Fans who still champion Seattle's halcyon old grunge sound have much to cheer this year, like a slew of new Pearl Jam projects and a commemorative box-set edition of one of the movement's defining discs, Nirvana's Nevermind. But more intriguing still is the sudden re-emergence of their sonic brethren, Soundgarden, who are currently on tour — and in the middle of recording a new comeback album — after 14 long years away. And yes, it's the original gale-force, Grammy-winning lineup — vocalist Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd, and drummer Matt Cameron — back together after what was meant to be a final farewell show at Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu, way back in February of 1997.
Has grunge crept out from the catacombs to reclaim the Beyoncé/Lady Gaga charts? There's always a chance. For Soundgarden, it all kicked off quietly at first, with last year's issuing of a greatest-hits package, Telephantasm. The two-disc-plus-DVD set featured an unearthed track called "Black Rain," which they reunited to perform on the second night of Conan O'Brien's long-awaited return to TV. Oddly, the song earned them another Grammy nomination, for Best Hard Rock Performance — a good omen for continuing on. Which the group did, via the recent Live On I-5, a concert document from 1996 featuring two searing covers, the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" and the Stooges' "Search and Destroy." The momentum, it seemed, was just too powerful to ignore.
But according to Cornell — who spent his wilderness years recording albums with Audioslave and as a solo artist — this Soundgarden Renaissance was all a happy accident. "Around the same time we were getting together to discuss doing a website and a merch line — because nobody could find a Soundgarden shirt or anything, anywhere — we started talking about re-releases and doing different things that we wanted to do," says the banshee-velocity singer, who now divides his time among Los Angeles, Rome and Paris, where he owns a restaurant.
"Then "Live on I-5" came up around then, because we forgot we had this tour recorded, and we hadn't listened to any of it, ever, I don't think. So we started listening to that, and the whole concept of us getting back together and actually doing new stuff kind of happened naturally, from just getting in a room and talking about servicing the legacy of the band."
The band tested it out with a tiny hometown show in 2010 as the hush-hush Nude Dragons, which — even in anagram form — sold out in a matter of minutes. Cornell is humble about it, in retrospect. "It was sorta secret, and at a very small place, which could be why it sold out so fast," he says. "But the anagram happened when we were on tour years ago, and the hotel we were staying at was very sweet — I think it was a Best Western somewhere in Texas — because they had a reader board out in front and they put 'Welcome Soundgarden!' on it. So we got there and we were like, 'Uhhh ... OK ... this is a small town, and we don't want everyone to know where we're staying.' So we climbed up the reader board and just rearranged the letters and became the Nude Dragons."
While the album's still a work in progress, Cornell says the vibe on the road has been a revelation. "We've started to realize that we've been through so much together," says Cornell, "because we really have."