Catching Up With Kim Thayil of Soundgarden

Music Features Soundgarden

The riff from Soundgarden’s “Hunted Down” was rumbling years before there was such thing as “grunge,” which of course would later burn hot then fade away. That first single appeared on Soundgarden’s 1987 Screaming Life EP, a raw, early document of a band that would go on to conquer stadiums before hanging it up 10 years later.

Soundgarden reformed in 2010 and they—along with Mudhoney, Pearl Jam and the Melvins—are still doing their thing. Now Sub Pop is reissuing Screaming Life, along with the 1988 Fopp EP (on CD and double-LP), for the first time since 1990, and the first time on vinyl since original pressing.

Paste recently hunted down Soundgarden co-founder/guitar-god Kim Thayil to reminisce about youth, riffs, records and Sub Pop Rock City.

Paste: So you just got your copies?
Kim Thayil: Yeah, just picked them up a couple days ago down at Sub Pop.

Paste: And what are your thoughts?
Thayil: Comparing to 1990 CD release the new one is definitely hotter, louder—that’s due to the mastering. The packaging is just way superior. We captured a lot of the elements of the original vinyl from 1986, 1987. The CD that came out in 1990 was sort of this monochromatic, throwaway packaging; it looked like a single actually, like the Sub Pop Singles of the Month Club from that period.

Paste: Listening to Screaming Life now, how do you think it stands up?
Thayil: It’s different than the recording quality that we had on the last four or five albums. There’s a rawness and a charm to it; the reverb and delays that Jack Endino used just gives it this shimmer and charm. Matt [Cameron] and I were just discussing it this past summer, and Matt referred to it as his favorite Soundgarden record. It’s always been one of my two—you know, Screaming Life and Superunknown, just for those intangibles, the ambiance and the way it feels with headphones on.

Paste: And material-wise?
Thayil: Material-wise, it’s kind of close to my heart because most of the music was written by me. It was a little different setup, ya know, the original lineup—me, [original bassist] Hiro [Yamamoto], Matt and Chris [Cornell]—the songwriting dynamic was a little bit different. A lot of the ideas kind of initiated from me, from Hiro, so there’s a little sentimentality for me personally. But the composition of the songs really took off around the Louder Than LoveBadmotorfinger period.

Paste: Listening to “Hunted Down,” it sounds pretty reminiscent of what came later from you guys and other bands.
Thayil: Yeah, I mean the performances are really good. They have a certain energy that we would exhibit playing live at the time. And on the subsequent records—Ultramega OK, Louder Than Love, and to a certain degree Badmotorfinger—we had these producers who were making a little bit more money than we were and Jack Endino was [laughs], and there was a little more detail and attention spent to it. [Screaming Life] just feels more free.

Paste: Were you ever tempted to work with Jack Endino again to get that raw, loose sound? Or did that not work once your compositions got a little more complex?
Thayil: I think the expectations of the other records had changed—the record company, the band. And in the back of your mind you have the fact that you’re recording for radio, or perhaps you’ve been asked to write something for a movie soundtrack. And the songs might have different aspects to them that you want to capture with studio technology as opposed to live performance. On the first three albums the songs were almost all written and tested live. Many of the songs on Screaming Life had been performed over a few-year period. We were doing very well live, we were packing the venues, we knew what kind of songs got people going, we knew what we enjoyed playing live and how they worked for the setlist. And then, after being together since 1984, we turned around and made an album of songs that we were excited about. By Louder Than Love, Badmotorfinger we started writing songs and recording them for the studio. And after recording we’d have to rehearse and learn them, and then test them live. So there’s a distinct difference between the first three records and what occurred afterwards in the way songs got their life.

Paste: What do you remember most about the Screaming Life recording session?
Thayil: For some reason when I remember that period of time, it just comes up sunny. [Laughs] In spite of the moodiness or darkness of our material the experience comes up sunny—a great period of time for us and for me personally. There’s something intimate or warm about it, the four of us sitting in a very small studio—well, five of us with Jack Endino—usually some snack we got at some mini-mart [laughs], a bunch of beer. And we were having a nice, hot sunny day and we were cooped up inside with no windows. It was a great experience.

Paste: Yeah, your early 20s, it’s really hard to beat that time in your life.
Thayil: Definitely. That would be your salad days? It was a lot of fun, it was an adventure, the experiences were novel, you really feel like a team. All those things.

Paste: “Sub Pop Rock City” is included on the reissue. Was that more of a nod to Sub Pop, or to KISS?
Thayil: Oh, definitely more to Sub Pop. The title, of course is a tip of the hat to “Detroit Rock City.” It’s kind of an homage and a slap at Sub Pop at the same time—you know, we’re having fun with them. That’s probably the one Soundgarden song where you’ll hear that sort of boogie guitar riff. That is specifically something that was killed off by punk rock.

Paste: Now when you got around to recording Fopp, whose idea was it to do an Ohio Players song?
Thayil: Oh, that was my idea. That had been a favorite song of mine since, ohhh, back when I was a teenager in Chicago. The Ohio Players album Honey I actually got when I was a kid, based on the strength of the single “Love Rollercoaster,” which is still an amazing, cool song. The Ohio Players got a lot of airplay where I grew up in Chicago. And I got that record on vinyl and immediately took to the song “Fopp,” which I had never heard before, and it just seemed so rocking. It had that two-chord riffing groove that you’d hear in an early Kinks song like “You Really Got Me” or “All Day and All of the Night.” And I played it for the rest of the band, and Hiro loved it and Chris loved it, and we kinda just fucked around with it for fun in practice and started playing it live. And same deal, we started playing it live and it was a crowd-pleaser. And Bruce [Pavitt] from Sub Pop said, “Hey you guys should record that as a single.” We thought, sure, as a single—we didn’t think it was a song to build an album around. That’s why Fopp we think of as a maxi-single, and Screaming Life we think of as a mini-album. And we all feel that Screaming Life is our first record. Even though it only had six songs on it, we recorded a good dozen songs—a full album’s worth—but decided to release an EP at a more accessible price, a more accessible listen.

Paste: I think more bands these days should do that.
Thayil: Yeah, I think sometimes it’s difficult to commit to a new band, or a band you haven’t seen yet, or heard of. An EP’s a good, strong foot forward for, you know, a band doing something new. Personally, I’ve got so many great EPs from bands like the U-Men and Sonic Youth and the Part-Time Christians and Big Black. And you check it out, and it’s like these are a cool five or six songs, and you want to get more.

Paste: One thing about Soundgarden is that you were always more difficult to peg than, say, Nirvana or Alice In Chains.
Thayil: At the time, if people didn’t like us, they’d say they it was because we were these scruffy, punk-rock assholes, or because we sounded too much like some kind of metal band. And of they did like us, it was the same argument [laughs], “Oh, it’s cool because they’re metal, or it’s cool because they come from this punk scene.” We still get that.

Paste: I have to tell you, I was into metal at the time, and you were the first Seattle band I checked out.
Thayil: Even before we slowed down and got more heavy and groove-oriented, we did stuff in weird time signatures. I don’t know how to describe it. Kinda like a Bauhaus-y-Gang of Four-Minute Men-ish-Big Boys amalgam. That was sort of before and up to Screaming Life. I mean you hear a little bit of that in “Hunted Down” or “Entering”—that sort of quirkiness or gothiness. But when we slowed down that quirkiness manifested itself in a sort of prog rock sort of quality. I remember when Badmotorfinger came out, and I remember Mark [Arm] from Mudhoney said, “Hey man, I just heard Badmotorfinger.” I’m all, “What do you think?” [Laughs] And he’s like, “Fuck, it sounds like Rush!”

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