Grunge survivors return

16:00, Nov 12 2012
FINALLY BACK: Chris Cornell, front, with his Soundgarden bandmates.

With what seems like every band you ever loved and lost re-forming in recent years - and quickly cashing in on a lucrative reunion tour playing their hits - it has become entirely reasonable for music fans to have grown cynical of late.

In January, it seemed as though even '90s alt-rock heroes Soundgarden had sold out in such fashion, when they offered no new songs in nonetheless blistering sets on the Big Day Out main stage and at their own arena side shows.

Yet now, as if to prove they haven't merely been riding the Superannuation Tour Express, the four-piece from Seattle, Washington, is back with King Animal, led by aptly titled first single Been Away Too Long. It's the band's first studio collection in 16 years and finds them approaching their satisfyingly heavy yet melodic best, in a new phase of a career that yielded the classic albums Badmotorfinger and Superunknown (the latter featuring their biggest hit single, Black Hole Sun) before they called it quits in 1997.

Was it tense, then, when Soundgarden - screecher-guitarist Chris Cornell, chief shredder Kim Thayil, maestro of the low-slung bass Ben Shepherd and drummer genius Matt Cameron - finally got back in a room together a couple of years ago?

"No, man, nothing like that," Cornell says. "We never had any more tension inside of a rock band than anybody. I mean, we toured with Guns N' Roses, so we knew what destructive tension inside of a band really is.

"I think that there's a limit to how long people can continue [in bands] before they start making mistakes or doing things they're not proud of. We didn't do that, fortunately. We don't have a part of our history where we made records we weren't proud of, or rushed things out because we had to pay bills or anything like that."

Even when it seemed as though all of their contemporaries were eclipsing them, in terms of everything from sales to critical acclaim, Soundgarden remained unfazed.

"We were just doing what we were doing," Cornell says. "We had sort of a long, steady cycle of growth - but growth was always there ... We were also well aware, for example, in '92, when Pearl Jam had its tremendous success, or Nirvana, we were aware of the difference between our songs and their songs."

These three particular bands made very distinct hybrids of rock, metal and/or punk yet all wound up under the catch-all umbrella of "grunge". Was that a term with which Cornell was comfortable?

"Well, I wouldn't complain about it now, you know? I think it's something that we definitely were instrumental in starting ... If you look over the course of rock history, there are only a handful of kind of benchmark, formative cultural shifts in rock music and that's one of 'em - so it'd be stupid to say that I'm upset that I'm in one and that we were pioneers!

"But at the time, yeah ... we sort of felt this autonomy. We were doing something that nobody else was doing, a lot of people loved it, a lot of people hated it - and that seemed like probably a good thing, y'know?"

King Animal may have the same effect, possibly because Soundgarden still take pride making albums in an age of tracks.

"We really know how to make an album experience from beginning to end," Cornell says. "It's a longer process.

"Having a hit single, though, lasts only as long as a hit single."

King Animal is out now through Universal.

-The Age