“ALL ROCK GUITAR PLAYERS DESIRE ATTENTION,”
admits Kim Thayil. “But I don’t need it all the time.” The
godfather of grunge guitar proved that point by walking
away from Soundgarden at the band’s commercial peak in
1997. Last summer the band headlined Lollapalooza in Chicago,
and released the anthology Telephantasm in the fall, an
album that included one revitalized song, the brooding “Black
Rain.” A collection of live tracks culled from the band’s 1996
tour—Live on I-5—was released this spring, which is when GP
caught up with the reclusive Thayil for the first time since
his July ’96 cover story.
“Only now can I say that Soundgarden
is truly reunited, as we are working
on new ideas in the studio, and hoping to
eventually release a new record,” says the
guitarist.” [Summer tour dates are also confirmed]. Thayil sounds genuinely excited,
but also reticent, like he is still coming to
grips with the situation—and he pontificates
on the value of his freedom like a
Thayil was a primary architect of the
deep, dark Seattle Sound, and he is quick
to share credit with his band mates.
“Actually, each member of Soundgarden
writes music on guitar,” says Thayil. “I
wind up being like the session player
who has to adapt to the guitar styles
of the drummer, the bassist, and the
singer.” Soundgarden turned dropped-
D and other lowered tunings into highly
wrought riffage on songs such as “Hands
All Over,” “Birth Ritual,” “Jesus Christ
Pose,” and “Outshined,” that heavily
influenced the guitar landscape.
Soundgarden’s members remained busy
during their down time, with Thayil being
the least visible. While frontman Chris Cornell
hooked up with Tom Morello in Audioslave,
Thayil appeared on recordings by the
Presidents of the United States of America,
and with Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron
and bassist Ben Shepherd in Wellwater
Conspiracy. Thayil didn’t appear onstage frequently,
but he did team up with Jello Biafra
(Dead Kennedys) and Krist Novoselic (Nirvana)
for a 1999 protest show in Seattle against
the World Trade Organization. Recent performances
confirm the Seattle guitar slinger
with the most mettle has still got some bad
motorfi ngers—not that he feels he has anything
After your last GP interview the guitar culture
experienced the temporary “death” of the guitar
solo and its eventual rebirth. What was that
about from your perspective?
I feel partially responsible for the death
of the guitar solo, because the punk rocker
in me often criticized the concept. I was
resistant to guitar solos in the early days
[Soundgarden formed in 1984]. To me, a
guitar solo was a chance to have fun making
noise or to do something more impressionistic.
It was usually just a wash of feedback,
though sometimes I would give in to my
heavy metal side and take soloing more
seriously. The Seattle bands that de-emphasized
guitar solos were Mudhoney, Soundgarden,
and Nirvana. When other bands
started de-emphasizing guitar solos, however,
we began emphasizing them again. I
became interested in fleshing out ideas in
the altered tunings we were using.
What’s a good example of an altered tuning
making a Soundgarden song work, and what are
the pitfalls of dropping strings downward?
“Rusty Cage” from Badmotorfinger is interesting
because its in dropped-B, meaning
only the sixth string is dropped way down
two-and-a-half steps. We use lowered tunings
to facilitate chords or riffs—not simply
to sound heavy. In fact, if you tune down
low enough, you are going to lose percussiveness
because the string is wobbly. Lose
the attack, and you lose a big element of
“Black Rain” originated during the Badmotorfinger sessions. What state was it in, and how
did you update it?
It’s important to understand the song was
not discarded—it just wasn’t finished. The
lyrics were incomplete, the solo was missing,
and we hadn’t settled on an arrangement.
Also, the arpeggiated part at the end was
originally a bridge. So we omitted the bridge
because the song had too many parts. That
bummed me out, and Matt too. It was one
of the reasons why we abandoned the song.
Now, with Pro Tools, we have the ability
to reassess. We didn’t have the time or
resources to re-track the song with Terry, but
we thought, “Hey, we have the basic tracks
for this...” It was way too long, so we cut a
verse and a chorus. Chris finished the lyrics
and re-sang the vocals. I figured there was
enough motion and riffage to keep a guitarist
happy, so for the solo I just played a few
of those Chuck Berry blues-based bends to
add a little noise.
What’s going on with the dreamy stuff at the
Originally, Chris and I both played feedback
parts on the introduction, but Chris
wasn’t happy with his. He found a weird feedback
part I played later in the song, flipped
that around, and faded it in backwards at the
beginning. We had done that previously on
“Birth Ritual” [from the Singles soundtrack].
When we were done reworking “Black
Rain,” I realized that I still missed the original
bridge. I proposed copying it from an
early arrangement we had recorded with
a different producer, and tacking it on as a
coda. It’s a cool way to end Telephantasm—
kind of floating off into space.
Live on I5 culminates with “Jesus Christ
Pose.” What do you do with your hands and effects
to achieve the screeching sound at the
I sometimes step on the CryBaby to
make the sound screech like a bunch of
demonic bats, but otherwise it’s un-effected.
A particular attribute of the Guild S-100—
which is still my main guitar—is that
the low strings are very resonant behind
the bridge. That helps create weird harmonics
when the signal is feeding back.
I pick below the bridge, and slide my left
hand up and down the string around the
12th fret to create a pulsating, harmonic
effect. The other prerequisite is hot pickups.
I noticed as a teenager that my guitar
was louder than my friends’ SGs and Les
Pauls. The S-100’s pickups are also slightly
microphonic, so they are great for distortion
What else makes the S-100 your guitar of
The S-100 is lighter, and the neck is thinner
and faster compared to most guitars. I
like the balanced way that it hangs on my
body, and the way it plays. I can remember
jamming in my garage, and having one particular
smartass friend who would pick up
my guitar and say, “Hey, what’s it made out
of—plastic? Who makes your guitar, Mattel?
But you like it because you can cruise around
on it easily?
Yes. And it comes stock with Grover tuners,
so it doesn’t go out of tune, even with all
the odd lowered tunings we use in Soundgarden.
If I try to use my Gibson Firebird in
that way, it will just fall apart, and Telecasters
also go out of tune pretty easily.
Soundgarden’s last studio effort, Down on
the Upside, was less about riffs and more about
chords and melodic playing. Did you and Cornell
butt heads over direction?
No. People think that because it’s out
there on the Internet somewhere, but I
don’t recall butting heads with Chris over
the direction of the guitar playing. Now,
there is a difference between guitar-driven
music and vocal accompaniment. I’m certainly
less into vocal accompaniment than
Chris, of course. But that’s just the give
and take of being in a band. He has written
some brilliant guitar-oriented songs
including “Beyond the Wheel” and “Rusty
You’ve been in the studio all week. What does
the new material sound like?
There are some things that sound similar
in a sense to Down on the Upside, so it’s
kind of like picking up where we left off.
There are some heavy moments, and there
are some fast songs. Guitar players might
recognize some of the tunings, but not
dropped-D. Frankly, it seems very pedestrian
now, and it bores me. I don’t want to
make that power chord with my one finger
on the fifth and sixth strings anymore. I’ve
become very comfortable with C, G, D, G,
G, E [low to high]. That’s a progression
from the open-C-based tunings we developed
on Superunknown and modified on
Down on the Upside.
There is also some material going in
new directions, and there are some slightly
different elements. I don’t know how to
address that specifically. I will say that Chris
tracked a mandolin part last night. Rest
assured, though, it was more in a Zeppelin
way than a Renaissance way. After that,
I grabbed the mandolin and we all had fun
jamming acoustically. It will be interesting
to see where we wind up.