Kim Thayil remembers Chris Cornell: "He knew what he could do, we all did"

Chris Cornell's friend and Soundgarden bandmate Kim Thayil opens up about the man behind rock’s greatest ever voice…

Kim Thayil remembers Chris Cornell: "He knew what he could do, we all did"
James Hickie

This interview was originally published in Kerrang! issue 1749.

Later this evening, Kim Thayil will take to the stage of the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire. He’s playing as a member of MC50, the new Wayne Kramer-led iteration of MC5, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the proto punks’ debut album alongside a line-up featuring Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, King’s X bassist Dug Pinnick, and Zen Guerrilla frontman Marcus Durant.

Kerrang! crosses paths with the band’s roadies outside the Empire, enthusiastically wheeling flight cases into the venue, their uniform denim jackets proudly emblazoned with the words ‘Kick Out The Jams’. We encounter the autograph hunters too, stood at the corner of the alley that flanks the building, their carrier bags bulging with glossy pictures and Sharpies. They’ll no doubt be on the look-out for Faith No More’s Billy Gould, a new addition to this leg of the tour, who’s already milling about inside the venue, his glasses pulled down on the bridge of his nose like a librarian as he tries to locate the dressing rooms.

It’s in one of these rooms that we meet Kim, who admits he’s still suffering from jetlag despite this being the fourth date of this “fantastic” UK tour. While the 58-year-old guitarist is excited about an evening of raucous retrospection in honour of one of his favourite bands, right now he’s in a quieter, more contemplative mood as he discusses the late Soundgarden bandmate he affectionately refers to as “brother”, the subject of a recent career-spanning box set, simply titled Chris Cornell.

Kim has supplied “somewhat voluminous” liner notes to accompany the 64-track collection curated by Chris’ widow Vicky and his bandmates, featuring music from Soundgarden, Temple Of The Dog, Audioslave and Chris’ solo career. In the notes, he describes his music as, “A catalogue where every song, every track on every album, is a medal of achievement and honour adorning our soul and bestowed upon us by Chris.”

“Despite writing so much in those notes, I could only touch on what I could possibly say about Chris, the band, and our relationship,” Kim reflects, his eyes darting around the room nervously.

One thing that certainly wouldn’t need such a luxurious word count dedicated to it is Kim and Chris’ original meeting. This may have been the coming-together of the creative axis within one of grunge’s most important bands but it was inauspicious to say the least. So much so, in fact, that Kim isn’t entirely sure of the details of the encounter. The year was 1982 – or ’83 – the circumstances being either Kim’s roommate responding to an advert that Chris, a drummer/singer, put in a local paper, or the other way around. Regardless of the specifics, what’s sure is at some point the two men found themselves in the same apartment.

“My roommate introduced us, saying, ‘This is Chris and he’s going to sing for us.’ I said, ‘Okay, good to meet you Chris,’ and went into my room,” laughs Kim. “It was a monosyllabic meeting and that was that.”

Photo: Paul Harries

Except it wasn’t, because Kim, the son of Indian parents, soon found himself drafted into the fledgling outfit after their bassist – and future Soundgarden four-stringer – Hiro Yamamoto quit.

“Hiro was an old friend. We moved out from Chicago to Seattle together,” explains Kim, who made the trip with a third man, Bruce Pavitt, who would go on to start Sub Pop, the Seattle label that would eventually put out Soundgarden’s first two EPs, Screaming Life and Fopp. “I borrowed Hiro’s bass and played a handful of gigs, and Chris sang at two of them.”

So what were Kim’s initial impressions of Chris, the man and the musician?

“It was hard to consider him a man at the time, because he was only 19 and had to get special permits so he could play in bars,” he smiles. “He was interested in kid-like frivolities, so more likely to roughhouse: to wrestle with his friends and play with his dogs, which he really loved. It was the kind of stuff that people in their late teens might do.

“To be honest, despite being 23 and finishing up college at the University of Washington [where Kim earned a degree in philosophy], I was pretty immature too,” he adds. “Chris and I therefore bonded over our inability to be adults. We were pursuing being in rock‘n’roll bands, and there’s nothing incredibly adult about that!”

As it turns out, despite today being widely considered one of the most electrifying rock frontmen of all time, Chris was far from the finished article in those early days.

“He had a powerful voice, but it wasn’t yet what it would end up being,” Kim explains. “I didn’t take too much of a mental note of it at the time because there were a lot of good singers in covers band in pubs at the time.”

Chris and Kim were in just such a covers band, with a set list full of classics from The Rolling Stones and The Doors, which might explain why the latter failed to notice quite how talented his new bandmate was. “I didn’t like the material we were playing. I was just there to help out some friends. I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s a good singer, but it’s too bad he likes this crap.’ If he’d been listening to Black Flag or the Meat Puppets, I’d probably have been way more enthusiastic!”

Elsewhere in the liner notes, Kim observes that Chris “wouldn’t be easily discouraged”. This was proved when it was suggested that the fledgling band – by then called Soundgarden and boasting a line-up featuring Chris, Kim and Hiro – find a new vocalist.

“We were writing songs in odd time signatures, so it became tougher for Chris to sing and play drums at the same time. He had to choose which instrument to focus on, and we needed to get a fourth member of our band, either a drummer or a singer. Hiro and I decided we needed a singer, because while Chris was a good singer, we thought he was a bit conventional in his approach, but as a drummer and a songwriter, he was much more inventive.”

As it turns out, Chris’ stubborn desire to man the mic helped to shape the band’s soon-to-be-trademark sound, a fusion of Beatles melodies with Black Sabbath grooves, in more ways than one.

“Chris was sure he wanted to sing, so he brought a friend of his, Scott Sundquist, in to drum, which freed him up to be at the front of the stage. Scott was more of a swinging, bluesy drummer, so Soundgarden became heavier, this psychedelic bluesy thing people started calling heavy metal. Chris therefore had more of an opportunity to focus on his voice, which became even stronger and more powerful, and he expanded upon it too, showcasing a unique musical ear. That’s when the special stuff started to happen.”

A few years ago, at the end of a Soundgarden tour, the band decided to transfer their instruments and equipment from a storage space to the rehearsal studio they owned.

“I came to collect the guitars I knew were mine, including a thin Les Paul I called my ‘Diet Les Paul’,” recalls Kim. “There were a few Telecasters there, too. I didn’t know which ones were mine and which were Chris’, because some of the colours are hard to identify when you’re in the dark onstage, so I left them there until we could determine whose was whose. The next time I came back they were all gone. ‘Where the fuck are those guitars?’ I asked. ‘Oh, Chris didn’t know which ones were his, so he took them all!’”

Kim laughs long and hard at the memory. Given the baritone quality of his voice, it seems to make the small room rumble. He shares the story, prompted by K!’s request for one that represents the measure of Chris. This one therefore seems a bit of an odd choice. Not to Kim, though, who suggests that one of the most fascinating things about his friend was the “devil may care” streak that ran through him.

“Chris’ personality was a bit looser when it came to social situations,” he explains. “He’d just avoid scenarios that obligated him socially or emotionally. Some people would think he was stuck up, because he was inaccessible and wouldn’t really make eye contact with them, but I just don’t think he was comfortable in his own skin a lot of the time. He wouldn’t show you that, though, because he was pretty strong in that regard. He would just disconnect. He didn’t attach himself to relationships in the world. ‘He travelled light’ is how I liked to describe him.”

This idea that Chris – whose movie star good looks shone onstage and during his cameo in Cameron Crowe’s Seattle-set film Singles – lacked confidence or a desire to connect doesn’t quite compute. But it’s the dichotomy at the heart of many an artist, and in the mind of many a depressive. It’s also just one of the many contrasts exhibited by a man Kim describes as being “serious” yet “playful”, and “athletic” but “uncoordinated” (“He couldn’t dance!”).

“Usually good-looking guys are lovers not fighters,” he continues. “But Chris was definitely a fighter. He could, of course, be lively, engaged and extroverted offstage just as he was on it, but that usually involved us drinking or being with close friends. A lot of singers when they’re done performing prefer not to talk and rest their voice. He was one of those guys. He was friends with some of the bands that were our peers, but he was less likely to solicit relationships.

“At the same time, he was also so dutiful when it came to being creative and had a great work ethic,” adds Kim, suggesting Chris’ concurrent tenures as drummer, singer and songwriter sowed the seeds of that plate-spinning dedication. “I was more committed to social and emotional aspects than he was, but I worked really hard, musically, to take things apart. Chris, on the other hand, was more cavalier about maintaining social and emotional connections, but he was so organised and worked meticulously to make things fit together. That was where we contrasted when it came to making music, but the thing we had in common was that our attitudes to work were completely at odds with our temperaments.”

In the early days of Soundgarden, the band was bound by having the same interests and goals, but that doesn’t mean things didn’t occasionally get a little fraught.

“Disharmony often comes from proximal frequent exchanges and contacts, like it does with brothers. There was definitely some of that…” Kim pauses. “It depends how nostalgic I am when exploring those memories. There were instances of conflict, but that happens when you have a bunch of young men in a van together. There were issues with all of us. Hiro and Chris lived together for a number of years, so of course they were going to experience some friction. ‘He always leaves his fucking dirty dishes in the sink!’ Hiro would often say about Chris.

“We knew each other from such a young age that you’re going to be able to see each other grow up and mature, and become more adjusted in our social and emotional lives. He took on new relationships: he grew up and became a father. Like any reasonable father, he loved being a father and enjoyed seeing the light in his children’s eyes when they did something fun together, or witnessed them discovering something for the first time.”

Chris Cornell died by suicide on May 18, 2017, hours after performing with Kim and Soundgarden at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Less than a month after what Kim shakily describes as “the incident”, the guitarist was included in conversations between Universal Music and Soundgarden’s management about an expansive release that would encapsulate Chris’ multi-faceted 33-year career, with the blessing of Vicky.

“I thought it was a bit premature at the time, so it was hard to focus on it,” he admits. “We put our hand on it to slow it for a bit while we all organised our thoughts and emotions at such a difficult time.”

The man they were mourning had, of course, been vocal about the notion of leaving listeners with a large and varied musical legacy; he was full of praise for his hero David Bowie when he died on January 10, 2016. Two days later, having already posted a video of him performing the track Lady Stardust, Chris wrote a heartfelt post in which he commended Bowie’s ability to “[make] ageing as a recording artist seem totally doable in a vital way”.

This chronological collection’s autobiographical quality is, says Kim, what makes it such a powerful musical document.

“It’s important to recognise the breadth of his work over time,” he says passionately. “From the younger, wilder, more aggressive music of his youth, to his solo work as an older man and a father that was more contemplative of that maturity and that role. And then there’s the years in between, where he was growing, experimenting and taking more risks, creatively and emotionally. That gives the listener so much insight into the body of music: being able to hear how he transformed through the material, and similarly how the material transformed throughout his life.

“Singers have a difficult job. It’s a very self-conscious role and they’re putting themselves out there through the voice, which is an intimate instrument to be disclosing, so you have to make sure it’s done right and reflects well on you. And then there’s the fact what you are singing about is often highly personal.

“He knew what he could do, we all did,” he continues. “But he liked to pursue the areas he wasn’t as strong at too. He was more inclined to take that challenge with his instrument. There was a point when people started saying, ‘He’s a great singer – perhaps the greatest singer in rock,’ and that’s when he began to really focus on being as good a singer as he could be, so he could be even better.”

Kim cites Slaves And Bulldozers, the colossal cut from Soundgarden’s 1991 breakthrough classic – though not, it should be noted, featured as part of this set – as his favourite of Chris’ vocal performances. “It captures everything that Chris was able to do in the one track. He’s screaming like a reptile one minute, then crooning in a high pitch the next, and so soulful during the verses.”

With a discography comprising six albums from Soundgarden, one from Temple Of The Dog, three from Audioslave and four solo, as well as a variety of guest appearances and compilations including this most recent one, there are many monuments to Chris Cornell’s genius. Last month, however, a more literal one took its place in his hometown. A life-size statue of Chris, stood with guitar in hand, was commissioned by Vicky, designed by artist Nick Marra, and unveiled by his children at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. (A live version of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, performed with Chris’ daughter Toni, is included on the new box set.)

“It was a lot of things,” recalls Kim of the ceremony, exhaling at the memory. “It was very surreal, for starters, but obviously a source of great pride to be able to honour our brother. It was awkward too, because there was a certain aspect of it that was a show, as it was a public event. Matt [Cameron, drummer since 1986], Ben [Shepherd, bassist since 1990] and I were onstage to some degree, which made us a bit uncomfortable. We, Chris included, were the guys who’d never turn up at the big events and parties, though we were always invited.

“I miss his company and presence,” says Kim, becoming uncharacteristically quiet. “I miss the collaborative inspiration he brought, too, and the team and family that we built together over the years.”

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