Reprinted without permission from Guitar Magazine,
KIM THAYIL OF SOUNDGARDEN: DOWN ON THE UPBEAT
You always hear those rock-star types going on about their "artistic integrity": how they need to maintain it, how they defend it against corporate meddling, how it's not for sale. Missing, all too often, is much evidence that they actually work on it.
In the case of Kim Thayil and Soundgarden, evidence of musical integrity abounds, as a serious listen to their new release proves.
Down On The Upside pulls together several contrasts: it's coarse but sophisticated, atmospheric but dense, complex but presented simply. And while these are all characteristics Soundgarden has displayed before, Down On The Upside is entirely new. Unlike previous Soundgarden albums, there's not much jamming; the songs open, explode with Chris Cornell's vocals and Thayil's leads, and draw closed. Many hooks run only one or two bars long, and the band plays in 4/4 time more than ever before. Typically, these are indicators of a band packaging itself up for mass consumption, but Soundgarden has taken the high road, declining the ride offered down Easy Street. Down On The Upside will sell well - coming on the heels of the multimillion-selling Superunknown, that's a no-brainer - but while other successful bands are slagging out a lot of B-grade material, spoonfeeding it to hungry fans and writing the whole tamale off to their "art", Soundgarden is offering a provocative, raging album that that requires more attention than most radio programmers may give it. So don't count on radio or MTV to force-feed Upside to you: you'll have to do your own work on this one.
Kim Thayil, as the instrumental driving force behind Soundgarden, is a good representative of his band's integrity. He sat down with us to talk about the new album, and exhibited the same introspection, refinement, and assertiveness that makes Soundgarden such a great rock band.
Though a few cuts are reminiscent of Superunknown, you clearly had new intentions for Down On The Upside. How would you describe the new album?
In terms of sound, I see it as being more natural sounding and slightly more spontaneous. It has more air to it. There's an ambient sort of air to it, which Superunknown may have lacked a little bit. It's a little bit less slick.
Was that an objective, to be less slick?
Yeah. We produced it ourselves, with assistance from Adam Kasper, who's a friend of ours, who also assisted on Superunknown. So we pretty much bypassed the producer middleman and really worked on getting drum sounds that Matt [Cameron] liked, and having the drums sound the way Matt wants to hear them, which created a really good foundation for having the other instruments on top of that.
Did you change your guitar sounds much?
Yeah, I used a lot of different amps, a lot of different guitars. On Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger, I used a lot of humbucking. On this album I used the Guild S-100 quite a bit, but I used a lot of Telecaster and Jazzmaster as well. And there is more acoustic guitar on this record, plus dobro, mandolas, and the occasional keyboard - but it's never overdone, it's just there for color.
Did you find that you had to sidestep a lot of natural tendencies to get the album to sound different, or was it a matter of production and instrumentation?
All we really had to do was get rid of the producer, who might misdirect us. Rather than performing to the mutual satisfaction of us and a producer, we just concerned ourselves with our own satisfaction.
Ben Shepherd [bass] wrote a lot more on this album than he has in the past. Chris and he wrote 90% of the album.
Well, we tend to utilize the songs that are most firmly completed in terms of arrangement and lyrics. Me and Matt had a lot of musical ideas that were halfway or three quarters of the way there, but there were very few finished arrangements - nothing with lyrics. Those songs oftentimes wouldn't get completed and wouldn't make the record, but that happens every record. A lot of times we pursue material because we really enjoy a particular song, and other times we pursue it because it's near completion. When that happens, we establish a certain affection for that song and familiarity with playing it that facilitates us recording it. After a while, when you have 30 songs, you have to focus on what is available to record.
You've said that songwriting was the main reason you first picked up the guitar. Does it bum you out that you don't have more of your own songs on this album?
Well, yeah, it does bum me out, but I couldn't see replacing the songs we do have on there. That's the way it is. I can usually finish arranging the music when I write lyrics, but I don't have as much experience writing lyrics. The more you do it, the better you get at it. That's why I eventually wrote lyrics for "Never The Machine Forever". Otherwise that song, which did not have a finished arrangement, may not have made it to the album. So, it can be a little bit discouraging if there isn't satisfactory creative input, but on the other hand, I write all the solo bits and don't really have limitations on the parts I come up with for guitar.
Tell me a little bit about "Never The Machine Forever".
It's in 9/8, I believe, from beginning to end. Kind of a heavy, guitar-oriented sort of fast song. The lyrics took me a while to write because I don't have this natural facility, this experience with writing lyrics. It made it even more difficult since the song was in 9/8. A 4/4 song wouldn't have been such a big deal - I probably could have written lyrics in a couple of days.
That's funny - most players think about the problems of counting or coming up with a rhythm that grooves in an odd time signature, not the difficulty of the lyrics.
Right, but for me the riff came pretty naturally. We weren't trying to write a 9/8. The riff came out of some jams I was doing with Greg Gilmore, who is the former drummer of Mother Love Bone, when he and I were in the studio jamming last year. He had this drum part, and once I found the 1 [beat], I came up with this guitar riff. Then later I showed it to the band, Matt came up with a totally different drumbeat, and then I rearranged it to be lyric-friendly.
Do odd times usually come easy to you?
If I write something in an odd time, yeah, it's pretty easy, it's natural. But if someone said, "Hey, write something in 5," I wouldn't be able to do it. I naturally tend towards 5's or 7's, and occasionally 9 or 6. It just happens, and you go to learn it, and you're showing someone else, and the question will come up: "Hey man, that's not 4, what are you doing there?" I'll count it out and it turns out to be 7. If you listen to "Never The Machine Forever", it doesn't sound like some awkward, forced 9/8 thing. It sounds natural, as if it might as well be in 4. But if you try and play it or dance to it or something, that's when you realize it's not a common time.
That's when the trouble starts. You guys have a knack for making odd times sound natural. Conversely, you have a way of making a 4/4 tune interesting.
Those are all very natural things, something that was there with us right from the beginning, 11 years ago. We'd just write something we thought had a cool groove, and someone would point out the timing to us, until we learned to count it ourselves. The thing that throws me off is when my guitar part is on an upbeat. Sometimes Chris, who used to be a drummer, will write things that are in 4 but then there are upbeats somewhere in there, and Chris will go, "Look, it's one and two and three and four and." Me, not being a drummer, that will lose me. So here's somebody who can write a riff in 13/8, and gets lost by that upbeat in 4/4. That's one of my little peculiar things.
Do you feel you've changed as a guitar player between Superunknown and Down On The Upside?
I think the biggest difference is my attraction to single-coil guitars. I got a Tele during Superunknown, started really getting into the sound, and it kind of changed the flavor of the way I write. When this album came around, I was writing a lot more in the tuning C G C G G E [low to high]. A lot of the riffs I was showing to the band and trying to work on were in that tuning - Chris was using it, too. That's the tuning for "Burden In My Hand", "Pretty Noose", and "Never The Machine Forever". I have an attraction to that tuning and the single-coil sound. I've been more interested in this percussive tone and less interested in the sort of warm, melodic tone that I had used for years.
Do you solo in alternate tunings?
Yeah. Which is funny, because Chris didn't know that until Superunknown. He assumed that I would go ahead and solo in standard tuning. I said no, I always solo to the tuning that the song is written in and recorded in, because that makes more sense live, to understand the scales or that tuning and where you can find stuff. Sometimes alternate tunings limit your access to certain patterns or scales - especially a tuning like C G C G G E. That doesn't make it as easy, but then again, it opens you up to different sounds as far as playing.
Do you sit down and map out your solos, writing them like you would write another part of a song?
No. Sometimes I will, but generally I don't. I'll go turn the tape on, and play along, comp together parts I like, and then often I'll go learn it afterwards to play it live. Some songs call for more of a noise thing, and I'll kind of bash at it; other times it's more of a texture or color.
There's a pretty straight read on "Blow Up The Outside World".
A blues-type thing, exactly. And after I recorded it, the rest of the band loved it, and the assistant engineer loved it, but I kept feeling like it was too stiff. I was using a Tele with .011's. I was listening to it, going, "You know, it doesn't have my trademark finger vibrato," like you can hear on Ultramega OK and Badmotorfinger. I wasn't quite satisfied with it, but because everyone else really enjoyed it, eventually I let it go.
That's a world away from the solos you rip out on "Rhinosaur".
There were three different solos recorded for that. There's a solo at the intro which is more like a droning, hypnotic thing, then there's a lead part, which is more of a fast sort of rock guitar thing with wah-wah, then there's the ending part. What we found was that the droning didn't have the energy. Although it was trippy, it didn't have the wildness needed for the middle section. The parts that I'd first written that were more rhythmic and melodic ended up sounding like something from Mountain or maybe like a Jimmy Page riff. It was pretty-sounding, but it lacked the wildness.
When you're in the middle of a more frenetic solo, like that second solo, like that second solo in "Rhinosaur", is there a harmonic logic that governs your playing, or are you going for a mood?
It's more of a mood, there's no harmonic logic at all. It's supposed to be "Let go and be wild." When I listen back to it there are little surprises here and there that I enjoy, because it's very spontaneous. We'll often do a half dozen or dozen takes, so it's kind of serendipitous afterwards to listen back and see what happened.
What do you like best and least about your own playing?
[long pause] I do enjoy my finger vibrato best - when I'm soloing I do a unique thing. I like that because it's part of an identity, something that I can identify as being unique to me. I play that way also with rhythms, more riff-oriented things, the heavier things... I like the way I bend. I'm very happy with the way I incorporate noise with our band. And my ability to play fast. Things I don't like about my playing... I'm not very good at fingerpicking - I can only do rudimentary things. And getting stifled by that upbeat that will throw me off.
How might a Kim Thayil solo project differ from a Soundgarden album?
It probably wouldn't differ that much, because so much of the idea of what Soundgarden is about was created when Chris and Hiro [Yamamoto, original bassist] and I were together. So much of it musically, in terms of direction and sound, was dictated by the guitar, and my understanding of how the band should be. If I were to do a solo record, it would be sort of like making a Soundgarden record without Chris singing, and where's the good in that? [laughs] But actually, if I made a solo record, it might be more inclined to sound like Badmotorfinger or Ultramega OK than the new album, because I'd be more guitar-oriented in my writing, whereas this new record is much more vocal-oriented.
Do you sing at all?
No, not very well. I scream, that's about it. Going back to that solo-album question, I could see it being a little bit more - I don't know how to describe it - having more elements of Wire and Young Marble Giants and maybe a bit of Pink Floyd as well. I don't know if I want to say "ethereal", but something that would be very powerful but not viscerally powerful. It would be melodically and dynamically powerful. There would probably be a lot more arpeggios used, a lot more space and drones.
There is some of that on this album, on a cut like "Applebite".
Yeah, I loved "Applebite". Matt played the demo for that. That's the one I really pushed for - I definitely wanted that song on the record.
Do you draw from any ethnic influences - perhaps your own?
Mine is East Indian. There might be a little bit of influence there, but it's funny, because Chris often writes parts that have that sort of Eastern flavor, and I'll often write parts like that and so will Ben. So I don't know if it's necessarily something I picked up from the ethnic thing - it might have been more from listening to The Beatles or to Indian music when I was a kid, perhaps.
What else do you draw from now, as a guitarist and as a songwriter?
I think we've often drawn from literature and film.
Just the idea of dynamic, the way the story develops. There's a dynamic and a certain drama. I've often thought a lot of our music was very cinematic. Superunknown was quite that way, and we've often had that told to us by people. We don't draw that often from rock. Right from the beginning, when me, Hiro and Chris formed the band, we would discuss how the most boring rock we ever heard was rock that was influenced by rock. So it's just the mood, a feeling that you might get from a movie or a book or even a painting, and you write a song that tries to describe that. Usually the band is very good at reading each other that way.
Does that make shooting videos more fun or less fun?
Less fun, because it's a difficult thing to communicate to a film director, who may not understand music that well, and we don't understand the director's job that well. So they have a particular vision, and sometimes we look at it and we're often disappointed. We've been disappointed with most of our videos. There were a couple we were really satisfied with: "Black Hole Sun" we were satisfied with, and "Jesus Christ Pose" as well. Most of the others we were like, "Well, whatever."
Soundgarden has a unique way of presenting a "sad" song, for lack of a better word. It requires a lot of attention to recognize the depth of darkness in them.
I agree with that. There is a depth of melancholy, and at the same time there's a certain sublime quality to it that's transcendent at the same time as being inward and melancholy. It seems like the kind of music you come out feeling stronger about. You feel stronger in your solitude and more callous towards your pain. I think that even though there's a sadness to it, there is sort of a resolve or hopefulness to it as well.
That recalls what you were saying about writing "literary" songs: Sometimes you read something and find some comfort just in that it was said right.
And that you are not alone. That there was someone who was perhaps more articulate than you were at the time of reading it, who was capable of describing it. That's an experience and a pleasure that we've received from music and film and literature, and it's something we've been very successful at describing.
It leaves one with some sense of not being the only one out there.
There's an insight you can get from those things. Those are some of the more pleasant experiences I've had in my life, actually. [pause] Ooo, now I don't know what else to say about that [laughs]. I'm kind of sitting here spacing out thinking about that. Sit in a corner with a blanket, look out the window. Look at the rain. Am I getting a fever? [laughs]
If this album doesn't sell as many as the last, would that have a significant impact on you?
It's hard to tell, because every album we've made has gotten bigger and bigger, and every tour we've done is bigger and bigger - we haven't really taken a step back. We know that at some point it's inevitable. If that ever occurs, part of it may just be a temporary phenomenon. We don't think the well is dry in terms of our creativity.
Are you glad that the industry spotlight is coming off Seattle now, or does the fickleness of the industry aggravate you?
A bit of both. What aggravates me is it's a bit disappointing, and I know it's happened to other bands in the past, other musical genres or pop genres. I can see how frustrating it must have been for, say, The Human League, or even for bands like Warrant or The Bullet Boys. But gosh, that's the way it is. Part of that is marketing, and part of that is the consumer. That's a little bit aggravating when it's the marketing that's doing it. It's less aggravating when you understand it's the consumer. But in a way, there's also this relief; there's no longer this media and record-industry frenzy, this eating up and spitting out of everything that at one point was very fun and decent and innocent about what we were doing. In a way, it's been a sort of maculated and sullied a bit. It's not like we grew up or that the innocence is gone because we had this insight or something - I don't think anyone's really that naive to begin with. It's just that it was sort of trampled upon. So it's a relief that that pressure has let up, but at the same time, I am a bit aggravated at the fickleness of the marketing end of the industry. I'm already a bit of a cynic and a curmudgeon, and this just makes me a little more so.
Anything else you'd like to clear up, for the record?
Yeah, we weren't influenced by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The past few days in interviews we've been asked that. We said, "Look, if anything, you drew a parallel." If they say that we sounded like those bands, we'd say okay, and I might be able to accept that. But if you say that we drew from their body of work and created what we do out of that, it's like, "No, that was never the case." When I started playing guitar, I was listening to Johnny Ramone, the MC5. There may have been things we've done in the past that sounded similar, but that certainly wasn't because of influences. It was probably happenstance.