The Pretty Reckless On Soundgarden: “‘Superunknown’ Gave Validation To Artists That Art Is Important”

For the 30th anniversary of Soundgarden’s ‘Superunknown’, The Pretty Reckless’ Taylor Momsen and Ben Phillips delve into the classic grunge album’s enduring influence on rock music, and their own lives and careers. 

Soundgarden’s ‘Superunknown’ is one of the seminal albums of the grunge era. The Seattle band’s commercial zenith, ‘Superunknown’ bagged them two Grammy Awards, but in many ways marked the beginning of the end for the band. 

Not only that, but it featured ‘Black Hole Sun’ which later evolved into a kind of eulogy to Chris Cornell’s dear friend Kurt Cobain after his death, whose suicide was both tragically and ironically a symptom of grunge’s popularity. The apocalyptic ballad feels just as poignant thirty years on given that Cornell suffered a similar fate. 

The Pretty Reckless are one band that cite ‘Superunknown’ as part of their genetic make up. They may never have formed the band if it weren’t for Soundgarden, and their singer Taylor Momsen might not even pursued a career as a musician. Safe to say, they’re superfans when it comes to ‘Superunknown’.

For the album’s 30th anniversary, Rock Sound delved into ‘Superunknown’s enduring influence and impact with self-professed “aficionados” Taylor Momsen and Ben Phillips from their New York studio.

RS: Can you remember the first time you heard Soundgarden, and ‘Superunknown’ in particular?

Taylor: “When I was young, very young, my dad was a huge rock ‘n’ roll fan so I grew up listening to the classics. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Pink Floyd. When I got to my pre-teen years, I started to find and search for my own music. That’s when I fell in love with the nineties bands. I’d heard ‘Black Hole Sun’ before because it was such a huge hit. But it wasn’t until I heard ‘4th July’ that made my head snap, and go ‘what the fuck is this?’. From that I proceeded to buy the record, ‘Superunknown’. When I found a band I liked, I just bought everything. Shortly after that, I was doing an event, Fashion Rocks, when I was fourteen I think? Unbeknownst to me, Chris Cornell was there, performing. When I met him, it was like meeting Jesus. I fell in love with him. That solidified my obsession and took it to another level. Seeing how mysterious, intense, tranquil he was. He’s a force. Years later, we’d end up on tour with them. Soundgarden have been an integral part of my life.”

RS: Why did you think you connected with their music at that point in your lives?

Taylor: “I think like any young person, when you find a band that you find on your own, it feels special in its own right. There’s that element. But, I’ve lived a very strange life, and the depth of Cornell’s lyrics and their layers really spoke to me. They’re like an onion, you keep peeling away at the layers. Even now at the age of thirty, I keep hearing new things. Something else touches you, something else moves you. They’re so deep, so immaculate, and so ridiculously complex. That’s something I’ve always gravitated towards in music, not getting everything at face value.”

Ben: “I know it’s an odd comparison to people that don’t know the music of Soundgarden intensely, and haven’t gone down that rabbit hole, but ‘Superunknown’ has a ‘Sgt. Peppers’ [Lonely Heart Club Band]’ like quality. Musically, it was transformative. You can put ‘Sgt. Peppers’ on you’ll hear it again for the first time. You can put ‘Superunknown’, and every minute of it you’re like ‘how?’ If you play the guitar and try to learn a song from ‘Superunknown’, take ‘Black Hole Sun’ for instance, just the chordal structure alone you’re like ‘how did this guy figure this out?'”

RS: How much did Kim Thayil’s guitar style impact you as a guitarist Ben?

Ben: “Having become friends with Kim has become one of the most amazing parts of our lives. Because, he as a human, is so great. The guitar is an interesting instrument – if you do it for the right reasons – in so far as it’s an extension of your emotions. Like, Eric Clapton would say John Lennon was the greatest guitar player, and Lennon was barely knowledgeable at the guitar. Kim, he’s almost an avant-garde jazz guitar player. So his additions to Chris’s intricate writing are sheer magic. When we first go into the studio – and I don’t like giving too much of our studio tricks away – putting on ‘My Wave’ is the first thing we do when we enter a new room, and we wail it to get our ears acclimated. The next thing we play is ‘Black Hole Sun’, because of its sonic prowess. ‘Superunknown’, to me and Taylor at least, is the best sounding record since it came out, and preceding it.”

Taylor: “‘Black Hole Sun’ you can put on any speakers anywhere and it’ll beat whatever came before it, and whatever came after it sonically. It’s ridiculous.”

RS: Out of the ‘Big 4’ grunge bands then, was Soundgarden the band that resonated with you the most?

Taylor: “I love all of them, but that’s a resounding yes. I have two pillars of music, and that’s The Beatles and Soundgarden.”

Ben: “Me, our late producer Kato, and Taylor all had a magical part of the creation of this band, in that the three people that put it together had two bands they love the most. Kato would add AC/DC as a third, me and Taylor would add Pink Floyd as a fourth. The list goes on. But Soundgarden was the matching band between me and Taylor, and as songwriters we bonded over The Beatles. Kato brought in the AC/DC angle as a producer, the pure rock ‘n’ roll sonics, and Pink Floyd was more the cinematic side. But Soundgarden was the main theme. Taylor grew up wanting to be Chris Cornell. She wanted to sing like a forty year old man.”

Taylor: “I set my standards very high.”

RS: What exactly was it about Chris Cornell as an artist – and his music – that influenced you, Taylor?

Taylor: “It touched me in a way that is unexplainable, that moved me to my core. It was like he was speaking to me, about me. He was teaching me. His voice is transcendent. How do you put that into words? His music moves my soul.”

RS: Are there any of Chris’s lyrics from ‘Superunknown’ that have stuck with you?

Ben: “‘My Wave’: “Don’t come over here / Piss on my gate / Just keep it off my wave”. Then you have ‘Fell On Black Days’: “I’m a search light soul they say /

But I can’t see it in the night / I’m only faking when I get it right.” Don’t we all feel that way? Or, ‘Day I Tried To Live’.”

Taylor: “I dangled from the power lines / And let the martyrs stretch”.

RS: Do you think his lyricism was influential because he poetically communicated the anger, sadness, and despair that he felt?

Taylor: “His lyrics were also hopeful. The grunge bands, their lives were drenched in tragedy, or at least that’s how the public perceived them. But there’s a catharsis, when you write from a real standpoint. That’s how as a writer or artist you make it through to the other side, how you grow as a human. That’s so prevalent in his words. Yes, he might be suffering, and that’s true in his words. But I don’t look at Soundgarden like they’re a negative band by any means. It’s uplifting and empowering to listen to their music. It’s powerful.”

Ben: “We can surely all agree that the secret weapon to music is the lyrics. Most of us don’t even know what the artist is saying half the time, but when they’re saying something important, even when you don’t know what they’re saying, it’s their delivery. It’s an unseen force behind the music. With Soundgarden, it’s not just the lyrics, it’s with every instrument that’s playing. Matt on drums, every hit he’s playing has a lyrical intention. Kim, of course. Ben Shepherd is a weapon. There’s a ‘Later… with Jools Holland ‘episode where they play ‘Rusty Cage’, they play ‘Taree’ from King Animal, and they destroy it with ‘Rusty Cage’. When we toured with them, it was immaculate. ‘Superunknown’, given it’s their most famous album and had the most money dumped into it, they never deviated. They kept clearing the high bar they set.”

Taylor: “And ‘Superunknown’, even with all its commercial success, like ‘Black Hole Sun’. ‘Black Hole Sun’?! A hit song?! It’s the most creative, experimental record. Pure artistry. That to me is the goal. To make art purely for yourself and make it connect to the masses. That’s the only goal. He never bent.”

RS: Are there any songs from ‘Superunknown’ that are particularly meaningful to either of you, that are attached to an important part of your lives?

Taylor: “Well, ‘Fell On Black Days’ is an integral song in my life. I feel like that, lyrically, it comes around too often. It resonates with me in a very deep, profound way. There’s a story attached to ‘Day I Tried To Live’. I performed that with Soundgarden and Nirvana – which is insane – at the Taylor Hawkins tribute show. It was an emotional event. I have to hand it to Dave Grohl, the way he handled it. It was just such a celebration of Taylor and his life, it was so beautiful. ‘Day I Tried To Live’, which is a hell of a fucking song, I got to perform with them. The thing with Soundgarden songs is that I’m a massive fan. I’ve listened to them countless times, I know the records off by heart. But when you get inside the songs, as a singer when its just you and your voice, it’s a whole different experience. It made me fall in love with ‘Black Hole Sun’ and ‘Day I Tried To Live’ in a completely new way.”

Ben: “Three years earlier, she was on stage doing the same with Ben, Matt and Kim. Which was another deeply emotional time. We don’t want to get too depressing with this. But the music lives forever, and that’s the whole point.”

RS: How would you characterise Chris Cornell and Soundgarden’s legacy, and the influence of ‘Superunknown’?

Ben: “I think ‘Superunknown’ is a pinnacle record for all artists. I’ll hark back to The Beatles – when they tore away from their pop roots and moved on to ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’, they showed artists that they can be artists. ‘Superunknown’, with its success, showed artists that very same thing. That dream inside, whoever they are inside, it matters. If they can express it and get it out right, they can achieve that kind of level of expression. Forget the success.”

Taylor: “‘Superunknown’ gave validation to artists that art is important. That’s what’s needed. That’s their legacy. The coolest thing about it, on a side note, is that they’re amazing players but also amazing human beings. You know they say ‘don’t meet your idols, don’t meet your heroes, it never goes well.’ Not only has it gone well, it hasn’t tainted anything. It’s enhanced how I listen to their records. I’m so happy they exist.”

More like this