Get Yourself Control: The Oral History of Soundgarden’s ‘Superunknown’
Somewhere between a man beating himself bloody with spoons and a producer ripping a door off its hinges, Soundgarden made the record they'd been waiting nine years to unleash. Already beloved in the Seattle rock scene, and reaping the benefits of their town's early '90s grunge celebrity alongside their friends Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the band's previous album, 1991's Badmotorfinger, had gone platinum and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance. They'd helped spur Sub Pop records on to greatness, hit the road with Guns N' Roses, and commanded the mainstage of Lollapalooza.But the band that so identified with muscular, pistoning hard-rock believed they were also capable of a deeper pop melodicism, of more nuanced anthems. By the summer of 1993, frontman and guitarist Chris Cornell, a longtime Beatles and Pink Floyd devotee, and bassist Ben Shepherd, a blithely experimental hand with tunings and dynamics, had begun crafting songs that would defy headbangers' expectations.
Some bits that should get singled out like the Billy Nye cameo:
Kim Thayil: Bill Nye was compiling an episode about sound, and they asked if they could get a peek at the machinations of a recording studio and we said yes. They got some video footage of the band and Adam Kasper hanging around by the mixing board. I think we described the whole recording process as being a giant drinking straw.
Ben Shepherd: So Bill Nye the Science Guy came in and we did “Kickstand” for them. I think it was right before we started mixing, so the record was done and we did a whole segment. Yeah, that’s a weird episode of Bill Nye, talking about sound with Soundgarden.
Kim Thayil: We always had a warm spot for kids’ educational television. We always said if we were asked to do something on Sesame Street, we would do it, and that’s no joke.
Or working with a producer:
Michael Beinhorn [Producer]: I told them that I felt that they really needed to work harder and write better songs, for lack of a better word. You know, to make the kind of record that they needed to make. Right there, I think that created some issues. But I just felt so emphatically about it, you know: The potential here to make this great, great record was vast. If we could just make a tiny, little bit of it, it was going to be an amazing record.
Chris Cornell: I think that if there was any tension, it had more to do with producer issues than anything else. We were never a band that particularly needed a producer, anyway. We were always capable of making our own record. Producers often tended to just be there so that the record label would feel somehow confident that their investment wasn’t gonna somehow be wasted. [Laughs]
Ben Shepherd: I remember Beinhorn piping in on the talkback mic a lot, and then we would just break into “Kumbaya.” Every time he tried to talk to us, we would just start playing or singing “Kumbaya.”
Adam Kasper [Engineer]: The door in the control room, which is the giant soundproof door, got ripped off its hinges by Beinhorn. It was less his power of anger and more it was just a big-ass door and, once he started to swing it in a bit of a huff, it just went all the way. Because we did it again on the next record. Kim was like, “I don’t even see how he broke it himself.” That was classic.
Michael Beinhorn: In the long run, you would think that, at one point, there would be a parting of the ways, because things would just get so untenable, like, “He wants to do this but we want to do that.” There were certain points where I may, in the back of my mind, have been going, “Wow, I wonder if the other shoe’s going to drop on this.”
Kim Thayil: But the conflict never came to blows.
Chris Cornell: It forced us to not rely on someone else and to become even closer-knit as a band and take responsibility for what it was we were doing. In a way, that might be one of Beinhorn’s attributes as a producer, because he definitely was involved in a lot of records that I thought were great, which is why I thought he’d be the perfect choice — and clearly Superunknown turned out great, but I think it might have more to do with the fact that we had this necessary adversary in the studio to pull us together as a group.