Reprinted without permission from Massive!, January 1997
TALKING ABOUT SABBATH, THE RAMONES AND NIRVANA? IT MUST BE... SOUNDGARDEN
Just what is it that lets Seattle be the home of so many brilliant bands? Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and of course Soundgarden all come from the state of Washington way over the other side of the Pacific ocean. Just days before they headed off for their Australian tour, Murray Engleheart spoke with Soundgarden's legendary "sub-Sabbath" riffing guitarist Kim Thayil.
It's no big secret that Soundgarden, who released their first major label album - "Louder Than Love" - back in 1989, are the number one rock colossus to stride out of the Seattle area, and like all the greats they really know their rock. Almost seemingly too well at times. When a friend first heard "My Wave" from their 1994 album "Superunknown," they thought it was AC/DC. Bear-like guitarist Kim Thayil laughed probably out of pride as much as general amusement when I put this to him.
"AC/DC is definitely a great band," he said speaking to me from Nashville. "That's one band that we would still want to open for."
1996 was a year pretty much like any other for the Soundgarden juggernaut. Another Lollapalooza festival, this time headlined by Metallica, much to the horror of precious alternative types, is behind them. Thayil gave us the travelling show a mark of just an "OK," with the highlight being able to be on the same stage on a number of occasions as the farewelling Ramones. Their "Down On The Upside" album, released in May '96, secured the great reviews the band so rightly land on a permanent basis, even though those reviews this time around haven't been reflected in the sort of enormous sales figures that the "Superunknown" album racked up. Comfortable success with no enormous pressure bound to it.
"There was never really that much pressure during "Superunknown," Thayil explained. "People pretty much left us alone. There never really has been a whole lot you could tell is", he laughed. "I'm trying to imagine anyone telling us what to do. It just wouldn't work. I think people become very frustrated in having to deal with us that way."
"Down On The Upside" increased the start dynamic angle that the band were toying with on "Superunknown." Their trademark ultra-heaviness has given even more ground to a variety of more eclectic influences and instruments. The band's often-ignored sense of rough grace and fragile beauty have edged to the fore.
So just how did the mild-mannered, polite guitarist manage to get arrested last year for trying to get some asshole off his back while he was on the phone?
"It wasn't even a fan and it wasn't even at our show," said Kim, still puzzled about how it all came about.
"It was in the lobby of our hotel in North Carolina. We were done with our show and these people hadn't been at the show. They were attending a wedding that was going on in another room. But these people heard that we were staying in the hotel so they're sneaking out to look and see and they had been drinking so they were a little bit verbally abusive. I told one of them to go away with a twist of the wrist and that was it, just once. Eventually they went and called the cops because North Carolina have a special rule that if you strike a woman it's worse than if you strike a man. Unless you're a woman. I wonder what they do if a woman strikes a woman there? It blew out pf proportion. I wouldn't have been that big a deal had I not been who I am -- a guy in a rock band."
Which begs the question: are there any larger-than-life rock stars at this point in the '90s?
"To me there's not", said Thayil with a sigh. "I think there's some that might have that kind of air about them, you know, your Mick Jaggers or something. I guess there isn't any rock star who I think is so significant a personality with regard to their contribution to society or culture that can overshadow a great scientist or great Harvard professor or great writer."
While Thayil made no mention of Kurt Cobain -- my time frame was quite specific -- he is quick to recognise the enormous impact Nirvana had on punk and in a backhanded way, the metal scene which found fresh lease of unstudded life in the band's wake.
"[Teen Spirit] was this huge pop hit. It was on the pop charts, the metal charts and the alternative charts. It helped Smashing Pumpkins, it helped us, it helped Pearl Jam, it helped Alice In Chains, it gave credibility to bands that had pretty much been working the independent and underground scene up until that point and some bands signed to major labels like us and Pearl Jam which were just beginning to break."
So did Nirvana's advocacy of punk ultimately make for greater rock?
"I think it did in terms of the mainstream but there was better music than that going on in the underground, in the mid-'80s. In terms of what's popular, I think it added something to the mass market but even this stuff is starting to be homogenised. If you watch MTV or listen to the radio the stuff that was called punk, they have all these light versions of Nirvana out there and it just becomes the same damn thing. Something new comes out and some person at a competing record company will always get the bright idea that, well, if it worked, if you round the edges off and made it a little more accessible, that should work even more. So they go and do that and the next thing you know you have a big butter commercial, a margarine commercial that's ultimately selling more records than the initial change."
Like the Stooges' classic "Search and Destroy" being used in a Nike commercial?
"Yeah -- they have been doing 'Search and Destroy' in the Nike commercial and on this tour, the US tour, we've done 'Search and Destroy' a few times. Just to promote Nike you understand," he laughed.
Thayil's mother is Indian and probably wasn't and isn't a great Stooges fan. She did however bring a sense of discipline to his musical upbringing.
"When they could afford it my mum got a piano when I was in my late teens and she would play. She was a graduate of the Royal Academy in London on piano when she was 18 and she got her teaching certificate here in the States and was teaching music for a bit."
Did her cultural background in music have any impact?
"I went to India when I was eight years old for a month so I'm sure its influence was there. They didn't sit me down and have a Ravi Shankar album and say 'Here, check this out.' I think [it affected me] in subtle ways because I really don't know what the alternative would have been. I grew up with my parents so I don't really have a reference point from how that would have been growing up in a regular white American family. It probably did have and influence, I'm sure, but it's hard to pinpoint."
But that month in India certainly didn't hinder Kim's taste for rock music. Nor his interest in rock movies. I finished up our interview by asking about Kim's favourite rock movie.
"For a long time it was Quadrophenia actually. The Who's Quadrophenia. The Decline Of Western Civilisation, the first one where they interview Black Flag and Fear and stuff, I really like that. Spinal Tap is a great rock movie. I remember seeing the double feature of [AC/DC's] Let There Be Rock and [Led Zeppelins] The Song Remains The Same. That was the first date I'd ever actually been on. I asked this girl if she wanted to go and see a movie with me and she said 'Yeah, OK.' I said [In his best male bravado voice] 'Let There Be Rock and The Song Remains The Same,'" he laughed. "I guess she thought I was an insane, long-haired rock guy but she liked me. We ended up going out for another year, so it worked."
So there you have it. A Massive! rock star dating tip from Soundgarden's Kim Thayil. Take your partner to a rock movie double-bill on that all-important first date!