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GRUNGE IS DEAD: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music: An Interview with Greg Prato, author,and music journalist

Mia Becker

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Everyone remembers the first time they heard “Smells like Teen Spirit”. The crunching chords, the driving bass, and the pounding drums. The main stream music scene exploded in 1991, but the local Seattle scene happened many years before 1991. GRUNGE IS DEAD: The Oral History of Seattle Music dives into an informative history of the developing music scene in Seattle from the 1950’s to today, including many personal and amusing stories from the local residents, and artists that survived the media mania of the 1990’s. Author, and music journalist Greg Prato talks to us about GRUNGE IS DEAD, and his forever love of Soundgarden, and more.

So many questions, where to begin: Being from the generation that was born in 80’s, and raised in the 90’s, I have been very much anticipating a book like to finally come out, and really loved the book a lot. What inspired you to write the book? I know you were “there” when everything was going on, because you describe your introduction to Soundgarden after seeing them live, in 1990. Had the idea started many years before, or was it recent, how did it come about?

The idea to do a book about the grunge movement came about for a few different reasons. First off, I don’t feel there was ever a book about the movement that was truly cohesive, comprehensive, and definitive. Secondly, I always loved the book ‘Please Kill Me,’ which was an oral history of the first wave punk movement in the U.S., and always hoped someone would do a grunge version of that. Thirdly, I did a Soundgarden feature for Classic Rock Magazine a few years ago, and by doing that article, I realized I had a good head start on doing a book, if I chose to pursue it. After some careful consideration…I chose to!

The thing you note in the book early on is: the story is by everyone that was there, it’s the “real deal”. Why do you think there was never a book like this out, until recently?

Not exactly sure. I’ve heard from a few different people that they attempted to do a book, but that many of the Seattle musicians did not want to open up or participate. I was lucky I guess, because not only did I get a large amount of people who were actually there and participated in it all, but they opened up with great stories/insight I never heard or read before. I think this was due to the fact that the people I interviewed could tell I was a true fan, and not some journalist who was trying to make a fast book that regurgitated all the same stuff.

What was everyone’s reaction when you told them about the book you were writing? (Reaction from people you knew personally, and
from everyone you interviewed for the book, like Kim Thayil, and Susan Silver, and John Bigley..etc).

Everyone was real positive and intrigued. Once the ball started rolling with interviews, many people would send me lists of others I should get in touch with and their contact info. I guess most people from Seattle are just simply very nice and outgoing by nature.

What was the process like in developing the book? There are so many people that were interviewed, and clearly took a lot of research. Did you start contacting one person at a time, or did one person, lead to another? Did people contact you to be involved in it? I know you’ve written many music articles, had you interviewed any of these people before, or was this the first time talking to most of them, if not, all of them?

Like I said earlier, the germ of the idea for the book can be traced back to the Soundgarden feature I did for Classic Rock Magazine, titled ‘Black Hole Sons’ (horrible title, I know – truth be told, I didn’t come up with it). After the handful of interviews I did for that article, the ball started rolling fast and furious re: other interviews. Jack Endino suggested I take my time with the book and don’t rush it. He suggested taking at least a full year to do it right. I wound up working on it for nearly three years!

Were most of the interviews done by phone, and/or e-mail, or were a lot of them done in person? I know some were by phone because Eddie Vedder makes a comment about “being in Hawaii in his cabin house, looking at the ocean”.

The vast majority were done over the phone, a handful via email, and zip-o were done in person. But I would have loved to do them face-to-face.

You really covered a huge spectrum of people to interview: Members from a lot of the bands, managers, people from the local record labels, producers, publicists, radio DJ’s…to people on the tour crew, and local concert goers, and everyone else in between. How did you decide who to interview? I noticed that some key people weren’t interviewed, like Chris Cornell, or Mark Lanegan, or Krist Novoselic. Was there original intent in interviewing those guys too about their experiences, and it just didn’t work out, or was it decided early on to leave their commentary out? I think it would’ve been interesting to get a full perspective from all band members involved.

I extended the offer to interview Mr. Cornell, Lanegan, Novoselic, and Grohl through record labels and/or mutual acquaintances, and for whatever reason, was flipped the  bird. Which is unfortunate, as Cornell is one of my all-time fav singers, it would have been great to speak with him. And Mr. Novoselic I actually met when I visited Seattle this past April to do a reading/signing at Easy Street Records. He was an incredibly nice chap. Re: how did I decide who to interview, it was a mixture of me looking up familiar names associated with the Seattle scene via the internet, and like I said before, people I interviewed for the book would also suggest others I should speak to.

Musically speaking, the book really covers so much material about the Seattle music scene. Everything from The Sonics, and Jimi Hendrix, and Heart, to The Fastbacks, The Blackouts, The U-Men, to Skinyard, Mr. Epp, and then of course NIRVANA, Soundgarden, Mudhoney..etc. How much did you know about the developing music scene in Seattle when you started the book? Did you learn a lot? I thought everything was really well-organized, and really showed how long things had been going on before everything just “broke out” in like 1991. As Mark Arm said, “thought the scene peaked in 1989” lol.

I was very familiar with the history of Seattle rock music – I’d been listening to most of those bands since 1990/1991. But a few, such as the U-Men, the Blackouts, and Truly, I really sat down and listened to for the first time while doing the book, and was blown away by all three. Truly’s 1995 album, ‘Fast Stories…From Kid Coma’ is a must hear, I’m tellin’ ya. Think Nirvana meets Radiohead…back when Radiohead wasn’t all artsy fartsy.

The book is great, it has a lot of dynamic. There are many funny stories, and hilarious comments, but there is also a lot of really dark things too. Did you have an outline on what you were going to ask people about, or did it just develop into its own thing? Did you have expectations on what certain people were going to talk about, because there is some really personal stuff about drug problems, and relationships, and friendships…etc.? Luckily, enough time has passed, so it might be easier to talk about certain things now, than 5 or 10 years ago, but very personal things, none the less. Were you surprised at how open and genuine everybody was?

Each interview was different – I didn’t follow a set list of questions, it varied for each person. I do think that since some time has passed since both Kurt and Layne’s deaths (and Soundgarden’s break-up), people were perhaps more willing to open up.

The thing about Seattle, and the music community, that has been noted for years is that everyone was really friends with each other. I think because Seattle is big enough there is diversity, but small enough for that to really happen, the book and the stories really solidifies that. Was there still a positive tone from everyone when talking about Seattle, and the general community, then and now? A lot of people that were involved in the scene then, are still very active today in local music projects, and helping support local music venues, I think that demonstrates something really unique too. What do you think?

I’d say there still are positive thoughts re: the movement today, but quite a few people said that they were glad to see the hype and attention die down and leave Seattle. And yes, many of the same musicians are still active today in the Seattle music scene, which shows that they got into music for all the right reasons in the first place.

You’re clearly a really big fan of the bands that were mentioned in this book, and the people that talked about things surrounding that: NIRVANA, Soundgarden..etc. What was the experience like talking to everybody? The experiences and everything that they talk about, you realize like “wow this stuff really happened”, and it makes everyone seem a lot more human and down to earth, which I think is great. I know for me, as a huge fan, reading all of this made me love them as artists even more, and really feel for them on more personable level than before because a lot of things are described pretty explicitly. How do you feel about them now? Did it change your view of them as artists, in a positive way, or negative way?

It was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience being able to speak to all these people in a two-three year span (close to 130 interviews total), especially people like Vedder, Kim Thayil, Jerry Cantrell, Duff McKagan, Layne Staley’s mother, etc. Re: seeing these people as more “human,” since I’ve done zillions of interviews w/ rock artists for the past ten years (I write for All Music Guide, Rolling Stone.com, Classic Rock Magazine, etc.), I realized long ago that we’re all human beings – albeit we all have different talents and things that make us special. So whenever I do interviews, I’m pretty much past the point of thinking of interviewees as larger-than-life (although I have to admit doing a face-to-face interview w/ Tony Iommi a few years ago got the old butterflies going a tad – but he couldn’t have been a nicer gentleman). But then again, sometimes mid-interview I do realize how bloody cool it is to be able to have a direct conversation and ask questions to people like Vedder, Thayil, Cantrell, etc.

There was a lot of material about Kurt Cobain, and NIRVANA, which is to be expected, and I loved personally, because NIRVANA is my favorite band, and I think for my generation they are like our Led Zeppelin. Was that originally intended,  I mean obviously they were “the” band that really broke out, but were you planning on having so much Kurt Cobain/NIRVANA material, or did a lot of material just happen to develop through out all of the interviews? It’s also an ironic time line of events, since NIRVANA were really like the last band in the local scene to even start.

While Nirvana is certainly one of my favorite rock groups of all time, the main point of me doing this book was to also shine the light on the bands that seem to not be discussed as often as Nirvana and Pearl Jam are…namely, one of my TOP fav bands ever, Soundgarden. But even beyond Soundgarden (who really aren’t that far out of the spotlight – they’re still played on the radio and Mr. Cornell still records/tours), bands like the Melvins, Mother Love Bone, Screaming Trees, Brad, and the ones I mentioned earlier, the U-Men, the Blackouts, and Truly. With the Nirvana content in the book, I tried to get as much interesting/unheard info that I possibly could, since there has been so much coverage about them and Mr. Cobain over the years. That said, there are some basic facts and events that you can’t just skip over, so instead of analyzing ‘Nevermind’ the same old way, I set it up so that the people in the book are talking about their initial impressions of hearing it, seeing the  songs performed live, etc.

You mentioned in the book that you saw Soungarden live, almost by accident, since they were playing with Faith No More, in 1990. Did you continue to follow up with Soundgarden, and see them live as things continued to develop, and did you see NIRVANA, and other bands of that time, live too through out the early 90’s? As a fan, at the time, did you know all of that stuff was going on, that you would later learn from interviewing everyone. It definitely seemed like internally there was a shift among band members, and friends, and wives/husbands, but as a fan/and as an audience, did people pick up on the struggles, and problems, the bands were going through?

Yes, I surely did continue to see Soundgarden shows (I think six times total) and remained a fan after that show – probably even more so (‘Badmotorfinger’ and ‘Superunknown’ are still two of my most played albums). And some of the best Soundgarden shows were after that initial one, including a show at Roseland in NYC on the ‘Badmotorfinger’ tour, and at a huge airplane hanger-looking place called the NY State Armory on the ‘Superunknown’ tour. At the latter performance, they played for so bloody long, and played almost the entire ‘Superunknown’ album. And it was soooo hot in there – it was the middle of the summer, and there was little-to-no air conditioning in that place. I also saw Pearl Jam on Lollapalooza ’92 at Jones Beach, which remains one of the best live performance of any band I’ve ever seen. Mr. Vedder risked his life by climbing up the scaffolding on the side of the stage during “Porch,” and everyone thought he was going to jump into the water and break his neck! If you don’t believe me, see the visual proof here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=me4hA3unxxs

I also saw Alice in Chains on Lollapalooza ’93 in New Jersey (a pretty darn sweet performance), as well as Tad, Brad, and the Melvins throughout the years. Sadly…one of my great concert regrets remains never seeing Nirvana live. Although I have seen Mr. Novoslic and Grohl play with others (Eyes Adrift and Queens of the Stone Age, respectively). Does that count? To answer the last question about if I was able to pick up struggles that bands were going through, I didn’t really. I (like I’m sure a lot of other people) believed the b.s. about Cobain’s first suicide attempt in Rome as just being an accident, and from Mr. Cobain himself (a Rolling Stone cover story in early ’94, where he painted a picture of everything being hunky dory, which we learned later, wasn’t really). I also always assumed that the rumors about Mr. Staley’s drug addiction were grossly exaggerated. Unfortunately, as we later found out (and which is discussed in ‘Grunge is Dead’), the rumors were pretty darn close to the truth. And Soundgarden’s break-up I did not see coming at all, as their last album (‘Down on the Upside’) was a strong seller and very enjoyable.

A lot of great bands, and artists, that were coming out of Seattle in the 1980’s and 1990’s, are still making records, and touring today. Mudhoney, and Pearl Jam, and and Chris Cornell was with Audisolave, and is now solo, and Mark Lanegan is still doing a lot of different projects, including working with QOTSA, and Dave Grohl is in the Foo Fighters, and Krist Novoselic has done some other projects, Have you been actively seeing these bands live and following them currently? How does the energy and sound compare to then, to now? And how do you think they have held up and developed as artists?

I’ve followed all of the aforementioned gentlemen that you mentioned. One of my great disappointments of the last few years was that Mr. Grohl did not stay with QOTSA and flip the bird at the Foo Fighters – that QOTSA/’Songs for the Deaf’ line-up could have annihilated the universe. Luckily, I got to see them play the Bowery Ballroom w/ Mr. Grohl (and Lanegan) in tow in the summer of ’02. Pearl Jam remains a must-see live act, as I purchased all of their recently live DVD’s, and was quite impressed w/ their energy and sweet renditions of the classics. I respect all of the chaps that you mentioned, as they helped rescue me from the sad ghetto of bad metal in the early ’90s.

Not too long ago, there was an “almost” Soundgarden reunion, at the re-opening of the Crocodile Café which included Kim, Matt, and Ben, and then Tad Doyle, on vocals, and everyone was wondering if Chris Cornell was going to show up. Did you read about that event at all, and what was your reaction? The topic of Chris Cornell/Soundgarden reunion, came up in the book later on.

I actually just discussed this last night w/ none other than Kim Thayil himself! I’ve seen clips of the performance on YouTube – despite the audio sounding like a distorted fart (due to it being recorded on an audience member’s camera), it’s always a pleasure to hear Soundgarden classics performed live on stage by any of their band members.

Anybody that doesn’t know much about the Seattle music scene, or only knows the basic information from like 1991-1994, what do you think they would get out of the book GRUNGE IS DEAD?

Since I’m the author of the book, of course I’m going to come off like goon saying it’s the definitive book about the grunge movement. But if I can step away from it for a moment and look at it solely as a fan (I’ve been a fan of rock music – and specifically grunge – for far longer than I’ve been a writer), it is indeed a pretty darn sweet book. And I really think it’s the most comprehensive and easy to follow of all the “grunge history” books out there. Also, aside from a few quotes that were used in the Classic Rock Magazine/Soundgarden feature, absolutely NO outside interviews were used. What you get here folks are almost 100% exclusive quotes for this book, never read anywhere before.

What was the experience like writing the book, who was your favorite person to interview, and would you do another project like this again? I know everyone is wondering when the next scene is going to happen/break, maybe something amazing will happen in the next couple of years, something worthy to write about. Any comments?

It’s hard to pinpoint a single interview as my favorite, but I’d have to say certainly Mr. Vedder, Thayil, Arm, Kinney, and McKagan were certainly up there. Also, Susan Silver and Layne Staley’s mother, Nancy, were fantastic interviews as well. Certainly one of the more entertaining was the Dwaves’ Blag Dahlia, who like Mr. Arm, pulled now punches, and told it like it is. I’m always hopeful that another valid/vital local music scene will come about. If it already happened in Seattle in the early ’90s, New York and England in the ’70s, and San Fran in the ’60s, why not again at some point? My only remaining comments would be…why not check out my webpage, www.myspace.com/gregpratopage, where there are links to read samples of all 4 of my books (which are – ‘A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon,’ ‘Touched by Magic: The Tommy Bolin Story,’ ‘Grunge is Dead,’ and ‘No Schlock…Just Rock!’), as well as ordering info. Be well and be safe!

To purchase this book, check out your local bookstores, or search on www.Amazon.com . More Info about author/music journalist Greg Prato on his website, http://www.myspace.com/gregpratopage

1 Comment

One Response to “GRUNGE IS DEAD: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music: An Interview with Greg Prato, author,and music journalist”

  1. Cali Blue on September 7th, 2009 10:46 pm

    Bloody sweet Greg…yet again another amazing book…when Grunge first came out it was a shock to the system but later became a system requirement and my favorite era in American musical history…kudos for putting it up there where it should be.

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GRUNGE IS DEAD: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music: An Interview with Greg Prato, author,and music journalist