Reprinted without permission from Musician, March
SOUNDGARDEN'S KIM THAYIL & CHRIS CORNELL
If it wasn't common knowledge before, the runaway success of Nirvana has ensured that America knows about the big noise out of Seattle that's sweeping down and across America. But in the beginning came Soundgarden, with its big, fat guitar sounds and a revitalized sense of what a riff could be. A choice guitar barrage band with the kick of metal and the smarts of alternative rock, Soundgarden inserts intellegence, not to mention strange tunings and odd meters, where excessive volume and bluster used to suffice.
Among other things, Soundgarden is shaping up to be a refreshing tale of two guitarists, with Kim Thayil's primary, primal guitaring and singer Chris Cornell's increased guitaristic role.
The band's two-guitar sound bears little resemblance to the standard lead/rhythm heirarchy of rock bands immemorial. It's a chemistry born of the player's separate leanings.
"We're opposite players in a lot of ways," says Cornell. "Kim is a really loose and jagged player; I'm more concise rhythmically." Of the two, Thayil's got far more experience and chops; he was a devoted teenage picker while Cornell only tinkered with the instrument until Soundgarden formed in 1984.
So how do they mesh? "On a song like 'Big Dumb Sex,'" says Thayil, "we're playing harmonies with each other. I actually like soloing a lot better without a guitar underneath me. For Aerosmith or regular boogie rock, the chord definitely frames the solo. I don't like that. I prefer to have just the bassline below, because then you don't have the chord hemming you in."
"In some ways a second guitar will open things up; in other ways it holds things back. But 'Big Dumb Sex' with one guitar wouldn't sound right. Then there are songs we do with two guitars that would sound fine with one; some have one that might be augmented with two for more color."
"We approached this record differently than before," Cornell says of Badmotorfinger, the current release. "Kim took the parts he that he plays naturally - the big riffs and the bends." In Badmotorfinger's "Searching With My Good Eye Closed," for example, "Kim played the riffs and chords, and then I added the parts - like that one Beatle-ish part," referring to an exotic melodic riff studded with pull-offs. When Thayil's rhythm parts are doubled, Chris says, Kim did it himself; previously, says cornell, he sometimes doubled Thayil's rhythms, but "our feels are different so the parts didn't lock in."
Some of Soundgarden's guitar parts are shamelessly, beautifully noisy, full of feedback and ear-tweaking harmonics. "Part of that," laughs Thayil, "is out of inability, and part of it is because I really like bashing the guitar around and the sound it makes. You can't ever duplicate it and it can sound pretty wacky." Thayil likes to wreak ghostly notes by picking the strings below the bridge of his Guild S-1. "It makes a tone and gets captured by the pickup pretty loud."
Some of the band's sonic girth is acheived by Thayil and cornell dropping the low E string down to D, or even dipping all the way down to B (as in Badmotorfinger's "Rusty Cage," "Holy Water," and "Searching"). On "Mind Riot" every string is tuned to one of several E's, a kind of in-joke on rock'n'roll's tendency to hang out in the key of E. Thayil: "I'm not sure how functional an idea that is. It makes playing some chords easier. Tuning's a hassle, intonation is a hassle." The resulting sound - six detuned strings flopping, twanging, and riffing hard - makes Soundgarden sometimes resemble a mix of Sonic Youth and AC/DC.
Odd tunings are a band weakness: Cornell figures they use seven different tunings, which requires fairly extensive onstage guitar shuffling. New tunings, Cornell says, can inspire creative energy: "When you sit down with something new like that, you start bursting with all these ideas. Ben Shepherd, our bassist, came up with a really weird tuning for 'Somewhere,' and I've written probably five songs in that tuning since then." Just don't press him for details: if Thayil's more forthcoming, Chris likes to keep the tunings a band secret.
Another point of distinction in the Soundgarden oeuvre is its organic approach to odd meters. Many a Soundgarden song defies the conventional 4/4 time signature, but without the self-conscious contrivance of prog-rock. As Thayil and Cornell tell it, odd time signatures came as a natural byproduct of creating a new sound. "For some reason," Thayil says, "we always wrote fast hardcore songs that we thought would be great soundtracks for Keystone Kops movies. They didn't really sound hardcore. We were just trying to write them ballsy and fast, but there was something a little wacky about them. Then we found out that the main riff in 'Circle of Power' (from Ultramega O.K.) is in 5/4. We didn't know that." (Drummer Matt Cameron has since become the band's mathemetician, decoding the other guy's metric oddities.) "I don't push for weird time signatures," Thayil insists. "I often push to get the quirkiness out of things. But if it works and it sounds natural, it's cool." That's as good an acid test as any.