How Soundgarden’s ‘King Animal’ Marked a Comeback and a Farewell
At the stroke of midnight to start of 2010, Soundgarden media channels released a short statement from vocalist Chris Cornell, reading: “The 12-year break is over and school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!”
It wasn’t actually supposed to herald a reunion of the grunge icons, who’d split in 1997 amid complications arising from the previous year’s album, Down on the Upside. Dejected and frustrated, they’d gone their separate ways – but Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron had remained in touch. The announcement referred to the band’s updated web presence, but it was widely misinterpreted.
"I spent a lot of time trying to explain to my friends that we weren't back together," Thayil explained to Kerrang the following year (as reprinted by The Guardian). "My mother called and said, ‘We’ve heard the news; why didn’t you tell us?’” He continued: “It generated a lot of interest and my phone was ringing off the hook with people offering us shows. We turned most of them down, but thought it would be fun to play that show in Seattle [in April 2010] and eventually Lollapalooza.”
From that moment, the creation of new music was inevitable – and in a public announcement the band confirmed their “goal for 2011” was to “make a record.” “Over the past few months, we’ve been busy jamming, writing and hanging out together — exploring the creative aspect of being Soundgarden,” the group's statement read. “It feels great. We have some cool new songs that we are going to record very soon.”
According to Thayil, the impetus to get back into the studio had come from Cameron. “He wanted us to learn a couple of songs that he had and he wanted to hear what they would be like if we played them," the guitarist recalled. "So that started that and from there on we were jamming and exchanging ideas. And Chris had some demos and everyone else contributed various ideas and the whole process started again.”
Despite renewed excitement, Soundgarden was careful not to rush out material they weren't confident in.
“The last thing we want to make is another grunge or metal record," Thayil noted. "Everyone wants the album to come out as soon as possible, but at the moment, there's no reason to rush anything.” The guitarist hinted that the new material would pick up where Down on the Upside left off, which may have left some fans in consternation as to what was coming.
The first proper clue came in the form of standalone track “Live to Rise,” which appeared on the soundtrack for 2012 movie The Avengers, and was generally well-received. Later in the year they confirmed that King Animal was the title of their sixth album, which arrived on Nov. 13. While “Live to Rise” initially stood a chance of making the LP, in the end it didn’t; instead, the lead single was the appropriately-titled “Been Away Too Long,” which Cornell said hailed back to their Upside material, but with a “different energy.”
Watch Soundgarden’s ‘Been Away Too Long’ Video
In a conversation with Total Guitar magazine, Cornell spoke glowingly about the writing process for the album. “It was one part reminiscent and comfortable, like putting on old clothes, and one part exciting because I had the opportunity to progress with those writing relationships and with this band," the frontman explained. "To do some things we never did before and maybe refine aspects of what I felt Soundgarden had attempted in the past and maybe didn’t quite pull off.”
At the same time, Thayil worked on refining his approach to guitar, saying he preferred the description “color guitar” to “lead guitar” when explaining what he was trying to achieve. “Playing a solo is taking me away from the part of the song I like playing,” he said. “So it just depends, dynamically, does it really need a guitar solo? Because that is such a rock ’n’ roll cliche formula, especially in the ‘70s and ‘80s where not only did every rock song have a guitar solo but many pop songs had guitar solos… it was almost like, ‘Here’s a solo to give the singer a break to run over and take a sip of his Scotch or glass of water [or] eat a cupcake!”
As an illustration of the teamwork they’d employed making the album, Thayil pointed to King Animal's second track, “Non-State Actor.” “Ben wrote all the ideas and riffs and the arrangement was basically Ben’s. but the whole band contributed to reworking it," he explained. "We spent a lot of time working on that song in rehearsals because that was a very hands-on song that kept changing.”
He also noted that “By Crooked Steps” – the second single, which featured a light-hearted video written and directed by Dave Grohl – had started from an idea by Cameron. “Matt introduced the main riff and as we jammed with it a lot of the other elements came to be – that really quick-ending riff that sounds like a Jimmy Page riff, Ben wrote that on bass and we ended up figuring it out on guitar.
"The middle section, that dreamy part that sounds fluid that’s something I can came up with and the Who-like slashing chords over the Jimmy Page riff, I came up with those; and then the intro melody, that sound I think is evocative of a highway horizon… it all came together bit by bit. We’d add different musical ideas. Then Chris took the tape and he moved some sections around to fit the lyrics, brought them back to practice and we all thought, ‘excellent’ and then from there the song moved again to include instrumental parts in the ending and the middle.”
Watch Soundgarden’s ‘By Crooked Steps’ Video
A third single, “Halfway There,” arrived nearly nine months after the album’s release. By then, King Animal had peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, pleased critics and impressed many fans, and the band’s reunited future looked good. Asked about a seventh LP, Thayil replied: “Yeah, I think there will be. I am really proud of ourselves that we can be angry on stage, and express our emotions with our guitars and with our drums, whether it’s anger or wistful.”
Of course, it wasn’t to be – or at least, not easily. Cornell’s death in 2017 meant King Animal would be Soundgarden’s final album in their original form. While another record had been under production, it became the subject of a dispute between the surviving members and Cornell’s widow, Vicky. Thayil said in 2019 that if they were given access to the files that existed, they’d be able to complete the project. The following year, Vicky vowed: “All of Chris’ music, including Soundgarden, will see the light of day, because there's nothing in the world that lifts me most than sharing Chris’ gifts, having people speak his name and having his music out there. He’s alive that way and his legacy lives on.”
We live in hope…
Watch Soundgarden’s ‘Halfway There’ Video