AFTER a 13-year hiatus from touring, Soundgarden has essentially picked up right where it left off. The fact that the Seattle Sound pioneers’ first full-length recording in 16 years fits seamlessly into their fabled catalogue is a testament to the Circle of Power among frontman Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron, and ever-ornery, multi-talented, yet ultimately humble bassist, Ben Shepherd. “I’m a total hack,” says Shepherd earnestly. “But I was one of the first Soundgarden fans, and I always said that I would do anything to get the songs across.”
In the wake of original bassist Hiro Yamamoto’s departure following the release of the band’s 1990 major label debut, Louder Than Love, Shepherd converted from guitar to bass specifically for Soundgarden. (Jason Everman held the bass chair briefly.) Shepherd’s de-tuned, thunderous tone and askew songcraft factored immensely as the band refined its grungy sound throughout the decade on Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, and Down on the Upside.
When the dust settled in 1997, Soundgarden called it quits and never looked back. Shepherd and Cameron kept working together, as their Hater side project with Monster Magnet’s John McBain (formed in 1993 with Shepherd on guitar) evolved into Wellwater Conspiracy (with Shepherd originally singing lead), but he doesn’t reflect fondly. “I didn’t even like doing that stuff , especially the shows,” he quips. “I never felt comfortable. Wellwater was more fun because I could just have the microphone and not have to play stupid parts. But those Hater songs were built around being played exactly the same every time. I’m way more of an improv person. If you’re going for a technically accurate reproduction of the repertoire, you might as well be a gymnast.”
Shepherd was off music altogether by 2008, completely disenfranchised after being robbed of all his gear just as he was about to mix his first solo album. He eventually got back to work on another, but just as he was finishing it, he got the call he’d been waiting on for what must have felt like forever: Soundgarden was back in business.
It’s been a music-business eternity since BP checked in with Shepherd for a March 1993 feature on alternative-rock players. He appeared on the cover, but that doesn’t mean he was happy about it. “I was bummed out because Ray Brown was also in that issue, and I felt he deserved the cover,” explains Shepherd over the phone from his longtime home turf on Bainbridge Island across the Puget Sound from Seattle. His attitude reflects the atmosphere of his environment— mostly gloomy, with patches of Black Hole Sun.
What comes to mind thinking back on how you approached filling Hiro Yamamoto’s shoes?
I was lucky to be learning Hiro’s parts, because usually bass players are relegated to a role of following along, which I can’t stand. Who wants to be an offensive tackle? So at least it was Hiro, but he was always mixed so damn quietly on the recordings that I could never hear him well enough to develop a deep understanding of his fluidity or his textures. There are songs like “Entering” that I really want to do and can’t figure out for the life of me.
Most bass players have the bass player mentality. It’s actually refreshing to hear yours.
What the hell is the bass player mentality?
Plenty of bassists feel just fine about being an “offensive tackle.”
That’s not what it’s about. To me, it’s about getting the song across. Playing bass rather than guitar doesn’t really mean anything.
Ben Shepherd (left) and Chris Cornell in the studio There’s an adage that guitar players make lousy bass players, but you wound up doing well. What was your initial conversion to bass like?
I played pretty well immediately, because of Hiro’s influence and some other real bass players I knew growing up. You have to decide right away how you’re going to learn. Playing with a pick can throw you into the realm of being a guitar player on bass. But that’s not really what it’s about; it’s about tone and texture. I thought of my favorite bass players—including Hiro, Chuck Dukowski from Black Flag, and Mike Watt—and most of what I liked was fingerstyle. I decided I’d better learn to play that way. I started listening to Charles Mingus because I wanted to learn how to play some dirty, weird shit.
What Mingus stuff did you pick up?
All of it, mostly during the making of Badmotorfinger. I had only been on bass in the band for nine months. Sometimes I would go for a note and miss it entirely, either on the fingerboard or with my plucking hand because the string spacing was so different from playing guitar. I’d hit the gap. Rookie mistake!
What’s the history of your classic Soundgarden bass, the ’72 Fender Jazz?
It belonged to the Wood brothers. [Andrew Wood fronted seminal Seattle-scene bands Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone.] I bought it to try out for Soundgarden, and I played it on every Soundgarden record and every tour. I called it “Tree” because it was so heavy. At that time it felt like it weighed more than I did because I was scrawny as hell.
Then my bass tech said, “Man, you’re too tall. This bass looks tiny on you.” I lowered the strap so it would look cooler, and I wanted to straighten out my arms so I could just use my fingers. The ergonomic advantage is you don’t get tennis elbow or sore wrists or anything else because you’re not doing anything your body wasn’t designed to do. That’s why I always wore it long, and I’m tall enough to get away with it looking exaggeratedly long. I can still touch all the strings where I want. You have to contour your body, and be willing to throw your whole body into it. Always spread your legs to get closer to the neck.
I suppose “Tree” vanished in the robbery?
Yeah. They took everything. I slipped into a comatose state and went to work as a carpenter’s grunt. After a two-year, anti-music funk I decided to start playing again. My friends cajoled me into making a new record. I told everyone that we could do whatever we wanted because no one would hear it anyway. But then Matt Chamberlain and Greg Gilmore started showing up out of the blue, volunteering their ace drumming. Once those guys started laying down drum tracks, I started thinking, “Oh man—now it’s real. I have to up the ante.”
When are we going to hear that solo record?
The music is mastered and sequenced. The title right now is In Deep Owl. That’s an old nickname for the neighborhood where I hang out. I’m hung up on what I want on the album cover; I’m looking at things today. Otherwise, it’s just sitting there waiting for me to find a way to get it out to fans. It was done before Soundgarden returned to doing anything, and then it was put on the back burner.
What are your thoughts on the reunion?
I don’t think we should have split up in the first place. We definitely needed a hiatus, and we took one. It was just longer than everyone thought. I can see all the proactive goodness of it. It’s ironic that two days before the call, I was finishing my solo album and telling everyone I would never be in another band—ever. I will help other guys make records. I’ve been a hired gun to my friend Mark Lanegan [Screaming Trees, Queens Of The Stone Age]; it’s fun to be a part of a creative process and play live, but for me nothing compares to Soundgarden taking the stage. That’s the big daddy of them all. I knew we’d always be in business together, so we might as well do the cool part—make music.
It’s well documented that you originally regrouped to work out business matters, but that quickly developed into playing. How did that go down from your perspective?
It was natural. I had been waiting for those guys, and then all of the sudden there we were working at Pearl Jam’s warehouse. I was bummed that it wasn’t just the four of us at some friend’s house, but we were lucky it turned out that way because Kim’s guitar tech, Josh Evans, started recording us from the second we all put on our instruments and started jamming.
What instrument did you put on?
When I started playing again I bought a stock Fender Precision Bass right off the rack, and that’s the one I use. [According to tech Nathan Yaccino, it’s tuned DADG most of the time.] It sounds and plays completely different from my old Jazz Bass.
Why did you make the switch from Jazz to P?
Jazzes are too little for me. And when you hit a note and pluck through the string toward your hip, it disappears, kind of like a raindrop hitting cement instead of deep water. I like immediate response and heaviness. That P-Bass grabs the note immediately and reflects it back the other way.
How did you set up to record King Animal?
All of our techs were in the studio working with us. We ran Ampeg SVT and Mesa Boogie heads through a couple of cabinets, along with an Ampeg flip-top [B-15] all at the same time in the bass room. They were all miked up sitting in a row right next to each other. It seemed ridiculous to me, because there wasn’t much difference in the sound. I didn’t really mess with textures.
It looks like the Starship Enterprise when you’re looking out into the main room of Studio X with all the guitar stuff on the exact opposite side of the room. I’d go out to hit it in the big live room wearing headphones and maybe crack open the sliding glass door to the bass room a bit to feel the vibe. It felt cool as hell to be in that situation again—like traveling through time.
So all four of you played together?
Exactly. We usually get the drums down with all four of us pounding it out. We’ll choose a take, and then I’ll sit there and track bass to that. Down on the Upside was an exception; we used almost all the first takes. But for King Animal we tracked drums, then bass, etc. With Pro Tools you don’t have to do anything right the first time, but it’s still more fun to push yourself to actually mean it, do it right, and nail it in one take. I was done pretty quickly, and I didn’t add any extra overdubs.
How did your songwriting contributions flow?
I felt kind of out of the loop because I was so personally unorganized at the time—my whole life was stupid. I spent a lot of time commuting and fighting with my girlfriend, so I utilized the rehearsal time and pre-production jams to work on things. I didn’t talk much; I was busy trying to come up with bass stuff that I could remember well enough to focus on when I got home to my guitar and my recorder.
Do you generally show your song ideas to the band on guitar?
Yes, because it makes more sense to them. They’re all guitar players. I’ve written a few songs on bass in the past, including “Switch Opens.” But that’s rare because you don’t want to write a whole wandering bass line wondering what the drum beat and the guitar chords are going to be. I usually talk in sentences on bass. That’s where “Rowing” came from—the last song on King Animal.
That’s an interesting slow churn, with your distorted bass line of hammered-on trills way up on the neck driving the song along.
That’s a really long bass sentence. It has nothing to do with how the song turned out. I was recording some ideas while they were talking, and Chris snagged it after hearing that line. He showed the initiative to actually turn that into the song. That’s pretty rare.
You have several co-writing credits for your musical contributions.
Right. I wrote “Taree” shortly after Soundgarden broke up. I started playing a bluesy lick in drop D on my Gretsch Country Gentleman, and it reminded me of old photos of my brother and his friend skateboarding in our old neighborhood, Taree. It was a summer cruising kind of feeling. I wanted the choruses to lift up, but the slow part with the feedback—that’s more the mood I wanted for the whole song.
(L-R) Ben Shepherd, Chris Cornell, Kim Th ayil, Matt Cameron How did the “Non-State Actor” riff come about?
I wanted to bring in something that rocked. I thought it would be more like Hendrix’s “Ezy Rider,” but Matt came up with a completely different drumbeat than I imagined. It got over-arranged, but then Chris and Kim saved it with what they wrote.
What can you share about the first single, “Been Away Too Long”?
I wanted to throw a vast apocalyptic melody in there. There’s a totally different version of that song where I play a vicious bass line that makes the song move completely differently. It got kyboshed immediately by everybody else. The working title was “EBE” because of the tuning, which is actually EEBB.
Did you tune that way to match the guitar part, or did you write it that way?
That’s one of the old tunings. I wrote a song called “Somewhere,” and started showing those guys weird tunings. They started experimenting on their own with tunings, too.
You’re referring to the EEBBBB drone tuning that’s used on “My Wave”?
Exactly. Those all come from the original tuning. It’s really weird. I’ve always messed around with guitars a lot more. Bass is boring to mess around with, and barely anybody can hear what the hell you’re doing. Usually when those guys tune their guitars weird, I don’t. I’ll tune completely differently so I can play the song differently. I kind of copped out on “Been Away Too Long” and double-tuned like that because I wanted the bridge to sound really f’d up. It’s not as f’d up as I wanted, though.
What effect do you use on the bridge?
The sound on the recording is simply the effect of that weird tuning going through a busted old Roland distortion/wah pedal. The wah doesn’t work, and the pedal always sounds really cantankerous, like the battery is dying. Onstage the sound is my Mesa Boogie V-Twin preamp pedal and a Dunlop Cry Baby Bass Wah.
“By Crooked Steps” is a classic Soundgarden rocker. The line is simple, but the 5/4 time makes it sound really cool.
I totally agree. When Matt showed it to me, I said, “That’s the exactly the kind of song that makes me want to play music again.” It’s got that cool feeling like when we were teenagers.
The riff is hypnotic.
I don’t remember what I did on the record, but there’s a closed way of playing it, and there’s an open way. You can go from the 10th to the 12th fret up to the high E—the octave, or, you can lift your finger from the 10th fret and hit the open E string. That adds a totally different bottom end.
When you’re playing something like that, do you hear the sound of the riff in your head, or do you actually count it out in groups of two, three, or five?
We take the time to work out the arrangements—in fact, we tend to over-arrange—but I don’t count when we’re actually performing. I go by feeling. Once you get into the groove, it’s more of a matter of breathing than counting. If you’re counting then you’re not really performing. When you get your body, mind, hands, and notes all working together—then you’re performing.
What’s the most important facet of performing Soundgarden songs?
You can’t ignore any of the facets. It’s organic, it’s mathematical, it’s technical, and it’s physical. If you ignore any one of those things, you’re going to wipe out. Blow the mathematics, and you’re going to play the wrong part at the wrong time. You’ll wear yourself out physically if you’re playing a fast part and the pace of your breathing is wrong. You can totally ruin the circle if you don’t balance it all out.
What’s the best thing about being back in the saddle with Soundgarden?
In Soundgarden, it’s our own world. We decide. There’s a certain chemistry that just works.
Soundgarden, King Animal [Republic, 2012]
Basses Fender ’50s Precision Bass, Fender Vintage ’62 Precision Bass, Fender American Standard Jazz Bass, Rickenbacker 4001, Squier Vintage Modified Precision Bass TB, Eastwood Airline Map Bass
Strings GHS Bass Boomers H3045 Heavy (.050, .070, .095, .115) or ML3045 Medium Light (.045, .065, .080, .100)
Rig Ampeg SVT-VR, Ampeg SVT-610HLF 6x10 cabinet, Ampeg SVT-810E 8x10 cabinet, Mesa Engineering Carbine M6, Mesa Engineering Standard PowerHouse 1200 1x15 + 4x10 cabinet, Ampeg B-15 (studio)
Effects Mesa Engineering V-Twin, Dunlop CryBaby 105Q Bass Wah, Boss TU-3 tuner, Roland AD-50 Double Beat fuzz/wah