In the early ’90s, heavy music aficionados witnessed a transformative shift that, while criticized by some for sidelining traditional and hair metal bands, undeniably marked one of the last golden eras in recent rock history. The advent of grunge, spearheaded by Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam, shattered the sonic conventions of the previous decade. The Seattle scene infused urgency into contemporary rock by delivering powerful lyrical messages through a fusion of punk and ’70s rock traditions, all packaged in an abrasive and uncompromising style.
The roots of grunge extend beyond its mainstream eruption in the early ’90s, as revealed in a recent interview with Kim Thayil speaking to Pete Thorn. Thayil highlighted the emergence of a unique identity around the time of the legendary “Deep Six” compilation album, featuring Soundgarden, Melvins, Green River, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, and The U-Men.
Thayil reminisced, “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.” The scene was already taking shape, with bands from the indie underground punk movement deviating from hardcore templates.
In the early days, Soundgarden, for instance, embraced fast-paced songs but executed them in a unique style. Thayil explained, “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.”
Reflecting on the diverse influences of the bands featured on “Deep Six,” Thayil added insights into Malfunkshun’s leaning towards Venom and Mercyful Fate and the Melvins’ evolution from arty punk rock to heavy, trippy compositions.
Despite their awareness of a distinct sonic evolution, Thayil emphasized that the Seattle scene didn’t initially perceive itself as “grunge.” He noted the city’s departure from punk rock ethos and how it was doing something different, giving birth to a musical revolution that eventually became a marketed phenomenon. The interview unveils the organic origins of a genre that would redefine the musical landscape and leave an indelible mark on the history of rock.
He would state: “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.”