When the Northwestern grunge-rock scene suddenly gained national attention in the early 1990s, Soundgarden had already been around for years. But by 1997, both the band and the musical movement it had helped to define had atomized.
Soundgarden's members went on to solo careers and side projects, and for a decade and change, it seemed that was that. Then, in early 2010, singer Chris Cornell took to Twitter to tell fans a reunion was imminent. After a smattering of live performances and smaller releases, the band released King Animal, its first studio album in 15 years, earlier this week. Here, Cornell discusses the reunion and the long road that preceded it with NPR's Guy Raz.
On the genesis of the reunion
"We'd all had different experiences where somebody was trying to buy a Soundgarden T-shirt for their child — for me, it was actually for my son — and there aren't any. Other circumstances started to pop up where we realized that some bands are defunct but have a rich history, you continually hear about them. That wasn't happening for us. So that's what got us in a room. Everything else was possible as soon as we were sitting in a room and talking."
On choosing music over high school
"I got a GED based on Catholic school seventh-grade education, really. I didn't make it that far. I have all those regrets now. ... I just kind of went into the blue-collar workforce at a really young age and discovered music, in terms of being a musician, around the same time. The good news is, I was probably 17 when I knew that's what I was going to do with the rest of my life, no matter what that meant. Even if that meant that I had to be a dishwasher or a janitor to support being in a band that I love and writing music that I love, I would be happy with that. So I feel fortunate. In spite of my lack of education, I didn't lack direction."
On what an active Soundgarden means after the grunge era
"I think it's really triumphant in a lot of ways. We sort of again proved ourselves worthy of being a band and releasing music and making records, separate from anything else: separate from a scene, separate from a genre, separate from anything. To be able to come back, especially after such a long break, and create an album that I believe lives up to the legacy of all of the other albums — I think that's a special thing. It's something that doesn't happen very often."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK HOLE SUN")
SOUNDGARDEN: (Singing) Black hole sun won't you come and wash away the rain...
RAZ: If ever a monument to grunge is built, this band, Soundgarden, will find its rightful place chiseled in the granite. For a time in the 1990s, Soundgarden became one of the biggest bands in the world, along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. And then, as the whole scene started to fade, so, too, did Soundgarden. And the band members split up in 1997.
Front man Chris Cornell went on to form a new band and cut some solo albums. He did the theme song to the Bond film "Casino Royale," but neither Chris Cornell nor his ex-bandmates could shake the memories of Soundgarden. So they decided to give it another try, and the result is their first studio album in 15 years. They call it "King Animal."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK SATURDAY")
SOUNDGARDEN: (Singing) Promise something. Kill me right away if I start to get slow...
RAZ: Chris Cornell says Soundgarden's reunion is in some ways about reconnecting with their history.
CHRIS CORNELL: We'd all had different experiences where somebody was trying to buy a Soundgarden T-shirt for their child. For me, it was actually for my son. And there aren't any, you know?
CORNELL: And other circumstances started to pop up where we realized that, oh, some bands that are defunct but have like a rich history, you know, you continually hear about them. And that wasn't happening for us. So that's what got us in a room. And everything else was possible as soon as we were kind of sitting in a room and talking.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEEN AWAY TOO LONG")
SOUNDGARDEN: (Singing) I really, really wanted a break. I've been away for too long. No, I never really wanted to say. I've been away for too long.
RAZ: I mean, did you sort of say, you know, we were part of something really important. We were part of this really important moment in rock history in Seattle. It was 20 years ago, really, that everybody in the world was listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Soundgarden. Is that what happened? Did you say, God, we were part of this thing and people are going to forget that.
CORNELL: It actually didn't have anything to do with the scene. It had to do with our musical legacy and us and being proud of what we'd done creatively, artistically, and in a sense almost kind of how we seemed to have a good instinct to walk away from it while it was vital and just kind of believe it, in a sense, sort of elevated where it should be.
RAZ: You know, there aren't that many places and times you can point to and say that was a huge shift in rock. But Seattle, in the 1990s, it was seminal. It was important. It was very important.
CORNELL: Yeah. We had our moment, and we had it on a level that has only happened in a few places. So it's incredible that if there were one kind of defining moment in rock music that will always be in the history books, that one of them came from Seattle. That's something that none of us would have ever guessed.
And probably, that has a lot to do with why it was able to germinate, why the scene was able to grow creatively and organically without what I always referred to as carrots dangling in front of some starry eyed rock musicians. That didn't exist in Seattle because you didn't have a hope to ever become, you know, internationally, commercially successful rock band. That didn't happen. We were the first band that got that kind of bigger music business attention.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAREE")
SOUNDGARDEN: (Singing) Though I can't put my hands on you I can feel you now in the bones and the blood flowing needles on the ground...
RAZ: We're speaking with Chris Cornell, the front man for the band Soundgarden. Their first new studio album in 15 years is out now. It's called "King Animal." You went to high school and finished and sort of did a couple of odd jobs and...
CORNELL: Mm-hmm. No, I didn't finish.
RAZ: You didn't finish high school.
CORNELL: No. The last grade I finished was seventh.
CORNELL: I got a GED based on Catholic school seventh-grade education, really.
RAZ: When you speak and when you talk about your sort of world view, I mean, you sound like a very well-educated...
CORNELL: Like I at least got to the ninth.
RAZ: I mean like a very well-educated person.
CORNELL: Yeah. I didn't make it that far.
CORNELL: But thank you. You know, I have all those regrets now. I didn't know I was going to become a writer and then wished that I had more education. I just kind of went into the blue-collar workforce at a really young age and discovered music, in terms of being a musician, around the same time.
The good news is that I was probably 17 when I knew that that was what I was going to do with the rest of my life, no matter what that meant. Even if that meant that I had to be a dishwasher or a janitor to support being in a band that I love and writing music that I love, I would be happy with that. So I feel fortunate, very fortunate, that in spite of the - my lack of education, I didn't lack direction.
RAZ: Most of you are in your late 40s, which is still young. I'm not making any statement there. But how does that actually change the way you all approach making music together?
CORNELL: I think there's some sort of an aspect of identity that is easy to grapple with as you get older. I think writing and recording music, performing live, kind of figuring out who you are or going through that journey trying to figure it out, all those things seem to be more difficult to grapple with when you're younger.
And as you get older, you kind of realize that, is this cool, am I cool, how will people perceive anything becomes less of a concern.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALFWAY THERE")
SOUNDGARDEN: (Singing) I get an itch and when I am scratching everything can go to hell. And how far is halfway there? I didn't see you on the trail. I've almost become good enough should the good life be so hard won? Is that what our dreams have become?
RAZ: What, if anything, does the release of this record mean for Soundgarden?
CORNELL: I think it's really triumphant in a lot of ways. We sort of again proved ourselves worthy of being a band and releasing music and making records separate from anything else. Separate from a scene, separate from a genre, separate from anything.
RAZ: Just as musicians, people who love making music.
CORNELL: Exactly. And to be able to come back - especially after such a long break - and create an album that I believe lives up to the legacy of all of the other albums, I think that's a special thing. It's something that doesn't happen very often.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROWING")
SOUNDGARDEN: (Singing) Don't know where I'm going. I just keep on rowing. I just keep on pulling, gotta row.
CORNELL: And then there are a lot of other things that are really great about it. It's very fortunate, I think, to have these creative relationships and then be able to turn to them after 12, 13 years and in a sense kind of be able to go in and take your kind of evolved self back into those relationships and see what you can do now. I think we all missed Soundgarden. And we all feel fortunate that we have the opportunity to be in it again. I feel that.
RAZ: That's Chris Cornell, front man for the band Soundgarden. They're out with their first new studio album in 15 years. It's called "King Animal." Chris Cornell, thank you so much. And congratulations on the record.
CORNELL: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROWING")
SOUNDGARDEN: (Singing) Can't see the sky, nothing on the horizon. Can't feel my hands and the water keeps rising. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.