But prior to 1991 (Grunge Year Zero, or "the year punk broke"), Soundgarden were considered just a Seattle metal band, and not necessarily a marketable one. The late '80s was an odd time for metal, to say the least. On the one hand, you had the wild and out-of-control success of hair metal's superstars, as Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses, Poison, et al. moved out of clubs and into stratospheric worldwide fame and success. On the other hand, you had the slow rise of metal's underground finally becoming too big for the mainstream music business to ignore, as Metallica, Slayer, and a zillion others started selling out hockey arenas on their own, and without radio airplay or major-label promo heft. Soundgarden eventually emerged as a legitimate stadium-filling underground act that didn't even have to cater specifically to the metal faithful. "The interesting thing is that we had some great experiences early on opening for big metal acts. I mean, our first big moment was opening up for Metallica at the Oakland Coliseum. It was 45,000 people."
Soundgarden stormed the world of major-label indie metal for a second time in 1991 (after the underwhelming sales of 1990 major-label debut Louder Than Love) with the epochal Badmotorfinger, a massive work that showed their penchant for tricky arrangements and noise-guitar solos while maintaining stadium-filling choruses and headbanging moments of sheer heaviosity. Tracks like "Rusty Cage," "Jesus Christ Pose," and "Outshined" were walloping and weird and yet still able to bum-rush MTV and non-college radio; they ushered in a half-decade where feedback, shrieking, psychedelic weirdness, and relentless rock drumming would supplant Michael Jackson and Wilson Phillips as the sound of American radio. But as the band ascended, Cornell began to feel that they were being misunderstood. "As a music fan," he explains, "aggressive music has only been a part, a fraction, of what I'm a fan of. And in Soundgarden, we did a lot of different things — it wasn't always the sledgehammer-to-the-head approach."
Even a cursory pass through a typical Soundgarden album reveals the dynamics that Cornell and the band always strove for: the acoustic passages, the Eastern influence, oddball moments and melodies that were the farthest thing from the metal trends of the time. "Look at a band like the Beatles," Cornell says. "They did whatever they wanted, unapologetically. They could do 'Helter Skelter,' but also 'Eleanor Rigby,' which is just Paul and a string quartet — and no one goes, 'Oh, that's weird!' "
Soundgarden eventually hit their career high with 1994's Superunknown, which shows their Beatles-esque quest for oddness at a peak, especially on the inescapable summer-of-'94 single "Black Hole Sun." In 1997, Soundgarden split up, and Cornell's subsequent career has seen him form the supergroup Audioslave with members of Rage Against the Machine as well as release a number of solo albums, each notable for how little it adheres to the Soundgarden blueprint. His latest, 2009's Scream, is a true departure: produced by Timbaland, it's a strange dance-rock hybrid, with Cornell's trademark castrato autotuned and manipulated over clinking and clashing rhythm tracks. Clearly a labor of love between both Cornell and Timbaland, the record was a modest commercial success but a massive critical failure, a laughing stock that stings Cornell even now. "Look, I love the album, still. It doesn't sound like anything else. I mean, to me, that's what it means to have a long creative career: doing different things, taking chances, having different collaborations, and not worrying about surprising anyone with the sound, or what it might mean."