Interview: Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil Remembers Grunge’s Early Years
By Richard Bienstock
Soundgarden may not have been the very first Seattle grunge band, but they are possibly the most influential. No, really.
Their 1987 debut, Screaming Life, not only helped to establish the then-fledgling Sub Pop label but also, according to guitarist Kim Thayil, went on to influence elements of the sound and style of peer groups like Nirvana and Alice in Chains. The six-song effort, which featured monstrously thick and heavy cuts like “Hunted Down” and “Nothing to Say,” has over the years been issued as a combined release with the band’s 1988 Fopp EP, though curiously never released digitally — until now.
On November 26, Sub Pop will reissue Screaming Life/Fopp (with bonus tracks) on CD, double LP and, for the first time, digitally, with all tracks remastered by original Screaming Life producer, Jack Endino, something of a grunge legend himself.
In advance of the release, Thayil convened with Radio.com to look back on the early days of Soundgarden and Sub Pop, and the formation of the Seattle Sound.
Along with Green River’s Dry as a Bone, Screaming Life was one of the first records ever issued by Sub Pop. It was so early on, in fact, that it’s unclear if Sub Pop even existed as a label at this point.
It did exist as a logo and a brand. Bruce [Pavitt] had actually established it through his fanzine [Subterranean Pop], going back to 1979, 1980. And a couple issues of his fanzine were cassette issues — cassettezines — with maybe two-dozen acts and a little booklet with reviews and articles to describe the bands. [The compilation album] Sub Pop 100, which had Sonic Youth, Steve Albini and some other artists, was the 10th issue of the Sub Pop fanzine. Sub Pop #11 was Dry as a Bone. And then issue #12 was Screaming Life. And I think there had been a 12A before that, which was the “Hunted Down” single on blue vinyl. So at this point Sub Pop started to become a record label. The next year they opened the Sub Pop offices and that’s when they started counting down to this past summer’s 25th anniversary Silver Jubilee.
You’ve said in the past that Screaming Life — and especially the track “Nothing to Say,” which is one of the earliest instances of drop-D tuning being used by a band in your scene — influenced many of your peers, in particular Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains.
I remember being at a DOA show in Seattle with Jerry and Ben Shepherd, who wasn’t in the band yet [Shepherd would join Soundgarden as a bassist in 1990]. And Jerry told me he was trying to figure out “Nothing to Say.” He said, “What do you do there? It sounds really heavy and low.” And I said, “Oh, I use a tuning called drop-D. You take the E string and drop it down a whole step…” And he goes, “You’re kidding!” [laughs] And it’s common knowledge that at the time, Alice in Chains were more of a boogie-slash-glam-pop band in the vein of what was going on in LA, like a Poison or early Bon Jovi or Motley Crue-ish thing. Our manager also managed them, and the next time she handed us a demo of theirs, it was highly different than what they had done half-a-year earlier. Like, “Holy shit! This sounds like they wrote a whole bunch of ‘Nothing to Say’s!” Then they did Facelift, and, god, there’s some amazing songs on that.
And Nirvana, later on they started doing more pop stuff like “About a Girl,” but originally Nirvana kind of sounded like a junior Melvins or a junior Soundgarden. They were certainly fans of the Melvins and they were fans of us. Primarily because of the singing. Like, hey, you can have melodic lead vocals over these distorted, slowed-down punk rock grooves! So those were the primary influences. The drop-D thing and the melodic vocals.
The title track of your next release, Fopp, was a cover of the 1975 Ohio Players funk song. A pretty outside choice.
With Fopp we didn’t invest ourselves as emotionally and creatively in the songwriting. The way we saw it, Screaming Life was sort of like our debut album. Sub Pop had an idea to do like a maxi-single, so we said, “Okay, let’s do a cover song.” [With “Fopp”] we thought, here’s a song we’ve been playing onstage for a couple of years, the crowd digs it, [Sub Pop heads] Bruce [Pavitt] and John [Poneman] dig it, it’s one of a half-dozen of our strongest live songs, let’s put it out.
When it came time to record a true follow-up to Screaming Life, you left Sub Pop for SST.
By ’88 we had toured, we had all this material, and we were ready to make another record. Sub Pop wanted to make another record, but they didn’t have the money. We had talked to SST, and [SST owner and Black Flag leader] Greg Ginn wanted to put us in a 16-track studio. Most of the studios we knew around Seattle were 8-track. And we thought our songs could benefit from doubling the tracks, like, “Who knows what we’ll be able to do?” But actually we were never happy with the way [the SST release] Ultramega OK sounded. It has its moments, but we always thought it could have been better. We have interest in remixing and remastering it.
Along those lines, have you had a chance to hear the recent 20th anniversary re-release of Nirvana’s In Utero, with Steve Albini’s original mixes?
Yeah. I thought Albini’s mixes sounded great. I believe Scott Litt just remixed a couple of singles…that’s not a cynical move! Get another guy in to remix the songs that you think will sell millions on radio, as opposed to the producer you trusted to make the record. With Soundgarden, working with Steve Albini never came up. But if someone had pursued a relationship with Albini or someone had asked if we were interested, we certainly would have been. Also, I had caught wind early on that Steve was not a fan of Soundgarden or Nirvana. I won’t explain how I came to that, but let’s just say I saw a letter. But that was early on. I think [the debut Sub Pop Nirvana single] “Love Buzz” had come out, or maybe Bleach. But Albini was not a fan of either band. Anyways, I don’t think the guys in Nirvana read that letter!