Kim Thayil of Soundgarden

by Greg Prato

The number of bands that called Sub Pop Records their home back in the 1980s is quite impressive. The top dogs at Sub Pop were Soundgarden (and their 1987 EP, Screaming Life), Mudhoney (their 1988 EP Superfuzz Bigmuff), and of course, Nirvana (1989's full-length, Bleach).

In late 2013, Screaming Life was reissued in both expanded CD and vinyl versions, with an expanded tracklist that also includes their early EP Fopp and a tune that had never appeared on any previous Soundgarden albums: "Sub Pop Rock City."

Formed in 1984, Soundgarden, whose best-known lineup is comprised of singer/guitarist Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd, and drummer Matt Cameron, was one of the bands that helped make "grunge" more than just another word for dirt. Soundgarden helped define the genre in the early-mid '90s with the hit albums Badmotofinger, Superunknown, and Down on the Upside; and the singles "Outshined," "Spoonman," and "Black Hole Sun." After splitting up in 1997, Soundgarden reunited in 2010 for live work and a new studio album, King Animal.

I first spoke with Thayil for my book, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, and have had the pleasure of interviewing the guitarist several times subsequently. This time, we chatted mostly about songwriting, memories of composing specific Soundgarden classics, and his thoughts on Screaming Life looking back on it today.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How exactly do you approach songwriting?

Kim Thayil: It varies from song to song. We've written songs in so many different ways, with different combinations of the four of us. Sometimes everybody would partner collectively, or maybe two or three guys, or complete authorship where one guy writes everything.

Since everyone in the band writes on guitar, being the lead guitarist I have to learn to play guitar in the style of our drummer, who writes songs on guitar, and our bass player who writes his songs on guitar, and our singer/guitarist who writes songs on guitar.

So it's safe to say they start with the riff. They start with a guitar riff and we work the vocals around it. Chris, at least on a few occasions, started with a vocal melody and built the song around the vocal melody, but that's unusual and even great vocal songsmiths don't do that. Maybe some piano guys do that where they build the chords around the vocal melody, but Paul Simon, for instance, starts with a song riff. The Beatles - Lennon, McCartney - those guys probably started the music in a riff and then built the lyric around it.

Bands that last a generation without shuffling members - U2, R.E.M., ZZ Top - tend to split their songwriting credits equally. Most bands, however, assign the credits to whoever wrote most of song, which is an inexact science and often a source of contention, since these credits can generate a lifetime of passive income. (It pays to be a group's lyricist in this arrangement, as you'll get a credit on any song with vocals - Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler have done very well in this setup.)

The Cars, whose songs were almost 100% penned by Ric Ocasek, had just one primary songwriter. Queen, with four talented songsmiths in the group, went the individual songwriter route for their first 13 albums, typically crediting just one member as the composer for each song. On their last studio album issued during Freddie Mercury's lifetime, Innuendo, they shared the credits.

Soundgarden has always included four songwriters in their ranks, with each member either solely penning or co-penning at least one classic track: Cornell on "Black Hole Sun," Thayil on "My Wave," Cameron on "Room A Thousand Years Wide," and Shepherd on "Slaves and Bulldozers." All four are listed on "Jesus Christ Pose."
Songfacts: How does the band decide who gets the songwriting credits?

Thayil: That varies from band to band. If you're a fan and you read a songwriting credit, it may mean one thing for Metallica and something different for Soundgarden; one thing for Nirvana and something entirely different for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Every band does it differently.

Although hard to picture, Soundgarden began as a trio, with Chris Cornell serving as their singing drummer for a spell before dropping the sticks to focus on vocals. Although uncommon, there have been several singing drummers who have left their mark on popular music, tops being Phil Collins, Don Henley, and Karen Carpenter.
With us, because Chris was our original drummer and Matt's a drummer, we've got two drummers in the band, and they tend to do it linearly in terms of time. If you're a guitarist or singer, you think of song construction as being vertical, as well. You build songs on top of riffs. As a drummer, you think very linearly from A to B and you think about the sequence of those parts: who wrote the introduction and the A part, the verse, and then the chorus. We give emphasis to the person who brought the head in - who brought in the riff. That's Kim's guitar riff, so this is his song, or this is Chris's guitar riff, it's his song. But someone else wrote a chorus, so he's part of the songwriting. But it's all linear.

Now, if you write a bass line that's doing some oompah tuba part, then you write a guitar line over it that's doing something different and kind of constructing chords or a melody over that, the way we would handle it - and I don't necessarily agree with it, it's just the way we've done things - we would look at the oompah bass part as what constitutes that segment of time that we call a chorus or a verse. And regardless if a melody is written over that part, which is distinct, the band, being drummer-oriented, would say that that melody is bound by that musical idea in that section that occupies the time starting at point A and ending at point B, and then you go on to the verse. See what I'm saying?

As opposed to vertically, where you build instruments and musical parts over other musical parts. There are many bands that credit songwriting that way, but the way we do it is linearly and I think that's probably because the idea of drumming and time and seeing songs progress, it's that way.

Songfacts: Some songs list the music by you and the lyrics by Chris. How exactly does that work?

Thayil: Well, generally, I'm going to have the musical ideas and we'll jam on it and play it. And Chris may say, "Oh, I have lyrics for that," or he may record it or learn how to play it and then work on it and come up with a vocal melody for it. In the early days, he may have had lyrics already laying around that he'd written. He'd say, "Hey, the meter of this lyric might fit with that group." And he'd try it out and see if it worked.

Songfacts: Do you come up with all the guitar riffs on your own, or do you look elsewhere for inspiration? Because I know, for instance, the song "Never the Machine Forever," you credit Greg Gilmore, the former drummer of Mother Love Bone, for providing inspiration.

Thayil: The inspiration was, Greg and I were doing some jamming. I was doing some preproduction for Down on the Upside [Soundgarden's 1996 album]. Chris had done some demoing on his own - 4-track or 8-track stuff, and Matt had done some demoing on 4-track stuff. I wasn't recording on 4-track, since I didn't feel comfortable with songwriting that way. I would write riffs and then just turn on a regular tape player and record the riff. I could record a melody over that and record that simply. I didn't worry about demoing 4-tracks, and still don't.

But I decided to go into a friend's studio and jam with Greg and work out some ideas in preproduction before going into the studio, and "Never the Machine" came from that. Greg was jamming out of the drum riff and I started noticing, "Hey, this is kind of a weird sort of groove or feel." And Greg said, "Yeah, I think it's in 9/4." So I thought, "Okay, well, I'm going to write music in 9/4, then." So I came up with the guitar riff and all the guitar riffs, and of course then eventually the vocal melody and the lyrics for "Never the Machine Forever." So basically I wrote a song in the time signature 9/4, that tempo.

And so for that reason, I gave sonic inspiration to Greg Gilmore for identifying this jam as being 9/4, for being that time signature.

Songfacts: You wrote the lyrics for an earlier song, "Room A Thousand Years Wide." How do you approach lyric writing?

Thayil: Just really getting a feel for the music. I don't just glue lyrics to music. I try to get a feel for the song, what it evokes with me.

And I know some people have a hard time with this - I've seen interviews with rock bands and met guys that do that, but for some reason, Chris and I and Ben, we can write in weird time signatures. I can hear a song with a 9 or 5 or 7 groove and I can hum over it and hum a melody. I've always been able to do that. I've been writing songs since I was 16 or 17, and I'd play guitar and hum a melody over it. That's how Ben works. He plays guitar and sings a melody over it.

If you're playing 5 or 7, it's a little bit harder to do that. It's hard to play it and sing something that's independent of that. If a part is in 7/4, you just play the tape back, get an idea of the groove, and then kind of hum a melody over it.

Now, I cannot sing and play at the same time. That's something that Chris has become fucking amazing at, because he worked very hard at writing a guitar riff in some weird time signature and trying to sing over it. It takes some concentration to do that independently. It's a very difficult thing to do.

I can come up with melodies over time signatures and I can write in weird time signatures, but I can't play and sing it at the same time.

Songfacts: "Room A Thousand Years Wide" contains one of my favorite Soundgarden lyrics: "Tomorrow begat tomorrow."

Steve Fisk is one of two producers (the other being Jack Endino) whose name is often linked with classic grunge. And with good reason: Fisk produced both Soundgarden (the Fopp EP) and Nirvana (the songs "Stain" and "Been a Son" on the Blew EP). He has also worked with The Posies, Screaming Trees and Harvey Danger, has issued his own solo recordings, and served as one half of the funk duo Pigeonhead along with Shawn Smith.
Thayil: Actually, that lyric Steve Fisk referred to me from some weird movie. God, which movie was it? I wonder if it's the movie Häxan [A 1922 film subtitled "Witchcraft Through the Ages"]. But there's some movie, there's a line... we were just talking about this. There's a line where a witch is chanting that or some witches are saying some spell, "Tomorrow begat tomorrow." Like an infinite regress, "Tomorrow begat tomorrow begat," meaning it just keeps going. And so I thought, "Oh, man, that'd be fucking cool in a song."

So that line was borrowed from some movie as lyric lines are borrowed from books and movies and other songs.

Songfacts: Let's discuss some other songs. How about "Hunted Down," which is part of the new Screaming Life reissue.

Thayil: We came up with that just kind of having this riff and some changes, just kind of jamming on it. I had the main riff and came up with some chord changes. That song was originally played slower, so it had this heavy riff. And the focus went from that to this noisy, chaotic, kind of jazzy solo. And that was the song, and then we filled it in with these chords and stuff. At the end, we needed an ending, and I thought, "Well, maybe when we record it and we'll just have it fade out on the groove." And Matt came up with the idea of ending that in the way it does, in kind of a rhythmic fashion, to complete it.

For some reason, growing up I kind of loved the idea of songs fading out. There's probably periods of my life where if it was up to me, every song on an album would fade out. Which, of course, would be a bad idea. It's something that I might have leaned towards.

Drummers don't necessarily like that, because they have the ability to conclude things and resolve melodic pieces. In this case, Matt came up with one. He's like, "Hey, why don't we do this..." And he tapped out a rhythm or groove and he kind of hummed it. And I go, "Okay." So I figured out what the chords were. He tapped out the groove, and I go, "Like this."

And then Chris wrote the lyrics. I think he might have had lyrics laying around, and he just got in front of the mic and tried them out. It felt great, it was dynamic, and that's how that worked.

Songfacts: I'm just thinking back to famous rock songs that have fade outs, and I think probably the longest fade out is KISS' "Black Diamond."

Thayil: [Laughs] Right.

Songfacts: What about the song "All Your Lies," which I think is probably one of Soundgarden's most underrated songs.

Thayil: I wrote all those guitar parts and assembled them together. Wait a minute, I think the breakdown part, Hiro [Yamamoto, Soundgarden's original bassist] might have written that. How is that credited on Ultramega OK? I can go grab a copy of the CD and look at it.

Songfacts: I have it here. It says the music was co-written by you and Hiro.

Thayil: Okay. That chorus part, Hiro wrote that. But basically I had the main riff, the A part, the verse section. And then the transition bridges, which are very guitar-y. They're kind of quick, fast guitar runs. I wrote all those things. And then we needed kind of a break, and Hiro's like, "Well, how about this? Let's take this groove." And he came up with the bass riff, which he thought was a good counterpoint to the sort of quick, fast gallop of that riff. When he brought it down, it had a groove, it had a dynamic thing.

Chris came up with lyrics and introduced them at rehearsal. Back in those days we wrote a lot of songs in practice and then songs would be introduced live. Later on, songs would be introduced on record, then we'd have to learn them to perform them live. But our first three albums, many of those songs existed for years in some cases live before they ever got recorded.

Songfacts: And then on King Animal, a song I like a lot is "By Crooked Steps," which contains a really great riff. Who came up with that riff?

Thayil: That main riff is Matt. That's like in 5/4 or something. Matt brought that riff to us and he had that change, the little change modulation. He came up with that, showed it to us, and we jammed on it. And while jamming over it, I came up with that C section, that dreamy part. I'm not sure what the lyrics are, I'm not going to attempt to sing them, but that dreamy C section, that was Chris'. That was my guitar part and music and Chris came up with that dreamy lyrical part.

And then the intro was mine, which was this delayed guitar part to evoke the idea of being stranded on a highway in North Dakota. It's this kind of meandering riff that kicks into this cool, aggressive 5/4 groove.

And then Ben wrote that ending riff, that really quick one that sounds like something Jimmy Page came up with on Led Zeppelin I - you might know what song that is.

Songfacts: Is it possibly the last song on Led Zeppelin II? What the hell's it called?

Thayil: I'm thinking of Zeppelin I, maybe "Good Times Bad Times."

Songfacts: You say it's a very fast riff?

Thayil: It's the ending riff of "Crooked Steps." Come on man, you just said it was one of your favorite songs!

Songfacts: [Laughing] It's funny, it's the song I've listened to the most on the album. [The Led Zeppelin riff that Kim mentions here is quite possibly "The Wanton Song" off of their classic 1975 double album, Physical Graffiti. Interestingly, "By Crooked Steps" is not the first time that a guitar riff from a hard rock band has drawn comparison to "The Wanton Song" - Rage Against the Machine's "Vietnow" contains a similar riff, too.]

Thayil: It's got that main groove, the main 5/4 groove, and then there's a riff that goes over the top. There's a bass and guitar playing this really quick riff, and then I'm playing these power chords over it, so this is like three different riffs going on. (Making guitar sounds) There's this fast riff on bass and one guitar, then there's this power chord riff over the top, so it's kind of three different guitar riffs going simultaneously at that point.

Songfacts: This year is the 20 year anniversary of Superunknown and also the song "Black Hole Sun." What are your thoughts on that song looking back?

Thayil: Well, we'd had singles before. But that was easily our biggest hit. That was more singer/songwriterish. Chris went that direction of singer/songwriter guy, and the band was more accepting because of the success of singer/songwriting stuff as opposed to more guitar oriented rock. It was more vocal accompaniment rock, some guitar. So we started utilizing a little bit more of that. Like, "Blow Up the Outside World" on Down on the Upside.

Fopp was Soundgarden's second release, recorded at the Moore Theatre in Seattle (but is not a live recording in front of an audience), and issued in August of 1988. Comprised of four selections, the title track is a cover of the funk classic by the Ohio Players (who seem to have made admirers of alt-rock bands, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers covered their "Love Rollercoaster"), and also reappears here as a remix. Elsewhere, you'll find the lone Soundgarden original composition of the bunch, "Kingdom of Come," and a cover of "Swallow My Pride," which was originally done by the Mudhoney/Mother Love Bone precursor band, Green River (with Mark Arm as their singer)
Songfacts: And since the Screaming Life reissue is out, how do you think that Screaming Life and also Fopp hold up today when you go back and listen to them?

Thayil: I still love Screaming Life. It's probably one of my two favorite Soundgarden records. Matt has referred to it as his favorite album. There's a cool sound with the songs, there's a freedom that the songs have that is not as present on Down On the Upside, or even parts of Superunknown. There's a kind of looseness and freedom to it that's a lot of fun to play live and fun to listen to for us. I love the album Superunknown, as well.

Fopp is an EP, so we consider Screaming Life to be our debut album. Even though it wasn't a full length, it was a collection of our original songs - it's our album, it's our original material. Fopp we thought of as a 12-inch single, a maxi single where we focused on covers. We got Steve Fisk to do a little humorous club remix of the song "Fopp." We threw in one original for the fuck of it ["Kingdom of Come"], we threw in a cover of our buddies Green River ["Swallow My Pride"], we did one of their songs.

The Fopp EP is not piece of serious or creative work by Soundgarden. It has a novelty component. It's definitely for humor's sake. We play "Fopp" all the time live. We love the song. We had a blast paying it live. It's heavy and sexy and we love the groove. But doing the remix at that point in time was different for us, and it's kind of a novelty. Doing a cover of the Green River song was obviously a little bit of a parody as well as an homage.

And then of course we had one original song on it. So Screaming Life will always in our hearts be our first record, our first album. It has a different sound than all the others. It's our first 12-inch, it's the first collection of our original stuff. So as far as we're concerned, it's a mini album. And now it's a full regular album when you put Fopp in with it, and "Sub Pop Rock City."

April 8, 2014. For more Soundgarden, visit and Here's The Spoonman.
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Comments: 1

  • Sharon from NjGreat interview! Kim Thayil is simply Amazing
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