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.
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.”
Collide - Ben Shepherd
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.
Shepherd was eventually invited to join the band in 1990 and was thrown in at the deep-end. What was it like joining a well-established band (Soundgarden formed in 1984) - were they welcoming?
“Yeah they were, which was a surprise. They were really nice guys and really smart and really easy to get along with. They could see I was as dedicated to the music as they were - even though I wasn’t in a band they knew enough to get back and get me.
“Henry, my oldest brother, was really good friends with Kim - that’s how I met Kim and Hiro [Yamamoto - Soundgarden’s original bassist] but I didn’t really know Matt [Cameron - drummer] or Chris [Cornell - vocals, rhythm guitar] at all.
“When I did get in the band we had a week to rehearse and went on a European tour.
The band played a warm-up gig under the assumed name of Vince Whirlwind & the Nude Dragons (an anagram of Soundgarden) at Seattle’s Central Tavern.
“My brother was up in the pit and he could hear the fans going: ‘God, these guys really think they’re Soundgarden don’t they? They sound just like ‘em!’”
“A week later we started at the Roskilde Festival. ”
Chris Cornell said Shepherd brought a “fresh and creative” approach to the studio in 1991 when Soundgarden recorded Badmotorfinger. Was it difficult finding space in an already established creative process?
“I didn’t think of it like that. But when I look back on it, I knew it at the time that those guys were really cool letting me write. It was really flattering of those guys but had I thought of it at the time I probably would have choked.”
Did you expect Badmotorfinger to be as successful as it was?
“I think it was successful on our end, I don’t know about fanfare or anything. I remember being chided because it was supposed to come out in September - the day Nirvana’s Nevermind came out - and all my Seattle friends were like: ‘God you guys are dicks - you’re album is out the same date as Nirvana.’
“But the cover was messed up so we postponed it and put it out later. In comparison to other albums, it was a success for us. It was fun as hell to make. It was my first venture into the band and becoming part of the band.”
You must have been proud when Johnny Cash covered Rusty Cage. Why do you think he chose that song?
“Probably because they’re bad-ass, truthful, lyrics. Chris is a great writer and Johnny could probably relate to that. Johnny always talked about, if you read his books, how a singer has to sound like they’re telling the truth. It’s all about the truth. If you mean it then it sounds right. If you don’t mean it it’s a schlock thing (and)you tell it a mile away.”
The band’s success continued with 1994’s five-million-selling 1994 opus Superunknown debuting at number one on the Billboard charts. This success was soon to come to an end. The band released Down on the Upside in 1996 but then broke up the following year “to pursue other interests”.
The band had been together for 12 years and the break saw members embark on solo careers and numerous collaborations with other musicians and bands, most notably Chris Cornell’s three-album stint with ex-Rage Against the Machine members Tom Morello, Time Commerford and Brad Wilk .
While he kept busy during many of the intervening years the late 1990s saw some difficult times for Shepherd.
“Not only did Soundgarden break up, Hater [Shepherd’s side-project band] broke up and my personal life fell apart all at once.”
“I was totally gutted and cut adrift, basically. I never got back on my feet enough to actually, you know, do the music industry thing. All my connections were gone in the fog.”
“That’s not pushing the blame somewhere else - I fully accept the blame for myself not doing what I needed to do. I was just kinda floating.”
Getting back together is often harder than breaking-up but in Soundgarden’s case, it happened almost by accident. On New Year’s Day 2010 and an innocuous announcement intended to announce the resurrection of the band’s official fan club snowballs into something else entirely. Overwhelmed by the reaction the band decided to regroup.
“It was some tweet that Chris sent about reforming the fan club - not the band reforming - and everbody ran with that! So we just let them run with it - and we ended up reunited!
“I remember that New Year’s Night or New Year’s Eve, right then I was finishing my solo record. Two days before that [when the band announced it was to reform]I told everyone in the studio that: ‘Now I’ll never be in another band again - I was in a band once - that was a real band!’
Unlike many reformed bands Soundgarden didn’t just want to perform their old songs - they wanted to write new ones and rework old ideas. The band picked up where they left off with 2012’s well-received King Animal. Was it hard finding that Soundgarden sound again after all these years?
“There is a natural chemistry. The influences we have outside the band are filtered because we play to each other in the band. I can’t wait for Kim or Matt or Chris to hear a song I write and I cannot wait to hear their songs. Collaborating has always been really cool. We always just bounce ideas off each other.”
What was it ike going back into the studio
“There were some structural things that we had to work out. Non-State Actor was way over-composed I guess, or way over-organised. I didn’t like how it turned out but now when we play it live it makes sense.
“I probably had too many parts and I kept trying to chop parts and change parts and everybody else did to. They’re the things you iron out before you get into the studio usually but there were a few songs we hadn’t even done pre-production on.
“Oh yeah that idea - then we’d get back to that track or whatever and work on it.”
It sounds like a very creative atmosphere and it must have been heartening to see that after all that time that the spark was still there.
“Yeah - that doesn’t go away. That’s was what was missing in life for me. That’s why I said I would never be in another band. With our band, one of my favourite things to do - even though you are not actually playing any notes or beats - but sitting around talking about different things about a song or ideas for songs.
“That’s so important when playing music listening is more important than actually playing. When the band communicates we’re all actually all listening to each other and then applying it when we play.
Have Soundgarden any plans to get back into the studio?
“God, I hope so because we’ve got a lot more songs to go - I know we do! But, I don’t know if we’ve toured off King Animal enough. It’s a trip for me that we have not played Europe on the King Animal tour yet.
Shepherd’s debut solo album In Deep Owl, interrupted by Soundgarden getting back together, is due for release at the end of August.
“I recorded it in 2009. It was basically a process of me re-learning my acoustic guitar that I had neglected for a long time - this one particular one. I just started tracking songs because my friends goaded me into it and then just kept going from there.
“All of a sudden this drummer that I know turned up and said ‘I’ll play on some songs’ and I said ‘ok, then - pick a song’.
Any plans to tour it?
“I wouldn’t mind doing that but I don’t know how or when - my main priority is the band.”
Soundgarden play the o2 in Dublin on September 16th.