Jack Endino’s name is synonymous with the sound of Seattle in the early 90s. From time to time, he’s referred to as “The Godfather of Grunge”.
Blame Nirvana. Or Mudhoney, TAD, Screaming Trees, Green River, and Soundgarden. Endino has worked on more than 400 records from across genres in a span of more than 25 years, but his career seems to be continually defined by his work with a handful of Seattle bands during a brief moment in time when the rest of the world was all-of-a-sudden rabidly interested in the previously isolated Pacific Northwest.
Last month, Endino was invited to New York to see his most famous clients, Nirvana, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As Endino says, “The joke worked too well, the massive cultural prank became reality!”
A musician himself, Jack Endino began his recording career like many teens do: At home, bouncing cassette recordings from one deck to another while playing on top of them.
“I was recording myself from the very first moment I picked up a guitar,” Endino says. “Those two things, playing and recording, just seemed inseparable to me. If I didn’t record it, there was no proof I had played it. Recording myself–and later my bands–gave me confidence as a player but it also gave me confidence as a recordist.”
Endino started recording his own band, Skin Yard, in 1984. Future Seattle music heavyweights like Soundgarden and Mudhoney–still in their early years–soon followed. In 1988, a young fan of Soundgarden’s Screaming Life EP called Endino about making a recording. He was a mutual friend of the Melvins’ Dale Crover, a deciding factor for Endino when he agreed to record the band. Mishearing the name on the other end of the phone, Endino booked the band for a session under the name “Kurt Kovain”.
At the time, Kurt Cobain’s band still didn’t even have a name. They had a distinct sound, though: “The thing that separated it from anything else was the singing,” Endino says in Everett True’s biography of Nirvana. “[Kurt’s] voice had a lot of character and he had a weird ear for melody, he wouldn’t be following the guitar riffs like typical idiot riff rock.”
Nirvana’s first sessions with Endino at Reciprocal Recording flew by in less than a full day. The band walked away with a demo before sundown, but agreed to let Endino hold on to the 8-track master in order to work on his own individual mix that evening. Endino gave copies of the mix to a few select friends, including Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman.
After more sessions with Endino, Nirvana’s Bleach was eventually released on Sub Pop in 1989. The negative black and white cover photo of the band hints at the binary sludge of chunking guitar and bass that makes up the record–a fine soundtrack to youth spent under damp grey skies.
Dave Grohl had yet to join the band, adding his precise and powerful drumming, but Cobain’s unmistakable voice and melodies were already in place. After Nirvana signed to Geffen and exploded in popularity with the release of Nevermind, Bleach gained platinum status retroactively. To date, it has sold over 1.7 million copies, making Endino a ‘platinum producer’, a distinction he takes with a grain of salt.
“I’m realistic about this, and really pretty surprised, because the work I’ve done has been so under the radar in commercial terms. The only gold records I have in the US are Nirvana records. Everything else has been, and remains, largely indy-level, aside from the anomaly of my four gold records in Brazil with the band Titas. But it seems like the impact of my indy work (in 12 countries, mind you) has far outweighed it’s sales potential.”
The Portrait Painter
“Some people adhere to a “purist” viewpoint, whereby the record should adhere as closely as possible to exactly how the band sounds “live”, with nothing extra added, no cheating allowed. The art is considered to be in the performance, and the record attempts to be an accurate document of that art… You could call this the “portrait photographer” school of record-making.
I do not subscribe to this school. (Ironic in view of how “live” my records supposedly sound. I do whenever possible record bands “live” in the studio, playing together in real time, but build from there.) To me, the evolution of the recording studio has made possible the record as a piece of self-contained art. A good record is a piece of art in itself, not just a document of some other “more valid” art form… I think of this as the “portrait-painter” school of record-making, and this analogy describes my idea of what a producer/engineer does. A good portrait painter can look at his subject and paint something that looks like the reality, only better; hidden beauty can be brought out, emotions and subtle gradations of feeling suggested.”
In our email exchange he explains it’s not a live sound he’s after, but live performance and feeling.
“First throw away the click track, with PREJUDICE; second, attempt to play the songs in real time with as much of the instrumentation ‘live’ as possible, even if we’re just keeping the drums and the main rhythm guitar or just the drums and the bass. We want a skeletal song structure–a solid drum performance, at minimum–that was created in real time flow by human beings interacting with each other. A good drummer is the crucial ingredient. Then, with the magic of overdubs and editing, make everything sound good and in tune and in time, but don’t overdo it, or you’ll just sterilize it. When people ask me why my records have such a “live feel”, there’s your answer: I do everything possible to capture that live feel and then NOT REMOVE IT. Everything has to swing, that’s the best way to put it.”
Dig deeper through his personal website, and you get the sense that Endino relishes being an iconoclast. You’ll see blog posts that skewer his own industry, like “How to Over-Produce a Rock Record”, including advice such as “book the most expensive studio you can find so that everyone but the band gets paid lots of money’” and “Line up extra studio musicians who are better players than the band themselves, just in case.”
Endino has a strong sense of humor, but a “no-nonsense” streak when it comes to his own work. Guitarist Josh Kupferschmid of the Seattle band Mystery Ship says, “When we were working with Jack, he’d do long days, over ten hours. He’d just keep going until he said he was tired.”
He also avoids anything that might lead him down that dark path of overproduction he so readily mocks.
“I’ve always just tried to make records I would like myself,” he says. “I never had ‘commercial’ music taste in the sense of chasing today’s sound or the production methodology du jour. I stopped paying attention to the charts 40 years ago.”
A Man Out of Time
The 1996 documentary “Hype!” presents a homegrown take on Seattle’s grunge years, often mocking the calculated, media-led overexposure of the music.
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