Forget flannel shirts and ripped jeans, the real story of Seattle's musical revolution is far grittier and more diverse than the "grunge" label ever captured. Soundgarden's guitarist Kim Thayil recently opened up to Killer Guitar Rigs about the scene pre-Nirvana, revealing a vibrant tapestry of influences and a unique identity brewing before the mainstream took notice.
Deep Six, a 1986 compilation featuring Soundgarden, Melvins, Green River, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, and others, served as a turning point. Kim describes a conscious shift away from hardcore punk's rigid tempos, with bands like Soundgarden exploring slower grooves and heavier tones while still accommodating Chris Cornell's distinctive vocals. It wasn't a calculated move towards a new genre, but rather an organic evolution driven by their 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. 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." Thayil explains.
"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," he added.
The scene itself was a melting pot of influences, as Thayil recalled: "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."
But perhaps the most striking detail is the absence of the word "grunge" in their vocabulary. This "marketing thing," as Kim puts it, didn't exist for them. They were simply making music they loved, drawing from diverse influences, and forging their 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."