Sub Pop 30: Legendary Producer Jack Endino Looks Back on the Early Days

Jake Uitti
LIVE on KEXP as Jack Endino's Earthworm, 3/8/14 // photo by Bebe Labree Besch

Jack Endino is a living musical legend. From the Soundhouse Studios where he works today, Endino offers his expert attention and lends his historic ears to songs from both up-and-coming bands and Grammy-winning ones. Often wearing a neat black cap over a nest of long hair, Endino also regularly graces the stage of many local venues, playing guitar for bands still close to his heart. Known perhaps most famously for his work recording Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, Endino was integral in the early Sub Pop days, recording a seemingly never-ending list of songs for the burgeoning label – including ones from Soundgarden and Mudhoney. As the SPF30 celebration approaches, we wanted to catch up with the thoughtful engineer to ask him how he honed his craft and what he remembers from those early years. 

KEXP: How did you teach yourself to record music, how did it first begin?

Jack Endino: I was so determined to do it that I used to bounce tracks back and forth between two cassette decks! I would use a Y-cable to combine the stereo tracks from one deck to mono, then copy that to track one of a second cassette deck while recording a new thing onto track two. So you'd end up a bunch of stuff layered together on one track, with CRAZY tape hiss, and your most recent track would be on track two all by itself. Then I heard of this thing called a "mixer" and I got my first 4-track machine. 

The turning point was when I quit my job at the Naval Shipyard in July 1983 and moved into a cabin out on Tiger Lake in south Kitsap County. I set up all my recording gear in the living room with some amps and a drum set and just lived alone all winter, recording myself playing all the instruments and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. By spring 1984, I was ready to return to civilization, so I moved back to Seattle, set up a 4-track studio in a friend's basement, started Skin Yard with Daniel House in January 1985 and began working in a "real" studio in July 1986, which was Chris Hanzsek's Reciprocal. 
You produced a lot of songs quickly with Sub Pop early on. What about your style or ear allowed you to work so prolifically?

Instinct. Or it may have been genetically predetermined. I don't know. I just knew what to do.
How did you grow as an engineer after working on those first, like, 75 Sub Pop singles in the late '80s?
An important point in my early career was branching out and working in studios other than Reciprocal, which had been the ONLY studio I knew for the first few years of my career. Then, the offers to work in other countries – 14 so far – started coming, and that's when I really started to learn something. People started calling me a "producer" before I had the nerve to say so myself, and that's when I realized I wasn't just turning knobs anymore; I was accumulating a body of knowledge and experience and that's what people were paying me for, not just for a particular "sound.”

"Perfect" is a synonym for "boring.”

Words used to describe your music in reviews are often “raw” or “rough.” But do those terms resonate with you?

No. That makes it sound like I'm just making demos. But I specifically don't do demos – I treat everything like it is going to be released on a record. And 98% of everything I've recorded has been. I think of it as "not sterilized." My #1 goal is to preserve the feeling and the emotion of the performers, to capture magic in the recording and still have it sound good, and while it's important to have a variety of tools in my toolbox, some production tools or methodologies when used carelessly tend to work against that goal. For instance, if you have a big "autotune" hammer, every syllable of a vocal performance starts to look like a nail, and pretty soon you're trying to make everything "perfect" and at that point, you might as well kill yourself. "Perfect" is a synonym for "boring.” And don't get me started on click tracks. There's plenty of slick, overproduced music in the world, and someone needs to record that stuff, but it doesn't have to be me. 

Endino and his Grammy Award, 2018 // photo via Skin Yard's Facebook PAGE

You recently won a Latin Grammy. Where did you put the award?

Right on the meter bridge of the Trident console at Soundhouse, where I do most of my work these days. It's right next to the NS-10s. I just wish more people in the US could hear the Nando Reis record. I've been working with him and other Brazilians since 1993.

What have you learned about yourself as a musician after spending so much time as an engineer and producer?

In 30 years I've never stopped playing in bands, and I've learned that I can't write songs myself unless I have some time off from working in the studio because the last project I recorded or mixed tends to get stuck and reverberate inside my brain for days. I'm also acutely aware that I'm using opposite sides of my brain to some extent, playing versus engineering. It's really hard to wear both hats and record my own stuff in the studio. That's why it's ten years between each of my solo albums. My fourth solo record has been "almost ready" ever since Fin Records went under, but that's another story. But I have good bands to keep me occupied. I play guitar for MKB Ultra and Sky Cries Mary – in both of which I am not the main songwriter – and Beyond Captain Orca, which is 100% psych/improv.

Jack Endino's Earthworm at the Sub Pop Silver Jubilee, 2013 // photo by Beth Crook

As the Sub Pop anniversary approaches, what memories from those early days do you find coming back to you?

I had a sense in 1987-1989 that I was right in the dead center of something really important, that something was happening, but I wasn't sure what it was, just that it mattered, and that I needed to pay attention and do the best work I could.
If you could frame one photo that doesn’t actually exist from the Bleach recording session, what moment would you want captured and put up on your wall?
I knew there would be one Bleach question, and this is as good as any. But I don't have an answer because frankly, I barely remember those sessions, which were VERY brief. Any photo would be cool since I have none.

You encounter new music all the time, both locally and internationally. Besides the technology, what’s different about recording today than maybe 20-25 years ago?
I spend a lot of time archiving and making backups of enormous amounts of data. Having unlimited tracks available and an "unlimited undo" function is nice in many ways, but it also means that no one ever has to 100% commit to anything until their time and money runs out. I'm never certain that a project is really done until I have the finished record in my hand!

You can keep up with Jack Endino's many projects via his official Facebook page. Sub Pop’s 30th anniversary concert is on Saturday, August 11th at Alki Beach in West Seattle.