Soundgarden's Kim Thayil Talks Band's New Album of the Month Series & Fan Misconceptions About 'Down on the Upside'
If you thought the passing of Soundgarden frontman Chis Cornell in 2017 would permanently sideline the iconic alt-rock quartet’s activities, in 2019, the band is, at least in one sense, still very much active.
This year, A&M/Universal Music Enterprises are commemorating Soundgarden’s 35th anniversary with a new Album of the Month subscription series (in conjunction with online store The Sound of Vinyl), which began with the release of a colored vinyl, silver-anniversary edition of Superunknown in April. For a limited time, fans were also able to pre-order the complete series of LPs as an exclusive bundle.
Those who are clamoring for the wealth of Soundgarden material that’s still sitting in the vaults should know that guitarist Kim Thayil didn’t shoot down any future possibilities when he recently spoke with Billboard. Still pining for the band’s earliest demos with Cornell on drums and vocals, or the never-released second side of songs recorded during the 1987 sessions for debut EP Screaming Life? Wondering about the studio material Soundgarden was working on before its ill-fated road outing in 2017? Thayil clarified that all of the above are at least on the table for consideration.
He also got into the nitty-gritty about the subscription series, which continues with the May 10 release of a colored-vinyl edition of Badmotorfinger. Read our conversation with the legendary guitarist below.
What can fans expect from the Album of the Month club?
Universal is re-releasing the studio albums Superuknown, Badmotorfinger, Louder Than Love, Down on the Upside and King Animal — so, not the greatest-hits A-Sides compilation, not our rarities set Echo of Miles [Scattered Tracks Across the Path], not Telephantasm, not the live album Live on I-5 and none of the stuff we did before we were on A&M.
So no Louder Than Live [a live album recorded in 1989]?
No, but we’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of Louder Than Love, so we have a very strong interest in putting out Louder Than Live commercially. We didn’t do it before because we went [right] from touring to making Badmotorfinger. At the time, it didn’t seem like the appropriate timing to put out a fairly short live album and try to promote it. So we might as well put together a nice little package for it, because it’s all over YouTube. There was a bootleg version of it, but our official version was just sent to some radio stations. It found its way into record stores, but we should do an actual real release -- and will.
You always have been cited as the band’s in-house archivist. How involved were you in this series?
A lot of this came from Jeff Fura, our A&R guy at Universal. I was very involved in the color selection for the vinyl. With the two Superunknown discs, one is transparent red, and the other is transparent gold. For Down on the Upside, we tried to find something that approximated lavender. We came up with these colors maybe a year-and-a-half to two years ago, and then the whole series was put on hold as we ended up working on the Chris box set [Chris Cornell, released in 2018].
For those out there who obsess over these details, how involved is it to pick colors for vinyl?
[Laughs.] Well, you -- I, personally -- want the colors to be consistent with the packaging. With Down on the Upside, you have this kind of mustard, baby-poop color on the front. And the booklet has this reddish tone with the filmstrip running through it. But I didn’t want to focus on that because there’s red in Superunknown, too. I think every one of our goddamn covers has got red-to-yellowish/orange tones on the warm end of the spectrum.
So when I was working with [artist] Josh [Graham] for the cover of King Animal, I wanted to have a white palette. The elements on that album cover are bones, teeth, snow and floral petals that are white or white-ish. So the vinyl for King Animal -- which is also going to be a double-disc vinyl set -- is white and a buttery cream color. Jeff would give his suggestions, I’d give my suggestions, and he would send me the available colors. If there were four or five colors available from the album packaging, we might pick two. It’s fun to do.
How would he send you colors to choose from? Are we talking color swatches or mock-ups?
No. But actually, once when we were doing King Animal, there were some merchandising designs I was looking at and there were some really.... poor color choices being picked out by the designer. [Laughs.] I said, “You can’t use those colors with this design. It’ll look very offensive,” so he sent me hundreds of color cards all on a ring -- I’ve still got the thing. He was like, “Here, pick one that you want to use.” I remember my response being, “Motherfucker, I don’t have to pick one -- just don’t use the two that I told you not to use.”
To be less vague, it was about our skate logo from the Ultramega OK period -- an S and a G that were kind of stylized and streamlined. But I guess it could look like a weird fascistic symbol. When we were in Germany, the comment was made, “You know... it kind of looks like a swastika.” And we were like, “Aw, maaan! Our whole team is Indian and Japanese and Jewish and [a] woman -- what are you talking about?” So the merchandiser did up a bunch of T-shirts using black on red, and we were like, “Dude, no -- you cannot use red or black. This isn’t that hard. Just don’t do Nazi colors!”
For people who own previous versions of these albums, what’s your elevator pitch for having them subscribe to this series?
Well, there are a few elements. For one, Louder Than Love’s been remastered. [All of the albums except for Badmotorfinger and King Animal were remastered for vinyl from the original analog tapes.] 180-gram vinyl is thicker and heavier for better audio quality. And it’s a whole new run of pressings and printings of the artwork.
In two years, it will be the 25th anniversary of Down on the Upside. One presumes there will be some type of deluxe package at that point.
Superunknown had a lot of B-sides, outtakes and demo stuff. Down on the Upside, not so much. This is a conversation I’ve had with our A&R guy, because there just isn’t much for that album. We can remix it, but we don’t like doing that to our records. What we can offer is a remastering and maybe an update of the artwork and packaging, but I don’t see much bonus material unless we dig out some studio outtakes and live versions of the songs. We weren’t fans of having original Soundgarden songs being treated as strays or castaways. But we do have the tapes, so one thing we could do is a 5.1 surround-sound mix.
We’re definitely going to remaster it, though, because that record was always so fuckin’ midrange-y, which kept it from being as exciting as some of those songs could be.
Down on the Upside often has been written about through the lens of the band breaking up, where people read things into the music after the fact. Can you set the record straight?
They’re reversing the causality. They’re saying, “Oh, the last song is ‘Boot Camp,’ and the band went on tour and then broke up. So the breakup must be foreshadowed on the record. Or the breakup is what caused the record to have these sentiments.” No, that’s not the case. If you look at the history of Soundgarden’s material, there are a lot of themes about finite-ness and endings. [Laughs.] That’s present in a lot of our songs going back to the beginning. The fact that there were songs thematically referencing conclusions on that album, ultimately, it’s coincidence. When we were making that record, at least [drummer] Matt [Cameron] and I had talked about there being a next Soundgarden album.