Soundgarden: Back in bloom (+review)

By Scott Kara

They're back, they've matured, and Soundgarden have a new album to show for it. They talk to Scott Kara.

Soundgarden have regained their original healthy creative relationship. Photo / Supplied
Soundgarden have regained their original healthy creative relationship. Photo / Supplied

If you put the members of Soundgarden in a room together 15 years ago they might have ripped each other's heads off.

Let's just say the Seattle band's breakup in 1997, over personal and musical differences, wasn't the most amicable of splits.

"With young guys in a rock band, everybody cops an attitude at some point or another and rock musicians are notoriously not very good at communicating," remembers singer Chris Cornell with a chuckle.

However, 13 years on, when Cornell and his bandmates, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bass player Ben Shepherd decided to call a truce, simply being in a room again together was enough to inspire them to reunite.

Initially they had just met to talk about plans to, as Cornell puts it, "draw attention to the band's back catalogue" but they ended up hitting the road again (including headlining Auckland's last Big Day Out earlier this year) and ultimately recording sixth album, King Animal.

"It started with being grownups and deciding that we needed to take responsibility for our back catalogue and our musical legacy and reminding everybody that we existed," says Cornell on the phone from Los Angeles. "We were used to being a band together. We were used to singing and recording songs and playing shows. So once we got together, discussing starting up a fan club again, and those kind of things, that led to playing a show, and then 50 shows, and once we were in a room putting music together, somebody starts playing a new thing, and suddenly there's a song. One thing led to another."

Not only are they more grown-up, but the excesses of drugs and alcohol that fuelled much of their earlier reign as one of grunge rock's heaviest and most adventurous bands, is gone too. And they are back in control of the business that is Soundgarden, because back in the day it started spiralling out of their control.

"I mean we started out as an indie band and, we conducted all of our own business in-house, from T-shirts to touring to recording and production. But when the band grew and got really huge, we weren't really dealing with it on a day-to day basis and that wasn't good for us, it created an environment where we stopped communicating with each other.

"Whereas now, it's back to the old times where we're writing, recording, and involved in every part of the process. We're in the thick of it all the time, and that's the way we work well," says Cornell, who's in a chatty reminiscing mood.

During the interview he talks about everything from being a kid in Seattle and buying AC/DC's Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap ("It was in the import section because they never released that record in the US at first, so it was expensive, and I don't know why but I bought it and consequently every other AC/DC album up to Highway to Hell.") to the unique sonic chaos and dissonant rumble of the Soundgarden sound.

"In the 90s I remember thinking how do we control it, but when we got back together I'd forgotten about it and all of a sudden there it was, and there is this strange chaotic swirl around us as we play. And maybe we've got another opportunity to figure out where that comes from. But it's something that has a mind of its own."

Mostly though he's keen to talk about King Animal.

"It stands up to any of our other albums, and the way we see it, we kind of split up when we were at a high point creatively so we didn't really want to mess that up," he says, before issuing a warning. "But it's certainly not going to appeal to someone in the same way as Superunknown, or Down on the Upside, or Badmotorfinger did."

It's diverse, and, not to sound too dramatic, but the sound of a band more at peace with themselves rather than a raging, fiery force.

Blood on the Valley Floor still has the punishing venom of old, but then there's A Thousand Days Before, not a typical Soundgarden song with its exotic eastern influence, and Bones of Birds, a beautifully poignant, fragile refrain about Cornell dealing with being a father to three young children.

"It's about children grappling with the loss of innocence and having to deal with things like death that they are not really emotionally able to deal with. These days they deal with a lot of adult concepts at an even younger age - and over the past few years, with my children, I've had to deal with that a lot."

This diversity is nothing new because on 1994's Superunknown - arguably the band's classic album, though if you want hard, fast and heavy then you can't go past Badmotorfinger - and Down On the Upside, Soundgarden's sound was constantly changing.

"After Badmotorfinger, which was a very aggressive album, we started pushing the boundaries of what we were as a band and bands have to do that in order to survive. You have to have a healthy relationship creatively to have diversity. And now it's as good as ever in terms of that creative relationship."

Who: Chris Cornell of Soundgarden.
What: Reformed heavy rock grunge survivors are back after breaking up in 1997.
New album: King Animal, out now.
Essential listening: Ultramega OK (1988); Louder Than Love (1989); Badmotorfinger (1991); Superunknown (1994); Down on the Upside (1996)

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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