For an (unintentional) architect of the “Seattle Sound,” Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil sure likes a lot of punky New York and Detroit bands. He cites the MC5 as his all-time faves, with the Ramones a close second, also name-checking the Voidoids, Devo and Pere Ubu.
Soundgarden, formed in 1984 by Thayil and vocalist Chris Cornell, sound not-very-much-like those bands. Thayil, through a congested head/chest that he hopes isn’t turning into the flu, explains: “We’re on the cusp of these two different genres, so I like Sabbath and Zeppelin; I liked them more when I got older. As a kid, you only have 10 bucks a week to spend on records. I was going to try to find the Pere Ubu album; I didn’t need to buy the Sabbath record, because my buddies have it, or it’s on the radio.”
Soundgarden’s beefy, riffy yet ethereal and heady heavy rock approach turned the band into radio favorites and grunge poster boys in the early ’90s, thanks to enduring hits like ‘Jesus Christ Pose,” “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun.” Cut to King Animal, the quintet’s first CD following a band hiatus than ranged from 1997 to 2009. King Animal–specially songs like the instantly classic SG archetype “Been Away Too Long”–is cohesive and epic, not unlike earlier predecessors Badmotorfinger and Superunknown.
Thayil, whose mesmerizing riffs and creative leads are rightfully worshiped, is not, however, a traditional “guitar geek.” “Some [guitarists] talk gear and equipment, other guys talk “riffs,” but I’m one of those guys who likes to have ‘other’ conversations,” he explains. “Tom [Morello, who Cornell worked with in Audioslave] is perfectly capable of having a political conversation and I might be more inclined to discuss political, social or philosophical issues as well. That’s more fun for me than guitar equipment.” That said, and despite the Thayil-penned political-leaning lyrics on “Non-State Actor” off King Animal, don’t look for any big Soundgarden statements.
“We have never been heavily political,” Thayil states. “We think it can interfere with the music, and our lyrics are oriented a little bit more to impressions and colors as opposed to the stories or a balladeer or a message with moral weight. Plus,” he adds: “I don’t really want to hear the blatherings of a rock guy unless they’ve got some keen social insights. I think ideas deserve thought and real action, not just sloganeering. “
To that end, Soundgarden deliver the action onstage, their live show perhaps even stronger than in their heyday 17 years ago. So when Thayil speaks of maturity, it does not equal boredom, and actually bodes well for the creative future of Soundgarden. As the guitarist notes. “When guys are married wit kids, the kind of self-centeredness you might get with a young person and a young musician is cast aside, because they’re very used to having to attend to the needs of children,” he observes. “Everybody is able to step a little bit more outside themselves.” Out of themselves, and into the Superunknown.
Soundgarden play January 22 and 23 at Hammerstein Ballroom.