About a month before the release of Soundgarden’s King Animal, their first album of original material since 1996, I had the pleasure of speaking to the band’s lead guitarist Kim Thayil. I first discovered Soundgarden in 1989 after stumbling upon a copy of their SST album Ultramega OK at the community radio station where I volunteered while in high school, which gave me a preview of the grunge revolution to come.
I’m happy to report that King Animal is fine return, and Kim is genuinely excited to be back in action with the band. What follows is the full transcript of the conversation, parts of which were utilized for my Timeline piece in this month’s issue of Exclaim!
My first reaction to King Animal is that there’s still the edge the band has always had, but with a lot of maturity behind it as well. Do you guys feel that as well now, having played solidly for the last couple of years?
Well, I wouldn’t want to use maturity as a euphemism for age. I would interpret maturity more as a different focus or a tension that we have. We did take a slightly different approach on this record. We didn’t forget how we worked with each other and how we record. We still used those techniques, even though we couldn’t ignore how technology is different now. But there is a different focus and maturity to what we’re doing now, I think.
My personal feeling was that when the band broke up in ’97 that it didn’t feel like a real break-up, that you guys just needed some time apart and would eventually reunite. Is that going to far out on a limb?
Maybe, yeah. I didn’t imagine that we would get back together, just because I think everybody had resolved that this was done and we were all going off in our own directions. But in retrospect, it wasn’t a huge, contentious break-up. It was pretty un-dramatic. We were a little bit burned out, and I think people were interested in pursuing other things. Chris was writing a lot of songs that weren’t really Soundgarden material and seriously thinking about a solo career. We easily could have tried to do more, but I think the main thing was just the burn out. It felt like the right time for a break.
Was there also a sense that the music business was changing in the late ‘90s and you wanted to get away from that?
Yeah, I think the record companies at that time were a lot wealthier and had a lot more influence, and MTV was still around. In our case, we had a pretty good say about the direction of our career because we had built up our audience, not the record companies, by touring around in vans in Europe and the U.S., and putting out records on Sub Pop and SST. But later, when you start working with wealthy and powerful record companies and management, there is going to be some pressure put on you. It wasn’t ridiculous—the guys at our record company were wonderful—it was just a constant busy schedule. You’re traveling a lot, not sleeping, you’re working a record and they want you to add another show in the middle of a tour, they want you to come up with another song. There was always something that somebody wanted, or that the record company needed—a show to play, or an interview to do, some TV thing or radio station promo. We weren’t saying no enough. We weren’t controlling the schedule we wanted. There were differences in that regard. People were saying, the door’s open now, here’s your opportunity to walk through. We would say, or we could wait and open that door later. No, the door will not be open later, you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot. But you can’t take advantage of every opportunity, because you’re getting opportunities from everywhere, from TV and magazines and record companies to booking agents. You can’t do it all, and if you try to do it all, you’ll burn yourself out. There were varying motivations within the band and the management and people within the whole Soundgarden machine. I think in any band there are varying degrees of ambition and careerism; people wanting to go a little faster on the treadmill, or wanting to pull the leash in a different direction. It’s like trying to walk four dogs. It’s not like a horse or mule team. At some point, everyone’s smelling something different and wanting to chase after it. We always tried to manage ourselves democratically, and did a pretty good job at it. But that’s a tough thing to maintain when you get people wanting the singer to do one thing and the guitarist to do another thing, on and on and on. I guess the lesson we learned from that time is that we just need to slow everything down a bit. Looking back, that would have been a good move.
What were the factors that got that machine going again? It must have been something pretty strong considering Chris had his thing going and Matt was playing with Pearl Jam.
I think was a recreational attraction. There was no pressure, we weren’t obligated to do anything other than be Soundgarden. We didn’t have to be entertainers and diplomats at the same time, we could just be songwriters and musicians. That made everything easier to manage, less demanding, and fun. Ultimately, that’s what it was. We have to enjoy what we’re doing, and set our own pace. Again, we had trouble saying no fifteen years ago, and I don’t think anyone has trouble doing that now.
You did the tour last year before diving into making the new album. I can only assume that that was positive experience all around?
Yeah, that was a lot of fun. We were kind of clamouring for that. We played a couple of shows, Seattle and then Lollapalooza, and people started saying, why don’t you come and play in New York? Why don’t you come to L.A.? It was also a good way for us to get our chops back up and go out and address our fans, see what kind of response we’d get, gauge the audience that we still have. I’d say we were very pleasantly surprised that the fans we’d developed in the ‘80s and ‘90s were not so committed to homes and kids that they couldn’t come out to see a show, or pay attention to music like they did when they were younger. Then there were all of these young fans, kids with guitars that are just starting their own bands, whose big brothers wouldn’t take them to see us the first time around because they were going with their buddies instead. We just got to play with Iggy & the Stooges in Hyde Park. They’d broken up in ’74 before I even heard their records, and when I finally got to see them in Seattle a couple of years ago, that was a big deal for me.
You guys always did seem like a band who were fans first, and never lost that.
That’s one hundred per cent true. We wanted this band to be the band that we would listen to, the band whose records we would buy. We wanted to create an allegiance with an audience that would have included us when we were younger—the way I felt about, say, the Ramones or Black Sabbath. We wanted it to be like it was when you’d go to head shops looking for posters and t-shirts, and then sitting around with your friends listening to records and arguing about what’s good and what isn’t and why. Like, these guys are real and these guys are put together by some manager. Or, these guys are right-wing nutjobs and these guys are all about the coke and pussy. But these guys are about the music, man! They’re great! We all had an idea about who was worthy of respect from an artistic standpoint, whether that was Pink Floyd or Captain Beefheart, or later on, the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, the Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., the Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Sonic Youth. We had to be that band that we would have sat around arguing about, and learned to love. We modeled our career after what we understood of these bands we grew up liking.
What was so cool about Soundgarden at the beginning too was how you took a lot of classic rock clichés and turned them upside down, not really in a mocking way but…
There was some of that though, like when we put out our version of Cheech and Chong’s “Earache My Eye.” Being a fan of punk music at that time, you had a proper perspective of what was overblown and ridiculous about classic rock. You understand that some of those songs are cool as hell and sexy as hell and inspiring, but you also had a sense that the band’s took it too far or were too indulgent, whether it was the limos or the drugs or the chicks. I wanted to be on stage with a Marshall stack and say fuck off to the whole world, not because I wanted to party with some strippers but because that was the perspective we had. That infusion was there with nearly all of the bands that came out of the Seattle scene. We certainly all liked Sabbath and Kiss and Pink Floyd. My regard for Pink Floyd has actually increased a lot as I’ve gotten older.
You guys were also known for covering “Working Man” by Rush in your early days, never one of the cooler bands out there.
They were definitely important for us. Do you know how many of my friends would do bong hits while listening to 2112? We’d sit there and make fun of their robes while rolling joints on the gatefold sleeve. We wanted our records to create that same sort of communion. If we weren’t accomplishing that, then we were doing something wrong. We’d try to come up with riffs specifically thinking about a kid spending an hour in his garage trying to figure it out and then showing it to his friend.
It seemed just before the break-up that each of you were working on your own songs separately. Was King Animal more of a group effort?
Yeah. Collaboration was paramount in our early music, especially right at the beginning when it was me on guitar, Hiro on bass and Chris on drums. Later on, it became four songwriters who played different instruments all writing guitar parts that I had to learn. That was basically the situation when we made Down On The Upside, and it kind of forced me to say, well if I going to have a song on this fucking record, I’m going to have to write lyrics, so I wrote “Never The Machine Forever.” I don’t want anyone to think that that was the sum of my creative input. There are guitar things all over it that I came up with, but that’s unfortunately not the way we credit songwriting. Bands come up with their own ideas of how they credit songwriting. The way we’ve always done it is kind of linearly, and I learned years ago that it may not be the fairest way, but it works for us. It’s because Chris was our first drummer and both he and Matt see things linearly, like, an arrangement of a song starts at point A and ends at point B, but it’s also constructed vertically with bass and guitar and vocal parts all building on top of each other. Compositions do work linearly in time, and I think drummers orient themselves to time, whereas guitar players work off of that and are used to adding things vertically. So there are lots of things on that album that I added, which I didn’t get credit for. For instance, you can take a song that Chris wrote and compare what Audioslave does with it and what Soundgarden does with it. It’ll still be the same riff, but it will sound quite a bit different. So, the creativity is there, but the way this band credits songs for publishing purposes, for better or worse, doesn’t take into account what is added to the original riff.
That signature sound you guys had almost from the beginning is still there on King Animal. Would you say that Chris is comfortable being back in this musical environment again?
Oh I think so, yeah. He’s said as much to all of us and our management and in interviews. We’re old enough that we don’t have to mince words. It’s been 30 years that we’ve basically known each other, and all the pluses and minuses that go with that. I think everybody is really happy, or else we wouldn’t be doing it. And that’s not to take away from Chris’s interest in a solo career, or Matt’s interest in Pearl Jam.
What I did notice specifically with Chris’s performances on King Animal was a more soulful tone in his voice.
Yeah, that may have come out of his solo writing and recording. But he is older and he’s a father now, and if I were him I wouldn’t want to be screaming all the time. Would you believe him if he was doing that? You might start thinking that’s it’s a gimmick. But this is Soundgarden, so he’s going to have to yell and scream, but I wouldn’t that of him for the whole record. That would be boring for him.
Since you guys were there at the beginning of Sub Pop, I’m curious to get your take on how the label has adapted, and the overall state of the Seattle scene.
There’s gotta be five times as many bands in Seattle now than there were twenty years ago. We anticipated as we started getting bigger that, oh great, there’s going to be a big gold rush now. People are going to start moving here from Minneapolis and New Mexico and probably even California. I thought that Seattle was going to be like San Francisco in the ‘60s after the Summer of Love. All of these people started moving to San Francisco and it made the city rich with talent and ideas, but also made parts of it a big fucking butthole. I think the same thing’s happened with Seattle. There’s just so many people—young people—who come here seeking their fortune, as if there’s gold in them thar hills and there isn’t. The gold is in your fingers and your heart, and that can be wherever you’re at. But people have come here for their fortunes, and 99 per cent of them are going to fail. They’re not going to find their fortunes, they’re going to be confronted with their failure, and ultimately you’ll see them on the street with a German Shepherd with a bandana tied around its neck, and the guy will be wearing some Mardi Gras beads and maybe a leather jacket if he doesn’t have to sell it, playing guitar. But what Sub Pop’s doing now, there is this thing, this neo-folk pop genre that I didn’t think I would like because I was a kid in the ‘60s and ‘70s and didn’t like most folk music then. Some of the hippie stuff was neat and cool, but as I got older it started to annoy me because it didn’t really rock. That’s why I tended to listen to the Velvet Underground and the Stooges and the MC5 moreso than the Grateful Dead—although I have respect for the Dead and what they did. So, as a genre, it’s not interesting to me. But these bands are so talented. Like, the Fleet Foxes, I love them. There’s this crystalline nature of their harmonies that’s so unbelievable, and the fact that they are a DIY band from Seattle, that they write and arrange their own songs, makes it that much better. Then there’s a band like the Shins, where you’ve got Mercer who writes with such sincerity. And these bands are versatile. They’re willing to incorporate other instrumentation aside from the traditional rock thing. Like I said, I’m not in general interested in the genre, but the talent present in some of the individual bands is undeniable. But also, Seattle has some wonderful bands like Black Breath and Black Cobra, and the guys in SunnO)) grew up here, so if you love 12-minute doom drone, as I do, then you’ll orient yourself to that kind of music. By its very nature that music isn’t going to be radio or video friendly, but it’s amazing live and amazing on record. So, there’s great stuff in the Seattle indie underground. But there’s two kinds of indie: there’s the experimental, edgy do-it-yourself kind of punk rock, and now indie has sort of come to mean something else. There’s that pop for collegiate couples that indie has come to mean with certain magazines and websites that endorse it. If you have talent you have talent, but some of it annoys me because some of it is oriented toward collegiate couples, which I myself am not. Even when I was in college and I was a DJ at the university radio station, I still hated music that was oriented toward college couples. I think that’s some of the most homogenous, weak music you can think of. Seattle does have that, but on the plus side there’s still a lot of cutting edge underground music, in the true sense of underground. It’s subversive and transgressive, and that’s what I really love because it appeals to a lot of that anger that’s never really left me.