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Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil: “We Weren’t Out To Get Laid, We Weren’t Out To Get High, We Just Wanted To Make You F*cking Hurt”

The life and times of Soundgarden’s grunge guitar god, Kim Thayil…

In 1981, Kim Thayil went for a drive that would change his life. At the time the 21-year-old was in a state of personal turmoil. The Chicago native’s band Identity Crisis had split, his girlfriend of three years had moved away to college and so had a lot of other people he knew. Fortunately, he was not alone in this predicament. Also recently girlfriend-less and band-less was his close friend Hiro Yamamoto.

Faced with the prospect of, well, having nothing to do, their thoughts soon turned toward travelling as far away as possible. And so they set off on a 2,000-mile road trip to Kim’s birthplace, Seattle, which he’d left as a five-year-old. As far as major life decisions go, it’s hard to think how it could have gone any better. After all, it eventually led the pair to form Soundgarden in 1984 with drummer – repeat: drummer – Chris Cornell.

Not only did Soundgarden become the great forerunners of the ‘Seattle Sound’ scene, across six full-length studio albums, Kim also distinguished himself as its most inventive guitar player. Look no further than him laying his guitar on the ground and blowing on the strings to create the mysterious opening strains of 1989’s Flower. Soundgarden was his life’s work. While the tragic death of Chris in 2017 brought that most magnificent of bands to an end, Kim has nevertheless been busy shepherding its legacy.

In 2018 – in addition to returning to stages to tour with MC5 – he penned an incredibly moving essay for Chris’ career-spanning box set and shared his reflections on the late star for Kerrang!’s magazine cover. Elsewhere, in January 2019 he joined Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd to play Chris Cornell’s I Am The Highway tribute, bringing their music to life onstage.

Last year, Kim was spotted in Los Angeles introducing Soundgarden’s new 29-song live album/concert film Live From The Artists Den in front of an ecstatic audience. Recorded at LA’s Wiltern Theatre in 2013, the performance captures the band riding high on the success of their phenomenal comeback album, 2012’s King Animal. Speaking to K! today from his home in Seattle, Kim is at once fiercely intelligent and deeply serious, yet also remarkably courteous, affable and even prone to charmingly low rumbles of laughter. And there is a lot to talk about. Not only regarding the past and present, but perhaps more importantly what the future holds for him…

How did you feel watching Live From The Artists Den on the big screen with fans?
“I tried not to squint too much (laughs). I wouldn’t want the audience to appraise the performance based on my reaction if I winced or hesitated because I saw something nobody else did. It’s a bit weird; it’s like looking at yourself in a mirror, but it’s not in real time and there’s nothing you can do to adjust the image – you just have to sit and take it!”

What’s most impressive is how King Animal material holds its own against older, established classics. At the time, were you determined to prove Soundgarden weren’t reliant on nostalgia?
“We knew audiences wanted to hear Black Hole Sun and Spoonman, and we wanted to play those songs for them, but we were also trying to impress each other. One of the things I said before the screening is that, while I appreciate and love our audiences, we always played for each other. That was always the kind of band we were, from our inception. Also, while we had a bunch of singles – more than I remember sometimes, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that was one!’ – we weren’t the kind of band that had a large body of huge hits. We weren’t The Rolling Stones or Nirvana (laughs). Our goal was always to think of new ways to describe what it is to be in Soundgarden, whether we manipulated elements of darkness, heaviness or weirdness. Really, what separated us from a lot of other bands in our genre was probably that we were weird. We did a lot of quirky, odd things and I think that gave us that third dimension where you can almost stick your hand into the song and feel around in there. I think it holds up with time, because we were oddballs and kind of goofy together.”

Given how weird and technical some Soundgarden songs are, were there ever any you were apprehensive about playing live?
“Black Hole Sun, just because it’s so delicate. Some of the guitar parts were like piano parts, and you feel naked and exposed playing them. The intro always made me nervous; I’d turn around and look at Matt and he would watch me and smile if I missed a note. Every five or six shows I would and he’d laugh at me and I’d walk away laughing.”

Let’s rewind to the beginning of your journey as a musician. The internet widely reports your first band’s name as Zippy And His Vast Army Of Pinheads. Is that true or false?
“That name is incorrect! Zippy The Pinhead was an underground comic. We were Bozo And The Pinheads. We were a punk rock band from Chicago and there was a popular clown in Chicago – and nationwide – called Bozo. I took The Pinheads part from the Ramones’ [song], and we covered them, Sex Pistols and Devo, but most of the material we did were originals. I first started writing lyrics when I was 12. They were kind of silly, mostly weird. Some were love songs for prepubescent crushes, and the rest were about how I didn’t fit in and everything sucked. The first proper song I wrote was called Plastic Love, and I still remember the lyrics.”

How did they go?
“I could give you the whole song! ‘Working all the time, I don’t get home until nine / I jump right into bed with my mannequin / Her hair is made of Dacron, her mind of cellulose / She’s someone I can lay on, who’s semi-comatose.’ Then the chorus went, ‘Plastic love, plastic love, plastic love.’ I remember my singer saying, ‘I don’t think there’s such a word as cellulose.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s plant fibre stuff!’”

What was Seattle like when you first arrived?
“It was beautiful. It was half the population it is now. You’d go to a punk rock show and there’d be 50 people there. If you’d go to a metal show there would be 100 people. Elements of Chicago were cosmopolitan and integrated and sophisticated, and then there was this weird separation, economically, socially and ethically within its borders. Seattle didn’t have that overt segregation, but it didn’t need to. It was primarily white. There were a few African Americans and Asians, but not many. What people don’t recall is that for the first half-year we were ‘the Asian band’. It was Hiro and I – a Japanese dude and an Indian dude – and Chris was the drummer.”

From those beginnings, then, to the advent of grunge. Whereas bands in the ‘80s craved mass attention, Seattle bands often seemed angered and repulsed by it. That said, Soundgarden frequently seemed to find mainstream affection, well, quite hysterical?
“(Laughs) We were, at times, sarcastic, and that sarcasm was fed by cynicism, certainly. But because we had success before the other bands, we thought we’d try not to be rude or mean to people interviewing us. It was hard not to laugh because they approached us as they had dozens of rock’n’roll bands before then. What they didn’t understand is that we came from a different place, a different sub-culture. It wasn’t the glam metal thing, it wasn’t the ’80s new romanticism thing.

“Basically, people were used to interviewing rock bands that were groomed and prepped by the record labels and managers to be stars. We didn’t care. We weren’t out to get laid and we weren’t out to get high, we just wanted to fucking make you hurt by listening to our music (laughs). A lot of people in Seattle were like that – the guys in Mudhoney, Green River, Nirvana and Melvins. We didn’t need to take anyone’s praise or criticism. Seattle kind of had that vibe, nobody was that interested in ‘rock’ – they were interested in songs, music and playing, but rock culture was ridiculously silly. That was spandex and hairspray and pouting and girls dancing on the hood of a car – it was stupid. How can guys with degrees in anthropology or English literature take that kind of crap seriously?”

In 1996, Soundgarden hilariously played up to the miserable ‘Frowngarden’ stereotype in a mock interview, but were there any other misconceptions about the band that irritated you?
“Yes. Now more than ever I see that people understand what we were about, but in the early days it wasn’t always that clear. We had a lot of fans that didn’t like the heavy metal aspect of what we were doing, and then there were people who didn’t like the punk aspect. They were all probably missing a little something else regarding what the band was about. Some heavy metal guys didn’t think we were showing any proficiency in musicianship, yet we had the best drummer in the world! But back in those days, half of our set didn’t have guitar solos because we were more likely to do feedback or weird drone notes. That bothered metal guys.

“I also remember in the early days people thinking we were too macho. If Chris would take his shirt off people thought it was a play towards macho imagery. I mean, yeah, we could drink more beer than our contemporaries, but we were also smart guys and well read. We were kind of defensive about that, but sometime in the ’90s I looked at Chris and said, ‘Maybe we are macho? What the fuck, who cares? I guess we’re more real than every other band if we can be smart, macho and weird, so let’s just keeping doing what we’re doing.’ Chris started laughing, like, ‘Okay!’”

You once described the time after Soundgarden first split up in 1997 as an “important intellectual and artistic ass-wiping”. How badly did you need that ass-wiping at that point?
“So much of my day revolved around promotion and engaging with the audience; doing interviews with magazines, MTV or radio, or you’d go to record stores to sign posters and meet fans. I think we needed time for other things. We all had girlfriends, close friends and family members – and those relationships had been neglected because of the work. There were so many things that were important to us socially, but they lacked depth, and they were the things that were more important.”

In 2018’s box set’s liner notes you listed Chris’ many virtues and one of them was ‘courage’. What was it that made him courageous in your eyes?
“There were so many things that made him courageous. Certainly in terms of creativity, he brushed off criticism. He was offered it, but if he didn’t think it was well founded, he’d disregard it and he wouldn’t let it bring him down. He learned some of that from Andy Wood from Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone [Chris Cornell’s former flatmate who died of a drug overdose in 1990]. Andy was that way: write, record, show it to people, and don’t worry about it. He taught me not to be afraid of my writing and playing. Like, ‘Look, it’s great!’ and if it wasn’t, if it sucked, ‘Move on, don’t hide, don’t stop.’ He was supportive in that way with all of us. As a person, for most of the years I knew him, he was unbowed; you couldn’t get him to do something that he didn’t want to. If he wanted to do something, it was difficult to talk him out of it. That shows fortitude, strength and courage.”

What was it like playing Soundgarden songs onstage again at the I Am The Highway show?
“The best thing about it was playing those songs again with Matt and Ben, and the next best thing was having our friends and guests join us. The rest was a little bit uncomfortable. It was sort of a clusterfuck. It was picking at an open wound, emotionally, and nobody was that thrilled to do it. We were thrilled to play the songs for our audience, and to play with each other onstage. The takeaway was the band being together with our family, crew and friends. To see that family together again was love. Everyone was happy and teary-eyed. It was the Soundgarden family together, doing what Soundgarden does and honouring and missing our beloved, departed member. That was important. The rest of it – the celebrity nature, promotion and focus was bullshit. And we knew it was bullshit going into it. We did it for each other, to support Chris’ legacy. There was something awkward and un-intimate about it. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it, but I’m glad we did it for our friends and family.”

Since Chris’ passing, have you been writing any new songs?
“On the MC5 tour, during soundcheck and rehearsal, I would write and jam with Brendan Canty [drummer, Fugazi] and Marcus [Durant, Zen Guerrilla vocalist] and the other guys, Wayne [Kramer, MC5 guitarist] and Billy [Gould, Faith No More bassist]. There is more inspiration being in that situation and getting new insight into my approach to guitar and coming up with other ideas. Some of them have gotten better and I’ve written them down in some fashion. I’m definitely picking up a muse or two. There’ll definitely be something in the future.”

It’s difficult to comprehend what you must have all been through in the past couple of years…
“I know what you’re saying. I think all of us are trying to find our feet. Matt still has his presence in Pearl Jam so he’s kept himself writing and recording, which is good. I’m just trying to come back down and get back on Earth. Actually, I don’t know if Earth is the proper place to do my writing (laughs). We will definitely find our feet, move forward and do some original stuff again. Hopefully, I’ll do stuff with Matt and Ben.”

A lot of people are wondering if we’ll ever hear the follow-up to King Animal that you were working on, too…
“When Soundgarden ended, prior to that last tour, we had spent a year writing, on-and-off in-between Pearl Jam gigs and Chris’ solo tours. We had written and demoed over half a dozen complete songs, and we probably had another half a dozen in development. We could probably finish them – it would require me, Matt and Ben to get the vocal performances that Chris recorded and play along with it to finish the songs. We can do that and sometime in the future we will do that. At this point, we don’t have possession of those work tapes. There’s a lot of loose ends there, stuff that I would love to do with Matt and Ben. There’s some stuff I’d like to find out if Chris had written lyrics for. We don’t know yet.”

If you were to write the tale of your life so far, what would the moral of the story be?
“God… Well, sometimes I might understand my life as somehow being scripted, not unlike the comic books I used to read when I was growing up. Those superlatives, behaviours and relationships which only seem to exist in the fictitious universe of comic books? They do exist, apparently.”

So what’s the moral we arrive at?
“That I’m not writing this (laughs)! I thought I was writing it, but I’m not.”

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Posted on September 4th 2020, 2:00pm
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