Cover Story

NEXT BIG ARENA GODS: SOUNDGARDEN

FOUR ORIGINAL CULT ROCKERS GET SET TO RISE UP OUT OF THE RICH SOIL OF SEATTLE

Kim Thayil cannot believe his ears. ''The Today show?!'' the Soundgarden guitarist nearly bellows, his eyes bugging out as they shift away from the menu in his hands. ''Why the f -- - did they wanna know?'' At this chow-down in an Indian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, an employee of A&M Records, Soundgarden's label, calmly tells Thayil and two of his bandmates, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron, that, well, there is a rumor the Seattle band will be putting in a guest spot at a local club. And that, yes, a producer at the upbeat morning TV show was merely one of several media executives that contacted him about the speculation. And that, you know, Soundgarden are established enough for the likes of Katie Couric to know who they are and care where they'll be next. In fact, this restaurant is the only place Thayil and his mates are appearing tonight-which is fine by them. Their next album, Superunknown, is nearly finished, and they have been flown 3,000 miles from home to prepare for its launch on March 8. They've endured a week of photo sessions and interviews with overseas publications. Still to come are meetings with merchandisers, video directors, and a prospective production manager for their upcoming world tour. ''This is our only free night all week,'' says Thayil, 33, an intimidating bear of a man with thick, long dark hair and a beard. Drinks and appetizers are ordered, and cigarettes are lit. Dave Lory, a rock-tour veteran hired to make sure the band keeps to its strict New York schedule, passes around copies of tomorrow's itinerary. Maybe if they complete their dozen interviews and business meetings they can attend a taping of David Letterman's Late Show. Shepherd, 25, a tall, lanky guy with the ambience of a slacker surfer dude, scrolls down the schedule and smirks: ''Wow-we get a 30-minute break.'' Sitting next to him, Cameron, 31, a more reserved, deadpan sort, glances at his itinerary and adds dryly, ''That's so nice of them.''

Soundgarden had better get accustomed to the attention, since they are about to enter their very own superunknown. Ten years after they played their first show in Seattle, seven years after the release of their first record, and two years after earning a Grammy nomination in the heavy-metal category, the band is poised to become if not the Next Big Thing, then at least the Next Big Northwestern Thing. Superunknown, their fourth album, has all the band's trademarks-lead singer Chris Cornell's Zeppelinesque wails and Thayil's boa- constrictor guitar crunch, along with excursions into what could be called psychedelic grunge with Indian overtones. At a time when the more gnarled the music, the bigger the buzz, it will probably be huge. Soundgarden's rise has been more gradual than Nirvana's and Pearl Jam's. They didn't pass the million mark in sales until their third album, 1991's Badmotorfinger. In part, that slow climb is due to their music. Cornell may have the voice and shirtless-hunk appeal of a young Robert Plant, but Soundgarden's music is denser, sludgier, more enigmatic-a big, slowly grinding mass of silt. ''We're still different from all those bands,'' says Thayil of his Seattle peers. ''We don't play party music.'' Maybe not-but it is commercially viable. Since the last album's release, alternative rock has gone mainstream, and grunge is a department in Bloomingdale's. Temple of the Dog, an offshoot album featuring members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, went platinum, and Beavis and Butt-head play-and like-videos from Badmotorfinger. A&M is keenly aware of Soundgarden's new level of esteem: Jim Guerinot, the label's senior vice president and general manager, says they are shipping ''way more'' copies of it than of its predecessor-close to 1 million will go out. ''The climate of the business has opened up for an act like Soundgarden,'' says Guerinot. ''The stars are starting to line up behind them.''

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