Reprinted without permission from Guitar Player, July
SEATTLE SUPERSONIC: THE SCREAMING LIFE & ODD TIMES OF SOUNDGARDEN'S KIM THAYIL
"I really shouldn't be going left here," says Soundgarden lead guitarist Kim Thayil, braking his van in the face of a hostile rush of Seattle traffic. "Aw, I've got my blinkers on -- at least I warned 'em," he adds dismissively, checking out his rearview mirror and stoically ignoring the peals of honking behind him. Both the Supersonics and the Mariners are hosting games tonight, so traffic is extra-thick and parking in the Belltwon district is at a premium. After cooly circling the same block a few times, it's clear that the only place Kim will find to rest his wheels is the parking lot for Bad Animals, the recording studio owned by Heart's Wilson sisters, where Soundgarden recently mixed Down on the Upside, their sixth album and long-awaited follow-up to 1994's Superunknown.
Like its predecessor, Upside ranges from aggressive big-belt-buckle post-Zep to pastoral, psychedelic balladry, a duality Thayil characterizes as the band's balance of testosterone and estrogen. But the band's idiomatic writing and arranging style, built around odd-meter riffs and rich alternate tunings, has developed and deepened in ways that go beyond simply milking those two extremes. After hearing the Dinosaur Jr.-meets-Jeff Buckley acoustic-rock of "Dusty," the spare, nightmarish coma-dub of "Applebite," and the Dark Side of the Moon-style ether-pop of "Boot Camp," a fan might well ask, "Are these the same four guys who fired up uber-grunge rockers like 'Get on the Snake' and 'Hands All Over'"? Even the speedy psycho-punk of "No Attention," "Never Named" and "Ty Cobb" are imbued with unexpected touches like mandolin and mandola parts or sudden half-time shifts.
The group's tonal colors have grown more diverse as well. Kim works a lush, spring-reverbed tremolo on "Blow Up the Outside World," while singer/guitarist Chris Cornell strums lanky C-tuned National Resophonic skanks on "Burden in my Hand" and digs into a Gibson J-200 miked through a Fender Vibro-King on "Dusty." Thayil's surly tones, icy minor chords and fractal, acid-etched solo outings lend the album's 16 tracks chaos and compositional savvy in equal measure. Spilled out through a Guild S-100 -- a kissing cousin to the mighty, rubbery Gibson SG -- his dark, ready-to-snap guitar temperament and anarchic, vibrato-heavy phrasing recall similarly aggressive, psychedelic SG players like Frank Zappa, Tony Iommi and the late John Cipolinna of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Kim's radical attack and abstract sensibilities echo punk pioneer Wayne Kramer, Amboy Dukes-era Ted Nugent, and free-jazz futurists like James "Blood" Ulmer and Sonny Sharrock.
Apart from penning the gritty, 9/8 modal stomp "Never the Machine Forever," Thayil left most of the new album's songwriting to Cornell, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron -- able guitarists to a man -- tackling the role of texturalist, riff chiseler and impressionistic soloist, arts he's been refining since he first picked up the instrument at age 16 in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest. Thayil's mom and dad -- an engineer and a schoolteacher, respectively -- immigrated to the United States from Bombay, India, and their independent intellectualism rubbed off mightily on Kim, who immediately began fashioning simple tunes after picking up his first "cowboy chords."
Though he grew up a self-described "metal kid," digging Aerosmith, Kiss, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Thayil was among the first in his alternative high school peer group to breathe in the first whiffs of late-'70s Manhattan punk and new wave. He gravitated toward the aggressive rants of the Ramones and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and discovered the late '60s proto-punk of the Stooges and MC5. Returning to his Seattle birthplace after quitting the University of Illinois, Thayil took a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington. He started Soundgarden in 1984 with a longtime pal, bassist Hiro Yamamoto, and flirtations with the music of Beefheart, Sun Ra, Zappa, Pere Ubu and the Velvet Underground seasoned his rocker sensibilities with stranger spices. Soundgarden's raw-nerve '87 Sub Pop debut Screaming Life presaged both Seattle's reputation as a new-music crucible and the nascent alternative rock groundswell.
As mastering for Upside wound down and the band prepared for rehearsals for this summer's Lollapalooza trek with Metallica, Kim discussed the method behind his badness over some potent Seattle brew. A passionate, compulsive thinker, 36-year-old Thayil is as fearless and irreverent in conversation as he is when courting saturated chaos in the midst of Soundgarden's snarling odd-meter traffic jams.
Guitar Player: Your intense vibrato is similar in some respects to that of Free's Paul Kossoff or Sabbath's Tony Iommi.
Kim Thayil: Iommi's rhythm riffs always had kind of a slow, wide vibrato, while mine are probably a little quicker and tighter. When Soundgarden was starting out I liked Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers a lot for his vibrato. His was a lot wilder than what i was doing at the time. I bend the string up while doing the vibrato shake. Wheeeeuuoo! Matt Cameron used to walk around singing it when we were in the studio. He'd look at me, make this little hand motion, and go, "Wheeeeuuoo!" I'd say, "Are you making fun of me?" Actually I used to play pretty stuff when I was just starting out, so I think I developed the vibrato from being nervous about playing live in front of a lot of people. When I was nervous onstage I'd play a little more aggressively. I'd tell myself to take it easy and play a nice slowhand lead: "Just let it sing, Kim, let it sing." Of course when the time came for my lead it was "Wheedila, wheedila, brrrrrrrrriiiinggg!" I just automatically went into it.
GP: Why is that?
KT: Maybe it's because I'm double-jointed in both thumbs. You're supposed to play guitar like this [exhibits "proper" left-hand position, with thumb behind and at a right angle to the neck], but a lot of the time I rest my thumb perpendicularly to the fretboard, right at the bottom of the neck, pointing toward the headstock. With my thumb planted like that, I can go much higher up on the neck. Hands aren't supposed to do that, of course. My thumbs look like a couple of nipples or something.
GP: You can tell a lot about a player from vibrato. Players weaned on Van Halen tend to kick it in the instant they hit the last note in a phrase. Older players hold the note for a second and then start the vibrato.
KT: That's Clapton. A lot of those guys do vibrato by rolling their finger up against the fret or rocking it back and forth horizontally, hitting the note and rocking their finger back and forth like a violinist. I've always bent the string vertically. So many of my buddies do that rocking thing. Maybe when I wasn't strong enough and was playing heavier strings, I wasn't able to bend all the way up, so I stayed in position and worked the bend as best I could. Sometimes I practice that rocking vibrato -- it's a lot subtler.
GP: How do you hold the pick?
KT: It's a tripod position. [Holds the pick with thumb, index and middle finger extended and only slightly bent.] A friend of mine -- a big Duane Allman and Jerry Garcia fan -- watched me play and said he could tell that that's how I got so much pick speed on my leads. He noticed that I rotate the pick up, down and over the string. That might change if I'm muting with my palm. I make a fist with the rest of my hand. When I first saw pictures of myself playing, it looked really odd. I thought, "My God, it's like a little club."
GP: Soundgarden songs have a lot of tricky time signatures. Does that ever throw you?
KT: Everyone in the band writes very uniquely. I have the hardest time learning Chris's songs, because even though Ben's songs have a lot of freaky shit in them, they tend to be freaky in the way they're assembled, not in how they're played. Chris does this offbeat thing a lot, whereas I grew up on the Ramones downstroke. In Chris's songs the A section might transition into the B section on the last upstroke -- the last "and" -- of the A section, rather than on the next downstroke like you'd expect. Actually, a lot of the real odd odd-time stuff comes from me and Matt. Chris will write stuff in 6/8, like "Fell on Black Days," or in 7/8, like "Spoonman," and Ben wrote this thing in 13, but that stuff doesn't throw me at all. I naturally like things in 9 or 7. But Chris's stuff just has a lot of weird syncopations and stutters. That's what throws me -- the shifting of gears. Chris used to be our drummer, and he plays guitar with that kind of syncopation in mind. It's his peculiarity.
GP: There are so many interesting tones on the new record. What's the subtle, pretty pitch-modulation effect on "Applebite"?
KT: That's a Jim Dunlop Rotovibe in the Rotovibe setting, as opposed to the chorus setting. I'm playing my '59 Tele on that one, and it's pretty clean. We did two tracks of it, so the Rotovibe sweeps are going slightly off-kilter for an interesting phase difference. I really like the Rotovibe, although I don't go around playing with toys too much. I just figure the sounds are all in your fingers, your attack, the guitar and the amp. I'm much more interested in playing the guitar than doctoring my sound to get a certain effect. I was into effects when I was first learning how to play. After I'd been playing a few years, I got an MXR catalog: "I'm going to get some distortion! I'm going to get the phaser!" All those different colors seemed engineered to make a young kid go, "Wow!" So at some point I really got sick of the MXR distortion and I got rid of all my pedals. I don't like the idea of any one pedal limiting you. People say it opens you up and lets you try out new sounds. Maybe. But when you turn that thing on and you set it, you're only playing for that sound. It might work for one song or a couple songs, but that damn thing is going to have to be turned off for you to play anything else. It's just very easy to get attached to an effect, so I'd just as soon not have them. The idea of it even being there is in the way to me.
GP: Chorus pedals were addictive for a lot of players in the '80s, the jones being that when you turned it off the guitar suddenly didn't sound "lush" anymore.
KT: I was like that. I got an Ibanez stereo chorus pedal, and I always used it. Eventually I started turning it off for the more visceral, harder rhythmic parts, because it would smear their clarity, but I turned it on for the arpeggios and harmonics. Mark Arm of Mudhoney used to give me shit for that: "Y'know, Kim, you guys would sound a lot heavier if you'd just get rid of that chorus!" I'd tell him, "Hey, we're not just a heavy band; we have a trippy element too."
GP: On "Applebite" there's also a whistling guitar sound, almost like a Moog synth.
KT: That's guitar through a Mu-Tron phase shifter that Seattle producer Steve Fisk loaned us, along with a Moog that Matt plays. I wanted to get a real mosquito tone that would complement the Moog and the floaty ambience of everything else. Between those two sounds it's hard to tell what's what.
GP: I always wondered how you got those pristine feedback notes on the intro to Louder than Love's "Loud Love." Was that an E-Bow?
KT: People thought it was an E-Bow, but it wasn't. I just held the guitar in front of the amp and sounded the notes with a little bit of chorus. I played that melody with the feedback and Chris doubled it with regular guitar. The feedback came so easily because I was using a single 15" speaker with my white Guild S-100. That was when we used to use a lot more feedback than we do now. We used to write entire songs around feedback. "We'll start with this riff and then we'll go into the feedback part!" "Heretic" was the first song we wrote where we thought, "Why can't the main riff be built entirely on harmonics?" The harmonics weren't as loud as the regular low-string stuff, but the chorus gave it the boost it needed to be as present as the picked notes.
GP: On Upside, "Never the Machine Forever" has one of the toughest, chunkiest harmonics ever.
KT: That's played on only two frets too. I'm tuned down to C,G,C,G,G,E. On those two frets -- I think it was frets 4 and 5 -- I found three positions where I could get a distinct harmonic, so there were six harmonic notes I could hit. But they were so specific as to exactly where I had to place my hand. I went up and down one string, going in between the two frets. If you play harmonics a lot I supposed it would be easy, but it wasn't easy for me. The tones were so close together. We put some Rotovibe on there and we doubled the track. But as I was doubling I was very concerned that I wouldn't be able to duplicate the riff or play the harmonics in precisely the same spot.
GP: How did you produce that trippy tambura-like drone in the opening of Ultramega O.K.'s "Flower"?
KT: I was in a dropped-D tuning, and I was blowing on the pickups with the chorus on and the gain up. I've done that live, but people always say, "Hey he's playing with his beard."
GP: Do you ever map out your solos before recording them?
KT: Never on paper. There have been a few solos where I liked what I was initially doing, and I'd go back and try it again until I had it down. The solo on "No Attention" was more like an actual part than a solo. After cutting the first track, I decided I wanted to double the same part an octave up. I figured it out a section at a time and practiced it. By then I'd memorized each phrase, and I went back and recorded it an octave up. I did the same thing on Louder than Love's "Big Dumb Sex" and on Superunknown's "Fourth of July" and "Fresh Tendrils." My attitude is that some solos should be angry bashing and punching of the guitar, some should be chaotic with lots of triplets, and some should be melodic, like on "Fourth of July." In fact my own favorite solos are probably "Like Suicide," "Fourth of July" and "Slaves and Bulldozers."
GP: Why those three?
KT: Because I can't imagine doing them any better. They fit the song so well, whereas when I hear the solo on "Loud Love" I think, "God, that stinks! I can't believe I let it go out that way. I could have done something so much better than that. Why didn't I?" I can be real self-conscious and anal about what I do. I mean, I was bitching endlessly about the solo on "Blow Up the Outside World." I finally had to relax and trust the guys that it was cool. I particularly like having Matt around when I do solos. I've learned more about being a guitarist by my musical and personal relationship with Matt. He's always been very supportive of my abilities, and I feel more confident because of that. He made me feel secure about the noisier stuff I do as well. So when I'm tracking a solo, if he digs it and I dig it, it's on.
GP: You say you don't like the idea of being tied to an effect, but couldn't it be argued that you're tied to using wah-wah in virtually every solo?
KT: Not every solo. On this record it's only on a few. I didn't use it on Screaming Life or Ultramega O.K., and only a little on Louder than Love. I started using it a lot on Badmotorfinger. "Fourth of July" doesn't have wah-wah, but then again "Like Suicide" does. On "Black Hole Sun" I used wah-wah, but there's also a track of backwards lead underneath it to make it sound a little weirder. I like the wah because it can make things sharper and it really augments the noisy stuff. You know how some guitarists play with their mouth open or tap their foot? I use the wah like that -- it's a way of getting me to make it sing, and it enables the lead to cut through the lower frequencies. It gets harsh. And if I'm playing a real hectic, fast solo, the wah-wah gives it even more motion; it adds velocity and makes things sound accelerated. On certain songs I do make the wah-wah sweep regularly in rhythm, but I usually move it in order to accent my bends. So my mouth, my foot and my fingers are all doing the same thing. I use a Dunlop CryBaby with a couple different tone settings, but on Upside I used a Colorsound wah as well.
GP: Do you solo in the same tuning the song is in?
KT: Yeah. Actually, it was during the making of Superunknown that Chris realized that. We were in the studio recording "Head Down," and he asked me, "Don't you want to tune that guitar up?" and I said, "It's in tune." He goes, "You're going to solo in that tuning?" "Yeah. What tuning would you expect me to solo in?" "I thought you soloed in standard tuning." "Well, how would that work live? I wouldn't have the time to quickly tune up or grab another guitar." Standard tuning allows you to retreat to certain box patterns -- y'know, here's the solo and it's in this key. But if I solo in the same tuning as the song I can stumble around and have that same kind of serendipity you get writing riffs in weird tunings. As far as improvising stuff, it's usually just a function of knowing where the different octave positions are. You can use those sympathetic notes and let them drone as you move up the neck playing a scale.
GP: Do you remember when you first used dropped-D tuning?
KT: It was the song "Nothing to Say" from Screaming Life. I had been talking to Buzz of the Melvins, and he was telling me about a tuning he was getting into. He showed me how you could play a single-finger power chord and move it around real easily, and I showed it to Chris and Hiro. Dropped-D tuning also made the notes below the bridge ring out differently on the S-100. [Thayil uses this technique a lot; check out "I Awake" from Louder than Love for a good example.]
GP: What tunings did the band use for the new album?
KT: "Pretty Noose," "Dusty," "Burden in My Hand" and "Never the Machine Forever" are all in C,G,C,G,G,E. On "Rhinosaur" the whole band plays in standard tuning, but I play in dropped-D, and "No Attention" was dropped-D. "Zero Chance" is standard tuning, but Ben wrote these very weird, angular chords using a lot of open strings. "Ty Cobb" is also standard tuning, as is "Blow Up the Outside World," "Never Named," "Applebite," "An Unkind," "Tighter and Tighter" and "Boot Camp." "Overfloater" is in standard, but we brought all the strings down a whole-step. It's weird that Superunknown has very little in standard, but this one's got a lot.
GP: Besides the obvious low-end crunch, what's the advantage of using alternate tunings for a heavy band like Soundgarden?
KT: Alternate tunings facilitate playing certain chords you might not normally play. The other advantages are the chorusing effect you get by doubling up strings of the same pitch, and getting sympathetic drone strings. The other great effect of altered tunings is that you get a different play on the strings, because you're loosening them. So not only can you finger certain chords easier, but it makes slides and bends a lot different and changes your feel. But the idea of alternate tunings is not to make the skill level harder. People don't understand that. A really good guitar is a guitar that's easy to play. A guitar that plays like butter is a good guitar. A guitar that's hard to finger and make chords on is a shitty guitar, given other factors. People really think life is a puzzle, and they make things more difficult for themselves.
GP: Do you always use heavy picks?
KT: I used to use .60s, but now I'm using Dunlop .73s. There were times on the new record where I used a .60 and another time and .88 if we were trying to get a specific attack. My strings are Ernie Ball Super Slinkys. In cases where I'm dropping the low string down to B, like on "Rusty Cage," I use heavy bottom/light top, but generally I'll use .010s on top.
GP: Did you use your S-1 for those chunky rhythms?
KT: I used my '59 Telecaster, believe it or not. I used a rented one on Superunknown as well. I usually use the bright pickup, and I use it a lot for rhythms.
GP: You're kidding. For those subsonic crunch riffs?
KT: Yeah. On Superunknown I used a Tele on "Mailman" and "Limo Wreck," probably the songs that you'd most expect I'd go for a humbucker on. The Tele just had this round sound and brightness, and it was less mushy than the S-1, especially in those dropped tunings. Because of the brightness, it also left more room for the bass, so the bass and guitar become like one big instrument. That's something I've really learned over the years. Drums and bass can sort of present the guitar and make it sound so much heavier. When I listen to a lot of older records, like Zeppelin, the guitars aren't anywhere near as loud or wide-sounding as something on one of our records or a Tad or Helmet record. So why do they sound so heavy even though the guitar isn't predominant? It's just the nature of the riff and the room the mix allows for the bass to get underneath the guitar to make this nice solid wall of the two instruments. That always takes guitarists a while to learn! If it's going to sound heavy they figure the guitars have to be distorted and really loud.
GP: What amps were you using in the studio?
KT: I used a lot of different amps. I used Mesa Dual Rectifiers for leads, but for rhythms we used a new line of Mesa 50-watt Mavericks, an old Fender Super, a Fender Princeton, Fender Twin Reverbs and Vibro-Kings, and an old Orange head. There were also a couple of preamp boxes we used for direct stuff, an Intellitronics LA-2 and a Summit.
GP: Do you have any settings that you stick to?
KT: It varies, but in general I crank the low end up, turn down the midrange to around 11 o'clock and keep the treble around 2 o'clock. I started doing that because during the first few years that we played together I was using an Ampeg bass amp with a 15" speaker, so I'd crank the high end all the way up, drop out the mids and keep the low end there for feedback and the big woof.
GP: Do you still have your white Guild S-100?
KT: I still have it, still take it out on tour, but don't play it so heavily anymore. I broke it in Germany by throwing it at my amp. It got repaired, but when headstocks get fixed, if you break the neck, something changes. It's never been quite the same.
GP: Maybe you broke its spirit.
KT: Maybe. We were once involoved in a legal hassle with a security guy who claimed to have been hurt at one of our shows. At the deposition they asked, "Why do you break your guitars?" I guess they were trying to find out if we had violent tendencies or if we choreographed this kind of aggression. I said, "I don't know. Why does a golfer break the putter over his knees when he misses a shot?"