Soundgarden's Chris Cornell Q&A: Looking Back on 'Grunge'

Soundgarden's Chris Cornell July 20, 1962 (age 48)

Twenty years after Soundgarden's 'Badmotorfinger' rocketed to the fore in 1991 along with Pearl Jam's 'Ten' and Nirvana's 'Nevermind,' Chris Cornell talks about the rise of Seattle music, signing to a major, and the lessons learned.

In 1984, Seattle native Cornell, along with guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Hiro Yamamoto and drummer Scott Sundquist, formed Soundgarden. Drummer Matt Cameron replaced Sundquist two years later, and Soundgarden released its debut album, "Ultramega OK," in 1988 on indie label SST. Soundgarden became the first band from the soon-to-be-known-as grunge scene to sign with a major, and its sophomore album, "Louder Than Love," was released on A&M Records in 1989. The group went on to release three successful albums -- "Badmotorfinger" (1991), "Superunknown" (1994) and "Down on the Upside" (1996) -- before splitting in 1997. Cornell formed supergroup Audioslave with members of Rage Against the Machine in 2001, and has released three solo albums. Soundgarden reunited in 2010 for festival and concert dates. The group plans to record new material in the coming year.

Why did Soundgarden sign to a major?

It was the very beginning of that trend of majors hiring people from indie labels, or out of college, who understood that at the time indie rock was at least 10% of the rock marketplace. They felt like they needed to get in on that. Soundgarden got a bit of that attention. We had support from different people -- Mike Bordin of Faith No More was one of them who played up our music -- but we never made demo tapes or ever sent anyone anything. Our dream was to be part of the indie scene and put out records. We did this one pivotal show where someone from Geffen came and someone from A&M came to see us perform at this club called the Vogue in Seattle. When we started getting label attention, nobody really knew what that meant. It seemed strange to us, because we didn't think majors could reach the audience we already had. That was proved by the fact that our SST album, to this day, has sold more than our first A&M album, which came out later.

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When did the Seattle scene shift, get bigger?

Soundgarden signing to a major, then Mother Love Bone, and seeing the same happen to Alice in Chains. We were all suddenly making music and recording at the same time, and we had money to do it. It wasn't like a $2,000 recording that you do over a weekend. It's like, "Wow, maybe this will be our job." I remember hearing songs from the Mother Love Bone album, and hearing Alice in Chains, and feeling like this is more than just a fad or moment. I remember the first time I heard Nirvana's demo cassette that became "Bleach," and feeling that there was a lot of great music here.

I think we were spoiled at first, and didn't realize it until we toured. We did some van tours when our Sub Pop EP ["Screaming Life"] came out. We went to a lot of other cities that were known for having these amazing indie-rock scenes -- Minneapolis, Athens [Ga.], New York. We didn't see in many of those places what we thought we had at home. I realized we had something special. We kind of pushed each other. It was friendly, but there were rivalries in a sense. If there's a whole bunch of good bands, it forces you to up your game a little bit.

When did the scene die down?

The core of the real scene died as soon as everybody was out touring, whether it was a major label or indie. Once bands were out traveling, they weren't at home anymore. That particular club scene was over -- morphed into something else. I remember coming back from tour and seeing a late-'60s Dodge in front of one of the clubs that we used to play. These guys got out, and the car had Minnesota plates on it. They opened their trunk and were changing their clothes from bags they had in there. You realized that Seattle had almost become the Sunset Strip, because there were people coming from all over the world to move there and start bands. It happened really quickly. By '92.

Our soundman had a rehearsal space with 14 different spaces inside of it in an old winery. And I think by the end of '93 or '94, he had 75 rehearsal spaces. The bands at the beginning of the scene were all busy and we were all out of Seattle -- it was gone. A lot of clubs opened up. Another thing I think was always misunderstood is the idea that part of the scene was this great club scene, and that there were a lot of great clubs to play. But that wasn't true. There was a couple. It was really the music that was vibrant. A lot of clubs that catered to music and bands opened up after that, which was really great. But it became different. It changed.

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Do you have regrets, business-wise?

I don't think so. We were pretty savvy. The most sensitive and risky period was that initial shift from being an indie-rock band to a major-label rock band. The whole industry, including radio and television, all kind of transformed at the same time. In terms of how we conducted our business, I don't see us any making any huge mistakes. We did pretty well.