Reprinted without permission from Guitar For The
Practicing Musician, December 1992
Upon hearing KISS Alive in high school, Kim Thayil knew he wanted to be a guitar player. Upon hearing the MC5, he knew he wanted his guitar to be a weapon. "We hung out with a couple guys from MC5 who came to see our show in Detroit," says Thayil, now prime guitar hero of Soundgarden. "Wayne Kramer was really into what we were doing. He saw a distant similarity of what they had been. That was flattering. Of course musically there's a difference. They were a trippy, three-chord, fuck-the-police band. We're a weird, where-should-we-put-this-note, fuck-the-police kind of band."
You guys both beat riffs to death, though.
"Yeah, were both riff rockers."
Is it all feel, or do you have consciously expanded into different scales in your search for a place to put that weird note?
"A lot of it is feel, but that feel tends to go toward the minor thing a lot, not minor chords so much as minor scales. The way things wind around each other. You got this riff, and it's like a tether call pole, or a Maypole with ribbons, and you wind the song around the center of this pole."
Any particular scales you're prone to for winding? Say, Mixolodian?
"Minoxydilian. My hair is thinning, so I prefer Minoxydilian. Perhaps you've noticed when you watched us live. 'All right! He's got less hair than me!' "
That was pretty thrilling but the crowd got off more when you did "Cop Killer" by Body Count. It has so much notoriety that people forget its actually a great punk song, very simple compared to your material.
"Yeah, it is different. I don't know if the crowd actually heard it before. We've been doing it since Detroit, when I heard Ice T was droppping it from the album. We want to get a whole bunch of people doing that song, make sure it lives in spite of the complaints."
Seems like the censorship issue has backfired on the social conservatives to the extent that its forcing the rock'n'roll community to become political.
"I suppose the rock'n'roll community has an interest in it as artists. But we all know where the real power lies -- with the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and their profit line. They want to sell what they want to who they want, and they don't want the government to cut out a big chunk of their market. I suppose that exists in the industry...'WE WANNA SELL GUNS TO 10-YEAR-OLDS!' "
Soundgarden's lyrics aren't overtly political, but the imagery of rot and violence and corrupt power in songs like "Rusty Cage" and "Slaves & Bulldozers" could be seen as a critique of late-stage capitalism, or whatever it is that's wrecking the world.
"I don't know if Chris is a market economist," says Thayil of Soundgarden's singer/lyricist Chris Cornell. "The lyrics aren't general enough and vivid enough that they can be used to describe a lot of situations generically. Like conflicts; it's like reading a novel [about] man's conflict with himself and society, or the government, or his family, or the economy, or anything."
Whatever the issue, it usually comes back to money.
"Oh, yeah. All social issues are economic."
Thayil grew up in Park Forest, Illinois. His father worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, and his mother taught English in junior high. He attended the local alternative high school with Bruce Pavitt, who later founded the prime incubator of Seattle grunge, Sub Pop. The Ramones, Dead Boys and Sex Pistols inspired him on first hearing and he forced three non-punk friends into joining his punk band Bozo and his vast Army of Pinheads. After a brief stay at the University of Illinois where he found no kindred spirits ("They sat around in their long underwear and thought Frank Zappa was punk"), he loafed around until he was overcome by fear that his father would make him get a job as an assistant manager at a fried chicken joint. With his friend and original Soundgarden bassist Hiro Yamomoto, he moved west, eventually majoring in philosophy at the University of Washington. Had he learned anything there that applies to his present career?
"I suppose. Anything I would do could easily have reference points to something I learned in the past, which could include my study in philosophy. Not directly. They didn't teach me to play guitar."
Maybe logical positivism informed your appreciation of the Stooges?
"No, I didn't specialize in a particualr school. I may have learned some things in aesthetics that helped me approach songwriting."
"Ideas on minimalism. Or ditching conceptualism and symbolism. A lot of pop and rock and folk artists tend to get caught up in that kind of shit."
What do you mean by "ditching conceptualism"?
"Having constructs that represent something other than what it is. Why should a song or piece of music represent twice removed when it has a reality of its own?"
The reality of Soundgarden is that relentless minor key thing. You don't let your audience come up for air.
"That's something we probably get from Public Image or Killing Joke. The repetitiveness, the pounding it into one's head. Of course, Ministry has even more of those elements."
On A&M's reissue of Badmotorfinger, they throw in a bonus EP that includes a cover of Black Sabbath's "Into The Void" with the words changed to a speech by Cheif Seattle about the white man's destruction of the environment.
That was our bass player's idea. Ben Shepherd. He noticed a similarity in the meter of the lyrics. And Chris made them fit. It was just such a Seattle thing to cover a Sabbath song, and then use the lyrics of the man whom our town was named after. Kinda funny. Born of sincerity, but it also had its humor."
Whose idea was "Stray Cat Blues"? Your version is so much darker than the 'Stones'.
"That was Ben's idea, too. He just played it for us and we liked it. I didn't use any of Keith's tunings. My E string is firmly in place. Our version is more threatening, like we're going to kill ourselves."
Seems like there was a lot of stray cat action back stage at Jones Beach.
"Probably not on our part. Maybe some of those other ambitious, resourceful bands."
That aspect of rock'n'roll stardom isn't part of the Soundgarden ambience?
"Not at all. Sex and drugs are not neccessarily correlated with being a rock musician."
You were quoted in Rolling Stone as saying "I may not want to meet any more pople." Touring seems to be especially hard on introverts. After a certain point, they have a nervous breakdown from dealing with strangers.
"Exactly. You've hit the nail on the head -- now there's a cliche for you. I get anxiety attacks, seriously paranoid, dealing with strangers in these situations. And the sad thing is, you might meet someone who could be your best friend in life, but you don't have time to find out. You don't have time for the people you already care about, including yourself. The compensation, of course, is the fun of playing."
So what do you do when you go back to the hotel? Read a book?
"I watch sports on TV and masturbate simultaneously."
You must have had a good workout during the Olympics.
"Exactly. Gotta keep that wrist in shape."
Any other practice tips you could share with our readers?
"Mostly just noodle around, which is how I learned to play guitar. Sitting in front of the TV or radio. Like a nervous habit. That's where all the diddlies and wheedlies come from."
Once Thayil decides on which diddlies and wheedlies, he plays them on a Guild S-l, a Gibson Firebird and "Diet" Les Paul (the Studio Lite), which go through a Peavy VPM-120 amp. He often reverts to dropped D (and lower) tuning -- one of the trademarks o Seattle grunge -- but claims not to be experimenting. "We just do it to make certain songs easier to play," he says. "We do it to spark songwriting."
What's the difference between the Lollapalooza audience and the crowd when you were opening for Guns N'Roses?
"Guns N'Roses had greater diversity classwise. It wasn't just white, leisure-class, suburban, 18-to-24-year-old kids who don't vote. What you saw at Jones Beach, that's the way it is at every single show. With Guns N'Roses, you'd have more of a mix between working-class kids and suburban. Lollapalooza seems to foster the sort of elitism that alienates people who work for a living. It's really getting on my nerves. Guns N'Roses was really cool because a guy getting off his factory job to see a band he believed in would feel welcome. That isn't true around here."