Reprinted without permission from Hard Music, February
Call them the biggest band in the world. Call them the greatest band in the world. Hell, call them the loudest band in the world. Guitarist Kim Thayil calls it being on the road. Serene Conneeley talks to him about success through consistency.
It's 3pm in Nashville and they've just woken Kim Thayil up. He's already dragging on a cigarette, and the smoke and the distaste at his surroundings are thick in his voice. Unlike a lot of musicians when they get on the promo circuit, Thayil doesn't seem very excited about anything right now. Even the band's forthcoming tour of Australia on board the Big Day Out. At this early (late?) hour, it's just another stretch of the road.
"It's like all the other festivals we do," he says quietly, "like Lollapalooza or whatever."
Soundgarden, unlike a lot of bands, have probably done every major festival that has ever existed, in every corner of the world, in the last six years. Lollapalooza, Reading, Phoenix, Roskilde - The Big Day Out. They've been at it for 12 years now, making their shows into a larger than life sonically intense spectacle, and sometimes a veteran's expertise comes across as complacency. But Thayil does perk up a little at the mention of You Am I, long time touring compadres, who they're doing some shows with inbetween Big Day Out appearances around Australia.
"We really like them - we brought them out here a while back and they toured the US with us," he says. "They're really exciting to watch, and they seem very sincere in the way that they play. But I haven't got around to hearing their new album yet."
He's been busy enough think about Soundgarden's epic, Down On The Upside, the latest instalment of their heavy riffage and vocal intensity. With bassist Ben Shepherd, drummer Matt Cameron, and enigmatic front man Chris Cornell, Soundgarden have pioneered a unique musical force from a scene now distinguished by its sameness of sound. It's brought them rave reviews and labels like "one of only two bands left that matter" and that other strange title, contentious but not exactly impossible, Greatest Hard Rock Band in the World.
"Wow, that's flattering," Thayil says, wonder edging from his voice. "And who's the other one of the two, Nine Inch Nails?" Pearl Jam according to the UK's influential Melody Maker.
"That's very flattering, but I think there are other bands out there that matter too," he chuckles, thinking about the statements absurdity. His modesty is disarming, but what do you say to a suggestion like that? Perhaps easier to relate to is the description of Soundgarden as survivors. They've survived 12 years of constant touring and recording, of being the first out of Seattle to sign to a major, and cop the inevitable 'sell-out' tag, of being the last of their fellow bands to really achieve that nasty little grey mouse of a term, 'success'. And they've done that with their line-up primarily intact, with bassist Shepherd's replacement of Hiro Yamamoto after the recording of Badmotorfinger (and the brief inclusion of one time Nirvana member, Jason Everman in between) being the only shake-up.
"That's a weird thing to say - survived what?" Kim asks, laughing at the absolutist tags people like to use. "Maybe they just mean in comparison to some of the other bands out of Seattle. Some really unfortunate things happened to various bands that came up from the underground there. And a number of those bands have broken up as well."
History which has all been documented in Hype!, the new film about the Seattle music scene. Unlike it's fictional predecessor, Singles, the first attempt to capture the magic of the music being made in the rain and coffee soaked environs of the city, it tells a story with live footage of some of the bands, and interviews with many of the players, major and minor.
"It's pretty accurate," Kim, who appears in a series of interviews with his band-mates says. "Not 100 per cent accurate, but for the most part it's an accurate story about what was happening in Seattle and how things started to happen there."
The title is a telling one, in the way it reflects the tone of the film. Soundgarden - along with Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice In Chains - managed to make it to their current status slowly (particularly Kim and co.) and with a minimum of fuss, but in the past they've been quite open about their distaste for bads who appear to have made it more on marketing a look and a sound that fits in with the times, rather than a solid base of songs and talent. Bands like Green Day, Offspring, Bush and Presidents of the United States of America have all copped a serve. Well, from Chris Cornell anyway, as Kim is quick to point out.
"I'm not frustrated by their success, not at all," he says. "I'm friends with the guys in Presidents. I played on their first record. I'm glad they're having success.
"But there is hype," the guitarist concedes. "The first Green Day record did amazingly, but the second one just fell off the charts, and now neither of the records are in the charts. Maybe they were just a flash in the pan."
Not that he spares much time worrying about that, although when talk turns to bands that undergo radical changes (we're talking Danzig, but not specifically), he is more passionate.
"I think they have a responsibility to their fans, and they have a responsibility to themselves, not to do that," says the man with one of the most distinctive guitar sounds in rock, which underpins perhaps the most distinctive voice in rock. "If a band really changes their sound radically, I think what they're doing is dishonest, that at some point they may have been deceiving their fans, whether it was before or it was after the change."
For Soundgarden, the only thing that has changed is people's perceptions of them and the size and profile of their audience. When they started out, they described themselves as an indie band. How times change...
"Obviously we are not an indie band any more," Kim says, and laughs a little, finally warming, or waking, up. "We're just a moderately successful rock band I suppose."
If a band that sold five million copies of their last album, Superunknown, in the US alone can be considered only moderately successful! But Soundgarden were part of that whole explosion, when suddenly all these alternative, far-from-mainstream bands started selling millions of records and landing in the MTV high rotation buzz bin, usually to their chagrin.
"It was a little strange, but it was better to know that bands that were considered alternative or whatever were selling records, as opposed to the stuff that was selling in the late '80s, that glam metal. I never liked that stuff," Thayil spits.
But that strangeness has destroyed more than it's fair share of talent, and it's a relief that Soundgarden came through it relatively unscarred. But how do you keep something interesting after 12 years and to a constant fight to remain true to your roots, particularly when some people are more interested in getting Chris' shirt off for a photos shoot that listening to the music?
"We just keep writing songs that we like," he says simply. But nothing is ever as simple of easy as it seems, particularly in the magical world of Soundgarden. Kim only wrote one song on Down On The Upside, the haunting Never The Machine Forever. Does this mean that things aren't remaining interesting for him?
"That is a little bit frustrating, but you know, whatever..." he trails off. A hint of dissention? "Matt and I wrote plenty of songs together, and we've written to music for a lot of Soundgarden tracks, but they didn't get recorded because there was no lyrical ideas or formal arrangements."
Kim sounds more than just a little annoyed that he doesn't get to write more or have more involvement in Soundgarden songs, but he does keep the creative juices flowing with guest appearances on other people's albums.
"I help out friends, I play on their recordings, like with The Presidents of the United States of America," he explains. "And there's this band Pigeonhead, which is Steve Fisk and Sean Smith, they're on SubPop, and I've played on both their records.
"It's primarily a studio thing, I don't really do the writing for those bands - although actually that's not true, I co-wrote one of the songs on the new Pigeonhead album," he says, interrupting himself. "But usually I just go into the studio and help them out, just come up with some parts or do a guitar solo."
He and the bands seem to manage to avoid the political angle some bands embrace, like their mates in Pearl Jam, who tired to take on the ticketing system in America as well as being heavily involved in Rock for Choice with L7 and the campaign to get young people to vote at the last presidential election. Of course no-one seemed to care much at the recent election at the end of last year, as people began to realise the scary similarities in opposing parties' platforms. It was the lowest vote turn-out in history that returned Bill Clinton to the White House, but denied him power in Congress. Does Kim care that Clinton squeezed in for another term?
"Yeah and no," he says with a sigh. "I didn't vote for him , but I didn't vote for the other guy you were thinking of either," he adds hastily. "Whatever. It's just more of the status quo thing I suppose. Really, you can spend all your time registering people, but that's not going to get them to got and vote..."
He trails off, disillusioned, then his mind drifts back to the Nashville hotel room, and the thought of several more months on the road. Soundgarden aren't exactly sure what they'll be doing after Australia. There's plenty of places they should go to play, or they could head back to the Northwest heartland and get creative.
"We haven't played South East Asia yet, except for Japan, and we haven't played Africa," Kim says. "But I'm not really excited about going there - I've done plenty of travelling of my own. And we haven't decided yet if we want to do another US tour yet or not. We might end up doing that."
The other option is to start work on the next album, their seventh. It doesn't feel like much time has passed since Down On The Upside came out, but already the band is itching to get back to the creative process.
"None of us have written any songs for the next album yet,' Kim admits. "But we usually write at home, not on the road, so we'll need to stop touring and go home and start writing."
And this time, the hirsute guitarist assures, he'll be writing more than just one song. Until then, he's got a lot of rocking to do, particularly on the festival stages of Australia. But before he gets too excited about that, I bid Kim farewell so he can jump in the shower and try to wake up before he has to face any more of the day. The road, as is often said, is the hardest place to be.