Kim Thayil knows a great deal about the many schools of philosophical thought and more than a little bit about the history of popular music.
After graduating from high school in Illinois in the early ‘80s, Thayil ventured west to Seattle to study philosophy at the University of Washington,
learning about the relationship of science, history and logic. And it was in Seattle that Thayil continued the study of his second great passion –
the electric guitar.
Thayil says he was 16 when he first made a serious attempt to learn the guitar, and it was in the late-‘70s that he found sheet music for Aerosmith
songs that described fifth chords, which led him to experiment with the instrument.
By 1984, Thayil was well versed in alternate tunings, including the Drop D tuning, which, along with the linking up with a powerful lead singer named Chris
Cornell, led to the creation of the “Seattle sound” and the formation of one of the ‘90s most popular acts – Soundgarden.
A member of the short list of Seattle super groups like Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden made a name for itself with songs like
“Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman” and “Rusty Cage.” Thayil was named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s top 100
guitarists of all time.
The Grammy-winning band called it quits in 1997 before reuniting in 2010 and releasing their first new album in more than 15 years – November’s King Animal. Soundgarden is back out on the road this summer, playing at the MMRBQ festival in Camden, NJ, this month.
We caught up with Thayil from his home in Seattle where he talked about walking his part Australian Shepherd/Red Healer Whippet dog, his favorite
acquaintance (Johnny Cash) and the ideal philosopher.
Fly Magazine: What is the “king animal” a reference to on the new album?
Kim Thayil: I don’t think there’s a specific “king animal.” If not visually evocative, it certainly lends itself to all kinds of
imagery – either literal or metaphorical. I was playing with the imagery of the album artwork [created by Josh Graham before the album was completed]
as well as the kind of imagery that’s evoked by certain words or letters or the sounds of certain consonants to try to come up with something
that’s distinct from our previous albums, but something that also has a little humor – like Badmotorfinger or Superunknown or Louder Than Love. And we were surprised that no one had used the title for anything – a book, a song. How did that one slip through? I think
there was some singer guy in the Philippines that “king” and “animal” figured into his stage name somehow – something like
Jose the Animal King lounge singer.
FM: How does touring today with Soundgarden compare to the early years or the ‘90s?
KT: In general, it’s more fun and a lot more positive – probably because we’re older and more focused through maturity. Not that we were
immature [laughs]. We did a summer tour in 2011 where we were playing bigger venues. That tour kind of reminded us of opening up for bands like Guns
‘n’ Roses or the Lollapalooza shows. But the most recent tour we did this winter kind of reminded us of the late ’80s or the early
‘90s when we’d go out for two-and-a-half months and play at smaller intimate theaters. At one point in 1990, I think we played 16 shows
straight – which I guess you can do in your late 20s. In January we played six nights in a row starting in D.C. when I caught that flu that was going
around. Thank god for Advil and Tamiflu. One of the gigs was Obama’s Inauguration, and we didn’t want to cancel that.
FM: When was the last time you didn’t pick up a guitar at least once during the day?
KT: Probably yesterday [laughs]. Real life comes in, and you have to do a lot of stuff. The house needs to be fixed, or you’ve got to make time to
take the dog for a walk, return phone calls and emails. I try desperately to avoid professionalism because professionalism kind of points you in the
direction of “entertainer,” and that’s really only good for record companies and people who can use your talent and put it out on the
streets. Now I’m looking at my guitar and thinking, “I haven’t played you for a couple of days.” But that’s all right. I
don’t forget how to play. If I played more frequently, I’d get the calluses [laughs].
FM: Johnny Cash famously covered the Soundgarden song “Rusty Cage.” Is there another musician you would like to see cover a Soundgarden
song or another song you would like to hear covered?
KT: The lyrics in “Rusty Cage” worked perfectly for Johnny to sing. On The Spaghetti Incident, Guns ‘n’ Roses did a medley that
involved “Big Dumb Sex,” which was our tongue-in-cheek song from Louder Than Love. A lot of people have done “Black Hole
Sun” – traditional sort-of lounge singers. For us, “Black Hole Sun” has these psychedelic elements and Beatles-like elements that
we love, but it does kind-of set itself up for lamer interpretations [laughs]. Evanescence did a pretty damn cool version of “Fourth of July.”
The Dillinger Escape Plan did “Jesus Christ Pose,” and that was fucking amazing – they nailed it. Besides playing the music parts right,
they arranged and balanced everything to pull off the weird feedback effects and some of the noise that we were doing. Over the years there have been other
Soundgarden songs that have been covered, but there’s nothing popping into my mind right now that I would like to hear. What if we can get Tom Jones
to do something? [laughs]
FM: Do you have a favorite philosopher?
KT: I always have a hard time answering the question. It’s similar to, “Do you have a favorite band?” Naming a favorite philosopher is
too difficult because there’s so many schools of thought, and the various schools influence each other over time. I love reading the literature
produced by the Existentialists like Camus and Sartre. I certainly like the skeptics because of their relation to science and rationalism –
Montaigne, Spinoza and Francis Bacon. Or even more recently someone like a Stephen Jay Gould.
FM: How about your favorite band?
KT: I guess when I was a little kid it was the Beatles, pretty easily. Then for a little bit it was Elton John, and then when I was a teenager it was KISS.
Then I didn’t have a favorite band because there were too many bands I was discovering. But I can safely say the MC5 is my favorite band.
FM: You’re playing at the 2013 MMRBQ this month. Do you have a favorite dish to eat at a barbecue?
KT: Growing up, I really liked burgers and baked beans – the ones with molasses as opposed to tomato sauce. When I was a kid, I couldn’t figure
out the difference. You open up a can of pork and beans and go, “Yuck.” It was always really runny. And then you go to a barbecue or picnic,
and you’d have these baked beans with brown sugar and molasses. You’d go, “Wow! This is different.” I loved that shit –
burgers and baked beans. But I know what I liked least; it was potato salad. Everyone’s potato salad was different and was always made with some
different goo concoction [laughs].