The seminal grunge-rock band picks up right where it left off 

Nearly 16 years after their breakup, iconic grunge rockers Soundgarden are back with King Animal, their first new music since 1996. The band—singer Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd—first formed in 1984, and blew up 10 years later with their smash Superunknown, only to call it quits in 1997. “We just got burned out,” says Thayil. “We had a No. 1 album and Grammys, and there was a lot more demand on the band. After a while you just want to slow the whole damn thing down.”

In fact they brought it to a screeching halt before reforming in 2010 and testing the waters with a gig in their native Seattle. “We were a bit nervous,” Thayil admits. But not enough to keep them from headlining Lollapalooza a few months later, leading to discussions about recording again. “Matt said, ‘I have riffs and some songs; I’d like to go in the studio’—and we did,” says Thayil. “But we didn’t want to make an album that would ruin the charm, the legacy of the band. Bands often re-form and do something that sounds different, or something more commercial. We felt comfortable about this record being part of our body of work.”

Prior to the new album, the band released a greatest hits package and a live record. “That was part of the dynamic of rebooting Soundgarden,” explains Thayil. “Like, ‘Let’s finish these and tie up loose ends.’” Thayil sat down to tell us more about the band’s return to recording.


The band’s back—how does it feel?

Very natural. In one aspect it was like that cliché where you fall off your horse and get back on it. It felt right. And on another level we were trying to see what each of us remembered and forgot. I’d go, “Ah, I forgot what I did here” and Matt’s like, “Didn’t you do this thing?” I was like, “Oh yeah.” It was very entertaining and fun. We’ve also grown differently—Matt’s been playing with Pearl Jam, and Chris has played with other guitarists and drummers, and the same with Ben.


Describe the songwriting process.

We write in so many different combinations. We don’t really have a set process or formula. The most common thing is Chris writing the music and lyrics. At this point in his career Chris has become very productive, and he’s generating a lot of ideas. When it gets to the band, everyone adds his two cents. Some stuff starts with lyrics and some starts with music—it depends. If you see the songwriting credits, Ben wrote the lyrics for a song called “Attrition” and I wrote the lyrics for “Non-State Actor.” I wrote music for at least two songs, and another I contributed a big hunk to. Matt’s written the music for a couple of songs on the record and Ben wrote the music for two or three.


What was the studio dynamic?

We were always trying to do something different to entertain the other guys in the band. If I come up with a guitar riff, it has be something that Matt will say, “Oh, that’s a cool groove.” We’re our own audience, and we’re not going to impress each other by doing the same thing over and over again.


You selected Adam Kasper to produce.

He’s a friend and has a history with us, and he’s worked with Pearl Jam so he definitely knows how to record Matt’s drums. That’s where you want to start when you’re talking about a producer. A lot of people think about the lead instruments—vocals and guitar—and you want a producer who can work with that, but you also have mixing engineers who can get those levels. We think of a producer and drum sounds because that sets the table and defines the room in which you’re playing—that’s defined by how the drums sound. You get the drums there and everything else sits snugly in place. Adam’s up in the Seattle area, and he recorded Hater and some of the Wellwater Conspiracy stuff with Ben. We had a rapport with him that made sense.


Did you bring the heavier elements?

It’s not that I’m naturally inclined toward things that are heavy. I’m also the guy who initially introduced lullaby-like psychedelic elements like feedback and arpeggios. If you listen to the stuff I’ve done outside Soundgarden, it is a lot of that stuff as well. I do like the heavy stuff but not in the traditional way of a rhythmically visceral thing.


How do you create that?

It’s what I call color guitar parts—which include everything from feedback to parts that are written but aren’t the main riff, and don’t necessarily emphasize the rhythm or improvisation or solo. They’re sometimes things that are added later in the recording process or just live. I’m just wondering if lead guitar is really an archaic term for what we do. It might make sense with heavy metal, but lead guitar didn’t make as much sense with punk rock and hardcore bands that didn’t really have lead guitarists. Would Johnny Ramone have called himself a lead guitarist? No, he’s just the guitarist. I’d like to be at a point where as a guitarist, I’m doing things besides what would traditionally be referred to as leads. This isn’t Lynyrd Skynyrd or Molly Hatchett where you’ve got three guitarists playing a variation of a triplet.


It’s been reported the band was cashing in on the reunion.

That’s not a dumb issue because there are many people who commit to doing that kind of thing for some reason. Maybe they need to pay the property tax on their estate in Hawaii. I only have one house and don’t have any financial problems. I don’t think Matt has any financial problems—he plays in one of the biggest bands in the world, Pearl Jam. I’ve read stupid reviews that say, “Oh, this is obviously a cash grab. That’s why they made this record.” It’s like, “Sure, because there’s a huge market for live albums and greatest hits records.” I think our attendance was really because of our legacy and catalog. No one needed money, everyone’s doing fine. No one expected the record industry—which is a fraction of what it used to be—to carry us anywhere financially. Just imagine a partnership with four guys who are involved in something that’s very emotional and sensitive like songwriting and musicianship where you’re sharing of yourself.


What did you learn while apart? 

Sometimes with distance you get a perspective. A band unravels and you have negative thoughts and feelings, and that’s reinforced when you see each other again. But over time you get a better perspective and the initial stimuli that triggered the response kind of fades. You start looking at the whole picture and the positive things far outweigh anything else. Then when you get together and have a positive experience, you start reminiscing about the good times. You realize, “Wow, we really grew up together.” You have a lot of shared biography there.


Could the breakup have been avoided?

We probably should have taken an extended break, and put the band on a shelf and done other stuff. It seemed to me that the band’s career was somewhere else and we weren’t driving the car anymore—we were in the passenger seat.

–Steve Rosen

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