Reprinted without permission from The Guitar Magazine,
Speed sucks, weird stuff rules and the blues is dead, official - that's the word according to Soundgarden's Guild-strangling guitarist Kim Thayil. TGM probes behind the scenes with the Seattle Survivors...
In 1986 the US rock tide turned. It was called Deep Six and it featured outfits called The Melvins, Green River, The U Men, Skin Yard, Malfunkshun, Soundgarden. It was before Sub Pop, way before Nirvana, years before 'grunge' meant any more than a suspect substance you'd find behind your cooker. It had attitude by the busload, it was sorta punk-sounding; yet it rocked mad hard, and it rejuvenated metal overnight. It was the new sound of Seattle.
Ten years on, there aren't too many survivors, literally or artistically. But there is one notable exception: Soundgarden. On the Seattle quartet's sixth album, Down On The Upside, the elements that kick-started that revolution are still in place: aggressive Led Zep riffology, leather-lunged vocals, psychedelic balladry, sick yet steady syncopation, garage band mentality. Whatever one thinks of Seattle's legacy, this is hardly dumb punk music. And Kim Thayil is still determined to go one better. Hairier. Heavier. Chunkier. Detuned-ier.
"My role in the band?" ponders Thayil over a reviving bowl of fruit the afternoon after the gig the night before. "The initial idea and the direction, I guess - being on the Sub Pop and SST labels, the band's whole musical direction. When we started, I was the radio DJ, I was the one with the big record collection, the magazine collection... I was more aware of what was going on out there."
Or, to give him his due, what was about to go on out there.
Down On The Upside perhaps represents the apotheoisis of the Soundgarden sound. The time signatures are stranger, the curves weirder ( the hyperpunkspeed Ty Cobb peaks with a riff played on... mandola!), the guitar tunings more alien. The real eyebrow raiser, though, is the lack of Thayil tunes.
"At the time of our inception I wrote most of the music," nods Thayil of his previously guiding handicraft. "Now the band works differently. I might tend to come in with riffs that everyone likes but it's not really a finished song, whereas Chris Cornell might come in with a finished song. I've never really written lyrics, y'know? So, what are you gonna do? Say that Chris's shouldn't be on the record 'cos I've got to finish my song? No. You just take what's been developed most fully.
"I think it was when we got to the time of Superunknown that Chris realised, 'If I write riffs more like Kim writes riffs, they're more likely to make it onto the album...' and they did. But y'know, my contribution is all there - I'm allowed to 'sing' on my guitar! There might be a lack of my material on the surface but what we do collectively still has a great deal with what I'm about. When I hear a song like Pretty Noose (penned by Cornell) or Rhinosaur (with music by drummer Matt Cameron) or An Unkind ( by bassist Ben Shepherd) I do think, 'Well I might as well have written that!'" he chuckles. "That stuff is me too. So I'm pretty happy."
"The hardest thing for me, not being a studio musician, is getting to grips with songs that Ben or Chris wrote to complement their own style of guitar playing. Everyone in this band writes songs on guitar, even Matt. As you know, trying to play like someone else is the hardest thing - fortunately they're not real virtuosos, otherwise they'd really lose me, hahah! But they all have unique things about the way they play. Chris has this sorta upstroke thing: 1, 2, and... perhaps 'cos he used to be a drummer. Those things always catch me 'cos I just don't play that way. Then there are certain chords we like. We're all self-taught so we all have bad habits... and it's hard to pick up someone else's bad habit."
"But then there are the incidental guitar parts and the solos which I add, and that makes up what's great about a Soundgarden song. A good example from DOTU would be Never Named, which originally was pretty much punk rock powerchords. We had this middle section bass part written by Ben. At first we just started doubling it on guitar but then I came in with this Richard Hell And the Voidoids thing on guitar - remember Robert Quine? Well, he was the inspiration and it gave it a completely different flavour."
Soundgarden's flavours are more succulent than many of their detractors are willing to admit. Behind the uber-riffing and howling vocals that make them the heaviest of the Seattle scene's alumni, they subscribe to few of the tenets of trad metal. Thayil particularly - for all his mastery of his chosen instrument and his rockist bonhomie - likes to see himself as much of an anti-guitar hero as some of his more avowedly awkward compadres. Guitar solos, for example, are one thing that really get Kim Thayil's goatee...
"I just find ot all too... indulgent," he sighs. "You listen to heavy rock and so many solos sound exactly the same. So I just started trying to use complete contrast - in an aggressive song my solo would tend to be slow and melodic; in a beautiful song, my solos would be noisy. It's just contrast and dynamics. Maybe I've been affected by TV culture - my attention span will no longer stretch to a three minute guitar solo, heheh!
"One of my favourite solos with the band is on Slaves and Bulldozers. When our A&R guy came in we played it to him, and he was like, 'This is finished? Huh? C'mon guys.' I just said, 'You don't get it, do you? That's it, finished!' To me it's great - it seems free, it's real kinetic, it gives the song this great jarring feel. Like Suicide is another one I like, but I play that note-for-note every time, the same patterns. Slaves and Bulldozers live is when I'm real free. I just approach the fretboard with a 'what do I do now?' attitude. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it doesn't work. That's what music is like."
"I think there's a lot of guitar geeks out there who get caught up in the idea of difficulty, " he muses. "They constantly play faster, try and invent new chords - but I kinda think that's a pretty sophomoric approach. This isn't the hurdles, y'know? Playing the guitar is there to make music, and it should be easy!"
"Guitar's just one of the many things in life that's fun to do...it's not the one thing I want to do for the rest of my life! There's guys out there who are real up on new techniques, sounds, effects... great. But are they known as great guitar innovators? I don't know. I've been through that. When I started out I knew I had to play fast, had to play leads - simply because everyone told me that's how you play good. Within a year I was listening to Hendrix records, then playing them faster - wow, I'm faster than Jimi Hendrix! And my equally naive friend would be like, 'Oh that's great!' It was about five years before I paid any attention to finger tremelo or anything that was much more interesting. It was all speed - chords faster than the Ramones, solos faster than Hendrix. Totally! Immature!"
"So finally I realised that you can make the guitar sing. I lucked out really, because as the fastest guy in my neighbourhood there wasn't anything else for me to aspire to. Y'know, people would say, 'let's go and see Kim play 'cos he plays really fast,' and when they started saying that I realised it was a completely dumb thing to strive for. And since then, I've always told people; you don't have to pretend to be influenced by Eddie Van Halen and Bach if you really are not. You're influenced by yourself. Just get out there, do your thing... and ROCK!"
Egalitarian sentiments indeed, though Thayil could be accused of being somewhat disingenuous. True, there are few fret-melting solo escapades in Soundgarden's world, yet they remain one of the hardest of all contemporary bands for guitarists to tie down due to their lavish reliance on alternate tunings and bonkers meters. If the average guitar student came to Thayil for advice and was commanded to ROCK, they would not, TGM wagers, detune to CGCGGE and lurch into a 9/8 avant noise fest.
"Mmm," ponders the hairiest man in 'far too clever to be metal' metal. "We don't try to write a song in 7/8 or 9/8, it really does just happen. Where did that come from? Oh, the inability to dance in 4/4, hahah! No, it's really just the way we hear things. Even in the beginning when I couldn't even identify time signatures I was still writing songs in 7 or 5; it was Matt who had to tell us it was in 13."
"I guess we write strangely timed riffs and, for me, the riff is normally when you know you've got a good idea for a song. Having said that, Chris writes now straight from vocal melody - Blow Up The Outside World is a good example of that, not based on a riff but a vocal line - but myself, Matt and Ben are very riff-orientated. For riffs, I guess AC/DC and Zeppelin are masters. Ours might be more skewed but we never meant to do it - that would be real pedantic! You've got to sound natural."
"I'll tell you a story," he beams. "There was another band in Seattle when we started out who used to mainly write in 4/4 but with real weird syncopation. We were talking to them about this and they said, 'but you guys write in 7 and 9 and it sounds more natural than our songs in 4/4. Ours just don't sound natural.' But they weren't complaining, they thought this was interesting; writing a song in 4/4 and then trying to make it sound like it's in some other time signature," Thayil's eyebrows raise a visial exclamation mark. "Now how is that interesting? To me that's really doctored. That's why if we do write something in 7, if it sounds conspicuously so, we leave it. Everything should sound natural."
"So we don't want to alienate people by being too clever. That's what Franz Zappa would do. Then again, Zappa had a pleasant arrogance, not an unpleasant, petulant arrogance... like Noel Gallagher."
Thayil's point serves as a fair summation of his philosophy - music should be inventive and fun for its creator yet never disappear up its own backside. By the same token he loathes the lazy rehashing of the past just to push populist buttons, be it Oasis's Fabology or Eric Clapton's earnest blooze reviews. Yes whisper it, but Kim Thayil thinks the blues is a load of hokum.
"Myself, Chris and Ben had an argument about this yesterday," he smiles. "They can't believe how little respect I have for the blues. I mean, I do have respect for the players, but the genre I think is dead and done - it's something that white yuppies go to Chicago to be entertained by a black guy for. Y'know it's no different to 50 years ago when Al Jolson put on black makeup. Its audience is not the same as the person who's making it and that seems dishonest to me."
"So Ben and Chris were giving me a ard time about the blues thing, saying there's so many great blues records - and yes, there are - and that there's blues in what we do - yes, there is - but in the same way as I'm sick of hearing Hendrix and The Stones and The Beatles, I think it's over. It's 1996, and I'm tired of living a sentimental journey of someone in their 40s and 50s just trying to keep alive the memories of their youth. Respect for your elders is just so goofy. It's important to learn history but mainly so you don't repeat the mistakes, y'know? Blues is often so boring - the I-IV-V chord progressions, the boogie thing. I was trying to tell Ben and Chris that that's exactly the same reason why they get so annoyed by Ted Nugent and Lynyrd Skynyrd... it's all the same old shit! It was a weird conversation. But, uuuh, we were kinda drunk."
"My attitude to the guitar has always been to just try and uncover new things, play around with it yourself. I never saw it as a discipline or about things I should learn. Although there was a time when I'd practice incessantly, just playing the same riff over and over for an hour. I got pretty good but I was becoming a neurotic obsessive. I would tune the guitar for an hour - 'That B string's not quite right! The octave's slightly out!'. I think it was my dad who turned me around. He just said, 'Look - are you going to play that thing or what?'"
And play it he has. Indeed, Thayil still totes his famed Guild S-100s, the first of which he bought aged 18 for 230 bucks. "I've kind of adapted my playing around it. It's got a great action, a little more fluid than SGs actually, and the pickups are pretty hot too. I have friends with SGs but I generally don't like 'em.
"I pick up a lot of other guitars and they just don't feel right, although I am playing quite a lot of Telecasters now. When I was younger I used to like guitars and cars 'cos of the way they looked; now I just don't care. A good guitar is one that's easy to play. Simple as that."
And a good guitarist, Thayil reckons, is one who's got his or her own style. He'll subscribe to all day musical discourse with a smile yet, when all's said and done, doesn't believe you should necessarily believe anything he says just because he is Kim Thayil Out Of Soundgarden.
"I was asked to do a tuition video and some clinics not so long ago," he grimaces. "I was like, 'Mine would be an anti-clinic - I'd be trying to unlearn people!' They said, 'Great! We've never done that!' I just thought that was weird. And dumb. People who actually go to clinics do want to learn techniques, scales, fingerings, all that... so I think I'd just disappoint a lot of the students."
For now, Thayil is happiest just to share his musical vision with his three tight knit colleagues. Although he's recently worked outside the Seattle foursome (he recently produced an album for Sub Pop outfit Pigeonhed and played guitar on the Presidents of the USA's debut elpee) he concedes that his current home is still where his heart is.
"If I formed another band or made a side project record, it would just be Soundgarden without Chris singing. What would be the point in that? So no, I'm not a secret bluegrass player, I don't harbour ambitions to make a Ramones-type record. That's what I love about Soundgarden - it's all stuff that I would write myself."
Northern Exposure: Thayil on the Seattle scene
"There was a year on the Billboard charts where Nirvana's record entered at number one, Pearl Jam's did, then Alice in Chains', then our Superunknown. It was even bigger than what happened with The Beatles and Liverpool, y'know? And a lot of people though it weird that we'd still hang out together and be good friends - in other scenes there seems to be a lot of bickering, a lot of competition."
"We see less of each other now 'cos of touring and stuff but there was a time when we'd all go to each other's shows, all hang out at the same parties. Soundgarden were the mystery band, they thought we were weird. We had a reputation for not turning up to the parties - I was the most sociable member of the band and all I ever did was turn up and drink beer in the corner. They all thought we were mysterious. No one would ever want to play after us - we had a reputation of gettng up onstage and blowing everyone else's shit away!"
"We get a a lot of people asking what we think of Alice in Chains, Tool or Kyuss, Nirvana, 'cos people say they were obviously influenced by us. I know Nirvana were but that's 'cos they said so! And I know Alice in Chains were because I know what sort of band they were before they came to see us play. They used to be more glam, a sorta Poison type band. Then I told Jerry (Cantrell) about dropped D tuning 'cos he wanted to cover one of our songs. Next time I saw them, everything was tuned down! But that's okay, 'cos I haven't been playing this music for all my life either. But I think you can tell the bands who've taken our influence."
"We should really hate 'em all though, 'cos they're all making more money than us!"
Downtuning On The Upside
"A lot of it is just open experimentation, some of it is talking to other players," says Thayil of Soundgarden's alternative tunings armoury, perhaps their most famous muso quirk. Although Thayil generally uses .009 string sets, he often loads a .056" low E to avoid too much bass flap. "Everyone in the band has come up with novel tunings. We use a lot of dropped D, then some DGDGDG tunings... a great one was on Mind Riot when Chris decided to tune every string to E. This was after he'd had a conversation with Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam. Jeff said (adopts Butthead nerd voice) 'Wow, imagine if someone tuned every string to E - wouldn't that be stooopid!' Chris was like, 'Oh. Okay!' And it worked! For Head Down, Ben introduced tuning of CGCGGE and on this record, Chris went and wrote Pretty Noose and Burden In My Hand in that tuning and I wrote Never The Machine Forever. That song I wrote lyrics for as well - it was a little time consuming for me because it's also in 9/8 time, which hardly lends itself to any sing-songy melody! But on the tunings, we've all read about what Keith Richards uses, or whatever, but a lot of it is just dicking around."
And when Thayil started down the altered tunings route, did he find he had to unlearn a lot of what he'd mastered in standard pitch?
"Well I don't look at it like that. It just helps you rediscover what you can do on the guitar. No matter what tuning I'm in, once I've worked out where the octave note is to a particular position I find it pretty easy to find the chords. But you then approach it all differently; you finger differently, you often get the chorused strings doubled effect - CGCGGE is great for sliding around the neck and getting some good drones going. You just jam on everything a little differently."
"It would be nonsense to use these tunings just to screw around with people - the reason is to facilitate playing. Drop the D string and you play a little lower, I think you can play chords faster, as if they're one string. On the song Flower from Ultramega OK, loads of people asked me how I played that so fast - they think I'm playing all these wild barre chords. It's just tuning the bottom E down to D! Y'know, in many altered tunings you can just play a big fuckin'power chord with a single finger barre right across the strings. You also get some great sonic effects. The tension is less on the strings, so you get a looser sound, it facilitates some weird tremelo effects, the octaves change position. On Rusty Cage the top E string was tuned all the way down to B - the string was all wobbly but it had a good effect." Dropping the high E down to B also features on Badmotorfinger's Face Pollution, though with a low E also dropped, again to D; "You get a 12 string effect on the unison tuned top strings," says Thayil.
And yes, he also predominantly solos in altered tuning. To his amazement, he still gets asked about that by his fans... including Chris Cornell.
"Sometime while we were recording Superunknown, Chris said, 'But you solo in regular tuning, right?'" Thayil guffaws. "I just said, 'Look, we play shows together don't we? What do you think I do live? Tune the guitar up for every solo when you're not looking!?'"
"It's not too tricky - just find the octave again and you're there. And it's a solo, so you just make it up as you go along, right?"