An Interview with Kim Thayil of Soundgarden

"We're just rock," gripes Soundgarden's resident grouch, Kim Thayil. "Why can't we just be a rock band? Why does it have to be labeled? Labels are what you put on cans of cat food or TV dinners. We're neither."

In a bastardized way, Soundgarden could be called "smart metal." Kim Thayil has always been a fan of loud guitars and heavy rock, but any affection for metal ends right there. "I like the guitar riffs, but some of the songs and lyrics are just imbecilic. I heard that shit all the time and it just wasn't me, even though I had Foghat and Kiss and Ted Nugent albums. Pere Ubu kicked the crap out of the stuff that passed as metal, like Styx and Journey."

Metal or alternative, MTV buzz band or just plain cool, Soundgarden have sold a lot of albums over the past year and a half. Five million to be exact. Whether they like it or not, they've become a household word. Thayil explains how that happened. You've often cited Ace Frehley and Kiss as a prime influences. Why is it you never followed that path into metal?

Kim Thayil: Because it wasn't very smart. The metal thing tended to be a bit sexist and sophomoric and racist and just kinda dopey. I may not be very socially graceful, but fuck it, I was smarter than those guys who were into metal. I had long hair, so the smart guys pushed me into the stoners, and I didn't hang out with stoners. I just liked listening to rock and playing guitar and reading a lot. Guitar and books, that was it. What attracted you to alternative rock?

Thayil: I think it had to do with the fact that it was loud. The vocals were loud, it was aggressive and fast and heavy. It just seemed to be like me. Your heavier metal things in those days, like Judas Priest started coming out. I thought it was kind of gooney and not particularly smart. It wasn't witty. The Stooges are heavier and scarier than any of that shit. Kiss wasn't particularly "smart," yet their sphere of influence transcended almost every musical taste. Did you ever see Kiss perform live?

Thayil: I saw Kiss in '79 on the Dynasty tour. I was pretty disappointed because I liked the scary old black and silver costumes. There was something uniform about them all wearing black and silver and being wild. When I saw them they seemed like a circus act. There was a green guy, a purple guy and a red guy and a blue guy. Their costumes weren't sleek and streamlined like superheroes. They became really ornate like someone who sat around in a chair, not like someone who breathed fire and flew around. The costumes seem too weighty. They were bigger than them. Ugh. With that, was there a particular concert you saw that you'd classify as life-altering?

Thayil: Not really. I didn't go to a concert till I was 18 or 19. The first concert I saw was David Bowie. The next concert I saw was the Ramones. I went to see Devo during the yellow jumpsuit phase. Their gimmick was attractive. They seemed smart and dark and cynical. Devo -- who were considered "new wave," the old word for alternative - made fun of rock, but only the smart people got it.

Thayil: Exactly. It was for smart kids in school. A lot of those kids weren't into Kiss and they were hesitant to get into punk rock, but they got into Devo. And the next thing was [Elvis] Costello. The coolest rock bands are ones who were influenced by poetry or movies. What does "technique" mean to you and how does it relate to style?

Thayil: Your lack of technique can be part of your style. Style is more entertaining and more important and hopefully more intellectual than technique. To me technique meant proficiency. Define proficiency.

Thayil: Proficiency is to be able to play your instrument, be able to play the music you're playing with competency and play other styles. Kenny G is an example. He's technically really good. He uses technique, but I don't know too many people in rock who are interested in what he plays. So I'd say he has a unique breathing style and nice technique. But do you really give a shit? I don't. Was there a moment when you were learning your instrument where there was a proficiency breakthrough?

Thayil: There was a time when I realized that as you move the barre chord up and down the neck, you're changing the key. I wasn't interested so much in playing guitar as having the guitar facilitate writing guitar riffs. Was that a defining moment?

Thayil: That was a big deal, but I think it was when I started playing lead. I went about it in a weird way and memorized the entire neck in the key of A. Then I memorized the entire neck in the key of C. Then in D. I memorized all the notes out of patterns. I was outta my mind. Then I started learning modalities as this visual relationship between barre chords on the neck. I ended up forgetting all the modalities because I play more by ear. At this point I couldn't watch my fingers and think what mode I'm playing in. I just don't give a shit anymore. Give me your impressions of a few guitar players. Let's start with Eddie Van Halen.

Thayil: What can I say? He's a stud. He turned rock on it's ears. Van Halen's first album just blew me away. "That's a guy playing guitar, a human being playing a guitar!" And then they became more poppy so I stopped paying attention. What got me back into Van Halen was Eddie's playing, realizing he's not a geek, he's not a tech-head, he doesn't write songs for virtuosos. He does his virtuoso solos but they're not overdone. They're not, "Look how fast I am, look how intricate I play." They're played well, voiced nicely, phrased nicely. Peter Buck?

Thayil: Peter Buck is amazing. I didn't initially like REM when it came out because I was into aggressive and weird stuff. But over the years I came to see them as writing really cool songs that were beautiful and thoughtful. I was not a huge U2 fan, either. Budweiser did some commercial and I said "Hey, they're ripping off Mr. The Edge!" Achtung Baby has so many different things, so cool, they really became a different band then. Jimmy Page?

Thayil: I really started appreciating Jimmy Page's work around '85 or '86. The first Zeppelin record I got was Zeppelin II when I was 15. I started listening to Zeppelin more when people started saying we sounded like Zeppelin. What are your thoughts on Frank Zappa?

Thayil: I think of Zappa as a person, as a social icon. I'm into Zappa as an idea, not simply as a guitarist. Stevie Ray Vaughan?

Thayil: I have a lot of friends that like Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was very bluesy. Sometimes blues is cool but sometimes it bores me. He made blues understandable to white guys. So did Hendrix.

Thayil: To me, Hendrix is amazing. I have ultimate respect of Hendrix. It's just that I don't care about hearing Hendrix anymore. He's so overplayed and so many people imitate the guy. It's a done deal, like staring at the same page of a book for hours, like putting your VCR at freeze-frame and watching that for an hour. Don't get my analogy wrong, I'm not saying that Jimi Hendrix is one frame in a motion picture. I like him from my heart and soul. But I just don't care anymore. There's so much else that's happened. Was there a point when the guitar quit being just six strings to you?

Thayil: Yeah, when I bought a 12-string.

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