Before Soundgarden took the stage at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in July 2011, you could forgive the casual fan for wondering whether the band members were just the latest rock gods to pad their bank accounts with fan nostalgia.
After all, why get back together now? When Soundgarden broke up, rumors circulated about bad blood and creative differences. The dearth of collaboration between members since then seemed to hint that the creative energy that turned Soundgarden into grunge-rock royalty was no longer.
But when the band took the stage, the swirling doubts — how has Chris Cornell’s voice held up, how revitalized is the band, is this a “comeback,” a “reunion” or a “cash-making victory lap” — evaporated. The group launched into the plodding, churning, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” and then plunged into the relentless, jaunting riffing of “Spoonman.” As the band thundered into “Jesus Christ Pose,” a blistering single from the 1991 album Badmotorfinger, it had become clear: Soundgarden was sharp as hell, the band’s chops seemingly no worse for the wear after its 12-year hiatus. But more importantly, the guys on stage seemed like they gave a shit. They were playing with passion.
Cornell was stomping all over the stage, lifting his guitar in the air and cracking jokes about how high the band would get being downwind of a bunch of happy Coloradans. Drummer Matt Cameron played with inspiration. At the end of the show, after a four-song encore that finished with the anvil-on-your-chest-heavy “Slaves & Bulldozers,” guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd stayed on stage, coaxing distorted squeals and rumbles from their instruments before Shepherd threw his bass into the drum set and the show ended.
That’s not just fan-boy fancy speaking there. When asked by Boulder Weekly, Cornell called the show “memorable … one we wished we’d filmed.”
“I think in terms of how we define Soundgarden shows, one of them is [if ] we all are excited about it at the end,” Cornell says. “Because that’s not always the case — everybody has their own individual experience … and everybody in the band loved that one in particular. There was something about it that was really special. We had played Red Rocks before, and I had also played it with Audioslave. They’re always somewhat memorable, just because it’s an interesting place to play, but that one in general, that specific show, was great.”
The 2011 tour ended, and Soundgarden hit the studio for the first time since the mid-’90s. The result was King Animal, released in November 2012. And despite the long hiatus, the album contains moments that actually sound like vintage Soundgarden. It is, at times, difficult to pin down where 1996’s Down On The Upside ends and King Animal begins. The album’s opener, “Been Away Too Long,” finds Cornell singing the apt refrain, “I only ever really wanted a break / I’ve been away for too long.” Many fans would agree. However, the lyrics came to him before the band started recording, he says. They seem like a triumphant return to glory, but as Cornell tells it, it’s just a lovely coincidence.
“Yeah, it wasn’t really the intention, but it seemed to work in the context,” Cornell says. “It seemed like a lot of people, you know, reviewers, took it at face value and thought that’s exactly what it’s about. Which is fine, I don’t really care. … It wasn’t about the band getting back together, but it seemed to work on that level.”
Soundgarden’s popularity peaked after Kurt Cobain and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ushered in a new era of rock ’n’ roll, but the band predates Nirvana considerably. After all, Soundgarden had already been nominated for a Grammy before the word “grunge” entered the popular lexicon. (Thayil fondly told Stereogum that the guys in Nirvana felt like “little brothers.”) The group’s roots stretch back to 1984, when Cornell joined bassist Hiro Yamamato and Thayil and dubbed themselves Soundgarden, after an art structure, “A Sound Garden,” located on the northwestern shore of Seattle’s Lake Washington. At first, Cornell was doing double duty on drums and vocals; the band soon added a drummer to free Cornell to be the frontman. Cameron became the permanent drummer sometime around 1986, and the band went on to release two EPs on Sub Pop in 1987 and 1988. Soundgarden signed with indie label SST that same year and released its first full-length album, Ultramega OK, at the end of 1988. The band was reportedly nonplussed. The title is said to be a reference to how the band felt about the album — definitely not bad, but not as good as it should be. Nevertheless, the band received a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance, and Soundgarden signed to a major label, A&M Records, a division of Polygram Records, later that year. Louder Than Love came out in 1989, and with its lineup finalized when Ben Shepherd replaced Yamamato on bass, the band released Badmotorfinger in 1991.
The band’s success arguably peaked with 1994’s Superunknown, led by the singles “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman” and “Fell on Black Days.” The album eventually went platinum five times, cementing Soundgarden’s place as rock royalty. 1996’s Down On The Upside wasn’t as great of a commercial success, but it contained some of Soundgarden’s best work yet, like Cornell’s stratospheric vocals on “Pretty Noose” and the strangely melodic yet aggressive “Burden In My Hand.”
Yet all was not good for Soundgarden. Cracks started appearing in the band’s live performances, culminating with an outburst by Shepherd at a 1997 show in Hawaii, when, frustrated by equipment failures, he threw his bass down and stormed offstage. On April 9, 1997, Soundgarden faxed out a short press release saying: “After 12 years, the members of Soundgarden have amicably and mutually decided to disband to pursue other interests. There is no word at this time on any of the members’ future plans.”
Soundgarden | Photo by Michael Lavine
Band members would subsequently voice complaints about how the business side of the music industry ground the band down, but Rolling Stone, in its article on the breakup, noted that “those close to the Seattle group suggest that the breakup was caused by a blend of creative differences and personnel problems.”
Cornell went on to record a few solo albums, before teaming up with the three instrumentalists of Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave. Cameron did a few side projects before joining Pearl Jam in 1998 (he remains a member to this day). Thayil and Shepherd did a few side projects but mostly remained inactive.
Then, on Jan. 1, 2010, Cornell tweeted, “The 12-year break is over and school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!” Soundgarden, it seemed, was back.
Knights of the Soundtable referred to the band’s long-dormant fan club, but that didn’t seem to matter. Word went viral over social media. Soundgarden had entered the next phase of their career, rebooting in the digital world.
Turns out, music wasn’t immediately a concern when the band members began the talks that would eventually end the hiatus.
“Well, we started by getting together and talking about doing different things to reinvigorate the catalog and reconnect the fans,” Cornell says. “It had become apparent that someone needed to do that, someone had kind of needed to be in charge of keeping the music legacy vital, and reminding people that it’s out there.
“It’s easy to not focus on, I suppose, but if you think about bands who had a long musical legacy and released a lot of records and kind of seemed to be important in music, there’s someone behind there creating something or doing something, even if it’s one surviving member, or someone that was never in the band, even if it’s just a fan that runs a website or something. There’s always someone involved in keeping fans connected to that musical legacy. And no one was doing that with ours.
“We just sort of decided that’s how some classic bands go away. Now that we were convinced we were a classic band, we wanted to deal with that. The rest of it rolled out simply because we were together in a room.”
It had been 12 years since all the members had been in the same room, Cornell says. The creative energy flew easily and naturally, and if there ever were any hint of bad blood, Cornell wouldn’t acknowledge it.
“There were never really any hard feelings,” Cornell says. “Hard feelings were never really a part of it. We didn’t split up because we didn’t like each other. We split up because we were sick of the music business and all the pitfalls of being a band within it.”
When the band announced the reunion, it was important to the members that it not be perceived as strictly a moneymaking venture, Cornell says. Maintaining the band’s artistic integrity was key.
“The first thing I think we did as a band when we announced we were back together was say no to a bunch of tours,” Cornell says. “That first year we had offers to go to Europe that were in the millions of dollars, and a whole bunch of U.S. festival offers and a tour that was in the millions of dollars, and we essentially said no to all of it. And I think that was probably the most important thing that we did. We all knew then that no one individual in this band wanted to get back together to reconvene because we wanted to make money. That decision to say no was unanimous, and it was kind of definitive in that way. We were doing it because we wanted to do it.”
The band interrupted the recording process to tour (an appeasement to restless fans, Cornell says), but once the members got in a rehearsal space to write, things proceeded as normal.
“We mostly just kind of stood in a rehearsal room and showed each other ideas that we had, most of which were in a state of infancy,” Cornell says. “Then we would arrange them, and then we would try different ways of making a song out of it.”
Soundgarden never really courted the success that seemed to come so readily and easily. Their pre-hiatus records are filled with odd time signatures and heavy riffing punctuated at times by somewhat tripped-out jam sections. Absent are the power ballads and straightforward love songs that permeated so much rock music of the time. Cornell’s lyrics have always been bleak, obscure and often personal, seemingly not built for the mainstream.
Cornell says his approach to lyrics comes from a desire to pull the listener into a world created by the song.
“I’ve never been one to have an experience and then go home and write a song about it,” Cornell says. “With very few exceptions, when I hear a song that sounds like someone had an experience and then went home and wrote a song about it, I don’t want to hear it. I was always interested in music that was escapist and drew you out of your life and into some weird environment created by the music, the lyrics and the landscape. There are a few exceptions. Then there are writers that kind of write stories that aren’t stories based on their personal life but are kind of fiction. A lot of Springsteen songs are like that. Characters that are created that might be based on something but really he’s just writing short stories. That I do like.
“I think you can even get closer to reality by experimenting with fiction, sometimes, rather than trying to directly write about a thing.”
Soundgarden plays Tuesday, May 28 at the 1stBank Center. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $49.75. See www.1stbankcenter.com for more information.