Chris Cornell sits in the corner booth of a restaurant near his Los Angeles home, digging into a breakfast of bacon and eggs and trying to pinpoint the exact moment when—after an absence of more than a decade—the four members of Soundgarden decided to make music together again.
"I don't know," he finally says with a sheepish grin. "We were sitting in a room together, all four of us for probably the first time in 14 years, and the first five minutes were a little awkward. I guess it's just human nature. Everyone's a little guarded and a little cautious, and everybody looks a little different. But after five minutes, we're remembering when the roadie was lighting his farts, and when someone was in a blackout and swinging from a chandelier—just all the funny stories. And that went on for, like, an hour and a half. And once that was going on, it felt like… You just become a band again. That's all you know how to be together, anyway, because that's all you ever were."
One of the biggest and most influential bands to emerge from the phenomenally fertile Seattle music scene of the 1980s, Soundgarden broke up in 1997, following a worldwide tour to promote Down on the Upside, their platinum-selling fifth album. And now, 15 years later, they're releasing their sixth, the mighty King Animal.
While it's fairly common these days for bands "of a certain age" to reunite and hit the '90s nostalgia concert circuit, the likelihood of any of them coming back with an album that stands with their best work is pretty miniscule. But Soundgarden have willfully defied the odds with King Animal, a record whose 13 tracks—from the swaggering riffs of the aptly titled "Been a Long Time" through the brooding psychedelia of the closing "Rowing"—not only deliver all the heaviness, darkness, and beautiful weirdness that made Soundgarden so great in the first place, but also seem to actually benefit from the passage of time since the band's last studio album.
"I think we've all evolved pretty significantly as musicians," says drummer Matt Cameron, who joined fellow Seattle rockers Pearl Jam in 1998, and has also played on numerous sessions with other artists (including Geddy Lee and Tony Iommi), and released four albums with his garage-psych side project Wellwater Conspiracy. "We all love playing music, and I think we all do things outside of our groups that we're known for, just for the sheer joy of collaborating on projects and making records."
Indeed, the four members of Soundgarden have all pursued their respective muses following the band's dissolution. Cornell, the band's charismatic lead singer, spent six years fronting Audioslave, the hard-rock band he formed in 2001 with three-fourths of Rage Against the Machine, and essayed a successful solo career—though the latter was not without its controversy, in the case of 2009's Scream, his Timbaland-produced, Trent Reznor-derided electronic pop experiment.
Bassist Ben Shepherd, who'd joined the band in 1990 following the departure of original member Hiro Yamamoto, played and recorded with former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, and released a couple of records with Hater, the side project he formed in the early '90s with Cameron and Monster Magnet guitarist John McBain (and which later morphed into Wellwater Conspiracy). Shepherd has also been working intermittently on an as-yet-unreleased solo record. Kim Thayil, the band's fearsomely bearded lead guitarist, maintained a lower profile than the others, but still made some notable appearances in the ambient/doom-metal world, including contributions to Altar, 2006 collaboration between Boris and Sunn O))), Ascend's 2008 release, Ample Fire Within, and two albums by Neurosis-affiliates A Storm of Light.
With four such creative individuals going down completely different artistic paths, a Soundgarden reunion once seemed entirely out of the realm of possibility, at least from Thayil's perspective. "People had grown in separate ways," he says. "There were creative decisions that I saw Chris make—and similarly with Matt and Ben—and then there were my interests… And my interests weren't going anywhere near there. It just seemed like people were going in their different directions, and I didn't see how we would satisfy that creatively. But what I didn't see was that everyone still had a fondness and a love for what it was that we did together. And even though people seemed to be going in different directions musically and creatively, everyone was still willing to contribute that particular element and love of music that they'd always contributed to Soundgarden."
To fully understand how Soundgarden could reconvene so successfully after all that time away, you need to understand why they split up in the first place—even though, in some ways, it's a tale as mundane as their recorded legacy is rich.
"All those Behind The Musics, they're all pretty close to the same story," Cornell laughs. "It's like, 'Yeah, we met in high school or the first year of college, we started a band, somebody's friend was an agent who brought in a manager, we made a record, it sold 60 million records in a week, and then we had trouble making the second record because everyone was super-high and we hated each other.' That wasn't us. We didn't have that. We chugged away and chugged away and chugged away. And we kind of still do."
Formed in Seattle in 1984, Soundgarden initially attracted attention for playing '70s-damaged heavy rock amid a punk/indie scene that couldn't have been less accepting of anything even vaguely redolent of long hair, bell bottoms, and head shops. "It was like, 'No, wait a minute, you can't do that!'" Cornell laughs. "I remember Soundgarden playing an early gig in Vancouver, and a big chunky glass ashtray whizzed right past my temple. The audience was all completely back against the wall and seated. They just hated us. At that moment, I felt like, Oh...we know something that they don't!"
By October 1987, when their Screaming Life EP was released via a fledgling Seattle label called Sub Pop, Soundgarden were already seasoned rock veterans, at least compared to most of the bands on the local scene. "A lot of Sub Pop bands had only been around for a year or two," remembers Thayil, "and when they went out on the road for the first time, they came back in pieces. We always felt we were stronger of character and able to endure it."
After two albums on SST, 1988's Ultramega OK and 1989's Louder Than Love, Soundgarden inked a deal with A&M, and released 1991's Badmotorfinger, a record many still view as their finest hour. Though they were one of the first groups from the Seattle scene to sign with a major label, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains quickly shot past them on the ladder to stardom.
"I love all those bands, but what we were doing just a few years before those bands started doing it gave them inspiration," Thayil says. "It's like, you can be a hard-rock band without being a dickhead. You can be a hard-rock band without being some moron doing a keg stand. It was heavy music that wasn't all hairdo…
"I remember the Nirvana guys wanting to be on Sub Pop, saying we were their favorite band," he continues. "The first time I met Kurt Cobain, I told him how much I loved their 'Love Buzz' single, and he said, 'Well, consider yourself our biggest influence.' These were the things that were important to us at the time."
Still, despite all the kudos from their peers, "It was a long, hard slog for us," Cameron remembers. "We didn't make any money for a long, long time. But I always felt like the band was such an awesome creative entity. I think we all had a lot of faith in our music, and that's what kept us going."
It wasn't until 1994's Superunknown, which spawned the melodic surprise MTV hit "Black Hole Sun," that Soundgarden finally broke through to the mainstream, even if the band's multi-hued array of psychedelic, post-punk, and progressive rock influences continued to be overlooked by fans and critics who found it more convenient to lump them in with the "grunge" movement.
"We've always been a little too diverse to figure out easily," Cornell reflects. "I think it's helped our longevity, and I think it will help our longevity after we drop dead. But I also think it was a minus when it came to popularity in the big picture, and selling a lot of records, and existing in the major label world. We still have the elements of indie post-punk that was kind of anchoring us and keeping us from being an easily understandable and accessible commercial rock band."
It was during the tour for Down on the Upside, the band's most musically diverse album yet, that the Soundgarden saga suddenly ground to a burned-out halt. On February 9, 1997, over an hour into a show at Honolulu's Blaisdell Arena that had been conspicuously marked by bad vibes and technical glitches, Shepherd slammed down his bass and stormed off the stage, followed closely by Thayil, Cameron, and Cornell. As Cornell and Cameron returned to the stage to play a brief encore, and Shepherd and Thayil argued in the dressing room, the end was drawing near.
Shepherd still fumes today when the subject of that fateful evening arises, though his ire has nothing to do with his bandmates. "I'd had it up to here with my equipment dying," he explains, "so I wasn't going to stand onstage and fake what I was playing. But people assumed that because I left the stage, I was the reason why we broke up, blah blah blah, and that pissed me off. Even when we were in the van driving home to the hotel from the show, some radio station that the driver was listening to was already lying about it: 'Yeah, Ben Shepherd quit the band—his brother died and he's really mad!'"
"I've read all kinds of things in the past few years that 'substance abuse' was the problem," chuckles Thayil. "And it's like, no, that was a particular aspect of Nirvana, that was a particular aspect of Alice In Chains. That wasn't our thing…
"You could see that people were getting a little bit stressed," he explains. "I don't think it was with each other, as much as it was just burnout and fatigue from collectively having to attend to something that is emotionally draining, that requires your personal attention and investment. That's what it was, more than anything else. There was absolutely no substance abuse problem there—other than maybe drinking more than a six-pack and smashing things." He laughs.
Cornell agrees. "I think that what caused us to split apart, rather than just take a hiatus, was just that Soundgarden had become a business," he says, "and that business had somehow, in a sense, started to be able to dictate to us what, where, and how we were going to do things, whether we were into it or comfortable with it or not."
On April 9, two months after the show in Honolulu, Soundgarden officially called it quits. Ironically, the business that tore Soundgarden apart would finally bring them back together in 2009.
"Initially, we reunited kind of as a partnership concern regarding our legacy: 'Hey, man, we don't have a website!'" Thayil laughs. "Friends of ours have kids who are in junior high and high school and learning instruments, and these friends were asking us, 'Why can't we find your T-shirts when we go to the store?' I thought that our band should be out there in the way that bands like Led Zeppelin were available for me to find out about, when I was learning guitar and starting a record collection. Everyone agreed, because in the decade or so that we'd been broken up, we'd kind of neglected that. The record company was gone, and our management office became a post office box and a voice mail, so there was no one minding the store."
"That's what started it," Cornell adds. "We were super-proud of every part of our history. There's no 'dark period' where we were bummed out about what happened. The last creative experience we had, Down on the Upside, was a great one, so we didn't really have to get over that hump of, 'Making those last three records was so awful, I don't know if I can do it again,'" he laughs. "We didn't have that."
Those initial discussions led to rehearsals, which in turn led to reunion shows in 2010, a full-fledged tour in 2011, and the creation of King Animal. Smashing Pumpkins head honcho Billy Corgan recently made headlines when he dissed Soundgarden as one of "Those bands that are essentially coming back only to make money—playing their old albums, and maybe somewhere in the back of their minds, they're thinking there might be a future." But King Animal has actually been in the works since late 2010.
"I've read all those criticisms: 'Soundgarden are only reuniting to play their old songs!'" Thayil shrugs. "We've been working on this record for a year and a half, we told people we were, we posted pictures of us in the studio… But still it somehow kind of got out there that we were playing all the riverboat casinos and county fairs!"
Though recorded in fits and starts at Seattle's Studio X due to Cornell's and Cameron's various touring commitments, King Animal actually comes off remarkably cohesive, a testament to the singularity of the group's vision. Not too many other bands could seamlessly fuse the myriad musical strains running through the explosive hard rock of "Non-State Actor" and "Blood On the Valley Floor," the punkish drive of "Attrition," the wistful ballad "Halfway There," or the Eastern guitar-and-horns drone freakout of "A Thousand Days Before," not to mention the many unexpected breaks and time signatures that pop up throughout. "Mark Arm from Mudhoney always used to say we were the Rush of Seattle," laughs Cameron.
"There's definitely that sort of alchemy and chemistry where when the four of us play together," Cornell says. "No matter what it is, it sounds like Soundgarden. The other thing that was there, and was evident immediately when we started writing together again, was that we still had vision in the same amount that we always did. I guess you'd call it a 'collective vision,' because everyone individually had their own vision of what Soundgarden meant, to them and to our fans.
"We all stuck to the vision, and I suppose that's sometimes what gets lost in the perpetuation of a band over a long period of time. But we haven't lost it, even a little bit. Everyone's head is still in the game the same way. Whatever problems we had before, personally, with just functioning as human beings, we probably all still have. Just maybe over the course of a few years, we've come to understand how to deal with those things a little better, but they're all still there. Nobody showed up with a Deepak Chopra book in their backpack, you know?" He laughs. "Nobody has completely transformed into another human being. And I'm thankful for that, in a weird way."
While there are plans afoot for a U.S. tour supporting King Animal, it's currently unclear whether the album will be Soundgarden's final studio statement, or the first recorded chapter of the group's second life. But that's OK with the band.
"I guess we'll have to see," Cameron says. "It feels good just to do it one day at a time, and to not really look too far ahead in the future. It just feels like we're in a healthy place, the way we're doing it now, which is to stay in the present."
Best of all, right now, "Everybody's on the same page," says Shepherd. "Especially when we plug in and turn on. There's nothing like it!"