For Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, soloing in odd time signatures felt like it was “above his pay grade.” As he told Pete Thorn in a recent interview, playing riffs if something is not your usual 4/4 isn’t that much of a problem for him. However, doing lead parts in odd meters comes with its set of challenges.
Nonetheless, Kim Thayil still did it, and it was a huge part of Soundgarden’s style. Reminded of these odd time signature lead parts, specifically the one in “Black Hole Sun,” Kim then explained (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):
“Sometimes, if something’s in an odd meter — you’re counting out something in 7 or 5, while at the same time, letting go and playing something improv… I’m not a jazz guy, so I can’t do that.”
Discussing these challenges more and how he approaches them, Kim also added:
“Sometimes it’ll just come out in 4, and I just remember what the 1 is. And so you might just be meandering. It’s in standard tuning, but as long as I orient where the 1 is, you can just do whatever little splurt it is, shove it out there, bend the note, and bang, we revisit the 1 — if you’re lucky, if I’m paying attention. [Laughs]”
Nonetheless, despite this “meandering,” as he described it, these lead parts still worked well within the context of Soundgarden songs. Odd time signatures and somewhat improvised solos still sounded organic. At the same time, Kim also compares how difficult it gets compared to playing riffs, especially when you add their unusual tunings into the mix.
“Yeah, playing riffs and weird time signatures really works with Soundgarden,” he added. “Soloing that time signature is, I think, above my paygrade. [Laughs] So my thing was to just kind of improvise anyways, because it’s not just a different time signature — every damn song is a different tuning!”
During the interview, Thayil also discussed the rise of grunge music back in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. There was an obvious shift happening during the 1980s in Seattle, Washington.
And these bands were different compared to your usual classic hard rock and glam metal, as well as hardcore punk which had its following. When asked about whether they were aware of this shift and the uniqueness of the scene, Kim replied:
“We were aware of a particular stylistic identity that had come out of Seattle, probably with the release of the recording of the ‘Deep Six’ album, which was recorded in ’85 and released in ’86.”
This “Deep Six” record was a compilation of six Seattle bands. Apart from Soundgarden, there were also Melvins, Green River, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, and The U-Men. Kim continued, explaining how they were different from everything else going on at the time:
“And it was clear that there were a number of bands that came out of the indie underground punk movement that were using slower or standard tempos as opposed to hardcore templates.”
“When we started out, we would play fast in the standard time, or in fives or sevens. We weren’t even aware that we were doing that, we just tried to play kind of fast but, at the same time, accommodating vocals.”
“Chris [Cornell] wasn’t prone to screaming and yelling real fast from behind the drums with some weird time signature, and our interest in the kinds of things we were writing, in the way we were playing kind of steered away from hardcore.”
“And the other bands — or some other bands — in the scene, like particularly the Melvins and Malfunkshun that were there kind of hardcore-ish, but Malfunkshun had this sort of leaning toward bands like Venom and Merciful Fate.”
“The Melvins were just really arty, but they were definitely a punk rock hardcore band, and then they kind of slowed down overnight and started doing really heavy, trippy, weird stuff.”
Although not becoming as big as Soundgarden, Green River was also an important name in the scene at the time, with Kim explaining:
“And that was kind of going on with Green River. When Green River formed, the conversations that Mark [Arm, Green River vocalist] and I had prior to the formation of Green River or Soundgarden were about our interests and influences by bands like the Stooges.”
There was definitely something else going on here. Discussing the matter further, the state of Washington had these bands that were unlike anything going on in the other parts of the country.
“We knew that this was something that was not necessarily going on in other scenes or other cities,” Kim said.
“We’d read Maximumrocknroll, and in every issue of Maximumrocknroll fanzine or magazine, there’d be a little chapter with scene reports from different states — like what’s going on in upstate New York, what’s going on in this town in California, what’s going on Midwest — and someone would submit what was going on with various bands.”
However, as far as the “grunge” category goes, Kim says that this was more of a “marketing thing” than anything else. He said:
“People [were] being very true and allegiant to the punk rock ethos, and Seattle was doing something different. We were very aware of that, but we didn’t think it was grunge — that became some marketing thing.”