Soundgarden was one of the key bands in the creation of grunge, a style of alternative rock that developed in Seattle and was based around the band's record label Sub Pop. Soundgarden was the first grunge band to sign to a major label, though the band did not achieve commercial success until Seattle contemporaries Nirvana and Pearl Jam popularized grunge in the early 1990s.
Soundgarden achieved its biggest success with the 1994 album Superunknown which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and yielded the Grammy Award–winning singles "Black Hole Sun" and "Spoonman". In 1997, the band broke up due to internal strife over its creative direction. Soundgarden has sold eight million records in the U.S., and an estimated twenty million albums worldwide.
Cornell originally played drums while singing, but in 1985 the band enlisted Scott Sundquist to allow Cornell to concentrate on vocals. The band's first recordings were three songs that appeared on a compilation for C/Z Records called Deep Six. It also featured songs by fellow grunge pioneers Green River, Skin Yard, Malfunkshun, The U-Men and the Melvins. In 1986, Sundquist left the band and was replaced by Matt Cameron, who was the drummer for Skin Yard.
Though the band was being courted by major labels, in 1988 it signed to the lesser known SST Records to release its debut album, Ultramega OK, for which the band earned a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance in 1990. The band's first music video, "Flower" was directed by Mark Miremont, and aired regularly on MTV's 120 Minutes. Soundgarden supported Ultramega OK with a tour of the United States in the spring of 1989 and a tour of Europe which began in May 1989 and which was the band's first overseas tour.
In 1989, the band released its first album for a major label, Louder Than Love, through A&M Records. The signing caused a rift between Soundgarden and its traditional audience. Thayil said, "In the beginning, our fans came from the punk rock crowd. They abandoned us when they thought we had sold out the punk tenets, getting on a major label and touring with Guns N' Roses. There were fashion issues and social issues, and people thought we no longer belonged to their scene, to their particular sub-culture. Louder Than Love became the band's first album to chart on the Billboard 200, peaking at number 108 on the chart in 1990. Because of some of the song lyrics, most notably on "Hands All Over" and "Big Dumb Sex", the band faced various retail and distribution problems upon the album's release.
A month before touring for Louder Than Love commenced, bassist Hiro Yamamoto left to go back to college. He was replaced by Jason Everman, formerly of Nirvana. The band embarked on a North American tour that went from December 1989 to March 1990. On this tour the band served as the opening act for Voivod on the band's Nothingface tour, with Faith No More also serving as an opening act at the beginning and end of the tour. The band then went on to tour Europe. Bassist Jason Everman was fired immediately after Soundgarden completed its promotional tour for Louder Than Love in mid-1990. Louder Than Love spawned the EP Loudest Love and the video compilation Louder Than Live, both released in 1990.
Following the release of Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden went on a tour of North America that ran from October 1991 to November 1991. Afterward, the band took a slot opening for Guns N' Roses in North America on the band's Use Your Illusion Tour. Soundgarden was personally selected by Guns N' Roses as its opening band. The band took a slot opening for Skid Row in North America in February 1992 on the band's Slave to the Grind tour, and then headed to Europe for a month-long headlining theater tour. The band returned for a tour of the United States and subsequently rejoined Guns N' Roses in the summer of 1992 in Europe as part of the Use Your Illusion Tour along with fellow opening act Faith No More. Regarding the time spent opening for Guns N' Roses, Cornell said, "It wasn't a whole lot of fun going out in front of 40,000 people for 35 minutes every day. Most of them hadn't heard our songs and didn't care about them. It was a bizarre thing." The band would go on to play the 1992 Lollapalooza tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Ministry, among others. The band later released the video compilation Motorvision, which was filmed at the Paramount Theatre in 1992. The band also made an appearance in the movie Singles performing "Birth Ritual". The song appeared on the soundtrack, as did a Chris Cornell solo song, "Seasons".
The band began touring in January 1994 in Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, areas where the record came out early, as well as regions where the band had never toured before. This round of touring ended in February 1994, and then in March 1994 the band moved on to Europe. The band began a theater tour of the United States on May 27, 1994, with the opening acts Tad and Eleven. In late 1994, after touring in support of Superunknown, doctors discovered that Cornell had severely strained his vocal cords. Soundgarden canceled several shows to avoid causing any permanent damage. Cornell said, "I think we kinda overdid it! We were playing five or six nights a week and my voice pretty much took a beating. Towards the end of the American tour I felt like I could still kinda sing, but I wasn't really giving the band a fair shake. You don't buy a ticket to see some guy croak for two hours! That seemed like kind of a rip off. The band would make up the dates later in 1995.
The band took a slot on the 1996 Lollapalooza tour with Metallica, who had insisted on Soundgarden's appearance on the tour. After Lollapalooza, the band embarked on a world-wide tour. Tensions continued to increase during the band's ensuing tour in support of the album. When asked if the band hated touring, Cornell said, "We really enjoy it to a point and then it gets tedious, because it becomes repetitious. You feel like fans have paid their money and they expect you to come out and play them your songs like the first time you ever played them. That's the point where we hate touring." At the tour's final stop in Honolulu, Hawaii on February 9, 1997, Shepherd threw his bass into the air in frustration after suffering equipment failure, and subsequently stormed off the stage. The band retreated, with Cornell returning to conclude the show with a solo encore. On April 9, 1997, the band announced its disbanding. Thayil said, "It was pretty obvious from everybody's general attitude over the course of the previous half year that there was some dissatisfaction. Soundgarden's final release, a greatest-hits compilation titled A-Sides, was released the following fall.
Kim Thayil joined forces with ex-Dead Kennedys vocalist Jello Biafra, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Gina Mainwal for one show, performing as the No WTO Combo during the WTO ministerial conference in Seattle on December 1, 1999. Thayil later contributed guitar tracks to Steve Fisk's 2001 album 999 Levels of Undo, as well as Dave Grohl's side-project album Probot, released in 2004. In 2006, Thayil performed guitar on the album Altar, the collaboration between the bands Sunn O))) and Boris.
Matt Cameron initially turned his efforts to his side-project Wellwater Conspiracy, to which both Shepherd and Thayil have contributed performances. He then worked briefly with The Smashing Pumpkins and was even rumoured as a replacement for Jimmy Chamberlin. In 1998, he stepped in on drums for Pearl Jam's Yield Tour, and subsequently joined the band as a permanent member.
Ben Shepherd was the vocalist on Wellwater Conspiracy's first studio album, Declaration of Conformity, released in 1997, however he left the band in 1998. He has toured with Mark Lanegan and released the second Hater album in 2005.
Regarding a future Soundgarden reunion, Cornell stated in an October 2005 interview that it would "probably not happen." He continued, "It's almost like we sealed the lid and said, this is Soundgarden and this is its lifespan, and put it out there. And it looks really great to me. I think getting back together would take the lid off that and then could possibly change what... to me seems like the perfect lifespan of the band. I can't think of any reason to mess with that. In interviews following his departure from Audioslave in February 2007, Cornell reiterated that the members of Soundgarden had no interest in reuniting. In an interview in early August 2007, Cornell mentioned that Thayil has wanted to release a box set or B-sides album of Soundgarden rarities, although no further information was given.
Soundgarden would often utilize alternative tunings and odd time signatures in its songs. Many Soundgarden songs were performed in drop D tuning, including "Jesus Christ Pose", "Outshined", "Spoonman", and "Black Hole Sun". The E strings of the instruments were at times tuned lower, such as on "Rusty Cage", where the bottom E string is tuned all the way down to B. Some songs use more unorthodox tunings: "My Wave" and "The Day I Tried to Live" are both in a E-E-B-B-B-E tuning. Soundgarden's use of odd-meter time signatures was varied as well; while such songs as "Jesus Christ Pose" are in typical 4/4 time, "Outshined" is in 7/4, "My Wave" uses 5/4, "Fell on Black Days" is in 6/4, "Never the Machine Forever" uses 9/8, "Rusty Cage" uses 19/8, and "Spoonman" alternates between 7/4 and 4/4 sections. Thayil has said that Soundgarden usually did not consider the time signature of a song until after the band had written it, and said that the use of odd meters was "a total accident.