Dillinger Escape Plan's Ben Weinman Grills Soundgarden's Kim Thayil on Influences, Gear and Copycat Bands
It was the late 1980s, and I was a young impressionable aspiring guitar player.
Unlike many of my metal and punk peers, I did not have a “cool” older brother or sister to expose me to underground music. I would sit with my guitar and try and play along to my sister’s Jack Wagner record and my dad’s random collection of Broadway musicals searching for something inspiring.
The guitar ended up back in the closet within minutes. It was the '90s that really got me into music and would eventually help form my musical identity. It wasn’t long before Guns N' Roses were blasting through my bedroom at full volume. Sure, I had heard Bon Jovi and Poison, but this was edgy.
I immediately craved more, and the Seattle music scene was there to give it to me. Grunge had become a household name, and attached to every popular grunge band was a handful of influences that would lead me down a rabbit hole of musical wonderment.
Of all the amazing music that was hitting me during this time, Soundgarden was, without a doubt, the band that influenced me the most in terms of the way I think about and write music.
Jump ahead 10 years to 2005. Dillinger was playing a small club in Seattle named Neumos. I’m sitting backstage pacing around trying to calm my nerves, as I do, and I look up — and Kim Thayil is staring down at me.
“Hey man, you're you,” I said. Before a word came out of his mouth, I could tell he was one of the most humble dudes I would ever meet in this crude business. With a warm smile, he told me he had heard good things about us and was looking forward to seeing us play. Now I was really nervous.
After the show, I walked backstage covered in sweat and blood, completely exhausted. Kim is standing, staring at me and smiling from ear to ear. He told me it was one of the greatest shows he'd ever seen and that he had no idea how I could physically do what I do. I immediately was rejuvenated. It was one of those moments where I knew I was doing something right. It didn’t matter if I ever made money or whether people liked my music or not. One of my biggest influences was now a fan.
Recently, Kim and I have become reacquainted and even started collaborating on a song. It’s been an amazing experience, and getting to know him better as a person has been really rewarding. Kim is one of the weirdest, interestingly sarcastic and eccentric people I've ever met. And that's saying a lot. I've met a lot of fucking people on my journey.
BEN WEINMAN: Your parents are from India. I’ve always loved Indian culture and music (I even married someone named Adishakti Kaur). How has your background and upbringing influenced what you do musically? My parents really didn’t listen to anything but show tunes and watch old musicals, so I have no idea how I’m even a straight man, let alone an experimental metal guitar player.
KIM THAYIL: I'm not sure that my parents being from India had an overt influence on me, because they were raised in a fairly Western culture, India having been part of the British Empire and all. My folks met in church choir and immigrated, as people did in the '50s and early '60s, with a church sponsorship. My mom was a classically trained pianist from a very young age and graduated from the Royal Academy of London at 18.
I didn't benefit from her education, because my folks were struggling students. My mom never taught me a note, but she helped provide an environment that was pro-music. They were always singing around the house. However, like your folks, they were enamored with musicals and variety shows, such as Lawrence Welk. The cool thing was my parents were involved with a congregation that liked the folk music of the progressive, educated proto-yuppies of the '60s. This included Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash and other gospel-related artists who ventured into the pop market during the '60s and '70s.
Being raised in Chicago had a strong influence on me. My neighbors and friends as a kid listened to Motown and R&B, as did my folks, because of the gospel connection, along with the proximal fraternity of their peers and friends. Strangely, I was drawn to radio songs in my dad's car that evoked emotional responses that left my parents curious and dumfounded.
I eventually visited India when I was 8, and that's where I first heard Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band! My older cousins had that, as well as other Beatles albums! I would play "Day Tripper" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" over and over to pass the time in a place that didn't have baseball or cartoons. My big cousin, Jai Boy, had a guitar, and he let me fuck around with it when he wasn't around. All my family sang gospel and folk. Indian music, however, was present as an ambient or sentimental reference. I, of course, tripped out on this as being source material for the Beatles!
So, I guess musicality was present in my family, but Indian music culture came via Western pop, while I, an American, was visiting India. Weird!
The fact that we are straight men likely has nothing to do with our unfortunate musical upbringing, nor our birth, although these are both factors in what many believe is a sexual-identity question related to our biology. We rock, and that could be due to our biology, but not necessarily our genetics, and if our genetics, not necessarily our birth. People confuse biological determinism with genetic propensity. We are who we come to be, and evidence shows little to contradict that. We also have will and volition, but that won't change the fact that we are rockers, even if we weren't born that way.
WEINMAN: How have accolades such as being named one of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitar Players and winning multiple Grammy awards affected your outlook? When you were starting out, did you ever imagine how far your music and playing would take you?
THAYIL: I never thought I would have this success, but once I knew this might be something I would pursue, I thought I could achieve success. I never thought it was beyond me and always thought it would be attainable as long as I persevered and enjoyed the work and the camaraderie of my partners.
The accolades ultimately are flattering, but my parents value these achievements more than I can. I do value and appreciate this recognition, but on a very important and political level, this is not what I believe rock is about. It's not Franky and Annette, or Vegas, or MTV. It should be ultimately transgressive and subversive. It also is not about merely appeasing the fans. We have a responsibility to bring them along, if they wish, on our exploratory musings and not to patronize them.
This is an issue with many musicians I know who also feel there is a responsibility to do more than merely amuse or entertain. We don't have to presume we are artists in any academic sense, we just have to not give them what they may want, but provide the opportunity to want something other. Without this view of what we do, we would not have had the Ramones, Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, Nirvana, MC5, Metallica, Public Enemy, Radiohead, Husker Du, Pink Floyd or countless others.
How about a Hall of Fame for achievement in popular music sales? Now that would be something both Captain Beefheart and Deep Purple could be proud of!