Reprinted without permission from Guitar School, May
PRIMECUTS: KIM THAYIL
by Jeff Gilbert
For more than nine years, Kim Thayil's guitar grind has defined
the sound of seattle.
Nirvana may sell more records, Pearl Jam may get more press. Alice in
Chains might get more girls. But Soundgarden is recognised as the
originator of Seattle's overdriven guitar sonic boom. They are, and
always will be, the unsung heroes of the Seattle sound.
But guitarist Kim Thayil is quite comfortable avoiding the spotlight
that has turned their multi-million-selling counterparts into media
"I can still go grocery shopping without being asked for autographs,"
smiles Thayil cheekily.
Soundgarden's prolific career officially began with three tracks on
Deep Six (C/Z Records, 1985), the seminal Seattle music
compilation. Two EPs (Screaming Life, Flower), three
albums (Ultramega OK, Louder than Love,
Badmotorfinger), and appearances on at least a dozen movie
soundtrack and benefit compilation albums later, Soundgarden's
guitar-plated legacy -- from wah-droned dirges and punk fed metal --
has influenced literally ever major player on the Seattle music scene,
past and present.
"To me, Soundgarden is the first thing that comes to mind when I think
of the 'Seattle sound,'" says Gary Thorstensen, guitarist for Tad.
"They are the Seattle sound."
Thayil admits to Soundgarden's role in the development of the Seattle
sound, but his self-effacing manner belies his importance.
"I think Soundgarden is a pretty good band and I'm a fine guitarist,"
he says quietly. "I'm not God, but I'm certainly not average. I feel
very comfortable with the fact that not many other people can do what
I do on guitar. I think my guitar is happy with the way I play it."
Thayil, who has co-authored or played on all of his band's one
hundred-deep song catalogue shares a pointed philosophy about
"I think the most irresponsible thing any artist can do is politicise
their art. There are people out there who think it's their obligation
as an ah-tist to be politically and socially responsible. If you're
like that, why waste time playing guitar? Why don't you get a degree
in political science, or write some essays?"
A new Soundgarden album, tentatively titled Super Knowledge, is
being finalised for a February or early March release, two long years
after the platinum breakthrough success of Badmotorfinger.
Guitar School recently dropped by Bad Animals Studios in Seattle where
Soundgarden is recording, for a quick peek forward and a long look
"HERETIC," Deep Six (C/Z 1985)
"There are two things I remember about this song. The first is that
the arpeggio riff was written in 3/4 and Chris [Cornell, vocalist] and
Hiro [Yamamoto, Soundgarden's first bassist] felt uncomfortable with
it because the rest of the song was in 4/4. I tried it in 4/4 and it
felt really blocky; it just didn't roll. We got into a number of
arguments about it. In the end we made it 3/4, and the song rolled
"The second thing I remember was wondering why harmonics are only used
in solos or to accent certain parts of songs. We thought we should do
a song where the main riff is a harmonic."
"SUB POP ROCK CITY," Sub Pop 200 (Sub Pop, 1988)
"We wrote that song with [Kiss'] 'Detroit Rock City' in mind. I wrote
the riffs and jammed a bunch of grooves together. I thought we'd make
it a little 'butt rock.' It's the only time you'll here a boogie riff
in a Soundgarden song; we threw it in mostly for humour."
"While we were in the studio recording Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan
Poneman from Sub Pop were very concerned about what we were doing.
They'd call the studio and we wouldn't answer. Jack Endino, who
produced the track, just left the answering machine on. We took the
messages from Bruce and Jonathan and sampled sections of them to come
up with the fake conversation that's on 'Sub Pop Rock City.'"
"BEYOND THE WHEEL," Ultramega OK (A&M, 1988)
"That song is very industrial sounding. I love the solo; it's wild and
loose. We did a backward guitar intro, which gives the song a nice
sweep. Chris wrote 'Beyond the Wheel,' recorded it on a four-track,
and brought us the demo. We thought it was a great trippy, heavy song.
But Chris thought there was something missing from the middle section.
He asked me if there was some kind of drone thing I could do to fill
it up. I came up with that part that goes beeoop beeoop, which gives
the song great dynamics. That solo is one of my favourite things I've
ever done, and one of the best Soundgarden solos."
"HUNTED DOWN," Screaming Life (Sub Pop, 1987)
"That song wasn't supposed to be as heavy sounding as it turned out.
We just started jamming on the riff and it took on the 'noise rock'
dimensions, kind of a rhythmic thing. And that solo is a noise solo.
<laughs> It's very dissonant. That song was also the first song
on the Sub Pop "hold" music tape. You would call them up, and when
they put you on hold you heard 'Hunted Down.'"
"NOTHING TO SAY," Screaming Life (Sub Pop, 1987)
"This song was originally from an unsigned-band compilation tape made
by a KCMU disc jockey. It was called Bands That Will Make Money
-- it had a little piggy bank on the cover and was distributed to all
the record companies. Labels started calling us when they heard the
song. I was working at Seattle Filmworks along with Mark Arm from
Mudhoney, Bruce Fairweather from Mother Love Bone, and Owen Wright
from My Sister's Machine. I got this phone call while I was doing some
splicing and it was Chris. He said, 'You're not going to believe this
-- A&M called!.' The rest is history."
"FOPP," Fopp (Sub Pop, 1988)
"That's an Ohio Players song off of Honey -- I've had that
album since I was in high school. We thought we could take the song
and make it AC/DC or something. We'd take the power chords, turn up
the volume and make it heavy. 'FOPP' is a good song that needed to be
given its due as a 'kick-ass rock song!'"
"FLOWER," Flower (Sub Pop, 1989)
"This song marks the first time I ever blew on a guitar. I put the
guitar down on the ground near the amp to get a humming feedback, as
opposed to a squealy one, and blew across the strings in rhythm with
the drums. There's probably some obscure Mississippi blues guitarist
like 'Blind Lemon Pledge' who's done that before <laughs>, but
'Flower' is the first time any rock band had recorded the sound of
someone blowing across the strings. It sounds like a sitar."
"HANDS ALL OVER," Louder than Love (A&M, 1989)
"The video for that song was one of the lamest ever made. It really
sucked. What I liked about the song was that it was just one simple
riff -- one note, one chord -- but with a lot of dynamics. In some
ways it's simple and basic; in other ways, it's very sophisticated in
how it was layered. We don't really have many songs that are like
'Hands All Over.'"
"BIG DUMB SEX," Louder than Love (A&M, 1989)
"Hiro, our bass player at the time, hated that song. He thought it was
obnoxious butt rock, a total rock'n'roll cliche. We tried to explain
to him that the song was making fun of butt rock. We were fed up with
bands beating about the bush, just using euphemisms and metaphors for
the sex act. We thought we'll ditch all the euphemisms and say what
all the disco dance bands had been trying to say for a decade. We were
simply trying to kick all the lame-ass rock'n'roll and dance music of
the '80s and late '70s in the butt. It's a parody of the whole genre
of stupid rock."
"LOUD LOVE," Louder than Love (A&M, 1989)
"The intro was a feedback melody. Many people think we used an E-bow.
I've seen transcriptions that have said to use an E-bow. The truth is,
I've never even seen an E-bow. I simply stood in front of the amp, got
the note ringing until it was feeding back, and slid my finger up the
fret on the string and dragged the feedback with it."
"GUN," Louder than Love (A&M, 1989)
"The thing about this song that's so distinct is that the tempo starts
off slow and gradually speeds up, but it doesn't walk up steps or come
to sections that are faster. It just speeds up until it culminates in
a big jack-off guitar solo. Then it slows down again. It's a fun song
to do live because Matt [Cameron, drummer] always speeds up way too
fast. Faster than we can play <laughs>."
"H.I.V BABY," Sub Pop Single of the month Club (Sub Pop, 1990)
"I wrote the middle and ending riff, but Chris wrote the lyrics and
Ben [Shepherd, Soundgarden's bassist] came up with the title, which
was based on me, because I don't like sharing other people's
silverware, drinking out of other people's bottles or sharing
cigarettes. I'm pretty uptight about that. Ben said to me, 'Wow, Kim,
you're a total H.I.V baby!'"
"SLAVES AND BULLDOZERS," Badmotorfinger (A&M, 1991)
"That's the second song we did where I blow on the guitar. I'd do it
live and people would think I was playing with my tongue or my teeth
or my beard. 'Hey look, he's playing guitar with his beard!' No, I was
blowing on it -- making a wish!"
"RUSTY CAGE," Badmotorfinger (A&M, 1991)
"The tuning on that song was pretty nutty. It's recorded with a wah
wah in the low position used as a filter. That was the first time we
did anything like that. It was Chris' idea; he wanted to get that
weird tone that you can't really dial in on an amp. But if you use the
wah wah as a filter, it gets an incredibly weird sound. And if you
listen to that riff, especially if you've heard the original demos of
it, it almost sounds backward."
"JESUS CHRIST POSE," Badmotorfinger (A&M, 1991)
"That was our first single off Badmotorfinger, but it never got
any airplay because of the references to Jesus. And MTV wouldn't play
the video because they didn't like the idea of a girl on the cross.
There are no guitars in the video at all. There's not even a picture
of a guitar in the video. It's like this hard, rock-fast, punk-metal
video that has no instruments in the whole thing. And it's a six
minute video! The song's groove reminds me of helicopter blades
<makes helicopter blade sounds> I bent the strings at the
beginning and end of the song. That's all I remember."
"OUTSHINED," Badmotorfinger (A&M, 1991)
"All I can remember is that they cut the guitar solo to make the video
'single-length.' I thought that was a stupid thing. Here we are, a
guitar band, and the guitar solo -- it may not be a great guitar solo
-- was edited out just for the video. That's ridiculous. It was a
heavy song and our most popular video, even though it was a crap
video. It never kicks in or explodes; there's no dynamics. The band
never loosens up and explores the riff because the solo was taken
"BIRTH RITUAL," Singles Soundtrack (Epic, 1992)
"Matt had this riff laying around; it's absolutely insane and amazing.
I wanted that song to be on our album, but, unfortunately, we were
unable to come up with the chorus until later in the recording
process. Chris wrote the pre-chorus and the chorus and, by that time,
I didn't think the song was ready for Badmotorfinger. So we
rehearsed it and got it together for the Singles soundtrack.
"LIMO WRECK," Super Knowledge (A&M, 1994)
"By the time our new album comes out, the title may be different. It's
a riff Matt wrote and I like it because it's so creepy, I don't even
know how to describe it. The song has amazing depth and emotion. It's
very dark, but at the same time, very powerful and angry."