“We would tend to start off with a bang,” says Kim Thayil, guitarist for Soundgarden, a pillar of the Seattle grunge scene in the late ‘80s and a 2023 nominee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Often, the first song of a set was “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” from the band’s 1992 album Badmotorfinger. At the Detroit’s Fox Theatre on May 17, 2017, the band reached back farther into its catalog for “Ugly Truth” from its 1989 major label debut, Louder Than Love.
Whichever song began a Soundgarden concert, the intent was the same. “Let’s hit them with something energetic and fast and aggressive,” Thayil tells Billboard‘s Behind the Setlist podcast.
As far as the music, the Detroit show was just another gig on a U.S. tour that snaked through the Southeast and Midwest. The band delved deep into its catalog, playing its biggest hits from the ’90s (“Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman” and “Blow Up the Outside World”), a highlight from its early catalog (“Hunted Down” from its 1987 EP, Screaming Life) and deep cuts from a six-times platinum album (“Mailman” and “Kickstand” from Superunknown). It was anything but a typical show, however. The Fox Theatre show would be the band’s final performance. Singer Chris Cornell tragically died early the following morning.
Looking back at the career-spanning set from that final show, Thayil believes the four songs from the band’s final studio album, 2012’s King Animal, hold up well next to its more celebrated, earlier catalog. “Certainly a different time in the lives of many of our fan base who may have followed us for 30 years,” he says. “A different time in our lives. But I think those those songs were all fairly strong and fun to play live.”
The King Animal cut “By Crooked Steps” was one of those newer songs Thayil enjoyed playing live. Like “My Wave” from 1994’s Superunknown, “By Crooked Steps” is an energetic, physical and compelling song that departs from the standard 4/4 time signature. “That was a song that [drummer] Matt [Cameron] brought in,” he says. “It was his initial groove and riff. And then [bass player] Ben [Shepherd] and I wrote a few things around that groove to add to it. That was certainly dear to us because it’s one of the first things that that we had written. And all of us were collaborating on that, which was definitely the most fun in working on a song.”
An encore would typically end with “Slaves & Bulldozers” from Badmotorfinger “because it was it was kind of a jam song,” says Thayil. “There was a basic framework that we play in order to support the vocals and the lyrics. But then certain sections are just that could meander and go on — the jam sections with guitars. And the bass would jam. Matt would jam. It would meander. Sometimes we’d go off in different directions and Matt would have to play a gatekeeper and bring everyone back in to the yard. Like, OK, we’re we’ve lost this one, let’s come back in. Sometimes we’d all be on the same page and it’d be trippy, transcendent jam. And we just let that happen.”
The band would leave the crowd with a sustained blast of noise and feedback, “a sort of ritualistic ending” that began before original bass player Hiro Yamamoto left the band in 1990, says Thayil. The cacophony was turned into a separate, four-minute track at the end of the 2019 live album, Live from the Artists Den, and given the title “Feedbacchanal.” “It had always been part of our set as a set feedback jam like some kind of weird noise-jazz-improv trip-out with delays and squealing and humming,” says Thayil, “and ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ feeds into that pretty well.
Listen to the interview with Thayil at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Amazon Music, Audible or iHeart.