Soundgarden's 'Badmotorfinger' at 25: Kim Thayil Looks Back

Guitarist on digging through archives, meeting Johnny Cash and how band found its unique groove on 1991 LP

Soundgarden's Kim Thayil reflects on the band's commercial breakthrough, 'Badmotorfinger,' as the band releases a super-deluxe box set of the album. Credit: Robert Matheu/Camera Press/Redux

For years, when Kim Thayil thought about Soundgarden's breakthrough into the mainstream, 1991's Badmotorfinger – home to the heavy-hitting singles "Rusty Cage," "Outshined" and "Jesus Christ Pose" – he was unhappy. Mostly, he felt uncomfortable with the way the pop machine exploited his scene. Badmotorfinger came out two weeks after Nevermind and a couple of months after Ten, and although he remembers feeling excitement when the group welcomed bassist Ben Shepherd into the fold, after founding member Hiro Yamamoto quit, he mostly remembered things as being awkward.

"It's not a glowing, sunshine-y memory," he says. "I always think of how we shot two videos for 'Outshined' – I developed this understanding of the song as being commercial and pedestrian – and how it was in MTV's Buzz Bin. I thought it was a great album but I characterized it by this MTV, commercial-radio thing and the attention and fawning that comes with that."

He's since gained a new appreciation for the LP, as he trawled the band's archives for a new 25th-anniversary, super-deluxe box set reissue of the album. In the process, he dug up never-before-released studio outtakes, previously unreleased footage and audio from the band's homecoming shows in Seattle in 1992, music videos or more. He also started listening to the original album again. "I look at the track list, and it's like, 'Oh, wait a minute, "Slaves and Bulldozers" is on there,'" he says. "'There's "Jesus Christ Pose." And, oh, crap, "Room a Thousand Years Wide."' And I realized that there are so many elements and dimensions to that album that are powerful and pleasant and strong.

"I sincerely started falling in love with the album," he continues, during a lengthy chat with Rolling Stone. "For years, my favorite Soundgarden albums were Superunknown and Screaming Life, and this jumped ahead of 'em. You'd think I'd be sick of it, but I started becoming more and more proud, especially after I saw the live material, the outtakes, some of the treatments [visual artist] Josh Graham did for the Blu-ray audiovisuals – I don't have to think of MTV's Buzz Bin playing the crappy 'Outshined' video anymore. It just gave me a different insight and appreciation."

What was everyone's headspace like around the making of Badmotorfinger?
There was a definite sense of excitement because we had this new bass player. Everything was working creatively. There was a little bit of hesitation because we'd really built something over five or six years with Hiro, and in between we played with [tour bassist] Jason Everman, but when Ben joined it was exciting. He's one of my best friend's little brothers, so I felt responsible for him. So it was excitement and eagerness but also a little trepidation because it was new.

And in the time after Hiro left, not only did Jason not work out, but our friend Andy Wood died. And this was a big deal. Chris [Cornell] lived with Andy. We rehearsed at the house that Chris and Andy lived in. I'd known Andy before Soundgarden existed, checking out [his band] Malfunkshun, and that was a big, heavy hit. And then Chris had gone off and started writing a bunch of songs about his close friend and roommate and these songs turned into Temple of the Dog.

How did that affect Soundgarden creatively?
It was a big jump. Before, a lot of the music was written by me and Hiro. But I'd lost my songwriting partner, and Chris lost someone who is so close to his heart that he's writing songs for him and about him. This amazing courage came out of Chris. And you really see it coming around Badmotorfinger with Soundgarden. With Temple of the Dog, it surprised me, like, "Holy crap. You wrote this whole album in the past handful of months?" Some of them had perhaps been around for a bit longer. Whereas with Soundgarden, we write lots of material and we pick and choose and play them live and they come together over a period of a year or two. Chris definitely found his groove and voice in talking to and for and about Andy. So that was an amazing thing.

And Ben made a significant contribution to the band after the really emotional loss of Hiro. It was devastating to me that Hiro quit. I moved from Seattle to Chicago with Hiro. So that was a weird transition.

Badmotorfinger is pretty different musically from the record that came before it, Louder Than Love, which is much more straightforward. Why was that?
In the early days, when it was just Hiro, Chris and I, we had these quirky, weird elements. We were known as the band that would incorporate feedback as part of the song structure. And, prior to Screaming Life, we were kind of angular and jagged. We did a lot of psychedelic stuff built around the feedback and Hiro's bass lines. Gradually, that psychedelia made it so I was pushed into doing solos. Then the riffs started getting heavier. You just see how the audience responded to what we were doing, and you flow with that. Our songs started getting a little bit slower and heavier.

At the same time, we're borrowing from our buddies, like Malfunkshun, Melvins, Green River – everyone is going to each other's shows. Everyone's just taking notes and incorporating these different elements, and we started finding our strengths: where Chris' voice was, where Hiro's aptitude was. Hiro's just like this funky, Gang of Four–type bass player. And I'm coming from an angular, punky, one-note, two-note guitar player, and next thing you know, in come the heavy riffs.

So we get Ben in the band, and he was a fan from day one. Ben loved a lot of the things in music that Hiro and I loved. Ben loved Joy Division, Wire, Black Flag, the Meat Puppets, Flipper. So these were part of who he is in his songwriting. So when we were jamming together he started doing some of the things we used to do, and it's like a kick in the ass and a refresher. So after Louder Than Love, we kind of had to turn back. And that was a good move. The dark psychedelia, which was replaced by our slight visceral heaviness on Louder Than Love, that came back and so did the quirkiness [on Badmotorfinger]. They're all components of what we're about.

One thing that remained the same between albums were your off-kilter rhythms. "Outshined," for instance, is in 7/4.
You know what's odd about it? In the early days, with Chris [on drums], we wrote stuff like that. When we got Scott [Sundquist, drums] in the band, he couldn't play the stuff in seven. He's into Hendrix and Santana, so he's got great grooves in four. And then Matt [Cameron] comes in and could do stuff like that. We wrote to the strengths of our drummers. So it's like, "Oh, yeah." We do crap in all kinds of weird things: nines and sevens and fives.

Well even with a song like "Outshined," you can kind of nod your head along with it, even though it's not straight four-four time.
That's one of the cruel tricks we realized were playing on the audience with [Superunknown's] "My Wave." It has this obvious, kind of AC/DC-ish two-chord intro, and the audience starts banging up and down. But it's in five. So they're jumping up and down, and it's kind of hard to pogo in five. I'm sure someone can do it, but we'd feel so bad. We go to a Rage Against the Machine gig and the whole audience is up and down, and it's all straightforward. And then we do "My Wave" and the audience goes up and down and get out of sync and it's like this weird sea of people that just comes to a rest. It's like you emptied a box of ping-pong balls on the floor and they roll around. We don't mean to do that, but we kind of walk weird.

Johnny Cash's version of "Rusty Cage" has a more straightforward time signature than the Badmotorfinger version. What did you think of how he pulled that off?
I didn't know what riff he would focus on. I didn't know if he would take advantage of that main verse riff, that quick, two-note octave slide thing. Then I thought, "I can't see him doing that." Then I considered that ending riff with these odd starts and stops. I thought, "No, I can't see him doing that." So I didn't really know what to expect. I guess he was backed by Tom Petty's guys. They're pretty talented musicians and they came up with a smart arrangement that built around the vocal melody and key changes. It really worked. Those guys deconstructed it and made it something that could work for Johnny Cash.

What was he like when you met him?
We talked mostly about Willie Nelson, but I do remember him saying he liked the song. Johnny Cash is the most charismatic person I've ever met. I've met some people from rock stars to athletes to presidents and man, that guy, he's just all about it. You're in awe and it's a little bit intimidating. He just put out good vibes.

Getting back to Badmotorfinger, all four of you were credited with writing "Jesus Christ Pose." How did that come together?
That was definitely a jam at rehearsal. I think Ben was just jamming up this loud and blurry, detuned bass line flopping around there. And Matt starts making it precise and coherent; Matt's drum part is insane – it's so fast and coordinated. And I picked up my guitar, thinking, "What the hell are they doing?" It took me a while to figure out what's going on rhythmically and where to punctuate the one, so what I start hearing is that swirling, kamikaze bat [guitar] sound at the beginning. And that was a groove. Then I revisit the feedback and beneath-the-bridge guitar squeals that I used to do in '84 and '85. I did that mostly out of necessity because I really didn't understand what it was Ben and Matt were playing; it was just too fast and involved.

Eventually, Matt and Ben lost each other, so we recorded it. Chris takes it home. We loved the groove, the action and dynamic of it. So Chris takes a recording home and works lyrics and around the lyrics finds a chorus. So he writes a couple other sections to help flesh out the arrangement dynamic and give room for the vocals. He brought that to rehearsal and we're like, "Holy shit, this crazy, insane car wreck is now a song."

One of the more curious outtakes on the box set is this version of "New Damage" with Queen's Brian May playing on it. How did that come together?
We did it for a Greenpeace benefit album called Alternative NRG. When we recorded it, the studio was powered by a solar-powered generator. We met Brian May here in Seattle, sent the multi-tracks in a studio that he wanted to work in – I think it was in New York. And he wrote a very Brian May–ish guitar-solo part over it. This is the first totally Soundgarden release it's been on.

This box set marks the first time you're releasing your full concert from the Paramount, part of which came out on the Motorvision home video. Was this something you'd just been holding onto?
When we were working on this box set, Jeff, our A&R at Universal, asked what we had in our vaults, and I said, we probably have some live stuff that was taken from that Paramount show. There were a couple tracks that were mixed and released as B sides, but a lot of the B sides were corralled together for the Echo of Miles collection. And Jeff found something that said, "Live at the Paramount." And I said, "Yeah, we got some B sides out of that. That's old news, dude." He goes, "No, there's full multis of the whole thing. It's all stereo. Not only that, there's video." Video?! We had shot all this footage and retained possession of it and through either the band's neglect or management's neglect or the label, it just got shelved. And it wasn't properly archived, because I was not aware of it.

So they got it together. I thought, "OK, this is going to be crappy-sounding." I'm sure we're drunk and stumbling over our instruments, which was the punk-rock thing to do. Like, "Look, I can open a beer bottle with my guitar." But it wasn't bad. And then they fixed up the audio. And the final result is unbelievable. So we got the whole live concert on video and audio, so we included the two CDs in the super-deluxe box set and we got the whole DVD of a live show. I had no idea this material existed.

What did you think when you finally saw the footage of yourself in 1991?
I expected it to be sloppy and drunken, just kinda screwy. And it's way tighter than I imagined. A lot of times I look back on the live stuff we recorded and it's a lot better than it sounds like from the stage. That's an impressive surprise.

What else have you taken from the experience of digging through your archives?
Since we've been attending to the catalog these past seven years, we've gotten a chance to give some airtime to songs that didn't have the opportunity to be heard or performed before, like "Storm," which we did for the Echo of Miles box, and "Black Rain" [included in the box set and on the compilation Telephantasm], which was a song where the lyrics weren't dialed in because Chris would later use some of those for "Fell on Black Days."

We've also been looking at some songs that Matt was a fan of before he joined Soundgarden that we maybe jammed on but never recorded. Some of these have come out, and some were never released. So there's some of those out there and we're going to attend to those as well. Some of them might be catalogue releases – not reissues because the songs haven't come out yet – but they're from sessions that were never released. Some may be re-recordings or reinventions, like, let's re-explore the song with this lineup. That's really a consequence of me going through the catalogue and looking at what we have and collecting the B sides.

Do you have more reissue or catalogue releases that you're planning?
Yes. Definitely. Since 2010, when we began attending to our catalogue, we were doing Telephantasm. We're now looking back at the catalogue and we're realizing which songs we never released or recorded. And then we start looking forward. So we're juggling that with the new ideas we're coming up with because we're constantly writing while at the same time attending to the archives.

On that note, how far along is the new album?
We're still in the writing process. We have a dozen things demoed. First things first, here: Matt has these Pearl Jam commitments, and Chris has been doing a lot of touring to support Higher Truth and Temple of the Dog.

Finally, getting back to Badmotorfinger, when you were making the album, were you aware of the way people were looking at the Seattle scene?
We kind of had an idea, but we really couldn't anticipate the commodification of the band. But it still is emotionally and creatively difficult to balance your understanding of what you're doing as a songwriter or musician and then having to understand it as something that exists out there in posters and videos and record sales. It's kind of a weird thing. Some bands are more graceful in how they deal with that than others, and I think Seattle bands had a few stumbles here and there, and certainly our band did. But we made some great records. I'm proud of the records and I'm proud of the success.