Reprinted without permission from Alternative Press, February 1997
STD: SOCIALLY TRANSMITTED DISCOURSE
Much has been written about bands from their fans' perspectives. But what do bands really think of their fans? How does an audience change as bands graduate from playing clubs to selling out arenas? And do bands care what their fans think of them? I asked Soundgarden's Kim Thayil what he thinks of the people who ultimately pay his bills.
Do you interact with your fans differently now compared to when you were starting out?
There probably is a bit of a difference. We were playing mostly clubs back then, though some places were just bars. [laughs] Most of our fans were intelligent people in our age range, usually students, artists, fellow musicians, record collectors. We would have no problem tearing down our gear and going to get a beer with people from our audience afterward. They were peers of ours, members of such-and-such a band. We would exchange tapes and records, actually have conversations with them.
Now, if you have a bit hit on MTV, unfortunately, and you're selling more records, which is a good thing, you start to get fans that really don't understand you or know you or are capable of relating to you. I really don't consider these people fans of Soundgarden. I consider them fans of pop music or radio music in general. When you get that Top-40 support it means you're getting kids who are very casual [listeners]. I think the real, initial Soundgarden fans are quite committed and loyal. When you do get bigger and play to larger audiences, you do encounter casual fans who just like the idea of celebrity.
How would you describe the typical Soundgarden fan?
Our fans are younger now. When we used to play bars they were a lot older. You had to be at least 21 to get in. Today I think it would be really hard to guess that. We've met some kids, but usually they're with their dads. We get these guys who are in their late 30's or early 40's who come to our shows and wear our shirts. They've been coming to our shows for six or seven years, and now they'll bring their kids.
Saturday Night Live ran a Star Trek-convention sketch in which William Shatner tells the Trekkies to "Get a life." What do you think of obsessed Soundgarden fans, the ones who own soundboard recordings or all your German dates and have every poster you ever printed?
That's pretty trippy. I really don't understand that kind of obsessive behavior. When I was younger I had every KISS album. I knew all of the songs in order, from side one to the end of side two [of every album]. But I didn't go out and buy every KISS poster, every KISS t-shirt. I really don't understand that kind of behavior. I do understand being a collector. I collect indie records and comic books, but I don't feel like I'm that obsessed.
Is there any obligation a band has to its fan base?
Yeah, but you also have an obligation to entertain yourselves, to keep yourself interested. You can't make the same record over and over again. I imagine there are bands that have done that. At some point people say, "Oh, they've sold out!" because we used a particular producer or we did different kinds of songs. You have to keep things interesting.
What's the biggest mistake a band can make in the eyes of its fans?
Well, there are things you can do to completely alienate them. I've seen a number of bands try to follow a trend. That would bother the fuck out of me. There were a number of bands that were doing disco shit back in the late '70s. They were thinking, "Oh, disco is hot!" Then they would come up with some disco song or record. I would think, "Man, this is crap! What the hell are they doing? Don't they have any self-respect? They're just pandering to whatever the current trend is." I think you can lose a lot of fans by doing that.
Why do some fans freeze up when they approach a popular musician?
I think maybe it's the fear of small talk. It's like, "Here's somebody that I really respect, and there really isn't enough time to have a decent conversation." You can't even establish a bond through small talk. It would have been like me going up to Frank Zappa and saying, "Hey! Cool gig, man. Uh, gotta go!" What a waste of time. Then again, I couldn't go up to him and start reciting all of this Zappa stuff I know. He would have been like, "So, what do you do?" I would have said, "Uh, I play guitar, and I have your shirts."
Do your fans freeze up like that?
Some of them. Generally, I think our presence is a bit unapproachable. I've heard that comment about Chris, Ben, and about me. People want to say hello to the band, but they don't. They just sit there and look. It may be because Chris is 6'2", Ben is 6'4", and Matt and I are 6'. People expect you to be the size you are on TV. Then you walk out, and they're just kind of staring at you and looking scared.
Is there anybody that you would be afraid to approach?
I never met Zappa. I might have been a bit intimidated if I had met him. Otherwise, I'm pretty confident with myself and being able to speak. I don't know what I would have said to him. "Cool record, dude." I don't know. [laughs]