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Soundgarden returns after more than a decade

By Denise Quan, CNN
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Soundgarden releases first CD in decade
  • Soundgarden returns with a new album after an extended break
  • "Telephantasm" is a career retrospective that also contains new tracks
  • The four members say they have remained close throughout the years

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Los Angeles, California -- The members of Soundgarden walk into the room with the easy manner of guys who've known each other half their lives, yet they have four distinct personalities.

Guitarist Kim Thayil is chatty and excitable. Bassist Ben Shepherd is the quiet one. Drummer Matt Cameron wears shorts and flip-flops. And singer Chris Cornell is aloof and rock star cool, in shades and shoulder-length hair reminiscent of Soundgarden in the late '80s.

The iconic quartet is at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to answer questions -- or not answer questions -- about where the band is headed since reuniting this year for a handful of gigs after a nearly 13-year break. When they split in 1997, Soundgarden had achieved commercial success and -- along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains -- helped to popularize the distortion-laced Seattle, Washington, grunge sound that revolutionized rock radio in the first half of the 1990s

"Telephantasm" is Soundgarden's first CD in more than a decade. It's a career retrospective featuring deep album cuts, signature hits like "Black Hole Sun" and "Spoonman," and never-released tracks, including the group's current single, "Black Rain," an out take from their 1991 album, "Badmotorfinger." The collection is also available in a bundle with the video game "Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock."

"We were sort of talking about re-releasing our catalog and updating our whole system of how we communicate with our fans, because the band started pre-internet, pre-cell phone, pre-pre-pre-everything," Cameron says.

"A new generation of rock fans are discovering 30-year-old bands via a game like Guitar Hero," says Cornell. "It's like try to get a larger picture of what we do musically out there to a younger generation."

CNN: We never thought we'd be saying, "Hello, Soundgarden" in 2010.

Thayil: Was it difficulty in pronouncing the name?

CNN: I'll tell you what's difficult to pronounce -- "Telephantasm," which is the name of your new career retrospective. What does it mean?

Thayil: Either a ghost from afar or an illusion from afar or an illusion at a distance.

Cornell: Kim invented the word. I guess you can't really copyright a word.

CNN: As late as last year, in 2009, you guys were denying the fact that you might ever get back together.

Cornell: Because we hadn't done that yet. (Laughs)

CNN: Matt, you're currently in Pearl Jam. Didn't everybody come to L.A. to see a Pearl Jam show?

Cameron: That was one time that we all got together. Getting in a room together, and just kind of figuring out how we are going to do all this new media stuff -- then we decided, "Let's get in a room and see if we can remember how to play the songs."

CNN: How did it come back? Like falling off a bike?

Cameron: Real slowly. The chemistry was great. I mean, the chemistry was still there, but our songs are very notey, and there's just a lot going on.

Thayil: They wiggle around.

Cameron: It took a few days.

Cornell: A lot of little arrangement things to remember.

CNN: You guys were thinking about how to further the legacy and get your music out to a new generation of fans who had discovered Guitar Hero since you had broken up.

Cornell: Yeah, it's a weird thing. The mythology of a rock star is larger than ever, at a time when the music industry can't create them anymore. What appealed to me is that Soundgarden -- rhythmically and as a guitar-based band -- is pretty unusual, and it seemed like the music would be something that would work really well in the context of one of these games.

CNN: So, truth -- who's good at Guitar Hero?

Cameron: Kim's not.

CNN: Kim, you're a guitarist, and you're bad?

Cameron: My daughter challenged Kim to, what was it? I think it was Rock Band. Kim failed.

Thayil: She beats you, too.

Cornell: It's not a musical game, necessarily. It's still hand-eye coordination. Press the corresponding colored button to the image.

Thayil: Oh, I don't even think I made it past one measure of the song.

CNN: In putting the album out on Guitar Hero, you're automatically going platinum (the CD is bundled in the first million copies of the video game). That's definitely a game changer in an age where very few artists are selling a million albums.

Thayil: It's a new thing, so I haven't really wrapped my head around that entirely, because that's not the way I've thought of record sales.

Cameron: Other groups might look at this as a means to put out a record.

Cornell: Or a partnership -- like if you buy a Prius, you get the new R.E.M. record, and it'll be in the CD player.

CNN: How does it feel to be back on stage together? You played Lollapalooza this year, as well as a few others. Is there a tour coming up, or perhaps more spot dates?

Thayil: Yeah, maybe more spot dates, certainly. It was a lot of fun.

Cornell: Yeah, it was fun. It didn't really feel like there was that long of a break between playing 12 years ago and now.

CNN: Had the four of you been keeping in touch? Had you seen each other over the years?

Cameron: Well, yeah. Three of us still live in Seattle, and Chris moved to Paris and L.A., so we didn't really get the chance to see him as much, but it's been great.

CNN: Any plans to get back in the studio?

Thayil: Let's say "yes" in this interview, and "no" in the next one.

CNN: You've put a fresh spin on some old material, like "Black Rain."

Thayil: That was material that existed only for the four of us. No one else had heard that. That was an uncompleted song. A song that we never fully arranged or finished tracking.

CNN: As you unearth this treasure trove of unreleased material, does it make sense in 2010 in the same way it did when you wrote it originally?

Thayil: Not the songs about the first George Bush. That doesn't have as much relevance anymore. (Laughter)

CNN: When you go back and listen to the old catalog, are you pretty happy with the way it sounded?

Cornell: I am. Especially the arrangements. I was pretty happy with the choices that we made 20 years ago, or 18 years ago, or 15 years ago. They all seem to still sit right with me now. I would make that same decision now, and I guess I didn't really expect that. I would think maybe after all this time, and all of the different experiences we've had musically, that maybe we would listen to it with different ears, but no. I think we've made a lot of really great decisions as songwriters and arrangers, and that's been an interesting thing to experience.

CNN: But I guess the big question is, can you play it on Guitar Hero?

Cornell: That's an easily answered question, and the answer is one syllable, and it's not "yes."