In the current issue of The Stranger, I interviewed Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil about what it's like to play with one of his heroes, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, who rank among the most powerful and influential rock bands of all time. Only a small fraction of Thayil's responses made it into the feature, but the outtakes have enough interesting elements in them to be worth posting on Slog. You can check out MC50, a celebration of the MC5's galvanizing 1969 debut album, Kick Out the Jams, tonight at the Showbox.
The Stranger: Can you recall the first time you heard Kick Out the Jams and what kind of impression it made on you? How old were you?
Kim Thayil: MC5 didn’t get much radio airplay. So in order for me to hear them, I had to acquire the records. All the MC5 albums were out of print by the mid '70s, and that’s when I learned who the MC5 was. I happened to be in my mid teens in the mid '70s. But there were articles written about them by Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau talking about hard-rock trends by bands like Kiss, Nugent, or Aerosmith that were getting big at the time—and then referencing bands that were better regarded, like the MC5 or the Stooges, etc. I would’ve had to have found the records in used-record stores. There were very few of them in those days. The rock-and-roll culture and demographic had not aged to the point where people would start selling their record collections. Eventually those records turned up and I was able to buy all three MC5 albums. It probably took me over a year to find them. I bought [Kick Out the Jams] on the recommendation of some review, probably in Creem magazine. I brought it home and thought, "Yup, this is everything I’d thought it would be."
It must be mind-blowing to be playing those songs you loved as a teenager.
It is. Playing them with Wayne Kramer is very unbelievable. It’s a bit of a mindfuck, I suppose. [laughs]
I met Wayne in the early '90s at a function that involved the MC5 and Soundgarden in Detroit. I met all the guys, except for Rob Tyner, who’d recently passed. [Kramer] came to our show, he loved it, and he told us after the show as we were hanging out in our dressing room that ‘I see a lot of us in how you guys play live.’ That was quite a compliment.
Was there an audition to go through to get on this MC50 band?
Nope. Wayne called me. I don’t think there’s anything to audition for, if you’ve seen Soundgarden play or heard our records. I played on the DKT/MC5 tour. Mike Davis, Wayne Kramer, and Dennis Thompson—the three surviving members at the time—did a tour. Mark Arm was singing with them. Mark and Wayne called me and said, "When we get to Seattle, will you play with us?" I said, "Yeah."
And then the Justice tour from eight, nine years ago with Tom Morello, Wayne, and Steve Earle came to town, they invited me to play with them. They also extended the invitation to [Soundgarden’s] Matt and Ben. It was a reunion of sorts. We had Tad Doyle singing with us; we called it Tadgarden. That sort of precipitated the Soundgarden reunion. So Wayne saw what I could do from Soundgarden and those two occasions.
Do these MC5 songs present any challenges or are they easy compared to what you do in Soundgarden?
They’re easy compared to Soundgarden in that they’re all in standard E tuning and all basically in 4. There are a few crazy time signatures, like in "Borderline." But the challenges are that I have to learn guitar parts that aren’t really obvious on Kick Out the Jams. There’s the thing Wayne’s doing and the thing that Fred ["Sonic" Smith] is doing, and what you hear is this odd composite. A lot of people learned that composite guitar part and it’s not accurate. The riff is an interesting amalgam of the two [parts]. Basically, I had to re-learn what I thought were the riffs on the album. Wayne says all the instructional videos on how to play the songs on "Kick Out the Jams" are wrong. And it’s a three-chord song—go figure.
How do you deal with “Starship”? Do you take it as far out as the version on the LP?
We have a basic framework arrangement—section A, section B, etc. etc., this is the general dynamic of that arrangement, and the rest is improvisation.
How have the crowds been responding on the tour so far?
It’s been fairly consistent. Our crowds have been comprised of, it looks like, musicians, record-collectors, record-store employees, a lot of young guys, young girls who probably own guitars, people who want an opportunity to see Wayne Kramer. There are certainly a lot of people there to see Brendan [Canty], Marcus [Durant], Billy [Gould], and myself, as well... Everyone’s having fun. A lot of people who know from the context of a Soundgarden tour have been telling me, "I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile so much onstage."
What songs not on Kick Out the Jams do you do?
We’ve done almost all of them. "Sister Anne," "Call Me Animal," "High School," "Tonight," "Tutti Frutti," "Back in the USA," we do "American Ruse" a lot. "Looking at You," "Shakin’ Street." "Let Me Try" we’ve been doing for the past week. We do "Future/Now" fairly regularly. We do "Now" instrumentally and then go into "Future," which is a blast, a great groove. It works surprisingly well. We haven’t tackled "Skunk" yet, and we haven’t tackled "The Human Being Lawnmower." But we’ve set ourselves that objective. We know that if we learn them, it’ll make heads spin.
What’s your favorite song on Kick Out the Jams, and why?
The obvious answer would be "Kick Out the Jams" or "Ramblin’ Rose," which are both straightforward, solid, punky, they’re heavy, loose, wild, crazy. That’s why I love the MC5, why they became my favorite band, because of those elements: [punk and metal]. It’s loose, jammy, and wild, like everyone’s on mushrooms. [laughs] Now, I really enjoy playing "I Want You Right Now." And "Starship" is always a lot of fun.
Do you know why [original MC5 drummer] Dennis Thompson isn’t involved with MC50? [Thompson did not respond to an e-mail inquiry about this subject.]
No. What I know is that Wayne has invited him and Dennis has consented to participate, but then I heard he’s pulled out, then he wanted to do it again. I dunno, that’s between Wayne and Dennis; those guys are old friends. The offer is standing, is what I heard.
Does Wayne talk about political issues between songs?
Yeah. He brings up some political issues about the climate in the executive branch of the US government. Occasionally he references the work he does with Jail Guitar Doors.
Overall, has the MC50 experience been energizing and positive to you?
[No hesitation] Yeah. It’s been a blast. It wouldn’t happen without the chemistry of all these guys.
What were you doing right before Wayne extended the invitation?
Soundgarden ended four or five months before he extended the invitation. In the interim, there was some general inertia coming down from the dissolution of Soundgarden. There are catalog issues that I spearheaded with Soundgarden for the past nine years. And there still will be catalog issues regarding Soundgarden’s body of work. There’s a Chris Cornell box set I’ve been helping out with for the last year and a half.
What do you see yourself doing after the MC50 tour is over?
I’m going to start writing and gather some friends together and write with them and hopefully go into the studio. Unfortunately, it won’t be Studio X, which is closing its doors in the next week or so. It’s very sad.