When a band is mourning the loss of a key member, the recuperation process can take several different forms: commemorative books, memorial concerts, reality-TV recruitment drives. For the friends and family of the late Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, it’s spurred a yearlong effort to distill a wildly eclectic three-decade career into a cohesive, comprehensive portrait of one of rock’s most versatile voices.
The resulting 64-track, four-disc box set, titled simply Chris Cornell, is the first collection to encompass all facets of the singer’s free-ranging discography: Soundgarden’s golden grunge greats, Audioslave’s alt-rock hits, and highlights from a solo catalog that zigzagged between campfire serenades, James Bond themes, and Steve Aoki remixes. (There’s also a trove of live performances, covers, and unreleased tracks.) Overseeing curation of the Soundgarden selections was guitarist Kim Thayil, who, following the band’s 2009 reunion, has served as the band’s de facto archivist, spearheading a series of reissues and compilations that have helped establish Soundgarden’s presence in the digital age and regenerate their fan base.
True to the band’s original mission of demystifying and punking up ’70s-style hard rock, Thayil has traditionally kept the lowest profile of any Soundgarden member outside the band, and understandably, he’s been especially covert since Cornell’s death. But he’s recently reemerged to play the Fred “Sonic” Smith foil to Brother Wayne Kramer in a recombinant 50th-anniversary version of Detroit proto-punk legends the MC5 (dubbed MC50), whose current European tour happens to coincide with this week’s release of Chris Cornell. Prior to kicking out some jams in Paris, Thayil spoke to Vulture over a shaky cell-phone connection to talk about life after Chris.
How’s it feel being on this MC50 tour? I imagine it must be a therapeutic experience for you …
I suppose. It could be a lot of things …
How did this opportunity come about?
Wayne Kramer called me a year ago, and asked if I’d be interested in jamming and playing with them, and going on tour for a year. And I said, “of course,” because they’re my favorite band.
Has playing with the MC5 given you any fresh perspective on how a band can soldier on without its original front man?
No, this is just an opportunity to celebrate 50 years of Kick Out the Jams, that’s what it is. I don’t think it translates to any perspective on Soundgarden; it’s a separate thing.
You recently played Detroit — what was that like?
It was a triumphant homecoming for Wayne, certainly … we did three really fun shows.
But I imagine it was also very bittersweet experience for you.
Nothing I’m going to share with your audience.
So what has this last year and a half looked like for you? Did you feel like you had to stay busy to keep your mind occupied, or was it a more meditative experience?
A bit of both, I suppose. Eat, drink, shit, walk the dog, like everybody else. Drinking …
How does it feel to be revisiting Chris’s work now through this retrospective?
This started over a year ago, so most of the revisiting went on the summer before this past one, when we came up with the general track list. Most of what I tended to [on the box set] was Soundgarden’s work, so I don’t have to listen to any of it; I can just look at the titles and reference it by memory just fine.
Any fan could conceivably put together a playlist of Soundgarden favorites. What perspective on Chris’s work were you hoping to show through your selections?
I guess I’m doing some of the work for them, I suppose. I can direct them to the … I don’t want to use the term “evolution,” because it gets misused, but to the growth and transformation of Chris’s talents, either as a songwriter and singer. There’s a chronological organization; it’s also organized by the various projects he was involved with.
Is there a song on this collection you were especially keen to include that’s really meaningful to you?
Yeah, I prefer the Soundgarden songs, thank you — as opposed to two-dimensional versions of it. [Laughs.]
When you read testimonials about Chris in the early days, a lot of people say he was a natural-born rock star from the very beginning. But Chris also said that, as a teen, he was more of a New Wave fan than a Led Zeppelin fan, and that he envisioned Soundgarden as a weird post-punk band. What did you make of Chris when you first met him? What drew you into his orbit?
I think it was the way we connected musically. When we jammed together, we immediately started writing songs — it came pretty easy to us, and I think the interest in the material we were coming up with was enthusiastic and mutually appreciated. We liked the uniqueness and creativity we were sharing. We were coming up with progressive elements, and we liked to focus on emotive things and use chaotic elements — that’s what the band was about. We didn’t like traditional song-structure arrangements. We weren’t interested. Otherwise, I’d go do something else. I’d be a dishwasher.
At what point did you realize this guy in your band wasn’t just a talented singer, but actually one of the greatest voices of our generation?
I don’t know when that point was. It’s really easy to take that talent for granted when you’re around it every day, I suppose.
Soundgarden were all about subverting the hard-rock clichés of the day and stripping it down to just the raw power. But people came to see Chris as this golden-god front man — how comfortable do you think he was in that role?
I don’t know … I think there were probably times where he was not comfortable with it; there were probably other times when he tried to accept it, but he didn’t necessarily reap any rewards from that kind of title, other than critical accolades. It wasn’t like he indulged in that kind of recognition.
From my outside perspective as a fan growing up in the ’90s, it seemed like Soundgarden were the cool big-brother band in the Seattle scene that had their shit together, whereas Nirvana and Pearl Jam seemed a lot less comfortable in the spotlight. What was the feeling on the inside?
I don’t think we were particularly comfortable in the spotlight, either. I think that feeling was generally shared among the Seattle bands.
In a recent interview, Ad-Rock and Mike D talked about how putting together their new Beastie Boys book made it feel like they had their band back, because Adam Yauch was coming alive through the stories being told. Do you get a similar feeling from undertaking archival projects like this?
This particular one, not so much. Other collections we’ve made — Telephantasm, the Echo of Miles collection, the 20th anniversary of Superunknown, the 25th anniversary of Badmotorfinger, the Sub Pop reissue of Ultramega OK— all of those already gave me a perspective on the body of work Soundgarden has. All those things allowed me to reexplore that material, as well as bonus and unreleased material. So, at this point: no.
What are you most proud of when you look back at the catalogue?
I just like the body of work in its entirety. It’s a lot of material. Echo of Mileshad 50 recordings that weren’t on any album — that’s like another four albums right there!
Is there anything left in the vaults?
There is some unreleased Chris solo work, which are nice little gems. And there is material from the Sub Pop period that has never been released.
In interviews, you seem to bounce back and forth between soldiering on or just laying things to rest. What’s your feeling today?
As long as I have ideas I want to share and people I want to play them with, I’ll do that.
You’re the one member of Soundgarden who’s never joined another band or side project …
Yeah, because Soundgarden was my band! So why would I be a member of another band?
But do you have any designs on doing a solo project of some kind?
Soundgarden was my project!
Is there a specific memory of Chris you have that captures a side to him fans may not have heard in the music?
He was a playful guy, with a pretty good sense of humor. He was fun to horse around with. He was pretty knowledgeable about gastronomy, too.
Back in the mid-’70s, Kim Thayil was a Chicagoland teen listening to bands like Kiss and Aerosmith, and whichever other hair-flipping rock bands were featured in Creem and Circus magazines. Throughout the pages of those once-revered hard-rock chronicles, he discovered references to bands like the New York Dolls, the Stooges and MC5. It took several months, but the future Soundgarden guitarist eventually turned up a used copy of “High Time,” the last studio album from recalcitrant proto-punk greats MC5.
“I find this and it’s different,” Thayil says. “This is much wilder. This abandon in this music, it’s more dangerous. There’s elements of chaos and a little bit sinister. There’s a political component. The lyrics aren’t as vacuous as the rest of what would have been called heavy metal or hard rock then.”
It was a “significant point of passage” in Thayil’s musical education, and 40 years later the guitarist — who has similarly influenced another generation of musicians — finds himself playing with a reincarnated version of the Motor City Five to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its seminal “Kick Out the Jams” LP, playing the live album in its entirety. Aligned with the White Panther Party, the Detroit agitators — who received their fourth nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week — laid an unruly, politically charged blueprint in the late ’60s that would inform some of the earliest punk bands.
For this anniversary run, founding guitarist/author Wayne Kramer hand-picked a lineup featuring Thayil, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, Marcus Durant of Zen Guerrilla and Faith No More bassist Billy Gould (who replaced King X’s Doug Pinnick in July). Soundgarden and Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron has joined the band, billed as MC50, for a dual-drum assault on select dates, including their Oct. 16 gig at the Showbox. L.A.’s Starcrawler and Olympia punk vets Fitz of Depression open.
Though he hadn’t heard from Kramer in a while, Thayil sat in on a few songs when an MC5 reunion tour (featuring Mudhoney’s Mark Arm filling in for the late Rob Tyner on vocals) hit Seattle more than a decade ago. Thayil contradicts himself a bit describing his decision to join the MC50 tour, calling it an “obvious no-brainer” but admitting it required some thought. After the death of his friend and Soundgarden mate Chris Cornell, Thayil wasn’t sure if he was ready to make a creative and emotional commitment to another group.
“I think if anyone else had called I would have declined,” Thayil says. “But because it was the MC5, which is my favorite band ever, and that opportunity was there, I had to say yes.”
Seattle fans got a taste of what the Thayil-Cameron connection can do with MC5’s incendiary material when Thayil joined Pearl Jam for a punchy “Kick Out the Jams” cover during the second of the band’s Home Shows in August. As much fun as they were clearly having on stage, Cornell was on everyone’s minds that night, with Pearl Jam covering his low-rumbling rarity “Missing” and Thayil sporting a T-shirt with the late singer’s visage. In many ways it was like “being with the Soundgarden family,” Thayil says, noting both bands share many of the same crew members.
“I couldn’t ask for a more special environment to play in Seattle, to play with my friends,” he says. “We had our family and friends there with us. The whole context was very warm and wonderful and loving.”
As for Soundgarden’s future, Thayil says more releases are in the works. Thayil is managing the band’s catalog, working with Sub Pop on possible compilations, live albums and other unreleased material, as well as discussing potential projects with A&M. While Thayil plans to continue making music with Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd (among other friends), writing or touring under the Soundgarden banner again seems doubtful. “No, I don’t think that’s anything we’d give reasonable consideration to at this point,” Thayil says. “When I say ‘at this point,’ I mean perhaps ever [laughs].”
Pressed for more, he adds: “I don’t know really what kind of thing is possible or what we would consider in the future. It’s likely nothing. The four of us were that. There were four of us and now there’s three of us, so it’s just not likely that there’s much to be pursued other than the catalog work at this point.”
But for now, Thayil’s having a blast touring with MC50 and looking forward to playing a hometown show, which he says are always “a little bit nerve-wracking.” Like most everyone in the Seattle music scene, Thayil has fond memories of the Showbox, seeing and working countless shows there in the ’80s when he worked at KCMU. And of course, there was that infamous Soundgarden reunion in 2010, when the quartet performed together for the first time in 13 years.
“It kinda felt like I was the mayor of Seattle,” Thayil says of that night. “I had so many friends and family, guys in other bands hanging out. It was pretty crazy.”
Jeffgarden disciple and Fox News addict Lea Marić was able to make it to last night’s MC5 show at the Turner Hall Ballroom in Milwaukee, WI (scroll for photos & video clips)
Kim Thayil acknowledges that he "wasn't sure" if he was ready to get out and play in public again when Wayne Kramer called him earlier this year to be part of MC50, his new band celebrating the 50th anniversary of the recording of the MC5's debut album. But as the group prepares to start a North American tour on Sept. 5 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the Soundgarden guitarist says it's been just what the proverbial doctor ordered.
"(Kramer) asked if I wanted to play, and my jaw dropped," Thayil, who had been largely out of sight since Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell died by suicide last May in Detroit, tells Billboard. "I thought two things -- 'Am I ready to come out of the fetal position?' and then 'How could I be any more ready than this opportunity to play with what I consider to be my favorite band.'
"So I made myself ready. It was like, 'Fix your head. This is The One!' When I mentioned it to friends of mine they didn't hesitate; They said, 'Omigod, jeez, this is your dream. You should do this!' The timing was pretty good, I think. I was allowing myself to be ready."
Thayil has been an MC5 fan since he was a teenager and began reading references to the MC5 and the 1969 Kick Out the Jams album in periodicals and interviews with other artists he liked. "At some point I started getting into some heavier music than I was hearing on AM radio and kinda learned to switch the dial from AM to FM and find significantly heavier and trippier music than what I was hearing before, and it was right up my alley," Thayil recalls. "I think I really connected with the MC5 because there was so much to that music. Obviously a band like the MC5 has the influence and appeal across a number of genres -- the obvious ones like acid rock and heavy metal and, later, punk rock, but I would draw a line from the song 'Shakin' Street' to (Bruce) Springsteen's work. And there was the free jazz (the MC5) drew from. So there was a lot there."
The all-star MC50 played a few dates in Europe earlier in the summer, during which Thayil reunited with Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron. The group -- which also includes Zen Guerilla's Marcus Durant on vocals, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, Fugazi's Brendan Canty on drums -- wraps the North American tour during late October with two shows in the MC5's home turf of Detroit (where the MC5 recorded Kick Out The Jams live during Halloween weekend of 1968), then returns to Europe during November. MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson, the only other surviving member of the band, may participate in some shows, but on an ad hoc basis.
For Thayil, the immersion has been not only a welcome return to music but a chance to learn even more about his favorite band. "It kind of appeals to the Soundgarden aesthetic," Thayil explains. "There's a combination of those same elements -- a progressive element but also a heavy rock thing and a loose, wild thing -- that I see in MC5. Some of the songs have some really curious, interesting parts, little time changes that can throw the drummers for a loop. Learning as Wayne showed us, there's a lot of stuff that wasn't as readily obvious as you would think by listening to the records, and that was kind of a surprise. And it was cool."
As for the future of MC50, Thayil says he's "getting that vibe" that the group could become a going concern and even make its own music. "I think everyone enjoys each other's company and makes each other laugh and has a similar sort of social and cultural sense about them," he notes. "It does tend to be an open-minded, progressive, forward-thinking group, which I think is probably appropriate for the MC5."
Thayil says that prior to getting the MC50 call he'd been "up and down, in and out" in the wake of Cornell's death. "Everything has improved day by day," he says. "Obviously there's still emotional shadows and ghosts. Like anything else it's something that improves with time." He says he, Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd "still talk to each other frequently and text and call and check in on each other and see how we’re doing. I imagine we will do more things in the future, one of which will be Matt sitting in on a few more MC50 shows. I'm sure I'll do stuff with Ben as well." Thayil does, however, dismiss notions that anything was visibly amiss with Cornell during Soundgarden's May 17, 2017 concert at the Fillmore Detroit prior to his suicide.
"I thought the show was good," Thayil says. "I remember Chris had just gotten in (to town) and was a little tired and his voice was a little rough, but by about the fourth or fifth song it kicked in and then it was just, like, super amazing -- beautiful, clear and strong and, I thought, particularly emotive." Thayil adds that a moment of the show when Cornell was absent from the stage for a protracted period when the guitar he'd be playing was out of tune and a backup wasn't immediately ready. "He had to leave the stage, I remember, and he just kind of poked his head around and said, 'Go ahead, start without me,' at which point Ben started jamming on something and we all fell in until Chris was ready," Thayil says.
"People speculate, and they get causality in reverse," he adds. "I guess it's natural to try to fill in the blanks to explain a particular mystery," he adds. "I think it's natural to say that, 'We know something terrible happened, so we know there must have been some sort of problem. Let’s see what that problem might be. Well, come to think of it, the show was kind of messy....'"
Soundgarden has been in the midst of archival projects in recent years, with expanded editions of albums such as Badmotorfinger and Superunknown and others. No future releases have been planned yet, and Thayil says he, Cameron and Shepherd are still grappling with how they want to proceed.
"We often reference rock history and we've often commented on what other bands in similar situations have done," Thayil says, "not as a plan or anything but just commenting on how bands have handled situations like this and what bands seem to have been graceful and dignified in how they manage their future musical endeavors and how some maybe were clumsy and callous. We think about those things. We try not to go too deep into these conversations, but stuff comes up after a few beers."
Use the menu at the top left of the YouTube player above to choose between the full show (as one video) and each song split up.
Below is our brief Kim meeting after the show where he knew about our site : )
Photos From The Show
We hung around after tonight's MC50 show with Kim Thayil, and Kim came out to autograph a few things and talk to fans briefly. Had a bit of a surprise when Meghan mentioned the site and Kim recognized it !
Pearl Jam w/ "MC50"
Kick Out The Jams
Rock Werchter Festival
July 7th 2018