Reprinted without permission from The Music Paper,
ANGRY YOUNG MEN
Maybe it's the water. Maybe it's the air. Or maybe it's just a coincidence that Washington is producing bands faster than any other state in the USofA. It's not just a lot of bands, it's a lot of great bands. And it's not just the town of Seattle, though God knows journalists have beat the death out of the misnomer "Seattle Sound." In the case of Soundgarden, it's safe to use the S word if you're referring to the geographical name of their place of origin. It's a good idea not to use it to describe the scene or a genre.
In fact, most of the Washington State bands sound very different form one another. What many have in common, apart from a past or present association with the Sub Pop label, is their relentless ability to play rock 'n' roll for all the right reasons. You can call it grunge rock if you need to, draw comparisons if you must, but no matter what you do or say, Soundgarden plays pure, uncompromising, primal rock as vital, irrepressible and in your face as any band has a right to.
In this interview, Kim Thayil, Soundgarden's lead guitarist, talks about the pressure of touring with Guns N' Roses, takes pride in the success of his peers and comments of trends, fame and other life-threatening circumstances he and band members, Chris Cornell, Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron, face every day of the year.
The Music Paper: You've been touring with Guns N' Roses. That must be a thrill. What could be bigger?
Kim Thayil: Michael Jackson
TMP: Hmmmmm, Michael Jackson. Would you do that????
Kim: No way.
TMP: Good! The New York Times recently ran a story on the indie/major label question, which I'm sure you've talked about a lot. "Independent labels See Vultures Circling Overhead," meaning the majors. You've had experience with both. What's the difference? Money?
Kim: Yeah pretty much. And distribution, promotion....the resources.
TMP: Which is all about money. Do you think it's a good thing or a bad thing that major labels sign bands like you?
Kim: It's a good thing for them and for bands like us. Often, you know bands that come out of the independent market or are still there, they have a hard time staying together unless they are independently wealthy.
TMP: To me, it seems that indie labels are a great place to start out.
Kim: It's a great place to stay if you can afford it. Some of the indie labels don't pay their bands. There are notorious problems with a lot of the labels paying their acts, and it's hard to go out on the road and tour and come back and expect to have a job waiting for you...unless you work for your dad or something.
TMP: Do you think that there is anything negative about it? Sometimes it seems money ruins a band. You know sometimes a group doesn't need that much money.
Kim: Yeah, sometimes they don't. Sometimes lack of money ruins it. I see more bands break up because of lack of money.
TMP: Sometimes a band can be huge on an indie and like a small fish in a big pond once they move to a major.
Kim: Yeah, that happens. Sometimes the majors sign an indie band and they're doomed from the beginning. That isn't the case with a band like Nirvana.
TMP: Obviously not. So how are things going with you and the major label association? This is your second LP on A&M. Are you happy with the differences?
Kim: Yeah, A&M is excited about this record. They're behind us. They like the record - and, you know, we haven't exactly made a pop masterpiece. We're still doing what we do, for the most part. There are a few changes, I guess.
TMP: Well, every band needs to progress. Badmotorfinger seems like a natural progression from Louder Than Love.
Kim: It's a bit of a left turn, actually. We have a new bass player. Some of the stuff he's written and played on seems faster. Some of it is weirder.
TMP: Were you confident that with this album you have the freedom to experiment?
Kim: Yeah, We did what we wanted to do.
TMP: A recent article in the New York Daily News was talking about the revival of rock. It said, "Say good-bye to pop and dance, rock is on its way back." The only trouble was, it was talking about Van Halen and Springsteen. I was thinking more along the lines of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Metallica.
Kim: I know what you mean. Sometimes people just miss the boat. It's like when they talk about Seattle and the "Seattle Sound." They started referring to all these bands on major labels who just happen to be from Seattle. Many of the people making these references were totally unaware of Sub Pop.
TMP: So they call it a "Seattle Sound" when in reality it's more like there's just a really vital Seattle scene when it comes to music.
Kim: People were coming up here and offering demo contracts to bands.
TMP: Someone, anyone. They've been doing that with British bands, especially since this whole Manchester thing. It's like, "Oh you're thinking of getting a band together? Let's sign you." It's really ludicrous.
Kim: Right. Some of those bands dress up as though they were Mudhoney.
TMP: But, they're not. Mudhoney was doing it years before them. Mudhoney, you, Nirvana - it seems like you all know each other and have really nice things to say about each other. It's really genuine. All this great stuff is coming out of the same area at the same time. Are there any other great new hands in the Seattle area that I might not have heard of or are kids just sitting around and saying, "Let's get a band together, maybe we can get a deal"?
Kim: It's a little of both. Seaweed is a really cool band. There's also a lot of cashing in going on.
TMP: Tell me where the title Badmotorfinger came from. It really has a strong impact, as titles go.
Kim: It was sort of off the top of my head. I simply like it because it was colorful. It was kinda aggressive, too.
TMP: It describes Soundgarden very well.
Kim: It conjures up a lot of different kinds of images. We like the ambiguity in it, the way it sounded and the way it looked.
TMP: I recently saw you play a gig in this big funky greasy loft in Tribeca in NYC. Do you hate doing those kinds of things? Industry showcases?
Kim: Kinda, because you have more people stand there just checking you out. It's not as much fun as when you have a bunch of real fans out there.
TMP: It got a bit hostile at the end. Do you ever get scared when the audience get rowdy?
Kim: No. The audience is usually with us. Me, I'm either in a good mood or a bad mood.
TMP: Speaking of moods, what put you in the frame of mind to write lyrics on one of the songs this time around?
Kim: Yeah, I'm not really into writing lyrics as much as I am into writing guitar riffs. I really liked the music to the song and it needed words, and since no one else pursued it, I decided to. It's not really about things that have actually happened to me. It's more about experience in general. I've heard a lot of good ideas from people telling me what it's about. They said it's about God, Satan, Jesus, Satan, both, it's religious, it isn't religious . . . The truth is, it's just me.
TMP: "Jesus Christ Pose" seems like it's more about attitude than anything else.
Kim: Yeah, exactly. I think you can be religious without subscribing to any particular church.
TMP: A lot of the impressions and images I get from your music are dark and heavy, sometimes very menacing and angry.
Kim: Definitely menacing and angry.
TMP: Is the music a way to release those kinds of feelings?
Kim: You mean are we exorcising them? I think it's partly just the way we are.
TMP: So what's all this anger about?
Kim: I don't know. There are a few books that have been, and still can be written about it.
TMP: The "angry young men" type of thing?
Kim: Yeah. We're all little Albert Camus's with clenched fists and teeth, lashing out at the world. It's his prescription for dealing with an absurd world. It would be a good way to answer the question about why all the anger: Why not?
TMP: Do you think anger can be a positive thing?
Kim: Yeah. Sometimes it confirms that you're an individual, that you're not going to go through life with tunnel vision or wearing a blindfold.
TMP: Never been good at anger myself. Sadness is my specialty.
Kim: A lot of sadness comes from anger and frustration. Anger in music may help to get to a side of you that you have trouble expressing. You know, that's the trouble with some people, they just can't let their emotions be. People should have the courage to be angry. People always expect a person to be more emotional or more sensitive, (but) it's always the really tender emotions, like allowing yourself to be sad. People don't like you to be more emotional when it gets to angry. They say (anger) is not a constructive emotion and tell you to inhibit it. I think that's more destructive, (the idea) that you can be sensitive but only in a way that's approved of.
TMP: Ever been in therapy?
Kim: Actually, when I was younger. I had a social worker because I was angry. But that was more to do with the fact that I was young and had all these decisions to make about school, work, girlfriends, bands and parents.
TMP: Do you think it gets harder and harder for each generation of kids to make decisions about their lives?
Kim: I think everyone goes though a period of time where things are very difficult. You get through it. I think it's a rite of passage.
TMP: Do you related closely to your fans?
Kim: Yeah. I figure if we're doing the music we like and we're being honest, then the people we reach are like us and it proves our honestly. We're not a gimmick band. We don't fool our audience.
TMP: You've been doing this hard rock thing since way before it became fashionable again. This leads me to conclude that you don't give a damn about what's trendy.
TMP: I think it's a good sign that genuine rock is having an impact. Nirvana's success is so gratifying.
Kim: Yeah, because it means that the record industry is turning over.
TMP: Do you see a connection between hard rock/metal bands and alternative groups? Is there a common bond, in that neither gets all that much mainstream airplay, even though both have very strong and loyal fan bases?
Kim: I think it's that we don't have broad commercial appeal in the sense that 14-year-old girls that hang in malls don't buy our records, because people push bands like New Kids on the Block way over the top. I mean, how many punk and hard rock fans are there to sustain album sales of two million?
TMP: Well, a tour like Guns N' Roses could make it possible for you.
Kim: I imagine it will help. I hope it will.
TMP: Do you feel there will be any sense of competition between the two bands?
Kim: I don't think there can be. They've sold nine million records.
TMP: You could be next.
Kim: I don't know. I think it will be a long time until a hard rock band sells that many records again, except for maybe Metallica.
TMP: Do you find that you still get compared to other bands or does it happen less as you become more well known?
Kim: Yeah, it happens less. I think people need to do it when they don't know who you are.
TMP: Maybe a point of reference?
Kim: Yeah, and as you get more established, they refer to you in terms of your other records.
TMP: So how will you top a tour with Guns N' Roses? Sell nine million records?
Kim: I don't think it's possible.
TMP: Could you cope with it if you did?
Kim: I don't know. I'll tell you if it happens.