Bitter Sweet Days

By Paul Rigg

Kim Thayil has repeatedly said that Soundgarden will not continue without Chris Cornell, following his suicide in May 2017, but he and the band are still hoping to release a new album. This should be possible because Cornell had sung on a number of demos.   

However the band have not had access to the files, and that apparently remains a big bone of contention. “We [referring to bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron] don’t have those files,” he said, but he remains hopeful. “Yeah, definitely, and I think that will happen. It would be ridiculous if it didn’t,” he said sharply in one interview.

Behind the problem seems to be that Cornell’s wife, Vicky, claims "sole ownership" of seven vocal tracks, which the band claims were meant for a Soundgarden album. This has led to the band asking a judge to dismiss a suit against them over ownership of the final demos, and a countersuit against Vicky Cornell and Chris Cornell’s estate over inappropriate use of income from a January 2019 Cornell tribute concert.


This is really complicated,” says Thayil. “I’ve known Chris since I was a kid. You want to honor the work … Is it best to let it rest [or] do you want to honor him by celebrating the music he’s done?” he said, welling up. “At this point—and this has been difficult for a lot of people in the band—I think our conclusion was [the latter].”

Kim Thayil (4 September, 1960) was born in Seattle, after his parents moved there from Kerala in India; however he was raised in the Park Forest area of Chicago.

Thayil contributed original songs to his first band, Zippy and His Vast Army of Pinheads, which also covered Sex Pistols and Ramones’ songs. When punk moved on he did too, this time to the band Identity Crisis in 1980, but it was really when he met
 Hiro Yamamoto at Rich East High School in Park Forest that things started to gel musically for him. After graduating, the pair decided to relocate to Washington to study at Evergreen State College, but they couldn’t find work and so decided to move back to Thayil’s birthplace, where he worked as a DJ. It was in Seattle where the bandmates met Chris Cornell, who was a roommate, and in 1984 the trio formed Soundgarden.


It is impossible to appreciate Thayil’s role with the band without understanding his close relationship with Cornell, and his feelings towards how he developed. Specifically [there were] improvements in his lyrics, [they] were always kind of cool, but they really got more evocative and colorful,” he said. “His songwriting was often useful in framing his vocal talents, at least in his solo career. With Soundgarden he certainly wanted to reflect the talents of the musicians in the band as well.”

Thayil loved Cornell’s work discipline, lack of a ‘rock star ego’ and his sense of humour, but he also found him highly focused. “You couldn't make him do stuff he didn't want to do. He was very resolute and decisive in his actions,” he said. “He tended to dump baggage, whether it was material or even social relationships. He traveled light, he didn't carry a lot with him.”

Kayil’s relationship with Cornell and Yamomoto was key to Soundgarden’s success for over a decade from 1984. The band were the first of Seattle's grunge bands to sign with a major label, A&M, and in their first incarnation released five albums, including three which went platinum.


Thayil became known for his songwriting contributions, especially at the start of Soundgarden’s career, which included songs like Hunted Down, Room A Thousand Years Wide, and Limo Wreck. His distinctive heavy
 riffing, and his guitar work added enormously to what became known as the Seattle Sound, with him contributing outstanding solos to songs like Tighter and Tighter, Superunknown, Let Me Drown, Black Hole Sun, Bleed Together, and Like Suicide. "I think Soundgarden is a pretty good band and I'm a fine guitarist,” he once said.“I'm not God, but I'm certainly not average. I feel very comfortable with the fact that not many other people can do what I do on guitar. I think my guitar is happy with the way I play it.

Thayil's main guitar is a black '90s reissue Guild S-100, which he's owned since the early '90s. He reportedly favours this model because of the distance between the tailpiece and bridge, and he can be seeing playing it on a live version of Spoonman, for example. He also has a '79 Guild S-300 with DiMarzio pickups for heavier cuts and songs where he is the only guitar player. As for his gear he combines a Mesa/Boogie Trem-o-Verb combo amp with a Mesa/Boogie Electra Dyne head, while for effects he uses a Providence PEC-2 Routing System. “I don’t really like a quiet, thin, clean tone—it might work when you have a Tele and you’re playing country or chicken-pickin’” he says. “I like it to be thick, warm, and loud.” 


Thayil is also known for introducing Indian sitar-like into the band’s sound on tracks like A Thousand Days Before. He had heard Metallica use a sitar on Metallica in 1991, and had experimented with playing one himself because he was attracted to the distinct Eastern vibe.

Despite innovations of this type, however, arguments grew within Soundgarden over their creative direction, and the group disbanded in 1997. Thayil had already experimented the previous year playing with Johnny Cash,
Sean Kinney of Alice in Chains and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana on a cover of Willie Nelson’s Time of the Preacher, and while unwanted, the split gave him an opportunity to explore new avenues. He worked with PigeonhedPresidents of the United States of America and Ascend, and also returned to his ‘punk roots’ when he formed No WTO Combo, with Gina Mainwal (of Sweet 75), Jello Biafra (formerly of the Dead Kennedys), and Krist Novoselic. Thayil teamed up once again with Soundgarden producer Jack Endino and, following a return to live performances, released the album Live from the Battle in Seattle in May 2000. In 2004, Thayil joined with another ex-member of Nirvana, Dave Grohl, to record two heavy songs, Ice Cold Man and Sweet Dreams.

Five years later, the guitarist played again with Soundgarden's Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd at a show in Seattle on 24 March, 2009; it was the first time the three had played together in public since the band split in 1997. Among the songs they played were Spoonman, for which they were joined by Tom Morello (of Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave).


Interestingly, Thayil never released a solo album during this extended hiatus from Soundgarden; something which he explained in one of his interviews: "[There were] a lot of reasons. I think at the time [of Soundgarden's original split], I was really fed up with a creative pursuit — you know, songwriting — turning into constant meetings with accountants, lawyers, managers and record company people; I just wasn't interested. When the band broke up, I was initially interested in going back and playing recreationally, which is what I was able to do. I was really hesitant towards the idea of cobbing together a professional infrastructure.”

When Soundgarden reunited in 2010 Thayil found the vibe within the band was completely different. We got together and jammed—we just let the music dictate to us before committing to, or planning, anything,” he said. “If it still wasn’t there, I can honestly say this album [King Animal (2012), their sixth to date] wouldn’t have happened. It is still there and I’m just happy to be back playing music with friends that I enjoy the intimate sharing of ideas with.”


This spawned a new musical direction for Soundgarden and resulted in Thayil experimenting with a mandolin solo and wah guitar, for example, on A Thousand Days Before and horns on Black Saturday. “I’m still an angry dude,” explained Thayil at the time, “I’m just older. I still push the band to be heavy and dark—that’s always been my role.”

On May 18, 2017, Chris Cornell was found dead in his hotel room, and the band disbanded shortly after.  

Thayil has continued to play with other acts, such as proto-punk act MC5. He had already been named one of the "100 greatest guitarists of all time” by
 Rolling Stone magazine and is slated to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a tribute he said would be “bitter sweet” without the presence of Cornell. Thayil has said he expects to “be involved in releasing live recordings and more unreleased material as well as any performances if inducted, but probably not on any tours” without his close friend. On that point, at least, he believes the Soundgarden family are on the same page.