Reprinted without permission from Guitar World, July
SOILED AGAIN, SOUNDGARDEN GETS DIRTY
Soundgarden return to their grungy roots with the devastatingly dirty Down On The Upside.
The first really nice spring day of the year is always a gift from the gods-especially in rainy, gloomy Seattle. So Kim Thayil can be excused for arriving well past the appointed time for a round of interviews in his manager's office. Soundgarden's intense-eyed blackbeard of a lead guitarist has the leisurely air of a man who's just finished a big job and deserves to kick back for a while. The band's fifth album, Down on the Upside (A&M), has just been completed. A sprawling, 16-song opus, it marks a return to the Seattle quartet's raw origins. Which is to say it is less produced than Soundgarden's massive 1994 hit, Superunknown (A&M). The chunky guitar quotient is up way high, and singer Chris Cornell's Burton Cummings-esque arena-rock wail is in top form. On the other hand, several of the tunes' song structures have an open-ended quality reminiscent of the more experimental strain of Soundgarden's work on Superunknown. This time the band produced itself, with an assist from engineer Adam Kasper, a friend of the group who also worked on Superunknown. Thayil pronounces himself pleased with the result.
"Everyone in the band is really excited right now. The album's completed. That's usually a period of time when everyone's like, 'Wow, all right.'" It's been just over a decade since Soundgarden first appeared on the scene, with a track on the influential 1986 Deep Six compilation, which also included songs by the Melvins, Green River, Malfunkshun, the U-Men and Skin Yard. "That album came out before Sub Pop got started," notes Thayil proudly. "So it's the cornerstone album of the Seattle scene."
Since that portentous debut, Soundgarden have gone on to define the "heavy alternative" sound of the Nineties. But they've always resolutely resisted categorization. And their fiercely individualistic, hirsute lead guitar man refuses to be taken on any terms other than his own.
GUITAR WORLD: Are you comfortable having the "A-word" [alternative] applied to Soundgarden?
KIM THAYIL: There was a time when we preferred it to being called heavy metal. We didn't consider ourselves a heavy metal band, not like the ones that were around in the late Eighties. But for convenience's sake, record companies would market us that way. Back then, there wasn't a huge alternative market like there is now, and heavy metal was a big-selling thing. So for convenience's sake they said, "Well, Soundgarden is heavy metal," though that was probably an error. Then again, I don't think we were very comfortable with the "alternative" tag either.
GW: Do you regard the 1992 Lollapalooza tour as the catalyst for Soundgarden's re-categorization from heavy metal to alternative?
THAYIL: I don't know if it was Lollapalooza. When Nirvana and Pearl Jam had their success, all of a sudden there was a marketplace for what was considered alternative. Money could be made from putting out bands like that. So all of a sudden people were more inclined to label us "alternative." I don't know. I think it's all just to make things easier for the people who work at record companies and magazines. They all have a target demographic. They all have to be concerned with who their audience is and what their product is. So they're the ones who use the labels, out of convenience for themselves.
GW: Early on, Soundgarden toured with overtly metal acts like Skid Row and Guns N' Roses. What was that like?
THAYIL: It was kind of fun.
GW: Did you get along with those guys?
THAYIL: Yeah. I still occasionally see Duff [McKagan] or Slash when I'm in L.A or when they're up here in Seattle. Duff lives here, you know. When we're in town, we'll play in their side bands or go see them. And with Skid Row, I still occasionally call [guitarist Dave] Snake [Sabo], although I haven't actually spoken to him in a couple of years. And we all got along with Sebastian Bach. He's a really quick-witted, funny guy.
The reason why we toured with those bands at that point in time was that there was no band bigger than us doing what we were doing. If we were going to take the opportunity to go on a bigger tour, it looked like the only rock bands out there who were doing well and whom we had any degree of respect for were Guns N' Roses and Skid Row. There weren't the Nirvanas or Pearl Jams or anything. At that point, we were the biggest sort of alternative hard rock band coming out. Prior to that, we had toured with bands that were more suited to us, like Faith No More, Voivod, Corrosion of Conformity and Bullet La Volta. But we reached a point where we were able to tour with bigger bands, so we chose to go with Guns N' Roses.
For a long time, we were very interested in touring with Metallica, even back then. That's why we're taking this year's Lollapalooza tour-not because we were interested in doing Lollapalooza again, but because we were interested in touring with Metallica.
GW: So tell me, is grunge dead?
THAYIL: Gee, I don't know if it was ever alive. Once again, that's another convenient marketing label that aided the media.
GW: Okay, say the media decides that this thing they've invented called grunge is now dead. How might that affect Soundgarden's future?
THAYIL: Uh, I don't know. I think we're independent of that label. I suppose we're associated with it because we're from Seattle. There's a fraternal thing we have with those other bands that are considered grunge-we're kind of buddies with them and we all grew up together. But I don't think we ever tried for that tag. So if that ship sinks, we're not going down with it.
GW: Was your look inspired by the Zig Zag rolling paper man?
THAYIL: [laughs] No. But the funny thing is, eight or nine years ago, before Ben joined our band, when he was a bit younger, he and his friends would come see Soundgarden play. And he said his friends called me the Zig Zag man.
GW: Why did you decide to produce this album yourselves?
THAYIL: Producers are more for singer/songwriters who don't have a band of their own. Or for dancers or models who make videos and sell records. They might need producers to write and arrange music for them. But most rock bands who write their own songs already know how they should sound. We just wanted to make this album a little more natural-sounding-not as overproduced as Superunknown.
As we worked on the album we discovered there were other benefits to producing ourselves. For example, we came away with a new sense of "bandness"-a renewed feeling of sharing objectives and goals and solidifying our social and professional roles within the group structure. It's like we went on a survival retreat and got to know each other all over again. It made us deal with being self-governing; to be driving the car rather than sitting in the back seat.
GW: Are any alternate tunings used on this album?
THAYIL: There's a lot of standard tuning. But three songs are in [from low to high] C, G, C, G, G, E. On "Rhinosaur," Ben and I played in dropped D, but Chris played in standard tuning. That's unusual for us. If one of us is in dropped D, usually all three of us are.
GW: A history question: which was the first Seattle band to tune down?
THAYIL: I'd say the Melvins, probably. I remember a conversation I had with Buzz Melvin. We knew that Kiss tuned their guitars down a half step. And Buzz said, "Yeah, and Sabbath went down to D." The Melvins started to use that, and we eventually started to write in dropped D.
GW: How do you and Chris generally work out the guitar bits together on a song?
THAYIL: On the songs he writes, he plays the rhythm bits initially. Then I'll either double the rhythm bits or put little color parts down, and do a guitar solo. Chris didn't play at all on other songs, like some of the ones Ben wrote, including "An Unkind" and "Never Named." And Chris didn't play guitar on the song I wrote ["Never the Machine Forever"], or on "Applebite." On "Rhinosaur," we both played rhythm parts and I played lead. We get somewhat different sounds-he might get the brighter sound and I might get the humbucking sound. Chris generally tends to favor single-coil pickups and I lean more toward humbuckers, although I think on this record it was switched around a bit. I used a lot of Jazzmasters and Teles. I've been moving away from that Gibson humbucker kind of sound.
GW: I understand you had another title in mind for Down on the Upside.
THAYIL: Yeah, I wanted to call it Devil-King of Children, but some people had a problem with it.
GW: Your name is conspicuously absent from the songwriting credits on this album. Are you satisfied with your contribution?
THAYIL: No, I'm not! [laughs] Not at all. I used to be the primary writer. But I generally don't write lyrics that often. I have a lot of riffs and half-arranged things that might have two or three parts to them. But the arrangement usually cannot be completed without some lyrics, and so...In the case of "Never the Machine Forever," I just decided to write the lyrics myself in order to get that song completed.
GW: Who are your favorite guitar players from the Sixties?
THAYIL: Hendrix always comes to mind, I guess. Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic Smith" from the MC5, Sterling Morrison from the Velvet Underground. And Frank Zappa.
GW: What about other decades?
THAYIL: Jeff Beck and Ace Frehley, from the Seventies. And from the late Seventies to early Eighties, I'd probably cite Robert Quine from the Voidoids and Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd from Television. Then from the mid Eighties, I'd probably pick Chris Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets, Bob Mould from Hüsker Dü, D. Boone from the Minutemen and Paul Leary from the Butthole Surfers.
GW: With those kinds of influences, how come Soundgarden has such a "metal" sound?
THAYIL: It might be just a combination of the four of us. Just our styles, I guess. It might be Chris's voice. It might be the way I play. It's all pretty natural, what we do. Put it all together and it comes out that way.
GW: Any advice for kids just starting out playing guitar?
THAYIL: Don't take lessons. Listen to your records. And watch other people play. I think the fun thing is just discovering stuff on the guitar, not having people tell you what to do. It's more fun to have it be something you explore.
GW: Guitar playing became so regimented in the late Eighties.
THAYIL: Yes, very much so. And where have those guys gone? Basically it's better on your own. Ultimately, finding a unique style and coming up with your own voice on the guitar is worth a heck of a lot more than simply being proficient. I would sit around for hours, doodling on the guitar. And I had certain tastes in music, like a lot of the punk rock and industrial stuff from the late Seventies and early Eighties. I started writing my own stuff. And the way I wrote would usually coincide with the way I played.
GW: Good advice: Don't do it by the book.
THAYIL: Right. If you do it by the book, you'll end up sounding like the book. Many musicians who have taken lessons tell me they end up sounding like their teacher.
GW: You can tell when any musician's had lessons.
THAYIL: Yeah. There's something very proper about what they do. Although there are people who are well learned who are also very innovative.