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Kim Thayil Reflects on Soundgarden’s Early Days, ‘Teary-Eyed’ Chris Cornell Benefit Show

MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 21: Kim Thayil (Soundgarden) of MC5 performs on stage at Alcatraz on November 21, 2018 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images)

Following Chris Cornell‘s 2017 death, Soundgarden founding guitarist Kim Thayil has been the group’s most visible and voluble member, the key player in both interviews and live performance tributes. Thayil recently spoke to Kerrang! about the band’s early days, noting that at first, Soundgarden was known as “the Asian band.”

“What people don’t recall is that for the first half-year we were ‘the Asian band.’ It was Hiro [Yamamoto, bassist] and I – a Japanese dude and an Indian dude – and Chris was the drummer. Seattle didn’t have that overt segregation, but it didn’t need to. It was primarily white. There were a few African Americans and Asians, but not many.”

As an early Seattle success story, Soundgarden was also an anomaly in terms of attitude when it came to dealing with the “rock press” of the day.

“We thought we’d try not to be rude or mean to people interviewing us. What they didn’t understand is that we came from a different place, a different sub-culture,” Thayil said. “It wasn’t the glam metal thing, it wasn’t the ’80s new romanticism thing. We weren’t out to get laid and we weren’t out to get high, we just wanted to fucking make you hurt by listening to our music [Laughs].

“A lot of people in Seattle were like that – the guys in Mudhoney, Green River, Nirvana and Melvins. Seattle kind of had that vibe, nobody was that interested in ‘rock’ – they were interested in songs, music and playing, but rock culture was ridiculously silly. That was spandex and hairspray and pouting and girls dancing on the hood of a car – it was stupid. How can guys with degrees in anthropology or English literature take that kind of crap seriously?”

In 2019, Thayil and his bandmates had the emotionally difficult task of honoring Cornell musically, along with dozens of other top-tier musician friends, including  Foo Fighters, Metallica, Audioslave, Josh Homme and Miley Cyrus, a five-hour, 42-song tribute I Am The Highway show (video below).

Thayil says, “The best thing about it was playing those songs again with Matt and Ben, and the next best thing was having our friends and guests join us. The rest was a little bit uncomfortable. It was sort of a clusterfuck. It was picking at an open wound, emotionally, and nobody was that thrilled to do it.”

That said, the guitarist concluded, “The takeaway was the band being together with our family, crew and friends. Everyone was happy and teary-eyed. It was the Soundgarden family together, doing what Soundgarden does and honoring and missing our beloved, departed member. That was important. The rest of it – the celebrity nature, promotion and focus was bullshit. And we knew it was bullshit going into it. We did it for each other, to support Chris’ legacy. There was something awkward and un-intimate about it.”