Soundgarden are widely considered to be one of the bands that pioneered grunge, the gritty alt-rock subgenre that emerged from Seattle to dominate music in the 1980s and ‘90s. Along with Nirvana, Soundgarden are responsible for some of grunge’s sacred texts, like 1991’s Badmotorfinger and 1994’s Superunknown — the latter of which spawned two major hits, “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun.”
The group broke up in 1997, and stayed split until frontman Chris Cornell — apparently without warning his fellow band members — announced in 2010 that the group was reuniting. From that reunion came the 2012 studio album King Animal, which the majority of critics agreed tapped into the same chemistry that had animated their earlier material.
A new Soundgarden studio album is in the works, and the group recently reissued its first studio album, Ultramega OK, as well as a 25th-anniversary edition of Badmotorfinger. The group are now on tour, which will bring them to the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater on Friday, May 6. Bassist Ben Shepherd recently spoke with Weld about the band’s reunion, his opinion of those reissues, and his brief time as the lead guitarist of Nirvana.
Weld: Over the past year or so, there have been reissues of most of Soundgarden’s discography. Has that enabled you to reexplore some of that older material?
Ben Shepherd: The thing with Ultramega OK, if you’re talking about that record, is that they just got the rights back to that, so they own it outright. It’s the whatever anniversary of it, [and it’s] Badmotorfinger’s anniversary. Echo of Miles is the complete collection of a bunch of [rarities]. It’s always been on the backburner to do that stuff anyway, and we’re finally just getting around to it.
I personally just focus more on what we’re going to do next, and I don’t deal with that reissue stuff very often — although I am [reissuing] stuff from my band Hater, and dealing with that stuff. That’s the only time I’ve gone back in the past to re-release something. I don’t do that. I’d rather just make the next thing. Same with Soundgarden; I’d rather stop reissuing everything… It’s in the past. Just put it back out and keep moving forward, you know?
Weld: There’s always the danger of bands reuniting and then just becoming a legacy act that focuses on its old material.
Shepherd: I can’t stand that. It’s why I don’t like playing festivals, because [audiences] are not in tune with your next release or your next song. It’s like, “Whatever. We’ll play our own shows.”
Weld: So, speaking of moving forward, have you started working on the next Soundgarden album?
Shepherd: We’ve been writing for a while now. We’re pretty much ready to record the next record.
Weld: Has the band’s approach evolved for this new album?
Shepherd: It’s pretty much the same. Each one of us brings in a song and we work on it — or we’ll all start something together, though there’s less of that now than there was on any previous record, where we would just start jamming and form something out of it. We’d do that and we’d each bring in a song and work on it, and then one of the other guys would change it or add something. This time around, we haven’t tended to jam as much. We’ve just been more focused on working on the next song.
We’re more capable of recording at any second and working out ideas than we used to be. Of course, we’ve aged and figured out how to do things a lot better. Same thing with King Animal. It was like, “We know what we’re doing, and we can do it better now than we used to.” So our songwriting, we have it more honed, and we know more what to do. It’s not stale or anything — it’s just more honed, more simpatico with each other. It’s easier and more attainable to get to the idea.
Weld: I’ve heard that you had a brief stint as a member of Nirvana. Is that true?
Shepherd: Yeah. I did a tour as lead guitar player for them. It was all a set-up. It was a scam, just appeasing me to see if I’d fit or not. I went out on tour with them, and they said, “Oh, don’t bring your guitar, we’ll have one for you.” So we went on tour, and then I wound up only playing the soundcheck in Minneapolis, which was the first stop on the tour, at some little bar. We did the soundcheck, and I played Kurt’s guitar, because he was out back being sick. And that was the only time I played with them. The rest of the tour, I was just a glorified T-shirt salesman. That’s all they really wanted.
I never played except for that soundcheck. Then we got to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we had a few days off, and I could have easily rehearsed and learned all the old tunes that they do, and they decided right then, “No, we’re just going to stay a three-piece.” Which is what I told them in the first place when I went out on the road with them, right? I was like, “All of us in Seattle think you should just stay a three-piece.” So I wasn’t hurt at all, but the only thing that bothered me was that I’d skipped my brother’s wedding to go out on that tour. But who cares, you know? We were out playing music — but I wanted to play, you know?
Weld: How long was it after that before you joined Soundgarden?
Shepherd: Chronologically, I don’t remember how many days or weeks it was, because I’ve stopped thinking about all stuff. I don’t talk to people about it a lot, so the memory fades because you don’t suss it out. One night I was going to the city to see a Pere Ubu show, and I ran into Kim [Thayill, Soundgarden’s lead guitarist], and he tells me that Hiro [Yamamoto, the band’s first bassist] quit. So I threw a fit.
We’re standing in this marble staircase — it’s kind of fancy place where the band was playing — and I throw a fit because I thought Soundgarden had broken up, because in my distant, misperceived version of Soundgarden, it was Hiro who was the leader of the band. I was like, “Oh, great, you guys are breaking up?” And Kim was like, “Oh no, we’re not breaking up! How would you feel about trying out on bass?”
I wasn’t known as a bass player, I was a guitar player. And I was like, “That’s weird, because Nirvana just asked me to play guitar for them last night. The night before Soundgarden asked my to try out, Nirvana did. With Nirvana I get to play lead guitar, and with Soundgarden I get to play bass, and so I said, “Well, I told those guys I’d try out first.” So I had to try out for them first — and that didn’t work out.
Soundgarden will perform at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater on Saturday, May 6. The show will start at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $36 to $125. For more information, visit tuscaloosa.amphitheatre-al.com.