Reprinted without permission from Guitar For The
Practicing Musician, September 1990
There is a darker shade of metal making noise these days which celebrates feedback, the harsher forms of aggression. In this lair the Seattle quartet dwell, welding together the heavy riffs of Black Sabbath, with a free-form jazz-like ethic. This is hard rock that assaults the senses, fueled by the energy and attitude of the MC5 and the noise element of Sonny Sharrock's Last Exit. At the vortex of the Soundgarden catharsis is guitarist Kim Thayll, who gives sounds, noises and riffs equal billing as he attacks the music, plunging the guitar into areas only he calls home. In much the same relentless way, he pursues his, musical vision with singular focus. "There're so many incredibly talented people who are all doing rock, 'cause that's where the money is," he says.
"And they're not even doing good rock; they're doing pop-rock. I mean, do they really like that? Can you play that well, and actually enjoy doing something that's that unchallenging? If all these fantastic musicians turn around and are appealing to the least common denominator, then their taste for the least common denominator is what's shared with this least common denominator. It doesn't explain their love for pursuing their musicianship or their craft over all these years. It doesn't make sense, because they must've been listening to a great variety of music over the years. I guess they think OK, I have the instruments, I have the tools, I have the techniques, I might as well go where the money is." In the ensuing discussion, Kim described the code of ethics that moves his music.
Are you always playing at the top of your ability? Are you attempting to be on the edge all the time?
No, but at least I write songs that are challenging aesthetically. Something you'd listen to, something that you get pleasure from and say, that's a different arrangement, that's a new way to approach a song, that's a really cool feel.
How much importance is there on technique for what you play?
I probably can't do any of the tapping stuff that anyone else in this magazine could do. I mean, everyone does that these days. I hate whammy bars. I like Adrian Belew's whammy bar, but all the rest is kind of boring.
It's what you do with what you have. A whammy bar is just a tool.
A whammy bar's pretty irritating if it makes you sound like a one-oscillator synthesizer. It was there for a reason, to give some kind of tone, vibrato or a slight tremolo. Then you have some guy dive-bombing; that was pretty cool. When you first heard that, you didn't think it was a guitar. That's what's cool about Van Halen. It's like, wow, there must be some weird synthesizer player, like Jan Hammer, in this band.
In the material you do, and in yourself as a guitarist, do you feel that you're working in uncharted territories?
I started playing guitar to write songs. I didn't learn other people's songs. I started jerking around with it, and came up with things that sounded cool to me. The craft for me was working on a song, working on arrangements that I felt would have some power. I've never taken a guitar lesson in my life. I would see how fast I could play, like everyone does, right? I kept trying to play faster and faster. It didn't help, 'cause I didn't know all the scales. I could do it with one scale. That was about the extent of my interest in playing guitar - how fast I could play.
What sparked your rock 'n' roll dreams?
Just being able to write a song. Wow, I can do it, and it sounds better than Kiss. That's what the dream was, that was the spark.
Did music give you an identity? Was it important?
Definitely, for me music was so important, I started collecting records and put away my comic books. I stopped playing baseball and started playing guitar a lot more. It kind of shut everything else out of my life. I'd just play guitar from two to five hours a day, and that's about all I did, 'cause I didn't want to do anything else. I didn't even have an amp for the first half a year. I just put my ear against the bottom part of the body.
Did you have friends that you could share this with, or was this a solitary thing?
It was pretty much solitary for me because I wasn't in a band for the first year or so. While I was learning how to play guitar, there was a guy who was learning how to record things. He was doing sound for school plays and he had a 50 watt PA and speakers. He was really into electronics and he'd start making little amps. So I'd record stuff and make all kinds of delay effects and distortion effects, and use all the reverbs. He got a 4-track and it's like, well, you wanna do some experimentation? So we started doing multi-tracking, which has helped me get a better idea of how people record, as well as facilitating my songwriting. Rather than just writing a one riff thing, I could now write counter points and melodies.
Is that how you knew that you were getting somewhere?
What was my reinforcement? I'd come up with a sound and say, "Oh wow, this sounds like something they do on the radio." I couldn't quite do it. I was able to write a song, but I couldn't quite play it. It was satisfying when I was actually able to play my own songs, or play the chord I figured out. I got a book that diagrams chords, to be able to make the fingering after five minutes. You know you're getting somewhere when you can go from one chord to that new fingering you learned that once took you five minutes just to get. There are other little guitar rites of passage, like when you found out how to make a barre chord, and you realized now there were all these chords at your disposal. Then there's learning how to barre other chords, to make 7ths and minors and 9ths. There are insights here and there, like, I can just run this scale up and down a fret and change the key. This is how you get the triplets down, or drone in a minor key, or get weird noises out of the guitar that aren't normal. Maybe you can work with feedback, or sometimes your fingers do something that you wanted them to do but you couldn't. These are all little things where you go, "That's satisfying."
Were you ever in a cover band?
I played bass in a cover band for a couple months, and that's where Hiro (Yamamoto, the original bassist) and I met Chris (Cornell, the vocalist). It wasn't my band. A friend of mine had a band and that's what he did for a living. He played guitar and sang, and he needed a bass player, so I figured I'd do it just to help him out, get a little bit more experience playing live. I'm not that interested in playing Hendrix or the Stones or Buddy Holly songs, but that's what he always wanted to play. I did it for him, 'cause he was my roommate.
Was there anything to be learned from the songs of Hendrix, the Stones, or Buddy Holly?
I don't think so. Those rock songs basically have similar arrangements, you know, the I-IV-V progression. I mean, once you know it, that's it. You don't need to know anything else, except to come up with your own interesting riff. The progressions already set up for you.
What was in your record collection?
To me there were certain distinct shifts. There were the Beatles, then I went out to buy my own records, and I bought Chicago's Greatest Hits. Then I heard "Rock and Roll All Night" and I bought Kiss Alive, and I said, "This is the music for me. This is what I'm hearing in my head that I don't hear on the radio." This is how I thought music should sound. Kiss may have been what inspired me to pick up the guitar. "I can do that!" God, it's loud, it's heavy, it's brutal, it's bold. So you decide, well, OK, I'm gonna pick up the guitar, 'cause I wanna do that. I want to write a song. I want to hear it loud. It's a way of building a force field between you and the rest of the world. Later, I started reading, in articles about Kiss, references to the New York Dolls, and started reading about the Dolls. I'd hear references to the Stooges and MC5. So I'd go out and I'd buy a Stooges album. Actually, I made a trade for a Stooges album; I traded away Bebop Deluxe's Modem Music. I was experimenting a lot; I'd buy records, read something and think, this might be cool. I didn't really know. I wasn't hearing it at any parties or anything. I was just trying to experiment. Then after a while, you're able to make judgements based on the way the album cover looked, or the song titles, or the references made in a magazine article. And then I would hear the MC5 and Stooges and the Dolls, and realize that this is more intense than Aerosmith, Kiss or Ted Nugent. It's legitimate. I was thinking, there's so many ways you can be bold and heavy without just being loud like Kiss was. Still, the MC5 and the Stooges were loud, but there's something more intense about it. The socio-pathology of the Stooges and the politics of the MC5 were a little bit darker. The Velvet Underground was a major shift as far as songwriting aesthetics. Then, of course, I heard Pere Ubu. Pere Ubu's not a loud band. They're not a heavy metal band, but they're incredibly heavy, and they're incredibly intense, without being a standard rock band, without cranking the amp to 10. The Pixies are that way as well. There's just something there a little bit darker than just turning the amp up to 10. Everybody can understand an amp up to 10; not everyone can understand something as far underground as Pere Ubu. The ideal was realizing how many more tools, or weapons, I had at my disposal. It's appreciating other elements in music, apart from just speed and volume, both in composition and in the way you play. You learn to appreciate certain progressions; learning that the minor key was ultimately more powerful and moving than the major key. A 7th chord sounds chipper and happy and silly. I never liked minor chords, 'cause they always sounded boring, but minor scales are kind of cool. When you crank the amp up to 10 and play a minor chord, you can barely distinguish it from a major. You certainly couldn't distinguish a major from a 7th. So, in other words, to distinguish those other tones and harmonics in a chord, you have to turn off the distortion, turn the volume down a bit.
The band has sounds from the '60s through the 70s.
Blue Cheer, Stooges, Hendrix, Sabbath? I'd say there's some of that, definitely. It's not a source, but if you look at the elements of composition they had all of it revolved off the live band. Blue Cheer, MC5, Hendrix-they were live bands, it's what they were, and spontaneity was a large element of their music. The Stooges weren't influenced by the sonics or anything. Iggy Pop listened to Sun Ra and Albert Ayler. So did the MC5. They listened to free jazz and noise.
From a guy who started off trying to play fast, one of the things that's part of your music is a drone.
Yeah. I started droning in E, but droning in D was a bit more powerful, because when you tune the E string down to D it resonates longer. Plus, people don't know how you get that low. If you let the string drone, and then, on a string adjacent, play a minor scale, it works really well. You can do it with a major scale too, but it works really well for minors.
You use that minor 2nd sound.
Perhaps that's it. I wouldn't know minor 2nd. My mom is a music teacher, but I can't read music.
Was she supportive?
She didn't even know I was doing it. She knew I had a guitar, and I'd go up to my room and turn the amp up real loud, and she usually wasn't around when I was playing loud. One day, I was playing real loud, and I opened up the windows for a bit of exhibitionism, and some neighbors complained. My mom said, "They want you to turn that record down." I said, "I'm not listening to any records." "Well, what are you playing up there?" "My guitar." And she goes, "That was you?" And she got really excited, and said, "How'd you learn how to play that? When'd you learn how to play that?" I mean, she used to go to blues clubs. I go, "I just kind of figured it out." She's classically trained, she went to the Royal Academy in London, and graduated when she was 18. She was either going to be a concert pianist or a teacher; she ended up teaching music and English, so she never learned how to improvise, and here's her goofy son who's kind of playing these really loud rock things, and soloing, and she thought it was really weird. She was trying to figure out how I did it, and she was excited about it. That was the extent of her support. She was proud that I ended up following music, but she was particularly excited that somehow it happened independent of her. Ultimately, neither she or my dad were supportive of me wasting all my time, coming home late, or having a band in the basement.
You grew up around Chicago and moved to Seattle.
Just to get away from Chicago. I was 20 or 21. The band broke up, and my girlfriend and I broke up, so there was no reason to hang around Chicago. I'd gotten fired from a job, and I dropped out of school.
Where did Soundgarden come together?
Seattle. I met Hiro in Chicago. He played mandolin then. I actually talked Hiro into buying a bass and moving to Seattle. I said, "Hey, it's almost the same stringing as a mandolin, it's backwards, and you're more likely to get in a band playing bass than mandolin." We wanted to play together, so he got a bass. I showed him all his initial scales and stuff. He'd insist on using his fingers instead of a pick, saying, "The good bass players use their fingers." He ended up being really good with his fingers.
When you moved out there, did you actually have a vision for a band?
I figured I could make a band in Seattle and be the best band in Seattle. I really thought that. I thought it would just be so much easier. There's a lot of good bands in Seattle that are really cool, mostly coming out of Olympia. In Chicago, there's nothing but union bands and bar bands. You had to get a couple of cars to haul stuff to a club to play. Seattle had all the advantages of being a major city, as far as visibility. It was open to new ideas, and bands like the Blackouts and the Beakers could get gigs, get press and make records. I felt I could have a band that was more intense than that, so I thought I could make records, and get a chance. It was just perfect. I had gone to an alternative high school in Chicago, and there's a college in Olympia called the Evergreen State College, which is an alternative school just like the high school I went to, and Bruce Pavitt, the guy who runs SubPop Records, was going to school out there. The cool music scene is coming out of the Evergreen State College, so there was a music network. There was KAOS radio. I thought, that's it. There's a network here.
Once you got to Seattle, how long did it take to sort out a band?
Longer than I thought it would, because I had to get a job. Then you get home-sick for a bit. We didn't go to many shows, 'cause Hiro was underage, and most of the shows were 21 and older places. There were three of us who knew each other, and moved out together. It took a while. Then you're broke, and you're bumming, writing home for money. I thought, this is not happening. So I went back to school and ended up meeting some artists and musicians there. I started going to a lot more shows. You meet guys in bands, jam with people, go to parties and play with them. All of a sudden, people want you to play with them. They want you to play with other bands. You don't have time, 'cause you're in school. Then you end up in my situation at the university, listening to all the newest records and meeting more musicians. I moved to Seattle in September '81. Soundgarden started in September of '84. It took three years before anything started going, but I knew it was going to work.
With Soundgarden, is the intensity of the performance a major part of the equation?
It's a tantrum. You should have seen Jake smash his bass. We only have two basses; we killed one of them in Boston. I was watching him kill it, and he snapped the neck right off, threw it like a bat against the wall, and he jumped on it, snapped the neck right off. It looks really cool, but the tour manager gets really mad at you.
Soundgarden echoes the energy of a band like Last Exit with Sonny Sharrock.
Last Exit is definitely wild, definitely cool. That's what I like in music. Wild, intense.
Is that how it is in the studio? The idea is to have a catharsis?
Live, it's probably cathartic. In the studio it's kind of difficult. You have that energy when you write the song, practice, and you play it live. In the studio, how do you feel that same way while keeping your guitar in tune, and playing accurately? There are other things that we have to do in order to give it a similar power. Sometimes we will double up rhythm tracks so they sound wider. We overdub solos. Our aesthetic in solos is pretty much the noisier and wilder the better.
Do you play all the guitar on the record?
No, I play all the solos.
Chris plays his rhythm parts?
Yeah, the stuff he does live, he does on the record.
But who's playing the riffs?
I play riffs, too. We record his rhythm part, then record my rhythm part. One reason why I like Van Halen is because he didn't do overdubs. He'd just play his rhythm and then go ahead and start soloing. It's so cool. We do overdubs, but what I liked about him was he's the only guitarist and he did both. It's like, when the mood hit him, he'd go and do it. That's what Jimmy Page and Hendrix did. I was really attracted to rhythm guitar. I always thought Ace Frehley was the guy doing the riffs, 'cause that's what I'm listening to. It must be the upfront one. I thought rhythm guitar was like that stupid thing in the background, playing fills. I also love writing songs with the bass, simply because you don't play lots and lots of chords. You get the riff and the groove down. Once you listen to Public Image and the Ramones, you realize writing off the bass is really cool. Most of our songs are written on bass, acoustic guitar, and frequently, a 12-string acoustic. Even our hardcore songs were written on acoustic guitar. It's just sped up and turned up when we put it on a record.
Has Jason recorded with the band outside of the live promo?
No. He'll be on the next one. On the flip side of "Hands All Over" is an arrangement Chris made for "Come Together," by the Beatles. Jason plays on that. That'll be his first vinyl with Soundgarden. Those are two really distinct things about Soundgarden, both he and Chris and I play guitar, primarily to write songs. With all three of us, the initial interest was to play guitar to write songs. Chris was our original drummer and singer, then became our singer. He'd kind of noodle on guitar a little bit, but he started practicing guitar, just to augment his songwriting. And now he's playing guitar live with us on some songs to make it beefier, and also, so that if I am soloing, there's something behind me. Before, when Hiro was in the band, whenever I'd solo, Hiro would solo, and then the drummer would start soloing. People thought we were a heavy metal funk jazz band or something, because we'd play live and everybody would break out. Then all of a sudden, boom, it comes right back together. Pere Ubu used to do that, use this great riff, and all of a sudden it falls apart. It kind of goes off on this tangent, or old MC5-type noise. Put it back together, bam, it's all back together. People think you're amazing. They go, well, how to they do that?
Does that style come off on any of the Sub Pop records?
You can definitely hear it on the song "Incessant Mace," on the SST record. Live, the song was always that way.
Is it that way on the record, too?
No, because by the time it was on the record, it was the sixth time we recorded it. We'd always recorded it, we'd never released it. It's like our favorite song, but it's always too long, or it's 4-track, or I don't like the 4-track, let's do an 8-track. So it was probably released on the SST record, and it was our least favorite version. Another time we recorded it, then we got rid of the drummer we did it with, so we decided not to use that session.
Let's talk for just a little bit about guitars. Do you have one that you like?
A Guild S-1. I broke it in Denver, but then I was given another Guild S-1 that was in pieces and I had to put it back together. Generally, I don't know the names of my guitars, but I've had this one long enough that people told me what it is. It's thin, it's very light, so you get that kind of feedback, and it still manages to get sustain, even though it's really light. Maybe it's my amp setting. I've had that Guild since I was 18. It does all kinds of stuff that other guitars can't. It has this bridge and tailpiece setup so that I get really ghostly sounding harmonics when I use the bridge. Above the nut I can bend the strings back. Hit the E string and then bend it up. That's a whammy bar for me, bend the neck, or take your palm and put it behind the bridge and bend.
So what kind of guitar do you use for a backup?
I was using a Les Paul Custom. That's a funny story. We had a budget for recording, and I thought, let's get some equipment. We're gonna need equipment for the road anyway. Get another guitar, more amps. I don't like going to music stores. Somebody gives you a guitar, you just kind of turn it on and make a chord. Sounds good. I can't play in music stores. Self-consciousness or something. I don't like looking at guitars. Some people are into guitars like other people are into cars. I'm not into cars or guitars that way. If you're not gonna play the thing, why look at it?
What about sound? Can you plug any guitar into any amp, just crank it up, and go?
If I can't get the sound, then I won't use it. I like a lot of low end, a lot of hum and sustain. I'll bend the E or A string down and go (woo!), the woosh, as well as the percussiveness. The high end gets the percussiveness, early punk rock type, 60's percussiveness. The low end, you get the 'woo.' Both elements are really cool, like, James Hetfield gets both the percussiveness of the guitar as well as the low end sustain. It's not just a sustain like plugging in a fuzz box, or a Marshall sustain. It's not that. It's kind of a Godzilla with indigestion sort of thing. Dragon breath.
What sort of amp do you like?
I like Fenders a lot because they get the low end, a really full tone out of it. But there are some Marshalls I've played that I like. For the record, I used a Music Man and sometimes Mesa-Boogie. I use this 4xl2 cabinet. I have two Guild S-l's and one Les Paul, and this Epiphone thing that I imagine will be sacrificed before the tour's over. We've got it as a backup, because we've broken a couple guitars and a bass.
Do instrumental sections have as strong a pull for you as vocals? In these songs you're playing instrumentally. You're creating a mood, something cinematic.
That's what a solo should be. You know, you're not racing. It should be cinematic, like a short story. We used to do interviews and people would ask us our influences, and we wrote down a list of recent movies we saw that we were really into, or books we read. For the longest time, Hiro was into The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass. I think the best thing to be a really cool rock band is to simply avoid rock. Music in general, rock to be specific, is the worst thing to influence you. You are gonna have influences that are derived from relationships, personal experiences. I don't mean love songs. I mean assessments, evaluations of relationships - places, architecture, films, books. Soundgarden always keeps that in mind: We're always going to be bringing a whole different mood and feel towards songwriting that people just aren't going to tap into if they're wasting their time trying to get that AC/DC sound.
What if somebody's into playing Soundgarden music?
They're not gonna sound like Soundgarden. If their band is into us, they might as well give it up, because they have to draw from something else besides Soundgarden if they want to sound like Soundgarden. Rock's a bad influence. I mean, there are some really cool bands out there, and that keeps you going, but does anyone who wants to appreciate music and musicianship really sit down and listen to Mr. Big or Winger? No, they're gonna listen to Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler, to listen to cool musicianship. They're gonna listen to cool compositions; they'll listen to Stravinsky. On that level, there's only two things that a rock audience can appreciate: How loud it is, and how fast it is. They're not gonna notice anything else.