In Los Angeles, inside a plush suite at the luxury Beverly Wilshire Hotel, one half of grunge giants Soundgarden – singer Chris Cornell and bassist Ben Shepherd – sit in oversized armchairs, discussing the band’s reunion and King Animal, their first album since 1996. (Not present are guitar wizard Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron, who’s been playing with Pearl Jam during Soundgarden’s hiatus.) While Cornell carefully inserts some tangerine peel into a water bottle, Shepherd says the band fell right into their previous roles: “I’m still Ben; Chris is still Chris. Kim isn’t Kim, still.”
How are things different for Soundgarden now than 20 years ago?
Chris Cornell: There was this moment when we made Superunknown: the Seattle music scene had suddenly ended up on an international stage with huge success. And then all of us, not just Soundgarden but Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains –
Ben Shepherd: Mudhoney.
Cornell: We were all in the same position: Are we actually great bands that have something to say that deserve to be making records on an international arena? I think we all separately went off and proved that yes, we were.
Shepherd: It wasn’t just packaging a scene. Except that Seattle is magic.
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Cornell: This album, in a sense, revisits that notion. After 15 years, we can reassemble and again prove that we are a vital band that has something to say about rock music that other people don’t and we deserve to be making music that’s heard on an international stage.
What made a reunion worth doing?
Cornell: Wanting to do it. You sometimes get the feeling that people think getting back together after a hiatus to write and record a record is work, you know, arduous and unpleasant. Being able to write and record – that’s a privilege. I don’t forget the long days I spent working in a restaurant, when I wanted to be done so I could go home and work on a song. But we got back in a room to discuss reconnecting with our fans, based on our musical legacy. And we dealt with that, with re-releases, the live album, starting a website, starting a fan club. Getting in a room and writing songs and making an album, that was the fun part.
Our approach to this album was whenever we had time, we worked on the record. That was the antidote to what got us to stop in the first place, which was putting a pin in a calendar for a specific date to start promoting and touring for the album that you haven’t started writing yet. We started in 1984, and though it probably wasn’t until 1992 that we became an internationally famous rock band, we’d been around longer than any of our contemporaries. We drove our own van all around the U.S. and all around Europe and did these really long tours for Screaming Life and Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. And then Down on the Upside. We were just ready for a break. It probably didn’t need to be a statement of “we’re breaking up,” but maybe that helped us all let go and move on for a while.
Now I see it differently. We all do other things – that allows Soundgarden to be that thing that we all get together and do because we all really fucking want to do it.
Tell me about the first single, “Been Away Too Long.”
Shepherd: The working title was “EBE.”
Cornell: I wrote that song and did a demo of it. Everybody liked it and we started working as a band, arranging it. Ben came up with a bridge and we spent some time messing around with that. Then I had a hard time writing lyrics to it because it seemed whole. It almost seemed like it could be an instrumental. One night I couldn’t sleep and I had some uptempo, punk rock-y song in my head, with that line, “I’ve been away for too long.” I thought, “Well, that might be a cool new Soundgarden song,” and then I completely forgot it. So fast-forward: we’re almost done with the record, mixing or close to mixing. On another night I couldn’t sleep, suddenly that song popped back in my head and I went, “Oh, those lyrics might work with this.”
Shepherd: Chris sent us the file with vocals, and I was like, “Wow.” I was putting up window blinds in my house and I put it on repeat forever.
What song on King Animal changed the most while you were working on it?
Cornell: “Crooked Steps.” We added things to it. Took things out of it, changed the time signature.
Shepherd: God, we drove ourselves crazy with it. We tried every possible way with that song.
Cornell: It took six days.
Shepherd: “Non-State Actor.” Wow, that was hard.
Cornell: We weren’t sure what that was. Ben started playing it one day and then I tried to chase the idea and then we started arranging it. But as we were working on it, we came up with other modes of the riff – and every time we came up with a new mode, we weren’t sure which one was better. Then we were trying to fit them all into one arrangement, which is never smart.
Shepherd: And we were waiting for words, too. Kim was writing the lyrics the whole time.
Cornell: When I listen to “Crooked Steps” or “Non-State Actor” now, I think those arrangements are great. They don’t sound self-conscious or like we overdid it. And there were times in our history where we wouldn’t necessarily have been the case.
Shepherd: “Rowing,” there was a riff that I was playing on bass. Chris snagged it, took the recording home, looped it and made a whole song out of this one part. That’s when I knew the gloves were off.
Cornell: There’s a version of “Halfway There” that you guys have never heard, with completely different chords. I liked the vocal melody but chordally it was simple downstrokes, like “Darkness on the Edge of Town”: folksy, straightforward chords, which I knew wouldn’t work for us. So I came up with a completely different guitar approach to it and the lyrics and the melody fit over it.
Shepherd: I want to hear that.
Chris used the word “legacy” before. What do you think of as the Soundgarden legacy?
Shepherd: I actually don’t like that word. Kim’s the one who started saying it. I always get worried about that word – I’ve never looked it up, so I don’t know what it means.
Cornell: We have a musical legacy: the albums, the music, the songs. The interpretations belong to the people who listen to them. The fans own the records and listen to them and love them. It becomes the soundtrack to some part of their lives and we don’t control that. To me that’s what’s exciting about what we do. You create this little Frankenstein monster of a song or an album and then it wanders off around the world, going “Arrrrgggh, fire,” and does whatever it’s gonna do – murders the townspeople, whatever. I can’t stop it.
Shepherd: Goes to the prom, makes a fool of itself.