Soundgarden's Kim Thayil: "We Have Never Made a Record That Sucked"
Michael Lavine Soundgarden
Along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden completed the classic grunge rock trifecta that emerged from Seattle in the mid-'80s. Fronted by the hunky Chris Cornell and featuring the blistering guitar work of Kim Thayil, Soundgarden found a large audience on the strength of intense and brooding songs such as "Black Hole Sun" and "Jesus Christ Pose."
From a tour stop in Boston and in anticipation for Sunday's performance with Nine Inch Nails at the Gexa Energy Pavilion, Thayil spoke with DC9 at Night about Soundgarden's 30-year career and how even a decade-long hiatus couldn't diminish the band's fanbase.
DC9 at Night: Isn't this the 30th anniversary for the band?
Kim Thayil:Yes, the anniversary will be in early September. That's in five or six weeks. That's kind of crazy to think about. You look back at some things in your life and it seems like a long time. But others seem like a shorter amount of time. With the band, it's hard to believe it's been 30 years. Other things feel like it's been 30 years, but not the band.
Of course, the band broke up from 1997 to 2010. Why break up and why have a reunion?
It was easy to get back together because there was no reason to break up. I don't think there was any reason other than our own personal interests. The band had been together a long time and had run its course. Maybe we were a little bit burnt out. There wasn't an individual issue. The band was getting to be too much at the time. There were other things going on in our lives. That's all. Bands break up all of the time. Couples break up all of the time. People get fired or quit their jobs all of the time.
Not too many people get divorced and then remarry.
There are a few. One of our sound men, his parents did that.
Who made the first phone calls in order to get back together?
I don't remember. These things may be significant to fans, but I don't think anyone really remembers. I don't think it is a particularly significant thing for us. It was a gradual process of various conversations. We have too many mutual friends in common. We would always see each other. There were some discussions about our catalogue and merchandise. There were discussions about our online store presence. We were probably talking individually with managers and lawyers. Once we got some sponsorship concerns addressed, then collectively we discussed these and other issues. That led to discussions over time and there you go.
The band released King Animal in 2012. Are you working on a new album?
No, we can't have another album in the works because we are so busy touring. We are supporting King Animal. When we are done touring and when [drummer] Matt Cameron is done working with Pearl Jam, we will sit down and get something done. That should be in 2015.
When you recorded King Animal, were you worried the fans might have moved on?
We recorded King Animal in 2011 and we felt confident in our fan base. We knew that from the support we got for our previous releases. We released Telephantasm which was a retrospective album, a greatest hits package. We were aware that the strong fan base remained. We feel confident that if the four of us all like an album, it's going to do well. We don't have one member who is deciding the composition of an album. You should know who I am talking about, but I am not going to name names. We have four guys who write songs here. We have four guys contributing material without someone calling bullshit on it. You follow me? There are many bands out there that are led by one guy who does all the writing? He might have some religious epiphany or some psychedelic experience and he will write all this material that can very easily suck. And the rest of his band feels like they have to play it. That is not Soundgarden. Consequently, we have never made a record that sucked.
When Rolling Stone magazine listed the hundred greatest guitar players, you were the final entry. How did you feel about that?
At least I wasn't 101. A lot of people didn't make the list that should have and a lot of people probably shouldn't have made the list. I think they were measuring more than one aspect of guitar playing. It's like getting into fucking college. You know universities give benefits to athletes all the time. The give legacy benefits to people all of the time. It's a hypocrisy and it's bullshit that people believe. With a guitarist, are you measuring proficiency? Are you measuring influence? Is it influence with your peers? Is it influence with your fans? There are so many elements that a person has to appraise. I think the list did its job as it sparked debate.
Superunknown from 1994 was the band's first number one album. Was it something specific that helped you connect to a larger audience?
I think there are some great songs on that record that had a dark, psychedelic feel. There were some nice arrangements, like on "Black Hole Sun," that came out like tight, little packages. Those were radio-friendly songs that had heavy and dark elements. Those kinds of sounds were becoming more popular on the radio and in the culture of that time. Bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins were using the same style. I think there definitely was room for a band like us that had a darker vision.
When the band decided to sign with A&M Records in 1989, the fan reaction was fairly divided.
It may have been. We had made a couple of indie records. We had earned our stripes touring the U.S. and Europe. We did all that on our own. Then, we got a chance to be on a major label. And that preceded signing with A&M. We were approached by labels before that and we declined. We wanted to work with Subpop and SST. We were establishing an audience on our own. I don't think too many people cared about us going to a major label at that point. Hüsker Dü had preceded us. Then Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers all went to major labels. There is no reason why people would single us out at that point.
What was the band's reaction when the video for "Jesus Christ Pose" got banned by MTV?
I don't remember that being very significant. They didn't want to show it because there were some crosses in the video. We had some imagery including a burning cross. It's funny because a few months later, Madonna did a video with lots of crosses and they played it. I don't think they thought what we did was blasphemous. I don't fucking care what people think is blasphemous when it comes to superstition. It's all about their delusions. There were commercial benefits for MTV to work with Madonna. There were not commercial benefits to commit to outrage with us. I am not sure how people interpret or receive our songs. There is so much variance in the way that people respond.
Did you receive death threats due to that song?
I didn't. That sounds like some kind of exaggeration or apocrypha. There were some minor protests. Who knows if some record company's publicity department didn't invent that?