"King Animal" is the first studio album guitarist Kim Thayil has recorded with his Soundgarden bandmates in 16 years. It was 1996 when the grunge rockers-guitarist Thayil, singer Chris Cornell, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd-released "Down On The Upside" and then called it quits for nearly a decade-and-a-half before reforming for a one-off gig on April 16, 2010.
"We were a little bit nervous and there was some anxiety
," says Thayil. Buoyed by the performance, they ended up headlining Lollapalooza about four months later and opened discussions about making music together. Bassist Ben Shepherd made the first overture. "He said, 'Hey guys, I have riffs and some songs. I'd like to go in the studio' and that's what we did
." To pave the way for the release of "King Animal", the band put out the retrospective album "Telephantasm
" followed by the "Live On I-V
" record culled from performances back in 1996. In a phone call from London where the band had just landed to perform several promo shows for "King Animal", Thayil talked about making the new album and what happened all those years ago.
UG: In 1994 you released "Superunknown" and had huge success and then broke up two years later. What happened?
Kim Thayil: I think maybe just getting burned out. Every individual has different paces that they can deal with their daily life in the world and the band is an entirely different pace. We just had a number one album and the Grammy Awards and there was a lot more demand and that command just doesn't come from the industry. It comes from girlfriends, wives, friends, family and it comes from the strangers in the grocery store and from record company and management. "We have these opportunities and this door is open. Let's go through it. We don't have to walk through every damn door that's open but it's a wasted opportunity." We said, "Ahh, it will come again" and they said, "It may not be offered again" and those kinds of things.
"Many of our guitar solos tend to improvisational. As a general framework, I just kinda wing it."
There was a lot of pressure on the band?
It's like many decisions need to be made and many opportunities and you don't have to do every opportunity but some people have a hard time saying no and some people have a hard time saying yes. After a while you just want to slow the whole damn thing down. What we probably should have done is taken an extended break and put the band on a shelf and just go and do some other stuff. Put everything at a pace and a schedule that was more under our control like it had always been. It now seemed to me that the band's career was somehow somewhere else and we weren't driving the car anymore-we were in the passenger seat.
You didn't feel like you had any control?
That's because of all the demands and expectations. The record company wasn't being unfair and A&M was really cool to us. They rarely tried to make us do anything we didn't want to do. But between their advice was and the advice of management and the differing degrees of ambition within the band, how do you manage a collective career and a partnership like that?
"Down On The Upside" was the last album the band recorded. It wasn't as heavy as "Superunknown". Did you want to make a heavy album like "Superunknown" and Chris didn't? Did that add to the turmoil?
No. You wouldn't want to describe that as some kind of polarization because you have two other members in the band who are very strong personalities and are songwriters as well and they had ideas. As a matter of fact Matt and Ben had just come off of a side project that Ben started called Hater. A lot of songs that Ben wrote, which may not have fit with Soundgarden and he had some friends play on that. Matt played drums on that. They had come off that project and done some shows as Hater and doing an album as Hater. They went back into the Soundgarden project with a lot of ideas and expectations as to how to make a record from that experience.
So Matt and Ben's experience working with Hater impacted the sound of "King Animal"?
Matt and Ben had this perspective of making an album that just through inertia if nothing else, that carries over into the process with "Down On The Upside". It wouldn't be fair or correct to say you've got a singer and a guitarist here like Plant and Page or Jagger and Richards because those are clichés. You can have a conflict between the trumpet player and the accordion player. So you've got all these guys and they're all writing songs and they all have opinions as to how they think an album should sound.
What were your feelings about "Down On The Upside?"
"Down On The Upside", I love a lot of those songs on the record. It's not my favorite Soundgarden album but it's a good Soundgarden album. It's not that I'm naturally inclined towards things that are heavy. I'm also the guy who initially in the band would also introduce lullaby-like psychedelic elements by liking to play things like feedback and arpeggios. If you listen to the stuff I've done outside of Soundgarden, it is a lot of that stuff as well. I do like the heavy stuff but not in a visceral sense and not in the traditional way of a rhythmically visceral thing. I like heavy and something that's a little more internal and everyone in the band does as well. That's how Soundgarden got to be that way.
So Down On the Upside wasn't one of your favorite Soundgarden records?
I think with "Down On The Upside" there are just varying degrees of participation and sharing amongst the collective that was sort of dysfunctional. That's all. I think there's generally a band organization that keeps everyone in the loop as to what's going on and there's good communication. I think with Down On the Upside there was a slightly different energy and I think there's the touring aspect of things.
"We write in so many different combinations and in so many different ways. We don't really have a set process or formula."
What has it been like working with Chris Cornell on the new album?
Chris at this point in time in his career has become very productive and he's generating a lot of ideas. In the early days he'd write a song here, a song there, and by the late '80s and early '90s he'd become quite fecund. I hope I'm using that right.
The band doesn't play together again until April 16, 2010 at a gig at the Showbox At The Market, Seattle. What did that feel like playing together again?
It was very natural. In one aspect it was like that cliché you fall off your horse and you get back on it or you never forget how to ride a bike. A lot of it were those kinds of aphorisms as well as a jogging of the memory. Much of it was very natural and felt right and on another level we were sort of trying to see what each of us remembered and forgot. We each remembered and forgot different things including each other's parts. Matt remembered my guitar parts when I'd go, "Ahh, I forgot what I did here" and Matt's like, "Didn't you do this thing here?". And I was like, "Oh yeah" and vice versa. It was very entertaining and a lot of fun.
How did you feel at that gig?
We were a little bit nervous and some anxiety. We hadn't played together in 15 years and were playing for a packed house of our friends, family and peers and lots of other musicians and buddies. We figured this might be a crowd that might be very happy and proud but also might be very critical.
At this point was there any talk of doing a record down the road?
That talk did occur but not then and not at that point. Sometime after we did Lollapalooza in Chicago at the end of the summer it was Matt who said, "Hey guys, I have some riffs and some songs. I have free time in November and I'd like to go in the studio if you guys have time to come to the studio. I've got some riffs I'd like to have you guys learn." Obviously he had these musical ideas he thought maybe weren't appropriate for Pearl Jam and he thought, "Oh, I'd love to hear what Soundgarden could do with these." And that's what we did. We went in there and learned his songs and learned the ideas and introduced other ideas consequently over the next few days. It was pretty clear around then we were going to continue writing and look at booking studio time to work on a new record.
That spark was still there?
If we failed to successfully prestidigitate to the point where we create an illusion to fool ourselves, yeah, we wouldn't have done it. There would have been no reason and I wouldn't want to waste my time for two years. We didn't know it would take that long. We thought maybe we'd do it in under a year but because of other commitments that other bandmembers had it kind of took a little bit longer to finish it. I wouldn't have committed to that if it wasn't fun and enjoyable.
That was a dumb question.
No, it's not a dumb question because there are many people who commit to doing that kind of thing for some reason. Maybe they need to pay the property tax on their estate in Hawaii. I only have one house and I don't have any financial problems. I don't think Matt has any financial problems-he plays in one of the biggest bands in the world, Pearl Jam. I've read stupid reviews that say, "Oh, this is obviously a cash grab. That's why they made this record."
Fans really felt like you were just cashing in?
It's like, "Sure, because there's a huge market for live albums and greatest hits records." I think our attendance was really to our legacy and catalog. No one needed money and everyone's doing fine. No one expected the record industry, which is at a third of what it used to be when we were together, we didn't think that was going to carry us anywhere financially. But it was up to ourselves to enjoy that. What people sometimes forget and they need to focus on is believe it or not there are four human beings that have to see value in a relationship with each other. I mean you know how difficult it is for two people to manage a relationship and we all know that even in the context of a civil and legal commitment they still fail.
"Every individual has different paces that they can deal with their daily life in the world and the band is an entirely different pace."
Just imagine a partnership with four guys who are involved in something that's very emotional and sensitive like songwriting and musicianship where you're sharing of yourself. When you have that sharing and you feel it's not being embraced or if you feel that maybe you're feeling rejected, well that's a tough thing to manage with two people. With four people in the band granted we're not f--king each other-we're just f--king with each other. Still we gotta make sure the love is there and it was and so that's a good thing.
When you did get together to work on "King Animal" how did you feel?
Sometimes with distance you get a perspective. Sometimes in a band or a relationship kind of unravels you might have negative thoughts and feelings and sometimes those are reinforced when you see each other again. But over time you get a better perspective and the initial stimuli that triggered the response kind of fades. You start looking at the whole picture and the positive things far outweigh everything. Then when you get together and you have a positive experience, you start recalling and reminiscing all these humorous stories and warmly fraternal incidents and exchanges from the studio or the road or even extra-curricular or band experiences and other events with other friends. You realize like, "Wow, we really kinda grew up together" and you have a lot of shared biography there.
Telephantasm included "Black Rain," which was a song that actually started years ago?
The song was tracked during "Badmotorfinger" but never completed. I always try to emphasize because I read reviews where people are getting that wrong. It was never completed and it was never fully arranged. We had the basic drums and bass tracks down but we didn't like the arrangement so we just put it away. We never planned to do anything with it with that recording. We thought someday in the future we'll revisit the idea and rerecord it. Well, that never came about and we had other songs and then the band eventually broke up. Back then if you wanted to rerecord it, you had to rewind the tape. So it was like, "Okay, you try another take." If a part's too long, it's too long without taking a razor blade to the tape.
Why did you revisit "Black Rain"?
With the magic of Pro Tools you can go, "You know this part right here that went on and on? Take that out." It's like, "Oh yeah, we can do that. And you know what? This needed to have a chorus right there and it wasn't there. Oh, let's do that. Ah, that sounds kinda cool. You know what? I'm gonna go in and finish the guitar part and do a guitar solo." Chris would say, "Hey Kim, I'm going to write some lyrics and finish the chorus vocal." It's like, "Cool, we now have a song and a title and lyrics." So that's what it was. There was drums and bass and some rhythm guitar and some scratch vocals and that was about it. The song was arranged with Pro Tools and I'm sorry but without that that song would have just been forgotten forever. So that allowed us to do that. It was two-and-a-half years ago now Chris and I finished the song by doing the thing that usually is the last to finish, which is the vocals and lead guitar.
Was "Black Rain" meant to paint the way for a direction that the new songs would take?
No, I don't think so because once again that was two-and-a-half years ago and well before "King Animal" was conceived. That would have been in the fall of 2010 when Matt solicited us to go and learn his songs and record them.
In March 2011 you released the "Live On I-V" album that was recorded back in 1996. What are your memories of that performance?
It was a few different performances because it was recorded up and down the West Coast off the Interstate V. L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, the Bay and I think we did something in Sacramento, Vancouver B.C. and there might have been something in San Diego. I can't quite remember. We took the best performances of the songs we wanted on the album from those various shows. We didn't do just one show because we might have said, "Oh, everything sounds great in this show but 'Black Hole Sun' and 'Spoonman' sound great from this other show so let's put our best foot forward. It's the West Coast and the same week-and-a-half". Adam Kasper was out in a mobile recording truck outside of the venue recording the shows live and the intent was to record those for a possible live album. Of course when the band could no longer see eye to eye on being a band, we certainly weren't seeing eye to eye on finishing that record.
By releasing "Live On I-V" and "Telephantasm", that was also a way of setting the stage for the studio album.
This was all part of the dynamic of rebooting Soundgarden. Like, "Let's finish these and let's tie up these loose ends. Let's reestablish our website and our merchandise and make our shirts available. Let's take care of some of these out-of-print records" and things like that.
How would you describe the songwriting process?
We write in so many different combinations and in so many different ways. We don't really have a set process or formula. I think the thing that might be the most common occurrence is when Chris is the complete author and writes the music and the lyrics. At that point generally when he writes the lyrics and music that's the most common songwriting scenario. Generally when it gets to the band everyone adds their two cents. I add some other colors and parts and we might shorten or lengthen a section. But this album if you see the songwriting credits, Ben wrote the lyrics for a song called "Attrition" and I wrote the lyrics for "Non-State Actor." I wrote music for at least two songs and another I contributed a big hunk to. Matt's written the music for a couple songs on the record and Ben wrote the music for two or three. So there's a lot of stuff going on there. Some stuff starts with lyrics and some starts with music-it depends.
What was that dynamic like being in the studio again with Soundgarden?
Just playing again in terms of rehearsal and writing was very natural and as things were before more or less. But we've also grown differently. Matt's been playing quite a long period of time with Pearl Jam and Chris has played with other guitarists and drummers and stuff and Ben was the same deal. I think my taste kind of went a little bit more and ambient in ways kinda. When I say ambient I don't mean New Age [laughs]. We weren't just sitting around for 13 years. Everyone grew but we didn't grow with the bonus influence of Soundgarden and we grew with other influences creatively and socially.
"With four people in the band granted we're not f--king each other-we're just f--king with each other. Still we gotta make sure the love is there and it was and so that's a good thing."
You brought in those outside influences into making the "King Animal" album?
When the four of us got back together in a room together, it was, "Oh, it's still Soundgarden." There's still a way, which we relate with each other musically.
Can you talk a little bit about what you call color guitar?
Many people we know in bands have used the term color guitar but no one's really credited themselves with being the color guitar. They've all credited themselves with either being guitar or rhythm guitar or lead guitar. Granted in this band I do 95 per cent of the solos. I think in our early Chris might have done dual solos with me on the song "Little Joe" off the Sub Pop record [Screaming Life] and I think maybe on "Badmotorfinger" he might have done a little bit. But they're not really like improvisation solos-they're more color parts. We would talk that way.
Briefly how would you describe your approach to soloing?
Many of our guitar solos tend to improvisational. As a general framework, I just kinda wing it. As opposed to many metal bands with twin guitars that do harmonized leads and all their parts are all pre-written and scripted and we don't do that.
What kinds of parts specifically would you consider color guitar parts?
If something wasn't really a rhythm part and lead in a solo sense-in a spotlight or improvisational sense-the color guitar parts are everything from feedback to parts that are written that really aren't the main riff and don't necessarily emphasize the rhythm or improvisation or solo. We've always kind of called those things color guitar parts. They're sometimes things that are added later like in the recording process or just live.
You've actually talked about the term lead guitar as being kind of an insult.
I'm just wondering if it's archaic really for what we do. It might make sense with heavy metal but lead guitar didn't make as much sense with punk rock and hardcore bands that didn't really have lead guitarists. Would Johnny Ramone have called himself a lead guitarist? No, he's just the guitarist. In punk rock bands that had two guitars, they're both kind of playing dueling rhythms. Maybe one guitar will do kind of a lead but they weren't really soloing.
Saying you were the guitarist in Soundgarden didn't cover what you did?
To use the term guitar was kind of inadequate I thought to describe what I do and lead guitar might be a little bit pretentious because we do a lot of songs without solos. I wanted to like stop using the term lead guitar but I didn't want to just say guitar. If I said just guitar people would think, "Well then who's doing the fast lead parts?" It was, "Well that's me but I'm doing the rhythm parts and the color parts." And Chris does some color parts so I thought, "I'm just gonna call myself color guitar." And then Chris said, "Well if you call yourself color guitar, they'll think you're not playing the riff and you're not playing the leads. They'll think you're just coming in and doing some feedback and ambient things and some arpeggios." I go, "Okay, let's just say lead and color guitar. And once people get the idea maybe in an album or two we can just stop saying lead." I'd like to be at a point where as a guitarist, I'm doing things besides what would traditionally be referred to as leads. This is Lynyrd Skynyrd or Molly Hatchett where you've got like three guitarists playing a variation of a triplet [laughs].
When you chose the songs that would be on the King Animal, did you think about the legacy of what the band had already done? They style of music you'd created?
Were we judging ourselves by our previous accomplishments? Holding ourselves to that standard?
Well we were all very aware of the legacy in the band and being true to that. It would be hard for any of us to stray that far because we had four songwriters and four music critics. We were always trying to do something different to entertain, amuse and impress the other guys in the band. If I come up with a guitar riff it's gotta be something that Matt'll go, "Ahh, that's kind of a cool groove" or Ben would want to learn how to play or vice versa and they'd come up with something. So we're our own audience and we're not gonna impress each other by doing the same thing over and over again. We're gonna impress each other by doing something different. But we're not gonna impress each by doing some other band's material. If I walked in with a song that just sounded like a Ramones song or a Metallica song, the other guys would probably call bullshit and go, "Man, we can't do that. It just sounds like a Metallica song."
So you'd just scrap the song?
There are two things we'd probably do at that point-we'd probably just deconstruct and take out all the parts that weren't like us or we'd just scrap the whole song.
You're working once again with Adam Kasper who had worked on Superunknown and other albums.
He's a friend and has a history with us and he's worked with Pearl Jam so he definitely knows how to record Matt's drums. That's what you want to start really when you're talking about a producer. A lot of people think about the lead instruments-the vocals and guitar-and you want a producer who can work with that but you also have mixing engineers that can get those levels and have them sit well in the song. But I think we think a producer and often think of drum sound because that kind of sets the table and it defines the room in which you're playing in-the implicit room that's on the record. And that's defined by how the drums sound. You get the drums there and everything else fit or sit snugly in place.
"We were always trying to do something different to entertain, amuse and impress the other guys in the band."
Since Adam Kasper did record drums with Matt on Pearl Jam albums, that must have made the relationship even closer.
Matt of course has recorded with him with Pearl Jam and Adam's up in the Seattle area and he recorded Hater and some of the Wellwater Conspiracy stuff with Ben. We just had a rapport with him that made sense.
You're in England now about to start a tour?
We're here and it's a promotional tour. So we're doing like some TV shows and some interviews and radio. Then we're going back and doing some stuff in New York and Toronto so it's a very quick promotional tour. We are playing a few shows but they're smaller capacity and mostly for fanclub and press.
Will there be a regular tour?
Yes, definitely. We're starting with this to coincide with the release of the record.
How does that feel playing some of these new songs live?
We have to get tight on them as a group and at this point they're probably like 90 per cent there. Playing them live you gain some experience with the song and a different insight as to how you want to approach it and what's working. The first time we play a couple of these songs live will be on the Jools Holland show in London.
Being away for 16 years and still having your fans support you must mean a lot.
It feels excellent. Growing up bands break up and sometimes they reform and sometimes they don't. Often they'd reform and the concern is they somehow neglect their legacy. They come back and do something to ruin the legacy and charm that you've established in your mind. They do something that sounds different or they try to do something more commercial. We felt strong and comfortable about this record as being part of that-what would you call it? I don't wanna oeuvre because that sounds so annoying to say. You go egg in French referring to your body of work [laughs]. But I think it fits nicely in the body of work and it's not some appendage. Sometimes when bands reunite and they do another album, I don't file it with the others as part of their body of work. It seems like something that's separate. But with this I think it totally fits and the response from reviewers and some fans is that it fits with "Superunknown" and "Down On The Upside" and "Louder Than Love".
Interview by Steven Rosen
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