Reprinted without permisson from India Abroad,
December 2, 1994
ROCK IDOL SAYS HIS MUSIC IS INTROSPECTIVE AND AGGRESSIVE
WASHINGTON--An undiscovered but incontrovertible fact and irony of American contemporary rock history is that an Indian defined the music of this generation.
When Kim Thayil, 34, and his friend, Hiro Yamamoto, set up their high school punk band in Chicago years ago, little did they know they would become the cutting edge of this so-called "Generation X." "I was clear about doing music then. It was the kind of thing, when you are young, you are generally not that clear minded. You can't see two years into the future. Especially in music. Your success isn't guaranteed."
In an interview with India Abroad soon after his Washington performance at American University's Bender Arena in mid-June, Kim said all he knew was that he did not want to become a professor or a doctor, unlike many other Indian second generation youth born in this country whose parents were mostly professionals.
Asked what their reaction was when he formed his band, Kim said, "It didn't really matter what they thought. They didn't know for the longest time. Most of my life was sort of separate from what they were doing. And eventually they tried to encourage that I had no interest in going back to school...I didn't want to be a lawyer or anything."
But he did go on to get a bachelors degree in philosophy from the University of Washington in Seattle. Thayil's parents were students who came to this country and remained here. His mother taught music with a degree from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and his father was an engineer.
Kim's path soon diverged from theirs. But he says they taught him the values of honesty, respect, justice, and fair play, "and that may be something unique to their experience, I don't know, because it doesn't seem to be a very popular American ideal," he pauses, adding, "And it may not be a very popular Indian one, either."
The product of a seemingly angry generation, Thayil's band symbolizes the frustrations of a youth that see a planet stripped of its resources, a people devoid of values and a civilization that has no time for them even as it talks about planning for the future.
Recently, more than 5,000 fans screamed over the ear-splitting guitar and drums and threw themselves at the barricades trying to get to the handsome casually dressed foursome playing at American University's Bender Arena, signifying the rising popularity of this band. Hundreds of them crowd-surfed over the thousands only to be caught by crowd-handlers next to the stage and sent back.
Their latest album, Superunknown, a 70-minute, 15-song album, hit the number one "Billboard" spot back in March, and critics have raved about it. The band is poised to cash in on the music that it virtually created but which was popularized by other groups like Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana.
Thayil, with his distinctive flowing hair and beard, his jeans and black T-shirt, strokes and pounds his guitar to the almost industrial-assembly-line rhythm-less thump of the drums and his buddy, singer Chris Cornell screams out lyrics heavy with meaning about the bum rap civilization had handed down.
Their first record released in 1987, Screaming Life, did well, followed by Fopp, a 12-inch single, and from then on their shows gathered a wider audience leading to their being signed on by the California-based SST label. Ultramega OK caused a sensation in alternative music circles and was followed by a tour of Europe as well as a Grammy nomination.
In 1991, they made their first platinum album, Badmotorfinger, which exposed the band to an even wider audience and a grueling tour of the U.S. and Canada. Last year saw the group return to the studio to record another new full-length album entitled Superunknown.
This year they toured Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, apart from Europe. Thayil says the group is considering a Latin American tour at some future date. And this fall they head for another European tour.
Said to be the most outspoken, though generally the quiet guy in his band, Thayil has quite a grouse against the '60s generation which he feels wrongfully gives itself the credit for inventing rock 'n' roll and progressive values and lifestyles, a view held by most of "Generation X."
"I think most of them did not know what was going on then and don't know now. I don't think they grew up. There are still plenty of people in their 70s who still hold on to their idealism, have a clear vision of justice or truth. And there are a lot of these 40-nothings their lives are just some convenience. They can fit into the world in any way they felt was profitable to them, ultimately letting themselves to yuppiedom and materialism," Thayil asserts.
Their latest album though is considered by some to be a compromise, a more rhythmic and melodic style, more commercial and wide ranging in appeal.
Others have labeled the Soundgarden variety of music as heavy metal, grunge, industrial, etc. Asked how he would describe his own music, Thayil falls into a reverie.
"Well, the simplest heading has always been to call it hard rock. It's the general heading they all fall under." He stops then continues,"to become more specific is difficult because there isn't a lot of comparisons (sic) that can be made or references that can be used." He pauses and ventures "progressive hard rock" in a questioning tone and then immediately dismisses that description, "no, that sounds like King Crimson or something," referring to another punk band.
"Aggressive hard rock!" He concludes with a satisfied grunt, "with some arty elements...Punk rock attitude." He admits the question is a tough one they face all the time.
"I can tell you what it's not. It's not party music, it's not eschemic, it's not purely visceral. It's introspective as well as being aggressive." Thayil's words come out slowly and thoughtfully. When Soundgarden was featured on the cover of the prestigious Rolling Stone magazine's June 16 issue, it was clear the band had "arrived."
Thayil grew up in what he calls "a somewhat suburban sort of community, educated but not wealthy. Young families generally. Somewhat integrated...There were a lot of young professional families, Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, Jewish."
Kim believes his upbringing was not rooted in Indian culture or in any culture as such, but if anything, was more western. However, he occasionally reached out to put on a record and listen, he remembers of his childhood but he says he heard more Indian music through the Beatles than directly. He feels all that influenced the music he finally made.
Most of all however, it was the punk bands of his day that enthused him, the Stooges, Pere Ubu, he told IANS. That was when he formed his first band with Yamamoto called, "Zippy and His Vast Army of Pinheads," in suburban Park Forest, Illinois.
In 1981, Thayil and Yamamoto moved to Seattle, and in 1984, formally launched "Soundgarden." Yamamoto left in 1989 to continue his studies. Meanwhile, Chris Cornell joined, first as drummer and then as lead singer when Scott Sundquist entered the band as drummer.
Later Sundquist was replaced by Matt Cameron. Rolling Stone calls the band's latest hit, "easily the most cohesive record" the band has ever made, one that "reels you in like a big helpless trout the first time around."
Asked if they had succumbed to commercialism with age, Thayil bristles, "I don't know that it's a function of age. People suggest that as songwriters and bands become more mature, they become more melodic. But I think that's the record company's way of referring to sale ability. I don't know that it's a function of age."
"For all I know, our next record is going to be aggressive and chaotic. I think it's just where we are right now."
Thayil rejects the idea that Soundgarden's aggressive non-conformist gloom-and-doom scenarios, jangled nerves kind of music had been tamed by the system.
"I wouldn't know. We're selling all our records. Whether that would indicate that the system has embraced us...? It may not indicate that we have compromised ourselves. The marketplace has changed with the success of Nirvana and the Chilli Peppers, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and, to some degree, us. People are more open to this kind of music."
Thayil, generally low-key and modest, agreed that Soundgarden--and he personally--had a lot to do in defining the music of his age.
"Sometimes we think look at that! We did change...we have influenced the change in the popular music scene, the market or whatever."
As for his individual impact as founder of the band that fostered sound-alikes, "yes, I think my influence was definitely felt. I think it's there."
"I think there are probably more people in Seattle who give me that kind of credit." He quickly qualifies that, "but, you know, it wasn't as if I came out of a vacuum."
"A lot of the influence was also present with Yamamoto or with Chris Cornell, or with other bands in Seattle, or bands that preceded us like the punk bands I was talking about earlier had their influence too. So there is a lineage of influential performers and writers."
His music, Thayil says, defines his personality and that of his generation. To change his genre was unthinkable even if he ventured into playing other instruments.
"This is probably the best voice for me. What we are doing, we're not faking. It's definitely very sincere, where we are as individuals and as man collectively. So it would be insincere for me to dabble in other genres of music instead of one that gives me the best voice."