Soundgarden Isn't a Soup Can, Don't Put a Label On Them

Talking genre labeling, metal politics, and crazy fans with guitarist Kim Thayil and art director Josh Graham.

Nov 2 2012, 10:00pm

Have you ever seen that webseries Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee? It’s this little 15 minute show where Jerry Seinfeld drives around in an expensive vintage car with the likes of Larry David, Ricky Gervais, or Michael Richards, reminiscing about their careers, the comedy game, politics of Hollywood, whatever. And they get coffee.

When I interviewed Kim Thayil, guitarist of the legendary Soundgarden, and art director Josh Graham, it kind of reminded me of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. But, instead of stand-up chat, replace that with talk about genre labeling, metal politics, and crazy fans.

Soundgarden’s sixth studio album, King Animal, drops in a few weeks, and it will be their first album in 16 years. Josh Graham, who plays in his own Brooklyn band A Storm of Light as well as Neurosis, has been working tightly with Soundgarden again to create the perfect visual component to the music itself. I got on a call with Thayil and Graham, and though there was no vintage car, we were channeling the vibe of chatting over coffee. Plus, I was on my landline, so it was basically like we were in an Oldsmobile.

How’s the new music video coming along?
We just shot it. I’m working on it now. The editing is all done. I’m just in Los Angeles doing color correction.

Was the band in the video?
We’ve never been thrilled about being actors or video-makers. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, that was kind of a thing. Not too many punk rock guys or metal guys were really very interested in making videos, let alone performing in them.

You’ve kind of stuck to that?
Yeah. Let’s see—we were cartoon characters in the “Black Rain” video that came out a few years ago, we stood there and played in "Live to Rise," but we are liberated from the video this time [by] not being in it.

What’s the video concept?
It’s really about the [album] artwork; the main sculpture in it is sort of this entity that has some sort of control or force, or energy that is guiding this person [in the video].

Were there common themes when you two were discussing the art director for this album?
First, we just talked about color, didn’t we? You said you wanted to do something that was more white.
Kim: Yeah, most of our album covers have had a darker pallet. We just thought it would be a change of pace and we thought it would be good to have some artwork that distinguished itself from that. Many of our early album artwork was almost kid-like. It was sort of melancholy and would emphasize beauty with elements that could be childlike. In the early days, punk and metal bands used a specific type of imagery to convey that they were heavy or hard. You know, devil images, monsters, skulls, bats and things like that. We are a hard rock, heavy band, but we do not subscribe to the canon of heavy metal. In the same token, we probably grew to be less interested in being [in] any punk rock club. We were somewhat arrogant and felt independent of any scene or movement; we didn’t want to get caught up in that imagery or market ourselves as a hard rock band with skulls, cars and hot chicks on a skull.

Especially now that you guys are established. Do you feel like you have more freedom because of that?
Yeah, we never really did that, but there are so many aspects to what Josh does [with his art] that convey desolation and distance. It’s transporting to some other place. Matt, Chris, and I immediately identified with these elements. We used skulls [on King Animal] to convey [distance] not some weird, metal, mystical power.

We liked appropriating imagery that was not traditional hard rock imagery, because we did not need to obey what was laid out for us by that genre. We did not even need to be a part of that genre. It’s ironic, because if you want to create some polarity between the genres, with punk rock on one end and metal on the other, they do have these goofy criteria for belonging. One alienates the other. It’s like every other stupid thing in life.

I remember Mark Arm and Steve Turner from Mudhoney rejected the grunge title in some interviews. The guys in Mother Lovebone did, too. How does Mudhoney sound like Mother Lovebone or Soundgarden? What is grunge? We rejected the term a lot and then, at some point we acquiesced. All the radio people, journalists, critics were using the term, you know? If someone your parents' age asked you what your music sounded like and you said “grunge,” they got it. It became a quick reference we gave into. I would call us grunge in interviews just to expedite the conversation.

Speaking of labels, I heard this story about Soundgarden where you guys accepted some major music award, but refused to take it unless the organization recognized you as a “metal” band.
Oh no, no. I don’t think we ever insisted that we be referred to as a metal band. We may have pushed the alternative thing… When we were signed to a major label—AFM, of course—that was the late 80s, and one of the big things on MTV, besides Michael Jackson, was what was called “heavy metal.” To me, it was just the fucking Partridge Family with spandex, hair extensions, and cowboy boots, you know? It sounded like Scooby Doo with fuzzed-out guitars. Anyways, people actually in metal hated that shit. That was what was being called metal and making money. So, we sign to the major label and they think that we are hard rock, so they should call us metal. We were on Sub Pop and SST, so they wanted to call us “alternative,” but “alternative” then was, like, Jo Jackson, Robyn Hitchcock—and we loved them too, but it wasn’t what we were about. The metal bands on the label were like 38 Special and Extreme.

You didn’t fit.
We did not need to patronize this particular marketplace or demographic. People will figure it out on their own. We never strived to be heavy metal. Metal is a big part of our make-up. We were listening to what Metallica and Slayer were doing, but at the same time, we were also listening to the Big Boys, Black Flag, and the Meat Puppets. We just did not want to be considered one or the other.

It’s a funny thing too, how categorization works, especially when you think about how disgruntled more artists are about the way they have been type-casted.
It makes it easy for retail. It makes it easy to store you in a rack. There are guys that like us because they think we are metal. There are guys that hate us because they think we are metal. “Oh, they are not really metal, there is too much weird stuff going on. They don’t do baroque-inspired guitar prophecy solos.” And we don’t. You won’t hear anything God damn baroque from us at all. That’s what my mom would like. So, if heavy metal guys want to prove to their moms that they are doing real music, then they can keep doing that baroque stuff, but we’re not in that. [Laughs]

Is it better then to just stay in between all the labeling?
We’re our own best audience, and if we are excited by some music one of us has written, then we are doing our job right. We trust ourselves. We all have great record collections. Josh’s band, A Storm of Light, is definitely a hard rock band, which has some coverage in the metal demo. Josh, your thoughts on the demography of heavy metal and punk rock?
Josh: I hate all that stuff. The labels and everything. My band is somehow a doom band, which makes no sense to me, but I don’t know. We do what we do. Some how we are still, uh, doomed.
Kim: [Laughs] In the early days, I remember we used to get referred to as “doom and gloom,” because songs were moody or negative, but that kind of changed when Alice in Chains came out and got moody.

I understand the categorical stuff. I play in a band that is three quarters women and we get compared to female bands we don’t even sound like just because—
Just because you are women! [Laughs]

Artists are more inclined to go against what a critic or journalist would label them as. It also is very relative, because it has so much to do with what one individual’s idea of “hardcore” is or “punk” or whatever and what bands they would assign to their own personal conception of those genres.
There are certain bands that I consider punk, metal, whatever, but then the fans… more so with the fans, there are some musicians who put down rules. If you do this, you are metal. If you do not do this, you are not metal. It’s like, “Shut up!” Write your songs and play your music and that is it. If people want to adhere to particular subcultural canons, then they are going to exclude others. That’s their trip. If you are looking to identify yourself, and music is a vehicle in which you look for that identity, then you are not looking very hard. There are other ways to come to understand yourself besides the clothes you wear and the music you listen to. That’s a common reference point for young people, but man, read a book or something.

Fans invest very heavily and very personally in their icons. Fandom can be scary. Have you noticed this in your careers?
There are fans that understand aspects of the band better than we do. That’s actually good as an encyclopedic reference. There is a website that keeps a track of every show we have ever, ever played, and all our set lists even, I believe. No one in the band even knows that. “Oh remember we played in L.A. in ’93?” It’s helpful for us. I’ve been corrected by fans about my tuning or time signatures. And sometimes they are right. It’s helpful.

It’s really funny that you call it "helpful." Mostly people would call it "obsessive" or "crazy," but "helpful" is nice.
In the course of our careers, we have never been crazy magnets. This may have something to do with our standoffish attitude. Metallica guys and Pearl Jam attract that. Most of our fans were sane. We have some goofy fans, but no one crazy.