Reprinted without permission from Hit Parader, May
Chicago. The Windy City. That Toddlin' Town. The City Of The Big Shoulders. Chicago. Home of Michael Jordan, the Blues Brothers, deep dish pizza and... Kim Thayil. While many might naturally assume that Soundgarden's bearded guitarist hails from the emerald green surroundings of Seattle, it's Chicago that Thayil originally called home. In fact, it was at that city's Rich East High School that the rocker-to-be first encountered both original Soundgarden bassist Hiro Yamamoto and future Sub-pop Records honcho Bruce Pavitt -- both of whom were to later play integral roles in Thayil's life. After high school, it was this trio that found themselves emigrating to Olympia, Washington to enroll in the liberal arts program of that city's Evergreen State College. Little could they then have imagined the thrills the Pacific Northwest was to eventually hold for them.
"I still love Chicago," Thayil said. "I still have friends and family back there. I guess I had every intention of going back there once school was finished. But once I moved out to the state of Washington, things just began to happen for me. It was a natural growth process, and before I knew it the band was doing well, and I had my entire life based in and around Seattle."
It was soon after graduating from Evergreen State that thayil and Yamamoto moved down to Seattle and began looking for a roommate to share the large apartment space they had rented. An ad in a local underground newspaper turned up a long-haired aspiring drummer named Chris Cornell, a guy who seemed to immediately make a good impression after describing his love for both vintage and cutting-edge rock and roll bands like Black Sabbath, the MC5 and killing Joke. This musical mutual admiration society soon began evolving into a band -- a band that was to take its name from a well known local sculpture called The Soundgarden. Originally, the group worked as a trio, with Thayil laying down a blistering wall of guitar thunder and Cornell handling both the drum and vocal duties. It soon became apparent, however, that Cornell would have to move out from behind his kit in order to fufill his destiny, and in short-order the band added local skin basher Matt Cameron to round-out their roster. Soon after, local label SST stepped in to finance the recording of Soundgarden's debut disc, Ultramega OK. The rest, as they say, is history.
"We were just four guys who loved playing music", Thayil explained. "We never thought about sucess or selling lots of albums. We were different. When the first album came out in 1988, the whole L.A. scene was still happening, and we were about as far away from Motley Crue and that whole thing as you could get. Everything in L.A. seemed to be about being Larger Than Life. That didn't have any impact on us at all. Of course, none of us had a clue about what was about to happen in Seattle. But it wouldn't have made any difference to us if we had."
With the departure of Yamamoto (who decided to return to college after the band's first tour) Soundgarden finalized their lineup in 1990 with the addition of Ben Shepherd. Soon after that, a major label stepped in to sign Soundgarden and unwittingly help launch the Seattle Musical Explosion of the early '90s. In fact, the release of that disc, Louder Than Love, preceded the release of Nirvana's Nevermind by a number of months. But, as Thayil laughingly recalls, as one disc instantly rocketed to the top of the charts, the other seemed to languish in that netherworld of mediocrity.
"Our major label debut didn't do that well initially," he said with a smile. "I don't think the label knew what to do with us. They were more used to handling Peter Frampton or Sting. We were something really different. A lot of the people they approached about us thought we were just another metal band. Those, of course, were the same people who were dying to speak to us a year or so later. But that's part of the fun. In rock and roll, I've learned you never can know exactly what to expect."