Soundgarden's Kim Thayil Talks His Band's Legacy, Plus Grunge's Revival and Future.

Categories: Interviews
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Kim Thayil
With the 20th anniversary edition of Nevermind being released earlier this year -- and with the subsequent buzz it churned -- it would seem we are on the brink of a full-blown grunge resurgence.

But what is being somewhat overlooked in all the Nirvana hype is that the early '90s Seattle boom may have never happened if not for Soundgarden, who in 1989 became the first band from that scene to sign with a major label -- a full year before Nirvana ever did.

So, really, Soundgarden's decision to return to touring and to start recording a new album after a 12-year break couldn't have come at a more opportune time.

Because this week's stop at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie will mark 15 years since the band last played in the area, we jumped at the chance to catch up with Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil. Thayil was kind enough to tell us about the band's upcoming album, what Soundgarden song he's most proud of now looking back, and why he would have liked to have been in The Melvins.

When Rolling Stone named you No. 100 on their "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" list, did you feel in any way underrated or were you just appreciative to be on there?
You know, I just did an interview yesterday and they asked the very same question to lead off the bat. It's weird because that Rolling Stone article is like what, seven years ago? Six years ago? You're the only people that have ever asked me that, and it was on consecutive days! I'm just thankful to be on the list when you think about all the great guitarists who weren't on the list. I'm sure everybody shares my opinion when I say there are people on the list who individuals feel probably shouldn't be on the list and there are people who are not on the list who many people feel should be. It's great to be considered. An interesting thing is that I'd guess that 99 was sort of the end of the list and then when they got to number 100 they were like "Oh my God, we have like two dozen other people here. Who do we gotta put on there? Well, we gotta put Thayil on..." I'm glad they considered me.

A lot of things you read on the internet and in print that have been written over the past 10 years have the press kind of coming to a consensus that Soundgarden's breakup was, at least partly, due to your wanting to have a heavy, riff-based style and Chris Cornell wanting to kind of move on and explore other things. How much truth is there to that?
Yeah, that's one of many things that they say out there. As a guitarist, I certainly like that kind of music. But I don't think that would break up a band that had invested so much time emotionally and that had so much social and financial investment. As a band that had been around for 13 years, I don't think that would break it up, really. I also heard there were personnel problems and I read reviews of our records where they said there were substance abuse problems. There were no substance abuse problems, although I did hear there might have been some afterwards. It was simply one of those situations that had outgrown itself. You had four guys that had really strong personalities and you were together for 13 years. That's a long time for a band to be together.

It's longer than The Beatles were together...
Longer than The Beatles, certainly. But not as long as The Rolling Stones -- although there are some people that may say they've exceeded their expiration date.

Is the fact that you guys are back together and working on new material an indicator of some sort of compromise in styles?
No, because then you'd have to agree to the first premise that there was some sort of disagreement in musical style. If you were to accept that, you may be able to infer that there was some sort of compromise. But I don't agree with that first premise, I think, ultimately, it was other things that brought us back together. Mainly, it's tending to our legacy, the catalog, the merchandise, the e-commerce, which was almost completely absent. We had no website or Facebook or MySpace back when MySpace was hot. We had none of that presence, no DVDs out. We had to tend to these things really.

So the reunion really is about doing some sort of service to the fans.
The fans and ourselves. We had always been very attentive to our legacy. We want to keep these records in print. I want to be able to go into a store and find a Soundgarden shirt just like when I was a kid and I could go into a store and buy The Beatles' shirt or any merchandise of a band that broke up before I had an opportunity to discover them. Like Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix died when I was 10, but I didn't start getting into Hendrix until high school. I would have been out of luck had they let those albums go out of print and if I couldn't find Hendrix posters or t-shirts in stores. We just believed in what we were doing. It was totally a collaboration that was met by four creative individuals that shared an artistic vision, and to have that neglected for a decade was of great concern to me and to other members of the band.

Do you think that when you, Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd played together with Tad Doyle a few years ago that it maybe sparked something inside of Chris that made him want to reunite with the rest of you guys?
Yeah, it may have. That certainly was not our intent, though. It was a political and social gathering, a fundraiser for some charities, and there were a number of artists on that bill, including Wayne Kramer from MC5, one of my all-time favorite bands, and Tom Morello of Rage, Audioslave and Street Sweeper Social Club, Steve Earle, too, and a number of others -- and Ben and I were asked to contribute something. We were both individually trying to get some project together and our respective projects fell apart either due to lack of time or rehearsal. We were going to cancel the whole thing and then Tom Morello said, "Hey, do you want to come and do a few songs with me? Let's do 'Spoonman,' since Audioslave had been playing that song." I said that we'd do that, but that we're not going to play in front of Matt since I heard Matt was coming down to the show. If we were going to play it, we were going to play it with him. We asked Matt, he said "Yeah," and that was that. But then we had to find someone to sing it. The funny thing is a number of our friends did not want to take on the challenge of trying to sound like Chris Cornell. We had to explain to them you don't have to sing like Chris, just sing like yourself. Tad was the only one with the balls big enough to take on the challenge. And he sang like Tad. It was a lot of fun.

Are you finding that getting back together and playing shows or being in the studio is as enjoyable as it was 12 years ago?
Every record we've done has been a slightly different experience from previous ones and the recording process has its ups and downs. You do invest a lot emotionally and creatively in it, and it has incredibly profound rewards and satisfactions. It can also have its drawbacks. It's a tough thing. It's like being in love: You have to weigh the benefits versus the stresses and difficulties. It's all a part of the process and it's an exciting and pleasurable process as a whole.

With the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, Ten, and Badmotorfinger all happening this year it seems like there is a renewed interest in grunge music in the media. Do you feel like there is going to be a resurgence of people making this kind of music as well?
It's bound to happen anyways. There's something cyclical about those influential musics. They seem to always stay in the public eye because they're influencing musicians. That's one thing about our band in particular; we've influenced a lot of guitar players, drummers and singers. We influence many experimental and arty bands and outsider music as well as more mainstream popular rock bands. That is one of the greatest achievements of our legacy -- to meet guys in young bands and girls that are guitarists because they are inspired by us, to meet teenagers who are getting into high school band or jazz band because they're picking up bass or guitar and Soundgarden is one of their favorite bands. That's great. To have that sort of influence and encouragement amongst musicians and songwriters is very important. I personally don't understand why most musicians or artists don't see that as an important goal of what they're doing. That's always been important to what we were doing. We would like to be like that band that had influence on us -- like the MC5 or The Stooges, The Ramones or Aerosmith. We would like to be that band for up-and-coming musicians as well as our contemporaries. And we have been. It's as if we have met many of our goals and to have achieved this particular aspect of being in a creative and original band.

What Soundgarden song are you most proud of now?
That's so tough, given the six albums of original material and seventh on the way -- and all the songs from soundtracks that haven't been compiled onto an album, and the B-sides album which we've been threatening to release since the mid- to late-'90s, and believe me it's still coming. Consistently, the song "Slaves and Bulldozers" really embodies a lot of that spirit that I think has been with Soundgarden since its inception, through its career and to where we are now. It has its heavy element, it has a very loose, wild and chaotic free element to the way the song was performed; it's got a cool groove, it's got swagger, it's sexy. It might stigmatize it to say it's got this macho swagger, but I say two thumbs up. It has this oddball quality to it, this weirdness which has always been a characteristic of the individuals in the band and of the band collectively. And it has its freeness. I think that embodies many of the elements that we've regarded in outsider popular music, and it embodies us. That's a tough question to get asked. Now I feel like I'm speaking to a school counselor having to explain my behavior! [Laughs.]

When Down on the Upside came out I remember noticing that you didn't write as many of those songs as you did on previous albums.
Right, I contributed less. But it was the first time in this band that I had ever written both lyrics and music to a song [in "Never the Machine Forever"].

On the new album you're working on now, are you contributing more?
Yeah, I'm definitely contributing more. With guitar bands, fans want to hear the guitarist's ideas as a song. But the good thing about Soundgarden is that everybody in the band writes songs on guitar. The drummer Matt writes songs on guitar. He's not introducing songs on drums or piano or anything. Even our bass player Ben: As opposed to introducing songs on bass, he primarily introduces songs on guitar. So I'm the guy that has to learn everybody's guitar nuances and styles and play their songs. So regardless of whether it's me or the other guys in the band, we are a guitar-based band. I am contributing more, but I think the good news is that everybody is contributing.

If Soundgarden had never happened what other band(s) from that era and location would you have wanted to be in?
If I looked at our peers nationally or internationally, I might include some of the bands from SST and Touch and Go Records and Homestead. I don't know if you remember many of the bands that were on Homestead Records; it was a label in the '80s that included bands like Big Black and Sonic Youth and Live Skull, Swans, Squirrel Bate, Phantom Tollbooth. There were a couple of Seattle bands on that label -- U-Men and Green River. The guy who ran that label went to go and head up Matador Records. But if I had to refine it to just our regional peers, it would very likely be The Melvins because they've kept that sort of outsider spirit going and they're incredibly heavy. At the time, they were very risk-taking in their approach to both slow, heavy music and fast music. It's guitar-oriented, so it's going to appeal to my sensibilities and my instrument. They don't have a badly-arranged brass section behind them, which is very popular these days. A lot of the bands that I listen to these days sort of sound like The Melvins and perhaps would cite The Melvins or Soundgarden as an influence along with various other bands. I would have also liked to have been in a band like Malfunkshun. When they were playing slow and heavy, they had that feel that The Melvins had at the time, but they also played very fast and chaotically. Later in their career, they started embracing more of these beautiful elements like psychedelic music. But there's a natural progression in their growth that I think could have paralleled Soundgarden for part of its career.

What's in your CD player right now?
The CD player is empty! [Laughs.] But underneath the CD player is a stack of a few discs -- mostly demos and rough mixes of our sessions. Then right on top of that are a couple of demos from a few friends of mine. One is a record by Ben's nephew, a local three-piece punk rock group called Sick Secrets. It's just a half dozen tracks of Buzzcocks-influenced hardcore. My buddy Reyza [Sageb], who did the booklet for Superunknown and who did the Hater album cover and the Deep Six album cover, he's got a demo that I have. It's sort of a mix of new age, hippie music with some doom and industrial sampling elements combined. But of the actually published, commercially-released records is the Void/Faith album that was just sent to me by Dischord Records. Ian MacKaye sent me a copy of the Void demos, which was a great hardcore band from '82. I happen to be friends with their guitarist Bubba Dupree, who lives here in Seattle. Ian sent me their new CD as well as an updated CD version of the Void/Faith album -- a hardcore classic. On the vinyl release, one side was an album by a band called Faith, which had Ian's brother in it, and the flipside was a band called Void which had a guitarist named Bubba Dupree, who was like 14 at the time. He played the shit out of the guitar. The re-release has some bonus material from Faith on it. That first song on the Void album called "Who Are You" will just make your head spin. You'll say, "Wow, who the hell is this?" and they were, like, these 14-year-olds in 1982 this amazing band.

Soundgarden and Mastodon perform Wednesday, October 26, at Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie

Location Info

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Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie

1001 Performance Place, Grand Prairie, TX

Category: Music


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