What’s The Big Idea, Ben Shepherd?

What’s The Big Idea, Ben Shepherd?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd has a lot of big ideas. Recently, he has entertained the idea of creating a zip-line range at a location where “you can go tearing from location to location in the tree tops, but you can only get to it by boat or if you already know where it is” and developing a concert experience whereat a band (which the bassist has dubbed Forming Policy) will experiment with different sonic frequencies and motifs for the purposes of moving objects with sound.

Those ideas sound fantastic and remarkable and they're only the tip of the iceberg – conversations with Shepherd revolve around exploring new and inventive musical ideas but, as the bassist is careful to point out, everything good began to really get moving at about the same time he started working on In Deep Owl, his first solo album. “Over the last two years, a lot of the different musical ideas I've had really started to seem more possible because In Deep Owl worked out so well,” says Shepherd proudly. “Making that record really helped to build my confidence; [it] really proved to me that I can start projects and get them done on my own when I put my mind to them. Hater [the ill-fated side project begun by Shepherd with drummer Matt Cameron and ex-Monster Magnet guitarist John McBain –ed] might have been able to do that but, because it took ten years to come out, it really didn't.

“The second Hater album [The 2nd – released in 2005 on Burn Burn Burn Records –ed] really destroyed my confidence or the thought that anyone would give a fuck about the songs I write but, now that's done away with and Deep Owl's out and Soundgarden's reunited, I've really built that back up,” continues the bassist brightly. “I'm really beginning to think things are possible and, if I put my mind to a project, I'm going to do it; I'm not going to waste time anymore.”

For a lot of people, Shepherd's current, fantastically bright outlook certainly comes as a relief – particularly given that the making of In Deep Owl began under such dark circumstances. According to the bassist, work on In Deep Owl began during the period when Soundgarden was on what everyone thought was a permanent hiatus and, to make matters worse, Shepherd found himself single to boot. Shortly thereafter, the bassist began slipping into a depression, but got working on the album with the help and cajoling of his friends. “The whole thing started when my girlfriend and I split up and my friends goaded me into recording something,” remembers Shepherd, laughing. “They wanted me to get out of the house and not get depressed, so they got me to come down to the studio. They didn't want me to go home and mope, so we start working on some ideas for songs and, not long after that, they pushed me to start recording. They said, 'Well, why don't you record “The Great Syrup Accident” first and then “Neverone Blues”' – and they didn't have drums on them or anything, they were just vocals and guitar – but I really liked them. I thought they sounded really good so I finally said 'Alright! Whatever, I'll do it,' and really committed myself to making a full-length album. I figured, I hadn't been around in a long time and hadn't been around at all, so I figured it would come out of the blue – like, 'This is what happened to the bass player of Soundgarden!'

“Eventually, it seemed like it was getting serious with this writing,” Shepherd continues. “I needed a guitar so I took one last ferry ride, grabbed the acoustic guitar on the album, got back to Seattle and then didn't go home again for a long time. I was sleeping on the couch at the studio – and they didn't want me to go home. Then we changed studios; we rented a Pro Tools setup from Soundgarden's old sound man Stuart Hallerman, who also runs Avast [Avast Recording studios – the studio where such albums as Frenching The Bully by The Gits, Pussy Whipped by Bikini Kill, The Lonesome Crowded West by Modest Mouse and many individual Soundgarden songs were recorded –ed] because the recordings we'd made at Deep Owl were done on Pro Tools. Actually, it was Stuart who gave me the acoustic guitar too; every studio has a beater guitar kicking around, and when I was recording the Hater album with Stuart, I took that guitar and got it repaired for him and then, when Hater was done, Stuart gave me the guitar. That blew my mind, because I thought it was the studio guitar – and he just didn't like to see it getting beaten up like that. Anyway, so we rented Pro Tools from Stuart and finished the album at a different studio, where I was staying on the couch and on the floor with producer Dave French.

“We were all starving to death, but we were making it [chuckling]; we created our own little world out there while we were also making this album.”

The circumstances under which In Deep Owl was made may have been dire, but there's no doubt that the finished results were worth the trouble. Listeners will be stunned as, almost completely unaccompanied, Shepherd accepts and plays to the stoic image he has fostered for the last quarter century, but also completely overshadows it by offering a truly captivating performance. Shepherd's vocal here bears all the marks of a man unaccustomed to being the center of attention (the melody is simple and the singer's delivery is very reserved), but his lyrics are definitely something to get excited about; hard and dark lyrical images manifest like tumultuous thunderheads (check out lines like “Wrap your shawl around your cold shoulders/ Water is deeper than you'd care to swallow/ The further the shoreline, the colder the fire), and listeners will find themselves just waiting to get swept up in a torrent. When added instrumentation is employed, Shepherd first mirrors second wave acoustic grunge like Days Of The New (see “Koda”) before trying on a more modal, almost Lou Reed and Tom Waits-inspired form of vintage rock for “Neverone Blues,” trying on some very Desert rock dust for “Veritas” and going to the deep, deep South for “From The Blue Book” before returning to home with some decidedly 'Seattle' strains on “Baron Robber” and “Keystone.” At every turn, the effects are mesmerizing; while In Deep Owl is very clearly a work in progress as it sees Ben Shepherd moving in a multitude of different directions and examining new sonic possibilities for his music, it leaves nothing to be desired at all. By the time “The Train You Can't Win” rolls through with some really cool and ominous, Zepp-y folk guitar playing (think “Gallows Pole”) and builds ecstatically before receding, Shepherd will have no small number of listeners who were wondering whether this album could really have a chance at being good sold on its quality by the time they reach it's end; In Deep Owl is definitely the type of album that listeners will want to explore more deeply after they discover it, and the kind which will leave those who have heard it waiting anxiously for more. “I can't get over how good it felt, recording the album,” reiterates Shepherd as he remembers back. “It was really coming together, and I really rebuilt a lot of my confidence. I got really into it and actually declared to a couple of people that I was done with playing in bands, I was done with that and keeping this up [laughing]! Then Soundgarden got back together two days before I finished making In Deep Owl, so it had to go on the back burner."

With Soundgarden back and working both as a recording and touring outfit, one might think that would create tensions when it comes to any of the band's members organizing any other outside projects, but Shepherd's mindset is astoundingly clear when it comes to that: Soundgarden comes first, and everything else gets scheduled in around the responsibilities associated with that band. Because of that, according to the bassist, no touring to support In Deep Owl has been scheduled yet, as Soundgarden continues to tour in support of King Animal – but that doesn't mean it will never happen. “I haven't booked anything to play live at all,” exclaims Shepherd. “All these friends of mine who are drummers have said, 'Hey – make a band and I'll play drums for you!' but I haven't thought about it yet. I don't even know if I want to do that; I have a lot of things to get accomplished, but before any of it happens, Soundgarden's European tour takes precedence. This is actually the first European tour in support of King Animal. The last time we were over there, it was really just a re-introduction to say we were back, but now we're going over to present the new music properly. This is the proper tour support for King Animal; we haven't been to Europe since the record came out. That's first and, while we're in Europe, I'm also going to be working on the storyboards for this sixteen millimeter film I want to make for fun but, after we get back, I think the next thing to do would be to focus on Deep Owl or, if Soundgarden's touring again, focus on that next tour and maybe jam some Deep Owl stuff in around it. A lot of how everything plays out will depend on what Soundgarden is doing; how we're going to be supporting King Animal. After I know that, I'll figure out what I'm going to do with the time that isn't spoken for; I've got other songs and projects that I want to do besides this record and Soundgarden, they're all just a matter of timing and getting them all together, and that all started with Deep Owl.

"Making this record really energized me and now I've decided to just keep working on these ideas – but rather than just talking about them or just picking at them, I'm going to see them through from start to finish. I've found that doing them – really engaging with these ideas and learning about how to do them and seeing them through – is how I feel most alive; I love the joy of learning.”



HBS – In Deep Owl – “Baron Robber”

Further Reading:
Ground Control Magazine – HBS –
In Deep Owl [Album review]


In Deep Owl
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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