Ditch the clichéd imagery of flannel shirts and ripped jeans; Seattle’s musical revolution runs deeper and more diverse than the narrow “grunge” label suggests. Kim Thayil, Soundgarden’s guitarist, recently delved into the pre-Nirvana Seattle scene in a candid conversation with Killer Guitar Rigs. The narrative unveils a rich tapestry of influences and a distinctive musical identity that predates mainstream recognition.
The pivotal moment came with the 1986 compilation “Deep Six,” featuring Soundgarden, Melvins, Green River, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, and others. Thayil reminisces about a deliberate departure from hardcore punk’s rigid tempos. Bands like Soundgarden embraced slower grooves and heavier tones, all while accommodating Chris Cornell’s unique vocals. This shift wasn’t a calculated leap into a new genre but an organic evolution born out of individual musical passions.
“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,” Thayil explains. “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.”
Thayil further elucidates, “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 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.”
The Seattle scene itself was a melting pot of diverse influences. Thayil recalls the variety: “Malfunkshun had this sort of leaning toward bands like Venom and Mercyful 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. And that was kind of going on with Green River. When Green River formed, the conversations that Mark Arm and I had prior to the formation of Green River or Soundgarden were about our interests and influences by bands like The Stooges.”
One intriguing aspect is the conspicuous absence of the term “grunge” in their lexicon. This “marketing thing,” as Thayil dismissively puts it, didn’t exist for them. They were simply engrossed in creating music they loved, drawing from diverse influences, and carving out their unique path.
“We knew that this was something that was not necessarily going on in other scenes or other cities. 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.” The Seattle scene, as Thayil vividly paints it, emerges as a nuanced, dynamic force that defies simplistic labels, a testament to the authenticity and diversity of its musical roots.