"We don't feel nostalgia trying to remember who played what parts on a song that we recorded in 1988," a fit and well-kempt Chris Cornell says, his blue eyes piercing. "It doesn't feel like looking at baby pictures to me. It's nice that we have fans that were fans in 1988, that's great, but that's not enough for us. And I would've never expected that to be enough."
Soundgarden are hungry. Like the regal hulk evoked by the title of their triumphant new album, King Animal, out November 13, the grunge godfathers will take whatever you offer, and then they'll take the rest. Today, their den is the luxe Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It's been a long slog of on-camera interviews with people who ask questions like, "What is the state of rock?"
We're more interested in the state of Soundgarden. "We started out doing everything ourselves, and we were always talking to each other." Cornell, 48, is talking now and it's late, but while his tired voice doesn't betray his still awe-inspiring croon, in person he seems impossibly sharp. Of course, it could be a trick of those steely eyes. "But as things slowly transitioned into bigger business and required more people to help," he continues, "the band just stopped communicating. We were always really happy in the studio. We were always really motivated, never pulling out our hair. But dealing with what the music business version of what Soundgarden had become..." The frontman goes quiet.
Bassist Ben Shepherd, 44, picks up where his singer left off. "It was like a big gray wave washing over a tiny garden," he says, sunken into a plush red chair to Cornell's right. It's easy to forget that a few years before 1994's "Black Hole Sun" made Superunknown a multi-platinum concern, this band, in its Seattle youth, was a humble Sub Pop act. But Cornell remembered: "To preserve that little garden, we put everything up, put it away."
King Animal, the band's first studio LP in 16 years, launched with furious first single "Been Away Too Long," but really, it was just long enough. By encasing the band in amber back in the '90s, Soundgarden was spared the electronically infused everything of the next decade, able to work through awkward ideas, like Cornell’s Timbaland-produced Scream LP, on the side. They waited long enough for popular nostalgia to kick in, then returned warily in 2010 when the big-ticket concert offers like a headlining spot at Lollapalooza came. (A process revealed in a SPIN cover story.) But Cornell, Shepherd, guitarist Kim Thayil, and drummer Matt Cameron didn't dwell in the past. They dropped Telephantasm: A Retrospective and Live on I-5 presumably to wrap up their contract with A&M, and went back to work. "Fast-forward to 2011," says Cornell, "and we don’t have a label. We're writing and recording an album ourselves. We do everything, from choosing producers to picking packaging, until it's done. Then we find a label to put it out on [Universal Republic], and communication's what it used to be. It's almost like it was in the beginning of the band."
Likewise with their music. Soundgarden, to our relief, still sound like Soundgarden. They didn't break, didn't bend, didn't go ambient or acoustic, didn't hire Skrillex to give them the gift of wub. They stayed heavy and electric and apocalyptic just the way we liked them. King Animal, recorded in Seattle with producer Adam Kasper, who helmed the band's last two studio efforts, is a vicious, canny brute hopped up on punk, metal and mutant blues. The band has always been diverse in its approach to the heavy, and new songs like "By Crooked Step," a math-y psychedelic grinder, and "Eyelid’s Mouth," with its muscled Zeppelin chug, prove they're averse to the easy road. And Cornell's voice still soars in the face of downcast snarls, still adds grit to softer moments. "You can get younger, you know," says Shepherd. "You can't be older than you already are, but you can be everything you've been before."
But the band is older, more mature. They aren't here to compete with younger bucks. "Whenever anyone sends me a link to a band, saying, 'These guys sound exactly like Soundgarden,'" offers Cornell, who lives a 15-minute drive from the hotel, "it's always some super simple sludge riff with a singer that sings high and screechy. And it's really awful."
Furthermore, they now look to those who've gone longer for inspiration. "You play Hyde Park with the Stooges and you get inspired, like, 'Wow! Those guys are kicking it out!' It shows you how young everyone really is," says Shepherd. "You see guys like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, or Taj Mahal, and they are actually getting better." And Cornell, after falling into alcohol and substance abuse following Soundgarden's split, is on the other side of a successful rehab stint and in the midst of a healthy second marriage. Brighter King Animal songs like "A Thousand Days Before" and "Halfway There" seem to be about striving to reach higher ground against great odds.
"I've never written under the influence of anything except for coffee," Cornell explains. "It was just in recording. Occasional drinking can help perspective, but if it's all the time, then you're just drunk. I got a lot more done this time and in a much better mood than I did on previous outings. To be honest, most of that was out of fuckin' being nervous."
The biggest change? They're parents now. Shepherd says he wrote the simple guitar riff in "Halfway There" so he could teach it to his daughter one day. And the eerie "Bones of Birds," as Cornell explains in a recent video, is about watching his kids' naiveté slowly dissolve. Plus, it bears mentioning that they had a song, "Live to Rise," in The Avengers. "They're a great audience, kids,” says Cornell. "They actually respond. They don't have the references that adults have, so everything is immediate. It's always interesting to see what they react to in whatever I'm working on at the moment. And they don't even want to discuss why. That's a lesson to remember: My son doesn't care about why."
And maybe we shouldn't either. King Animal closes with an almost Tom Waits-like blues called "Rowing." Over a shambling groove, Soundgarden's singer chants, "Don't know where I'm going, I just keep on rowing, I just keep on pulling that rope." The sentiment might seem Sisyphean, but there's wisdom in moving forward without looking back. "If we're writing and recording new and vital music, it's taking care of itself," Cornell says. "I definitely feel like there's a place for who we are and what we do. We're doing what we've always done as a band and we're fortunate enough to have a long enough history that someone could actually suggest that we're a nostalgia act. Good for us."
This creature doesn't temper expectations. It lowers its massive antlered head and simply walks forward. It doesn't run because it doesn't need to, and what doesn't run from it gets run over. In the chorus of "Non-State Actor," Cornell sings the song of his band's bestial spirit guide: "We'll settle for a little bit more than everything."
Because that's what a King Animal was born to do.