Reprinted without permission from Guitar One, November
Kim Thayil unveils the superunknown of his early playing days and Soundgarden's latest, Down On The Upside.
You might expect a conversation with Kim Thayil to resemble the angst-driven, invigorating emblem of his music--dark dialog reflecting on the guitarist's integrity toward current political and social issues. Instead, Soundgarden's leading axeman prefers to let his guitar "flip off the world," and opted to talk candidly with GuitarOne about his obsession with music; where it came from and where it's headed. As one of the pioneer architects of the 90s sound, Kim addresses questions about his formative playing days and provides answers to the origins of his "chaotic" style.
GO: It's well known that you were first introduced to dropped-D tuning by Buzz Osbourne from the Melvins. Do you recall when and how it happened?
Kim: Yeah. I think I was driving around with Buzz and I believe it was Dale Crover, the drummer. We were driving from either Capitol Hill or downtown Seattle to the University District talking about the Meat Puppets' second album and how it was one of our favorite albums at the time. I remember Buzz saying it was one of his five all-time favorite albums. Then we went over to visit Mark Arm-the singer for Mudhoney and Green River. We had this conversation about how Kiss would tune everything a half-step down. It was standard tuning, but all a half-step dropped. Buzz talked bout how lately he'd been writing songs by just dropping the E down to D. We were sort of playing with Mark's guitar, looking at the effects and things you could do with them. I immediately went and wrote a couple of songs in that tuning and showed them to the band. The Chris started writing in that tuning also.
GO: What songs were they?
Kim: The song "Nothing to Say." That's off the Screaming Life EP.
GO: In addition to dropped-D, you've experimented with several alternate tunings. Give me two favorite variations and tell me why.
Kim: I like the D-G-D-G-B-E (low to high) tuning because it's like dropped-D and the A string is dropped to G. That gives you two easily accessible octaves to work with and can make some of the similar chord patterns in dropped-D, as well as some two-string patterns that you can make in standard tuning. There are a lot of drones available because of those two octaves down low. The one I used in "Never the Machine Forever," which was also used for "Burden in My Hand", is C-G-C-G-G-E tuning. That's just chock full of sympathetic strings, droning notes, and octaves, so that's real interesting.
GO: Is there a specific use for the unison second and third strings?
Kim: It's like a 12-string chorusing effect. You can solo on those strings and since the B string is tuned down to G it's considerably more flexible. It's that sort of "ringing" sound.
GO: I know you're a big fan of old Kiss. Is that who first inspired you to pick up the guitar?
Kim: Yeah. I was a big fan before I learned how to play guitar when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. That was the heaviest thing I'd heard at that time. Before that I mostly heard the stuff you'd hear on the radio - you know, in the mid 70s, early 70s. All of the sudden I heard Kiss and I went, "Wow, this is the music that's been in my head. This is what I've been looking for." It was the type of music I would imagine and think about, but I'd never hear it anywhere. I'd always hear Chicago and the Beatles, and all of the sudden I was hearing this music-very heavy and loud guitars. So, in reading interviews about Kiss and reviews of their records, I uncovered references to the MC5, New York Dolls, and stuff like that. I read a little bit about the MC5 and started hearing about the Stooges and then went to a used record store near where I grew up in Park Forest, Illinois, and found a couple of Stooges and MC5 records. The original things, you know? The original MC5 records with "Kick Out the Jams Mother Fuckers." I got those and thought, "This is even more of what I'm looking for. This is heavy, chaotic, it's wild, and dangerous." So around 1976-1977, I was pretty into the MC5, the Stooges, and New York Dolls. It was perfect timing because all of the sudden the Sex Pistols and the Ramones came out and I was like, "Okay, this is the music I was meant to play." So I would say early on I was really into Ace Frehley and as I was learning how to play guitar during that period of time I was turning on the MC5, the Stooges, and the Ramones. People like Wayne Kramer, "Sonic" Smith, and Johnny Ramone became my big influences.
GO: What were some of the first songs you recall being able to play?
Kim: Stuff off of Kiss Alive..."Cold Gin", "Strutter", "Hotter than Hell." And then I was learning Ramones' songs and Sex Pistols' songs. I remember learning how to play "Mongoloid" by Devo.
GO: What was your first guitar?
Kim: My very first one was some kind of acoustic guitar I got from Sears. I don't know what the hell happened to it. I don't have it, my mom doesn't know where it is, and my dad doesn't know where it went.
GO: Why do you prefer the Guild over the SG?
Kim: I never actually used an SG. My first electric guitar was an Encore Strat copy - bright red. I had that from about age sixteen to eighteen. When I was eighteen I bought a Guild S100. It was affordable, light, and I liked the action on the neck. I've pretty much been using that for seventeen years. The stock pickups are really hot and the tuning keys that came with it were very easy to tune and keep in tune, which is good for beginning guitarists. If you have a shitty guitar when you're starting out it's very frustrating having the thing slip all the time and not having chords sound like they should.
GO: When you started to play guitar, where were you in the pecking order in your neighborhood - the best guy on the block?
Kim: I think actually within a couple blocks there I was the only guy, but at my school there were other guys. I was a beginner but within a year I realized I was playing way better than guys who were playing for five years. It was pretty strange. I think there were a lot of guys who played guitar because it was a social thing for them. They'd have the guitar in their bedroom and they'd show it off to their friends and get stoned and screw around with it. You know, show each other "Smoke on the Water" or "Iron Man." I don't know, I think maybe they would play around with it for a half-hour a day or something. When I got the guitar I would play anywhere from three to five hours a day. I wasn't doing much else besides reading. I wasn't particularly social. I'd always sit in my room and read or play guitar, or just walk around the house noodling as a nervous exercise. I was pretty dexterous and coordinated at a young age. I remember after playing for a year I had a good understanding of power chords and I played pretty fast. I could play all the Ramones stuff and some other stuff. That was a big deal when you were a young guitarist-to play fast. As you get a little bit older and learn more about guitar you realize it's really a silly objective, but for some reason when you're young, playing fast is a big deal. So I achieved that ability. [laughter] I'd play these really fast triplets and some basic lead runs [hums guitar lick] and that was enough to impress my friends and annoy the other guitarist who had been playing longer than me. They'd say, "Did you hear Kim play? He can play real fast." I would think, "Hey, yeah, I can play fast." I had a guitarist friend who was a very good guitar player who was annoyed that when I took solos I would play really fast, but part of that was nerves. I'd get nervous if people were watching and I'd play real fast. He was really into blues like the Allman Brothers and Jerry Garcia and he would try to explain to me how to play with feel. I realized I had no vibrato, no finger tremolo, or anything. I hadn't been incorporating them and I didn't even realize they were important elements of playing guitar. So he would explain the significance to me and I thought, "Who needs feel? It just gets in the way of playing fast." Eventually I got the idea the guitar is a voice, not just a visceral instrument.
GO: Were there any exercises or techniques you used to build that speed?
Kim: There are a couple of things. One is that my thumbs are double-jointed. It was actually a drummer friend of mine back in high school who noticed that and said, "That's gonna be an asset." So I could put my thumb on the back of the neck. The other thing is when I wasn't playing guitar and just sitting there or before I went to bed, something really strange I would do was hold my arm straight up in the air toward the ceiling. I moved my fingers from pinkie to first finger in order as if I were playing guitar. I'd do that as fast as I could while holing my arm straight up in the air. Eventually the blood would leave my hands and my wrist would become very fatigued and tired, but I'd keep doing it, then I would reverse the direction. I would do that with both hands or alternate left hand to right hand. I would get really tiring and almost painful to move my fingers and I would stop and bring my arms down with the blood rushing. I don't know if that was a nervous habit or something consciously I thought would strengthen my grip or fingers. I probably did that for a number of years. Part of it was an obsessiveness and part of it was a nervous habit. I would even do that at class in school.
GO: Your finger vibrato is definitely one of your signatures. How did you develop it?
Kim: I think that at some point as I listened and watched other guitarists I realized there was this amazing element that caused tension and allowed for the guitar to scream. I was really impressed with Jeff Beck's finger vibrato and eventually Paul from the Butthole Surfers had a pretty insane one as well, that would just scream. I heard their stuff around 1984, '85, '86. Then I think it naturally developed with all the nerves. Like if I had to hang on a note - the fact that I wasn't playing five notes in a second or whatever. That was all part of my nervous energy and if I played something I held the note for a bit - Santanaish, you know? I just couldn't keep my fingers still so my hands just created it naturally. Later I became attracted to the way it sounded like the guitar was screaming.
GO: What other techniques or guitar styles would you consider your trademarks?
Kim: Um...I guess I like to play with noise and I like feedback. I haven't utilized feedback as much as in our earlier stuff but live occasionally I'll go off. I don't know, I was never scared of feedback or fucking up and making mistakes or playing with noise - just bashing the guitar, you know? Sometimes randomly or sometimes with intent. I always thought that it added a spontaneous element to the song and it also added this sort of chaotic element. I thought rock 'n' roll was more than just fuzzy guitar, volume, and being loud. It's more than this heavy, low-end thing. There are so many other elements that make rock really powerful and one of them is chaos. If you listen to the MC5 or the Stooges or a lot of the free jazz guys like Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman, there's no aversion to them. It's like that white noise kind of thing and playing the way you feel, and along the way I felt...nervous, angry, wound-up, tensed.
GO: Odd time signatures have always been an important part of the Soundgarden sound...
Kim: That happened naturally - that was never premeditated. It was something our drummer would end up pointing out to us. I'd write a riff and Chris would start singing over it and Matt would go, "Hey guys, that's in 7/4." I had no idea. Matt was a little more musically trained than the rest of us.
GO: Now that you're aware of it, do you think differently when you're in six, seven, or nine?
Kim: Yeah. Now I can count it out. Like the song "Never the Machine Forever" is in 9/8. In playing that, I can sit there and count out each beat, but I wasn't trying to write a song in nine.
GO: Give me four plateaus as a guitar player; two before you recorded and two after.
Kim: I think one of them was having the interest to want to play guitar and getting a summer job to be able to afford to buy the electric. The next was when I was getting into a lot of punk/rock stuff in the late 70s, early 80s, and realizing the guitar was a vehicle to express myself in ways other then just volume and being heavy. Realizing there are these chaotic elements and social and political elements - that guitars are like a way of flipping off the world. That was a big deal. After I recorded, a big plateau was in doubling up guitar parts. I really wanted to get into the studio so I could figure out if this was something I was hearing on records. Sometimes I'd hear people double their lead parts and it sounded so strange. I said, "What is that effect? It's not a delay because it doesn't have a regular sweep to it." I got into the studio and did that with lead and also rhythm - laying down a rhythm part and then doubling it up. Both performances would be slightly off and they made this really interesting bending turning sound that I fell in love with. Of course the three records we've made since then are a little more precise rhythmically so that effect is kind of lost, but that was a big deal after recording. I think another plateau after recording was getting to know more about the drums. To be able to cue in with the kick, snare, and hi-hat. A lot of times I'll have Matt in the studio with me while I do solos. I trust a lot of his musical ideas. If I really like a solo then I'll keep it. But if Matt says, "Oh, it's too corny or pedestrian," then I'll sit and say, "Well, maybe I'll try another one." Or if Matt says, "That solo is amazing," and I'm dissatisfied, I could sit there for three days playing the damn thing over and over just trying to be a perfectionist thinking, "No, that isn't quite right." "It doesn't sound unique or wild enough. It just sounds the way you would expect it to." Eventually Matt will say, "Kim, slow down, that was great." So developing a recording relationship with the drums was an important thing.
GO: Diversity and flexibility are two qualities true of any band that enjoys a successful longevity. With Down on the Upside, Soundgarden has definitely proven to be one of these bands. What kind of things did you "digest" in preparation for this album to explore new territory?
Kim: This time we did each song individually and let them stand on their own. We did that also with Superunknown. I thought Badmotorfinger was somewhat eclectic-it had a variety of styles. But the production was pretty monodynamic.
GO: It's noticeable that you've moved even further away from the repeating riff, "beat it into your head until it's ingrained forever" songwriting approach. Is this intentional?
Kim: I think it's part of Chris' style. He's developed very well as a songwriter. I still like that kind of thing; it's sort of between Nine Inch Nails and Metallica... or the Ramones or whatever. I like that repetition. It's weird. It's somewhere between the dance element and this heavy element that's just pounding. I also like the current songs where some of them have more of a song structure as opposed to a "riff" structure.
GO: Since you're not one of the primary songwriters in the group on this album, how are you introduced to the music? Is the clay already strongly molded, or is there plenty of room for your creativity?
Kim: There's plenty of room. The solos are all things I'm going to do and if there are color parts that I want to add, I'll add those. We generally credit songwriting by arrangement-so and so did this chorus or this verse, or the music and lyrics, but everyone contributes everything. Chris might bring in a demo, or Ben might bring in a riff, or Matt a couple of drum parts. Sometimes people are protective. If someone is the complete author of a song they might not want it to be changed too much, but generally everyone understands that it's a song the band is doing. Previously we would write songs where all of us would collaborate. I'd bring in the music, or Chris would bring in some music and we'd work out and arrangement by jamming, and then coming up with the lyrics. As far as the rhythm guitar parts, if Matt or someone else writes a song, I'll learn how they play it and then twist it around. That's actually the most flexible thing, but any color parts or lead parts I add are up to me.
GO: What kind of music do you listen to that would surprise Soundgarden fans?
Kim: Well, yesterday I picked up this CD called Eat the Dream. A friend of mine went to Morocco and recorded some street musicians on his DAT. It's just amazing. He just put it out on CD and I picked it up yesterday. I bet that will surprise people.