Interviewing Jack Endino

Posted: September 16, 2011 in Interviewing the Elliott Bay Panelists

(This is the first piece where I discuss my interview experiences with the five panelists who will appear at the October 19, 2011 Elliott Bay Book Company reading and Q&A event in Seattle.   The panelists are: Jack Endino, Rob Morgan, Tom Price, John Leighton Beezer, and Steve Fisk.  We begin with Endino.)

In the fall of 2004, I had the opportunity to teach a class on rock n roll history.  That summer, I met my sister and nephew in Seattle for vacation.  Prior to the trip, I had contacted producer Jack Endino to discuss Seattle’s place in music history.  Endino’s deal was pretty simple: feed him and he’ll give you an hour of his time.  Cool.

We met at a Greek restaurant in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood that July.  I got there first.  Endino walked in, and I have to admit I was a little intimidated.  Here I was an obscure adjunct history professor from Philly meeting the “Godfather of Grunge.”  He discovered Nirvana for crying out loud.  Endino, sensing my awkwardness, asked: “Are you nervous?” “A little,” I responded.  “Don’t be,” he said.  “I’m just a studio rat.”

Two years later, he became my first interview.  Endino seemed like a logical choice, especially if you’ve ever seen hype!  He is essentially the face of the Seattle music scene.

I wasn’t sure if he would talk to me, quite frankly.  I also knew my book project would have trouble getting off the ground if he declined my request.  Fortunately Endino said yes, and we scheduled a phone interview in June of 2006.

I’ll be honest.  Endino intimidates the shit out of me.  It’s not that he’s abrasive…in fact, he’s just the opposite.  He’s a soft-spoken, gentle person.  But he has this presence.  I can’t explain it.  It just unnerves me sometimes.

So, I cranked up my courage and gave him a call.  We talked for almost two hours about the grunge scene, Nirvana, etc.  We also spent quite a bit of time on his band, Skin Yard.

Three months later, I interviewed him again.  This time, I wanted to get inside his head as a producer, and also to chat about other projects he’s been involved with including solo efforts, Terry Lee Hale and the Ones (as a bass player), and Crypt Kicker 5 (as a drummer.)

In May of 2007, I headed out to Seattle, mostly to look through issues of the Rocket at the University of Washington and to meet up with people, including Endino.  I distinctly remember his response when I mentioned the book: “Get in line.”  At the time, Greg Prato was working on his oral history of grunge, which would come out two years later.

Despite his skepticism, Endino shared with me some important documents on that trip: recordings by himself, Skin Yard, and the U-Men, as well as Backfire fanzines put out by Dawn Anderson.  Later, he would send me the entire set of her grunge-era zine Backlash, which was critical for my research.

As the book project progressed, I noticed Endino’s initial skepticism began to soften.  He knew it wasn’t just product to me.  He knew I wanted to get it right.

In the summer of 2008, I returned to Seattle for research and to attend the Sub Pop 20 Festival.  Green River reunited to headline the second day.  For those unaware, Green River—along with Soundgarden—defined the early Seattle grunge scene.  In 1987, the band split due to artistic differences.  Half of Green River wanted to become a mainstream rock band, and they eventually became Pearl Jam.  The other half desired to remain fiercely underground, and they became Mudhoney.

I watched Green River from about twenty feet away, and noticed the VIPs standing to the left of the stage including Pearl Jam’s Matt Cameron, Mudhoney’s Dan Peters, and Endino.  Endino later told me he texted me during the event, but my phone at the time did not have text capability.  Fuck.

Spring of 2010.  I’m in the stretch run, but I had yet to ask Endino about the first Nirvana record he produced for $600.  He’s been asked a zillion times about Bleach, so I was a bit nervous about broaching the subject.  Nonetheless, I gave him one more call in April to chat not only about Nirvana, but also the first TAD record—the affably named God’s Balls.  (Okay, how can anyone not like TAD?)

(My favorite Endino Bleach quote: “Compare ‘Negative Creep’ [from Bleach] with [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘Communication Breakdown,’ for instance.  You know, how can you tell me ‘Negative Creep’ is a punk rock song?”)

By 2011, I had secured a publishing deal with Seattle’s Sasquatch Books, and we were heavily into the final editing stages.  In the summer, I sent Endino a near-final manuscript for his review.

He went through line by line, word by word, and he gave me a detailed review only an engineer can provide.  (Note that Endino was an electrical engineer prior to his musical life.  Since I grew up with an engineer—my dad—I have an intimate familiarity with how they operate.  They understand how all things work mechanically, and they view everything as a ‘process.’)

Endino emailed me his comments and corrections.  His comments were–to say the least–invaluable.  In particular, he strongly suggested I shorten my introduction, which I did.  I omitted a lot of detail that was repeated throughout the book, and the intro now flows much better.  Endino’s reward for his time: a free lunch and a box of Tastykakes*.

I visited Seattle most recently this past July, mostly to see the Fastbacks reunion.  Endino and I again met for lunch.  During the meal, I made an observation to him about the Seattle music scene.

Today, I stated, it seems that people become famous by creating offense, even to the point of manifesting repulsive behavior just to get attention…whether it’s reality television or movies like Jackass.  In contrast, folks within the Seattle music community may have done things some people find offensive (like TAD’s decision to title their first record God’s Balls, for example), but it’s not by design.  Rather, the Seattle music folks are just being themselves.  If it offends you, too bad.  If you want to ignore them, that’s cool.  If you want to be a part of the culture, that’s fine as well.  In any case, they don’t give a fuck.

Endino didn’t say a word.  He just broke out into a wide smile, as if to say to me, “Stephen, you get Seattle.”

* – Tastykakes are a Philadelphia tradition.  They make wonderful varieties of cupcakes, pies, and other delights.  Butterscotch Krimpets are my fave.

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