Chris Cornell and Soundgarden remember ‘Black Hole Sun’: “I understand it even less now”

The Seattle band recall their surprise 1994 hit single

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SHEPHERD: I liked that it wasn’t heavy and visceral. It was melodic but it was its own thing. We were pioneers, we didn’t have a formula. The underground, the Seattle scene and that whole alternative rock thing we came from going back to Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü, wasn’t shiny and happy. We were reticent about being stars and that was the mood of the world around us. It was more honest. Being a star wasn’t seen as cool, life wasn’t shiny or happy. The song represented that attitude.

MICHAEL BEINHORN: A cassette came in the mail. Right at the end was “Black Hole Sun”. I felt like I’d been hit by a bus. There’s usually a point with music where your attention span wanders, but this was like my head was in a vice. It was one of the most incredible pieces of music I’d ever heard. I played it 15 times in a row. I told Chris he was a genius. He said, “Huh, really?”

CORNELL: I thought they might like it, but not think of it as a Soundgarden song. I wasn’t sure myself. Sometimes a song is pushing the boundaries and you may not feel it belongs to the personality of the music that comes under the banner of that band.

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THAYIL: We understood it had very strong commercial potential. We didn’t know what that would mean for us. If it became huge, would people expect to play it everywhere we go? There was hesitation. Our musical identity was something we’d worked hard for. Maybe that’s why we were a little tentative.

BEINHORN: Chris had an issue deviating too far away from what the band were known for. With ‘Black Hole Sun’ we walked a very narrow line but because of the mood I didn’t think it was that removed. All they had to do was make it powerful and heavy, and make sure the instrument textures were exciting and rich. I was convinced it was a slam dunk.

CORNELL: We decided to record it and see what people thought. Our former bassist Hiro [Yamamoto] heard it and singled it out.

THAYIL: When we heard Nevermind a few months before it came out, we got to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Ben started laughing, ‘Oh my God, that’s a hit.’ With “Black Hole Sun”, Hiro’s response was the same, so we had a strong indication that it would have broad appeal.

BEINHORN: When so many elements that are exceptional in a piece of music converge on one point and interweave so beautifully… The melodic nature, the unusual chord structure, the way he starts with these arpeggios that cannon through the whole thing. And then there’s the mood. There’s something beautiful about it, something wistful and something dark too.

CORNELL: The aim was to capture the demo and add our own personalities. That’s what people connected with, the sound that is the result of a band effort. The big thing was the solo, which is a huge factor.

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THAYIL: The solo allowed me to do something manic and noisy, which is one of a few things stylistically that augmented the song and brought out the dark, psychedelic Soundgarden side.

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