TuneDig is an in-depth and informed conversation between two lifelong friends about the power of music — one album at a time.

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Episode 005

Superunknown

Soundgarden

The spirit of Superunknown perhaps is best captured by an offhand press quote from Kim Thayil: “Human beings are a wild composite of temporal events and insights and motivations and restrained behaviors … and memories both delusional and accurate.”

In this episode, we reflect on a masterpiece that captured the contradictions and complexity of raw emotion, and we explore the black hole-sized void torn open by the loss of a musical titan.

Transcript

Note: our transcripts are mostly AI-generated for now. 

Episode 005: Soundgarden's "Superunknown": Audio automatically transcribed by Sonix

Episode 005: Soundgarden's "Superunknown": this mp3 audio file was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the best speech-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors.

You're listening to TuneDig, a podcast for music lovers. The premise is simple: in each episode, we dig deep into an album we love and then we give away a copy to you of that album on vinyl. Go to TuneDig.com To see what's up for grabs and learn more about us.

Today we're talking about Soundgarden's Superunknown.

Let's talk about the 90s in Seattle, Kyle. You also talk about grunge, because it's something that I think for the whole time we've known each other, we've had very different opinions on. I think I've always been a huge fan. I think you've had your moments, if I remember correctly. But in a lot of ways it's not really your thing.

So super unknown by Soundgarden would be grunge to you.

Yeah, yeah. In a way that Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and the other one are the big four. There was certainly a big four here, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. Alice in Chains was a little later, but that's your big four of the Seattle grunge scene. They weren't my favorite initially, right. I was a teenager when Nirvana was a thing or in their later wave of influence. So Nirvana was my favorite. They seemed the most immediate to be able to get.

Soundgarden always had a lot of stuff I really liked, but I've only started really, really liking them more as I've gotten older and now would say they're my father in a way, a favorite of the four. And this is the record for me. Like, I love bad motor finger. I have my moments with the older stuff. But this record, I think is incredible. And the more times I listen to it, the more I like it.

Obviously people agreed with you won a Grammy for the best rock album in ninety five, five times Platinum won Grammys for like Olsun Spoon man. Those are huge hits. I like this record. I just don't like how long it takes to get started.

And I so that's the first point where we feel really differently. Let Me Drown is the first song on this record. Right. I normally do skip it, but I think it's a fine first song. A lot of what I remember reading about this record is that everybody in the band more than ever at this point in their career was bringing stuff to the table and nobody was really saying no to any ideas. And the only constraints for the length of this record were the length of a CD. They just went as long as they let it go. So it's a double album. Yeah, there's a lot of songs. So I think there's 16 songs. It's a lot it's a very long record and it goes a lot of places. So no other song feels like a first song on this album to me. So it's like a necessary evil, right? It's not one of the ones that stuck to my ribs. It has to be there. Fine. I love my wave. I like the lyrical theme of it. I think it's a cool riff and then fell on black days. I love because a band that we both love, he is legend put out a split. Probably one hundred people got it. I don't even know how many copies they made called the Black Unicorn split because they were on tour with that classic case. Yeah, that sounds right. One of like five bands on the Black Unicorn tour that year. That would have been like, oh, five or six. I want to say a really interesting transition period. He a legend. Anyway, there's five songs on that record. They each do one of each other songs, legend and classic case. They each do a cover. And then there's an original he is legend song. I want to say classic case does fell on Black Days, which is the third song on this record, and they do it acoustic.

Scaping. No doubt that this could be my biggest.

And that was a great like that was the summer, I think, of my freshman year of college. It was like a beautiful hot summer in Georgia that year, and I just had a lot of good memories riding around, listening to that five song EP over and over and over. So that was the first like, you know, I like the singles when they were on the radio when I was a kid, but that was the first time I remember being like, oh, these guys in these bands that I like were really into this whole scene. Like Legend always covered a Nirvana song and they cover like territorial piercings in school and like all these kind of random Nirvana songs. And so all the things these guys were doing and forced you to kind of dig deeper into grunge because grunge had just gotten to the point then where it was like it was very out of fashion to like that stuff and they were doing it in earnest. So there was something for me to dig into there. So like that was my reentry. I also think about how, like, Johnny Cash covered Rusty Cage.

Like God's eyes in my head, like. There were all these compelling reasons to try to keep checking out this record.

People love this record. I just have a personal affinity for the rest of the record, starting with Blackpool's on going from there, which is track seven or eight or something.

I mean, it's like way into the record.

Yeah, it's a good portion of the way in there. The first few songs, probably a little bit more straightforward, whereas eventually the tone of the album starts to break apart a little bit more. They seem to go in a few different directions and I really like when they go in those different directions, which is one of the reasons I like Soundgarden a lot more than their grunge contemporaries. Is that a phrase I want to use now? But we have to as opposed to, you know, honestly, the the emotional lyricism of Nirvana and the way that they kind of poured themselves into it. Very angsty, very childlike. Soundgarden was a little bit more like we don't mind being rock stars, though. Right. And so there was this kind of almost macho sense to it. But Chris Cornell earned everything that anyone would end up appreciating him for. And so if he wanted to take that perspective of being a little bit less emotional and a little bit more aloof and it would work and it worked here. So that's a bit why I was interested to hear your take on how they compare to the other bands coming out of Seattle at the time, because they certainly feel to me a lot more Alice in Chains than they do Nirvana or Pearl Jam.

One hundred percent and the rock star thing is apt. One of the other things other than that song that got me listening to them again was they were the zeppelin of the Grunstein in the sense that they were rock stars. They had the hugeness of their attitude and their delivery, but they were making like proper rock songs and there was an ambition to the energy of their songs. And that seemed to come through. And some of the early stuff that they were doing and then starting with bad motor finger, they start really trying. I think that's arguably when they start trying to forge in their own direction, finally. But they were already huge write you you read about the guys and like Tadd and Mudhoney and some of those other bands, Mother Love Bone that like never made it quite as far. And they revered these dudes. Kurt Cobain was infamously made fun of Chris Cornell. And you can argue any number of ways about why he did that. He had his own things, but it seems like these guys were really well liked as people and they were revered as a band, as an idea, and people kind of rooted for them to go out of the hometown, even though there was such a weirdness about getting big from that scene. So there's just a really interesting case study out of a scene that was all about authenticity and inwardness and and all those sorts of signifiers. Everyone could sort of feel that they were the ones with the potential to, like, really blow up and be a world wide thing. And they did. And this was bad. Motor finger went platinum. But this was the album that was like. That's crazy, considering how dark and weird, like aggressively weird this album tries to be, everything from the lyrical content to the length is hard to swallow to. There's all these, like, weird tunings and noises and it definitely does not try to be commercial.

I think that's another way to describe what Soundgarden does differently to me than, again, their Seattle based contemporaries might be a better way to say it. There was this level of earnestness with Nirvana, for instance, and they were heavily influenced by punk scenes. And a lot of what punk I think brings to the table and has is strip away the garbage. Here's a point and we'll deliver this to you in two minutes and it'll be fast and we'll be done. Soundgarden, especially on this record, not only because it's long, not only because it spans some different fields and sounds. Anything from the lyrical content to the way the songs are written never feel perfectly encapsulated by the time the song is done. You can't just kind of grab it and walk away from a song and feel like you kind of just got it. Even black son, I feel like every new time I listen to it, it takes on a slightly different tone. But A, how were people feeling when they made this? Yeah. Is this actually sad or not? Because I'm not sure, because it feels like it's supposed to be sad. It also feels like Chris Cornell specifically on that song and on others is kind of trying to keep you from feeling like you know exactly what you feel after the song is over. To me, that's what sets them apart again from some of the other people from the Seattle scene, from Sub Pop in general. And Soundgarden felt like they were at eighty five percent, holding back the like 15 percent. That made them mysterious.

Yeah, they were very in control of the esthetic. The video for Black Olsun, I think captures exactly what you're saying, because it's it's not exactly what you would think the video would be. When you listen to the song, you know, you picture it a certain way. You get a very visual idea in your head when you listen to it. And it does change each time you listen to it a little bit. But you see the video and there's all these kind of like conflicting things. There are happy images and then it turns into weird colors, but it doesn't stay there for long. But then, like people's faces warp and the weather changes and gets bad, but it never stays in a place. So it morphs between feelings and never really lets you pin it down to anything at any point. And I think, you know, all of this takes on a whole new color with Chris being gone now and passing in the way that he did. You can analyze these songs in a number of ways about mental and emotional health. But he and they as a band seem to live in kind of a place beyond feelings, just trying to explore places deep in your head and deep in your gut that you can't really define. And none of the other bands on their scene did that at all. And what made Soundgarden cool was there was more of an artfulness, right? They were more adult because they were grappling with the complexities of of feelings and not really being able to define how you feel about a thing, just feeling.

And musically, I think they could include that and create contrasts with the people around them. You hear elements of psychedelic rock in this record, which were certainly not, in my opinion, a part of Nirvana's repertoire.

For instance, nobody else's brute force was kind of the thing at that point.

So you take the psychedelic rock influences and some of the places that you see that pop up and then you take the producer from the record talking about the intensity of super unknown was influenced from European electronic music like Aphex Twin, and that they were trying to make the raw music they could in the studio. And I think it's an interesting discussion that there's this element of what raw means in the context of what's coming out of grunge and alternative music and everything else in the Pacific Northwest at this particular time is raw, pure aggression, pure speed, trying to make the clearest point you can, trying to stand for something really specific or is raw, creating this feeling that Chris Cornell would continue to do throughout his career of the most honest version of myself I can be is one where I don't totally know who I am at any given point. And I want to create a little bit of confusion and disillusionment, even in the music that I'm writing music for and the music that we're writing as a band and the feel of all of these songs, especially on this album. And again, one of the reasons I like the way that it picks up so much five or six songs into it, in my opinion, is it feels like it goes further into that. You at no point start to hear another templated alternative. Rock song, you hear volume changes, you hear influence changes, different instrumentation, like almost a folk rock song, you hear the the sounds in the background of the Spoon Man, your Fourth of July, which I still think is one of the heavier songs ever written. We were just talking the other day that if you slow that thing down, it becomes one of the coolest Dume songs in existence, basically.

For the Fourth of July is my number one favorite Soundgarden song and the sadness and the beauty of the singing of Chris's vocals, which are very muted on that song and just that riff before the drums come in. The drums do have that like muted, compressed sound that I don't love on that song. You know, I would have gone more like when the levee breaks big, whatever, but it kind of keeps it. I guess the drums kind of keep it in that place. But when you're way, way, way, way deep in your head and you feel like you're looking out on a Cliff over the ocean and like the sky is a weird color when you're deep in thought and maybe in a dark place and there's darkness in color. And that's such a psychedelic thing. But that's like a very normal way that the mind operates. Sort of like a dream state. Fourth of July and the guitar tone and just the feel of that song capture that so well without really trying too hard to, you know, I mean, like, that riff is a crusher, but then the vocals are really beautiful, in contrast. And like very few bands before them and very few after them, I would argue that like Deftones or one of the only bands to get that contrast really super right since then using heavy as an instrument of beauty rather than a force, that's a really killer example.

God, I love that song so much.

And another example of the way that they did that, too, I think Soundgarden manages to create these different feelings and emotions, not only kind of thematically throughout the whole album as a whole, but then individually in these songs. One of the ways that that came out is all of the weird time signatures that are a part of this album that they claim at least they weren't thinking about when they wrote the songs. So you got stuff like My Wave has five four and it fell on Black Daisies at six for Limerick is in 15 eight. The day I tried to live and spoon man alternate between seven, four and four for Black Hole, Sun has instrumental sections in nine four and they weren't trying to write these. I mean you could almost imagine like a numbers generator coming up with these sorts of meters at this point. But the fact that that they were only going for a feel, trying to do something and not thinking of the mechanics of it before they get there and then ending up with something so jarring and different, like you've had one drink too many while you're listening to this record and you're still thinking, but you you're having trouble quieting that extra internal monologue that's going on.

You said, what's the time signature of Limerick 15 eight fifteen eight while.

So I found a Cornell quote, Soundgarden, or Super Unknown, turned 20 like four years ago, and so they did a bunch of retrospectives and one of them, Cornell, talked about that song specifically. We didn't really play Limerick much live recently, but in rehearsing it now, I think it's one of the more unusual songs I've heard in Modern Rock. It's an accomplishment. And I can look at some of the slower, heavier, weirder melodic songs and super unknown as being uniquely ours without reference or Rudan. Anything else, any other period of music, any other band or any other records like suicide, Fourth of July, Limo Wreck Mailmen have all the songs speak only of Soundgarden. In my mind, that wasn't something that we are attempting to engineer. And maybe that's the part that's the most interesting. We didn't sit to try to write in a way that nobody had ever done. The reason why they have that uniqueness is the chemistry between us. This is a record that obviously came from a very deep place, mentally and emotionally. And I think that's what's resonated with a lot of people over the years. But I really sort of cerebral record in those kinds of ways to play a play sort of effortlessly playing a record that takes a lot of concentration coming from your head with a feel coming from your heart is a weird combination. And I think like one of their distinguishing factors, Matt is a phenomenally underrated drummer, has played with multiple bands and has such a great feel. And Kim is obviously such a weird and different guitarist and his approach to melody, lines and also texture. And Chris is out of that whole scene. Chris is for sure the best all around musician.

They came from that almost hate how much we have to talk about Chris Cornell to talk about Soundgarden. Yeah, but I think we would be doing that in a lot of cases with any of these bands that came out of Seattle. Whether we like it or not, that concept of a strong front man drove so many of these groups. Right. Obviously, Kurt Cobain, I think if we're being honest, the only reason we know about Dave Grohl is because he made a separate career for himself after that. Yeah, for sure. Right to the way our people are now, they're not well versed in music, are kind of shocked to learn that he was the drummer of Nirvana.

I happened to be in high school. I mean, I, I was reading I was a Foo Fighters fan in high school and had just seen the No one knows video and was trying to gobble up everything I could like. Well, he's playing drums in a band and then I felt like such a heel when I found out that he was the drummer in Nirvana and I was like, Oh, no wonder everybody cares so much who he is. So I was late to that party, but I'm sure it sounds like there are people that are even later to that party. So maybe I don't feel as bad anymore. It's not a party everyone has to come to you, but one hundred thousand people at a time do. Yeah, that's fair. Every firefighter show seems enormous.

It's true. But you got Nirvana. You got Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder is a little bit less in terms of star power, but he's still out there and he still drives so much of the music. And I think we whether we like it or not, even if we give as much credit as we can to the band behind Chris Cornell, he still drives so much of it. And I think it's worth bringing up all the different ways that those influences played out from Chris through the rest of the music. Apparently, he was really influenced by Sylvia Plath while he was writing this record. Interesting, which makes some sense if you listen to it a bit and then other little tidbits, right. Where you can see how Chris's approach shapes, how the band approaches the song and creates a certain feel to it, like the fact that the producer made him listen to Frank Sinatra before he recorded the vocals for Black Hole Sun.

I remember reading I think it was in another one of the retrospective interviews which were also interesting. Like, I love hearing creative process stuff, especially after you've had some time away from it.

All the stuff immediately after the record comes out talks about like how they all kind of banded together against the producer and some of the friction in the room over that six months. One of the interesting things that Chris talked about in that retrospective was going all the way back to being a kid and the records he would listen to, like the Beatles, where he would just wear those singles out and there'd be four people singing and he wouldn't know who was singing what part. And just sort of that ambiguity. And instead of it being like, I'm going to bring me Chris Cornell or me singer in this one way to all of these different songs, I'm going to do whatever suits the mood of this thing. So there's a lot of vocal versatility and there's a lot of versatility and feels. The Sylvia Plath thing is interesting. The Frank Sinatra thing is super interesting for just Chris's willingness to consider like the same way you would pick which guitar and the tone it makes suits that song like what am I going to make my voice do? Right. That makes you so much more compelling as a singer just to kind of lose yourself in the music. Jesus, Mom, spagetti, just bring a leftover plate of mom's spaghetti to whatever the song is, right? I mean, that that goes so counter to the idea of the rock star thing or of the of the like creative expression thing.

Right. Part of it is it is about declaring who you are to the world, to being willing to kill your ego and just be in service of the song is a less common way to do things. But I think the record was all the better for his willingness to do that. I love that Frank Sinatra a bit. You can almost hear him moving through notes the same way Sinatra would. I remember when Sinatra died and a lot of people talked about like, you can sing a Sinatra song, but you can't be Sinatra. Those songs are what they are because no one can sound like him. It's deceptively simple to be Frank Sinatra and Cornell and Sinatra are very alike in that way. Like, it's very obvious because you can't hit Chris's register with the fullness that he always did. But they had a feel that was very inimitable, like Soundgarden would have never been the band they were without the layer of texture that his voice added. And a lot of people have tried to do that and have tried to emulate it in the same way that Sinatra has influenced kind of an attitude like a way to approach a song. But yeah, there will never be another one of either one of those dudes.

And that's just as clear on another record that came out around this time that I love a ton, which is Temple of the Dog, which is if you take Pearl Jam's guitarist and the drummer who is shared between the two bands, and then you add Chris Cornell to the mix and you get that sense of you get a little bit more grunge in there, maybe, but you get a totally different style. You get a different mood and feel. But there's still uniquely Chris Cornell driven songs and melodies in a way that no one else could have done. You put Eddie Vedder in that band, and I'm sorry, I don't like Eddie Vedder written, but you put you put him in that band and you're going to get simpler Pearl Jam songs instead. And then on the other end of things, we've talked about how much we love that Audioslave record, especially the first one that came out. I think all the songs are pretty good. But if you imagine the templated music of Rage Against the Machine, I remember hearing about the concept of that band to start with, oh, God, how is this going to work right there? Because that doesn't seem possible at all.

Peanut butter and anchovies.

Right. But immediately, first song on that record comes out and you hear Chris Cornell hit vocal performances that you've never heard. No one else can do what he does.

He screams for an extremely long amount of time during that song to you, but no one sounds like him and it's so fitting that they somebody had a really great idea to be like, listen, we're going to shoot fireworks behind you for the literal length of this video for as long as the song, because that's what it feels like it is. You are on top of a building and there's fireworks going off like this is some of the craziest shit I've ever heard in terms of pure power. And they named it after a Native American chief who, like, made a big stand. And all of those things, I think, go to the size of Cornell's or you read about the studio time in the making of this record. And they describe him as like sinewy. But he's six foot two and he has like an imposing you can feel when he walks into the room. And it's so easy to talk about those kinds of things retrospectively after somebody dies. But the more things I read about him, the more that that seemed to just be the defining thing right in the way that it was for prints like when they were around you just you knew and they had a thing and a power. They were a lightning rod for some place beyond this plane. And that feels weirdly egotistical and fanatic to talk about. But like those people are those people, you know, I mean, they they become huge for a reason because people gravitate toward them. They have an energy.

It always feels risky to compare anybody to Prince. But I think we both know what you're saying in terms of it's not that he was necessarily on the same level of fame or that he was as enigmatic as Prince was.

But you're right there. There will only be one prince. I'm not directly, linearly comparing them.

But when people talk about Chris Cornell, even even I think they were saying this before he died, if you listen closely, people felt a way about Chris. He had a thing to him. He felt magical to a lot of people. And he felt like he could do things that no one else could. And a lot of times I think people couched that in comments about his vocals and the way that he performed. But I think that really bled over into the way that he as a as a person, as a presence was felt everywhere he went.

And not long before he died, he actually did. Unlike a morning show, an acoustic cover of Nothing Compares to You. And I think I sent it to you. I know. It is sometimes hard. I just remember being like, damn, he can go so deep, he can get to such a bottom of your gut type of place and it hadn't been that long since Prince had died. And I was still kind of reeling from that. Like that was the first musician death. I think I remember it being like it really hit me really hard because of that emotive ness. Right. And just that ability to go all the way to that place that makes music special because it it does the things that words can't do. That performance gives me chills. And I don't even have to be watching it or hearing it. And that's, I think, the power and that's the thread of this record. Right. To get back to super unknown is like it goes a bunch of different places. But the idea is like it's all coming from way down. I'm pulling things out of my gut and throwing them up, up, up into the sky.

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After stepping away from talking about albums in 2020, we took time to regroup and reground in why we started this thing in the first place.

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ABOUT US

We're Cliff (left) and Kyle (right). We’re two dudes born and raised in ATL with day jobs in tech and entertainment, respectively.

We met in middle school, and in one way or another, music’s been the thing that’s kept us close for the two decades since — whether it’s sharing and talking about new music (like this podcast, except in our texts or over beers), going to shows, or working with our favorite record stores to help them survive and thrive.

We started TuneDig as a little art project that connects us more deeply ourselves and to the world through the infinite gift of music. We hope you’ll join us for the conversations, let us know what you think, and share discoveries of your own.

More About TuneDig

TuneDig began as a little something called MusicGrid.me, which we created after realizing there was no place online to directly exchange music recommendations with your friends. Our aim was simple: to make rating albums simple, useful, and social. We got some love from places like MashableWiredEvolver.fm, and Hypebot. We managed to foster conversation between music lovers, get thousands of reviews, and meet great people.

Along the way, we realized that record stores were an essential part of the music lovers’ community. After many a conversation about how we could helpfully connect them to the people who loved them, we began helping them leverage technology to create new revenue streams and embrace streaming services without giving up what’s unique to them: expertise and curation. (Long live the counter clerk who knows exactly which record will be the right introduction to jazz fusion!)

TuneDig is our vision to connect music lovers with the music they love, because no matter how much has changed in the way we discover and enjoy music, recommendations from people you trust and respect will always be the best way to find new music you’ll dig. With this podcast, we’re channeling the spirit of trusted curation pioneered by record stores, and bringing you something to take you deeper into music you can love.