A generation ago, Soundgarden ruled contemporary music as part of a grunge triumvirate that included Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Returning with the widely praised King Animal, the group's first studio album in 16 years, the reunited players aren't sure who their current audience is but are counting on two constituencies: early believers and the band's musical progeny.
"Older fans might have a sentimental affinity for us,"says guitarist Kim Thayil, 52. "Over the years, I've met so many young, truly indie or underground bands and risk-taking, forward-thinking artists who saw us as inspiration. They're doing heavy music, embracing a darker or psychedelic element. I consider these people part of our audience, too. We were the band that people formed bands to."
Founded in 1984, Soundgarden was the first in Seattle's alt-rock boom to sign to a major label, peaking in 1994 with chart-topping Superunknown, which sold nearly 4 million copies and spawned Grammy-winning singles Spoonman and Black Hole Sun.
After reuniting two years ago, the hard rock quartet released 2010 retrospective Telephantasm, 2011 tour album Live on I-5 and this year's Live to Rise anthem for The Avengers soundtrack. The four embarked on King Animal with no signs of rust or anxiety.
"We all have a clear understanding of what Soundgarden should sound like, and we had confidence we could continue to build and create and evolve within that," says singer Chris Cornell, 48. "Since a short time after we split up, I always felt confident that we could make great Soundgarden music."
Fried by touring and industry avarice, Soundgarden disbanded in April 1997.
"It ran its course," Thayil says. "You rarely meet people today who spend a whole career with one company and get the gold watch. It was kind of inevitable. If there was any animosity, it was toward the band. We were tired of Soundgarden."
The digital revolution sparked the reunion. Soon after the band split, the Internet exploded with MySpace, Facebook, artist websites and music downloads.
"We had no profile on the Internet whatsoever," Thayil says. "That's what got us talking. We didn't have a website or any electronic media presence. Even though we were broken up, we had to attend to that, our catalog, merchandising and legal and business issues we had neglected for a decade. We just never thought of the band as a store."
With the band's website established, concert deals began pouring in and Soundgarden found itself rehearsing old tunes and plotting new ones.
The reconciliation "happened gradually (and) was very natural," Thayil says.
The long gap between the band's sixth studio album and 1996's Down on the Upside was no idle hiatus. All four, including drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd, stayed active. Cornell formed supergroup Audioslave and released three solo albums. Cameron replaced Jack Irons in Pearl Jam.
"We came back with an understanding that the bubble of what's possible is a lot bigger than it used to be," Cornell says.
Their sonic detours "are present at some level" in King, Thayil says. "But when the four of us get together, the music is the authentic consequence of that collaboration. It's not likely we'd embrace aspects of Chris' solo career or my affinity for experimental doom and drone."
Despite their far-flung solo efforts, little changed in their writing and recording process, though one difference stood out.
"Nobody's drinking," Cornell says. "It's nothing we've ever discussed, and there's no sobriety coach. But we've all changed our lifestyles. I'm much more focused and decisive. I get to the meat of what's going on pretty quick now."
King retains the heavy, dark, experimental edge that made Soundgarden a groundbreaking force during the reign of grunge, a term the band never embraced.
"It was convenient for marketing and for journalists," Thayil says. "I only used it to explain the band to people older than me or from a different walk of life socially. If I said, 'grunge,' they'd say, 'Oh, like Nirvana!' "
Thayil takes pride in grunge's original strain of innovative, activist trailblazers, but not the copycats who "saw the gold rush in Seattle and jumped on. Your normal rock star wannabes who put on spandex and cowboy boots in the '80s put on grunge garb in the '90s for the dollar signs. I'd be hard-pressed to find a popular hard rock band since the mid-'90s that I care about."
Cornell shrugs off the grunge label as benign.
"It's not a bad word," he says. "It's never appeared in any context that hurt us. We were an integral part of rock history that threw commercial rock of that day on its ear and made inroads for everyone else."
The band that had been labeled alternative, post-punk and new metal "never fit into anything comfortably," Cornell says. "In 2012, it doesn't appear we need to fit into any frame. People know who we are."