Reprinted without permission from Guitar World, February 1998
SOUND OF SILENCE
Ten months ago one of Seattle's great rock bands abruptly and mysteriously called it quits. In this exclusive interview, guitarist Kim Thayil reveals the less-than-explosive truth: Soundgarden went out with a whimper, not with a bang.
April 8, 1997: "After 12 years, the members of Soundgarden have amicably and mutually decided to disband to pursue other interests. There is no word at this time on any of the members' future plans. They'd like to thank their fans for all of their support over the years."
It took 30 seconds for the deejay on KISW, Seattle's premier rock radio station, to read this unexpected and curt death notice last April 8. Just half a minute to inform the world of the disappointingly unspectacular end to what had been one of modern rock's great success stories. All Soundgarden's Grammys, multi-Platinum records, Videos and SRO tours were now part of history. It was over.
The biggest surprise was that no one in the music industry and no one among the band's close friends and families had any sense of Soundgarden's imminent demise. The traditional warning signs of disintegration--drug or alcohol abuse, bizarre or suicidal behavior, increased public sniping by the bandmembers--simply were not happening. There were a few discernible cracks-- the occasional private squabble and reports of Soundgarden walking off the stage in the middle of a performance at the end of their 1997 Australian tour--but these could be reliably attributed to fatigue and Soundgarden's hate/hate relationship with the road. The worst episode in this vein might have been guitarist Kim Thayil's spending a night in jail thanks to a female fan who, he claims, had become confrontational and verbally abusive to him in a hotel lobby. MTV ran the story as a news piece and it was never mentioned again. The wild side of Soundgarden came and went like a beer fart in a wind tunnel.
So what really happened? You just don't break up one of the most important and influential rock bands in the world because of road rash or obnoxious fans. Something serious, or awful, must have driven them to the brink and over the edge.
That's not how Kim Thayil sees it.
"The break-up isn't filled with as much drama as you'd like to believe," he says matter-of-factly. "We simply got to the point where we didn't want to be Soundgarden anymore."
But being Soundgarden is exactly what Thayil and his former mates will have to do, for a few years anyway. The band recently released A-Sides, an uncharacteristic greatest hits package that shamelessly commemorates the radio side of their entire 12-year career, and have no less than three more albums worth of covers, b-sides, songs from movie soundtracks, and unreleased materials scheduled for release through the year 2000.
There you have it. Soundgarden is gone, like so much grunge dust in the wind. Yet they will keep issuing albums, and fans who mourn their passing will keep buying their post-mortem offerings.
But what really killed them?
Thayil sits, two pizzas loaded with a variety of farm animal toppings and numerous cans of Bud Light resting on the coffee table before him. He wolfs his way through the delivery food and refreshing beverages. Clearly, to the victor go the spoils. Comfortably ensconced in the living room of a friend's house in Seattle's Seward Park district, Soundgarden's garrulous guitarist candidly breaks the band's code of silence and offers his reply--along with some insight and closure--to a simple question: Why?
GUITARWORLD: Who was the first member of Soundgarden to suggest breaking up?
KIM THAYIL: It wouldn't have mattered who brought it up. It was pretty obvious from everybody's general attitude over the course of the previous half year that there was some dissatisfaction.
GW: Where did that dissatisfaction come from?
THAYIL: From everywhere dissatisfaction arises in a relationship or working attitude situation. What's the longest period of time you've been involved in a relationship? The longest time you've been employed in one particular place? We were together 12 years. That's a long time.
GW: Was the decision to split unanimous?
THAYIL: Oh, yeah; it was definitely that. There wasn't much of a struggle. It was something everyone in the band saw coming. Soundgarden was an incredibly intimate situation because we weren't just friends, we were also sharing things creatively, which takes a lot of risk and trust.
GW: Were the differences primarily personal or creative?
THAYIL: It's not that clear cut. There were so many factors. Everyone in the band had their homes, their families, friends, girlfriends and pets to deal with..
GW: That's kind of a whitewash.
THAYIL: No, it's not. This rock and roll thing is your job. You do that for 12 years, you love it, but in the course of 12 years, individuals establish and lose many relationships. Chris Cornell, Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil all exist independently of that unit we called Soundgarden.
GW: When you announced the breakup, the band had just come off an Australian tour that reportedly was "strained" Was this "the final straw"?
THAYIL: People figured it was because of the Australian things, but I thought we did some of our best shows and had a lot of fun there. [long pause]
I think any real strain would have preceded that tour. Relationships don't deteriorate simply because of one or two events, especially with a bunch of people who enjoy doing what they're doing. It's not like there's one infidelity or breach of trust which destroys things.
In the beginning we understood that loyalty and the ability to work together were going to be the keys to survival and success. We knew that after being together only a year. We liked what we were doing, so what could keep us from achieving success over the years? Nothing. If we liked what we were doing, then we were successful. Our goals were never very long-term. We were never that unrealistic in how we assessed ourselves. We were regular guys who liked doing music we liked. As long as we liked it, then we would do it well.
GW: I'm having a little trouble with this. You're saying Soundgarden decided to call it quits simply because you grew apart. I find that tough to swallow.
THAYIL: I began this interview by illustrating the problem that most relationships have. We were together for longer than people our age or younger usually endure in an employment situation, or an intimate relationship. We love each other and have the utmost respect and admiration for one another as friends and co-workers. There was never anything wrong with Soundgarden. The only thing that changed was individual interests. A regular job is eight hours a day, five days a week. Being in a rock band takes up a hell of a lot more time. When you're on tour, it's 24 hours a day, even your sleep, which is punctuated by irregularity and nightmares. [laughs]
Soundgarden had a good solid career, better than 99 percent of the rock bands out there. There are very few bands that have existed for over 12 years.
GW: So how did you feel immediately after releasing that very trees press release and then having it all be over.
THAYIL: My most intense feeling was relief. I think that's also what the other guys in the band felt. We did it because we wanted to relieve ourselves. [laughs] I felt relieved, I felt bummed. There are a number of relationships that were involved, from management to record companies to promoters to merchandising companies to fans. When I refer to Soundgarden as an entity, I should specify that it was the four of us who were the creative unit. Then there as this other business entity...
GW: Which one did you want to break up -- Soundgarden Incorporated, or Soundgarden the musical combo?
THAYIL: You can't really break up the quartet. If we want to work together creatively then that's what we'll do. But there were these other social and cultural prosthetic devices, the crutches and the leg braces which were not being as supportive as they should have been. [laughs]
GW: Weren't those artificial pressures though? I mean, Soundgarden had gone a long time as a band who wasn't supposed to have hits. Then you sold millions of records and the pressure was on for Soundgarden to produce to that level every time.
THAYIL: The record company never put ridiculous demands on us. There was no creative pressure, no obligation. Non one knew where we were going, except for the four of us. And even amongst the four of us, you can't plot where you're going. You just put your foot on the accelerator and let go of the wheel.
GW: Did you do that to yourselves, though? Did you feel you had to live up to your own expectations?
THAYIL: Perhaps. As individuals, we did. There certainly are pressures that are imposed on you by the record company and management, but not creative pressures. It's not as juicy as all that. There's just a point in time where you just want to get out of high school, you know? You're driving the car you're driving, but it doesn't shine like it used to, and doesn't go as fast as it used to without it making weird sounds the highway. That's the only reason. We're all in our mid-thirties; there isn't that same "balls to the wall" attitude that was there in our mid-twenties.
GW: Did success do that to you?
THAYIL: No. That would be the simple answer, but I would say that time was the real cause. If we had no success, do you think we would have trudged along for 12 years? Probably not. We would have gotten bored really quick. If anything, success provided us with an incentive for maintaining what we were doing.
GW: It's been said that with the breakup of Soundgarden came the death of grunge. Which do you feel more guilty about -- starting it, or ending it?
THAYIL: Grunge died way before we broke up. I don't know when grunge to be born. As a convenient reference point, grunge might have existed in terms of marketing. It was convenient for retail record stores so that they'd know where to file things. Grunge was a way to sell magazines, not a way to sell music. And I'm not simply saying this to criticize Guitar World -- I'm saying this to criticize all publications. To answer your question, I don't feel guilt, I feel shame for having to be associated with someone else's starting of grunge, and having to share that label. I don't feel it was ever our intent to be part and parcel of a magazine selling Leviathan or a record label distributing Leviathan. Out interest was selling our records. Grunge was a quick reference point for shoppers.
GW: It's been 10 months since Soundgarden broke up. Some of the band members are getting back on the snake and doing recording projects. What have you done for use lately?
THAYIL: [stuffing pizza in his mouth] I'm doing for myself right now. I'm taking a sabbatical.
gw: A Black Sabbatical?
THAYIL: [laughs] I just want to get away and enjoy it again. But the goal is not to enjoy being a musician, the goal is to not do what I wasn't enjoying. The goal is to just enjoy my life. How many of us have jobs we can't stand?
GW: What's this "we" crap? [laughs] You don't have a job.
THAYIL: I'm self-employed, which means I have a blow job. [laughs] I'm talking about us, the audience, whatever. You get a job you can't stand and you don't do as well at it.
GW: Have any offers come in for you to join other bands, or maybe guest on various projects?
THAYIL: Besides Hendrix and Joplin? [laughs] "Get that 'Black Hole' guy to play..." Actually, that's a really goof question. It suggests that anyone in Soundgarden could be a hired gun. I don't join people's bands, I start the fuckin band. That's true with anyone in Soundgarden.
I don't consider myself a guitarist before I consider myself a creative person; guitar just happens to be the way I express my creativity. I have no interest in playing guitar for someone else's thing -- or even my thing. I'll go play keyboards if that's what I want to do. Guitar is just a way to translate whatever ideas I have.
GW: So you wouldn't go jam with somebody just for the fun or experience of it?
THAYIL: No. I was with the best singer, bass player and drummer that I could want to play with. I don't want to go and get into another situation and ultimately feel disappointed. Anything else, by comparison, is going to seem second-rate. What I'm saying is that this is what I did for 12 years of my life. I don't know if I want to ever do this again. I do not see it as being an important thing to my life, outside of that time in a person's life when he's maximizing his prime abilities. Your prime ability might be to be a pitcher or a writer or a musician/entertainer. That may not be where your desire is.
GW: Where is your desire?
THAYIL: As long as I'm not omnipotent, then I'm always gonna be dissatisfied. [laughs]
GW: Would you say Soundgarden went out with a whimper instead of a bang?
THAYIL: I felt we went out at the point of our band's bang, but the way we went out may have been a quiet whimper. There really isn't a good story behind our breaking up. It was a common-sense thing. See, rock and roll is not comprised of company men, or religious zealots or genuflecting parishioners...
GW: That could be argued.
THAYIL: Maybe amongst the audience, but it certainly isn't what drove us. We weren't company men. We weren't manufactured. We weren't set up to work, buy, consume, die. What is amazing about Soundgarden is the commitment and loyalty that allowed the band to stay together for 12 years I think what people see as strange about our breakup is that, gee, Soundgarden were at the prime of their career, why did they stop? It's better than getting to the point where people are saying, "Stop now, quit making records." There are so many bands out there I love that should have stopped and quite while they were ahead. They got to be parodies of themselves. So many great bands, and a lot of them are still out there, and they just suck. And they're not just sucking because I say they suck. There's an inherent suckiness to them.
GW: Is A-Sides a whimper or a bang?
THAYIL: Considering that it's the best of Soundgarden, to a certain degree a band's gonna want to put out some kind of testament to their career, something that describes their body of work.
GW: Bullshit -- you did it for the money.
THAYIL: [laughs] Well, there are alot of us people who'd want that money before us. Record Stores, the record company... and then the band. Judging from the sales, it seems to be a bit of a whimper right now. [laughs] But that seems to be sort of a given. Just put together a package that's a... what's the world I'm looking for?
THAYIL: No! [laughs] It's a given that a band puts out together retrospective of their career, and, in doing so, includes the more popular songs. I, as a fan, don't consider a greatest hits record as a real album. It's like a glorified single. People aren't that dumb that they would think this was a unique and legitimate creation by an artist.
GW: Have you even listened to A-Sides?
THAYIL: [laughs] Over the course of the past 12 years, yes.
GW: Do you feel the songs on A-Sides accurately reflect the history and evolution of Soundgarden?
THAYIL: I think they accurately reflect the history of Soundgarden as a marketable commodity. And they reflect the songs that we wrote which were popular with the radio stations that played them, to the record company that sold them, to the fans that bought them. There are a few songs that are missing from the list and I think if the band itself did a retrospective it might be a little less appealing.
GW: What were the missing songs?
THAYIL: "Yesterday," "Hey, Jude," "Eleanor Rigby," "Show Me The Way," "Slow Ride..." All those church songs. [laughs] A-Sides is an opportunity for people who don't want to buy six albums. And it's in a really safe and popular package! We've wiped our ass and pulled our pants up. That's what A-Sides is... [laughs] If we released it, then it was 'A" material to us, we thought it was fantastic. All that material is fucking excellent to us.
GW: Given the collective strength of A-Sides, do you think the band's dissolution may have been premature? I mean, Down on the Upside didn't exactly sound like a band in its death throes.
THAYIL: I feel sorry for any band that gets to the point of releasing material that sounds like they're in their death throes. I think we're being very generous to our fans by not doing that. [laughs] Everyone likes a car wreck; I'm sorry if we kept driving. We decided to pull over and park the car, that was all. Right now, A&M is being the designated drive, that's what A-Sides is. "Here's the keys, here's the car, here's the gas, go ahead -- just get us home!" [laughs]
GW: Did you get to make your last record?
THAYIL: We made a last record. I don't think we got the opportunity to make our last record. We made a final record. We're done.
GW: How do you see Soundgarden in historical terms.
THAYIL: We verbalized many years ago that we didn't want to bend for the marketplace. Our business was to always do what we liked and have the market bend to us. It was just a matter of time. You know what the bitch about the Seventies was? Fucking baby-boomers and 40-nothings. The eighties sucked way worse than the Seventies. The Seventies had Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Stooges, the Sex Pistols. The coolest thing in the Eighties, in terms of mainstream rock and roll, was the Police. They were cool musicians. All the great stuff in the Eighties was the underground stuff and metal, from Metallica to Husker Du, to the Butthole Surfers to Black Flag, Big Black to Sonic Youth, Soundgarden to Tad. What was on the radio just sucked. I did not listen to the radio or watch TV during that time at all. If you look at major label music or radio of the Eighties, it was embarrassing. You had these stupid little New Wave flock of haircut bands. Then you had the gay-clown-at-my-birhtday-party-shit that passed as metal. It was the Partridge Family with fuzzy guitars, and it stunk. I'm glad we killed that stuff. Us, and a lot of other Seattle bands that put a dagger into the heart of Hollywood rock.
GW: But hasn't it come back to haunt you? Think about it--what's happening in music right now--a flood of flashy one-hit wonders. The stuff you killed 10 years ago has changed clothes and has come back to kill you.
THAYIL: It hasn't killed us. There's no competition. People who like Soundgarden don't like the Spice Girls. Hanson plays a shopping mall and a couple of hundred 10-year-old girls trample each other to get in. I was never a 10-year-old girl, and I don't like the kind of crap 10-year-old girl likes. Not to dis' on 10-year-old girls who are our fans, but we weren't playing for you. Thanks for buying the record , though. [pizza pause] That's the one thing I hate about being in a popular band: you have to watch what you fucking say all the time, and try not to offend people. I'm not interested in being that political and having to spend my time being ultimately dishonest and having to inhibit and stifle myself. We were in this to explore ideas, and it's very frustrating to have to inhibit that.
GW: If Soundgarden were to start out today, do you think you would go as as you did? The cycle of music trends these days has sped up to the point where it only awards careers for 15 minutes.
THAYIL: Yeah, we would have made the same kind of impact. Our music was honest and original and people recognized that. The smart people did, anyway.
GW: Any chance of Soundgarden reuniting for a big money tour with back-up singers and Mick Fleetwood on percussion, or are you going to continue being grumpy old men?
THAYIL: [laughs] If we ever did it again, it would be for the creative element and the camaraderie. I think everyone likes and enjoys each other's company. We would do it for that reason. If someone were to dangle a million-dollar carrot in front of our faces, they wouldn't get a nibble because we're not interested. There are plenty of other things we can do. Music is just one of many employment opportunities available to us. We're talking about four individuals who are capable of retiring if they so wish. Employment opportunities are not the issue here, sabbatical is.
GW: So it's not over yet, is it?
THAYIL: As long as we're all alive and kicking and enjoying ourselves, nothing's over. Sure, there's a certain finality to what we did. It would foolish and pretty stupid to say, yeah, it's over. But we ran our course. We had fun.