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!
WEINMAN: We have had many conversations about music and your band, but I don’t think I've ever expressed how interesting it is, as a fan, to hear your stories about the Seattle music scene. I have to say maybe the coolest thing I’ve gotten from our conversations is the impression that all you guys are really positive about each other. Hearing you speak about Cornell and the other guys as brothers after all these years is really touching.
And the comradery you've managed to maintain with the Pearl Jam camp throughout the years is unbelievable. What advice do you have for younger bands that are coming up in a technological age where most communication and collaboration is through social media and not as influenced by the local subcultures we all came up in?
THAYIL: I'm sure young musicians will find a way to establish a sense of community and shared identity that will ultimately define their subculture(s). Regionalism might be dead, and that might be a good thing. Transcultural sharing is a benefit to decentralizing social and artistic communities. Rather than colluding, artists can be challenged by other input culturally. This should spur growth creatively, socially and ultimately economically. Until then, we still have to deal with parental-approved weenie pop-rock ditties.
WEINMAN: What was life like for you, creatively and personally, after Soundgarden called it quits in the mid-'90s? I know you collaborated with a bunch of people during that time, including one of my favorite guys, Jello Biafra.
THAYIL: After Soundgarden, I felt some relief from having to maintain the expectations our band and its success had placed upon itself. I felt free to do whatever — and nothing. I knew the kind of material I had might suffer without the shared vision of Matt, Chris and Ben, and I had no interest in doing a second-rate Soundgarden. After the band tucked it in, the record label was sold, and most of the staff was fired. Our management was the next to downsize, and it became a PO box + Vm.
This was all fine with me. publishing was not necessary to my enjoying playing or writing. Life without managers, lawyers, salesman and accountants in my music was liberating for me. Living without popular culture and its commodification was an important intellectual and artistic ass wiping! I wanted to move on and do whatever I thought was fun. I did not want to work from the ground up with a another bunch of guys after throwing all my volume into Soundgarden. However, I was always designing that ideal in the back of my mind.
WEINMAN: Soundgarden was one of the first bands to introduce me to odd time signatures and highly dissonant guitar chords (which are largely what I’m associated with as a player). Which bands were you guys listening to while forming your sound during the early years?
THAYIL: In our early years, Chris, Hiro and I listened to many different bands and genres individually. Hiro originally played mandolin before learning bass. He liked a lot of folk and art rock before turning on to new wave and punk. Chris liked everything from Joe Jackson to Rush. I had liked metal and art rock before the new wave/punk explosion. By the time Soundgarden formed, we had all been in various bands, mostly punk rock bands for Hiro and me. Chris and I briefly played in a band that did Hendrix, Stones and Doors covers. (Yikes!)
As a band, Soundgarden listened to a lot of music before and after our practices/jams while drinking beer and discussing the merits of the artists and their material. Bands we collectively loved included dark, melancholic and angular British bands from the late '70s and early '80s such as Joy Division, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Gang of Four, Wire, PIL and Young Marble Giants. These bands tended to build songs around the bass. We were equally enthralled with American progressive post-hardcore bands from SST, Touch & Go and Homestead records like the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Big Boys, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Husker Du and, of course, Black Flag. All these bands were very guitar-centric!
WEINMAN: So I see you've been sticking with the Mesa Boogie stuff all these years. I also use Mesa. I run two Mark V heads, which I love. What are you playing through these days?
THAYIL The guitar signal is split (via a Radial JX44) into one Mesa Tremoverb 2x12 combo and one Mesa Electradyne 90w head, which then runs into two 4x12 cabinets.
Both amps are active all the time. The Tremoverb has EL34 tubes installed and has a driven, midrange-focused sound. The Electradyne runs on 6L6 tubes and compliments the Tremoverb with more of a full-range (more highs and lows) sound. The Tremoverb stays on the Modern High Gain channel all the time and is usually fairly compressed and driven. The Electradyne alternates between the Lo- and Hi-gain channels as needed. Additional gain and drive comes from boost and distortion pedals or right-hand dynamics. Between the two amps, the full frequency spectrum and dynamic range are covered.
Also, the Electradyne's two 4x12 cabinets are set up on either side of the Tremoverb combo — which spreads the sound across the width of the stage and provide lots of potential pockets for interesting feedback (on a good day...).
WEINMAN: We have talked at length about the difference between bands using your music as inspiration (like the Dillinger Escape Plan) and bands who have just tried to sound like Soundgarden. Why do you think all these bands are just horrible? Do they just not realize the true spirit of what you guys do?
THAYIL: I'm very proud of the bands I like and listen to that have cited Soundgarden as an inspiration. I'm a bit embarrassed by those who attempt to imitate us. The forward-thinking bands I listen to don't sound anything like us, but are willing to work with odd timings, tunings, noise, feedback, harmonics, etc., within the context of the song. The imitators sound like bad impressionists who grasp onto the most pedestrian and commercial aspects of what we do without any of the risk. Of course, Soundgarden is a bit more difficult to imitate than, say, Nirvana, Alice in Chains or Pearl Jam.
Nirvana has been victimized by many grave robbers over the years. They were ultimately the more successful and commercial band whose accessibility provided what may have appeared to be a lucrative opportunity for imitators. I won't mention any of these names, but I would like to reference some those bands I like who have tipped their hat our way: Sunn0))), Boris, Storm of Light, Om, High on Fire, Oneida, Eagle Twin, Lichens, Mastodon, Neurosis, Ghost and, of course, the Dillinger Escape Plan!
For more about Ben Weinman, who forms Guitar World's ultimate Prog Roundtable with Animals As Leaders' Tosin Abasi and Periphery's Misha Mansoor, plus a Tosin Abasi poster and features on Metallica's Kirk Hammett, a seven- and eight-string buyer's guide and more, check out the September 2013 issue of Guitar World at the Guitar World Online Store.