I saw them play at the Rainbow Tavern in Seattle," recalls Matt Cameron. "I loved Soundgarden even before I joined the group. They were my favorite Seattle band. I always tried to make their shows whenever they played. I was always impressed with Chris's natural charisma, and Hiro was fantastic. I always really thought they were great. So when Kim informed me that Scott [Sundquist] had left, I sort of jumped and forced my way into the band, as it were.
Cameron, a transplant from San Diego and drummer for Seattle's Skin Yard, joined Soundgarden in 1986 after the group had recorded its contributions to the now-legendary Deep Six compilation put out by C/Z Records, which included the original version of "Nothing to Say," a song that lauded producer (and former Skin Yard bandmate) Jack Endino once said was so heavy that he couldn't believe it was being put out by a Seattle band at the time. Part of the group's unique sound was rooted in its choice of odd time signatures.
"Kim naturally writes all these riffs in five and seven and six," notes Cameron. "Actually, Chris and everyone writes in these very sort of non-linear time signatures. It was always my job to make sure that everything felt as if it was in 4/4, or just try to smooth the rough spots out a little bit with the drum parts."
Soundgarden, with the Mars Volta, 8 p.m. Monday, July 18, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, $59.50 to $65.50, 303-830-8497.
Soundgarden was formed by then-drummer Chris Cornell, bassist Hiro Yamamoto and guitarist Kim Thayil in 1984. Early on, they played the handful of small clubs in Seattle that catered to original music. Over the course of the next several years, the newly formed Sub Pop released two Soundgarden EPs, Screaming Life and Fopp, and in 1988, SST signed the outfit and issued its debut full-length album, Ultramega OK.
When Soundgarden signed with A&M Records, which released Louder Than Love in 1990, some fans from the punk scene felt alienated. By aligning itself with a major label, the guys were evidently guilty of selling out, especially after going on to tour with Guns N' Roses. But really, Soundgarden's sound had merely evolved rather than being altered to match a marketing strategy — not to mention that touring with Axl Rose and company didn't exactly translate to massive acclaim.
"Guns N' Roses, that crowd was...I think when we opened for those guys, people were just finding their seats, you know?" recalls Cameron. "I don't think that many people were paying attention. That was kind of a long, hard slog, playing with those guys. But it exposed us to a lot of new people, so I figured it helped us get a gold record for Badmotorfinger once we did that tour."
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Released a month after Nirvana's Nevermind in 1991, Badmotorfinger helped bring Soundgarden to wider audiences with singles like "Outshined" and "Rusty Cage." From the time of Louder Than Love, the outfit was marketed to metal audiences. Although the record was plenty steeped in the slow burn and sludge of Black Sabbath, it also seemed to be coming from a different world entirely. On Badmotorfinger, it became clear that Soundgarden wasn't coloring inside the lines of mainstream metal. Its themes and sometimes dark sarcasm were far more in line with punk and post-punk than the acts singing songs about "Girls Girls Girls" and doing the "Unskinny Bop." And this most definitely worked in the band's favor.
With the release of 1994's Superunknown, Soundgarden effectively became a household name thanks to hit singles like "My Wave," "Spoonman" and "Black Hole Sun," which not only appealed to metalheads, but also struck a chord with a generation of people who were coming to appreciate music outside the mainstream, music informed by intelligence and the raw spirit of punk.
With a wider audience, though, came an increasingly more demanding and rigorous touring schedule. The tensions that naturally arose resulted in a shift in songwriting, as heard on the band's fifth album, Down on the Upside, in 1996. While that album contained some of Soundgarden's best and most interesting material, it also reflected fissures within the band itself. Soundgarden joined that year's Lollapalooza tour and followed it up with an extensive international tour in support of Upside, which eventually brought things to a breaking point. In February 1997, the band effectively parted ways on stage in Hawaii.
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Since then, each of the members has gone on to find success in other endeavors. Cornell embarked on a solo career and went on to front Audioslave; Thayil has since worked with Steve Fisk on the Probot album, among other projects; and Cameron joined Pearl Jam, with whom he's recorded four albums in the last decade. Cameron once told the Guardian that Soundgarden was simply "eaten up by the business."
"I think part of it was that we were never that organized with our business and our management, and everything felt like we weren't well represented in certain ways," he explains. "I think the main factor was that we were really getting sick of each other. We'd been touring for years and years straight. I think Chris really wanted to branch out and become a solo artist. That was sort of the main impetus for us disbanding."
Last year, Soundgarden re-formed and performed at Lollapalooza, which led to a full-scale tour this year and recording a new album. "The reasons for doing it now —it just felt right, it felt natural," declares Cameron. "We did get a whole bunch of offers to play these enormous shows, and we decided to just do the Lollapalooza concert last August.
"The main emphasis for getting back together," he goes on, "was to kind of re-launch our catalogue and update everything in the digital world. We had no presence in that modern era. After we had all these discussions about business and putting out our catalogue, we decided we should still get in a room together and see if we can still play music. Once we did that, it was pretty easy, and it just felt like it would be fun to go out and play this music again. There are plenty of fans who still like Soundgarden, and it's still on the radio, so we figured, 'Why not?'"