If Kim Thayil had it his way, Soundgarden might not be celebrating the 20th anniversary of its biggest and best-selling album, Superunknown.
"Record companies like these nice, solid numbers, the multiples of fives and 10s," the guitarist said by phone from a festival in Krakow, Poland. "If it were up to me, I'd have waited a couple of years and done Superunknown 22 — or a great prime number, like 23."
He wishes they'd released a 23rd anniversary edition of 1991's Badmotorfinger, "if for no other reason than to mock — in loving fashion, of course — our peers who put out 20th and 25th and 30th anniversaries of albums. It's easy to sell, but we are a little bit more obnoxious ... so a nice prime number that's not a multiple of anything but itself would be perfect for us."
It'd certainly fit Superunknown, a lumbering, shape-shifting behemoth fueled by bizarrely tuned guitars and jagged time signatures. Still, for Soundgarden, 20 years is a good time to look back on the glory days of grunge.
Superunknown was released on March, 8, 1994 — the same day as another alt-rock all-timer, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. The groups were even supposed to tour together that fall before vocal issues sidelined Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. Now, 20 years later, they're back with a tour that hits Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Monday.
Soundgarden was the first Seattle grunge band to sign a major-label contract, in 1988. But even after a couple of releases on A&M (1989's Louder Than Love and then Badmotorfinger), the band's sonically and structurally ambitious music defied easy categorization. Can anyone name two weirder hits from the grunge era than the silverware-clattering Spoonman or the apocalyptic Black Hole Sun?
"We didn't design ourselves to be that hugely successful or commercially successful," said Thayil, 53. "Maybe we have short attention spans, and that's why we write songs in weird time signatures, to keep ourselves interested."
Soundgarden has always been a democratic organization, with all four members contributing significant chunks of music — not just the Beatles-obsessed songsmith Cornell and heady metalhead Thayil, but also bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron. (Cameron is sitting out this Soundgarden tour; filling in is veteran session drummer Matt Chamberlain.)
When Soundgarden reunited in 2010, "we initially got together for partnership and business purposes — to attend to our catalog, merchandising and fan club," Thayil said. They started jamming and discussed playing a show. Cameron even brought new songs he'd been working on. "We took tentative steps, put our foot in the water, it gradually got deeper, and before you knew it, we were swimming across the channel," he said.
Almost immediately, Soundgarden began excavating their archives, releasing a greatest-hits album, 2010's Telephantasm; then Live on I-5, a live recording of a 1996 concert; then 2012's box set Soundgarden: The Classic Album Selection.
For Thayil, who has helped oversee the re-released material, there is a measure of artistic satisfaction in curating Soundgarden's legacy. "Writing accessible, catchy pop songs is probably not beyond our abilities," Thayil said. "It's hard to write one that people are going to love, but it's easy to write with those kind of formulas. But we've never been that way."