), Chris Cornell (vocals, drums), and Hiro Yamamoto (bass); drummer Matt Cameron joined group in 1986; Yamamoto left the group in 1989 and was replaced by Jason Everman, who was replaced c. 1990 by Hunter "Ben" Shepherd; songwriting is a collaborative effort. Signed with Sub Pop Records, 1987, and released EP Screaming Life. Moved to SST label, 1988, and released album Ultramega OK. Moved to A&M Records, 1988, and released Louder Than Love, 1989. Addresses: Record company-- A&M Records, 1416 North La Brea Ave., Los Angeles CA 90028.

Soundgarden is one of several new heavy metal acts to emerge from the Seattle area since 1985. After years of trial-and-error recording on independent labels, the four-member group found national success with the 1989 album, Louder Than Love, a major underground hit in 1990. Soundgarden's intriguing combination of psychedelic hard rock, speed-metal, and post-punk is admittedly not for sissies, but it is a step ahead of standard "party hearty" metal fare nonetheless. A favorite of college radio stations, the rebellious Soundgarden offers some of the hardest rock played on the planet today; as Arizona Republic columnist Salvatore Caputo put it, the music "isn't 'loud' as in a jackhammer, but 'loud' as in a 747 jetliner at full speed crashing into a skyscraper."

Lead guitarist Kim Thayil describes his band as "basically a bunch of punk rockers that kind of realized there [were] psychedelic and dynamic elements that could be dealt with if they slowed it down a bit. You tap into that sort of heartbeat, that sort of psychedelia. There is a reference point that is definitely visceral--you come up with something that hits you in the heart, the head and the groin." With far-ranging influences, Soundgarden offers a crushing assault on the senses that still manages to avoid the usual metal-band bombast. Houston Post contributor John Voland observed that the group "manages to steer its sledgehammer intensity into some pretty interesting areas, like ambiguous sexuality, depersonalization and even ... the environment."

Soundgarden was founded in Seattle in 1984, but its roots lie in Chicago. Two of its founders, Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto, grew up there and graduated from high school together. With a third friend, Bruce Pavitt, Thayil and Yamamoto moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1981. Pavitt started a rock 'n' roll fanzine while Thayil and Yamamoto studied philosophy at Evergreen State College. Eventually Thayil and Yamamoto found their way to Seattle, forming the band Soundgarden with drummer-vocalist Chris Cornell. Pavitt founded an independent label, Sub Pop Records, and by 1987 had recruited Soundgarden and several other local bands to make records with him.

Soundgarden's name is borrowed from a sculpture in a waterfront park north of Seattle. When the wind blows, pipes in the sculpture make a spooky, hooting noise. Thayil liked the sculpture and named his fledgling band after it. It is more or less a coincidence that Soundgarden's members began playing together at a time when the music scene in Seattle was beginning to attract attention. Although the group has often been lumped with other Seattle outfits such as Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Mother Love Bone, it bears little resemblance to those bands. Thayil told the Chicago Tribune: "We were a punk band with long hair, and we played with a punk attitude, but the music was slower, trippier." Cornell told the Los Angeles Daily News: "A lot of people hated us, which I dug a lot. Sometimes it's fun to be hated. When you're always liked, you become self-conscious."

One person who did not hate Soundgarden was Axl Rose, frontman for the premiere quality-metal outfit Guns n' Roses. Rose attended his first Soundgarden concert in 1988 and was especially impressed by Cornell's keening vocals. By that time the group--with a new drummer, Matt Cameron--had pressed an EP on Sub Pop and were readying another album, Ultramega OK, for the SST label. Almost from the outset Soundgarden was courted by a number of major recording companies, including Capitol and Epic. "We didn't want to commit ourselves to someone else's ballgame," Thayil told the Chicago Tribune. "We wanted to learn about the industry ourselves, instead of being caught off-guard."

The group also wanted to make its music without being manipulated by profit-hungry producers. The hands-on style evident on Ultramega OK proved quite attractive to speed-metal fans, and the album earned a 1990 Grammy nomination in the metal category. Soundgarden finally moved to a major label in 1988, cutting Louder Than Love with A&M Records. Released late in 1990, Louder Than Love drew raves from critics and a sales-enhancing "explicit lyrics" sticker for a track entitled "Big Dumb Sex." The group promoted the album with a national tour through the summer of 1990.

In his Rolling Stone review of Louder Than Love, J. D. Considine wrote: "Soundgarden takes its cues from metal's new primitivism, eschewing virtuosity for the brutish efficiency of simple aggression. That's not to say these guys don't have chops.... But they do seem more inclined to beat a riff into submission than strut their stuff by playing rings around it. As a result, the songs on Louder Than Love are mean, lean, and fighting fit."

The hurricane-force groove notwithstanding, Soundgarden's members reject what they call the "paint-by-numbers" sound of most metal music. Soundgarden has been known to parody its predecessors in songs like "Big Dumb Sex," but the band also tackles subjects rarely found in heavy metal such as pollution and power madness. "Like Metallica, Soundgarden ferrets out the best elements of metal while spitting out the cliches," wrote Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune. "Even Soundgarden's hardest, loudest workouts have a subtle, sensual underpinning, an unlikely mix that makes 'Louder Than Love' one of the most innovative hard-rock records to come skateboarding down the pike."

Having achieved an international reputation, the members of Soundgarden are determined to keep the bite in their act. "We've come through a lot of buzz and hype," Thayil told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "You can't let it go to your head." The guitarist added: "I don't think we [have] prima donna attitudes. We've been at this five years. We'll take it in stride. Ultimately, you come home and eat dinner like anyone else."

by Anne Janette Johnson

Soundgarden's Career

Soundgarden's Awards

Grammy Award nomination, 1990, for Ultramega OK.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Soundgarden Lyrics

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