That's pretty dramatic stuff — to everyone but the band itself, according to singer Chris Cornell. "When we got back together, we decided, 'Let's start doing things and we'll sort of take our time figuring out the breadth of what it is we want to do'," Cornell explains, speaking by telephone from his home in Seattle. "It didn't really take that long for it to start including all the normal things that a band does.
"It started out with a best-of and then some shows to support that," the singer continues, "but it pretty quickly steered into the notion of writing new material and making a record. And all of that was fairly effortless and normal, and seemed to go as if we hadn't really had a long break. We just got right back in step."
Drummer Matt agrees
"You know, it's still kind of a natural band," he says. "We decided to play music together again because that's what we enjoyed most. There's not much more to it than that."
It may feel that way internally, but to the rest of the world the quartet's return has been a big deal. A vanguard of Seattle's so-called grunge scene from its formation in 1984, the group —which took its name from a pipe sculpture in Seattle's Magnuson Park — has sold 22.5 million albums worldwide, with three of its five studio albums certified platinum or better in the United States. Superunknown (1994) was five-times-platinum and hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, earning Grammy Awards for two of its songs: Spoonman as Best Metal Performance and Black Hole Sun as Best Hard Rock Performance.
A contemporary of Alice in Chains, Green River, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney and Nirvana, Soundgarden won plenty of critical favour for its mix of hard rock, heavy metal and punk. It also was endorsed by Neil Young, who took the group on tour as his opening act.
Soundgarden was still on a roll in April 1997, when it announced that it was disbanding due to intra-band tensions about its musical direction. In hindsight, however, Cornell and Cameron say that Soundgarden, which also includes guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd, had simply lost its way amid the music-industry machinery.
"You know, we started out very humbly in the Northwest," says the 50-year-old Cameron, who since 1998 also has played drums for Pearl Jam. "We had that real kind of punk, underground attitude. We weren't thinking about hits or millions of albums or Grammy Awards or anything like that. Then we got successful and — the business took over.
There were a lot more voices in our ears every time we made music, and it stopped being just the four of us doing what we wanted. "And that was fatal at the time."
The 48-year-old Cornell agrees, citing "a runaway-train scenario that was kind of part of what caused us to split up in the first place." When Soundgarden reconvened in 2010, he says, everyone was determined to keep that from happening again.
"I think it was as simple as us making the conscious decision to not be influenced by anything other than the four of us wanting to go do it and write songs and play shows and record and not put a business version of a timeline on it," says the singer, who during the band's hiatus released four solo albums and worked in the all-star band Audioslave. "Because of that, there hasn't really been any kind of tensions, specifically surrounding peripheral stuff. It feels really under control."
Any animosity between the band members disappeared shortly after the split, Cameron says.
"We all remained friends, really, since we broke up," the drummer says. "Kim and Ben and I, we all live up here in the Northwest, so we would see each other socially — a lot, actually — and just hang out. Ben and I played some music together. Nobody had burned any bridges. So, once we all got back in a room together, it was just like it was yesterday. Very easy."
Ironically, it was business matters that brought Soundgarden back into that room. The four musicians initially convened only to review plans to relaunch the band's catalog and create an Internet presence, but those discussions led to the decision to play together again.
"It just happened naturally," Cameron says. "We never felt forced to try to make a big comeback and make a reunion happen — because, you know, it can certainly backfire. So I think we wanted to just approach it very methodically."
Soundgarden made a modest return to the stage on October 6, 2009, joining Pearl Jam during an encore at the Gibson Amphitheatre near Los Angeles. That set the Internet aflame with rumours and discussions about a full-scale reunion, which Soundgarden announced on New Year's Day 2010 with a tweet that declared "The 12-year break is over and school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!"
The group played its own Seattle show on April 16, 2010, then headlined the Lollapalooza festival on August 8 in Chicago. Telephantasm: A Retrospective, featuring the previously unreleased Black Rain, came out on September 28, supported by a short tour and the band's first television appearance in 13 years, on TBS' Conan. In early 2011 Soundgarden acknowledged that it was working on a new studio album.
"Everybody agreed right away to make that a priority," Cornell recalls. "We had a lot of different touring options and opportunities, some of which we didn't do because we made a decision as a group to start working on a new record and focus on that. It felt pretty decisive to me, and everyone seemed like they were equally enthusiastic and committed to doing it.
"And then, from the first day we were in a room showing each other song ideas, we were sort of swept away by that," the singer continues. "It was apparent that, having 15 years off or whatever it was, that everybody had a lot of ideas and there was a freshness and renewal to working on music as a band."
King Animal, which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 after its November release, features one song that had been around for awhile: A Thousand Days Before, which dates back to Down on the Upside (1996), but didn't pan out at that time. The other 12 songs were fresh ideas, fleshed out by the group working much as it had on its previous albums.
"The one fear that I had, I suppose, was the notion that we kind of put it to bed (in 1997) in a very healthy creative state," Cornell says, "so whatever we did after that — could detract from our history if we weren't careful, as opposed to complementing it or adding to it.
"But I felt confident that, if we started working on something that we felt wasn't worthy of being Soundgarden, we wouldn't have put it out, and pretty quickly in the process any of those fears melted away and I was just excited about creating."
King Animal has sent Soundgarden back on the road with its most extensive touring yet, playing both the King Animal songs and older material.
Gary Graff/The New York Times News Service