When Soundgarden Planted Seeds for a Long-Awaited Reunion
No band wants their end of the road to be lined with spit and shattered gear. But it looked like a probable outcome for Soundgarden, who closed out their initial 13-year run on Feb. 9, 1997 with an infamously nasty show in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Throughout the brief set, bassist Ben Shepherd reportedly made "obscene gestures to the audience," kicked the stage lights, occasionally spat at his bandmates and exchanged heated words with singer Chris Cornell; at the end of "Blow Up the Outside World," he launched his instrument into the air, flipped the audience the bird and walked off.
While questions of a reunion loomed over the subsequent decade, the prospect seemed unlikely. Drummer Matt Cameron had moved seamlessly into a coveted gig with another Seattle rock institution, Pearl Jam; Shepherd had spent years jumping around with more obscure projects; guitarist Kim Thayil had sprinkled occasional gigs into his semi-retirement; and Cornell had found success with supergroup Audioslave and (to lesser extent) a more pop-friendly solo career. But they managed to warm up the Soundgarden machine on Jan. 1, 2010: "The 12 year break is over & school is back in session," the vocalist tweeted. "Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!"
It wasn't a reunion announcement in the classic sense, but it certainly looked like one. Cornell's message linked to the band's website, which sported a live photo and an email prompt that unlocked a new video for their 1989 song "Get on the Snake."
“We’re not the Knights of the Soundtable, that was our fan club," Thayil told Spin later that year. "We were just re-upping it with the new website. But the rumors generated offers. The demand was overwhelming. I wouldn’t say we acquiesced, but we kind of warmed to the idea.”
Before long, Soundgarden were back in full swing. They played their first gig since the disastrous Hawaii show on April 16 (under the anagram moniker "Nudedragons"), lighting up Seattle venue Showbox at the Market with a career-spanning, 18-song "secret" set that closed with a cover of the Doors' "Waiting for the Sun." They staged a few more gigs that year, including a headlining slot at Lollapalooza, but didn't launch a full tour until their month-long North American trek the following July.
They also started to re-examine their back catalog in those early stages: issuing the 2010 compilation Telephantasm: A Retrospective (which included two previously unreleased tracks, "Black Rain" and "The Telephantasm," a reworked version of a 1987 cut); their first concert LP, 2011's Live on I-5; and stand-alone single "Live to Rise," which appeared on the soundtrack of superhero blockbuster The Avengers.
But it all felt like baby steps to their sixth studio album, King Animal, which arrived in November 2012. It's the rare "reunion record" that feels like a vital part of the band's discography, offering updated production to the band's signature, slippery prog-metal riffs ("Non-State Actor"), psychedelic atmospheres ("A Thousand Days Before") and Cornell's pulverizing shrieks ("By Crooked Steps," which featured a goofy video directed by Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl).
The LP landed at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and earned solid reviews, even if more cynical critics wondered if the frontman was simply rerouting his career after the mixed response to his most recent solo project, the beat-heavy 2009 Timbaland collaboration Scream. (“You know that feeling you get when somebody embarrasses themselves so badly YOU feel uncomfortable? Heard Chris Cornell’s record? Jesus,” Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor wrote, clearly alluding to Scream in a since-deleted tweet. They must have buried the hatchet, though, since Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails linked up for a co-headlining tour in 2014.)
Regardless, the band entered a new era, reclaiming their status among the heavy rock elite. "We started in 1984, and though it probably wasn’t until 1992 that we became an internationally famous rock band, we’d been around longer than any of our contemporaries," Cornell told Rolling Stone. "We drove our own van all around the U.S. and all around Europe and did these really long tours for Screaming Life and Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. And then Down on the Upside. We were just ready for a break. It probably didn’t need to be a statement of “we’re breaking up,” but maybe that helped us all let go and move on for a while. Now I see it differently. We all do other things – that allows Soundgarden to be that thing that we all get together and do because we all really fucking want to do it."
The revitalized quartet continued to tour over the next few years, including the aforementioned co-headlining bill with Nine Inch Nails. More crucially, they continued to write: working on new material in 2015 and reportedly hitting the studio the following year. And though they made progress on a potential seventh album, their reunion fell apart in the most tragic way possible: Cornell died at age 52 on May 18, 2017, following a show at Detroit's Fox Theatre.
Sadly, the band's future is now marred by unfolding legal drama surrounding the status of those recordings — specifically the files for seven vocals Cornell before his death. While Thayil has noted the band's interest in finishing off the songs for one final LP, even calling it "ridiculous" if they fail at that task, the Cornell audio is now part of a dispute between the band and the singer's widow, Vicky Cornell.
“We definitely have another record in us,” Thayil recently told SiriusXM. “Stuff that’s written, stuff that’s demoed and recorded – certainly. All it would need is to take the audio files that are available. I’d tighten up the guitar stuff that’s on there, add other stuff. Ben [Shepherd] does the bass, Matt [Cameron] is able to get the drums he wants. We can get the producers we want to make it sound like a Soundgarden record … we can totally do that.”