Soundgarden's Kim Thayil Explains How Chris Cornell's Posthumous Release Came Together
It's not been an easy year and a half for Soundgarden's Kim Thayil since Chris Cornell died by suicide after the band's May 17, 2016 concert in Detroit. The guitarist acknowledges that he had to "come out of the fetal position" to join the MC50 tour celebrating the MC5 (which also periodically includes Soundgarden mate Matt Cameron), and even now, Thayil says, "obviously there's still emotional shadows and ghosts. Like anything else it's something that improves with time."
That isn't stopping him from continuing to ride herd over Soundgarden's archives, however, and Thayil happily contributed to the assembling of this Friday's (Nov. 16) Chris Cornell, a comprehensive compilation of the late singer's work in Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and Audioslave, and as a solo artist. Thayil helped longtime Soundgarden A&R Jeff Fura and Cornell's widow Vicky in selecting the Soundgarden material and also penned an insightful essay for the accompanying booklet. As the MC50 North American tour wound down, he spoke to Billboard about remembering his musical comrade -- and what's ahead from the Soundgarden vaults.
What are your impressions of the release?
I think it's a great chronological overview of his career. That hasn't been done before other than live recordings of his solo tour, where he picked different things from throughout his career. I think it's a good representation of what he's done.
What do you think it says about Chris as a singer, writer, performer?
Well, the eclectic nature of his talent. The breadth, the spectrum of his talent. And the growth and development of his talent. I think it indicates work -- the guy had a pretty good work ethic, and I think the growth is a product of that. You get to see the consequence of his effort and his work to improve his craft and his instrument. I think this reflects Chris' ability to interpret things emotively and through a depth in his life experiences and his understanding of relationships and of himself, as opposed to just being someone who has some talent and no context through which to interpret it or express it.
Did your own perspective on him change through this?
Not really, but seeing Chris perform in other contexts gave me a better understanding of his work with us. Sometimes you appreciate things better when they're gone; Certainly when our band broke up there was an opportunity to see Chris in other contexts, whether band or solo. And ultimately the solo work he did, acoustically, gave me the best insight in the contributions he made to Soundgarden by seeing him play those songs solo, with just an acoustic guitar. I got a better understanding for the quality of his voice and his interpretive inflection with the material, which maybe when you're younger is a little more awkward. Chris was ultimately able to express his majority on his solo acoustic tours, which allowed us to contextualize his voice and how we hear it when he played with us.
Your liner notes for the set are very insightful.
It's actually the most voluminous set of liner notes I've ever written. I've written some stuff for Soundgarden (reissues), but this one asked more of me, and it was very difficult. It took a long period of time. I had to understand an angle that wouldn't be that demanding of me emotionally but told some story. But it couldn't be dry and simply a stating of instances and facts and events. It had to have some context. It was very tough to try and do that. A number of times I almost gave up and was like, "I can't do this..." But I found a way to talk about it. Jeff Fura pushed me -- he said, "You can do this. No one else is going to know this story, going back to the beginning and putting some context in it." I still have stuff I'll save for perhaps a future book or something, but I'm happy with what I shared for this.
Is it hard to listen to the music and hear him sing now?
I love the way he sings -- but, yes, I turn the radio off when one of our songs comes on. I love our songs. I love our material, but I don't need to have the music presented to me. I can choose to listen to it on my own, any time I want to. But if it's presented to me and I haven't asked for it, I'll turn it off.
How did you go about deciding which of the Soundgarden songs to include on it?
There were a lot of people working on this project. I would be much more involved if it was a Soundgarden record, but certainly my contribution to this is still one of pride and commitment to the project. Jeff Fura did most of the listening down to the material and the supervision of the mastering and all of that; For me to do that would just be a little bit demanding. I mostly saw lists of which songs and which versions and was able to provide input from that. I think when there was an opportunity to use an alternative version of a song that hasn't been heard we tried to do that, 'cause you don't want to be redundant. Other than that there’s a chronological component that was stuck to in order to be representative of the band and the writing styles and the variety and eclectic nature of the band and specifically Chris' creativity.
After the unveiling of Chris' statue in Seattle Matt and Ben (Shepherd) made some noises about Soundgarden resuming in some form, but you do not concur, do you?
It's not likely that we could ever do Soundgarden without a missing piece. I'd like to do more with Matt in the future. I'd like to do something with Ben in the future. It's likely Matt and Ben and I will do something in the future -- it just probably won't be Soundgarden. I don't see the dignity in pursuing that course.
If Soundgarden is over, then, are you satisfied with the status of the group's legacy?
I'm completely satisfied, but it needs to be maintained. That's why I'm overseeing the catalog and the merchandise, and I've been doing that all along because it's important that the legacy is understood. There's an ever-expanding demographic of potential Soundgarden fans amidst a shrinking demographic of consumers, so it's important that they there are good ways for them to hear what we did.
What's on the horizon, then?
Really the Screaming Life and Sub Pop sessions. We recorded enough material for an album-plus, but we only released an EP initially (in 1987), and the moved on to doing the Fopp thing (in 1988) and had some new songs for that. So there were things that were recorded for (a full) album that weren't released because we had to compact it into a nice little EP, which is what Sub Pop was interested in doing 'cause in the early and mid-80s, EPs were punk rock albums and a great way to introduce new artists. So we have other material and Sub Pop is interested in putting it out, so we're gonna do that, with Jack Endino mixing. There's interest in putting out the Live at the Paramount that was part of the Badmotorfinger 25th anniversary, in the super deluxe version, as a standalone. We're coming up on the 30th anniversary of Louder Than Love, and the Louder Than Live album was never released commercially, just as a promotional thing. I'm sure there'll be another greatest hits recording. And there are so many lives shows we recorded over the years that have interesting takes and covers.
What about material you were working on at the time of Chris' death?
We were working on an album and there's material there that we demoed that we can flesh out when we can access some of the basic, multi(-track) recordings, sure. That's being discussed.