Interview: Soundgarden's Kim Thayil
Kim Thayil, the dropped-tuning lord of heavy grunge, walks us through the thickets of distortion, swirling psychedelic vortexes, and eastern-flavored motifs on Soundgarden''s epic return to form, King Animal.
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
[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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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].
Dust off your flannel, prep your stage-diving skills, and dial the DeLorean for the early ’90s to witness this hypnotically raw performance of Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose.”
Soundgarden’s official welcome back party at Lollapalooza 2010 proved two things: Cornell’s voice is still as fierce as ever, and Thayil’s tone backs down to no one.
The tar-dripping, swampy grinder that is “Slaves and Bulldozers” is quintessential Thayil—menacing, down-tuned chords, deep string bends, and a delay-minced wah solo not to be missed.