Soundgarden defined grunge. It’s not the band that made it huge, but it’s the band whose sound comes to mind when you think of the word. 1989’s Louder Than Love opens with a solid, thudding, nodding groove, over which a guitar played up the neck buzzes in your ear. It settles into a methodical riff that locks in with the groove until Chris Cornell comes in, singing, “You hide your eyes / but the ugly truth / just loves to give it away.” It’s the opening to “Ugly Truth,” and it’s a reminder of the band and grunge’s punk origins. If punk is nothing else, it’s an up-raised middle finger, even to other punks sometimes. You can hear punk’s “noise annoys” sensibility in Kim Thayil’s guitar from the start, but in a time when hardcore seemed to only get faster and more tuneless, Soundgarden slowed down. When there was nothing less cool than the ‘70s, the band’s sound could be traced to Black Sabbath.
On the recently released Live on I-5—recorded live in 1996—the same aesthetic is essentially in place. Soundgarden’s heavier, and it’s not always clear that there are treble strings on Thayil’s guitar, but years made that band harder without stripping it of its wildness. The feedback-heavy spray of notes that open “Jesus Christ Pose” celebrate electricity’s ability to create something dangerous and unpredictable, and the slugging riff in the verse is all momentum and energy. Cornell’s still singing about seeing through others’ manipulations.
At the end of 1997’s Lollapalooza, the band walked offstage at the end of the set and announced its break- up two months later. Band members have always addressed the break-up in non-specific terms—“We simply got to the point where we didn’t want to be Soundgarden anymore,” Thayil told Guitar Player in 1998. “We just needed some time apart from each other,” Cornell told Raygun in 1999. “Different members of the band were having uncomfortable feelings about every aspect of being Soundgarden.”
Soundgarden closes the first night of this year’s Voodoo Music Experience. Today, Kim Thayil is just as dispassionate and precise in the way he answers questions about the band’s current reunion. Reading his words, you realize that he may not be being evasive. It’s just how he is.
How many dates at a time are you doing right now?
In July, we did 20 in a little over a month. This is just Dallas and New Orleans.
Is that by design?
We based that booking around the Voodoo festival. We wanted to book a few dates around that. Chris is currently in Australia doing his solo acoustic thing, and Matt [Cameron, drummer] still has commitments to Pearl Jam, so we work around all those schedules. [In 1998, Cameron joined Pearl Jam.]
What’s the best part of playing together again?
The natural communication that happens within this band. Most bands that have sustained any length of time in their career probably have that rare combination of people who play well and write well together.
Is there communication onstage that the audience isn’t aware of?
I suppose. Sometimes with—not just our band but many bands—there are little inside jokes that refer back to rehearsals or practices or other tours or other shows. It might be a phrase that I would play on guitar, something Chris might sing or a roll Matt might do, but these are usually tips of the hat to somebody else in the band or maybe a friend who’s in the audience.
Is being onstage the easiest part of being in a band?
I don’t know what the easiest part of being in a band is. Touring can be taxing. Most bands that I’ve known going back 30 years met their demise after their first or second tour. They come back with some disagreements or some stresses or difficulties with the band or their personal life. But playing live is a different thing than touring.
It varies from person to person. Your hot dogs like showing off and getting the attention, and I’ve heard of people who are very stressed out about performing live. Performance in relation to stress can be plotted on a bell curve. As stress goes up, so does performance, and it peaks out at the top of this little bell, then as stress goes up, performance goes down.
There are people who can perform at the same level that operate on different levels of stress. You can perform at the same level, but it may take some people a high level of stress to motivate them— I’m not going to name names, but you’ve heard of these people in Vegas or guys in rock bands who get really nervous and maybe even sick before going onstage. Then you have other people who never have butterflies and are always on and willing to entertain.
Where do you fit into that?
It has varied in the course of my life, in different ages and different situations. I’m not one of those monkey boys [laughs]. I’m not Robin Williams, but I’m not that guy who’s throwing up and drinking a fifth of vodka to calm down. Generally, I don’t get the kind of nerves I got when I was in my teens or 20s.
[The methodical, dispassionate way Thayil answers that question echoes the way he plays guitar. His playing is rarely an expression of aggression; instead, he precisely makes the sound he wants—generally with an emphasis on heaviness. He’s one of the guitarists to credit/blame for the proliferation of metal guitarists playing drop-D tuning in the early 2000s.]
Does performing after a 13-year layoff change it at all?
In our case, the change is simply that we had a decade to grow up. We had a different perspective on ourselves as individuals and on the band. I’m sure there’s some maturity that goes into it. We’ve played with other musicians in various situations, and one is going to tend to compare and contrast that to other relationships they’ve been in. So we’ve all learned something about ourselves and about playing with other people. I’m sure that’s going to be indicative of positive growth.
I don’t know how other people might do it. If you’re paying attention to the World Series or the playoffs, some people like the momentum. Sometimes a team might end a series early so they have to sit around and wait for the outcome of another series to find out who their competitor will be. Some players don’t like that time off. They lose the momentum they had when they were playing well. Some do like the time off because they want to rest, they want to heal whatever injuries or sorenesses they’ve accumulated.
What did growing up change for you? How did it make getting back together again possible?
I don’t think getting back together was a consequence of growing up. I don’t think that was a particular problem. Relationships fall apart, whether they’re with a significant other or with a band, or even a partnership in business. Things always happen. Even great teams don’t last.
[pause] I don’t know—Given enough time—I don’t think there’s enough time to heal certain relationships. You’re probably not going back to your first girlfriend. It doesn’t matter what perspective you have on yourself or the relationship, I don’t know too many divorced people who are eager to remarry their former partner. In this situation, it’s more what we can bring to the table creatively, by playing with other people and having different insights into our interests and our talents.
[The middle of that answer is the only time Thayil seemed to struggle for an answer. It’s tempting to read it as him thinking about how to address issues that sparked the break-up, but only four people know exactly how it happened. It’s very possible that there’s far less to the story than we think.]
Did anything have to happen to make restarting the band possible?
Time. Most bands don’t get back together. I think bands that have had some success in the past are probably more likely to get back together because there may be encouragement from friends, family, management, record companies, even other musicians. We have so many mutual friends both professionally and personally.
I gather that dealing with business was part of what brought you back together.
Business is always going to be a part of it.
[In this case, business was a big part of it. In the Internet Age, nothing goes away. The band realized it needed to put its library on iTunes. It had to deal with merchandise issues. It had music out of print, and all of that gave the members occasions to reconnect.]
A lot of it is personal. It’s everything. It’s complicated. There’s sentiment, there’s desire for creative satisfaction. Having a band succeed is a function of a lot of different things. There really is an intangible sort of—I guess some people say there’s just a “magic” or “energy” to use some goofy metaphor to describe how things click. They just work. Most bands out there that have been together for any period of time, if there’s a collaborative nature to what they’re doing, it’s a pretty good bet that they have a very rare situation. They probably played with lots of people when they were younger, and they just found one or two partners where you realize, “Wow, we’re on the same page. We’re similar in abilities and interests, we communicate well musically, we support each other and inspire each other creatively.” I suppose one’s best muse is the people you’re working with.
I’ve been in a lot of bands when I was a teenager, and I’ve played with a lot of people since Soundgarden, and though I’ve had a lot of great situations, nothing was as immediately obvious as when we formed—the first few days we played back in the early to mid-’80s.
Was there a point when you weren’t together that you realized you missed it?
Yeah, probably immediately. We knew that there were other things that we wanted to do, but we also knew that there was a risk in that situation. In a band like this, everyone is a songwriter. You want to try out different ideas, go in different directions. We grow together, we listen to the same music, but at the same time you might be drawing from other influences and you want to spread your wings creatively. I think in any risk like that, when you choose to try new situations, you understand that you might succeed, you might fail, you may be losing a great situation.
I imagine someone like Cliff Lee probably had to think about that when he left the Mariners and went to Texas. But he didn’t want to be in Texas; he really wanted to be in Philadelphia, and now Texas is in the World Series and Philadelphia is not. You have to weigh those things: what kind of team are they building here? Do I like these guys? Yes I do, and I think I might perform well. I hate to make sports metaphors, but here we are in the World Series and a couple of unlikely teams are facing each other.
I think immediately you have some degree of appreciation for what it is you’re leaving behind. You know what ways your team works for you and what ways it doesn’t. But over time, playing with other people you might realize the creative benefits of working with other people and their novel ideas. At the same time, it’s hard to replace people that clicked immediately, and have 13 years of experience and growth together. It’s hard to replace that.
Soundgarden performs Friday, October 28 at 9 p.m. on the Voodoo Stage.