Ben Shepherd: Soundgarden take the grunge full circle
Ben Shepherd from Seattle survivors Soundgarden on his formative years, on getting the band back together and how he almost joined Nirvana after partying with Kurt Cobain
Ben Shepherd and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden perform an acoustic set in Seattle earlier this year.
Ben Shepherd was born in Okinawa Japan (where his father served in the US army), in 1968. When Ben was 3-years-old the family moved to Texas where one of his earliest musical influences was his father.
“When we moved back from Japan to Texas - that’s where I really learned how to walk and talk - during that time every day before my Dad went to work I would shine his boots and he’d play guitar.”
The first song I ever heard was ‘Big River’ by Johnny Cash as done by my Dad.
Collide - Ben Shepherd
The family moved on to Bainbridge Island in Seattle where Shepherd spent his youth.
“Fortunately for me I was from a big family and everybody had huge musical taste from every direction so I was being influenced by very cool stuff all the time.
“When I was 8 I was listening to Captain Beefheart and Brian Eno and stuff like that. Other kids were just discovering Fly like an Eagle by Steve Miller. They were into Kiss and I was into (Canadian rock band) Mahogany Rush and Rory Gallagher.
It was in their teens that Shepherd and his older brother Henry discovered a vibrant underground scene in Seattle.
“Everybody in the underground scene was completely diverse here. There was always five different styles of non-mainstream stuff.
“Seattle has always been a guitar-oriented town. In the 50s and earlier it was a jazz town. It went from one act to the other. When radio took over and rock n roll took over it went from Saxaphone and John Coltrane to Jimi Hendrix and on to the Sonics a [1960s garage band].
“Seattle was a really huge guitar-heavy town so I was lucky I moved to the right spot in the world - being a guitar junkie from 3-years-old.”
The mid-1980s saw the development of an embryonic music scene in Seattle that boasted numerous bands and a healthy live scene which was soon to give birth to a slew of alternative acts whose influence would be felt around the world.
It was from this milieu that sprang influential bands such as Green River, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, the Screaming Trees, and Soundgarden. There was a lot of switching between bands. Shepherd recalls how his then drummer Chad Channing came to join the band that would later become Nirvana.
“I played in a band called Tic Dolly Roe. I was singing for them and our drummer Chad had this weird ‘North’ drum kit and we went to play a show in Tacoma and this guy Krist (Novoselic) came up to me. He was from Nirvana but that night they were called Bliss.
“He asked ‘Can I use your drummer’s drum-set?’ and I go ‘Yeah man - that’s Chad up there, I’m sure he’ll let you use it. Just go talk to him and tell him what’s up.’ And, that’s how Chad met the guys from Nirvana.”
Shepherd picked up the guitar at every opportunity:
“We were at a party in Olympia. We ended up on a couch at the end of a party, I didn’t really party (so) I would always find the spot in the room where there was a guitar.
“At this party there was Kurt Cobain and he was doing the same damn thing - I had just reached for the guitar so we started talking and we played the guitar back and forth.”
Shepherd even went on tour and auditioned for Nirvana:
“They asked me to try out the night before Soundgarden asked me to try out - I tried out for Nirvana and didn’t get in.
“I actually went on tour with them (but) didn’t get in the band”
He went on to audition for Soundgarden but despite playing well the band opted to hire another bassist.
“I told my then girlfriend: ‘Watch! Six months from now they’ll come back and ask me to join.’ And they did - almost to the day.”
Despite not getting in after the first audition (he didn’t know the songs) Shepherd clearly made an impression.
“I remember Matt [Cameron - Soundgarden’s drummer] jumping up from behind the drums at one point and going “A for effort Man, that’s bad ass” because he saw me wiping out on a part and recovering as fast as possible - and that’s a really important attribute to have when you’re playing music - to be able to recover.