SoundgardenMusic Features Soundgarden
In a classic recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live called “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer,” the late Phil Hartman used to apologize to courtrooms for any legal gaffes with the unctuous excuse that he was just a caveman, unfamiliar with our modern ways. Kim Thayil can totally relate.
As his legendary Seattle grunge outfit Soundgarden was gradually emerging from hibernation recently—leading up to the release of its snarling new saber-toothed tiger of a comeback, King Animal—the anachronistic guitarist was blindsided by little things that pass for normal in today’s fast-paced, tech-savvy, self-entitled society. Like the group’s red-carpet appearance this spring at the premiere of Marvel’s superhero flick The Avengers, for which they’d contributed the closing-credit anthem, “Live to Rise.” Since Soundgarden had splintered way back in 1997, he was stunned to discover the exaggerated importance of Hollywood stylists, and how no star leaves the house these days without consulting one.
Prior to the event, publicists had begun fretting. “They were really concerned with our appearance there, and the more they were concerned about it, the more hilarious it was,” chuckles Thayil, 52. “It was like they wanted to dress us up for church or something—they wanted to get clothes for us, and they were all like ‘We’ll get you some pants! We’ll get you some nice shirts!’ And I thought ‘What the fuck do you think we are?’ It’s like, I have shirts. I have my own jeans. I can dress my fucking self. So I was wearing black Levis and I just put on a blazer. All of us were wearing jeans, actually!”
Acquiring such prestigious song placement was relatively easy, once word leaked out that Thayil had reconvened with his old bandmates, drummer Matt Cameron, bassist Ben Shepherd, and vocalist Chris Cornell—first to discuss bare-bones business matters like merchandising, then to oversee 2010’s Telephantasm anthology and a Live on I-5 concert documentary from 1996, and finally to tour backing said releases, which got the creative King Animal juices flowing again. But the more he thought about it, the more abstract the Avengers concept itself seemed.
“The Tony Stark/Iron Man character listens to hard rock, so it made sense to get a hard rock band and incorporate it into the movie and the soundtrack album,” he observes. “It’s all part of the merchandising that goes along with making movies these days—filmmakers have to come up with a soundtrack record.
“But I’ve noticed that a lot of bands get their music heard by doing television commercials,” continues Thayil, admitting that the King Animal piledriver “Been Away Too Long” was just used in a Sons of Anarchy scene where fellow Seattleite Joel McHale gets beaten up by bikers. “And that was just unheard of in the ‘70s or ‘80s. The idea of a band doing that was considered a sellout. And so not punk rock. But now young groups seem to reach their audience by doing Victoria’s Secret commercials or whatever, which is completely against the rock ethic that I learned growing up—I mean, how the hell could that pose as ‘indie’?” So Soundgarden used to reject “the opportunity to have our material used in TV commercials, and now I look back on it and think ‘Well, I guess for a lot of bands, it’s an opportunity to get heard and an opportunity to generate some income.’ So you can’t fault a person for doing that—if they’re a working band, they’re not in it for peanuts.”
All of Thayil’s wry observations lead to one definitive conclusion: The music business, he grumbles, has changed a lot more than Soundgarden has. Artists are rarely awarded once-commonplace gold and platinum albums, thanks to countless new methods of sharing music online. “So if anything has changed about us, it’s probably our need to adapt to that market,” he says. Still, Soundgarden is issuing a deluxe $100 box set of King Animal because he believes that there are still some diehard old-schoolers out there who are expecting just such a thoughtful, fan-conscious package. Your modern ways be damned.
The record is well worth the wait. Clocking in at over 52 minutes, the 13-track set blasts open with the aptly-titled kickoff single “Been Away Too Long,” a bubbling cauldron of sludge in which Thayil’s guitar goes from zero to 60 in a squealing 10 seconds and Cornell’s gale-velocity keen laments “You can’t go home. No I swear you never can.” It’s followed by a churning tumbler called “Non-State Actor,” penned by Thayil to “illustrate the often courageous and charitable works of individuals and organizations that are outside of government sponsorship.” Then it marches to the military cadence of “By Crooked Steps,” loses itself in the neo-psychedelic swirl of “A Thousand Days Before,” pairs jazzy filigrees to a tick-tock rhythm in “Eyelid’s Mouth,” then gallops like an angry rhinoceros on “Rowing,” “Attrition,” “Worse Dreams,” and “Blood on the Valley Floor”—the patented sound that defined the group (and the entire Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains grunge movement) in the early ‘90s and reached its zenith on 1994’s Superunknown. In keeping with shadowy catalog tradition (that includes “Black Hole Sun,” “Fell on Black Days,” and the unearthed Telephantasm oldie “Black Rain”) there’s a new acoustic-plucked entry, “Black Saturday,” wherein Cornell bemoans “Don’t remember how to separate the worm from the apple.”
Post-breakup, Shepherd toured with Mark Lanegan; Cameron joined Pearl Jam, and Thayil worked on various projects with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, Jello Biafra and a Japanese singer named Aya. Cornell issued three solo sets, three with the Tom Morello-led supergroup Audioslave, and became something of a film-soundtrack regular—his “Cleaning my Gun” just figured into Machine Gun Preacher, and he co-wrote and performed “You Know My Name” for Daniel Craig’s first James Bond flick, Casino Royale.
“But there was no specific incident that incited the reunion—it was a gradual process,” recalls Thayil, who met with his old chums in 2010 “to discuss some financial and legal concerns that the band shared as a partnership—the catalog. The website. The fan club. These were things that were neglected over a period of a decade—there was nobody minding the store. And that buzz led to all kinds of rumors that we’d reunited, but we really hadn’t. But the offers came in to play shows, and we took up some of them. And once we dealt with the performance aspect of being a band again, Matt said he had a couple of songs that he thought maybe weren’t appropriate for Pearl Jam, but would really work with Soundgarden, and he wanted us to learn them and record them. And at that point, we started behaving like a creative entity—writing songs, learning songs and eventually recording them.”
Is the grim, foreboding aura surrounding much of King Animal reflective of our Occupy Wall Street, middle-class-eroding, global-warming-dire times? “Well, with Soundgarden songs, I think that tension is always there,” chips in Cornell, who now resides mainly in Rome and Paris, where he maintains a restaurant, Black Calavados. “So I don’t know if my words are ever related to specific moments—it’s not something where I would write specifically about what I see or how I feel about it, where it becomes literal. It has to be more of an underlying feeling, as opposed to direct sentiments, that are put into lyrics. And I don’t know why I’ve always felt that way about Soundgarden songs—they’ve just never felt to me like they’d work with that direct type of attitude, about a specific thing happening. Which is also a good thing—it’s part of the reason why I think we’ve aged well, because you can’t put a particular time or date on any song.”
Looking back on his past, Cornell adds, is somewhat overwhelming. “Because we started out in 1984, so we were a band for three years before we ever released anything,” he says. “And we had more than an album’s worth of material that has never been released, that was essentially us just learning how to write songs and be who we were.” Once their sophomore Louder Than Love hit in 1989, “we toured the hell out of that record, and we were making a good living as an indie band. We were what we’d always wanted to be—a success in the genre of indie rock, and then we decided to see if we could reach more people with it. And nobody from our world had done that—we were the first ones to do it. And now I feel like personally, there’s room for me to grow as a member of Soundgarden, and reach places—particularly live—that I was never able to. In other words, I don’t feel like I’ve ever reached my full potential as a member of Soundgarden. And I can’t wait to get back out there and find out what that really is.”
Thayil swears that every member has—over the past two years—looked at the others with astonishment and asked “Why did we ever break up?” “Everyone’s a bit older and more mature,” he concludes. “And I think our musical tastes have probably evolved, individually. But when you get the four of us in a room, we still naturally do what is Soundgarden, musically and aesthetically. There’s just a way that we relate to each other when we’re playing together and writing together that…well, that just is Soundgarden!”
Take the man at his word. Soundgarden isn’t merely unfrozen, doing some shallow reunion-act shuffle. With King Animal, they’re on fire, and thundering across the Earth with renewed purpose. Like it’s 1994 all over again.