“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 Founding Father.
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 to prove.
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 sounding heavy.
“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 beginning?
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 onset?
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 and feedback.
What else makes the S-100 your guitar of choice?
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 Cage.”
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.