Photo by Chris Kies

“I’ve been away for too long” wails Chris Cornell on the opening track of King Animal—the first album of all-new Soundgarden material since 1996’s Down on the Upside. Yes, you have—welcome back, guys. It’s been so long that even Axl Rose had probably grown impatient.

Soundgarden solidified its grunge-fueled ’90s legacy on bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron’s locomotive rhythm section and Cornell’s iconic howl, which placed him alongside Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Layne Staley on grunge’s Mt. Rushmore. But the linchpin that held everything together and gave it color and depth was guitarist Kim Thayil’s chameleonic playing, which is equal parts ominous, Tony Iommi-style riffing, psychedelically swirling rhythms, and droning, Indian-flavored soloing.

“We got together and jammed—we just let the music dictate to us before committing to or planning anything,” says Thayil of the long-awaited reunion. “If it still wasn’t there, I can honestly say this album wouldn’t have happened. It is still there and I’m just happy to be back playing music with friends that I enjoy the intimate sharing of ideas with.”

Rather than rehashing old material like Van Halen did this year with their much-anticipated comeback album, or trying to model the material after past successes the way so many other reformed groups have, the grunge godfathers branched out in the way longtime fans hoped they would—and in a way decidedly not foreshadowed by the uncharacteristically slick and mainstream-feeling “Live to Rise” theme they provided for The Avengers earlier this year. Examples of that experimentalism include Thayil’s mandolin solo and Pink Floyd-style wah trickery in “A Thousand Days Before.” Futher, both that track and “Black Saturday” also incorporate a Faith No More-style horn arrangement.

“I’m still an angry dude,” laughs Thayil, “I’m just older. I still push the band to be heavy and dark—that’s always been my role.”

New musical twists aside, Soundgarden is as complex as ever. King Animal represents the best elements of Soundgarden’s past, including the slow-motion, train-wreck grinder of “Rowing” (which is reminiscent of “4th of July”), the cruising-and-bruising rawness of “Been Away Too Long” (which carries echoes of “Spoonman”), and the alluringly creepy-crawly feel of “Bones of Birds” (think “Black Hole Sun”).

PG recently talked with Thayil about his unwavering love for Guild S-100s, how he sets up his chorus pedals, and why you should never call him a “lead guitarist.”

How was recording different this time than in the ’80s and ’90s?
Well, we didn’t have predetermined deadlines set by the record company—that was great. I originally thought we’d have the bulk of this done by the summer of 2011 [laughs], but once we started rolling and felt that inertia of the music coming together, one of us would have to head out for a tour, or Adam [Kasper, producer] would end up having someone else lined up for the studio. I think the only issue this time around was when we’d reconvene and jump back into an unfinished part or song from the previous session.

You once said you brought in your couch to be more comfortable during the Superunknown recording sessions. Did you do anything to help you concentrate and execute in the studio for this album?
[Laughs] No, no … I never brought my own couch in—my girlfriend would’ve killed me. What happened was that, in the main recording room, they set up a standing lamp and a couch from the lounge in the studio. The room was so big, with high ceilings and fluorescent lights, and I just hated it because it felt like being in a dentist’s office. One thing I’ve always done since that recording was dim the lights, because I prefer the evening feel that a darker room presents. When the lights are up, it’s like you’re doing work in an office, but when it’s more relaxed and a bit darker, I feel more relaxed and creative in that sort of intimate setting.

You’ve played Guild S-100s since the early days. Did you mainly use S-100s in the studio this time around?
Yes, but I also used a Guild S-300. A few years back, I picked up a few late-’70s S-300s that came with DiMarzio Super Distortion and PAF humbuckers. What I like about these particular S-300s is that they sound even louder and have a more defined crunch to them. Ben and Chris even commented during the studio sessions that they like them a lot because they cut through really well and have beef and body. Normally, I’ll use an S-300 live when I’m the only guitarist for songs like “Outshined.”

I used some Teles on the new album here and there, for when I play in the open C–G–C–G–G–E tuning featured in King Animal’s “A Thousand Days Before.” I played my Firebird quite a bit on King Animal, when I’m playing in the E–E–B–B–B–B tuning used on “Down on the Upside” and “My Wave.” For most of the dropped-D stuff, I use my S-100s. One of the surprises of the recording was our producer’s guitar, this Gibson Trini Lopez signature model, which was great for the clear, hollow, bell-like tones used for layering. I think the biggest thing for me—and the reason I need to get an ES-335 as soon as possible—is that the neck is so thin and fast with low action, and it has plenty of clarity and resonance.

Kim Thayil of Soundgarden plays a Gibson Firebird at the Hollywood Palladium in October of 1991. Photo by Marty Temme

What did you initially like about the playability and tone of S-100s, compared to the SGs they’re obviously based on— and are those the same reasons you still mainly use them?
The neck is faster than the standard SG necks. Secondly, those S-100s were affordable [laughs]… I was 18 or so and bought it used in 1978 for about $200. But once I really started to play that first S-100, I realized how well it played with low action. The SG neck was thicker and the fretboard seemed wider, and my hands couldn’t really navigate that as easily as the S-100. I really like the stock Guild pickups—I have all the original Guild pickups in my S-100s—because they produce a hot, loud, rambunctious tone, which I love! Plus, the stock tuning pegs on the Guild S-100s are Grovers and they have the perfect ratio and really take a lot of force to get out of tune.

What amps did you use primarily on the new album?
I mainly went with the stuff I’ve been using live—Mesa/ Boogie Electra Dyne heads and Tremoverb 2x12 combos. I really paid less attention to the gear this time around, because I knew that the Mesa/Boogie stuff was solid and has worked for me. Other amps that I plugged into during the sessions were Matt’s ’60s Vox AC30, Ben’s ’50s Fender Champ, and Adam’s Ampeg VT-22, Savage Audio Rohr 15 combo, Fender Vibroverb, and Fender Pro Jr.

The Tremoverb was around in the ’90s, but the Electra Dyne is only a few years old. How did you get hooked on that?
Our drum tech, Neil Hundt, who was my guitar tech for Lollapalooza 2010, happened to have an Electra Dyne head with a 4x12 when we went to rehearse. When I got there, Matt brought a Mesa/ Boogie Tremoverb combo and Neil had one, too. I just really liked how it sounded and it felt almost instantly like Soundgarden. What I instantly noticed about the Electra Dyne was how loud and versatile it was. I’m really able to have an organic, full, pushed-gain tone that I can back off with my volume knob for the rhythm parts, like during “Fell on Black Days” or during the intro to “Black Hole Sun.” I don’t really like a quiet, thin, clean tone—it might work when you have a Tele and you’re playing country or chicken-pickin’. I like it to be thick, warm, and loud.

What is it you like about how the Electra Dyne and Tremoverb amps complement each other?
Both amps have 6L6 power tubes and are on all the time and about equal in level—one isn’t really dominant over the other. The Electra Dyne provides the top and the bottom of the tone, while the Tremoverb sort of fills the middle with its focused, driven sound that provides my tone’s bite. The Tremoverb might get dialed a little dirtier while leaving more headroom on the Electra Dyne set in the 45-watt mode. The preamp level is about 2 o’clock and the master around 9 o’clock. I use both the red and orange channels on the Tremoverb set to vintage high gain and blues.

“A Thousand Days Before” has a “Burden in My Hands”- type vibe, with tinges of Indian sitar-like tones. How did you get those?
I remember playing around with a sitar during the Badmotorfinger period, and I heard Metallica use a sitar on Metallica in ’91, but we opted not to use the electric sitar because it sound a little too gimmicky for us. The key to that sound for what we do is an open slide tuning, C–G–C– G–G–E. That’s what facilitates that droning effect. Before we finished the song, its working title was “Country Eastern,” because we incorporated some chicken-pickin’ playing, too. But with that open tuning and the S-100 and the amp’s tonal setup, it gave it a very distinct Eastern vibe. Underneath the main guitar track there is an electric tambura that Adam is playing, which creates an odd groaning sound. It works for that song and how low-key it is, but I just never want to overdo anything like that … I want to avoid the cheesiness. I also play slide guitar on the Tele, and I doubled the main guitar part with a mandolin in the second and third verse and at the beginning of the guitar solo before it goes into a doubled electric guitar part that I play, technique-wise, like slide and backwards—but it’s not backwards [laughs]. I just play as if I’m listening to a backward guitar.

Thayil rocking out with his favorite Guild S-100 while being flanked by his Mesa/Boogie Electra Dyne and Tremoverb amp setup during a performance at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, on July 18, 2011.

How did that idea come about?
The solo needed to go with the Eastern vibe we play in the rest of the song, so when I doubled the guitar with that tuning it created a bagpipe effect. I was blown away because it’s a sound I love from two of my favorite Velvet Underground songs—“What Goes On” and “Rock and Roll.” I just kind of stumbled into it with the tuning and mimicking the background playing. We had the mandolin soloing throughout that whole section, but once we got this cool, doubled-bagpipe sound we decided to just have it in the solo’s intro—it works like a butterfly opening its wings going from the single mandolin to the two distorted guitars in that open tuning playing off each other.