Legendary producer Jack Endino has led a life rich with music. The Seattle-based engineer and musician has famously worked with bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana for the seminal label Sub Pop, recording the latter’s debut LP, Bleach, which later went platinum.
But don’t get confused, Endino is not merely a big board operator. He’s also a world-class guitar player, whose ear has helped to define a genre and turn Seattle from a small port city to a major musical metropolis. Wielding the six-string with the formative grunge band Skin Yard, Endino helped to shape what people know as the Seattle sound.
Today, Endino is back with his fourth solo LP, Set Myself On Fire, which he recorded with a handful of folks, including the famed drummer Barrett Martin (of Screaming Trees and solo work fame). American Songwriter caught up with Endino to ask him about his original entry into music, how he’s navigated his career, and how his latest LP is a reflection of his own mortality.
American Songwriter: When did you first find music, when did music first enter your life in a significant way as a young person?
Jack Endino: I was an unhappy teenager, so popular music was a source of sanity for me, like it probably is for many kids. I was a fanatical music fan and spent all my spare cash on records. I wanted to play guitar but that seemed unreachable, so my first instrument was drums.
AS: Wow, drums. Along with playing and writing music early on, how and why were you drawn to recording?
JE: Well, I was kind of a geeky mad scientist kid. I actually made chlorine gas in my parent’s basement at age 14 and we had to leave the house for the day—oops! So, I would listen intensely on headphones and “take the music apart” with my ears. I wasn’t just a fan of the bands; I was also a fan of the record producers.
I could hear that different records, even by the same band, sounded better than others, so I paid attention to whose names were listed as engineer and producer. You know, why did some records just sound or feel wrong, what had gone wrong and why didn’t anyone realize it? Why did some records seem to stand the test of time, while others sounded dated almost immediately? Whoever produced it, that was a big clue! I thought I could DO this. And here we are, decades later, and I’m still a geeky mad scientist.
AS: What have you learned about music itself or musicians themselves by recording bands these last, say, four decades?
JE: Recording is a sacred task, and if you’re not careful, you can take something beautiful and creative and end up sterilizing it and killing it dead. There’s a lot of ways of doing it wrong and wasting time, and my job is to steer people away from that, keep it fun, keep it interesting, and preserve the magic and the spark. Think of it this way: the typical musician might make two or three records in their entire career if they’re lucky, and those will always be some of the most important moments of their entire lives. You don’t approach this casually. On the other hand, I’ve worked on over 600 records by now, so I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it.
AS: How were you thinking about recording your new album, between the overall vibe of the record and the instruments themselves—for example, the LP features wild-fantastic-frenetic drums and layered heavy guitars, how did you think about those?
JE: Well, I like those things, look at my past. That’s how I write: tight little rock tunes with crunchy guitars. I like interesting riffs and lots of hooks. I have to write songs that are catchy but that don’t sound like stuff I’ve already heard a zillion times. Not so easy. And I started as a drummer so I always write something interesting for the drummer to play.
[My band] Skin Yard had both Matt Cameron and Barrett Martin as drummers, among others, so I was spoiled for drummers early on. But the real problem is wearing both hats in the studio, the player hat, and the engineer hat. It’s like a war between the two sides of my brain. That’s why it takes me so long between solo records; this one is only my fourth. Meanwhile, I’ve been in so many bands, and I still am. I think I must have the same problem as Kurt Bloch, recording is not enough, we got to keep playing. I will die onstage or in the studio.
AS: It seems like you made strides as a singer for this album. How did you think about the sonic quality of your voice on the new record—you sound a bit like Danny Elfman, whom I love?
JE: I appreciate that. What would you think if I told you that I love Lemmy’s voice as much as [Mark] Lanegan’s? My first serious band Skin Yard [1985-1992] would never let me sing because we had Ben McMillan, who was a real frontman. He used to make fun of my voice because I had no confidence, I was really stiff and used to hide behind my hair and my guitar. And to make up for it, I would try to sing too hard or too gruff. Maybe a lot of singers go through that. My mom, when she heard my first solo record, Angle Of Attack, in 1989, said, “You have such a nice voice, why are you always yelling?”
Count on your Mom to tell it. So, after my 3rd solo record, Permanent Fatal Error, in 2006, I ended up joining a band, Kandi Coded, that toured a lot and had me singing backup on everything, and even lead on a couple of songs. When that band folded, I grabbed the bassist and drummer and created the Earthworm band, and I was the lead singer for a few years, and it was like I finally cracked the code. I just had to put in the time!
You have to get up there and fucking do it, and look the audience in the eye, instead of just looking at your guitar. It’s about confidence, and feeling comfortable with your voice, and developing some range and control. And you have to believe what you’re singing. Then doing it in the studio this time was easy, I literally sit between the speakers with an SM58 in my hand, my other hand on the space bar, and a cup of Throat Coat tea.
AS: How did the album itself come together—was it one done over 10 years, or in a more compact section of time?
JE: Like my other records, over time. Whenever I have some songs and the right people around, I jump in the studio and record while it’s fresh. I always have a bunch of music in progress but the lyrics can take me years. At a certain point, I ask myself, can I assemble a coherent record out of this? Is it time? Some of this record, the basics were tracked with Barrett Martin in one day at Soundhouse [Studios in Seattle] in 2010. I already had the riffs and parts and we literally arranged and recorded 5 tunes right on the spot, including what became the album opener “Wantonly.”
Words came later, and a couple stayed instrumental, I always have a few of those. Some of the record, including the title song, is with the Earthworm band of 2012-2017. A couple more were leftovers that didn’t fit on my third record. I never let a good song go to waste, but it has to appear in the right context. “Groovy Suction” was actually played by Skin Yard sometimes as an encore, and I’ve recorded it a few times, but I never found the right place to put it!
AS: I imagine you enjoyed working with the folks on the new album from drummer Barrett Martin to vocalist Dan Matthews and the other players. But briefly, how did each help push the record forward?
JE: Barrett and I have chemistry going back to Skin Yard’s Knuckles album in 1991. He’s way too busy to be in a band with me (see his current record Stillpoint) but if I can grab him for a session, stuff gets done. He gets the songs nobody else can play! Sam and Johnny were the rhythm section for Kandi Coded and the Earthworm, I probably played with them longer than anyone else in my life, and they always lit a fire under my ass, which is probably why I can sing now. Failure to rock was not an option with those guys.
As for Dan Matthews, he’s an old friend of mine whose band The Black Clouds I’ve worked with for years. I had a complete song that just needed a vocal part, and after years I was still drawing a blank, so I thought, why not ask Dan to try it? He did it very differently from how I sing, but it was great, and it fit the record lyrically. Collaboration is a great thing, you know. This is my first solo record that doesn’t have any songs with me playing all the instruments. You need other people.
AS: The record’s first song, “Wantonly,” seems to be a “Stop asking me about my past!” kind of song—is that accurate, and if so what made you want to open with that?
JE: It’s more of an “I’m not here to be what you expect me to be” song. I know what my path is, and I have to live it. I wrote that lyric a long time ago but it seems very topical right now. The whole album is me facing my own mortality, and knowing that there’s no time to waste. In fact, a lot of the album lyrics resonate with me with our current situation, even though I wrote most of the words years ago. I can’t explain it.
AS: You’ve also won a Latin Grammy in your career. Can you talk briefly about your work in Brazil and other bands even outside the U.S.?
JE: In 1993, I was summoned to Brazil because one of their biggest bands, Titas, just wasn’t getting the rock sound for their records that they wanted from their local record producers. Like the rest of the world, they’d been paying attention to what I was doing in Seattle. In the 80s, they barely got to play on their own records, the producers would sample everything and program all the drums and keys… you know, it was the 80s!
They asked me to make a rock record for them. I obliged and we kind of blew everyone’s mind and divided the fans with an album called Titanomaquia, which means “Titanic War.” Look it up on AllMusic! But it was enough of a success that I ended up making five records for them, the last one in 2005. Then I worked with the bassist, Nando Reis, on four of his albums after he left Titas for a hugely successful solo career.
His most recent record, “Jardin-Pomar,” got us the Latin Grammy. I even played some guitar on it. I’ve made records in 14 countries by now, most recently in Chile, but the reality is almost nobody in the US will ever hear some of my best production work.
AS: What do you love most about music?
JE: It’s the pure distilled essence of the life force. It’s also a reason to live. How’s that?
Set Myself On Fire Track Listing:
2. Toast The Sun
3. Tripping Behind Enemy Lines
4. Shadow World
6. Been Here Before
7. Save My Darkest Side
8. Groovy Suction
9. Behind The Sunset
10. We’re Surrounded By Trees
11. Welcome Back
12. Set Myself On Fire
13. Something For Nothing
14. Stem The Decline
15. Cocaine Roommate (CD only)
Photo by Niffer Calderwood / Capacitor records