When Soundgarden took a final bow in 1997, guitarist Kim Thayil didn’t hold out much hope for reuniting with his old bandmates. But following a well-received reunion gig at Lollapalooza in 2010, Thayil and his bandmates’ icy feelings toward reuniting thawed, and with a new album in tow, this week’s King Animal, the reunion has officially come around full circle for the celebrated grunge heroes. Recently, Thayil spoke with Consequence of Sound about the reunion, the new album, and what it all means for Soundgarden’s already weighty legacy.
You’re supporting a new Soundgarden record. Exciting?
Definitely. It’s actually pretty crazy to hear someone say that. [Laughs.] It’s pretty cool.
How long did it take for you guys to come together for this album? How did it all shake down?
We completed the song “Black Rain” for the album Telephantasm. Chris [Cornell] wrote some lyrics and finished vocals for that, and I finished the guitar. That process of writing and finishing a song kind of showed our evolvement creatively. That was around the spring of 2010 and then we did Lollapalooza in Chicago, then that fall Matt [Cameron] demoed a couple of songs that he wanted us to learn. He sent us an email saying he booked studio time that November and that he’d love to show us these songs and have us learn and record them. I guess he just wanted to hear what they’d sound like with us playing them. I’m inferring from that that they didn’t work out for Pearl Jam or something.
They weren’t written with the definite idea of getting the band back together?
He might’ve had the idea of getting us back in a room again. They were instrumental ideas, and he obviously wanted lyrics and some guitar acrobatics. I shouldn’t speculate, but I think he wanted to get us back together, because that’s where we are. I think he had some ideas that might not have been right for Pearl Jam, but thought would be good for us to play them. And so we went into the studio, rehearsed and jammed on those songs, and from there other ideas started coming forward.
Speaking for yourself, was a Soundgarden reunion weighing on your mind at all over the last 15 years? How long were you working that out in your head?
Well we all maintained friendships, because we have so many mutual friends in common. It had been brought up early on that maybe one day it would be great to come back together and do another Soundgarden record. That was initially. But over the years, I got a very clear sense not of resignation, but a sense of having moved on, and I resolved to close that part of life.
For the past decade, I had no interest or expectation that Soundgarden would ever do anything. I think my interests were going in a different direction. When I write songs on guitar, they tend to favor heavily the styles that people understand as Soundgarden, but my tastes and interests change and grow like everybody’s do. I think the direction I went in wasn’t the direction that Chris wanted to go in. It was just hard to imagine the four of us creating given where we all went.
But what I failed to recognize was that individually we might be showing interest in other subgenres of popular music, but there is a collective way that we respond and communicate musically that is probably always going to be Soundgarden. Nobody is force feeding the band some doom, drone music. Although I love that, I don’t think Chris is trying to steer us in the direction of Scream or anything. But the band came together as Soundgarden again. What I failed to recognize is we are that band, even if individually we might’ve grown over the past 15 years.
Did that become evident to you pretty quickly upon getting together for King Animal?
Yeah. It’s like you never forget how to ride your bike or ride a horse. If you fall off your horse, you just get right back on. It just feels familiar.
The new record sounds like Soundgarden, but with a few new wrinkles thrown in. Do you attribute that to the time you and the other members have spent doing other things, be it Chris’s solo work and time in Audioslave, Matt’s time with Pearl Jam and your other endeavors? Have the last 15 years found its way into what you do now?
There definitely is growth and a different sensibility amongst the individual members. And I expected that growth to be an impediment to our working together creatively. But again when we get together, we trend toward the Soundgarden that we all knew and loved. But there’s these slightly different approaches and elements added. Chris’ vocal style may have grown and evolved through his solo work, maybe a bit more croony or balladeer-like. He’s flirted with things that are decidedly not rock, as well as doing Audioslave, which was sort of like a linear Soundgarden.
Everyone has a pretty esoteric taste in popular music, as well as in other styles like jazz and classical, so there’s always these different elements being brought to the table in Soundgarden. And I think that’s the case here. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I think other people and other musicians will be able to listen to it and hear the changes. But there’s also a lot of similarities.
This record is likely going to be understood and evaluated by most people in the context of a reunion record. Was there any pressure or incentive for you guys to integrate the record in with your prior work? Do think there’s a way for listeners to approach King Animal the same way they would Superunknown or Badmotorfinger?
Yeah, I know what you’re saying. In the past when bands have reunited, it takes me a long time to even file it on a shelf with the rest of their body of work. For instance The Stooges made three albums, two as the Stooges and one as Iggy and the Stooges. Back when I was a teenager I’d think, Well, I’ve got these two Stooges albums, but this other one has a different guitarist. But eventually I came around and said, “Alright, these are the three Stooges records.” And then they made the fourth album with Mike Watt playing bass that came out a few years ago, and I feel like I can’t put it next to Fun House or Raw Power.
It’s funny because I got those records when I was like 15 or 16, so they’re part of my personal history of the Stooges. And then decades later there’s this new entry, so it feels different. And I imagine people in their 20s or 30s are going to distinguish King Animal from Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. But people in their 40s or 50s might say, “You know, those past 15 years wasn’t that long a period of time.” I don’t know. It’s hard to tell how people will see things. Me personally, I feel the need to integrate it in with the rest of the body of work. This, in my mind, is our seventh original album, starting with the Sub Pop EP as our first album.
Do you see King Animal as a second wind? Does it have the potential to be a jumping off point for a new generation of fans the same way those other records were for past generations?
Exactly. I mean, we’re the same four guys. It isn’t like someone OD’d and the three other guys got together later with a replacement. It’s the same band. It’s less a shift of identity as when [original bassist] Hiro [Yamamoto] quit the band and [bassist]Ben [Shepherd] joined.
With the new record comes touring. Are you looking forward to taking to the road again after all these years?
Oh yeah, definitely. Actually we just got done learning the entire album, and I think we’ll probably play them all live. They’re learned to various degrees of competency. There’s a few songs that still need some tightening of the bolts.
What about preparing the older songs? Do you prepare songs for a tour the same way now as you used to?
That’s an interesting point. Matt and I recently observed how in our earlier records, songs are written and performed live, in many cases, over a period of years. A lot of times we’d have these songs we’d been playing but we never had the money to record them. We weren’t rich kids in the suburbs with parents that would underwrite our music careers. So it took us a while, and by the time we eventually got around to recording, the songs were well honed and roadburned. Then we went from that to writing and recording songs in the studio, and then the song transforms onstage, because Chris and I are adding vocals or changing color and lead guitar parts around. It gives a different emphasis or direction to the feel of a song.
I think on Down on the Upside, there was one song that was performed live before it made the album. Nowadays if you play a song that no one recognizes, the audience might get bored. The other problem is you now have dozens of iPhones out there recording the performance that will end up on YouTube. So the market has changed, and with that the way the band records and tours an album has changed a lot from the early days. We recorded these songs over a protracted period, and with that songs get rearranged and reperformed. So there’s a lot of time spent relearning parts and things that have been added along the way.
Does that go a long way toward keeping the songs fresh night after night?
Yeah. We need to perform these songs for our own satisfaction. We’re the first ones that have to be entertained by our own creation. If we’re not moved by the song, then we’re failing the initial task, which is to write something we think is cool. I love and respect the judgement of my bandmates, so if everyone digs the song, it’s probably a cool song. And that’s a very arrogant position that we might hold, but we have to turn ourselves on first.
And that makes perfect sense, because I think fans have pretty good bullshit detectors. They can sense with something is being faked, so it’s understandable that you need to satisfy yourselves before you can try and satisfy an audience.
Exactly. I’m going to guess here, but are you in your 30s?
I’m getting there. 29.
Okay, but you can relate. I’ve been disappointed by bands I love. I know the disappointment in seeing the reunion of a beloved band. And we’re very sensitive to that, because we’ve all been burned by bad reunions. But sometimes it works. That most recent Gang of Four record that came out? That was cool. It didn’t get the press time or airtime it deserved, but it was a damned cool record. And with us, we know there are people who are prepared to be disappointed. They see our body of work before this album as a complete project, and they’re comfortable with their complete understanding of the evolution of our band. And now we’ve gone and spoiled it all but existing again. [Laughs.] It’s like dinosaur skeletons for years have been assembled one way, and then someone comes along and says “Wait, he wasn’t a quadraped, he was a biped.” But it depends how people want to look at it.
Right. People don’t like upsetting their understanding of the past.
There’s a choice. People can be disappointed by our band ruining the vision they have of us, or they can be happy that they get to hear new music. I’m hoping the latter, and I believe strongly we’re making it worth their while.