By Martin Popoff
SOUNDGARDEN, are forever ensconced in rock history as one of “The Big Four,” right there along with yer MAX WEBSTER, GILLAN and THE POLICE. Wrong Big Four? Well, this is the kind that really breeds excitement, along the lines of VAN HALEN’s idea of making 30 minute records to leave them wanting, other bands (too lazy think of any) not doing encores, sometimes randomly, to leave them wanting. Anyway, the idea is that Soundgarden broke up before they could make anything near a bad album—but after having made a good little pile of them—and thus are forever enshrined as one of these bands that left a catalogue of only beauty.
But of course, most can’t resist returning to risk all that, and so have Soundgarden, figuring a 16 year break from each other (and more so, the proverbial rigors of exhaustive touring, rekkid-making cycles) was enough. There’s been but a peep from Kim, and undergroundy project things from Ben and Matt. But of course it’s been Chris that has been left to take all the slings and arrows. AUDIOSLAVE had a way of annoying everybody, and the solo albums were an even nicer version of that.
Ergo there goes the excitement over a return to touring, a live album, a smatter of new material, and now a sprawling new studio album called King Animal, stuffed full of slide rule riffs, cat howls, rhythm section origami, and more of that ever-luvin’ signature grunge that frankly was a kick of magic ass when it happened back with Soundgarden’s Screaming Life EP, but also the GREEN RIVER (second) EP and album, the MUDHONEY EP and NIRVANA’s Bleach (this writer’s Alive Five, bought upon arrival at the old location of Zulu in Vancouver, great grunge adjunct of a store).
“Belligerent, paranoid, that sort of the thing,” begins guitarist Kim Thayil, describing the new album at a Toronto hotel in-person, after a few minutes opening chit-chat about the fine music made by BE BOP DELUXE. “No, I don’t think it’s belligerent and paranoid. I would say that for a small, little nation, that’s upset with its neighbours (laughs)...”
“Angry older brother,” quips drummer Matt Cameron, with his own Toronto connection, having drummed on GEDDY LEE’s solo album. “I wanted it to have a sort of fuller, richer low end than what we have had in the past.”
“Certainly more than Down On The Upside,” says Kim, with Matt adding, “Yeah, Superunknown had a real nice full sonic landscape. You can hear the bass guitar and you can hear the sub-tones and everything. So I think that was our philosophy, just in general. I mean Adam recorded everything exactly the way we needed it to be recorded, and then our guy Joe Barresi put the final touches on it.”
Given the weird, heavy vibe between press and the band over the 20 years I’ve now not been getting interviews with the band, I wasn’t about to put my hand up and say that King Animal was what was expected (happily, I might add). Still, I had to ask if this band of self-aware meta-metal smart-alecks had experienced any degree of hand-wringing over delivering “the expected.”
“I don’t think we’d be capable of making a record that people would expect of us,” muses Kim. “Because there’s so much variety on any of our records. Even though it sounds like us, if you deconstruct it, and you look at the arrangement of the songs, and whether they’re vocal accompaniment or riff-oriented, you’ll see there’s a real eclecticism from an ‘Applebite’ to a ‘Never The Machine Forever’ on a ‘Down On The Upside’: ‘Mind Riot’ and ‘Rusty Cage’ on Badmotorfinger. So I don’t think that we could have fallen into that trap, trying to patronize an audience or market.”
So what is that market? Who exactly are Soundgarden’s fans?
“What we found and learned is that they’re often guys... many are musicians, many of them are record collectors, record collector geeks. Some of them are just guys that drink Wild Turkey and sit on the hood of their Camaro. Anything from car prowlers to comic book nerds to just (laughs)... generally, I’m going to say that most of them are by and large the type of kids that end up forming bands themselves—which is the type of kids we were. The kind of music we listened to, we formed bands based on the kinds of records we had, and I think we are that band.”
That heavy vibe I mentioned is a friction generated by the fact (or paranoid imagined notion) that Soundgarden, like, more famously and vociferously, THE CULT, were a band that didn’t talk to metal press. So I certainly wasn’t going to talk metal with the guys. But, hey, what about post-punk? The relationship between that music and grunge is pretty interesting, and less explored than the genre’s relationships with metal and punk.
“I think it informed us in a lot of really good ways,” says Matt, floated this boat. “I liked bands like GANG OF FOUR and BAUHAUS. And WIRE; that was a big one for us. DINOSAUR JR was big as well.”
Says Kim, stretching the standard def, “All the like ’84-on stuff on the SST and Touch and Go labels, HÜSKER DÜ, SONIC YOUTH, BUTTHOLE SURFERS...”
Reacting just like John Lydon did with me recently, to the idea that the guitar is exiled in post-punk, Kim counters, “I don’t think the guitar is exiled at all! The guitar is actually liberated. The guitar is free. It was textural, it was punctuated—you might call it colour guitar as opposed to lead guitar. That’s kind of very much, in a way, how I like to play. I mean, I play some traditional manner, but I don’t think you can listen to a Soundgarden album and not hear a little bit of Daniel Ash and Andy Gill.”
Back to the new album, on the subject of songwriting, specifically the music end of it, Kim explains that, “I think Chris has been consistently a complete author, for a number of years, right? So we don’t embrace every song that he presents to us. We might like the song, but we may not see it as the kind of song that we would play, or record. Ben, occasionally is also a complete author. Most of the time we’ll bring in music that’s arranged, and Chris will write lyrics to it, or Matt will often bring in music. In the context of Soundgarden, I think I’ve only been a complete author once, and that was ‘Never The Machine Forever’. Is that what you’re asking?”
Adds Matt, “I think what you’re asking is, yes, there is a distinct personality to a song that’s written by a certain guy in the band. I think the individual writer’s imprint on that song does sort of come out in the personality of the song, but once it’s given to the group, it certainly, ultimately has a Soundgarden sound to it. I think that’s one of our strengths, is that each guy has sort of a unique writing style that fits this band.”
But with Chris and you and Ben, would you write on guitar? Would you bring in big steaming riffs, or does that all come from Kim?
“Yeah, I brought in a couple of steam riffs for sure,” laughs Matt. “But once I get them to Kim, they get steamier. But you know, it’s been fun to hear Chris’ songwriting develop over the years of the band. Like Kim says, we didn’t always play all of them. But I don’t think that was the case on this record. I think we did use everything that he brought in.”
“There’d be a little bit more self-editing or discriminating,” explains Kim, “as far as knowing what it is we would like, to match taste.”
“But there is an individual personality that informs the collective sound, for sure,” figures Matt. For example, with Ben... “I expect there to be a lot of rhythmic catches and interesting takes on harmony and melody. But there’s always a lot of tension... in an awesome kind of way (laughs).”
“I think everyone kind of grew,” reflects Kim, looking back at the astonishing gulf of years since Down On The Upside. “I think, you know, maybe Chris has changed most? Mostly because his situation has changed most; he’s gone through more changes, personally and with his life. Chris also relocated geographically, but he’s still Chris. But he may have gone through more changes simply in his biography, and in that case, that will inform whatever, you know, personal or cognitive…”
“I think he was in kind of a dark place there for a little bit,” interjects Matt, “and he came out of that. Kim and I chose not to change (laughs). No, but I raised a family, and I’ve got a big old life outside of music, which is great.”
As for Kim’s dropping out of the rock for all that time? Well, yeah, what the heck has he been doing all those years? I mean, he’s seemed to need the music business a fair tip less than the other Soundgardeners...
“Well, there’s no financial reason. I didn’t have any ridiculous expenditures. I don’t have a drug problem, I don’t collect cars, I don’t travel a whole lot. So, I don’t know. I didn’t feel like I was obligated to anybody. In order to feel useful, I just had to do whatever it is that would make me happy. For me, certainly being creative, but also being contemplative was important. So I would say just learning, or in some cases just ruminating.”
“About learning,” says Matt, sagely.
“About learning,” laughs Kim.