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Soundgarden: Alive in the Superunknown

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 13: Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell of American rock group Soundgarden perform live on stage during the first day of Hard Rock Calling, at Hyde Park on July 13, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

One guy’s homeless, one likes sleeping all day, one’s in Pearl Jam, and one’s Chris Cornell. Beloved ’90s titans Soundgarden are back, but where are they going? 

From a distance, it doesn’t look like much has changed.

On a cool Thursday evening in June, three-quarters of Soundgarden stand on a street corner in the Belltown section of Seattle, smoking cigarettes. From half a block away, I can make out the long, lean figure of Chris Cornell clad in a green military jacket, leaning against the window outside the Palace Ballroom, a private dining room serviced by local celebrity chef Tom Douglas. The Soundgarden frontman’s dark locks hang past his shoulders, a throwback to the band’s heyday and a reminder of his status as grunge’s only bona fide sex symbol. Guitarist Kim Thayil, 49, stands facing Cornell, a ponytail snaking halfway down his back from underneath a brown skullcap. A few feet away, bassist Ben Shepherd, 41, tall and imposing in a heavy black overcoat, stares into the distance.

As I cross the street toward the three, the years come into focus. Shepherd is stockier than before, Thayil’s bushy beard is more gray than black, and Cornell’s face bears etches and grooves befitting his 46 years. Inside the restaurant, drummer Matt Cameron, 47, stands talking to one of the band’s new managers, music industry veteran Gary Gersh.

Although many people date the discovery of the Seattle music scene — and by extension the beginning of the alternative-rock revolution of the early ’90s — to the moment in 1990 when Nirvana was signed to Geffen Records (by Gersh, it bears mentioning), Soundgarden really got there first. At the time of Nirvana’s major-label deal, Soundgarden were already inked to A&M, had been nominated for a Grammy, and toured with Guns N’ Roses. The band had started in 1984 as a weird post-punk trio, but by the mid-’90s, they were the band that punk kids, metalheads, and classic rockers could agree on: a heavy behemoth with surprising pop smarts that would eventually sell more than eight million albums in the U.S. alone.

Soundgarden called it quits in 1997, weeks after an ugly final concert in Honolulu that ended with Cornell and drummer Cameron playing a few songs by themselves after Shepherd walked off in frustration over faulty gear, and Thayil followed him. It wasn’t exactly The Last Waltz. At the time, Cornell says, tensions within the band were high and communication was at a low, but for a band that had thundered its way to prominence, Soundgarden just seemed to sort of peter out.

“The one thing about Soundgarden most people don’t get is that we always got along,” says Cornell. “We drank, and any band that drinks is going to have chaos, but we never had that internal negativity that usually spells the obvious reasons a band breaks up.”

As such, the band’s current reunion was pretty inevitable. In April, Cornell, Thayil, Shepherd, and Cameron stepped onstage together for the first time in 13 years at the Showbox in Seattle to perform for 90 minutes as the anagrammatic Nudedragons. In August, they were one of the headliners at Lollapalooza, and this month, the unreleased track “Black Rain” will be featured in Guitar Hero 6 and on a new deluxe Soundgarden retrospective, Telephantasm, which will also include videos, TV appearances, alternate takes, and live tracks. Tonight, they’ll sit around a large table, eat good food, talk about the old days, and behave very much like four guys who enjoy one another’s company. No angry glances will be exchanged, no plates thrown, and the most substantive argument — about how many stomachs a cow has — will be solved via a quick consultation with Thayil’s phone. (Answer: one stomach with four compartments.) Even the mention of Soundgarden’s former manager and Cornell’s ex-wife, Susan Silver, won’t set off sparks.

“A lot of times bands re-form, and people have changed in ways that might be negative, and you’re just fighting to be able to play the music with some degree of efficiency,” says Cornell. “We’re not that.”

After dinner, Shepherd, Thayil, and I cross the street to the bar at the Palace Kitchen. Shepherd buys me a beer, and I ask him where he lives.

“Nowhere,” he says. “Literally. I’ve been sleeping on studio couches and at friends’ houses. I’m totally broke.” Shepherd is part owner of a bar 15 minutes from here called Hazlewood, but he says he sinks any money from it into the solo album he’s been working on since last fall. Six months ago, he split with his girlfriend and moved out of their house. “This is my home now,” he says, holding up the sides of his slightly gamey overcoat.

Although he was the last of the four to join, in 1990, Shepherd took the band’s dissolution hardest. “My whole life seemed over,” he says. “Soundgarden broke up; my other band, Hater, broke up; my fiancée broke up with me; and then I broke three ribs. I got addicted to pain pills, drank a ton, and wound up OD’ing on morphine. I was laid out in my house for five days, and no one knew it. It was a fucking horrible time — this total rock’n’roll cliché.”

In the years after the split, he played on albums by Mark Lanegan and Tony Iommi, participated in some of Josh Homme’s Desert Sessions recordings, and briefly joined a few bands, including Wellwater Conspiracy, the Seattle sorta supergroup of which Cameron was also a member. To Shepherd, Soundgarden’s breakup was unnecessary — “We should’ve just relaxed for a while and lived” — and he hardly disavows the notion that he’s been jonesing to get back together ever since. “I’ve just been waiting for these old geezers to snap out of it,” he says.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have reservations. He could use the money (“If anyone is pissed at us for getting paid, fucking piss on them; they don’t have to live our lives”), but he’s the only one of the four who was disappointed by the Showbox gig (“It was boring; the crowd was dead still, and everyone was like, ‘Yay! The antiques are moving!’?”). In many ways, Shepherd seems like a guy searching for something, though even he doesn’t quite know what. “I’m never satisfied,” he says. “I don’t like to sleep in, I don’t like to get up. I feel broken.” Thayil had raved to me about Shepherd’s solo album, but Shepherd isn’t sure he’ll ever release it. “All the stuff I ever do — Hater, the record I’m making — it all sounds amateur to me. No matter what I do, I’m going to be associated with Soundgarden.”

Thayil and I drive a couple blocks from the bar to Bad Animals, the studio where Soundgarden recorded their five-million-selling 1994 breakout, Superunknown, and their 1996 swan song, Down on the Upside. Producer-engineer Adam Kasper, who worked on both albums, is mixing “Black Rain” and plays us the latest version. The song, an outtake from 1991’s Badmotorfinger sounds like, well, an outtake from Badmotorfinger, complete with sludgy riffs and Cornell’s voice in screaming metal-god mode.

“What’s amazing,” Kasper says as he looks up from the mixing board, “is Chris recorded new vocal bits, and his voice still hits all those notes. You can’t tell which vocals are from 20 years ago and which are from today.”

Since Soundgarden’s split, Thayil says he’s been “happily semiretired.” He’s contributed guitar to records by bands like Sunn 0))) and Pigeonhed, and played with Jello Biafra and Krist Novoselic in the No W.T.O. Combo, a one-off project to protest the World Trade Organization. But for the most part, he’s studiously avoided any serious creative commitments. “I got lots of offers,” he says. “But I kind of wanted to be left alone. I enjoyed not having to answer to anything. I didn’t even have to answer to the sun. I’d wake up and it’d be dark. I felt so fucking free.”

When I ask if he has a feeling about what he wants to get out of the reunion, he laughs. “Yeah, I have a feeling I want to get out of it,” he says. “Look, there are certainly benefits. There’s camaraderie. Actually, that might be one of the most important things, just being able to hang out with the guys.”

Soundgarden’s reunion began not as a reunion but simply an effort to deal with some business issues.

“We got together, maybe two years ago, and decided we wanted to relaunch our catalog, get a website, be on MySpace,” says Cameron when I meet him and Cornell the following day at Hazlewood, tucked between a tattoo shop and a nail salon on a busy street in the coastal suburb of Ballard. “Just basic shit. We weren’t online at all. We’ve also got a bunch of unreleased stuff we wanted to try to put out.”

Cameron is the only band member who needed to ask for time off from his day job to attend this reunion. Since 1998, he’s been Pearl Jam’s drummer, and everyone acknowledges that no matter how well Soundgarden 2.0 progresses, Pearl Jam is his priority. “We’re sort of shoehorning all the Soundgarden stuff into my Pearl Jam schedule,” he says. “So far it’s been good, but I don’t want it to get to where my head is going to explode.”

Cameron has helped bring much of Pearl Jam’s business savvy to Soundgarden, as well as some of that band’s support staff. The periodic business meetings progressed during the past year or so, and then in March 2009, when Cornell’s ex-Audioslave bandmate Tom Morello came through Seattle with his solo project, the Nightwatchman, Thayil, Shepherd, and Cameron got onstage and played three Soundgarden songs with longtime friend Tad Doyle, formerly of the ’90s sludge-rock titans Tad, on vocals.

“It was really great seeing people’s faces when Ben, Kim, and Matt come out,” recalls Doyle. “People were just freaking out.”

But some may have read the gig, which had been partly organized by Silver, as a dig. “I didn’t feel any negativity toward it at all,” Cornell says. “In a way, it sort of sparked the idea: If Matt, Kim, and Ben can get in a room, rehearse a couple songs, and play, maybe we all could do that as Soundgarden.”

Last New Year’s Day, Cornell sent out a tweet — “The 12-year break is over and school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!” — that was widely misinterpreted as an announcement of the band’s reformation.

As Thayil tells me later, “We’re not the Knights of the Soundtable, that was our fan club. We were just re-upping it with the new website. But the rumors generated offers. The demand was overwhelming. I wouldn’t say we acquiesced, but we kind of warmed to the idea.”

Gersh, who had been managing Cornell’s solo career, was brought on board to replace Silver, but the reunion has moved at a very deliberate pace. As of press time, despite rumbles about more gigs, there was exactly one confirmed show on the calendar: Lollapalooza. There is talk of a live album culled from mid-’90s concerts and maybe a B-sides collection, but the band hasn’t yet written any new music.

“It would be exciting to record one song,” says Cornell, “to hear how Soundgarden-ish that might be this much time later. But for me, it’s been more of a trip relearning the songs and playing them together. Some of the songs we’re approaching we’ve never played live.”

After Soundgarden split, Cornell tried to transition to a solo career, but almost immediately ran into problems during the making of his 1999 debut, Euphoria Morning. “It was mentally, physically, and spiritually a fucked-up point in my life,” he says. “I was waking up and drinking a glass of vodka just to get a dial tone. My marriage wasn’t working at all, and rather than face that, I turned to constant inebriation and then drugs.”

Euphoria Morning wasn’t half bad — more mid-tempo and mannered than Soundgarden — but it sold decidedly sub-Soundgarden numbers and when he got an offer in 2001 to join Audioslave alongside three-fourths of Rage Against the Machine, it made sense. “I can definitely say I wasn’t capable at that point of being captain of my own ship. I was a mess,” he says. “The decision wasn’t based on wanting to be in a band again, but ultimately that did help.”

When Audioslave released their debut the following year, Cornell’s substance abuse problems had gotten worse. He landed in rehab and cleaned up, then divorced Silver in 2004. Audioslave’s commercial success never really erased the fault line between Cornell and the rest of the band, and few were surprised when, amid disputes over royalties and creative decisions — Cornell has said mixers and session musicians were brought in to work on their recordings without his knowledge — he walked away in 2007 to begin another solo album. By this time, he’d moved from Seattle to Paris, gotten remarried, opened a restaurant, and had two kids. Carry On turned out to be a reasonable grab bag of hard-rock riffs, mellow singer-songwriter fare, and classic R&B flourishes, but the public reaction to it was muted. The same couldn’t be said of 2009’s Scream.

Scream paired Cornell’s voice with beats by Timbaland in one continuous 60-minute song suite, and while that may sound compelling on paper, the results were confounding. The collaboration was at least partially orchestrated by Interscope Records boss Jimmy Iovine, and it shows: The clash of sounds was occasionally appealing but ultimately contrived. Yet the vituperative reaction to it among critics and Soundgarden fans was over the top. Cornell, shown on the cover smashing a guitar, was branded a virtual traitor to rock’n’roll. (That he sings “Whole Lotta Love” on the new Santana album may be penance of sorts.) In an infamous tweet that more or less summed up the public response, Trent Reznor wrote: “You know that feeling you get when somebody embarrasses themselves so badly you feel uncomfortable? Heard Chris Cornell’s record? Jesus.”

Cameron and Shepherd both express admiration for Scream as a gutsy experiment, and Thayil, while less enthused, certainly saw potential. “I know if me, Matt, and Ben would’ve been in the studio with Chris and Timbaland, it wouldn’t have been bad,” he says. “Sometimes, you just need backup.”

“It felt natural to me,” Cornell says of Scream. “I had a good time doing it, and the only obstacle really was the perception of it. And perception is something I never spent too much time worrying about.”

But that perception only seemed to add to the mounting problems in Cornell’s life. In the preceding years, his split with Silver had gotten ugly: In 2005, he initiated a $1 million lawsuit, alleging that Silver had defrauded him of royalties and never returned, among other things, his Grammys and some recordings and journals; two years later he filed for a restraining order against a man he said Silver had hired to stalk him; in 2008, he implied on his website that he’d finally recovered from Silver 15 of his guitars. For her part, Silver regrets the way the split became so public, though she maintains it wasn’t her choice. “I turned the other cheek really up until this moment,” she says. “I’ve never publicly talked about any of this. After he cut off the [Audioslave] guys, he seemed to surround himself with really bad choices. It didn’t ever have to be acrimonious. It’s incredibly painful, unnecessary, and expensive when someone is abusing the legal system to try to hurt another person.”

Silver, who still manages Alice in Chains, remains a popular and influential figure in Seattle, and with Cornell living elsewhere, many in the local music scene took her side. “Chris and Susan have had their issues, which has been polarizing,” says Jonathan Poneman, founder of Sub Pop, which released Soundgarden’s first two EPs, Screaming Life and Fopp, in the late ’80s. “Seattle’s music community is pretty tight, and there’s a lot of regional pride. Between Soundgarden breaking up and Chris not being in the area, I don’t think there was much of a tendency to embrace what he was doing. There might be a little more forgiveness of some dubious career paths had he remained here.”

To Silver, this is the real story of the reunion’s genesis. “Chris didn’t have anywhere else to go,” she says. “His solo career was so unfocused that he started to modify his behavior to make this work and earn the other guys’ trust back. Making amends takes awhile, which is why there’s only been a club show and a commitment to one national show.”

While it’s impossible to separate Silver’s comments from her status as Cornell’s ex, there is a certain logic to them. But Thayil disagrees with her take on the band’s agenda, or lack thereof. “Susan certainly understands some aspects of Chris differently than I do,” Thayil says. “I think her perspective is as grown-up, fair, professional, and objective as an ex-wife’s can be. But there was never any strong animosity with any of us. If there was some mountain to climb there, I wouldn’t waste my time with that and I can’t imagine Chris would.”

As to the general perception that Cornell left Soundgarden, Seattle, his past and — at least on Scream — rock behind him, he admits that on those counts he’s guilty. “For me, for survival, there had to be a lot of changes,” Cornell says. “After enough years of getting fucked up, I got to the point where physically and mentally I was in danger. The idea that I’m not the same person — well, I hope not, because that’s sort of the point.”

In the end, the reasons behind Soundgarden’s reunion are less important than what they do with it. Right now, with no new music on the horizon and who knows how many shows, some will surely see it as little more than an exercise in nostalgia. Cornell isn’t sure he agrees with that, but he’s also not sure it’s such a bad thing anyway.

“As long as we can go out and be great, it it’s nostalgia for certain people, great,” he says. “They can go home and say, ‘I saw them, and I also saw them in 1991. They can still do this.’ But for tons of young rock fans, it won’t be nostalgia, it’ll be discovery. We were more eclectic and diverse than any of the other Seattle bands–the next generation should know who we are and know more songs than just the ones they still play on the radio, Sure, there is ego, involved, but there’s also an investment in Soundgarden.”

Poneman, who says he hasn’t spoken to Cornell in a decade, is nonetheless enthused to see him back with the band. “I think there’s a sense of relief that those guys are playing together again because, with the possible exception of Matt, Soundgarden has been the most artistically formidable thing they’ve done,” he says. “With this gulf of time, one can look back at their collected work less encumbered by hype and zeitgeisty considerations and see it for what it is. The fact is they were a very inventive, musically smart rock band.”

A few hours after leaving Hazlewood, I meet up at Bad Animals with Thayil, Shepherd, and Cameron, who are listening to the final “Black Rain” mix. Cameron picks up a copy of Billboard with another recently reunited iconic ’90s-era outfit, Stone Temple Pilots, on the cover. “These guys are just painful,” he says. Thayil tells a story about an unnamed member of STP mouthing off to him back in the ’90s–Thayil challenged him to a fight, and the STPer bought him a peacemaking beer instead–and I offer that that reunion seems weighted with bad vibes and obligations. Thayil believes Soundgarden’s situation is different. “We’re doing something we enjoy,” he says. “We’re not compelled. There’s something organic about the way things are rolling. I don’t think we want to be pushed into a corner.”

As Cornell put it earlier, “What’s great about us doing what we’re doing is that we can do whatever we decide to do that’s comfortable.”

For a band that has already staked its historical claim, it’s easy to see the appeal of that. But if the main objective of the reunion is to do what’s comfortable and to make sure Cameron doesn’t miss any Pearl Jam gigs, Shepherd and Cornell can still work on their solo material, and Thayil can sleep as late as he wants, then it’ll probably never be more than a kick-ass history lesson. Whether or not they ever make new music together, the objective should not be to prove that after 13 years away, everything is the same–they can still play the songs like they used to, Cornell can still hit those high notes, they’re all still pals–but that it’s completely different. On some level, Shepherd, at least, seems to get this.

“It’s natural to worry and look at Soundgarden as an object that could be tarnished,” he says, sitting up straight on a couch in the studio’s main room. But you can’t really live like that.”