It’s surprising that Adam Kasper is the architect behind the new Soundgarden record. Not that the production vet (Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Queens Of The Stone Age) is inexperienced or unfamiliar with grunge (he isn’t). It’s just that King Animal’s sound profile – raw, organic, direct – is everything the band’s 1997 Kasper-mixed release, Down On The Upside, is not.
“I was happy with the original demos and how these guys were sounding,” Kasper explains from the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington State, where he lives when not holed up in his Seattle studio. “It wasn’t a retread of the old stuff. Down On The Upside was a coproduction with the band, and you had five people making decisions. But that was like the first big record that I produced, so maybe I have a little more idea of what I’m doing [these days], so I think there was trust among us.”
Kasper, who marked his return to the Soundgarden camp with Live On The I-5, brought the spontaneity and energy from that 2011 concert album to King Animal. The soft-spoken producer is a great listener and it shows in the minimally invasive approach he takes to tracking Cameron’s drums. “Matt pretty much is an early-take kind of guy in general ever since I’ve known him,” he explains. “Within the first few passes he’s got pretty much all the songs. If we get up to six or seven that’s really rare and that would only happen if we’re changing the arrangements and stuff. Matt and I were actually sitting around chatting about it: We’ve probably done over 100 tracks together, though we have a real quick way of getting where we want to get.”
Whether he’s kicking out the (Pearl) jams or digging deep in the ’garden, Cameron can rely on Kasper to highlight the drumming style of each band, however they may differ. “Soundgarden songs are by nature a little more technical,” he says. “That’s not to take anything away from Pearl Jam. There’s just more rhythmic hiccups and off-time stuff that happens [with Soundgarden] because they write based around guitar riffs a lot.
“And very little editing compared to what I have to do with most people by far,” he continues. “If we do  it’s some little tag or an outro maybe – I don’t know – at most that’s something we might do. Something about the way Matt plays, the less editing you do the better it sounds. Start chopping him up and it doesn’t make sense.”
When asked why he and Matt Cameron are such a solid rhythm section in Soundgarden, bassist Ben Shepherd is eerily silent. He’s not guarded exactly, but he has the thoughtful reticence typical of residents on Bainbridge Island, the rainy outpost smack in the middle of Seattle’s Puget Sound. “I think he understands my derangement.”
Shepherd is one of rock’s most compelling bassists. Listen to “Pretty Noose” from Down On The Upside or to the sideways shimmy of “A Thousand Days Before” from King Animal, and you see how the bassist walks up, down, and around Cameron’s scattershot—yet-cohesive beats.
But the bassist insists he’s only as good as his other half lets him be: “You can play the most dumb, inane rhythm and he’ll make it work, so it’s kind of cheating,” Shepherd explains. “It’s just like he covers you. And there is no way I can push him to some new extreme that he hasn’t already pushed himself to.”
Shepherd and Cameron have stayed tight in the years since Soundgarden’s 1997 breakup and the 2010 reunion, collaborating in Cameron’s solo project, Wellwater Conspiracy, and now, on the bassist’s upcoming solo record, which, in addition to Cameron, includes drums from Matt Chamberlain, Greg Gilmore, and Joseph Braley. That musical meeting of the minds continued as the two went straight from that project to King Animal.
But Shepherd, who counts Zigaboo Modeliste among his favorite drummers, is quick to point out that Cameron’s brand of consistency isn’t the linear kind that breeds dullness and predictability. “It’s not like a click track; he goes a bit geometrically,” he explains. “The legato of the music is the suspension bridge and Matt’s the foundation where all the web work goes in and then you play it back. It’s kind of like listening to T. Monk: You have to understand how his spiderwebs stick together. For me it’s more geometric like that. It has to be. I don’t like numbers. Numbers add up.”
When it came time to cut King Animal the chemistry was so familiar it was as though a 15-year hiatus had collapsed to a mere 15 minutes. “This one we just cranked it up like muscle-car music. It’s a hot-rod record in a lot of ways.” But what Soundgarden thinks of as big-ass rock comes across as a mist-enshrouded Northwestern blues for the layman. “We’re all free-flowing anyway,” he says, naming Last Exit, Sonny Sharrock, and Captain Beefheart as common faves. “We’re not totally normal rockers that just play the machine all the time. I want to breathe, stretch, and get weird, weird, weirder.”
Thanks to a recent fixation with Serge Gainsbourgh, Shepherd has developed a taste for vintage bass tones over the years, mainly for the subtleties you get at lower volumes. It’s a sound that goes great with Cameron’s drums, which are thick, meaty, and super-resonant. The toms in particular practically echo.
We’ve established that Cameron’s loose-but-reliable style reins in the other players’ wanderlust. But is there anything that Shepherd would like to see the drummer do differently? “Hell no,” he says. “You gotta go hard. Go wild.”