Seattle rock pioneers SOUNDGARDEN are back, some decade-plus after calling it a day. Amongst the grunge legionnaires, however, Chris Cornell's crew are the only ones who have returned with the classic lineup. I caught up with guitarist Kim Thayil over the phone just as the guys were set to embark over a much anticipated tour supporting King Animal, their first proper release in 16 years (yikes!), Believe it or not, this reunion, of sorts, which lands at the Orpheum on Sunday, all started over a thoughts on the bands t-shirts and posters.
“It was never formally discussed, ‘Hey, you guys want to be a band again?’," Thayil says matter-of-factly. "There was a neglect in attending to our catalog; we have no website, we have no ecommerce presence whatsoever -– no Facebook or website. We had an official and unofficial site from the '90s; the official one was run by the record company, then the record company was gone, and the unofficial, which was actually a better website, that guy kept it going for a few years, but then we broke up and he let it go.”
“There was nothing for the past decade,” he adds. “There was no website where you could just get information like discography or interviews or videos or merch -– and there was no merchandise in retail. Friends of mine and friends of other guys in the band, they had kids in junior high learning how to play bass or playing in a band at school and they’re kind of checking out their dad or their brother’s record collection and they’d go to the record store and they wouldn’t be able to find any Soundgarden t-shirts or posters. But of course there’s plenty of stuff from our peers like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, etc. We just thought that we needed to correct the neglect that had gone on for a decade.”
The last thing on the table, according to Thayil, was to reap fruits of success gone by doing live gigs. So may other outfits from the fertile ‘90s-era in Seattle and elsewhere had attempted to resurrect their careers to varying degrees of success.
“There’s a lot of other bands; Alice in Chains came back a few years before us, Smashing Pumpkins -– I guess that’s not really Smashing Pumpkins, it’s just a Billy Corgan solo project with a bunch of new guys, right? But there were a lot of bands that became active again, Pavement became active again,” Thayil says. “I don’t know what it is; maybe when we were broke up we were all younger and everyone grew up and realized there’s sort of a lull as far as interesting popular music -– in my opinion.”
What separated Soundgarden from others in the pack was the decision to cue up new music. It wasn’t a cash grab, which, in all truthfulness, kind of pisses off Thayil when the press started laying it on thick in that way; Soundgarden professes to be back for reals, yo. They did the reunion gig, but Drummer Matt Cameron, who recently had been stickman for Pearl Jam, pushed the envelope and presented some fresh material.
“Matt brought it up,” Thayil says. “He had some songs which he had demoed that he wanted us to learn. He thought these songs were Soundgarden-like and that they might have been more appropriate for us than Pearl Jam and he wanted to hear us play them so we said, ‘Sure; we’ll go to the studio and learn your ditties.' And we did and we had a blast and we love the songs and other ideas were coming out. Chris had some, I had some, Ben had some and we just started jamming.”
“When we started touring and we put out [compilation album] Telephantasm, there were some reviews that said, ‘Oh, well Soundgarden is obviously doing a cash grab.’ I thought, ‘Cash grab? How is it a cash grab? Since when is there money in making records anymore [laughs]?’ I mean, playing Lollapalooza was a one-day payday but... and by the way, since when do we need the money? We’re not like the Afghan Whigs or Pavement, we had a fairly successful career,” Thayil says before getting further heated. “Matt Cameron played in Pearl Jam for god’s sake! What the hell does he need to spend another, you know, 20 hours a week dedicated to writing and rehearsing Soundgarden songs and tending to Soundgarden business? He’s doing just fine thank you.
"I think for Matt it’s really just a labor of love and it’s a great creative outlet for him. He wanted to see [bassist] Ben [Shepherd] and I playing again and Chris and writing new Soundgarden songs. I don’t think Chris needs the money, it seems like he did pretty well with Audioslave and his solo career. When people said 'cash grab' I said, ‘Huh?’ I’ve been semi-retired. I didn’t need the money; I guess if I needed to I could’ve started a band and toured a whole bunch.”
“I think on a lot of levels it was a matter of pride and having our legacy be one that we could admire and respect ourselves; they way that we looked at the Beatles or Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin when we were growing up. I think that growing up we always wanted to be that band that would have us as an audience, like, as fan that would want to have our poster on their wall in their room or put our record on and try to figure out riffs and get together with their buddies and play 'Jesus Christ Pose' or 'Rusty Cage.' We were that band, trying to figure out Zeppelin songs or Ramones songs. And here we were without that presence.”
The presence has since been established. For the past several years, it truly hasn’t existed. Now it does, and Thayil can finally focus on the music, the live shows, and the road ahead.
“It feels great -– and precisely because of what you were getting at, and what I, in a circuitous fashion was probably getting at which is being a creative partnership and that’s what feels great.”