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Soundgarden’s Ben Shepherd on the bass’s role: Be like a mako shark under water

Soundgarden’s lineup has stayed the same since 1990: Chris Cornell (clockwise from front), Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil.
Soundgarden’s lineup has stayed the same since 1990: Chris Cornell (clockwise from front), Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil.

One of the first-ever Soundgarden shows in Kansas City was at the Shadow in March 1990. It was part of their Louder Than Love Tour.

“I was there,” said a friend on Facebook. “It was really, really, unbelievably loud. Also Matt Cameron is a fascinating drummer.”

In the ensuing decade, Soundgarden would establish itself as the titans of grunge and one of the biggest rock bands in music.

Sunday, more than 27 years after that Shadow show, the band returns to Kansas City for a show at Starlight Theatre, only its fourth show in Kansas City since. The others: at Memorial Hall in February 1992; at Longview Lake as part of Lollapalooza in June 1996; and at the Midland theater in May 2013.

The band’s lineup has remained the same since 1990, the year Ben Shepherd replaced original bassist Hiro Yamamoto. The band, which weathered a 12-year breakup, hasn’t released an album since 2012: “King Animal,” its first album since 1996’s “Down on the Upside.”

Soundgarden is recording another album, and Shepherd this week talked to The Star about where they are in the recording process, the current tour and his approach to playing bass.

Q: How has the tour been going?

A: It’s been going real smooth. The show we just did in Memphis was really cool. The crowd was amazing. It was the end of a festival that had been going on all weekend. Everyone stayed and they were rocking out. A beautiful setting with the river going by, the bridge in the background: Everything you’d hope a festival show would be. It had just the right vibrancy to it. It was like a carnivale atmosphere, somehow. They are total music fans in that town.

The other shows were great, too. Lots of rocking crowds. People of all ages are Soundgarden fans and know every word. I think we played Alabama for the first time, Tuscaloosa. I’m going by Kim’s (Thayil) word on it. He said, “We’ve never played Alabama.” If he hasn’t played there, then I haven’t.

Q: It has been five years since you released an album. What’s the word on the new recording?

A: We’ve had blocks of time where we get together and write, then disperse again for a while, then get blocks of time, like days at a time. We’ve done that like four times, maybe five. So we have an amalgam of songs, kind of. They’re not really worked out. And I’m sure we’ll do it a couple more times before we hit the studio.

We haven’t even talked about the studio, who’s going to be there, whatever — all the real logistics.

Q: What can you tell us about the new music?

A: It’s us, so it always sounds like Soundgarden, but different speeds and moods, different mood themes, I guess. I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s so ambiguous right now.

Q: I just watched a video where a bass player from a well-known rock band talked about his principles of playing the bass. Do you have a theory or set of rules?

A: I like players like Charlie Mingus who aren’t afraid to get dirty chords in there and really dive in and snarl it up or just power through fluidly. That’s more of what I like than a philosophy about it.

If you listen to the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, you hear the counterpoint melodies going on in what the bass is doing. Sure, it’s holding down the song or the beat, but that’s the drummer’s job. The bass doesn’t have to play along with what the guitars are playing or what the drums are playing.

In the old days of Soundgarden, I would do my bass tracks almost last, even after the vocals, because I would hear stuff off the vocals to do. I wasn’t great at it, but that was the approach I took: to go off the vocals and add other parts within parts. You can get accused of being too showy, and everyone gets pissed if you do too much on bass. But if you did that on guitar, everyone would go, “Oh, my God: He’s a virtuoso.”

Now, I’m into more old R&B and how they approached it, how they enforced the back beat, the sexy groove of it all. Like when you play behind the beat or play in front of the beat: To me, I think it’s cooler when the guitar is kind of on top of the beat and kind of inches forward and the bass is in the back half of the beat. That’s what adds to the groove and the cool vibe.

I liken it to being like some kind of mako shark under the water: It should move around like that, like how a shark menaces a boat. That’s kind of what I think a bass should do so that every time you listen to a song you go, “Whoa, that’s way different than what I thought was going on.”

Q: Who are your influences?

A: Of course Hiro (Yamamoto) because when I joined the band, I’d never played bass in a band before so I had to learn his stuff. When I was listening to that, I was like, “OK. I’ve got to learn how to play bass pronto.”

Then there’s Chuck D from Black Flag — Chuck Dukowski. He was a major influence besides Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones and Charlie Mingus. Also Mike Watt because I listened to the Minutemen a lot — “Double Nickels on the Dime” when we were doing “Badmotorfinger.”

And there’s this guy in Seattle I saw play once as a kid (Alex Sibbald) who blew my mind. He has switched to guitar and is in a band called Toe Tag. He’s a bad-ass guitar player, too. The way he played bass when I saw him as a kid, he was like the epitome of what you wanted a guy in a band to be.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain


Soundgarden performs Sunday, May 14, at Starlight Theatre. 7:30 p.m. $27-$87.