Out August 27, In Deep Owl is the kind of gritty emotional pastiche that beckons immediate attention. Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd delivers a pensive, poetic, and powerful journey through a sonic wilderness replete with creaky acoustic guitars, punk attitude, haunting vocals, and unforgettable lyrics. It’s one of the most dynamic offerings of 2013, and it’s on par with the legendary songwriter’s most poignant output. Get ready for the ride of a lifetime on Shepherd’s train…
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Ben Shepherd talks In Deep Owl, looks back on Soundgarden’s “Head Down”, discusses movies, and more.
In Deep Owl feels like a complete thought. What was your overall vision for it?
That’s what I was aiming for. It was like a “Where is he now?” type of trip for me. Remember, Soundgarden hadn’t talked or reunited at all when I did that record. I thought, “Wow, I guess I’ll put out songs I want to do now”. It was a reinvigorating thing to pick up my old acoustic I hadn’t played in years and start doing that. I looked at it like each song was a different character on a train. I had these ideas of linking all the train cars together. Each story was its own part of it. I always get more into sound than I actually take time to try and get sound. I hear sounds, and I want to get them. I’m more into textures and sounds than dueling guitar solos. It was more about sounds. I actually lose energy when I do that stuff, if I do it by myself. I had a studio for a while, and I tried to record and get these different ideas down. It helps to have other people around to work with and get sounds with instead of doing it all. It’s way too daunting of a task. I get burned out, and then I settle for whatever. I always wind up feeling like everything I do is amateur and not quite to the goal. That’s also a good thing because it gives you impetus to keep going.
It’s a very visual record, but there’s a mystique to it.
Yeah, it leaves room for you to fill in the blanks yourself. That’s why I didn’t put in the linking musicality. I was just going to tie it all together. There’s a song that was dropped off the record because half the drums weren’t recorded. The mics weren’t on. When we went to mix it, we realized, “Oh my god, that’s why it sounds so weird”. It’s just a faux pas. There’s a whistle in there I’m doing. I have that whistle show up a couple of different times on the album either in feedback or in an actual whistle again. That melody was one of the links. If that one song hadn’t been dropped, you’d hear it and go, “Oh, I know where that comes from. It’s from that one song!” It ties everything together because they all seemed really diverse to me. It seemed like there was no real connecting thread other than my monotone singing or whatever. I was going to put these pieces in between the music in the break of the songs to tie it all together so you realize it’s all one half-baked journey, I guess [Laughs]. I decided not to do that because I wanted the room so every time you listened to it, you could listen to it on its own. That’s getting a little too close to a concept record for me. I prefer the listeners to have their own concepts for it.
How did you tweak the whistle?
On another song, I put this walkie-talkie next to these crystals that feedback really weird. The whistle would feedback at a certain frequency. Then, we held it next to a bed of crystals at the studio and control it. I call it the “Hangman Whistle” on “Stone Pale”. That was the idea. I didn’t pursue that all the way obviously though.
What’s the story behind “Collide”?
That’s just a song to somebody no one knows but me. It’s about how people collide and bounce off each other. There’s a spot on Bainbridge Island where I used to hang out. I’d watch the tide patterns. These two different currents would hit at this one spot. It’s called Skip Point. You could see one break of waves from the shore and another from completely different angle. You’d see where the land and see all mashed together and collided. I always see that shape. That was a hard one to do. I took that one more personally than the other songs. Once we had the music down, Dave French was encouraging me saying, “Man, we’ve got to nail this song, and today would be a great day to finish it”. I didn’t have the vocals or lyrics yet though. Now that I listen back to it, I sing it completely differently on the choruses. I wanted to have another version of it to be used with this other melody that comes through on the choruses. Of course, after all this time, listening back I say, “Well, I could’ve done that way better”. That’s the way it is. That hurt like hell. Playing the mandolin, it’s such a tiny little instrument. You’re all hunched over, coming up with parts, and testing everyone’s patience. You’re playing it over and over, trying to figure out a way to do it. That killed my back after a while. It’s like a sports injury or something. Your fingers go numb.
It’s reminiscent of “Head Down” from Superunknown.
There’s that same feeling to it. “Head Down” was all written right on the spot. For the demo I did, I just hit record and played it all the way through with vocals and everything. Those lyrics were made up on the spot.
If you were to compare the album to a movie or a combination of movies, what would you compare it to?
Somehow, Fantasia mixed with Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch. That’s totally the feeling I had years ago when I made up “Stone Pale”. It reminded me of that. I’ve always had this black and white sometimes psychedelic version of what’s going on.
Did you always envision it this way?
It’s funny. Two days before I was finished, I was telling guys in the studio, “Oh, I’ll never be in another band ever again!” Two days later, Soundgarden reunited [Laughs]. That’s my main gig. I don’t ever want to impede on that. I love the majesty and power of Soundgarden. I love all of those guys in the band. If you see me live, it will most likely be on stage with Soundgarden. That’s the way I feel about it now. Every once in a while, I’ve appeared in other capacities. My friends throw these art shows, and I’ll play a couple of tunes for them. That’s it.
Every show would be different with this.
Exactly! I’m very methodical in thinking about how I would want to do it. Basically, here’s how I look at things. I start with the extreme negative, worst case scenario and I work towards the best case scenario. We try to get the ground zero so it’s a balanced thing that’s worthy and doesn’t fail at its huge expectations. You take it as far as you can, and you get as real as far as you can in the other direction. You try to find a level operable world in there to embellish with sound and the realities and the dreams. It’s a hard balance. A lot of work goes into that.