Soundgarden talk Soundwave 2015 and Superunknown
Having just been announced as Soundwave 2015 headliners, Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil talks to JODY MACGREGOR about what we can expect from their new tour, the 20th anniversary of Superunknown and how he stumbled across drop-D tuning while hanging out with Mudhoney and the Melvins.
Soundgarden’s influence on music in the 1990s is hard to over-state. The Sub Pop label was essentially created to sign them, and the “Seattle sound” common to Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and every grunge band thereafter had its beginnings with them. Their guitarist Kim Thayil is responsible for a lot of the specifics of that sound, as it was his experiments with tuning – especially drop-D tuning for those chunky Sabbath-y riffs – and weird undanceable time signatures that came to define them, and a lot of rock in the ‘90s.
When Soundgarden broke up in 1997 it felt like the end of that era, and the idea of them reuniting seemed impossible. Their singer Chris Cornell formed Audioslave with members of Rage Against The Machine, and then pursued a solo career. Their drummer Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam. Until it actually happened out of the blue in 2010 no one had any idea a comeback was on the cards.
But two years later they were playing the Big Day Out, and later that year releasing a new album, King Animal. Next year they’ll be in Australia again to headline the Soundwave festival. Right now they’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of their album Superunknown, and when I talk to Kim Thayil he’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “If you ever watch Bugs Bunny cartoons they make that joke where he says he should have taken a left at Albuquerque,” Thayil says, “usually when he gets lost. That’s where we are. We’re lost.”
You guys are on the Superunknown 20 tour, right?
Yeah, you know, it’s not really – we’re promoting the album Superunknown 20 but I wouldn’t call it the Superunknown 20 tour. That’s a mistake, a problem that was put forth by publicity and management, but we’re playing songs from all of our albums. Every set we’ll play one or two songs from our new album King Animal, so the focus is not entirely on Superunknown. We did release the album in June but some of the posters and press made it seem like that.
It’s great to hear that you guys are coming back to Australia next year because the last time you were here for the Big Day Out in 2012, that was before King Animal.
Yeah, exactly. Now we have an opportunity to play some of the King Animal material for Australian audiences.
Are there any challenges in those new songs, in doing them live?
No, I think we’ve played just about all of them if not all of them live at some point and everything seems to be going smoothly. Of course they’re not going to sound exactly like the record. We have some trombone and trumpet on the song ‘A Thousand Days Before’, and we don’t tour with a brass section.
There’s horns in ‘Black Saturday’ as well, aren’t there?
Yeah, there’s a little bit of a brass section doing a seventh chord, an accent during the chorus. That’s the only difference, we’re not going to be touring with any strings or brass or keyboards or anything.
I’ve always been curious, the banjo in ‘Ty Cobb’, do you play that live?
It’s not actually a banjo, it’s mandolin and mandola. On ‘Ty Cobb’, Chris and Ben [Shepherd, bass] tracked that, they did it in the afternoon before I turned up in the studio, which is odd because I actually have a pretty good history and experience with mandolin being that Soundgarden’s founding bass player, Hiro Yamamoto, was a mandolin player and he taught me mandolin chord scales in exchange for me showing him bass scales. Then he ended up being the founding bass player of Soundgarden, along with myself and Chris. I guess those guys weren’t aware of that at the time, they probably should have remembered that Hiro was a mandolin player and he taught me some, but they did a pretty good job of whipping out some mandolin on ‘Ty Cobb’. On ‘A Thousand Days Before’ on King Animal that’s me playing the mandolin and the mandolin solo there. But we won’t be travelling with brass or any mandolins.
How about spoons? How do you do the spoon solo in ‘Spoonman’?
I simulate it on the guitar by playing close to the bridge and using a slight delay. I didn’t always do that; I’ve been doing that for the past year but back in the day we would occasionally have Artis, the namesake of ‘Spoonman’, he would occasionally come out and play with us live. Just on occasion. And on the rest of the occasions Matt Cameron would do a bit of a drum solo while I did some percussive guitar noises.
One of the things that I’ve heard about you guys as a band is that you’re very self-critical, that when you’re writing songs you’re not afraid to say something sucks. Are there ideas you’ve been worried about bringing up in front of the rest of the band? Some of your songs have pretty out-there things in them.
That’s something where you have to have the courage to take that risk to share things with people, as in any relationship you become accustomed to doing. I don’t think we criticise individuals’ specific work to make it personal, I think we do it collectively in regards to the direction the material is taking. So if we have a song that has elements of it that are redundant or sound similar to some other piece of material we might change it or identify it or point it out. In that regard, because you have four people that are self-critical you tend to keep the stuff we produce original and unique.
It must be a strength to have that critical element within the band that’s always keeping you on your toes.
It definitely is a strength. I imagine it’s caused difficulties but the benefit is you don’t have to deal with the stagnation or the odd epiphany of a solo author. In the case of bands that have one primary songwriter/singer you’re left to the whim of their personal life experiences. What if they get religion or develop a substance abuse problem? Then it might reflect in the quality of their material. When you have four guys that are producing material, collaborating and offering their two cents to augment whatever’s being produced, it’s difficult to go down an uncritical, self-congratulatory path, which I think individual authors can often get caught up in especially if they’re told that they’re great and everything they touch will turn to gold. But in most cases their shit won’t turn to gold.
“Buzz Osbourne brought up that fact that Black Sabbath used this drop-D tuning…so I experimented and wrote a song called ‘Nothing To Say’”
I wanted to ask you about something that you brought to the band, that was an influence on a lot of the other bands of the time, which was the drop-D tuning you used in a lot of songs. Where did you learn that?
I learnt that Black Sabbath had written a few songs using that tuning. Specifically the conversation I was having, I was hanging out with Mark Arm, the singer from Mudhoney, we were at his apartment as a matter of fact, and Buzz [Osborne] from the Melvins. Buzz and Mark and myself were hanging around listening to records and talking about songs and guitars and I believe Buzz brought up that fact that Black Sabbath used this tuning. We thought, “This is interesting, that’s kind of cool,” so I experimented with that tuning and wrote a song called ‘Nothing To Say’ – well, I wrote the music for the song and Chris wrote the lyrics for ‘Nothing To Say’ – and everyone in the band loved the song. It was instantly really huge with our friends and our peers and other guys in bands and our small audience of drunks and punk-rock people in Seattle grew really attached to that song.
We recorded it, we wrote some other songs in that tuning, and eventually it caught on with people in our audience, and our audience consisted of members of other bands. Then you started to see other bands picking up that style, writing with that tuning, but by that time we’d moved on to other tunings. Boy, by Superunknown and Down On The Upside there were probably using a half-dozen tunings on each album. But the drop-D one was the first non-standard tunings we started using and it’s present on our very first album, Screaming Life on Sub Pop.
Have you guys had a chance to write any new stuff with all of the touring that you’ve been doing? Is there another album in the works?
Yeah, yeah. We’re probably gonna start working on another album in 2015. I know Chris has been writing stuff while we’re on tour. It’s hard to write on tour. I come up with a lot of ideas, a lot of riffs, every time I pick up a guitar but it’s difficult to assemble a song for me while touring. But Chris spent some time – he travels with a computer and ProTools equipment – and he’ll work on songs in his hotel room, which is great.
One last thing I wanted to ask you, the organiser of Soundwave, AJ Maddah, he’s a pretty outspoken dude. He said in the past that he wanted to book you but thought, and I quote, that you were “ridiculously overpriced”. Did you guys lower your fees or did he just cough up the dough?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t set the price. That’s probably something to do with our booking agent and management so that’s probably where that comes from. I’ll let the people who set those market terms establish that.
Soundwave festival 2015
Saturday, February 21 and Sunday, February 22
Bonython Park, Adelaide
Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne
Saturday, February 28 and Sunday March 1
Olympic Park, Sydney
RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane