Progress Report: Soundgarden
PROGRESS REPORT: Seattle stalwarts get back on the road this summer and get busy on new — presumably heavy — music.
Soundgarden — the heaviest hitters in grunge — are back together and hitting the road this summer. In addition to playing a series of headlining shows and festival dates in support of recent career retrospective Telephantasm, the band will also reconvene during the coming months to record their first new album since 1996’s Down On The Upside. Having survived what was always rumored to be a fairly acrimonious split over a decade ago, longtime fans were surprised by the news that the band would reform. In the years since the band’s split, drummer Matt Cameron became a permanent member of Pearl Jam and front man Chris Cornell played with Audioslave before mellowing out and collaborating with Timbaland, while bassist Ben Shepherd kept a super low profile and Kim Thayil (aka Rolling Stone’s 100th Greatest Guitarist of all time!) played with bands like Sunn O))) and Dave Groh’s metal side project, Probot. We called up Thayil to find out exactly how the old reunion ball got rolling and what people might expect from the as-yet-untitled new record.
STEREOGUM: Did you always have a sense that Soundgarden would probably get back together at some point?
KIM THAYIL: No, not at all actually. I thought it was done, mostly because that was my sentiment about the whole thing. I just wasn’t interested. My interests had just moved on to different things, as I think it had with Chris and Matt and Ben. Still, we were all always gonna be connected in some way, you know? I still exchanged messages with them on occasion, but I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that it was over with. So, yeah, it was a surprise when it happened.
STEREOGUM: So what changed then?
KIM THAYIL: It was a very gradual process. We initially just got together to talk about band business, legal and financial stuff. We still had this partnership with each other because of the music. So, it was like what do we do with Badmotorfinger and Superunknown and the early SST stuff? What do we do about the early stuff that’s now out of print? There was just a lot of stuff that we needed to sort out that I think we’d all just been ignoring. So, from that we got started talking. You know, the first couple of years after we broke up we really paid attention to things, but after that you kind of start to neglect things. For example, people kept telling me that they couldn’t find any Soundgarden t-shirts, which got me thinking, oh yeah, I wonder who has the rights to our merch now? We didn’t have a deal with iTunes or a website or anything. Then Chris sent out a tweet that got everyone excited about us getting back together.
STEREOGUM: But it wasn’t actually official yet, right?
KIM THAYIL: No, not at all. I had all these people calling me — including my mom — asking when we were gonna start playing shows. That tweet turned out to be a good thing, though. All these promoters started offering us shows and it got us excited about getting together to jam and see what might happen. Matt Cameron REALLY wanted us to at least get together and jam, so that’s really how it happened. He was incredibly busy with Pearl Jam at the time, but he managed to make it happen.
STEREOGUM: And how was that first initial jam session?
KIM THAYIL: Really funny. We basically just spent hours laughing about how little we could remember about our own material. It had been so long. It was crazy having the drummer remember the guitar parts that I had forgotten or that I would often remember the vocal parts that Chris couldn’t remember. It’s very natural for us when we get into a room together to start coming up with ideas, so from the very beginning we were unexpectedly coming up with new material. Then we played a few shows and the feedback was so unexpectedly good that we just kind of kept going. Lots and lots of our friends — guys from Mudhoney and Alice and Chains and Tad and Screaming Trees and Pearl Jam — were all there supporting us, just going crazy about it. We were so surprised.
STEREOGUM: That must have been really gratifying.
KIM THAYIL: Oh yeah, very much so. I was worried. Reunions can be such a weird thing sometimes.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, they can be. Still, Soundgarden was such a huge band. I came of age — or, rather, I was in college — during the early 90S, and those records feel like very much a part of my life. They were important to a lot of people, and not just in a nostalgia-inducing way. I mean, it’s not like you guys are the Rolling Stones. I’d venture to say that you might even be better musicians now than you were back then.
KIM THAYIL: We are! Still, I couldn’t help but think of when I was young and bands that I liked — bands like The Who, for example — would get back together. I was always really dubious. It was like the bands were some kind of periodical or something, and once they got cancelled there was no subscribing to them again. I just didn’t want to be in one of those bands that got back together to play the county fair or a local casino.
STEREOGUM: So what happens next then?
KIM THAYIL: Well, our interest is in being a vital band. We want to write songs and record them. We’re still like kids in a candy shop when it comes to writing songs and hearing them recorded.
STEREOGUM: So what can you tell me about the new music you are working on?
KIM THAYIL: It’s funny; once again Matt is really the person who seems to be driving us forward with all this. He’s very enthusiastic and eager, which really motivates all of us. We’re all really excited. Being creative is far more satisfying than just playing the old songs. It’s been very natural. We just started jamming and it very gradually and naturally progressed.
STEREOGUM: So what is the status of things?
KIM THAYIL: We’re recording. We’re kind of doing it in stages. We have about 14 songs in various stages of completion. Previously, we’d just block out a bunch of time and go and track everything at once, but we can’t really do that right now. Matt has commitments to Pearl Jam, Chris has a solo tour happening and Soundgarden is touring in July. So we do the studio thing around those other engagements, which actually is turning out to be a lot better for us. It takes the pressure off in some ways. It’s not like, OK you’ve got three weeks and everything needs to get done in those three weeks. We can work at our own pace right night and take things one step at a time. We’re really enjoying it. We don’t have a record company or management pressuring us to hurry up, so we can really savor the process this time.
STEREOGUM: I realize it’s very early on in the process, but what can you say about the new songs?
KIM THAYIL: The vibe of the songs is definitely very heavy. We’ve always tried to explore how to make this really heavy, aggressive music without sounding like a bunch of knuckle-dragging meatheads. I think these songs are kind of exploring that idea. Ways of emoting aggression and anger and hostility in ways that feel new. You know, we never were really chipper guys. We were never the party band, or even a particularly social band. We were always really just hard workers and a kind of musician’s band. That’s what we wanted to be that. We wanted to play for an audience that reminded us of ourselves back when we were young, I always liked the idea that our fans were that guy or girl who collected records and wanted to start a band of their own and play good music. I always imagined we were the band that made the party end. Like, ok guys it’s time to leave now, someone just put on Superunknown! I always felt like we made music that was good for driving, good for listening to really loud. Wait, does that answer your question at all? The new songs sound really heavy. I’ll just say that.
STEREOGUM: I know you are a big fan of the Southern Lord label. A lot of people might not realize that you played on Altar, the SunnO))) record.
KIM THAYIL: Oh yeah. I love all that stuff. Boris. SunnO))). Earth. The experimentation that has happened with ambient metal, I find that so fascinating. There is always this emphasis in most heavy metal music — whether it be punk or hardcore, Metallica, whatever — to focus on the visceral aspect of the music. But there is something else besides that. I really love moody, psychedelic stuff. A band like Boris is really at their best when they are exploring that aspect guitar music — a record like Amplifier Worship. It’s just beautiful and amazing. I’m not a huge fan of the cookie monster growling vocals, but when people really explore the ambient, psyched-out side of things … I love that. I’m really moved by it. I really like OM. Actually, I discovered Stereogum because of Haunting the Chapel. You guys wrote about the Storm of Light album.
STEREOGUM: Yes. Brandon Stosuy wrote about that. Another record that you played on.
KIM THAYIL: It’s cool to see that there’s a place where metal music and indie-rock can be talked about with equal amounts of respect. There was always that division between the two things, which was something that Soundgarden always kind of fought against. Punk rock versus heavy metal. We always thought, why do punk rockers hate metal? And why do metalheads hate punk rock so much? In the end you are all white kids from the suburbs, it’s just that one group reads more literature and the other group is better at working on cars. It’s all cool, come on!
STEREOGUM: So what happens next for you?
KIM THAYIL: Touring next month, finishing our record sooner rather than later. You know, it just feels good to be doing this stuff. I like the idea that we’ve all come back together to tie up the loose ends and sort of attend to our legacy, such as it is. We want to see that our back catalog is treated with care, that our fans aren’t ripped off, and we want to make really vital, creative, excellent new music together. Also, as the sort of unofficial custodian of the Soundgarden archives, I want to make sure that our unreleased material is handled in the right way. It really bums me out to think about all the material that never got released by Nirvana. They were one of my favorite bands ever — a band that felt like our little brothers and were simultaneously our peers and also an incredible influence on us. To think that there was all this unfinished work that can’t be shared and people will never hear, it’s just a shame. It really makes me want to do the right thing with Soundgarden. It makes me thankful to be in a band. For a long time I just didn’t want to think about record contracts and managers and publishing—I just wanted to jam with my friends and drink some beer and enjoy my life. But it feels good to be doing this again. I think we all feel that way.
Soundgarden’s on tour this summer. Check the dates.