Alive in the Superunknown: Soundgarden chart their unlikely return and the making of 'King Animal'
It was another summer of unlikely reunion tours amongst giants – The Stooges’ Raw Power line-up trucked on despite Ron Asheton’s death; Black Sabbath made it work without Bill Ward in their employ; Kyuss sued each other over the use of the name while John Garcia and Brant Bjork kept the circus in town regardless; The Afghan Whigs returned to the stage with grace; and Refused put their ‘better to burn out’ punk principles aside for one last lap around the circuit – meanwhile the cynics flatly accused them all of topping up their pension.
Reassembled Seattle mavericks Soundgarden were the common denominator at one festival or another, but what distinguished this band from the nostalgia tour was a willingness to think about a future beyond retreading the glory days. Now with their fifth album – boldly titled King Animal – due this month, they’re determined to make a sure-footed return, but cautious to avoid the industry trappings that smothered them the first time around.
Huddled inside a portacabin backstage at Hyde Park, The Skinny’s time with the band is a precious commodity as the world's music press thumps on their door. It doesn’t help that Chris Cornell (chatty but guarded, whose eyes dart around the room like Timbaland might parachute in through the roof at any minute) and Kim Thayil (the jovial, easy-going good cop) burn half of it cracking jokes. As the guy who taught Cornell how to play guitar, it’s apt that they continually finish each other’s sentences. In fact, remarkably, from the evidence of their summer tour, Soundgarden look a lot like a band back on the same page. Yet it all seemed so unlikely.
Rewinding a couple of years, the quartet’s return was almost accidental; a Tweet to say that the “Knights of the Soundtable ride again” – essentially that their old fanclub had been reactivated – was taken as a thinly veiled hint that they’d reconvened the band itself after 12 years away. Cornell implies that they simply rolled with the misconception. “It was something that kinda just strangely occurred,” he says, “based on us being in the same room with each other. There was that, and as our meetings progressed – where we were trying to service the legacy of the band – no reasons to not get back together ever appeared.”
As a group that seemed to cherish its privacy in correlation with heightening fame, the details of Soundgarden’s split were left hazy in ’97, although drummer Matt Cameron – currently pulling double shifts with his old comrades as well as Pearl Jam – has since suggested that the band were simply swallowed up by the business. “Was that in his autobiography?” Thayil arches an eyebrow. “Because if it was, he’s been misquoted!” Cornell chimes in: “That was in the movie – The Matt Cameron Story... Matt Damon was the star – straight to video.”
Serious face on, is the industry still as meddlesome for a multi-million selling ‘property’ in 2012? “Oh, more so. Nobody told us how to be, creatively, but they expect a lot of other things out of us,” says Thayil. “Everything’s completely different,” Cornell offers. “There was a specific way that the business ran – this cyclical nature of writing, recording, doing press, touring and then starting that whole thing over again. You’d be contracted to a label for several albums where they’d be looking at their balance sheets and thinking ‘well, it’d be great if you guys had an album out by March next year, because in order for us to make the amount of money we need to make – it’s on you to deliver.' We never succumb to pressure to ever do anything of any kind.” Thayil pipes up with a nugget of mock management speak: “Schedualise!”
As the first band of the Seattle boom to sign with a major label, it’s perhaps no surprise that a corporate mentality would eventually jar with the DIY sensibilities the band had governed itself by in its first few years of being. “We started out as an indie band where we kinda did everything on our own,” Cornell reflects. “The first few releases weren’t even on the same label – it was all on our own schedule, on our own time – we basically did everything ourselves.” Thayil remembers the glamour of slumming it, too: “…including driving our own van and loading our own gear, then unloading it through the night...which was a lot of fun for a few years, I suppose...”
“Yeah, something about that eventually wasn’t necessarily good for us,” Cornell chuckles. “Now it’s not the same thing. The labels close in on one album at a time – we’re not contracted to any specific one beyond that, neither are any of us individually. In that sense we can go anywhere we want, do anything we like, make any decision; we don’t give up the publishing rights to anything either.”
“Part of that is a function of our success, but it’s also the weakness of the record labels now,” remarks Thayil of the changed landscape that the band now finds itself in. “Record labels need other partners; bands now have partners other than labels. Labels are less likely to call the shots and pressure you to schedualise everything.” Cornell suggests that, perhaps now more than ever, the possibilities are wide open for any band with a good idea that they can execute themselves. “It’s the nature of the business; bands can have success by running their own label, or by knowing how to get a viral response.”
Of course, at the heart of Soundgarden’s success the first time around was the sheer experimental diversity afforded by the myriad writing partnerships within it, seemingly unlocked by Ben Shepherd’s addition to the fold by the time they broke through with psychedelic sludge rock epic Badmotorfinger in 1991. “[King Animal] has that same variety of songwriting combinations we’ve always had,” says Thayil of the new LP. “There’s certain ways that we respond to each other that we kinda always have.”
“Yeah,” Cornell nods, “the partnerships are interesting to me – a long break put them in focus. The way that one person responds creatively to another, differently than they would in any other situation – the way that I would, for example, come up with lyrics and melodies to a song Matt brings in, versus Ben or Kim, versus when I write on my own, versus one I would co-write with someone else. We somehow naturally click in a very specific way. For example, writing with Kim has produced the kind of material that would never occur to me in any other situation, yet it can remind me very much of songs he and I wrote together 15, 20 or even 25 years ago. Then, also, writing an entire song for Soundgarden on my own is just a different mindset for me. I’ve written so many songs since that don’t sound anything like that. And yet, it doesn’t require a lot of thought, I just have a clear idea of what I think the musical identity of Soundgarden is, and what everyone else’s tastes are.”
Suddenly Thayil dives in, as if to intercept any assumption that one man’s in charge here. “Part of it is Chris naturally knowing what would fit with the band, as much as it’s about the other three guys actually gravitating towards an idea and saying ‘hey, let’s play that!’” Cornell barks back in firm agreement: “Right!”
Throughout their European summer tour the band were keen to keep new material under lock and key, save for what, by their own admission, was a ‘family friendly’ contribution to The Avengers soundtrack. Dynamic songs like Bones of Birds – featuring a plaintive vocal from Cornell, one of Thayil’s trademark drop-tuned eastern-flavoured motifs, and a typically off-kilter rhythm from Shepherd and Cameron – is the stuff one imagines will see the group firmly re-established as a supernatural anomaly in modern rock.
“Once you hear any notes of it you think ‘oh my God, it’s Soundgarden’ immediately,” enthuses Shepherd over the phone just a few weeks away from release – clearly as much a fan as a committed member of the band. “It covers the whole gamut – as usual, the same moody spectrum. But the sound is a lot closer to a better version of what [previous 1996 swansong] Down on the Upside was – where it’s stripped down and sounds like a band in a room. We know our way around the studio better now.” Did time away give the band a fresh perspective on the rest of their catalogue? “Oh yeah,” he laughs. "We can actually play it now!”
Looking to the future, Shepherd reveals that the band intends to take King Animal around the US next year after an intimate whistle-stop tour of Europe – including another date in London – this November. The Skinny reminds him that they haven’t played in these parts since 1996. “I’m sure we’ll get over there,” he assures. “We have to play Scotland. I want to play the Barrowlands again, just to see what it’s like. I do miss Glasgow."
In terms of the bigger picture, Cameron has recently spoken with some uncertainty about whether the band can endure as a long-term prospect again; how does Shepherd think of it? “Yeah, Soundgarden’s back,” he offers in parting. “Matt can go do whatever he wants, so can Chris, Kim and I – and whenever we decide to reconvene, we can. We’ve re-established ourselves enough to have that open door. We can go make another record. We don’t have big commitments and debts – this is truly for the art of the music and the brotherhood of the band. It’s pretty cool.”