Of all the bands that emerged from Seattle’s so-called grunge scene in the early 1990s — think of the moody, flannel-clad likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains — none was harder to pin down than Soundgarden.
Brutish but thoughtful, muscular yet deeply melodic, the group’s music resisted easy classification, just as frontman Chris Cornell seemed to defy attempts to parse his densely allusive lyrics. Even the band’s biggest hit, “Black Hole Sun,” which cracked the top 10 of Billboard’s pop-radio chart in 1994, remains a mystery from its opening couplet on: “In my eyes, indisposed / In disguises no one knows.”
Here was an outfit — one that broke up in 1997 — fully in touch with the value of obscurity.
It came as something of a surprise, then, to hear Cornell describe Soundgarden’s new reunion album as an attempt to “demystify” the group’s attack.
“There’s a certain quality we create in a room that since we started has been our greatest challenge to get on tape,” he said, sitting with bassist Ben Shepherd recently in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
Cornell recalled building elaborate microphone setups during studio sessions for “Superunknown” — which spawned “Black Hole Sun” as well as “Spoonman,” another of the band’s hits — yet being disappointed by the result.
“It was small and horrible and totally unlike Soundgarden,” he said with a laugh.
So for “King Animal,” its first set of new songs since 1996’s “Down on the Upside,” the group employed a less-is-more approach, using one microphone where in the past it might’ve sprung for a dozen.
“The other day, we were rehearsing some of the new songs and we put the album on,” Cornell said. “And for the first time in my life, I swear, I was shocked: ‘Oh, that sounds exactly the way we sound right now.’ Hallelujah! We finally did it right.”
The band’s members aren’t the only ones who think so: Reviews for the appealingly raw “King Animal” have been positive, while strong first-week sales secured a top 10 debut for the album, ahead of new records by Christina Aguilera and Green Day.
On Tuesday, Soundgarden — which also includes guitarist Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron — will conclude a brief North American tour with a sold-out concert at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood; it’s set to return in February for two shows at the Wiltern.
Cornell and Shepherd said the album’s no-frills nature mirrors the drama-free circumstances of Soundgarden’s reunion, which grew out of the band’s efforts several years ago to solidify its online presence.
Though they’d grown tired of the music industry and the demands of life on the road, the members hadn’t soured on one other when they originally dissolved the group. They returned to active duty slowly, playing a handful of shows in 2010 (including a headlining slot at that year’s Lollapalooza) and issuing archival material such as last year’s “Live on I-5" concert album.
In May, Soundgarden performed an unannounced set at KROQ-FM’s Weenie Roast y Fiesta in Irvine, and the band’s old chemistry was clearly still intact.
“They rehearse at our spot in Seattle,” says Pearl Jam’s bassist, Jeff Ament. (Following Soundgarden’s breakup in 1997, Cameron joined Pearl Jam; the drummer now plays in both bands.) “They’re always smiling and seem excited to be around each other.”
Thayil said by phone from New York that part of what kept his enthusiasm alive during the hiatus was the respect paid Soundgarden by a new breed of adventurous young rock acts.
“I’m proud of that legacy,” he said, and indeed, it’s easy to hear the band’s influence in the work of groups such as Oneida and High on Fire.
“Kim’s playing on ‘Badmotorfinger’ is what got me to tune my guitar the way I do,” says Peter Adams of the acclaimed Georgia band Baroness, referring to Soundgarden’s 1991 breakthrough. “He always stood out.”
Devoted fans such as Adams are, of course, chief among those Tom Whalley is hoping to reach with “King Animal.” The former chairman of Warner Bros. Records, Whalley signed Soundgarden as the first group on his new Loma Vista Recordings, a partnership with Universal Republic.
Yet the executive is aiming also for younger listeners who might know Cornell’s name not from Soundgarden but from the singer’s tenure with the hard-rock supergroup Audioslave or from “Scream,” Cornell’s bizarre 2009 collaboration with the hip-hop producer Timbaland.
“Kids can go online now and discover any artist from any point in time,” Whalley says. “We want to make them aware that this great record exists and use the past to influence the future.”
To that end, Soundgarden has been more active in social media than many bands of its vintage; it announced its return via Twitter, for instance. And earlier this year, it partnered with iTunes to release “Live to Rise” (from the “Avengers” soundtrack) as a free download.
“I don’t want to not do something because I’m afraid of it,” Cornell said.
The comparatively quiet Shepherd nodded his assent, but piped up quickly with a caveat.
“The basic foundation of Soundgarden,” he said, “is that we’re here to play the music.”