The Great Unknown: Kim Thayil & Chris Cornell Talk Soundgarden's 'Superunknown'

This is an excerpt from the August 2014 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this story, plus features on the Who's Quradophenia, Metallica's Kirk Hamlett, Jackson Guitars, David Crosby, our Summer Tour Survival Guide, columns, tabs and reviews of new gear from Jackson, Ibanez, Blackstar, Musicvox, EarthQuaker Devices, Electra Guitars and more, check out the August 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.

On the 20th anniversary of Superunknown, Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell talk about the album that made Soundgarden one of alternative rock’s biggest acts.

In the summer of 1993, Soundgarden were holed up at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle, Washington, working on the follow-up to their semi-successful third album, 1991’s Badmotorfinger. Guitar World’s intrepid Seattle correspondent, Jeff Gilbert, was on hand to get the scoop on the hotly anticipated new record. During his interview, he talked to guitarists Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell about the fact that Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam—three of their Seattle brethren that formed well after Soundgarden—had achieved mass commercial success with their albums, while Soundgarden were still waiting for their breakthrough.

“I’ll admit that sometimes I ask, ‘Why them and not us?’ ” Thayil told Gilbert. “But I feel splendid being in the shadow of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It’s almost like someone is firing ray guns and these guys have provided a dome shelter over us, taking all the heat.”

“When Mother Love Bone got all this attention and played music that connected with people a lot quicker and was easier to take than Soundgarden music, it took a lot of focus off us, which was great,” added Cornell. “It was the ‘big fish in a small pond’ thing, which I’m not into at all. It’s too hard to hide when you’re the big fish. I’d rather be a miniscule brine shrimp in a polluted ocean, which is more fun to me.”

It’s safe to say that Cornell’s “fun” ended just a few months later, when Soundgarden’s fourth studio album, Superunknown, which is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary with a super-deluxe reissue package—came out and shot straight to Number One. In the process, it catapulted Soundgarden into the upper echelon of rock stardom they had somehow managed to avoid since their formation a decade earlier.

“A lot of it was just timing,” Cornell says today. “Everything was changing at the time—radio was evolving and the perspective of the listening audience was changing. The age of the audience too—a new generation was maturing and was ready for a band like us. So I think it was the perfect time for that record.”

“With Superunknown, it was already a few years after the meteoric rise of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam,” Thayil adds, “and we knew that this was our fourth album and that we had already been touring and making records for quite a long time, even before Nirvana and Pearl Jam were bands. So when Superunknown came out and became successful, we kind of felt that it was the fruits of our labor. I don’t know if we felt we deserved it, but we had definitely earned it by that point.”

Listening back to Superunknown, it’s easy to understand why it resonated so profoundly with the commercial rock audience: in short, it had everything. A sprawling, ambitious piece of work comprising 15 songs and clocking in at more than 70 minutes, Superunknown was the mark of a band that had reached creative maturity, with songs that ranged from shimmery, morose dirges (“Black Hole Sun,” “The Day I Tried to Live”) to psychedelic Beatles-inspired strummers (“Head Down”) to quirky, Middle Eastern–flavored ditties (“Half”) and pummeling, detuned sludgefests (“Mailman”). Superunknown may have taken only a few months during the summer of 1993 to write and record, but it’s clearly an album 10 years in the making—the culmination of Soundgarden’s evolution from young, aggro-grunge pioneers to experienced musicians capable of producing a masterwork.

For the rest of this story, plus features on the Who's Quradophenia, Soundgarden, Jackson Guitars, David Crosby, our Summer Tour Survival Guide, columns, tabs and reviews of new gear from Jackson, Ibanez, Blackstar, Musicvox, EarthQuaker Devices, Electra Guitars and more, check out the August 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.