Ever since word got out last year that Soundgarden were reuniting for a handful of live performances, fans have been waiting to find out if the reunion was going to be a full-time proposition. Now, it appears that Soundgarden admirers are finally getting their wish. With the March 22nd release of their first-ever live album, Live on I-5 (comprised of performances from their 1996 West Coast tour), comes the news that Soundgarden has been jamming on ideas that will lead to a return to the recording studio sometime this year – which means the group's first new studio album since 1996's Down on the Upside.
Guitarist Kim Thayil recently gave Rolling Stone an update on what's currently going on in the world of Soundgarden and what to expect in the coming months.
Why was there not a full tour after Lollapalooza last year?
The thing that got in the way of that the most, Matt [Cameron] had Pearl Jam obligations and Chris [Cornell] had some solo obligations. It took a lot to catch up on 13 years. You have to learn a whole bunch of songs to get ready for a few shows, and of course, putting out [compilation album] Telephantasm. And the "Black Rain" video. I was representing the band, supervising Telephantasm from artwork to track listing. So that was a big project. Then starting on mixing, mastering, and designing the artwork and packaging for the Live on I-5 album. And Ben [Shepherd] wrote and recorded a solo record in that period too, that hasn't been released. It was a very busy year for us.
Were the performances on Live on I-5 supposed to come out in 1997, but got shelved when the band broke up?
We brought Adam Kasper out on the West Coast leg of our headlining '96 tour. We wanted him to record it for a number of things - as a way to appraise and review the performances, we were hoping to maybe provide content for B sides for foreign releases, and possibly, to do a live record. So that's what was on our mind. Of course, the band broke up after that tour.
When I spoke with Matt and Ben about Soundgarden's 1996-1997 tour for the book Grunge is Dead, Matt said, "The shows were increasingly bad," but Ben thought it was "the most creative and destructive music that I'd ever heard or been part of." Where do you stand?
I think Chris and I were also drinking a bunch. I think there may have been the occasion of some "smashing" in the dressing room. But I completed all the shows! [Laughs] I didn't storm off the stage or smash my guitar out of...well, if I ever banged my guitar around, from Soundgarden's first gig to its last gig, it wasn't out of theater. It was more out of passion or frustration.
Adam [Kasper] was recording the West Coast leg of the tour – there were a number of great shows. And even among the bad shows, there were great performances of individual songs. We didn't pick tracks from every performance. What we chose ultimately was not just great performances, but a great recording. Ultimately, Adam is going through the tapes and finding really sonic performances. Great drum sounds or guitar sounds. Then you find the performances that go along with those sounds. Then you might look for inventive or particularly expressive or emotive performances.
What did you think of Live on I-5 when you heard it from start to finish?
Ben and I were just talking about this last weekend – we're both still in awe of this album, the performances and the songs. It's kind of ridiculous how fast we're playing "Jesus Christ Pose" or "Ty Cobb" – it's much faster than the studio version. And there are some crazy fills in there from Ben, Matt and me. Guitar solo things, weird bass runs and drum stuff. I think everyone was listening to the recordings and were surprised by individual performances, flourishes, and collective performances.
There is also a bonus disc of tracks if the album is purchased through the Soundgarden site, or as downloadable content through iTunes, right?
Tentatively, we're calling it Before the Doors, because it's during soundcheck, before the doors were opened. We'd run through some songs and record them – both as a test of the recording equipment, but also for us to run through some songs that we may or may not want to include in our set. What's unusual about them is that they sound live, but there's no audience present. These amazing performances played to an empty arena, but you get the ambience and sound of the arena, and you get the reverb and echo that is emanating from the stage. It's a pretty trippy thing, it's like we're playing alone in a canyon or a cathedral.
Is there any talk of Soundgarden doing a full tour soon, as opposed to just one-off dates?
I think we're definitely interested in playing live again. It would be more satisfying if we were to get that momentum rolling. It's never ultimately satisfying to play a one-off show here and there, because you don't have the subsequent nights to redeem yourself if there is something that you feel went unsaid or something you feel went unexpressed or something you could do better. And the cool thing about being on a tour is there is always the next night. You have great nights, you have nights that aren't so great. And when you're on tour, you can build on that momentum.
Any chance of a full summer tour?
I think Matt's got some Pearl Jam commitments coming up, but we're always talking about stuff. There's always ideas. I don't mean to be vague, but we're always talking to each other and jamming with each other, and I think it's probably likely that we'll be playing live. And I think we would be happier to do that in tour form than just to do it as one-offs. If nothing's on paper or in stone, I wouldn't want to disappoint people – other than we want to do that and we're definitely talking about that.
Any idea of how Matt will be able to balance his commitments to Pearl Jam if Soundgarden becomes a full-time recording/touring band again?
That's something that also has to be discussed. Matt's primary concern is Pearl Jam. I don't want to say that Soundgarden is a side project – it's much more than that to Matt. Matt definitely loves us as friends and as a creative partnership. So I'm not going to throw anything more on his shoulders than he's already carrying. [Laughs] I'm just saying he's digging everything he's doing.
Since the Lollapalooza performance from last year was filmed, are there any plans to release a DVD?
That sounds familiar, but there are so many things being discussed. I just recently saw some of the footage from Lollapalooza, because it wasn't really synched up with the music. I think if everyone likes what we have there, I think we'd do something like that. But I don't know if it's going to be available for broadcast, or if we'd just take a couple of tracks and have that available for retail, or have a feature-length thing.
And what's the status of the much talked about "B sides" album?
The B sides are still at the forefront of my mind. They've just been pushed slightly to the side, because of all the attention we've put on the live album. Once again, the live album was supervised by Matt and me, and I wrote the liner notes along with Adam Kasper. So that's kind of the front and center of my mind, as well as the jamming.
Definitely Live on I-5, and at some point, the B sides album. The only thing that could put the B sides album on hold now would be if we were to focus and concentrate on new material.
We are jamming. Just getting to re-learn and re-love each other in a creative fashion. And it's wonderful, it's been going great. Everyone's happy, and there are a lot of ideas being thrown around. We do apologize that we haven't been able to share the past few months with our fans, because it really has been a couple of months of a lot of creative insight and sharing amongst the band members. Although there are many of our fans that would love us to be entertainers, we love that too, but the one element that we hadn't fully re-explored and re-established is the creative element. The creative partnership is certainly the one we wanted to set aside time to enjoy, and that's what we've been doing over the past few months. And I really would like the fans to know that.
Are there any actual songs yet?
There could be. I think there are different degrees of "dress" involved – from flat-out nude to formal wear, with the ideas we have.
Is there any specific Soundgarden era that the new ideas remind you of?
The era of the band I could best compare it to is late 2010/early 2011! It isn't sounding like anything else. It's definitely sounding like four guys who write songs, who have a little weird twist to how they approach their instrument, who haven't played much in the past dozen years. That's what it sounds like. Everyone has new creative insights into themselves that they're contributing to these sessions.
So the obvious question remains - is the band's goal to get into the studio at some point and work on a new album?
Now, we are not currently recording, but we plan to - and will. The time we've been spending as a creative partnership playing music together and writing, with the definite objective to record and release new material. We're not yet recording, we're not yet releasing new material, we are writing –for that purpose.
When did the band start jamming on working on new material? After Lollapalooza?
When we were rehearsing to play last year at the Showbox in April, we were jamming and rehearsing, but we're not just going through our set list, rote. We're going to be screwing around and coming up with ideas. So all the rehearsals for all the live things we've done have involved us jamming and showing people riff ideas. That's just what happens when you get guys in the rehearsal space in the basement, the attic or the garage.
Any working titles for songs?
Some songs have working titles, but that can easily change as the lyrics change. Some songs don't have lyrics, so some we refer to as "The Duh-Duh-Duh Riff" or the "Woo-Woo Riff." In others words, most of the titles are onomatopoeic.
When do you think the band will go in the studio to start recording?
There are some ideas. Once again, that's in flux. As soon as possible, or as soon as we feel comfortable. I would say definitely do something in the spring.
Any idea who Soundgarden would work with as a producer?
I'll just say this, we've been working with Adam Kasper all year, on Telephantasm and with mixing and mastering the live album. He's been overseeing things we were doing for "Black Rain" and the video, and the stuff we did for the live shows. So Adam has been our guy for the past 12 or 13 months. I think it's fair to say that we have a strong interest in continuing that.
It's funny that for a genre of music that was so based on live performance, there hasn't been a definitive live grunge album, and Live on I-5 finally sounds like it. Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York is a classic, but doesn't include the excitement of a full-on rock show.
I think Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains were all bands that did Unplugged. We were asked to do Unplugged a number of times, but we didn't, because we were in the middle of doing all kinds of other stuff. We were either touring or recording. It's like, "Hey, MTV wants you to do an Unplugged," and we're like, "Not now." But it's interesting, of the big four bands, we're the only one that never did Unplugged. I think we probably should have in retrospect, but we had a lot of things up in the air, a lot of things we were doing at the time, that we just couldn't get around to that.