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Kim Thayil on 30 years of Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger: “Right before we released the album, you could feel things were ready to explode”

Kim Thayil
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

For the longest time, Kim Thayil ranked Screaming Life and Superunknown as his favorite Soundgarden discs. “I would go back and forth between the two, based on the material, the production and the feeling in the band at those times,” he says. 

Five years ago, however, while combing through material for the 25th anniversary of the band’s 1991 commercial breakthrough album, Badmotorfinger, the guitarist’s feelings began to change. 

“I spent a lot of time listening to the record again, and I got to review some beautiful animation ideas that Josh Graham, our art director, came up with. It all recontextualized the record for me; I started to hear drum and guitar parts that I hadn’t focused on before. It gave new colors to the material.”

Five years later, with Badmotorfinger marking its 30th anniversary, Thayil now considers it his favorite from the Soundgarden canon. “It's a very colorful record,” he says. “It's got depth and it's trippy. It's angular and colorful. I love it.”

Formed in Seattle in 1984 by Thayil, singer-guitarist Chris Cornell and bassist Hiro Yamamoto, Soundgarden pioneered an aggressively heavy and psychedelic sound that married the most walloping elements of heavy metal and punk, and the result soon became known as “grunge”. 

With the addition of drummer Matt Cameron (who joined in 1986), the group issued the Screaming Life EP followed by the full-length Ultramega OK on the influential Sub Pop independent label and became darlings of the college music scene. In 1989, they became the first of the area’s grunge bands to step up to the big leagues by signing with A&M Records. 

Their major-label debut, Louder Than Love, which contained grinding earth movers like Loud Love and Hands All Over, hit number 108 on Billboard and was hailed by both indie and mainstream press. Even a few big-time musicians took note, chief among them Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, who famously wrote the riff to Enter Sandman after hearing the album.

Leading into the planning stages for their fourth studio effort, the band had a definite sense that they were on the verge of something big. “We could feel increased attention on us,” Thayil says. “We were fortunate in that we received positive press for our previous records. 

“There were more people attending our shows; peers in other bands liked us. We felt as if we were communicating to the people we needed to reach. In our audience, could see ourselves. We weren’t trying to pander in any way.”

The group once again opted to work with the Seattle-based producer Terry Date, who had guided them through the Louder Than Love sessions. “We felt comfortable with him,” Thayil says. “He helped us navigate the major-label BS – dealing with budgets and record company folk. With Terry producing us, we felt like we were in a protective bubble.” 

However, the Soundgarden that set out to record Badmotorfinger was a dramatically different band than on the previous album: Yamamoto had recently left, and his replacement, Jason Everman, proved temporary. Arriving for the sessions was bassist Ben Shepherd, a veteran of various punk bands and a well-liked presence in the Seattle music scene.

“With Ben in the band, our number of songwriting combinations increased in a multitude of ways,” Thayil says.

“We were totally excited to have him. His energy and creativity, his playing and songwriting – I consider him the MVP and the defining character of Badmotorfinger. That’s an easy argument for me to make. Ben’s sparks rubbed off on the rest of us. Chris hit a more prolific stride than he’d ever had before, and we wrote in a way that perfectly suited the new lineup.”

All of those factors came together beautifully on Badmotorfinger. In terms of artistic reach, it saw the band aiming higher than ever and hitting every mark. Everything sounded bigger and grander, more aspirational but still sensationally unhinged, and the songwriting had matured in a spectacular way. 

Rusty Cage and Outshined were the MTV hits that sold the album, but further in there were ambitious and arty tracks like Somewhere, Slaves & Bulldozers and Mind Riot that went down just as smoothly as the singles. For Soundgarden, who had built tremendous goodwill among their fanbase while staying true to their ideals, it was the perfect album to break them to the masses – immediately accessible without feeling conventional. 

But as the record was released hot on the heels of Pearl Jam’s Ten and on the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind, the timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous. Suddenly, Seattle was ground zero of a cultural zeitgeist, and Soundgarden were smack dab in the thick of it.

“Right before we released the album, you could feel things were ready to explode,” Thayil says. “There were so many bands that we knew and loved – Mudhoney, the Screaming Trees, Tad… There was Mother Love Bone, but sadly we lost [singer] Andy [Wood]. Pearl Jam were coming out with their album, and we were all anticipating [Nirvana's] Nevermind

“These bands were from our community, and now they were being shared with everybody. There was definitely an energy happening in town. You could feel it.”

On previous albums, Soundgarden tested out new material live. That wasn’t the case with Badmotorfinger, right?

“Right. In the past, each album was a studio interpretation of songs we had played live in clubs and venues – in some cases, for years. With Badmotorfinger, I believe all of it was interpreted first in rehearsals and then in the studio, and performed live for the first time when we started touring on the record. 

“The one exception might have been Room a Thousand Years Wide, which we released as a single on Sub Pop. We might have gotten that out there during a gig. But this was now a distinct shift in our songwriting dynamic. Songs weren’t honed and filed through live performances; they weren’t tested and refined. We weren’t able to identify songs that were fun to play or whether the crowds loved them. We had to anticipate that.”

Did you have to submit demos to the label before going in to record?

“It was protocol for them to hear what we were planning on recording. It wasn’t like we had to sell them on our songs. On Louder Than Love, they heard some material and would discuss radio potential. 

Nobody anticipated Nirvana going through the roof, but the attitude became, ‘OK, there’s a huge audience for this music’

“We didn’t want to think about that kind of thing. There might have been a few demos they heard for Badmotorfinger, but they didn’t want to interfere with us too much. And after Nirvana broke, the label just left us alone. They knew they had no idea what was going on. Nobody anticipated Nirvana going through the roof, but the attitude became, ‘OK, there’s a huge audience for this music.’”

What was the veto process for material within the band? What happened if somebody came in with a riff or a song and another guy said, “I’m not feeling it”? 

“That happened a number of times. Some songs got recorded but maybe people didn't jump on them initially. Maybe the riff or the instrumental part wasn't getting through, but a year or two later it would turn up in rehearsal. Or it might sit around until the next album cycle.

“If Chris had written Black Hole Sun around Screaming Life or Ultramega OK, we would've said, ‘That is an insanely great song, but it’s not appropriate for where we're at right now. It would just be a conspicuously weird thing here. Maybe try to sell it to somebody else.’ 

“But it came about at the time it did, for Superunknown. I think for the most part, that's usually how things happen. They come about an appropriate time, because that's where you've grown.”

You recorded much of Badmotorfinger in California. What went into that decision?

“We got advice from other bands. We discussed the benefits to staying home and having the familiar comforts versus getting away from everything and experiencing something new. Terry suggested working at Studio D in Sausalito, so we went down there and recorded a lot of basic tracks. There was a progressive hippie vibe happening there. I remember playing catch with a Nerf football. [Laughs]”

Let’s talk about some of the songs. The use of a wah as an audio filter really made the opening riff to Rusty Cage so distinctive. How did that come about?

“A couple of things happened there. We were using the Cry Baby a bit more. On Louder Than Love, I started farting around with it on solos. Then Chris used it. He was really interested in getting weird sounds, and he played with it to get that kind of filtered tone. 

“My memory of the demo for Rusty Cage is that the sound was there. He would bring us a demo and we’d go through changes; mostly because I'd add a guitar solo and I'd write some guitar parts to give depth to certain sections. Ben would usually have free rein to come up with bass lines. Because it was so fast and so specific rhythmically, Rusty Cage remained basically unchanged in terms of bass and rhythm guitar, and there were no guitar solos. 

“It had a cool linear progression – it didn't repeat verse and chorus too much – so we figured there was no room for a guitar solo. It was like, ‘Let's not waste it. There's enough going on with guitar. It's fast. It's got a lot of action. It doesn't need one.’ 

“My sense is that Chris worked it out and tracked that filter intro. He wrote the call-and-response intro thing. When we played live, we just played it with straightforward, heavy guitars, but on the demo and when we recorded it, we definitely used a wah to kind of get that weird sound of the rhythm guitars.”

You played a great solo on Outshined, but I understand you weren't too pleased when it was cut out of the video.

“That was kind of an irritating discussion. We'd write a song for the album. Chris would often have three verses and three choruses. He wrote songs that were at times unbearably long without being jammy; like maybe the Allman Brothers might have a really long song because there's some great Duane Allman slide solos and twin-guitar exchanges. We had lengthy verses and stuff, so they were often cut down for radio or an MTV version.

“I remember our A&R guy, Bryan Huttenhower, was in the studio trying to come up with a single edit, and Chris came in to work on it. They figured they'd have to take out some verses or lyric lines. They came to get me and said, ‘We can't find a place to take anything out of the verse or the chorus.’ 

“And I said, ‘Well, there's three verses. You can take one out.’ But Chris, I think correctly, said that he didn't want to do that. He thought the song, the story and the lyrics developed. You couldn't remove a hunk of lyrics and have the song make sense as he intended.

“Finally, they said, ‘Well, if we take out the guitar solo, we can shorten it.’ I was like, ‘You're kidding. Then it'll be misrepresenting a guitar band or a rock band. It'll sound weird.’ Well, we listened and I was like, ‘God, fuck. You've got to shorten it, I get it. If that's it, that's it. It's not the real version.’ So I went with it, and I rationalized it to myself saying, ‘This is not the real version. The fans are going to buy the album.’”

You and Chris used tunings that went beyond drop D. You would tune the low E to a B, and on Somewhere the tuning was E-E-B-B-B-B.

“I think Ben came up with that. There were a couple songs that Matt and I wrote on which we dropped the E, and the A was dropped to G. It was natural for us to challenge and impress each other… I don't know if we were trying to differentiate ourselves. We were just this collection of weird personalities and characters.”

What about the song Mind Riot, on which you tuned each guitar string to an E?

“Chris came up with that. I think that was from a conversation he had with [Pearl Jam’s] Jeff Ament, possibly during the Temple of the Dog period. I think Jeff jokingly said, ‘Could you imagine tuning the guitar to all Es? Wouldn't that be crazy? That'd be dumb.’ 

“And Chris thought, ‘What would happen if you did that?’ So he tried it and wrote a song with that. It's hilarious in that one case, how a musician might think it’d be a crazy and goofy thing to do, but a member of Soundgarden thinks, ‘Hell yeah, let's do that.’ Of course, Chris could get a song out of a weird tuning like that. 

“I think it’s certainly reflective of the kind of band we were. Ben would come up with something sideways, and then Chris, Matt and I would try to straighten it or turn it more sideways or diagonal. And the same thing – Chris would come up with something unique and interesting, and then we might add something to bring in a psychedelic or rock element to twist it more. Things got filtered, or things were rejected because it didn’t sound like us.”

What were your main guitars for Badmotorfinger? Were you primarily using your Guild S-100s?

“Yeah, I was still using the Guild S-100, but because a lot of the songs had different colors in them, Chris would have to offset my sound – or vice versa, I had to offset his sound. If he used a Gibson humbucker and had a kind of warm sound, it would be similar to the S-100. 

“Then I might have used a different bridge position, or I might try a single-coil guitar or vice versa. Because I was using the Guild a lot, Chris might have offset it with a Fender or something so we weren’t getting the same tones and colors on a song.”

In addition to guitars, would you and Chris choose different amps to complement each other’s sound? 

“We would try different things for different sounds. Very often, I would come back to whatever amp I started with, and I’d just adjust the tones and volume. There’s always a risk in doing that – for me anyway. I respond more as a player than as a listener. I react to the responsiveness of the strings and the neck. If that isn't there, then it's not me.”

You were using Peaveys, Music Mans and Mesa/Boogie amps. Does that sound about right?

“Yeah, probably. We endorsed Peavey for a while, so we were using that. And the Music Man was something I had used since my late teens back in Chicago. 

“I kept using the Music Man throughout the early days of Soundgarden until it broke. I wasn't in the habit of frequenting music stores for repairs or to find used amp heads, so that’s how we ended up using Peaveys and eventually Mesa/Boogies. 

“I remember we went to the Peavey factory. We learned from the guys there that a lot of their customers at the time preferred a certain percussiveness and brightness to their amps, and it was because of the popularity of Metallica. We weren’t so concerned with that because that’s what our drummer did. We’d do pretty radical amp settings to get the sounds we wanted. Sometimes we’d turn off the treble to get it to sound warmer.”

What was your reaction to the album after you finished it and received your reference CD? 

“It’s my personality to be the guy who says, ‘I love it, but…’ Ben, too. Chris and Matt were like that, to varying degrees. I hear echoes in my head of Ben saying, ‘We should have done this. We should have done that. This part bugs me…’ I would have those thoughts in my head, as well.

“I confess that I would play things live a little looser and free – sloppy at times – to my satisfaction. In the studio, sometimes a solo would lose its fluidity because a producer wants you to be in the pocket or to emphasize a drum sound. I remember it would get frustrating. Terry Date might say, ‘It’s a part that has to fit this way,’ and I would think, ‘Damn, I don't play like that live.’”

What was your attitude when the album was about to be released? Were you excited? Scared? A little of both?

“There was certainly a degree of anxiety. I think we were most anxious – or really, I was – because it was our first album without Hiro. He was an easy songwriting partner of mine. He would write all these riffs on bass, and I'd flesh them out. I would write guitar riffs that would stack on top of his bass ideas. So now he was gone and we had this new guy and different relationships in songwriting. And this guy was great, but it was different. It was us without Hiro.

“It was a new lineup and new material that hadn’t been tested live. The songwriting dynamic and my songwriting presence as a guitarist in a guitar band was now changed. How adaptable would our audience be? How adaptable would the band be to how this worked? 

“But at the same time, I felt very confident of the strength of the material, because it varied from a unique arrangement for a song like Rusty Cage, which I think is probably one of Chris's two or three best songs ever, and then the psychedelic elements of Searching with My Good Eye Closed. Plus, there was my debut as a lyricist...”

Yes, on Room a Thousand Years Wide.

“Matt wrote the music to that, and I loved it so much. I said, ‘I’ve got to write lyrics for this,’ because I just loved the instrumental. I had some anxiety about that. But then you had what sounds like a three-chord punk-rock song with Face Pollution, which has this crazy, Zappa-esque middle section that Ben wrote. There was so much strength and variety on the album, and we felt really good about the colors we were presenting.”

It’s been 30 years since the album came out. Does it feel like the time went by in a blink of an eye?

“That’s totally what it feels like. When I was 10 and I needed perspective, I would think back to a decade before I was born, so that’s 1950. I would be like, ‘Wow, that was a long time ago!’ To go back 30 years before I was born, 1930, that’s, like, ancient to me. There was no TV or color movies. It’s prehistoric. 30 years is a big interval, especially in popular culture. It’s a weird thing to wrap your head around.”

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Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.