One of Kim Thayil’s favorite guitar pastimes is creating chaos. He gets inventive during “Spoonman” at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago in July 2011. Photo by Chris Kies

You’ve always had a knack for ambient, psychedelic textures.
Back when we started in the ’80s—when it was me Chris and Hiro [Yamamoto, original Soundgarden bassist]—we would call that sort of thing “color guitar.” Those are the parts that would augment a section— we were particularly good with that because we could hear and picture things that were either missing or could really bolster a song. We’d be sitting around listening or jamming and one of us would be, like, “I want to do this feedback thing right here,” or “in this section we could do this really heavy, three-note arpeggio into the verse.” I used to get so annoyed when I’d see “Kim Thayil – Lead Guitar” because I’d see a damn lead guitarist in every rock record and so much of what we do is beyond chords and notes—it’s about having a feel for a different instrument or different application of a traditional guitar. I enjoy “color guitar” as much as I do soloing.

In the last 30 seconds of “By Crooked Steps,” the solo guitar wanders into a tonal frontier that sounds a little like Tom Morello with his DigiTech Whammy. How did you get that trippy, atmospheric effect?
I’m using the Trini Lopez. It has a lot of room to play the strings behind the bridge, and when you do that while bending notes on the fretboard you get this really weird effect. If I pick a note and rub the strings with my thumb or the side of my hand, I get this ringing, buzzing sub-harmonic. What you hear at the end of the song is me rubbing the strings to get the ringing effect, adding a long delay, and then cranking the high end on my amp to push it to a real shrill squeal—like a dentist drill—on top of me picking some intermittent notes.

You’ve been using ethereal, ghostly feedback parts as far back as “Loud Love” [from 1989’s Louder Than Love], and you use them this time around on “By Crooked Steps” and “Non-State Actor.” What’s the trick to applying feedback in a musical way?
You’ve got to have it loud enough to feed back, but you can’t have you can’t control it. I’ve found that a bigger speaker, like a 15", produces a nice, low-level hum. We’ve always embraced feedback, starting in the early days of the band—I used to record with Hiro’s backup Ampeg B-15 bass amp. I would dial out most of the low end and put in quite a bit of high end with an Ibanez Tube Screamer and a chorus to get a brighter, more guitar-y sound. When we jammed with other people or they would show us stuff, so many things were undesirable, considered noise, and deemed incorrect. But we keep the incorrect things—they sound heavy, chaotic, powerful, and wild. I always have and always will push the band in that direction.

Thayil plugs into Mesa/Boogie Electra Dyne heads, Tremoverb 2x12 combos, and Stiletto 4x12 cabs. Photo by Josh Evans (Kim Thayil’s guitar tech)

“Blood on the Valley Floor” and “Been Away Too Long” have some of the album’s chunkiest tones. Did you use an overdrive or distortion pedal in addition to the gain from your amps, or did you get all your dirt from the amps?
Heaviness with us never came from just cranking the volume and tuning the strings down. We helped popularize the idea of using alternative, lower tunings, but we have this darkness, this doom element in our songs by way of the vocals, guitar, and melody interplaying—it’s those colored parts that kind of change the chord and structure just enough by combining major chords with underlying, subdued arpeggios, and ghostly ringing in the background, coupled with the dominant chords and vocal patterns. We still enjoy the visceral power of cranking things to 11, but the complex, cascading, complementary dark layers you can create are often heavier than the visceral approach. Another part of that is the odd time signatures, like 7/4 or 5/4, that are in some of our songs. I think anything different or mysterious can be channeled into heavy— abnormality is a key.

That being said, the angry kid inside still loves getting loud. For “Blood on the Valley Floor” and “Been Away Too Long,” I might’ve used a T-Rex Dr. Swamp double distortion or the MXR CAE MC-402 boost/distortion during the solos. I mainly got my gain from overdriving the amps. My tech would be in the room changing the amps’ controls with gun-range ear protectors while I played and settled on the tones in the control room [laughs].

Many players think thick tones require heavy strings and picks, but you tend to use lighter-gauge strings and picks.
In the early days, I used .008s because I tended to play a lot of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and really long, exaggerated string bends. But as I played more frequently, I went up to .009s because the .008s just got too loose and I was playing more and more. Now that we’ve been touring a lot again and recording, I’ve gone up to .010s after playing the .009s for a few months, because my arm and wrist got into shape. But when you tune down to C–G–C–G– G–E or E–E–B–B–B–E, the lighter strings bend out of tune more when you’re playing the chord. Even if the tuners are keeping them in tune when you hit the open string, the chords are always a bit more flimsy, so the heavier strings give me more resistance. And for songs like “Rusty Cage,” I’ll have a guitar set with .010s but with a heavier low-E string.

Photo by Josh Evans (Kim Thayil’s guitar tech)

What is it that draws you to altered tunings?
It’s those sympathetic notes— like in dropped-D you get this beautiful droning effect that’s in “Nothing to Say,” where we bounce off the main riff and the high D melody is ringing open to get this spiraling, psychedelic chaos. I play similar droning parts this time with “Worse Dreams” and “A Thousand Days Before.” We’ve always tried to capture a heaviness and aggressiveness in ways other than your standard guitar-volume max-out.

Did you use the Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere that so famously defined your sound on “Black Hole Sun” at all on this album?
I still have that same Rotosphere on my pedalboard, and I alternate between the fast setting for the verses and the slow setting for the choruses. Other songs I use it on are “Hunted Down” and “Let Me Drown.” I use the high rotor speed to emulate the Leslie 147 used on the record. For King Animal, we would occasionally use the trim pots to speed up the modulation to more of a stun-gun effect and put that through an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG—like in the guitar melodies of “Been Away Too Long.” Other applications on King Animal are the glassy shimmer in “Bones of Birds” and the swirl of “Halfway There.”

I think I’ll be retiring the Rotosphere from the road soon, though. [Ed. note: Thayil’s tech, Josh Evans, explains that the Rotosphere will still be in use but will soon be located offstage in a rack, with Thayil accessing its two different speed settings onstage with a Radial BigShot SW2 Slingshot.] I also used my old Ibanez CS9 Stereo Chorus because it has this weird dark character I’ve only heard in that specific stompbox— it was the same pedal I recorded “Nothing to Say” and “Beyond the Wheel.”

A lot of players hate chorusing because they think it sounds cheesy or overproduced, but the way you use it avoids that. What do you like so much about the effect?
For me and my playing style, it’s perfect for harmonics, feedback, and arpeggiated guitar riffs, which have been big part of my playing since Screaming Life. That’s why I love and abuse choruses so much. The chorus plays well with all those elements and gives a shimmer and ring to my tone during the single-note playing of arpeggios. Plus, it gives a fuller, lusher whoosh sound, too. And when we play live and you have the big speakers and you get the feedback humming and you add the chorus, it sounds like a UFO landing [laughs].

“Bones of the Birds” also has very complex, psychedelic tones—especially when you listen to it with headphones. Can you describe the signal chain you used to create that soundscape?
During that song’s chorus—it’s my favorite part—I’m hitting harmonics in this ascending melody. I’m playing that through a stereo chorus, emphasizing the harmonics alongside the actual picked notes.

Kim Thayil's Gear

’90s Guild S-100s, late-’70s Guild S-300s with DiMarzio Super Distortion and PAF pickups, Gibson Firebird, American Standard Telecaster

Two Mesa/Boogie Electra Dyne heads (set to 45 watts), two Mesa/Boogie Tremoverb 2x12 combos, two Mesa/Boogie Stiletto 4x12 cabs

Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, Dunlop/Custom Audio Electronics MC-402 Boost/Overdrive, MXR M-151 Doubleshot Distortion, Dunlop/CAE MC-404 Wah, Dunlop Rotovibe, T-Rex Reptile, T-Rex Dr. Swamp, Ibanez CS9 Chorus, Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
GHS Boomer .009-.046 and .011-.050 sets, Jim Dunlop .73 mm Nylon picks, Boss TU-3 Tuner, Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor, Lehle P-Split High-Impedance Splitter, two Radial Engineering BigShot SW2 Slingshot two-button universal remote switchers (one for channel switching and varying gain in the Tremoverb, and one for both engaging and alternating between slow and fast Rotosphere settings)

What about the end, where it sounds like birds?
That was a complete accident that happened when I was fooling around with my wah and delay while playing with the volume knob on my guitar. You bring up the volume just enough to get the squeal, and then you dial it back and the delay really bounces it around—like a bird cawing off in the distance. Adam read that Pink Floyd had done something like that to get a similar bird-call effect. It involved them using a wah backwards—reverse the input/output of your wah— which makes it squeal quite a bit, but you control that with a volume pedal, and then you have to time the delay just right and it chirps off into the distance. We recorded it a few times so it sounds like a flock of birds, but there are a few times where you can tell it’s a guitar making the noise [laughs]… I don’t mind because, well, it is a guitar.

It seems that, while you love gear that facilitates some of your colorful tendencies, overall you seem pretty disinterested in seeking out the latest, greatest gear.
Totally. When you’re younger, you have to go to the store and spend the money that you worked all summer so you could buy a new guitar or amp. You knew exactly what you wanted and needed—you studied viable gear choices to pass the weeks while saving up. Eventually, after years of this and playing countless pieces of gear—some perfect for you, some you never want to hear again [laughs]—you find what works best for your band or recording project. Knowing what you don’t like or need is half the battle with gear, but you only find that out by playing the stuff. We focus more on the performance, song crafting, and the creative elements within the band. Sure, I like to tinker around with sounds, noises, and textures, but if it doesn’t help build a better song, then what’s the point? I’m not on a first-name basis with my gear—I know it’s surname, like Mesa/ Boogie or Peavey—but it never has me over for dinner or anything like that [laughs].