Last year, guitarist Kim Thayil — along with drummer Matt Cameron, bassist Ben Shepherd and singer-guitarist Chris Cornell — reunited the influential Seattle band Soundgarden, the band that served as grunge's gateway. Its early Sub Pop EPs led to a deal with SST and later A&M — it was one of the first Seattle scene bands to sign with a major label, with Pearl Jam and Nirvana following shortly. The band split apart in 1997 after releasing their last studio album, Down on the Upside. The band is writing and performing again, and it headlines the 2011 Voodoo Experience this weekend. (Read the full Gambit story on the band here.)
The band performs at 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28 on the Voodoo stage.
Below, read the Gambit interview with Thayil, and his thoughts as a "guitar hero," the Beatles, Elton John and "ambient metal."
GAMBIT: The first thing that popped in my head, for some reason, when I saw I’d be speaking with you, I remembered Rolling Stone’s greatest guitarists issue...
KT: (laughs) Wait, how long ago was that? Four years ago, five years, something like that?
I’ve seen... I’m not sure if you’ve seen (Conan), sometimes they do these skits, where he’s in another room and he’s like communicating online, doing a parody of a blogger — he’s insecure but communicating his thoughts — and in the background he’s got that cover framed, you know the Hendrix photo, that says "100 greatest guitarists." That was eight years ago? God.
You were at 100, and I remember there’s a great big photo in there with you on the first page…
Yeah, that’s kind of weird. Yeah, I remember that. I remember, "100, all right!" I guess what would’ve been more uncomfortable, I think the worst, most uncomfortable position would’ve been 99. "What does that mean?" ... At 99 you’re like, it’s like the end of the list. "Put this guy at 99." Of the people I would’ve put on the list but didn’t make it I think it’s very flattering to have made it. Of course there’s some people on the list I probably would’ve thought, "Shouldn’t they be like on a singer songwriter list instead of this?"
But you feel you stacked up OK on that list.
Yeah (laughs). 100, I’m thinking there probably are three or four dozen people like, "Aw shit, yeah, we got to get Kim in there." So, cool. ... Yeah, I’m glad I’m on the list. I mean… I personally think everybody on that list, being a professional entertainer and has some kind of ego and sit there and think, "I’m better than him."
Or, "Hell yeah, I’m 43!"
(laughs) Yeah. You think the people, in your mind, who you’re better than, but you don’t think about the people who are probably better than you who didn’t make the list. But if you got a big ego than you might think how, you know, you compare yourself to people who you think you’re better than. But I think if you look at the elements… there are so many things. You also have to praise the genre. What if the guy writing it just really hates flamenco music, or has something with that ‘Satanic heavy metal,’ they might leave off some really great metal players, because they don’t think it’s as important or an influential genre.
How’d you first get into playing heavier music?
I had a related conversation probably on Friday, a few days ago. I heard the song, I was with some friends, I heard the song "Paperback Writer" by the Beatles and I was thinking, "You know what, I loved this song when I first heard it when I was seven or eight." The same thing with "Day Tripper." I remember going to visit my grandmother in India when I was eight years old. My cousins had a Beatles Yesterday and Today. I liked the Beatles, but I didn’t really know how albums worked. I didn’t know how the song on the radio ended up… "Maybe it’s on this album. Oh, there’s another side?" And I heard "Day Tripper," and I played that thing over and over again. I finally had to be taken away from the stereo, and I’d wake up the next day, go and take that record out again when no one’s around, put it on, put the needle down all over the record until I found "Day Tripper" — "Where is it? How does this work?"
But that was sort of your intro into guitar-based music?
It’s the first time I actually got to play with the stereo, and album. So I’m looking at the cover, and the cover doesn’t necessarily have the songs written in sequence. The label does, or the inner sleeve. It was just… so natural. I was having this conversation a few days ago, saying "Paperback Writer" and "Day Tripper" are just immediately… it wasn’t "Hey Jude" or any of the more vocally oriented songs, or the ballad-y songs. These riffs, in my mind I understood them to be fast, and heavy. It was almost immediate. The only other thing that had a similar appeal were some of the psychedelic imagery, both musically and lyrically, of some Beatles songs, like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." That’s probably the case with a lot of kids. A lot of kids like things that were probably reminiscent of their nursery rhymes, or kid's books.
There’s a weird crossover appeal with this loopy, psychedelic imagery and what you’d see in a kid’s book.
Definitely. You probably had the books read to you by your mom or dad when you were a kid, start reading them on your own, then certainly the Beatles, I don’t know if they were doing that consciously, which would’ve been cynical, but I think they had kids, they were writing songs for their kids, that were reminiscent of the stories they were reading to them. "Bungalow Bill," "Rocky Raccoon," "Lucy in the Sky" — that had an appeal as a kid. Some of that appeal went away as I got older. But there’s other psychedelic elements you take with you.
I think when I first started playing guitar — man, I liked that heaviness, and I understood it mostly in individual songs. I didn’t understand it in terms of bands, or records. I’d hear it in a Yes riff, like "Roundabout." Or Elton John, like "Crocodile Rock" or "Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting." Even in sixth grade, that song "Hold Your Head Up" by Argent. Amazing. That wasn’t a fast riff. It just had this dark, heavy feel to it. I think eventually when I started playing guitar, at some point I understood there were bands who thematically and consistently did that kind of music I liked, besides the Beatles. There were bands who had that heavy guitar stuff, if you bought the record you wouldn’t have that one cool song, and a bunch of ballads or a bunch of pop songs. You’d have a bunch of songs in that style. There were bands who played a certain style and genre. So eventually that was a big revelation — realizing there were hard rock and metal bands like Sabbath and Kiss. When I eventually started playing guitar the biggest influence were the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. It was loud, it was distorted, it was fast.
Easy to learn.
Since Soundgarden had split, you were doing some heavier stuff with Sunn O))) and Boris, and Dave Grohl.
I did that stuff while the band was broken up. I think besides me Matt has some interest in some of those bands. I don’t know if Ben or Chris are as well versed in that dark psychedelia, or doom or whatever they call it. "Ambient metal."
It’s interesting hearing you go from more song-oriented stuff to a heavier realm. Now you guys are writing again, are you coming from that background?
We’re definitely putting on the shoes that fit, the four of us. It’s interesting you bring that up, because over the past decade or so I’ve certainly gone in the direction of more heavy and also freer — elements of chaos of wildness I’ve always liked in music. It’s amazing I never outgrew it, more so now than when I was in college or high school, more so now than in Soundgarden’s heyday. But that’s me. I’m a guitarist. I think singers are going to orient things toward their voice and lyrics, you know. I might’ve brought some of that element to the new material, but that element is going to be limited by the format of a song.
Are you writing together?
Yeah. There’s individual compositions, certainly. Chris has done very well over the years writing solo compositions, where he’s writing the music and lyrics. He brings it to the band, and we twist it around and add our flavor to it. But there’s also collaborative songs on this. I think probably one of the earliest… I can’t really speculate, but if things are going the way we’ve been talking, one of the earliest songs we release will be a collaboration where we all wrote. It came about out of an idea of Matt’s. We all contributed some music, Chris came up with the lyrics afterwards. It’s funny you should bring up that ambient, psychedelic stuff. That goes back to the conversation about the Beatles, where I liked the heavy and fast, and that sort of psychedelic element, that dark psychedelia is certainly present in some of the early records of Boris, and Sunn O))), and bands like Om. You get the heavy, you get the trippy. It’s excellent.
Yeah. I just saw Earth for the first time the other day…
Wow, wasn’t that beautiful? The last few times I’ve seen them, not only is it heavy, it’s beautiful. It’s floral. There’s this crystal clarity to the sound, to the stage mix. You can hear the individual notes and arpeggios. They just kind of shimmer.
There’s little distortion, and there’s clarity, and it’s still just as heavy.
Their earlier stuff, like Earth 2 and Pentastar — it’s all distortion and feedback. It’s just amazing. Those guys are great. But they’re never going to benefit from radio play, are they. Their songs are too long, not vocally oriented.
A 15-minute track I don’t think will get on there.
So they’re dependent on people like you. You might play with your friends, put it on and just stare out the window and stare at the rain.
I guess with Earth, and Pearl Jam, Nirvana, are all being revisited, reissued, and sort of made aware again of the impact of those bands. And now Soundgarden. What’s that experience been like, seeing your band and these bands, from more of “legends” treatment?
It’s kind of strange, once you notice that, you know, on the Internet and various, you know, websites, "Legend?" You start seeing those references, I thought "What the hell happenened? We really exist, we’re here, what’s going on?" I think there’s a new generation of writers that understand us in a different context. Like you, you were perhaps too young to have seen us, at a time we were selling a bunch of records and touring a lot. So the context would be different for you guys. For us it’s all gradual. We were around for 13 years, we took time off, people are doing other things. But in the meantime, you have people writing, doing radio, new bands I’ve met, either saw us as kids because their big brother or dad took them, or they never had a chance to see us because we broke up. To us, those rites of passage, those milestones in our life are minimal. We broke up, we were in our mid 30s, now we’re in our late 40s, or in my case, 50 (laughs). But what goes on in that period of time? Some people have kids. When you’re younger it’s like, a lot of stuff has happened. You’ve gone from elementary school to, like, driving, maybe voting, maybe having your first sexual experiences, first drug experiences, maybe forming your own band, maybe getting jobs for the first time, there’s a significant change in that decade for people who were in their 20s, or maybe in their 30s, then maybe people who are now in their 40s or so. There’s a lot.
There’s a lot of growth on both ends of the spectrum, and I guess the natural 20-year-later retrospective is inevitable, to kind of frame it.
(Laughs) Yeah. Like, Pearl Jam never stopped, they’ve been consistently making records. The 20-year retrospective… the emphasis… (laughs) I’ve done a few interviews where people are bringing that up to us. They wanted us to be a part of the 20th anniversary of grunge. I said "Look, it was the debut of Pearl Jam’s Ten." So it’s the 20th anniversary of Pearl Jam, or 20th anniversary of what is significant to record companies: Ten, the huge selling album. With Nirvana, it wasn’t their debut album. When they say the 20th anniversary of grunge, they often mean the 20th anniversary of the mass media — radio station, press — becoming aware of Nirvana, usurping Michael Jackson, many other pop icons, on the charts, which is not so much of a rare thing anymore, but was a big deal then. But it was their second album, and they had a made a few EPs in between. So it wasn’t the debut of Nirvana, I was the debut of Nevermind, which is significant to the RIAA and record sales. And for us, it was out (third) album, Badmotorfinger. We’d been together since 1984. "Sorry, man we’d been together for seven years." We’d made four records, done a number of tours in U.S. and Europe. So I kind of bowed out of some of those 20th anniversaries. "You want me to do the footwork for Nirvana Nevermind and it’s not even their first record? Not their debut?"
So what spurred the reunion?
You know it’s just a matter of time. I think the initial thing was tending to a neglected catalog and merchandising. We had some records that had gone out of print, we had lots of fans and friends of friends who had kids that said, "Hey man, we were at the store and we couldn’t find any Soundgarden T-shirts or posters." And we had no e-presence, or Internet presence. We didn’t have a MySpace page or Facebook. There’s a Wikipedia entry for us. We didn’t have a website. "Let’s take care of these things, guys." But that was not anything we really considered before. Matt’s busy with Pearl Jam, Chris is doing his solo stuff. These guys had time available to them.
So as a posterity kind of thing?
No, not posterity. It was neglect. Would’ve been decades of neglect. The band’s legacy has always been very, very important to me. It’s a paramount issue since we were younger. It’s, like, well look… I’d always look at how the records would be perceived. It’s like, my record collection. You want to make sure the record company would treat them with a degree of regard or reverence as you would, as one would. What had happened was — without getting too much into detail about the financial, management, legal things — there’s a decades-long neglect. After the band broke up, no one was… I was the guy who would oversee the catalog. But a lot of things happened. The band broke up, a few years later, the record company A&M dissolved ... and everyone we worked with there either quit or was fired, everyone was almost gone from A&M. That made it really difficult because the record label no longer existed. And then management — our manager, that would be Chris’ wife at the time, ex-wife now of many years — she managed Alice in Chains as well, and Alice in Chains went on hiatus and was no longer, and she became a mom. The management company went from being this vital thing dealing with a few prominent bands to being a post office box and a voicemail. So the maintenance of Soundgarden’s catalog… look, even the Beatles have been broken up for 40 years. They still have T-shirts and posters and records and books out there, they still have a catalog and shared interest and properties. Jimi Hendrix, man, he’s been dead just as long, they’re still making records and everything. So nobody is minding that store. I like to think it as a museum than as a store, because I don’t want to be cynical about it. That’s the way I see it. I see these things as valuable, as something we accomplished by recording these albums, writing these records, overseeing the design of these album covers and shirts. So, that was it. Band was gone, record company was gone, management was gone. There was nobody looking after the fact that we don’t have DVDs out or a website. These were the things bringing us back to the table. There’s some little more time available, there’s some management interest, saying "Hey guys, look what you haven’t been paying attention to." We’re like, "Yes, we know, let’s get this going." That really was the impetuous to get us working and talking, to pay attention to that. Unreleased things — some which is still yet to come out. Unreleased songs, unreleased tapes, compilations. We definitely want to get these things out there. We will. At first we were probably a little eager — "We’ll get this stuff out in five years!" I imagine it’ll take a little bit longer, ‘cause now we’re making new records (laughs).