Band reunions typically are last gasps for glory. They're often short-lived, poorly received, quick grabs for cash. In the case of Soundgarden, the band needed help rescuing its library from more than a decade of neglect — from its out-of-print back catalog to getting T-shirts back into record stores, things you'd expect a band like Soundgarden to have available just about anywhere.
"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," says guitarist Kim Thayil.
While Soundgarden's contemporaries Pearl Jam and Nirvana received their respective "20th anniversary" reissues this year, Soundgarden — preceding both bands by several years and albums — is writing music again, together, for the first time in 15 years.
Thayil's been politely dodging adding his two cents to the Pearl Jam and Nirvana retrospective. After all, Badmotorfinger, released the same year as Pearl Jam's Ten and Nirvana's Nevermind, was Soundgarden's third album — not exactly a freshman effort or a rookie in the same Seattle scene.
"We'd been together since 1984. 'Sorry, man, we'd already been together for seven years.' We'd made four records, done a number of tours in the U.S. and Europe. So I kind of bowed out of some of those 20th anniversaries," Thayil says with a laugh. "You want me to do the footwork for Nirvana Nevermind and it's not even their first record? Not their debut?"
In January 1990 on the MTV Headbanger's Ball, Riki Rachtman asked, "What's the rock 'n' roll scene like out in Seattle?" Sitting to his right on the couch were Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell and Thayil. "It's boss. It's better than anywhere else," Cornell answered. Nirvana had released its debut LP Bleach on Sub Pop, and Pearl Jam was a year away from its debut album Ten — half its members were still in Mother Love Bone, and Eddie Vedder was still in California. Soundgarden, meanwhile, had already released two EPs for Sub Pop and an album for SST (1988's Ultramega OK), and it had a major label debut, 1989's Louder Than Love.
Rachtman, with teased hair and puffy shirt, also asked, "You think that we're going to start to get a real big scene coming from Seattle?"
Soundgarden crafted the "Seattle sound" template, borrowing from punk rock and plunging into the murky, droning depths of post-Black Sabbath heavy metal. Thayil is Soundgarden's dark psychedelic low-end warlock, whose guitar summons overdriven, apocalyptic riffs — the loudest nail driven into the hair metal coffin — coupled with Cornell's piercing wail, was a thunderous alarm to their rock peers.
Cornell and Thayil founded Soundgarden in 1984. Thayil arrived at heavy metal and punk as any teenager in the '70s would: Ramones, Sex Pistols, KISS, Black Sabbath.
Thayil remembers finding a copy of the Beatles' Yesterday and Today at his grandmother's home in India. He dragged the needle across the record searching for his favorite song, "Day Tripper."
"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," he says. "These riffs, in my mind I understood them to be fast, and heavy. It was almost immediate. ... 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.' 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."
In the early '80s, Thayil — whose brooding, dark guitar psychedelics set the tone for Soundgarden's arc as the pre- and post-grunge figurehead — moved from Illinois to Seattle, where he met Cornell. Soundgarden's Sub Pop debut EPs sparked the interest of major labels, and, to the dismay of the Seattle scene's in-crowd, Soundgarden was the first "grunge" band to sign with one.
1991's Badmotorfinger had the misfortune of following Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten, both immensely accessible breakthroughs that took "grunge" out of Seattle. The ambitious, dissonant Badmotorfinger (paired with the alienating single "Jesus Christ Pose") was supposed to follow suit.
With 1994's Superunknown, the band embraced a wider audience while discretely miring itself further in dark imagery and heavy, psychedelic mysticism. On the breakthrough (and inescapable) single "Black Hole Sun," Cornell conjures snakes, hell, black skies and the title, while Thayil wails into infinity — a plea, on the heels of Kurt Cobain's death earlier that year, amid a wasteland to "wash away the rain." Somehow that was the summer's de facto jam.
Down on the Upside followed in 1996. Opening cut (and massive hit single) "Pretty Noose" muscled Soundgarden into alternative rock radio ubiquity, the point where even non-single cuts slipped into rotation, and were not only demanded, but expected. It was the band's last record before its 15-year hiatus.
Soundgarden disbanded in 1997. Cornell joined Audioslave and continued a solo career, and Thayil pursued heavier music with conjurers Sunn O))) and Boris. Bassist Ben Shepherd played on friends' albums, and drummer Matt Cameron permanently joined Pearl Jam. The band's label, A&M, dissolved, as did its management.
"The management company went from being this vital thing dealing with a few prominent bands to being a post office box and a voicemail," Thayil says. "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. ... Jimi Hendrix, man, he's been dead just as long. They're still making records and everything."
Cornell swatted away suggestions the band would reunite. But on Jan. 1, 2010, he announced (via Twitter) that "school is back in session," and a string of performance dates soon followed.
"It's just a matter of time," Thayil says. "The band's legacy has always been very, very important to me. It's a paramount issue since we were younger. 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 one would."
With financial and legal issues settled, at least momentarily, the band started writing together, picking up where it left off with Down on the Upside.
"We're definitely putting on the shoes that fit, the four of us," Thayil says. "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."
Soundgarden saved its back catalog — reissues, unreleased tracks, compilations — from extinction. The band's eager to release all of it, and a new album is due sometime soon.
"We definitely want to get these things out there. We will," Thayil says. "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."