Sound & Vision: Superunknown Took Soundgarden to the Masses

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.

Soundgarden was the first group of Seattle’s grunge era to sign to a major record label, but for many years, their music was classified as “metal” and didn’t find mainstream success.

“Soundgarden is an interesting band and because their influences are more punk early on and then more metal,” says music journalist Charles R. Cross. “They'd released a couple albums that were definitely in the heavy metal section of a record store.”

Then came the album Superunknown.

“This record moves them to the front of the store,” says Cross. The band’s breakthrough album included the singles “Spoonman,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Fell on Black Days,” and “My Wave," and hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart.

KEXP DJ Marco Collins spoke with Cross about Superunknown, which came out only a month before Kurt Cobain’s death, and how it came to typify Seattle’s music scene in 1994. This is part of Sound & Vision’s occasional series called “Northwest Classics” – where we dive into the stories behind iconic albums from the region.

On the release of Superunknown coinciding with the death of Kurt Cobain:

Superunknown was released on March 8th, 1994. Exactly a month later, on April 8th, 1994, Kurt Cobain's body is discovered. He had died three days before. They felt weird about it because they had just released this record. Nobody knew Kurt was going to die a month later. But they had the fortune commercially to have a record that had just come out. Kurt's death certainly helped sell In Utero and helped sell a ton of MTV Unplugged when that record finally came out. But it also brought attention to Soundgarden, and they felt weird about that.

On Chris Cornell’s suicide and the songs of Superunknown:

Here are some of the things Chris told me about the songs on this album. “Let Me Drown” was about crawling back to the womb to die. I'll say one thing is obvious about Cornell, is that he had this sort of ghoulish laugh when he talked about this stuff. Kurt Cobain had sort of a similar thing where he could talk about very, very deep topics and kind of laugh when he was doing it. But, you know, “Fell on Black Days,” he told me, was about realizing you're unhappy to the extreme. And now that he's gone, it sounds different to say that he said that. But when he said it, he was laughing.

On Soundgarden breaking out of the metal genre with Superunknown:

There had been this perception of Soundgarden, they'd been on A&M Records and there'd been this perception that they were going to make butt rock. And what they did with this record was surprise everybody. They made a record with depth and layers. I mean, “Fell on Black Days,” that song I could listen to every single day of my life. It is the theme song to Seattle more than “Black Hole Sun.” The dark cloud sound of that captures the atmosphere of life in Seattle more than any other song.

On Chris Cornell’s prowess as a singer:

There was always an elegance and kind of a laid-back approach he took. You hear that in the way he even sings “Fell on Black Days.” It's not like Layne Staley or Eddie Vedder. It did not have that same energy to it. But what an amazing singer, he could sing the phone book and it would sound great. I mean, Chris Cornell was just an unbelievable singer. And this record is not just Chris Cornell, it's Kim and Matt and Ben. It's a great band at the height of their powers. And it's 1994 Seattle. And unfortunately, it's it. We're never going to have this sound again. We're never going to hear Chris Cornell sing a new song, that breaks my heart every day when I think about it. But when I listen to this record, it brings me back to that time.

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