Ben Shepherd might be best known as the bassist in Soundgarden from 1991's Badmotorfinger to present, but the multi-instrumentalist has always been an unsung songwriting talent and -- aside from a brief hiatus, he's always been putting out tunes. The most recent addition to the canon? His debut solo album, In Deep Owl, under the initials HBS. "If I stop recording, then that means I’m dead," Shepherd told Hive. "So hopefully, it’s an ongoing thing." We second that.
Although this is Shepherd's first solo record, the musician has been writing songs for years. In Soundgarden alone, he penned some of its best B-sides, including but certainly not limited to, “Face Pollution” on Badmotorfinger; “Head Down” and “Half” on Superunknown; “Dusty,” “Ty Cobb,” and “Never Named” on Down on the Upside; and “Non-State Actor” and “Taree” on King Animal.
Shepherd also participated in a host of other projects in the 1990s and early 2000s, including Hater and Wellwater Conspiracy (with SG bandmate Matt Cameron) and instrumental contributions on a few Mark Lanegan solo albums.
Now, Shepherd has struck out on his own with In Deep Owl —an album written before Soundgarden’s 2010 reunion that was intended as a “Where is he now?” letter to the world.
A guitarist by trade, Shepherd is naturally more experimental with six strings -- and it shows. In Deep Owl is a rangy debut, presenting different characters and stories with each tune. And from song to song, the songwriter is as diverse vocally as he is musically, drawing raspy shades of good friend Mark Lanegan or Morphine’s Mark Sandman.
Hive spoke with Shepherd about songwriting devolution, diverse vocal influences, caricaturizing your music, and learning as pleasure, not punishment. Check out our Q&A below:
When you began recording In Deep Owl, it was intended to be a return from the “musical wilderness.” How eager were you to write/record music again, and were all of this album’s songs intended to be solo material from the get-go?
It’s definitely a solo thing -- there’s no band. That’s why I did every instrument except drums on it (and contrabass). It was never intended for anyone else. I actually thought no one would ever hear it or care about it. Even when I was recording it, I didn’t think that anyone would ever hear it or care about it. It’s definitely a personal thing—making a record is a personal thing.
Was there a period of time where you stopped playing or writing music?
Yeah, well…you never really stop. But after we got robbed [in 2008] and all my [gear] was stolen, I thought, “Bah, whatever…that’s what the world thinks of me. Fuck it—I’m not going to play.” So I wound up accidentally becoming a grunt or an assistant carpenter for somebody for a while. That was a drag.
Did you think that your career as a professional musician might be over?
I still do!
You’ve talked about how the drums from Matt Cameron and Matt Chamberlain turned this into a louder album. Did that affect the songs compositionally and structurally?
The real badass drummer on there is Joseph Braley, who played on “Baron Robber.” That song was made up on the spot for him to play drums to. So yeah, that definitely affected [things]—I thought that it would just be me, my bass, and my guitar. No drums—just stepping in bogs for drum tracks, walking in the mud [and using] mud puddles for cymbals.
Then Cameron asked if he could play on it. He picked “The Great Syrup Accident” and nailed it after listening to it once. Matt Chamberlain said, “Hey, I want to play on a song.” He picked “Neverone Blues” and nailed it. They both did it in one take, and those are weird songs structurally, trying to hit it on time. I told [drummer] Greg [Gilmore], “Make up a drum beat and play it until you want to stop. I’m going to play this song [‘Veritas’] over it.” Definitely, the drummers were an integral part in changing the direction of the record.
There’s another part of “Koda,” because “Koda” is actually four songs. That’s how I tricked Matt: he drummed to one version of the song, and then I turned that music off and recorded a completely different song over the same drum tracks. He was like, “Whoa! Who does the drums on that song?” I’m like, “That’s you! That’s why you like it, because you don’t recognize it.” And “Koda” is actually the coda to “Stone Pale.”
You have mandolin, saxophone, and upright bass on the album. Is there anything else on there that might surprise people? Any unusual tunings?
I played clavinet on “Keystone.” It was the real thing—a beat-up, old, dusty, perfectly working clavinet, just sitting in the studio. I thought, “Damn, this thing is cool.” I had those [croaking] frogs [from “Koda”] for years on tape. That’s the kind of stuff that I was talking about instead of drummers; I would have had that as a rhythm track.
[Regarding tunings] it was all A417. When you listen to the tone of the Earth, which is random as hell, it’s very close to that. I just naturally tune my guitars way down, and that’s where it ended up being. They record the tone of the Earth from outer space—that’s as close to the A as you can have. I just naturally tune that way.
You’ve said that you never found your voice as a singer—that you’re almost channeling a different person from song to song. Can you talk about who or what has influenced you the most as a singer, in general and for this album?
I liked how The Beatles sang—each one of them sang a little bit different. George [Harrison] had both the growl and the choirboy. I like the slang and the attitude of Mick Jagger when I was a little kid. Then later on, Johnny Rotten, all of the singers of Black Flag minus Henry [Rollins], Darby Crash, Johnny Cash. Then I got into blues singers -- I always liked how Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sang, and Howlin’ Wolf of course.
Then there are different levels of singing that I call “real” singers, like Van Morrison when he was in Them—one of my favorite singers of all time. For modern-time “real singers,” Mark Lanegan and Chris Cornell are two of my favorites. I really always like the guy from Rudimentary Peni -- he’s a great singer too. And of course, I prefer Tony Bennett over Frank Sinatra any day of the week—same with Tom Jones. Basically, I think that Sinatra gets too much credit. Bing Crosby rules, the Mills Brothers rule. And Scott Walker is another great influence. Early Bee Gees records like Trafalgar—that’s a great record for singing. Leon Redbone is cool in his own ways, as is Captain Beefheart. But I’d say that Iggy Pop is probably the singer of them all, besides David Bowie, who has influenced me more than anybody, because it’s just straight-up raw and real.
So all of those guys [are options] when I go to sing. I’ve never had my own voice. And no matter what I say or what I do, people go, “You sound like this person. You must be influenced by them.” And I go, “Oh, really? Because that’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, that’s not motherfuckin’ Mark Lanegan.”
When I was doing Soundgarden or Hater stuff before, I tried to sing like a little kid more often than not because it’s more disturbing. So it all depends on the song. The songs on In Deep Owl are all supposed to be different characters, so they’re all supposed to sing differently. And every guitar player is a different guitar player, even though it’s me playing.
“Okay, I’m this kind of lead-guitar player,” mentally I would tell myself, “or I’m this kind of bass player in this kind of band presenting this kind of song.” It lets out the actor in me. So when it comes out and it’s done, I actually feel more disconnected. I haven’t been really real yet. I haven’t found my voice yet.
The fun part about making the record was people saying, “This is going to be on the same record that we just heard?” It doesn’t diversify or change up as much as I wanted it to -- it’s not as extremely different from song to song as I wanted it to be. I’ve learned one thing over the years of recording records: Always go more exaggerated than you think. Always go lighter loudly, and go loudly quieter than you think. You have to caricaturize. You have to blow it up.
Can you talk about your evolution as a songwriter during your tenure in Soundgarden, Hater, and Wellwater Conspiracy? How did your contributions change, and how has that affected your “solo life”?
I was surprised that [Soundgarden] ever even let me bring the songs in, when I think about it. (Laughs) And all the weird tunings are what I brought to the band more than anything.
I feel less evolved as a songwriter. I was very, very prolific back in the early ’90s. I have a ton of different tunes, a ton of different styles, a ton of different tunings and attitudes that I’ve never put out. That’s why I put out this record: I wanted to have an avenue. And if bandmates hear my songs and want to play them, fine. But no pussyfooting on that—no half-assed attempts at doing anything. Because I love playing their songs. I want to go full bore into them.
Besides pushing back the release, did the Soundgarden reunion affect In Deep Owl?
Chris [Cornell] was the first one to hear it. Actually, Chris knew about it because I called him and Lanegan because I was scared to be a vocalist and do my own record. I called them both for support and said, “If I get really stuck, will you help me?” And they both said, “Sure, of course.” As friends, they were there to support me. Even though they weren’t there in the studio, they were there at the other end of the phone if I needed it. They’re fuckin’ real, and they’re two of the coolest guys that you could ever meet in the world.
Once I knew that I had their support, I was okay—I wasn’t in a panic mode. I got into a weird headspace where I started panicking, like, “Fuck—I’m running out of time to finish this record.”
Is this an ongoing project? Have you written more solo material in the past few years?
Yeah, because if I stop recording, then that means I’m dead. So hopefully, it’s an ongoing thing. Two days before Soundgarden reunited, I told everyone, “I’ll never be in another band again. This is too taxing alone.” Thinking back on all of the shit you go through to record a record with other people, it was like, “Fuck this, man.”
But that was just one of my moods. And then two days later, Soundgarden reunited. Going back to a band that wasn’t a new one—I can progress from there again. I have tons of other projects that I want to do, musically. I’ve always had this one band in mind that I want to make, but I don’t know who the players are yet. I absolutely know the sound and feel of it.
On the flight home from England after the Soundgarden tour, I wrote down the lyrics for at least five completely different-styled songs [for solo material]. So I’m going to already start working on those next week.
I’m happy with [In Deep Owl]. I’ve made a lot of friends who helped to put it out. It’s really cool, going out from the streets and back in the music world. It’s been really enriching. I know a hell of a lot more than I ever wanted to, and there’s still a learning curve. I really like learning. I just heard a quote the other night about that: “Learning should be a pleasure, not a punishment.” And that’s what it’s been.
I know the difference of having to get up in the morning and sling a fucking hammer at 6:30 a.m. when you’re aching and sore, rather than waking up at 9:30 in the morning to go play a song on a microphone. It’s such a big difference in life, and I’m totally lucky to get to do this. I do not take it for granted.
In Deep Owl is out now on INGROOVES.