Reprinted without permission from KERRANG!, March
When Seattle burst its supersonic bubble all across the world, its resident bands became overnight stars. In a whirl of scuzzy hair, flannel shirts, Doc Martens and loud twisted guitars, grunge changed the face of rock music for good, dragging it by it's backcombed hair out of Hollywood's cartoon sleazepits into the reality of the '90s.
Soundgarden were there from the start. With their distinctive blend of volume, agression, psychedelia and massive, fuck off riffs, they dug a solid groove for themselves with early albums Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love. Unlike Nirvana and Pearl jam, Soundgarden took a while to get going. Instead, they built a sturdy following, so when Superunknown went sky high in 1994, they were well prepared for the hedonistic heights of fame.
Kim Thayil, the band's philosopher-guitarist, well known for his drunken musings on the meaning of life, has managed to keep his feet firmly on the ground. He's still driving a used car and is more impressed by obscure intellectuals than dazzling celebrities. Coasting along on a parallel plane, he defies all rock star cliches with his intellectual eccentricities, injecting Soundgarden with a full quarter of their highly distinctive character without slipping into the nutter bracket. But how and why has this most unlikely of candidates made it in the music industry?...
Kerrang: Why did you want to play the guitar?
Kim: Because it was louder than I could scream. I used to listen to records and I always liked a lot of guitar. I was 15 when I started, and I think it was just really empowering. It was a way of saying fuck off without having to yell.
Kerrang: Can you remember your first gig?
Kim: It was with a band called Bozo and the Pinheads. Half the material we did was covers of the Sex Pistols and The Ramones, and the rest was original. I was 17 and we played at a school talent show in front of about 500 people. If I remember rightly, there were a few people that had their hands over their ears, and other people were politely tapping their toes. I don't think punk rock went over very well in our school at that time.
Kerrang: What was the first song you ever wrote?
Kim: Well, it was never released. It was called Plastic Love and it was kind of angry and funny. It was pretty punk rock. I think the first stuff I ever wrote with Chris (Cornell, Soundgarden vocalist) was with Hiro (Yamamoto, original Soundgarden bassist, now with Truly) as well. We recorded the songs and played them live, but we never released them.
Kerrang: How did the Seattle/grunge explosion of the early '90s affect your life?
Kim: I think in some ways it definitely aided our band and some of our friends' bands, so it was positive in that way. I think one of the bad things about it was the level of success, which caught some people by surprise. You become more recognisable in your hometown. We started having more 'friends', and all of a sudden our families began to increase! It was a bit strange.
Kerrang: How did you stay sane throughout it?
Kim: To begin with, we were pretty well prepared in that we avoided all the rock star pathways. We weren't womanisers or druggies or anything. So I think that was probably a big buffer to that, and I think we had a good understanding of ourselves. There's a way that you see yourself and there's a way that hundreds and thousands of people see you. As long as you don't value yourself in the way they see you, you'll keep your head screwed on. Your closest friends don't think you change that much, so they're not affected by it, which is good.
Kerrang: Is there anything you'd have done differently in your career?
Kim: No, not really. There are always minor things, like maybe we should have recorded a song a little differently, or said something different, or said something different in an interview, or played another song live. Then again, there are decisions we could have made that might have made things worse. Amongst the hundreds and hundreds of decisions we've made, though, we've made a few right ones.
Kerrang: How did it feel going home after the Superunknown tour?
Kim: Well, it felt different in some ways, because things were changing at home for individuals rather than for the band. Some relationships ended, and new ones began.
Kerrang:How has the fact that you studied philosophy at college helped you in what you do?
Kim: It helps me make decisions where the band is concerned. In a general way, it's just provided me with an education and makes life more interesting. I don't have a specific way of looking at the world and I don't have a religion that dictates how I live or anything. But you're definitely less likely to be fooled by bad ideas or decisions in a lot of areas. It helps you put things in perspective.
Kerrang:Who has been the key figure in Soundgarden's success?
Kim: Everyone has contributed really. Chris made us commercial and Matt made us professional. And the stranger elements contributed by Hiro and Ben and myself gave it all a different twist, a colour. But at this point, we're all contributing each of these things. I guess in all fairness Chris has contributed the most to our success. As the singer he is the focal point for the band, and over the last four years he's developed into a very gifted lyricist. And that's one of our strongest points.
Kerrang: What has been the most outstanding legacy of Seattle fever?
Kim: It's hard to say legacy, because in some ways that indicates something that's past. Pearl Jam are still going, we are, Alice in Chains and Foo Fighters are, so there's still a lot of talent coming out of the area. But one legacy is that it seems to have killed hair rock - that kind of bubblegum pop that masqueraded as heavy metal about eight years ago. I thought that was pretty satisfying. I've always liked agressive, heavy music - Black Sabbath, Sex Pistols, Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Led Zeppelin and Kiss. Now there's this ridiculous collegiate pop here in the US which is masquerading as punk. It's almost as nauseating - it has no balls to it. I think that might be a depressing legacy of grunge, that we got rid of one shitty element but we've ushered in this other shitty element. Nirvana were a great band, but their success sure ushered in a whole binch of wimpy clones that kind of gibber away on MTV. It does seem like it's just a matter of time before bad things come back into music. It's what children and housewives like! Thank God for bands like Metallica and Alice in Chains and Nine Inch Nails...
Name: Kim Thayil
Most treasured possessions: "I don't think there is a particular material possession I treasure. Immaterially speaking, my sanity and my intellect."
Family: "I have a younger sister."
Define success: "As long as you're happy and satisfied and have a working will."
Male idol: "I don't really have any, but then again there are a lot of people, writers, who I admire. Noam Chomsky (American intellectual and commentator) and Albert Camus (French intellectual and writer) are just a couple."
Female idol: "Again, there a people I respect. Like Camille Paglia (controversial, outspoken American professor) and Elizabeth Loftus (American professor). Basically, I admire people who are intelligent, who clear the air of all the bullshit which makes it difficult to think."
Personal successes: "There's so many. The relationships that I have, the friends that I've made, everything we've done as a band. I think the thing that's been most successful has been being able to establish a meaningful relationship. I'm very fortunate to have that."
So how much is Kim Thayil worth?
Enough. He still drives about in a beat-up old van, but not because he can't afford a new set of wheels, just because he doesn't care about such things.
Has he sold any records or what?
Yes he certainly has. Superunknown exploded all across the world to the tune of more than five million copies.
What would Kim Thayil do if he won the lottery?
Kim: I don't know. I'd still want to play my guitar. I think I'd give some away, and I'd probably buy a store, a cafe with a book store, or something.
With their fifth studio album due to appear later this year, Soundgarden are still very much on the up. No doubt this will earn them another fortune, and no doubt Kim won't have a clue what to do with it...