By Brian F. Johnson
Three years after the seminal grunge band Soundgarden took home two Grammy Awards for their singles “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman,” the band felt eaten up by the business and announced that they were disbanding. It was 1997 and suddenly the grunge movement, which had blazed so brightly during the early nineties, found itself adrift with neither compass nor rudder. It had lost Nirvana in 1994 following Kurt Cobain’s death, Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley had essentially gone into hiding, putting his band in hiatus status, and Pearl Jam was struggling through a series of lineup changes.
Soundgarden’s members went their separate ways and focused on a wealth of other projects, continually debunking rumors of a reunion. Thirteen years passed. But by 2009 the band members had been meeting, in a business sense, to discuss releasing a possible box set or a special B-sides compilation.
Then, suddenly — at least to fans — on January 1, 2010, lead singer Chris Cornell announced via Twitter, “Knights of the Soundtable ride again!”
While that tale makes it all seem like a magical return from the dead, lead guitarist Kim Thayil, in a recent interview with The Marquee, said that the band getting back together and playing was a very gradual process that only looked sudden to the public. “We had all been in the room together, dealing with partnerships, and you know the legal and financial issues with management and record company guys. Then there were subsequent meetings that were similar and then, eventually, there was a meeting with us all in a room where there were guitars and drums,” Thayil said in his smooth baritone that sounds like the voice of a baseball announcer. “There was excitement and enthusiasm and anxiety, and a little bit of reticence, you know. It was a little bit like running into an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend, I suppose. On some level you’re happy to see each other, but on the other you’re not sure if you really want to go to the movies again. You know, we never had an all-in moment. It was very gradual how it came about.”
During that time, said Thayil, the band never directly addressed the elephant in the room, but that all the band members, he, Cornell, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd, were all aware that by even attempting to reunite there was the off-chance that the band could miss the mark and end up hurting their legacy. But at the same time, Thayil said that what had made them strong in the early nineties was working in their favor now. “We were all aware of that chance, but we also felt pretty confident that we have four editors and four critics in our band, and we extend that to our friends who are musicians, so we figured we could keep that in check,” he said. “You know record companies and journalists like to focus collaborative efforts on one guy, usually the singer. Foo Fighters are kind of like that. Nirvana was kind of like that. And when that happens if that individual isn’t getting the full three-framed mirror view of himself then they can make some pretty bad decisions. That’s difficult for Soundgarden, though, because we have four idiots who can’t see their own behinds, but that means that each of us has the other three guys in the band looking at us that keeps us all in check.”
Soundgarden played its first show since 1997 in April of 2010 in Seattle and that summer headlined Lollapalooza in Chicago. Shortly thereafter, Cameron, who had taken on the post of Pearl Jam’s drummer during Soundgarden’s time away — a position that he continues to hold despite Soundgarden’s reunion — came to the group with a few song ideas that he wanted to demo for the band. By November of that year, the band had entered the studio to begin work on a new album, but due to everyone’s other projects the album took almost two years to record. “We weren’t in the studio that whole period of time. It’s not some magnum opus Brian Wilson or Boston thing like that. We really had the whole process broken up by a number of different commitments. Pearl Jam was touring, and Chris was recording and doing some touring, and Soundgarden was touring Europe and the U.S. We’d have some recording sessions and then we’d take breaks and go on the road and then go back and work on other parts during the break,” Thayil said.
The final result is King Animal, the first album of new, original material from Soundgarden since 1996’s Down on the Upside. (The band did release Telephantasm: A Retrospective in 2010, a compilation album that holds the distinction of being the first music CD ever to be packaged with a video game, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. And, in 2011, the group released the live album Live on the I-5). King Animal in many ways picks up right where Soundgarden left off in 1997. Even the notoriously harsh online magazine Pop Matter said that King Animal “does nothing to sully the Soundgarden legacy.”
Thayil said that he’s not too surprised about the critical response on the album, because the band stayed true to their roots, and that Soundgarden is its own best critic. “You can see a lot of variety on this album, but you know, we’re not doing different styles or genres. It’s all Soundgarden. We didn’t become myopic or lose our focus, or tend to one element of ourselves as I’ve seen many bands do and been disappointed as a fan growing up,” he said. “It’s all pretty much that dark psychedelic, forward-thinking hard rock. I say hard rock because I’m tired of convincing punk rockers we’re not metal and tired of convincing metal heads that we’re not punk. Whatever. We’re loud. That’s what we are.”
Soundgarden has already completed one large leg of a tour behind King Animal and their Colorado show this month caps the second leg of the tour. The band is also in discussions on another release, but Thayil made it clear that at this time they’re not thinking of an album of new material. “We’re not recording. We’re not in the studio,” he said. “But there are some Soundgarden records from our catalog that we’re discussing. One that’s been discussed since the mid-’90s is our B-sides album. We were always going to do a B-side album where we compile all those loose ends of songs that were in movie soundtracks or only released in Europe or Australia, or a B-side of some single or compilation album like No Alternative [a 21-track compilation released in 1993 to benefit AIDS relief]. It’d be similar to The Beatles’ Hey Jude or Incesticide by Nirvana or Attack of the Killer Bs by Anthrax.”
Thayil said one of the biggest holdups is the band trying to figure out the format of the release. “We have more than enough for one album,” he said. “We probably have enough for three or four. So do we throw them all together as one box or put them out as standalone albums? It’s difficult to revisit a box set because it’s a piece of furniture. It’s something that goes on a mantel piece as opposed to something that goes in your car or whatever. You can’t put a double-vinyl disc on an iPod.”
:: Soundgarden ::
:: 1st Bank Center :: May 28 ::
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