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Seattle production legend Jack Endino on his new solo album, recording Nirvana and Soundgarden, and his endless search for riffs he's never heard before

Jack Endino
(Image credit: Press)

Jack Endino’s name has been on a lot of records, but it remains one of the downsides of being an in-demand producer and mixing engineer that oftentimes your name becomes associated with other people’s music.

That’s not always a bad thing. As Endino joins us from his home in Seattle, the onetime “engine room of the Battleship Grunge” testifies that getting the early works of Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Nirvana on record can be good for your career.

“I tell people who are getting into the recording world, like, ‘Your mileage may vary; your first clients when you are learning how to record might not be Soundgarden and Nirvana!’” he says. “I was in the right place at the right time, and grunge is the gift that keeps on giving in that sense because I still have all the business I can handle.” 

And yet for Endino the recording artist, whose career as a musician came together in the ‘80s with the alt-metal, grunge-adjacent Skin Yard, those producer credits can be illusory, telling us little about where he is at artistically.

Right now that could be with Purple Strange, who are waiting for the pressing plant capacity to put their album out, psych rock act Sky Cries Mary, or Beyond Captain Orca!, Endino’s pure improv power trio, or with the release of a new solo album, Set Myself on Fire. 

An expansive work of alternative rock, Set Myself on Fire was once scheduled for a 2012 release before the label at the time fell through. Endino went on to write more songs, eventually finding enough down time to finish it during the pandemic. 

It is an edgy, wry, quicksilver album with Endino betraying his background as a drummer in how a sleight of hand can render an unconventional groove as one that’ll stick in your head.

Endino’s songwriting is pinned to the riff, and yet even those also sound subversive and left-field. In some respects, Set Myself on Fire is a record from another time, as though written in the same freewheeling spirit that made the ‘90s such a febrile period for alternative rock and punk.

After all, those experiences stay with you, and as much as Endino is keen to talk about this record, above all else he just can’t help contextualizing his own music with that which he has recorded for others.

For the audience, there can be a ‘what the chef cooks at home’ perception of a producer’s own material, and as it turns out, Endino can’t switch off his control room perspective, either.

“Recording and playing have always been kind of intertwined for me,” says Endino. “It’s like two different sides of your brain, your left brain and your right brain, and that’s what makes a solo record so difficult. You are trying to use the creative part of your brain instead of the analytical part of your brain, trying to be creative and have fun, and, meanwhile, the other side of your brain is going, ‘Well that guitar tone needs some work.’”

And as Endino can testify to, it’s only when you bring those two competing instincts into equilibrium that you can get the song done.

Your guitar tone on this record is lush, analog and organic, and there’s not that much gain on it.

“Yeah, I go for a cleaner sound. Here’s the thing: when you have a cleaner sound it forces you to play better, and after doing this for 30, 40 years, I have gotten pretty good on the guitar! [Laughs] I can get away it. 

What sort of a feeling can you invoke with the least amount of fiddly-fiddly playing? I am much more interested in that

“I am an all right guitar player now. I used to be very insecure, and just tried to play fast all the time because that’s what you were supposed to do – it was the ‘80s, y’know! 

“With each Skin Yard record, I slowed down more and more. Now, I am more in the Robin Trower/Carlos Santana school of soloing, which is finding two notes and making them sound really good. And fill some space. Try and cast a spell on people with less playing. 

“It’s like, how are you playing those two notes? What sort of a feeling can you invoke with the least amount of fiddly-fiddly playing? I am much more interested in that. And also, I like riffs, and this is the thing about my solo stuff: I am always looking for a riff.”

And your sound hangs on the riff.

“It does, and any band in which I am the main component has always ended up being very riff-y. I mean, Skin Yard was a very riff-y band, and my solo records are riff-fests in a lot of ways. 

“I am the worst, because I have a giant record collection – I have been listening to music for my entire life – and if I hear something that resembles something that I heard on a record in 1972, then it’s out. I don’t use it. I am always looking for the riff that I have never heard before, which after 40 or 50 years of being a fanatical music fan is hard to find! [Laughs]”

You like to mix it up rhythmically.

“The underlying timing, groove or rhythmic structure of the riff is what makes it interesting – the actual notes might be E, A, D, and everyone has used them, but if it goes in a particular way, and it has a certain lurch to it, suddenly you have a particular shape of a riff that maybe is not so familiar, that people are maybe not so used to hearing over and over again.

“I have a couple of punk tunes on the record. There are a couple of four-to-the-floor songs. The last couple of songs are pretty straightforward, but the first three are fairly odd grooves. 

“And that’s just normal for me, but now I’m just thinking about it, where’s the 4/4? I don’t think anything 4/4 happens until the fourth song. I have also been really hard with drummers over my entire life as a musician, because I am always coming up with parts that are hard to play.”

I am not that skilled a drummer, but I can come up with an interesting groove and explain it to somebody who is better than me

You started as a drummer?

“That was my first instrument. With Skin Yard, I would always try and come up with an interesting groove on the drums and that would inspire me to write an interesting guitar riff. There would be nothing without the drum part, so you can imagine, my first drummer, in my first serious band, Skin Yard in 1985, [soon-to-be-Soundgarden drummer] Matt Cameron… Tough shoes to fill after that! 

“Because Matt, by 1985, was already an amazing and ridiculously talented drummer, and I could come up with all these drum parts and show them to him and he would play them and say, ‘Oh yeah! You wanna do this?’ And he would just play them.

“I am not that skilled a drummer, but I can come up with an interesting groove and explain it to somebody who is better than me, and I used to do the same thing with Barrett Martin. 

“You’ll find that on all my records; I find the drummers something interesting to do, and not just to be difficult and math-y and weird, but I want it to groove and to have a swing to it, which is something that is lacking in a lot of rock ’n’ roll.”

Jack Endino

(Image credit: Press)

Sure, and it becomes too regimented.

“It's a reason why I don't do a lot of production with click tracks, because I think it prevents people from having any sort of natural swing. To me, the drummer, if he is good, is going to be the click track. Let him swing, let his grooves stretch and bounce a little, and you’ll get something with more magic to it. 

“It will draw you in rhythmically, as opposed to a precise sort of thing that never speeds up or slows down. Different styles of music are appropriate for precise groove.”

Look at Charlie Watts. He would change the tempo and the audience would still be dancing, unaware, but it’s so clever.

“It’s genius. I mean, John Bonham, if you really pay attention to the Led Zeppelin records, Bonzo is slowing down and speeding up all over the place.”

As a kid in the ‘70s, I would listen to records on headphones and try and pick the production apart... I guess I was a geek from day one

Were your musical heroes the drummers because you started on drums?

“I liked everyone. I was very conscious [not only] of which drummers I liked but also the guitar players I liked. I was a big fan of Tony Iommi, Tony McPhee [The Groundhogs], and Tony Bourge from Budgie. I was a big fan of his. And Jimmy Page, of course, but not just for his guitar playing, but for the way he produced those Zeppelin records. 

“As I was a 15-year-old kid, listening to those albums on headphones, I would literally be dismantling those Zeppelin records with my ears and going, ‘How did he layer those guitars!?’ I would be going, ‘How did he make that decision? I see, he made that guitar cleaner so he could overdub more layers…’ 

“That’s what I did as a kid in the ‘70s. I would listen to records on headphones and try and pick the production apart, like, ‘Why do I like this record better than that record?’ When I started actually recording bands in the ‘80s, I had it all in my head already. My aesthetic was already developed from just being a fan but [also] having that analytical engineer [sensibility]. I guess I was a geek from day one.”

Your approach nowadays is not that different to those early production jobs with Soundgarden and Nirvana; just get them in the room and make them play.

“No, it’s not that different. Just better technology, better budgets, and I am very savvy with Pro Tools now.”

That helps.

“You know what the interesting thing about Pro Tools is? It’s not what you think it is. When you are working with a band, you can keep the first take! If there is one missing drum hit, then you just edit that drum hit and then the first take is great! 

“In the old days, you might have a magical first take, but, ‘Oh, there’s a mistake in it! The guy dropped a drumstick in the bridge.’ Now, digitally, you can record the first one or two takes and I can just go, ‘Oh! I’ll just take the chorus from the second take and drop it into the first take, I’ll fix that dropped snare hit and BAM! It’s done.’ You couldn’t do that back in the day recording on two-inch tape.”

I don’t think there is a drum take on my record that took more than two takes, ever, on any of my solo albums

And it still sounds human. That’s the problem when things sound too perfect. It’s like a face that’s perfectly symmetrical; it doesn’t look right.

“Leave it in. I don’t think there is a drum take on my record that took more than two takes, ever, on any of my solo albums. There were a couple of points where the drummer was speeding up but, if it speeds up, so what? It’s music. It’s supposed to breathe.”

Is that something that you learned from recording bands when there was no time?

“Yes, when I had zero budgets to work with 30 years ago, then that would be a factor. You had to make a choice. The other thing was you only had so much tape to record on. And in order to do another take, you had to erase the last one. ‘Are we going to erase this take? What if it’s better?’ Everybody would sorta go, ‘Hmm… That’s fine!’ [Laughs]”

What did you use for the guitars on Set Myself on Fire?

“Well, this is my aesthetic for guitar tone that I've had for years and years. I have a certain way of tweaking the amps, and a certain way of mic'ing the cabs. I am very sensitive to which speakers I am using, like for instance I like Celestion 75s much more than Celestion 30s – or Greenbacks as they’re called. 

“Lower-wattage speakers sound a lot more papery to me. They have a fizzy, paper quality; it’s brighter, but it’s also abrasive to my ears.”

And the speakers really matter…

“I think the speakers that have heavier voice coils have a darker tone. You can EQ the brightness in but it doesn’t sound fizzy and papery. My favorite cab has these things called Celestion GM70s in them, which aren’t made anymore. Most people are using the 75s, but they are kinda interchangeable.

“In the Skin Yard era, I was mostly using a Fender Twin, with no speakers in it because I had blown the Fender Utahs out of it. It’s a ’67 Twin. In fact, I still have it; it’s called ‘The Bleach Twin’ because Kurt [Cobain] used it on Bleach. But it was the main amp I used in Skin Yard. 

“I had the Fender Twin with no speakers, sitting on top of a 4x12 with Celestions, and my guitar tone has always been a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails in whatever guitar I have, a vintage Rat [distortion pedal], some kind of Fender amp, either a Twin or a Bassman. And that’s the basic crunch that I get.”

Again, your tone is not that dirty. You don’t push the Rat.

“On the Rat, the distortion knob is never past 10am. It’s not too much distortion. The rest of it is amp volume. The mics are usually fairly close to the cone. Maybe one will be close but a little bit off-axis and the other might be at a little bit of a slant. Or, my two different cones with two different mics – maybe a Beta 58, which is my desert island mic for guitars.

“I am very conscientious of guitar tones. Amp-wise, since the grunge era way back, I graduated to a 100-watt Fender Bassman because I got tired of dragging a big empty Twin around with me, and I modded it a bit, changed the phase inverter and some capacitors because it was a Bassman and I wanted the circuit to be a little more like a Twin.

“It’s essentially the same components. A Fender Bassman from the ‘70s and a Fender Twin from the ‘70s are almost identical. It’s like a bigger transformer, it’s voiced a little more low-end on the Bassman. Anyway… you don’t need to know this!”

Jack Endino

(Image credit: Mat Hayward/WireImage for NARAS)

Oh no, this is good stuff.

“This is geek stuff!”

This is one of the few places we can have this conversation without people falling asleep.

“Well, I have three different guitars and they all have the Duncan Hot Rails in it because I just like the twang I get and the fact that it is not noisy and buzzy, and translates distortion very well. 

“I am a big fan of the vintage Rat. I had an original Rat, but it has disappeared so I have a reissue, and I can tell you Kurt, using my amp on Bleach, was using a Boss DS-1, the orange pedal with three knobs. That was his sound in 1989.”

Right, and nothing else?

“That was on the Bleach record. The two or three songs with Dale Crover drumming on Bleach, he used his amp which was some kind of Randall solid-state amp, but then when we did the rest of the Bleach album a year later, we used my Twin.

If a band is really good then all you have to do is get out of their way and make sure the sounds are good, hit ‘record’ and let them do their thing

“The first demo I did for Nirvana took five hours and they did 10 songs, and it was recorded and mixed in one afternoon, and then they went and played a show that night. 

“That was the one and only show of that era that they played with Dale Crover on the drums, January, 1988. The songs were like one take. If a band is really good then all you have to do is get out of their way and make sure the sounds are good, hit ‘record’ and let them do their thing.”

Was Soundgarden a similar one-take story?

“When I was recording them it was all eight-track, but we spent so much time on those eight-track recordings, because they had such a clear idea of what they wanted to sound like. They were very rehearsed, and they didn’t do anything casually.

“We would do a few different versions of a song, maybe at different tempos, and Chris [Cornell] was very meticulous with his singing, and Kim [Thayil] was very meticulous with his guitar tones. 

“In those days, he had a Music Man amp, and a single 15" cabinet that he used. He had some kind of flanger/chorus, and that’s what most of the guitar on the old Soundgarden was. He had some kind of Epiphone solidbody guitar, a little like an SG. I don’t remember exactly.”

Did the Bleach Twin get used on all the Skin Yard records?

“Most of the Skin Yard records were done with the Fender, though on 1000 Smiling Knuckles, I had a Seymour Duncan Convertible Head. That is a very interesting amp. I still have it – I haven’t used it since. It’s a strange amp with a strange sound, and it has all these little modules. It’s a ridiculous design. It wasn’t popular because it wasn’t very reliable – as I learned when I tried to take it on the road.”

You mentioned that the Bassman-inspired Sovtek Mig-50 has been your main amp since 2010. Have you any other go-to amps?

“I am very fond of the Marshall JCM800. I use that for recording even though I don’t use it live. And I have another amp called a Zinky Mofo. There was only a 100 of them made. A guy named Bruce Zinky made it in Flagstaff, Arizona. They have been on many, many people’s records in the studio.

“I have various other amps that I use to record with that I wouldn’t take on the road, like a Silvertone, a little single 12” tweed thing – great for harmonica, pure midrange. I’ve got a 1978 Marshall JMP. I have got a JCM2000 which I don’t like at all, but some metal bands really like that.

Lyrics are hard. They just are. You’ve got to come up with something that means something but is not dead obvious

“Myself, I much prefer more of a Pete Townshend, classic rock sort of schwang to what I do. I am more of a rock ’n’ roll guitar player than metal guitar player, so I tend to gravitate more toward clean/crunch as opposed to the scooped-out fizzy kind of thing.”

And it’s a sound that works with your vocals, which, when all is said and done, are the most important thing. The song Set Myself on Fire could be taken as an apt description of the songwriting process itself.

“Y’know, I have to say, lyrically, this record is appropriate for the time. I am pleased by my lyrics on the record. Lyrics are hard. They just are. You’ve got to come up with something that means something but is not dead obvious. You’re trying to make something that is evocative of a certain emotion without it being a nursery rhyme or too obvious. 

“It’s hard to explain but the lyrics on this record are meaningful to me. I am happy with the singing and I am happy with the lyrics on it, and it is interesting to me that it is coming out at the time that it is because it was the right time to put this record out.”

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.