Defining and Defying the Times: How Soundgarden Made 'Badmotorfinger'

On its 25th anniversary we talk to Kim Thayil about the making of 'Badmotorfinger' as grunge exploded and changed music, and the industry around it, forever.

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Dec 15 2016, 6:15pm

These days, it's hard to imagine a music fan who doesn't know about grunge. And everyone who does know will tell you the big hitters of the genre were Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, and Soundgarden. But back in 1991, grunge was still evolving and developing. Even as the Seattle-centric scene exploded with the release of Nirvana's Nevermind on September 24 later that year, it was still finding itself—or, rather, the bands who were meant to be spearheading and leading the charge were working out what it meant with very little idea of what it would mean. This was particularly true with regards to Soundgarden. The quartet—founding members Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and new recruit Ben Shepherd on bass—had been a band since 1984, which was three years before Nirvana and Alice In Chains started, five before Mudhoney and six before Pearl Jam. In that time, they'd put out two full-lengths (three if you count the Screaming Life/Fopp EP compilation) and were toying with the idea of what it meant to be a heavy band with their next album, Badmotorfinger. Released two weeks after Nevermind, it got caught in the avalanche created by that album's stratospheric success, but, according to Thayil, wasn't written with the zeitgeist or their contemporaries in mind.

"Our early record, Screaming Life, was probably more grunge-like in a more basic sense," he says, "like Nirvana or Mudhoney or even early Pearl Jam or Tad. But we explored more of a proggy element with Badmotorfinger. Had we been writing [first album] Ultramega OK, it might have really fit with the grunge body of work, or what Seattle was known for, but over the years you grow and you advance and by the time Nirvana, Mudhoney or Pearl Jam came to be we were on our way to writing what would be Badmotorfinger." 

Once dubbed by Thayil as the "Heavy Metal White Album," Badmotorfinger doesn't really fall neatly into any category. It's not grunge. It's neither heavy metal nor hair metal. It's not hard rock. Yet while it is some combination of all those different things, that wasn't the intention. Rather, it was just Soundgarden being Soundgarden and indulging in what Thayil, 25 years later, calls the band's "natural weirdness." Partly, that was due to Shepherd's influence. After founding bassist Hiro Yamamoto left the band in 1989, Shepherd had auditioned to replace him, but fell short of the mark and Jason Everman joined the band. He didn't last long, however—after the band's tour for second album Louder Than Love finished in March 1990, Everman got the boot and called up Shepherd to see if he was still interested. With the new bassist, came a whole new way of writing songs for this album.

"Ben joining the band changed seven songwriting relationships right off the bat—Ben with me, Ben with Matt, Ben with Chris, Ben with me and Chris, Ben with and Chris and Matt and Ben with me and Matt—so that was a significant change in the way we were writing and producing stuff," Thayil explains. "Ben and I both liked to play really fast, having more of a punk rock background, and when you have a drummer as amazing as Matt you can support a lot of the weird time signatures you might explore. Chris has an amazing way of writing melody around these odd time signatures that a lot of people have a tough time doing. They can only really sing and think in 4/4, because it's hard to do the odd time signatures and have your vocal melody wrap around it. It's very natural for Chris, though, because he was our original drummer, so he can think in those terms. And Matt is just incredible—he comes from a background in jazz so that really helped. We could explore and take these risks because we knew we had a drummer who could handle it."

That wasn't the only difference, however. While the new dynamic certainly fed into the creativity of each member, and directly into Badmotorfinger's songs as a result, there was one other huge shift in Soundgarden's songwriting, in the form of a few demos that Chris Cornell had recorded himself on an 8-track and brought to rehearsal for the rest of band to listen to. 

"A lot of the album was initiated by demo tapes that Chris sent to the band," remembers Thayil. "Prior to that, a lot of songs we'd bring to rehearsal and play the song for each other and then we'd learn it and record it on a four-track. This was the first time I remember that he'd demoed a song with a drum machine—although he stopped because it was too time-consuming—but he did the vocals, he had become a good enough guitar player to record guitar parts for "Searching With My Good Eye Closed" and I think he also played the bass. So we got together at rehearsal and he presented a little cassette and at some point I believe we were at Avast! Recording Studios and we made some copies of the cassette which had a few songs on it. The ones that stood out were "Searching…" and "Rusty Cage", but that was the unique thing—going to rehearsal and rather than coming back with a memory of having learned a riff or a part on guitar [there], I came home with a cassette of clear, fully-recorded 8-track studio recordings of two or three songs that Chris had done and presented to the band and I didn't know how to play them yet."

That method led to a solidity and confidence that can be heard throughout the album's 12 songs. Soon after the album's release, he says, there were plenty of things about the record he wanted to change, but a quarter century later, that's no longer the case. Perhaps that's because Badmotorfinger now exists as an example of the band's creative purity. Yes, Nirvana changed the landscape with Nevermind and Soundgarden, caught up in that whirlwind, will be forever linked to grunge, but at the time it sat firmly on the edge of what was happening, looking both inwards and out. The record was already made and done and nothing was going to change that.

"We were people who have their share of self-doubt," says Thayil, "along with confidence. We were introspective, we had some degree of self-consciousness and we wanted to explore. You can't write songs the way we did and just pull it out your ass because you're sure of yourself and you know what you're doing. There was a lot of risk and experimenting going on. Trying new things comes with a good dose of courage and a good dose of doubt – and the risk is really framed in the context of that doubt and insecurity. There was no huge market for what we did. There was a market for hard rock and heavy metal, but not particularly for what we were doing. That attention shifted and became more focused when there was money to be made, but we'd already made Badmotorfinger without those expectations."

As true as that is, it's nevertheless an interesting fact that this was the band's second album on a major label. In fact, they were the first grunge band to sign to one, inking a deal with A&M in 1989, who then released Louder Than Love towards the end of that year. What's surprising, perhaps, is that Soundgarden were afforded the autonomy to make either of those albums, not least the more experimental strains of Badmotorfinger. Yet in the context of the time—a pre-internet existence where trends were, to some extent, less predictable—it actually makes perfect sense.

"We had a lot of freedom," says Thayil, "primarily because the label offered that. They didn't want to interfere, because they know that we'd already established an audience. They weren't going to force us to do anything to alienate that audience—we could do that all by ourselves!—but they needed to market us. We grew up listening to bands like Pink Floyd to The Sex Pistols to Black Sabbath to Captain Beefheart, so we didn't generally embrace bands that let themselves be commodified. We didn't like the idea of record labels rounding off the edges and smoothing everything over and we certainly didn't respect bands that presented themselves pre-smoothed and rounded out. So we wanted to produce something that would be independent from that kind of focus. And they let us."

Of course, that all changed with the success of Nevermind, but by then it was too late for the label to do anything, and Badmotorfinger was delivered into the world fully entrenched in, but also protected and separate from, that total grunge explosion. The resulting commercialization of alternative music is still something that still troubles Thayil to this day.

"I don't think people were understanding or interpreting what was going on," he says. "They were just latching onto it and trying to commodify it and turn this cultural phenomenon into a dollar bill, and I don't think the artists from Seattle presented them with those dollar bills. But then Nirvana came along and had strong pop sensibilities and were embraced not just by rock fans and musicians but by the whole spectrum of the record buying public—children, housewives and businessmen. Those people bought the record as well and that's how a record becomes huge, not because everyone with a guitar buys it, but everyone with a guitar and a vacuum cleaner, and a rattle buys it. That didn't change Nirvana at all for us, they were still that great band, but it changed the understanding of the marketplace and all the weird stuff like Vogue magazine doing some grunge style thing. It was just idiotic."

Twenty-five years later, then, Badmotorfinger remains both a mile marker of, and anomaly within, that grunge movement, an album that both defines and defies the time in which it was made and the zeitgeist both musically and culturally, and which, somewhat rarely, continues to exist within the very same framework in which it was conceived all these years later.

"We didn't present a pre-packaged or pre-fab product," says Thayil. "We were making music for nothing more than the impact of having a bunch of beer-soaked people jump around. And there are probably less school lunchboxes and vacuum cleaners engaged with Badmotorfinger and probably a few more guitars and pens and steering wheels."

The super deluxe edition of Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger is out now via A&M Records.