While Soundgarden were jokingly referred to as ‘Frowngarden’ in the 90’s, the iconic band’s bassist Ben Shepherd actually has quite the sense of humor. In our exclusive interview Shepherd discuss his debut solo album In Deep Owl (set for release on August 27th), recording In Deep Owl behind a sex club, a running joke about people trying to sound like Mark Lanegan, his side project Hater, and Ben’s fantasy Soundgarden/Motorhead tour.
First off Ben I just wanted to tell you that Soundgarden is one of my favorite bands, and the show I went to two years ago at the LA Forum is one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. Just wanted to mention that first.
Awesome man. That was a fun one, if we’d gone on any more the roof would have caved in.
Yeah I know. I had Randy Johnson in front of me taking photos and Dave Grohl behind me moshing. It was awesome.
But moving on to In Deep Owl, I wanted to discuss the song selection process for the album. “Baron Robber” sounds like it could be a Soundgarden song, and I say that as a compliment, especially instrumentally in the last minute or so of the song. You were working on In Deep Owl around the same time Soundgarden reunited, so how did you decide which songs to keep on In Deep Owl and which ideas to bring to Soundgarden? You ended up contributing “Attrition”.
In Deep Owl was done before Soundgarden reunited.
It was completely finished?
Just about, yeah. There was some editing to do and some overdubs to fix and that was it. So I just kind of put it on the back burner because Soundgarden is my gig.
Now that leads me to ask, in the infamous SPIN interview a few years ago you mentioned the solo album. I remember Kim saying he loved it and he thought it was great but you were hesitant about releasing it at the time. Was this because of Soundgarden reuniting, and what led to you finally deciding to release it?
Yeah that was why. I wanted it to be its own thing on its own, but of course that timing didn’t work out. Because I had actually planned on it being a shot in the dark, from out of nowhere there’s the ex-bass player from Soundgarden with a solo record. So then we reunited so that whole plan was like, ‘Oh okay, nevermind.’ [Laughs]
I became a Soundgarden fan in the 2000’s. I mean I had heard Soundgarden in the 90’s since my Dad played you guys all the time, but when I really got into you guys I wondered what you and Kim were up to after all those years. I know you didn’t start officially recording In Deep Owl until 2009, but did some of the song ideas date back to the late 90’s and throughout the 2000’s? Did you keep writing songs and did they end up on the record?
Yeah, “Stone Pale”, fuck I don’t remember what year I wrote Stone Pale. That’s pretty much the oldest one on there– no, I guess “Loose Ends” is way old. That almost wound up on Down on the Upside. It didn’t [meet] the litmus though so it didn’t make it on there.
Yeah I remember when King Animal came out you mentioned that the riff to “Taree” dated back to 1996 or 1997 so I was thinking you must have had some other stuff kicking around since then.
Taree, yeah, I actually recorded that for my solo record, but I’d always intended Chris to sing on it. Him, Mark Lanegan, or Paul Rodgers are always the voices I heard singing that song. So I tracked it with Matt Cameron on drums, me doing all the guitars for In Deep Owl but then when we reunited I thought, ‘Awesome, I can finally show these guys this song.’
So there’s a version of that song out there with you singing?
There’s no vocals on it. We never did vocals. I had made two records before I moved to Georgetown, or South Park. Soundgarden’s building had gotten robbed and those two records were stolen in the console. So during the making of King Animal I actually had the brain of the albums. Everybody switched to Pro Tools basically, so my old system was obsolete and all the info was locked in the console that was stolen with all my guitars and basses. So during King Animal we unlocked it and transferred it all to Pro Tools and I still have to go through all those songs. Attrition was one of those songs on the old records that were stolen. The day that I was going to do vocals on Taree was the day that I discovered we got robbed. I finally had a melody and lyrics and everything, a feeling for it. After all these years I finally had a feeling of how to do it, and then it’s gone. So it was fate, I wrote that song for Soundgarden before we broke up.
Now getting to the vocal sound at least on the two songs I’ve heard so far from the album. Your voice sounds a bit different, it sounds kind of haunting and melodic. I don’t know if I’m describing that wrong, but it sounds a bit different than it did on the two Hater records. Did you have different vocal influences coming into this album or do you think it’s just how your voice changed over the years?
Yeah I think it’s how my voice changed. There’s an old joke too that all my friends always say. [They say] whenever you play with Mark Lanegan, anybody that does their own stuff after jamming with Mark Lanegan you sing lower and everything. That’s not true, it’s just how I woke up and sang those times. So I’ve got to tell my friend Drew that, because him and all his friends all joke, “Oh whoever jams with Lanegan they all try to sing low after.” I still can’t sing high pitched like I used to. I always go into different roles, even when I was tracking this record. I pretend I’m a different person [on each song]. I pretend like I’m the lead guitar player for this song, I pretend I’m this kind of singer on this song. So it’s kind of a weird schizophrenic acting role that you have to do.
On the Hater records to me you kind of sound like a punk rock Lou Reed.
The guy from Rudimentary Peni, have you ever heard of that band?
No I haven’t.
He’s one of my favorite singers of all time. Johnny Rotten is one of my favorite singers of all time, Darby Crash. Then you get to the real melodic powerful singers like Peter Murphy, Bowie. Those are all cool singers to me. [inaudible] I always get embarrassed by who I sound like, I’m trying to find out who I sound like, not like someone else. I’ve never found my voice though, probably never will.
Well it sounds pretty good on the two new songs, I like them. Sometimes with side projects you don’t know what to expect. When I heard both of those songs they were instantly memorable to me.
But moving onto live shows. Chris does the Songbook shows and I saw a video of you on YouTube a few years ago at the OK Hotel playing “Collide”. Are you planning any live shows?
I haven’t planned anything at all. Because Soundgarden, that’s the main vehicle, I don’t want to mess with that at all. I was even like that in the Hater times, I didn’t really get fully behind that because it was supposed to be an anonymous band that no one knew who was in it and all of that stuff. When I came up with the idea of doing it, it was supposed to be this floating recording project that never really gets done and all these different guest musicians come in and play. It’s just for the musicians to play and record, it was never supposed to be touted as anything other than just this one band that was passed around by cassette, because that was back when cassettes were around. Like people in the know knew who it was and all that [inaudible] joking around. Because that’s what it was, it was a pressure release from not being part of a big music juggernaut, a big business juggernaut of music of the time, it was supposed to be for the underground.
But you mentioned Soundgarden being your first priority, I’ve seen you mention that in a lot of interviews. Has there been any talk of what Soundgarden’s plans are going to be after the European tour, like when the next album might happen?
Those kind of plans happen when we’re all together. So we haven’t talked, we’ve had the summer off. Matt has been busy, and Chris has been busy. Those guys never stop. I think this is the first whole month Matt has had off in years. Poor guy.
The cliché question from most journalists has been about a Soundgarden and Pearl Jam tour. But I know everybody [in both bands] has said that’s not going to happen because of Matt, it would tire him out too much playing four hours or whatever it would take. So that leads me to ask, are there any other bands you’d like to see Soundgarden tour with in the future? May it be a classic rock band or another 90’s band, like say Alice In Chains, The Smashing Pumpkins, STP or something like that. Who would you like to see Soundgarden tour with in the future?
God, that’s actually a good question. I think of bands all the time. We tried to tour with Motorhead but they were busy, that’d be a cool one.
That’d be real cool.
We never got to play with AC/DC either. I don’t know how their fans would take us at all, so that would be fun to see. Liberace’s dead so we can’t tour with him. I would say Motorhead or AC/DC, but my favorite band of the last 10 years was Grinderman, Nick Cave’s other band.
I’ve seen many 90’s musicians talk about being unhappy with the current music scene, especially with the state of rock. I’ve seen Billy Corgan go on a lot about it. What do you think it’s going to take for the rock scene to change, and what do you think the problems are with rock today and do you see it improving?
It’s not a problem with just rock, it’s a problem with how music doesn’t matter anymore to most people. It’s just a commodity in the background, or an enhancement to everything. Back when the music scene was thriving in all genres, music was more prevalent. It meant more, it was more part of our culture. Now it just seems like movies are more important, and infomercials, and YouTube are more important than music. It seems like the world gets more war like when music takes a backseat and no one pays really much attention to it, except the connoisseurs of music. It’s kind of weird to me, video games are more popular than the fucking Beatles you know. Waking up and listening to your favorite music is not part of everybody’s daily ritual. You get up and you check Yahoo News instead.
Yeah it’s unfortunate. I read the note that you wrote regarding recording In Deep Owl. The funniest part to me was about recording around the Interbay area of Seattle behind a sex club. You even said in a self-deprecating tone that that’s where people uglier than you go to get it on in public. Do you have any interesting stories from recording in an area like that?
One night I was out smoking a cigarette, and our big metal bore that you slide to the side, it looks right at the back door of the sex club where they park, where they walk in through the other doors. This one guy came out, he looked just shattered, just completely destroyed. This little hipster dude you know, he’s standing there. All he could probably see from me was my cigarette cherry lighting up as I took a drag, like a weird spy movie or something. I’m just standing there relaxing with my cup of coffee, and I see him all shattered. Then this really foxy girl comes out, tries to comfort him, and gives him a cup of coffee and stuff. So basically what I’d seen was that guy seeing the effects of his girlfriend having sex with other people [Brett and Ben laugh].
Then there were times when we would go out and almost die laughing because you would hear [Ben makes whipping noise and does a voice of somebody going ‘ah’ after being whipped in the ass]. One time we heard [somebody getting whipped in the club] and then we’d hear the voice go, “Next time hit me like you mean it.” It’s so funny because that club didn’t exist right, this studio was a famous studio in Seattle. I can’t remember what it used to be called, but our friend who used to care take Soundgarden’s building, [moved over near the] studio. He’s living there he has a cool studio there, then that club moved in. So the studio was already established and just totally anonymous. So more people know about the sex club than that studio [inaudible]. So there’s this total class of completely different people next to each other, and that’s very fitting with Interbay and also down in Georgetown which is In Deep Owl, the nickname of the town [inaudible]. It’s just weird areas of Seattle, it shows you the underside.
You were mentioning how the sex club is more important than the studio, which goes back to what you saying about how music isn’t as important as other things any more.
It’s not more important, but more people know about the sex club. You try to describe where the studio is to people and they don’t know where it is until they go ‘Oh that one sex club.’ It’s not advertised as a sex club, you just know where it is.
So people just know the studio as being near the sex club rather than the other way around.
Yeah, even though it’s been there for 15 or 20 years or something [laughs].
That’s funny. Well thanks a lot Ben, it’s pretty weird to wrap up talking about a sex club but pretty funny stuff. Good luck with the album, I can’t wait to hear it and I can’t wait to see Soundgarden again whenever that happens.
Awesome man, thank you for your time.
HBS- In Deep Owl
Coming August 27th