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The IM Interview: Soundgarden Guitarist Kim Thayil

Ahead of this Saturday’s concert at Klipsch Music Center, executive editor (and Soundgarden fan!) Evan West catches up with one of grunge’s founding fathers.

Eventually, the time comes when you realize the music that defined their youth is now old—and that you, by extension, are now old, too.

This happened to me only recently, when a publicist for Soundgarden asked Indianapolis Monthly if we would like to interview a member of the band before the May 11 concert at Klipsch Music Center in Noblesville.

My response: F*** yeah! Not because the group was a good “get” for IM—the demographics don’t overlap, exactly—but because when I was in high school and college in the 1990s, Soundgarden was one of my favorite bands, somewhere after Nirvana and Jane’s Addiction and before Stone Temple Pilots and Nine Inch Nails. “Alternative” was the definitive rock genre of my generation, and Soundgarden, one of the originators of the vaunted Seattle grunge scene, was arguably the best in show. While the band might not have had the far-reaching cultural impact and commercial success of groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, musicality and technical proficiency elevated Soundgarden above more-popular peers for a lot of music geeks—and for me. Superunknown and Down on the Upside blew up right about the time I got my first car, and I kept each CD in heavy driving-around rotation for years.

Because grunge was new back then, I’ve tended to think of it as “new” ever since. And then, while preparing for the following interview with the band’s virtuoso lead guitarist, Kim Thayil, it dawned on me that Soundgarden—which reunited last year after a long hiatus—formed nearly 30 years ago. And the albums I grew up listening to are pushing 20. For kids today, grunge might as well be classic rock.

But at least Soundgarden is aging well. Their new album, King Animal, released late last year, shows off the same skilled craftsmanship as anything they produced in their heyday, with off-kilter melodies, irregular time signatures, and eardrum-pounding noise. In short, Soundgarden still rocks.

Evan West: Can fans expect to hear some of the old Soundgarden in what you’re doing now?

Kim Thayil: It’s definitely there in King Animal. It has this element that is uniquely Soundgarden, but we’ve never been able to put our finger on exactly what that is. I’m an introspective guy, but that’s a particular aspect of analysis that has been kind of fleeting and hard to fully grasp. It kind of drips between my fingers. The way that the four of us sound when we play together and collaborate, we just naturally find our individual pockets. Perhaps a lot of that sound and identity is in the voice of Chris [Cornell, lead singer]. But a lot of it is in the songwriting, and it comes out in the guitar sound, or the bass sound, or Matt [Cameron]’s drum style. But it’s there somewhere.

EW: What about the live performances?

KT: Being on the road, you’re kind of being an entertainer more than you are an artist or a creative person. That’s why some of our songs have kind of these looser jams in them. It gives us an opportunity to voice something other than the rote replication of our music for entertainment purposes.

EW: What do you think your guitar playing brings to Soundgarden?

KT: Jack Endino [who produced for Nirvana] used to say, “Chris makes you guys sound commercial, Matt makes you guys sound professional, and you and Hiro [Yamamoto, the original bassist] make the band sound arty.” I really like to disassemble things. I don’t know if I have a short attention span or what, but I have a difficult time attending to order and obedience in music.

EW: When the Seattle scene broke big, a popular theory circulated that the heavy, brooding elements of grunge had something to do with the city’s rainy weather.

KT: That probably is a false connection. If you were to argue by way of metaphor, that the music is as same as the climate, then I suppose you have something. But that’s more poetry than science. I think there might be other sources of friction or conflict that perhaps led to grunge music.

EW: What kind of friction?

KT: There’s some suggestion that when we came up, in the ’80s, you had Reagan and the first Bush administration, and the country was by and large conservative. You were less likely to have parents that would support and endorse your social or cultural habit of playing loud guitar, or hanging out and drinking beer with your friends, or smoking pot. I notice with friends of mine who are parents, they are very supportive and encouraging of their kids. That’s great: We can have all these really talented musicians out there. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a source of creativity. You wouldn’t have had things like punk rock or free jazz or the Beat movement or even the Flower Power movement. They were in some way a response to some kind of cultural or social obstacle.

When you look at the ’60s and people like Lou Reed, or Frank Zappa, or Jimi Hendrix, it’s hard to imagine them having support for what they did early on. But what they did was creative—perhaps in certain cases aggressive—angry, intelligent, and exploratory of themselves and of the generation. And I think perhaps the grunge thing might have been more generational than anything else. Kind of the tail end of the Baby Boom, or the spearhead of Generation X.

EW: So was Soundgarden rebelling against something?

KT: In some ways perhaps, yes. It’s just the way we saw ourselves and our music, our songwriting, in conjunction with the social and cultural environment we were raised in. Your band becomes your home, and your audience are your people. As you get bigger and more successful, as you bring more people into your audience, you’re going to find stark differences between them and yourself and your friends.

I mean, Nirvana, unfortunately, learned that the hard way. There was a point in time when Nirvana’s audience was very similar to their peers and friends. And then they got huge overnight, and they found that their supporters and their audience were demographics that would have been hostile toward them, or that they would have been hostile toward, in a different situation.

EW: Did Soundgarden experience that disconnect with its audience?

KT: Yeah, a little bit, but our rise wasn’t as meteoric or sudden as Nirvana’s. We grew gradually. We were together years before Nirvana, and years after them, and our growth was more steady. We didn’t go straight from playing some punk rock bar to playing an arena, where you would see a huge, stark difference in your audience. We did notice the change, but it wasn’t as rapid or sudden. If we had been as big as Nirvana, we might have had more housewives and frat boys. I’m sure we did get a lot of frat-boy fans, but not nearly as many as followed Nirvana or Pearl Jam.

EW: Even if it you weren’t the most popular, it was always my contention that Soundgarden was the most musical of the grunge bands.

KT: Yeah, I would probably agree—I only hesitate because I don’t want to pat myself on the back too much. But I think that’s pretty much the case. That’s what we understood about ourselves. I think that’s what our peers in other bands thought about us. That’s definitely what we’ve heard from fans and critics for many years. You’re more likely to find that steady 4/4 tempo—common time—with Nirvana or Pearl Jam, maybe even Alice in Chains. With us you’d get some odd time signatures, or even broken-up tempo. That’s attributable to all the musicians in our band, but especially our drummer, Matt. Even though Chris has the recognizable voice, Matt’s definitely the band MVP.

EW: When did grunge die?

KT: Nirvana blew up with Nevermind in like ’91 or ’92, and then Pearl Jam came out with the album 10. Then we got huge commercially and on MTV, and by then there was an aspect of it that had already run its course in Seattle. I love Nevermind, and I love 10, and I think we were still doing something vital. But by then, all the imitators started coming out. I don’t want to disparage other bands, because they had good musicians and wrote some interesting songs, but by and large it was more oriented toward MTV and FM radio.

So grunge’s demise was partially due to the homogenization of hard rock music, and grunge specifically, but certainly other things were going on. Kurt [Cobain] killed himself, Alice in Chains went on hiatus, and we broke up in early ’97. When you had the original bands kind of stepping aside or unwinding, I think that hurt. What you were left with to fill the market were these other bands who were more careerist. And they had the edges rounded off. The bands that came along later, by and large, were sort of straight and narrow and conformist, and oriented toward the lowest common denominator.

EW: Did you guys have imitators?

KT: Bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana had far more imitators than Soundgarden, for obvious reasons: There was more gold in them thar hills. There were very few bands who did that with us, though, because I think our music was a little quirkier and weirder, and frankly, you could perhaps generally imitate Chris’s vocal sound, but it was hard to find people who had Chris’s range.

EW: How does it feel to be back on the road with the old band?

KT: It’s fun. Perhaps absence does makes the heart grow fonder. After the decade or so that we were apart, we still stayed in touch as friends. But now there’s a new insight into what was good and strong about what we were doing. We’re all older now, so there’s a more mature way we approach the work and the task of being on the road. I think everything’s a little more manageable. We’re driving the car now, more than before. It got to the point where we were kind of sitting in the backseat. When somebody else is steering the thing, whether it’s management or the record company—it was never as bad as I’m suggesting, but it was kind of getting that way. Right now we’re in the driver’s seat again.

Soundgarden at X103 May Day music festial. 9:30 p.m. $25 to $89.70. Klipsch Music Center, 12880 E. 146th St., Noblesville, 800-745-3000, livenation.com.