Soundgarden stares down the black hole sun

The grunge super-group from the ‘90s is planning to prove to its Israeli audience that maturity doesn’t lessen the intensity.

Soundgarden band (photo credit: Courtesy)
Soundgarden band
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It would be nice to think that Chris Cornell had marvelous experiences when he performed in Israel in 2009 and 2012. So marvelous that when he rejoined forces with his former band mates in the seminal American grunge band Soundgarden to launch a world tour, he told them, “we have to go to Israel – it’s amazing!” But despite wowing the crowds in Tel Aviv and Binyamina, Cornell apparently didn’t pass on the good vibes to his longtime Seattle sidekicks.
“Chris never really talked about being in Israel, but I guess he had a good experience or he wouldn’t be coming back. There was no negative reaction so I assume he liked it,” said guitarist Kim Thayil last week.
The 53-year-old Thayil had just arrived in Istanbul where Soundgarden was launching its tour that is arriving for a show at the RockandRoller Festival on June 18 at Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa with punk gypsies Gogol Bordello. But the guitarist behind some of the most enduring hard rock riffs seemed more interested in learning about the then-fresh Rolling Stones concert at Park Hayarkon earlier this month.
“It was their first time in Israel? No kidding? It must have been amazing. Has Black Sabbath ever been there? Led Zepplin?” he asked. He might have added Soundgarden to that list. Along with Seattle contemporaries like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, they wrestled the title of hard rock champions away from the ‘60s pioneers and injected it with a flannel shirt-wearing, metal/ punk-inspired onslaught that defined the 1990s.
As immortalized in the Cameron Crowe film Singles, the Seattle scene revolved around the artistic community, a creative explosion of music and not many barbers.
“There was definitely a sense of camaraderie and cooperation – far more cooperation than competition,” said Thayil. “We all thought that what was helpful for Nirvana or Mudhoney was also good for us or the Melvins. Everyone was very supportive of each other.”
Along with the explosive rhythm section of drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd, Thayil and Cornell hit the big time with their 1994 watershed moment, Superunknown, which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and yielded the Grammy Award-winning singles “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman.”
But by 1997, due to the standard “creative differences,” the band splintered into four directions. Thayil, who was named 100th greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, dabbled in various musical projects, more content with satisfying his muse than remaining in the spotlight.
“Music kind of took a back seat in my life for a while. I wasn’t worried about the task of being a professional musician anymore,” said Thayil. “Over the years, I had critical acclaim and commercial success and I didn’t have to prove anything.
There were other things I wanted to do with my life and I didn’t want to keep pushing that practical career choice. I wanted to play music recreationally for fun and artistic purposes, not necessarily [as a] professional pursuit.”
According to Thayil, the band members stayed friendly and saw each other socially, but it wasn’t until 2009 that, during a discussion about the release of a Soundgarden box set, the idea of reuniting was raised.
Later that year, the band performed together for the first time during an encore at a Pearl Jam show in California. And by 2010, the reconstituted band was on the road, headlining the Lollapalooza festival.
“It was definitely different this time around. For one thing, we’re more mature. In the interim, a number of people had taken on adulthood, responsibility for people outside of themselves, and settled down,” said Thayil. “We grew up and had a different perspective on life – we were more willing to share and be supportive of each other.”
The renewed dedication to the band led to the well-received 2012 release of Soundgarden’s sixth album King Animal, their first collective effort since 1996’s Down On the Upside. Rather than dwelling on how to recreate Soundgarden’s signature sound without rehashing the past, Thayil said that the band simply decided not to think about it.
“The music was a natural outgrowth of us as individuals in a collective environment. I don’t think we consciously make any assessments of what we should be sounding like,” he said. “We have an intuitive idea of what a Soundgarden song is going to sound like, of knowing who we are and who our audience is.”
“It’s fairly natural and doesn’t require too much thinking – we know what’s appropriate for Soundgarden and what material will challenge us. Everybody has to like what they’re doing or it’s not going to work.”
Enjoying the second incarnation of the band is different this time around for Thayil, who experienced worldwide stardom and the side effects it provided while still in his 20s and early 30s. With the 20th anniversary of Superunknown being marked by a lavish deluxe reissue and a long tour of Europe and the US this summer, there’s a greater sense of history and accomplishment for the band.
“There’s a lot more adventure and romance when you’re doing this when you’re younger,” said Thayil. “Now, that adventure and romance might have finished but there is other satisfaction – playing with friends who you played with years ago, all the production team and crew working together in the name of putting on a good show. We all get along pretty well for the most part. And there’s something to that.”