Kim Thayil - Beyond Soundgarden

During Soundgarden's 12-year run guitarist Kim Thayil and his compadres - Chris Cornell, Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd - enjoyed the rare, highly coveted distinction of having their cake and eating it too. After recording early works for both SST and Sub Pop, the quartet racked up indie credibility which it deftly cultivated into mainstream success once it signed with A&M. Though the distinctive brand of hard rock the band hammered out flummoxed and inflamed many a critic, the sincere flattery of countless imitators underscored the prowess of its music. And by the time Soundgarden recorded its final album, 1996's Down on the Upside, even the fuddy-duddies of the music establishment acknowledged its stature: two tracks from 1994's Superunknown earned the band Grammys for Best Metal Performance ("Spoonman") and Best Hard Rock Performance ("Black Hole Sun").

In the three years since Soundgarden called it quits, Thayil has had ample opportunity to put the past into perspective. His retrospect isn't exactly rose-tinted, but he's found a harmonious balance between the ups and downs. As for the future, Thayil's time is his own and he's at leisure to pursue music with as much or as little enthusiasm as he chooses.

He's been jamming with ex-Nirvana/Sweet 75 bassist Krist Novoselic and Sweet 75 drummer Gina Mainwal. Last December at the height of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Thayil, Novoselic, Mainwal and the inimitable Jello Biafra (ex-Dead Kennedys) joined forces as the No WTO Combo for a show to benefit the Institute For Consumer Responsibility. On December 1 while rubber bullets sprayed demonstrators mere blocks away, Live From the Battle in Seattle (issued on Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label) was taped for posterity's sake. After some Pro-Tools tidying by Novoselic and final production work by grunge impresario Jack Endino, the album - which features two Biafra chestnuts ("Let's Lynch the Landlord," "Full Metal Jack Off") two new numbers and a virulent 15-minute prologue by Biafra - hit stores at the beginning of May.

But the No-WTO Combo was decidedly a one-off project. Thayil, Novoselic, Mainwal and assorted associates continue to jam now and again, but Thayil has no immediate plans to settle down with a permanent new band. Going with the flow remains the order of the day, and that suits him just fine. Is there a lot of extracurricular music you wanted to pursue while Soundgarden was together?

Kim Thayil: Before the band broke up there were things I wanted to pursue that I couldn't because of the limitations of the band both in terms of time and direction. When the band broke up I thought, "Okay this is a broad new horizon - I can do anything I want!" And I decided I didn't want to do anything involving music. I wanted to get away from it and come back to it fresh but inertia set in and I thought, "Do I really want to do that again?" So did you take up fly fishing or start a novel or

Thayil: You know what you do on Sunday's? That's what I did every day. I read, watched movies, hung out with my friends. There was a lot of catch-up. A lot of opportunities to spend time with friends and family were missed [in the past] because of always being on tour. I relaxed, put everything in perspective, looked back on the last 12 years. What did I accomplish? What did we fail to accomplish? What more could we do? Things like that. And what did you conclude?

Thayil: Looking back on it, I think some of the aspects of being in a band that's successful in terms of popularity and creativity were not fully appreciated by the band members. Me included. It's kind of ambiguous. I don't know whether I didn't know a good thing when I had it or is it more like, "Wow I'm glad that shit's done with." Somewhere in between there. Do you find you're forgetting the unpleasant stuff?

Thayil: If you've ever been in a long-term relationship, when it first ends you spend a lot of time reflecting on how you're glad it's behind you. There's a degree of relief and you tend to focus on the negative things. Then time goes on and you start vacillating between remembering the positive things and remembering the negative things. It's like dropping a ping-pong ball: it bounces up and down and gradually the distance it returns on its bounce decreases and eventually it's real close to the ground and vacillating real fast back and forth between slightly less positive and slightly less negative, and eventually you get to the stasis and equilibrium sets in. I think that's kind of what happened with my reflections on Soundgarden. Would you ever consider.......

Thayil: .....Reuniting? Yeah. How much water would have to pass under the bridge - or how much monetary compensation would you have to be offered?

Thayil: [laughs] Will Lorne Michaels come on saying, "We'll offer Soundgarden $132 to reunite"? I don't know. I've thought about that, too. Sometimes I wake up and think "Hell no. I don't ever want to be in a room with all those guys again," and sometimes I wake up and think "Boy, I miss those guys." So I'm still ping-ponging there. How about just being in any band again?

Thayil: Less so. I didn't want to find myself in a situation where I felt I had something to prove. A lot of people do that. Their bands break up or they leave a band and feel they have something to prove to the other band members or to their audience or to themselves. I didn't want to get stuck in that. Those would be all the wrong reasons to do something creatively - carrying a chip on your shoulder. Rarely are individuals greater than the sum of the parts. Individuals in a band tend to feed off the resolve of conflict within a band. The resolve of most conflict leads to growth. Even if it isn't resolved there tends to be some insight in simply in tackling it or taking on the challenge. I think good bands have that kind of friction and collaborative support going at the same time and it's hard to recapture that in a different setting. Was there a particular incident or a conversation that led to Soundgarden calling it quits?

Thayil: Not really. It was a series of things. What I usually ask people is how long they've been in a significant relationship or what's the longest that they've worked in one job. At our age you're going to be hard pressed to find people who have been at one place for more that 10 years or been with one person for more than 10 years. And the band was together for 12 years. People grow apart and that initial spark kind of goes away. What are the most valuable lessons you learned about dealing with the music business?

Thayil: All the usual clichs we've known about since we were kids reading interviews with bands - the kind of criticism indie labels would have with major labels. For the most part a lot of those are true. We had a pretty good relationship with our label, A&M. Surprisingly so. Better than many bands have with their labels. I think the biggest insight really is that strength and trust in collaboration can really propel and sustain a band creatively. I've seen a lot of groups - friends of mine and peers - mismanage that. Longevity is a really key - if you can stay together for some duration that's greater than a tour or a record, then you should be able to have some success. So as part of your Sunday afternoon lifestyle, have you been listening to a lot of music?

Thayil: Every few months I go down to the record store and buy a bunch of CDs. I won't listen to a couple of them. A couple of them I'll listen to once and there's maybe one or two that I'll listen to a whole bunch of times. Nothing's blowing me away. Two of the things that stuck out was the last Jeff Beck record and believe it or not the last Fat Boy Slim record, You've Come a Long Way Baby. I really liked that a lot. I liked the samples he picked up. Do you still play guitar?

Thayil: Yeah. I go out and jam. Krist [Novoselic] and I had been jamming for a few months there before [the No-WTO Combo]. What's it like?

Thayil: It's related to what Soundgarden and Nirvana were doing. That was a good place to start from. I don't know if that's going to be ultimately satisfying for me or for him. I don't think I'd wanna do anything like that. I don't think he would either but I don't know. I'll have to think about it. How has your appreciation of music changed? I used to think that as listeners developed more sophisticated taste in music they'd inevitably gravitate toward twelve-tone compositions by people with doctorates in theory, but in actuality I just gained a deeper appreciation for really basic music like blues or AC/DC. You kind of live in the moment of the song and that's enough.

Thayil: So you're sliding into Buddhism and existentialism. That's [appropriate] because existentialism is plotting a being temporally as opposed to spatially and music exists temporally. I went through a period of time where - I don't know if I was being some kind of pretentious high-brow asshole or something - but when I was younger AC/DC was one of those bands I thought, "Oh man, file under 'jack ass.'" I was young and I was really into punk rock and I just thought, "I don't want to hear any of this sexist, racist crap." And then a few years later I grew up a bit and put it in perspective. You know, political and social merit and civic duty are all one of many elements you use to evaluate something that's culturally important. So in other words, I grew up and I lightened up. Here's the Barbara Walters question: if you could see yourself today when you were 16, how do you think the 16 year old you would respond?

Thayil: I'd be surprised at things. For one, I wasn't sure that I'd ever be this old. You know, I wasn't sure I was gonna live that long. Also because many things turned out better than I though they would when I was 16. Things were a hell of a lot darker then. I think a lot of people when they're young have varying degrees of hope, 'cause the world is full of possibilities and it's gonna open up and present itself to you. Myself, probably like many people out there, I had a lesser degree of that hope. I mean, I enjoyed being 16 - don't get me wrong. I was an adolescent kid who played loud guitar. But I couldn't really have imagined some of the things in my life that turned out just fine. So basically life is good.

Thayil: I'm not really saying life is good. I'm just saying it brought a lot more possibilities than I could see at 16. I don't know if I'm saying that right 'cause at 16 you could do anything. You could be an astronaut, or a doctor or a welder or something but a lot of that's just kind of confusing and hard to focus on when you're that young. I'm looking at things besides just music. So for now you're content taking things as they come, cruising leisurely into the future.

Thayil: I'm stepping on the accelerator but I'm not steering.

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