Although he possesses an imposing demeanor, Kim Thayil is actually quite thoughtful and stable in explaining the process that Soundgarden has underwent to come out on top once again. With a distinct underlying tone of excitement in his voice, the lead guitarist promotes the level of unity he and bandmates Chris Cornell, Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron share despite not being a working unit since 1997. King Animal proves that their collective genius is more than commanding and attractive with the introspection-demanding “Halfway There,” the stylistic foreboding of “Rowing,” and the thrilling persistence of “By Crooked Steps.”
Soundgarden’s touring itinerary is pretty full, but Thayil suggests that he prefers the writing and recording process. He even recalls that, for the first three or four years, all Soundgarden did was play live, because records cost money to make. But thankfully, they’ve once again showed that they’re simply masters of both the studio and stage.
The Aquarian recently spoke with guitarist Kim Thayil to discuss Soundgarden’s new album, King Animal, the video for “By Crooked Steps,” and touring. The transcription is below:
Just after the breakup, how did you deal with not having Soundgarden? Was it automatically a welcomed rest or did you feel a huge void instantly?
I was relieved. I mean, it wasn’t like a bad breakup with a girlfriend. Not that kind of emotional heartache where you can’t eat or can’t sleep. None of that.
Was this the most pressure that you’ve ever felt when making a record? The heat of 13 years of fan anticipation breathing down your neck?
No, I don’t think that we pressured ourselves; that would just ruin it. We were aware, but there were four critics there. It wasn’t like a shared delusion if something was good. It was up to all four of us. We’re not a religion or a cult or have a delusion like an eating disorder; we’re just four guys who write music.
This record really feels organic and it seems to balance musicianship and rawness perfectly. Is that just from finding the wonderment in playing together again?
I think so. We’re not one of those bands that has one primary songwriter or a leader. I don’t want to say names, but I am sure that you are aware there are plenty of bands who have the one guy and the others guys around him. We have that internal firewall, it’s a democracy. Record companies or press, I don’t know why it tends to focus on one person—I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because history is full of solitary authors. There is a reason why there is a basketball team or a baseball team. It’s not just the star pitcher. There’s not that one guy who has the girlfriend or the substance abuse narrative, that’s not our narrative. Fortunately, that’s not us, we’re more like, “Shut up and play your guitar,” or “Shut up and play your drums.” All of our personalities are pretty strong without being domineering.
There’s no Yoko in the equation.
No, and no Pretty Woman, or what is that, Pygmalion from My Fair Lady? One person’s strength makes up for the other’s weakness. That’s the way a family or team should work.
To that end, were there moments in the studio where you’d stop and say, “No, that’s just not up to par?”
Oh yeah. If something wasn’t working, we would analyze it, what is the thing that you like about it, what is the thing that you don’t like about it? Like, “This is too long,” or “There should be more of this.”
“Blood On The Valley Floor” is so booming, what inspired that one?
Depends on what you’re asking; the music I came up with, and Chris wrote the lyrics. The guitar riffs are pretty heavy and have a bit of a swagger. There’s a little bit of strangeness to it, and Chris is really good at putting a script to it.
Dave Grohl directed your latest video?
Just got back last night. It was for the song “By Crooked Steps.”
How did that go?
It was fine. We’re not good at being told what to do, and Dave is really good at not telling us what to do. He just said, “This is what I wrote, do you want to do it?” It was a pretty good idea. It went really well; no conflicts, no friction. Sometimes directors want you to be actors or stuntmen; I just want to play guitar and Dave being a musician understands.
What were the developments that you noticed within each other both as musicians and people? Any dramatic changes or were they more subtle?
Everybody is more grown up. They’re a little looser. More rational, no more reasonable because more rational is more mental. Reasonable is more emotional and social. Know what I mean? More reasonable, some of us are parents. You get a little more outside yourself and the potential for ego… There never was a diva in the band. People are dads, they have to live to meet the needs of those who depend on them. Getting older you have to deal with loss and living for other people.
Given all the positivity around the band, the great shows and high record charting, do you think there will be another Soundgarden record after this one?
Yeah, I think there will be. I am really proud of ourselves that we can be angry on stage, and express our emotions with our guitars and with our drums, whether it’s anger or wistful.
Your November show at Irving Plaza was amazing, Soundgarden in a small venue. In a word, “Wow!”
We didn’t realize what it meant to our fans. It felt really good on stage, but it wasn’t until later that I realized. I don’t want to be presumptuous—people told me later what it meant to them.
You also played the Bowery Ballroom the night before that show as a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
We did Lettermen, and then we did half a dozen songs [at the Bowery]. Hopefully, people have resources to recover.
Is there something that drove the point home for you as to how well King Animal is being received?
A mixture of a lot of things. Most reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. The ones that are not overwhelmingly positive are coming from folks that might be disappointed that it’s not like how they wanted to remember it. You know what I mean? I think most of that is that they would like us to be on the more metal side of things.
I don’t know, punk rock became more kind of poppy and metal kind of became a little more aggressive, and we stayed Soundgarden. I think if people look at it in that context, then yeah, maybe in the ‘80s we were heavier than what was going on then. Metal bands were kind of a slowed down punk thing, but we were still ourselves. Who knows? Almost everyone loves the record, and in a variety of different magazines, the response is, “This is great!” I think the reviews that were negative were from people that were hoping that we would grow in the direction that the music business went. Metal is a little more growly and really fast, and punk rock became like, teenybopper music, like the soundtrack to Scooby-Doo.
Yeah, it got on Broadway.
Yeah, exactly, it got on Broadway. It’s about Scooby-Doo and Rice Krispies. We stayed ourselves and in the context of what popular music is today, we kind of don’t fit what they were expecting or looking for. But that’s fine. We didn’t to begin with, so we are still ourselves.
Right, you have everything from “Drawing Files” to “Black Hole Sun,” you can’t get more diverse.
Yeah, if you listen to our first record [Screaming Life] you have songs like “Tears To Forget” on there, then Ultramega OK has more power, then a ballad song like “Black Hole Sun.” It all sounds like Soundgarden.
Yeah, it’s really difficult to classify you guys in a specific genre unless you want to bring up the grunge umbrella people stick you under.
Yeah, and I really wonder what grunge is. Is it “Rusty Cage” or “Black Hole Sun” or “Tears [To Forget]?” Mudhoney was probably the first band that got the grunge title, and Nirvana, they had this fuzzy, dirty thing. They were bands that were really good at what they [did]. But what do they mean when they say grunge? It’s just a convenient label for retailers.
Soundgarden will be at Terminal 5 on Jan. 16, Philly’s Tower Theatre on Jan. 19, and the Hammerstein Ballroom on Jan. 22 and 23. For more information, go to soundgardenworld.com.