In 1984, Soundgarden (due at Red Rocks tonight with The Mars Volta) started out as a three piece with Chris Cornell on drums and vocals, Kim Thayil on guitar and Hiro Yamamoto on bass. Within a year, the trio recruited Scott Sundquist to play drums, so that Cornell could cultivate his skills as a frontman. By 1986, Sundquist was replaced by former Skin Yard drummer, Matt Cameron.
For a couple of years, Soundgarden remained a well-kept secret in the Pacific Northwest until it garnered the attention of A&M Records, who released Louder Than Love and marketed the band to metal audiences. The group -- which had been part of the underground scene in Seattle and counted among its fans punkers and the like -- was not strictly a metal band, but it did have crossover appeal. The songs on Louder Than Love were about real-life darkness in a gritty, believable way rather than a cartoonish way as was often the case with metal bands then and now.
Soundgarden went on national and international tours with heavier bands of various stripes as an opening support act for the next couple of years, but with Badmotorfinger, the act's popularity soared and its sound became associated with what came to be called "grunge." While Soundgarden didn't become quite as famous some of its contemporaries, it did enjoy some much-deserved time in the limelight, especially after the release of Superunknown, which contained a handful of hits.
The pressures of constant touring and the resultant tensions within the band brought it to an end after a show in Hawaii in 1997. But in the last few years, the guys decided to give it another go, after appearing together on stage again for the first time in over a decade at last year's Lollapalooza. Realizing there was still a great deal of interest in their music, the men of Soundgarden put out a live album, Live on I-5, followed by word that they would tour again and then begin work on a new album.
We spoke with the affable, observant and witty Matt Cameron about his history with the band, how he sang on the soundtrack to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and what brought Soundgarden back together.
Westword: In other interviews, you've said that when you were a kid you were more into jazz. Who were your favorite jazz artists?
Matt Cameron: It was probably around age seventeen that I started listening to John Coltrane, and I think Giant Steps was my first album, and I absolutely fell in love with it. From there, I listened to a lot of Thelonius Monk. I had a bunch of friends who were into bebop. My father listened to Stan Kenton and Dave Brubeck when I was growing up, so I heard a lot of it as a younger kid, but I didn't really latch on to it until seventeen or so, once I really started to study drumming. I went out to some jazz clubs and I saw some jazz acts, and I really dug the drumming. From there, I started buying the records.
How did someone convince you to start playing rock music?
Well, I always played rock music. I started playing in rock bands when I was about thirteen, so that's always been my 'expertise,' I guess you could say, as a drummer. It wasn't until later that I started playing jazz with people. It was a lot harder than listening to the music [laughs]. It required a lot more technique and, you know, more sensitivity and dynamics and stuff. It's still something that I aspire to for sure.
In preparation for this interview, I saw someone chart out some of the time signatures that you used in Soundgarden, and I saw some rather odd and interesting choices.
Kim [Thayil] naturally writes all these riffs in five and seven and six. 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. It was always really challenging and it's super fun to do that as a drummer.
In a June 1994 Modern Drummer article, you said that you "make odd time signatures feel like straight time."
Yeah, I think that was always our goal.
What brought you to Seattle from San Diego?
I played in a group called Fault Line with a friend of mine named Glenn Slater. He and I kept in touch after he moved to Seattle from San Diego in about 1981. I had graduated from high school in 1980 and had been kicking around San Diego working day jobs and played in bands. I had dabbled in college a little bit. Glenn called me up and said, "Hey, come up for a visit." I brought up my drums. That was 1983, and I never left. So basically I just knew the one person up here and plugged myself into the local music scene.
What were your impressions of Soundgarden before you joined the band, and did you get to see the incarnation with Chris as the drummer?
No, I saw the incarnation with Scott Sundquist as the drummer. I saw them play at The Rainbow Tavern in Seattle, and 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' natural charisma and Hiro [Yamamoto], the bass player, was fantastic. I always really thought they were great. So when Kim informed me that Scott had left, I sort of jumped and forced my way into the band, as it were [laughs].
Did you actually write a song called "Puberty Love" that was in the movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes? If that's true, how did that come about?
No, I sang on "Puberty Love." My neighbors up the street were making a low-budget comedy/horror movie called Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. So they recruited a lot of kids from the neighborhood make these big papier-mâché tomatoes and play bit parts in the movie. They knew that I was a musician, so they asked if I knew how to sing. I sort of knew how to sing, but I wasn't that good. I think that was part of the charm of the song. It sounds like a pre-pubescent voice that is cracking and can't sing that well. So I fit perfectly for the role.
When you were playing in Skin Yard and early on in Soundgarden what was Seattle like, and did you get to play shows with Blackouts?
Matt: No, I never got to play with Blackouts, but they were one of my absolute favorite Seattle bands. Are you familiar with them?
Oh yeah. I love Blackouts.
Oh, cool. Their drummer, Bill Rieflin is a dear friend of mine. He's in a really cool band now called The Humans. Robert Fripp plays in it. So he's done some interesting music since the Blackouts days. He played with Ministry. We never played with Blackouts, but we were huge fans of those guys and we loved Bill's drumming. I think Skin Yard played with Soundgarden once or twice. I was in a band called Feedback, and we played with this band called The Shemps that featured Kim and Chris and Hiro and a different drummer. They were playing covers and things like that. I guess that was the only time that really happened.
A Denver band used to play Seattle frequently way back when, and I was wondering if you knew the late Ricky Kulwicki of The Fluid and do you have any vivid memories of him?
Not well but I certainly remember him from The Fluid. Very tragic what happened with him. I heard he left behind some kids. Kim knew him really well; he was talking to Garrett [Shavlik] and some other people after that happened. We all felt very sad about that. It seemed to happen out of the blue, too. We played some shows with The Fluid; they were a killer band. We loved them.
How did you get hooked up with the guys from Queens of the Stone Age, and may I ask why that did not end up panning out?
I was in a band called The Wellwater Conspiracy with John McBain. We met on a Monster Magnet tour in 1993, I believe, and we formed that band. Josh Homme was just coming off tour with The Screaming Trees, and he was writing a bunch of material, so we knew Josh from playing in The Screaming Trees and from playing around town. He recruited me and John to work out some new music, which eventually became Queens of the Stone Age.
I guess the first incarnation was me, McBain, Josh and Mike, the bass player who used to be in Dinosaur Jr. We played one show together at OK Hotel. I guess it just sort of felt like we were subbing for Josh until he found permanent bandmates. But I love that band, I think they're great. It was really fun times and Josh played on a Wellwater Conspiracy record with us. I've played with The Queens in '07 or '06 for a benefit concert for a friend of ours who passed away. Josh is a great guy and we've kept in touch. He's a lovely fellow.
How did the audiences of Voivod, Faith No More and Guns N Roses receive you?
I think once they saw us live, they understood it. I don't know if they always liked it. I think the Faith No More/Voivod bill was cool. Voivod was the headliner because they were the most popular band at the time. We would play then Faith No More then Voivod. All three bands are very different, but the unifying element was that we all rocked really hard and that we were loud. I think those three bands really epitomized the goals of the type of rock music we were trying to pursue back then. Faith No More had a pretty huge rap influence going on, and Voivod was just pure Canadian prog. We were more basic kind of riff rock stuff. It was a really cool bill.
Guns N Roses, that crowd was...I think when we opened for those guys, people were just finding their seats, you know? 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.
Some other bands that have opened for those guys got a really hostile reception.
We probably did, too. But we played with so much volume and force that people had to stand back and take it all in. I think we just tried to bludgeon people to the point where if they did have a negative reaction, they might just leave or something.
You said in a 2009 [London] Guardian article that Soundgarden was "eaten up by the business." What did you mean by that and what made coming back and why do you think you all found it appealing to being back in the band?
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. 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.
After we did break up, it was kind of nice to get away from that for a little while before I joined Pearl Jam right away [laughs]. The reasons for doing it now, it just felt right. It felt natural. We did get a whole bunch of offers to play these enormous shows, and we decided to just to do the Lollapalooza concert last August.
The main emphasis for getting back together was to kind of re-launch our catalog and update everything in the digital world and get on Facebook and Myspace and all the current ways bands are promoting themselves these days. We had no presence in that modern era. That was the main reason we got back together and after we had all these discussions about business and putting out our catalog, 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?" There are a lot of people who never got to see us live so we're going to get out there and do it one more time, you know?
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.