On the scene: SiriusXM Town Hall with Soundgarden

Image Credit: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Soundgarden just released King Animal, their first album in 16 years. So what better way to celebrate than with a Q&A session that moderator and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins called “the raddest garage party ever”??

Last night, at an event hosted by SiriusXM at the legendary Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, the reunited Seattle rockers took part in an informal Q&A session, moderated by Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. The venue is microscopic; there were maybe fifty people there, so needless to say, there wasn’t an un-close seat in the house.

Now, most musicians don’t go into the business for the press circuit. They’re usually roped into these events by their publicists in order to promote an album or a tour, and they tend to answer questions — nearly all of which they have been asked countless times — with marginal, rehearsed enthusiasm. You could tell there was an element of forced publicity in last night’s session, but the discussion was surprisingly lively and informative. 

A standard question about the players’ individual influences elicited responses that drew from a scholarly musical catalog. Frontman Chris Cornell, who admitted that he didn’t learn how to play guitar until after he joined the band, cited the Beatles and Tom Waits; Matt Cameron, the genial and well-spoken drummer, spoke of Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Captain Beefheart, and Death Grips; and bassist Ben Shepherd mentioned Charles Mingus and Black Flag’s Chuck Dukowski. Guitarist Kim Thayil, who remained somewhat aloof for most of the evening, acknowledged reluctantly that his childhood guitar hero was KISS’ Ace Frehley. All of them agreed, though, that many of the band’s early influences weren’t musical at all, but rather works of film and literature.

As the guys loosened up — thanks in no small part to Hawkins’ exuberant hosting job — the talk became more freewheeling. One fan asked what the band members would be doing if they hadn’t pursued music, prompting them to rip into one another about baseball and their total ineptitude at non-musical tasks.

They all reacted strongly when someone apologetically applied the term “grunge” to their work. “Grunge is over, people,” Hawkins shouted. “It never started.” However, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Shepherd’s contributions to the evening. Seated on the far right, slouched and sneering, the bassist spent most of the event spouting non sequiturs that grew increasingly off-the-wall. Rather than try to contextualize them — because there was really no context for most of his comments — I’ll just list a few, below:

-”I like to yell Throbbing Gristle in crowded movie theaters.”

-”It’s too bad we don’t talk like Donald Duck, or that would have been an incredible answer.”

-”We all hide the dream couches when we’re jamming.”

One of the night’s testier moments came in response to a question about the role of music criticism in an album’s success or failure. For the first time, Thayil spoke up adamantly, denouncing bloggers and unqualified writers “who don’t know anything about music or cultural trends or journalism.” “I’m just waiting for that Pitchfork review,” Cornell joked, referring to the notoriously severe, online music magazine.

He then lamented the fact that so many music writers concentrate on the lead singers and guitarists at the expense of the other musicians. Soundgarden, he insisted, was always a collaborative effort with equal contributions from every member. Hawkins added a story about a producer he knew who collected original reviews of every Led Zeppelin LP, which were largely negative, and brought them out 20 years later as proof of their irrelevance.

“[Critics] help people with scarce resources prioritize their shopping lists,” Thayil concluded.

Once the talk wrapped up, the band played an exciting but tragically short set: “Been Away Too Long” and “Worse Dreams,” both off of King Animal, and two early classics, “Rusty Cage” and “Spoonman.”

I’ll admit that I’m a total Soundgarden aficionado, so watching them perform live in such an impossibly tiny setting felt a bit like discovering Zeppelin when I was 13. Their music is deliriously, refreshingly heavy, all sludge and sinew — I wanted to jump around and break chairs, and I think everyone else did, too, but the surroundings weren’t suited to a mosh pit.

Luckily the band’s got a tour lined up for early next year, so all those metalheads who grew up on Badmotorfinger and Superunknown can get their long-awaited ’90s thrash on for the first time in nearly 20 years.

“SiriusXM’s Town Hall with Soundgarden will air on Pearl Jam Radio this Friday, Nov. 16, at 6pm ET.

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