By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
He’s traveled the world playing music. The band he helped found came to embody the grunge style, and they’ve sold more than 30 million records worldwide.
Still, Soundgarden’s original bassist, Hiro Yamamoto, confessed, he wasn’t sure what to think when told he’d been named one of 22 new honorees in the Asian Hall of Fame.
“I was somewhat surprised to have been nominated,” he commented. “My original feeling was, why me?”
Still, his feelings changed as he pondered his induction, which occurred along with the others, at an invite-only ceremony on Nov. 18 at the Sky View Observatory in Seattle.
“I tend to fly under the radar, so I have to say I wasn’t that ultimately gung ho from the start. After my involvement with the folks surrounding this great organization, I have to say, it has already enriched my life immensely. I have collaborated with some amazing talent, and the mission and goals of the Asian Hall of Fame Foundation are worthy of attention.
“I don’t know if it’s coincidental, but I credit the Asian Hall of Fame with really getting me to embrace what it means for me to be an Asian American artist! It has been incredibly fun and it’s one of those things that just keeps getting better. There is definitely power in like-minded people working together towards a common goal!”
Yamamoto grew up as a Japanese American in Park Forest, Illinois, just outside Chicago. He arrived in the Pacific Northwest back in 1980 to attend Evergreen State College in Olympia. College didn’t quite work out, but he did work for a solar installment company, until the federal government canceled the educational grant that furnished his paycheck.
He returned to Illinois, but came back west a year later with a good friend, guitarist Kim Thayil, who’d been born in Seattle to parents from India. They found a cheap basement apartment in Seattle’s University District, and began to explore.
“U District, Roosevelt, and North Seattle,” he remembers, “these are the original houses where Soundgarden practiced, and close to my work at Greenlake Cycle. I remember the early underground music and art scene around 1981-1983. The Metropolis and Ground Zero Gallery, these were places to see music, performance art, art, dance. My first band, ‘The Altered,’ played shows at the Metropolis.
“The all-ages venues dried up and [the scene] moved into the bars, though. But the whole group of musicians, artists, fans, and friends was just so connected and supportive across genres. That’s where I met my wife and made so many connections.”
He noted that Park Forest was an early U.S.-planned community, with Asians and Jews down around 10% of the total population, and houses not sold for many years to Blacks or Latinxs.
“I guess kids let you know you are different. Certain kids in certain situations, even my good friends, would bring up the slanty eyes, brown skin.
“But aside from that, I acted like any other kid in most circumstances, most of my closest friends were Jewish or Asian anyways. And my parents definitely wanted us to succeed through education. So, they also stressed that we belonged in this country and we should be proud and lead by example.”
The Altered, his first Seattle band, didn’t last long, but opened for touring bands with cult reputations, such as the Wipers and the Violent Femmes. That led to an outfit called the Shemps, who prowled the Olympic Peninsula with their rockabilly-flavored sound.
He met drummer and singer Chris Cornell through an ad in the “Rocket,” Seattle’s long-running music newspaper. Kim Thayil finished school, picked up his guitar, and Soundgarden was born, although Cornell eventually gave up drums completely to become one of his era’s most distinctive rock singers.
Yamamoto stayed in the band from its founding in 1984 through 1989, when he walked out, unhappy with the band’s handling by the record label. He’s since formed several other bands, including No Time For Shade, alongside his wife Kate McDonald. He secured a day job as an environmental chemist, and worked for many years as a lab director for a company in Burlington.
Asked about future projects, he speculated he’d “continue to produce music and work on songwriting. I would like to continue to assist the Asian Hall of Fame Foundation. I am looking at doing some volunteering, and who knows where the road will take me.”
For more information about the Asian Hall of Fame induction ceremony, visit asianhalloffame.org.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.