Daniel House is 60. He looks back on his life without nostalgia. Purely objective, House points out and puts together all the facts that had played the role in the formation of the scene, avoiding brand-popular “G”-word. The Metropolis club. The U-Men. 10 Minute Warning. An angular uncompromising sound. Far from hardcore-punk-inspired aggressiveness. But created with the same attitude, on the same aesthetic level.
After the breakup of 10 Minute Warning, Daniel House co-founded Skin Yard – another important name in the history of Seattle music. Their last release with Daniel as a member–‘1000 Smiling Knuckles’– came out 30 years ago.
The last physical product he released as a label-owner was twenty years ago.
C/Z Records just came back from hiatus releasing the long-lost 10 Minute Warning record, “This Could Be Heaven – The Lost 1983 Recordings.” House is excited as he’s never been.
Dan Volohov sat down with Daniel House for B-Sides – a series of conversations with record-label owners. In this interview for Joyzine, Daniel discusses getting back to releasing records, the historical value of 10 Minute Warning, the history of Skin Yard and working on Sub Pop, the history and ethic at C/Z records and the destructive nature of major labels.
Listening to The Lost 1984 Recordings you can certainly hear that transition between the tendencies in the music of Seattle in the early 80’s versus 85 when the Deep Six compilation came out. Could you please speak on what it was that pushed this transition in the musical landscape?
There was no conscious attempt to create that sound. I think it all came very naturally. It was all very organic. I think a lot of scenes that went through a kind of hardcore period… Minneapolis is a very good example. They had a very vibrant hardcore scene. But eventually people kind of got tired of hardcore because, it seemed to limit what was possible musically. And suddenly bands like Husker Du said: “Oh, we wanna try something different!”.
Husker Du began to explore different directions. Suddenly, the whole slew of bands that came from the hardcore punk scene were suddenly exploring different ideas, and began slowing things down a bit. and really seeing what was possible. Still creating aggressive music, but expanding on what went on before them.
Speaking about 10 Minute Warning, as far as I know, there were two different “periods” in the history of the band…
“Yes. The bulk of the bands’ existence was 1983-1984. They were first in existence at the tail-end of 82’ as a name change for The Fartz, but the direction of the band began to shift pretty quickly…This was well before I was in the band. The lineup of that version of the band included Duff McKagan on second guitar and a guy named David Garrigues was the bass-player. Early in 1983, they got rid of Blaine, who’d been in The Fartz and got Steve Verwolf, who’s the singer on this record that I released. I wasn’t in the band until 1984, so I can’t speak to what the thinking was when they first made this change, but there was a very definite shift in the music they started writing.
That’s the point when they started to get a little slower and a little heavier. I would say a little more psychedelic. It’s not really the word. But I think it’s not used enough with a lot of Northwest music, and in particular a lot of heavier bands. There was definitely an aspect with some of the songs 10 Minute Warning had been writing. And later, when I started Skin Yard with Jack Endino, there was clearly a psychedelic component to the stuff we were doing. So, I’m not sure what the process was. Only that there was an intention to start doing something different. To move away, to be conscious – “We want to do something…”. Probably emotionally heavier and not just fast and furious. Really more of a sinister feel to it. A different kind of exploration of the emotional component of the music. To see what was possible, I suppose. That’s kind of what music is – you can express an entire range of emotions… I often like to describe music in visual terms. If I think about painting for instance… I was listening to Radiohead, just the other day. And I was saying to my wife: “When I listen to Radiohead it makes me think in a lot of ways like an expressionistic painting.”
Do you think these tendencies that bridged the old hardcore punk scene with the new movement arose as a reaction to a crisis? Minutemen had broken up, Black Flag had broken up… Pretty much like “this city needs a new hero”… Or was it the logical development?
To start with – I was never so much of a fan of hardcore. A lot of hardcore that was really popular to me wasn’t interesting enough. I know, for a lot of people it was expressing this feeling of being 22 and angry at the world. But a lot of the music I had growing up listening to… There’s always kind of the place in my menu for hardcore (laughter), but for the most part that’s not where I was coming musically. I liked things that were more explorational. I liked things with more texture. I’m definitely more of a fan of music that has a more melodic component – it doesn’t necessarily have to be a vocal melody – it can be instrumental.
I hate classifying music, but one of my favorite post-punk bands was Fugazi. They came straight from a hardcore background, with Minor Threat, obviously. But what I love so much about them is that they give a lot of attention to melody. Even with all the different lines with the different instruments, I loved the way they locked them together. They had very interesting melodic ideas, and they also played with space and color, and in particular, with texture. They didn’t have everybody playing a particular riff all the time but they were doing these things that locked in together beautifully.
All that said, I never felt any sense of crisis when hardcore started to end. It’s my belief that there’s always new people exploring and creating new music. To me, that’s what’s exciting about it. I’m getting old now, but I think about all the bands I’ve listened to at different phases of my life. I’m still discovering music that I think is exciting, that’s still kind of exploring the boundaries of what is possible. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of new ideas in music. I don’t think it’s possible.
You got the ownership of C/Z during that period of time when Skin Yard was recording your self-titled debut. Is that correct?
Getting back to that deal. You basically bought the ownership from Chris Hanzsek within unsold Deep Six copies. What did you do from there?
Well, first of all there was no “deal” so to speak, between Chris and me. He made it clear that he didn’t want to put out any records anymore, that it was a sort of a hobby, and it was fun. But he and his girlfriend had this idea of this record label and recording studio. The recording studio was really taking off – that was what eventually became Reciprocal Recording. He was just: “I don’t want to try to sell records, two or three at a time.” It’s a lot of work and I remember him telling me [that] underneath his bed was nothing but boxes of records. And I knew that I wanted to release Skin Yard, first and foremost. I didn’t necessarily think in terms of: “Oh, I’m going to make a label and keep releasing records.” I didn’t really know.
But it was basically: “If you’re going to let me take over the label, take it on – I’ll buy the remaining inventory from you.” And actually, I bought chunks at a time. I didn’t buy it all at once. But I’d say: “Let me buy another hundred!” and I’d sell them, “Let me buy another hundred!” And eventually, I got to the last of them. I put out Skin Yard’s self-titled first record with Matt Cameron on it. And put out the first 45 which was [Skin Yards’] “Gelatin Babies / Bleed”. And discovered that it was a whole lot of fun. I enjoyed it and I enjoyed the process. I wasn’t thinking in terms of what it would become because at that point it was still just a hobby for me. My goal ultimately was to try to get to the point when I was breaking even on releases. For the most part I was working in restaurants, waiting tables, taking tip-money and putting that money into the records. I was also in school at that time, learning pre-press and printing. Keep in mind that it was well before we got digital publishing and all that. This was a two-year program where we learnt type-setting and layout. And we would shoot halftones manually, burn plates and print things on the printing press. That allowed me to do some design work, as well on some of the early-early releases. So that was cool.
So, it was fully DIY. But it can’t be DIY all the time, right? You still need to choose a certain model of running this sort of business.
Over time it began to work and I started breaking even. It was great! I was no longer losing money and eventually I started making a little bit. I got to the point when I could take money from releases I made and put them into other releases and not have to take my tip money from my restaurant work.
Along that way I started working with Sub Pop. That was 1988. I did a lot for that early business for Sub Pop – I built the whole direct-to- retail sales-department, which was what kept them afloat in the early days, ’cause in a traditional model, to have money coming in you have to wait 90 days for the distributor to send you a check. During that time, I kept putting out releases on C/Z. I was also buying releases from other labels that we distributed through Sub Pop and one of those labels was of course, my own.
So I was buying stuff from C/Z for Sub Pop as well as many, many other labels in America in Europe and even from Australia. I imported stuff from Waterfront in Australia and Glitterhouse from Germany and we had another distribution relationship in the Netherlands. I bought a lot of stuff from them. In a lot of cases, we’d buy music from our distributor(s)and send them Sub Pop product – it was a kind of semi-trading. It was still for real dollars, but that gave us a lot of leverage in terms of reaching out to other retail outlets and record stores in America.
The difference is when they buy from a distributor, they get terms, so they buy them upfront. So, they have to pay for 30 days or 40 days or 90 days. When they bought from Sub Pop it was cash on delivery. And they might get everything cheaper ‘cause, we didn’t have that mark-the-enterprise-thing, but it was cash. So we had all these other distributed product as well. Because, early on, Sub Pop didn’t have enough records in their catalog for a lot of stores to do a whole order. But at least we had these other thirty titles as well that you could buy.
When I left Sub Pop, I had to decide if I was going to go back and do a restaurant job or if I could do the label full-time. By that point the label had just started to become self-sustaining and that was the point when I said “I’m gonna see what’s possible!” I got a tiny-little office-space, I bought a copier, I got the phones and I got my first employees who was originally just working for free as an intern. That was Barbara Dollarhide. We just went from there! I had over twenty releases on C/Z at that point and Barbara and I built it, started bringing more people in. At one point, C/Z records staff was about thirteen people total. Once we got that office-space it was like: LET’S RUN IT AS A BUSINESS. And [we] started thinking of it in those terms.
It’s interesting that being an employee at Sub Pop records you became a part of this first creative unit Bruce and Jonathan had cultivated with the help of people around that weren’t necessary a part of the team like Charles Petersen or Jack Endino, or those who were there but eventually didn’t get a lot of credits – Erica Hunter or Lisa Orth among others. What was the working ethic and the creative climate like at that point?
It was… pretty chaotic, I would say. Neither Bruce nor Jonathan, especially in those early days, were good with business. Like at all. Half of the time they were signing checks, and checks were bouncing and we were having to get the money from our direct-to- retail to cover bounced checks… There were a couple of times when I got my paycheck and it bounced.
Bruce and Jonathan… they were not good business people. But they were big idea people. I think Bruce in particular had a vision of what he wanted Sub Pop to be. He had a vision and the idea of what Sub Pop should be visually. He wanted to get the consistency of a visual brand and he was drawing that from Blue Note records. Not that he wanted it to be Blue Note – Blue Note was a jazz label that REALLY had a very specific look and feel. It was almost always the same photographer and the same designer who did a lot of their record covers. Bruce had this idea of creating something that was visually identifiable and that’s kind of how he’d plugged in with Charles Petersen. Because, Charles had such an identifiable style, visually. And back then, there weren’t that many photographers. Charles was very focused on being a photographer. He had a dark-room…
The other side of it was the idea of the having a regional identity. From that, Bruce pulled a lot of the ideology of Motown. Because Motown had this very specific kind of music almost entirely from a very specific region. So he pulled these ideas from these other labels: “I wanna do that! Here! [With] a completely different kind of music! Not the same visual identity. But to create this thing that’s immediately identifiable. Both from the sound and what it would look like!”
But as mentioned, they were not good businessmen. And that’s the part of where I was helpful, in those early years. When they started working there, it was Bruce and Jon and me. And after about a year, we hired another sales-person because, at that point, I was handling 250 accounts and I needed help. There was too much to handle. I think by the time I left, there were three people in their sales-department. Because we had so many contacts we were selling to direct.
As far as the various people, before everything exploded, Seattle was a small scene. It was a fairly small city. Most of the people who’d been working there already knew somebody and we were all kind of creative misfits. I think a lot of people who gave up the trappings of a sort of normal life and decided: “I wanna play rock-and-roll instead of…”. These are people that are creative thinkers by nature – “I wanna make music!” In the case of Charles: “I’m choosing to be a photographer!” And with Jack Endino – Jack has an engineering degree, he could have gone into engineering. But instead, he [said]: “Fuck that! I want to engineer music. I wanna record music!” – so a lot of people kind of followed what they felt passionate about. Which may be a good lesson for a lot of people in general. If you follow something you feel strongly about and passionately about – you may not be rich but you will be a much happier person.
I think your reference to Motown is quite interesting. From the beginning, Sub Pop tried to not only connect artists from the Seattle area, but also brought artists like Codeine from New York, L7 from L.A or The Afghan Whigs from Ohio. With C/Z your focus has always been primarily local, no matter the style. Whether it’s Love Battery or The Gits or Built To Spill. First of all – why?
Sub Pop started local and then started branching out – still being in the same genre, so to speak. ‘Cause, L7 doesn’t sound like The Fluid, who don’t sound like Codeine. And actually, Codeine doesn’t really fit. But, L7 was sort of in the area of what you might call “a grunge band”. I don’t know. I don’t really like that word, but that’s fine – when you say “grunge” to people, they know what you’re talking about.
So, they branched out. And they had success. I remember, The Fluid at first were not as big as they should have been. But they were certainly an amazing live band, once you saw them live you went to buy their records. I remember the first Afghan Whigs record [Up In It] which sold miserably. I still, to this day, blame that on the art direction. Because, I thought the cover – it says nothing. It tells you nothing about the music. But eventually Sub Pop branched out, they had success so they continued with their success.
I actually did try expanding my regional signings a few times. I signed a few bands and put out records by bands that were not in the Pacific Northwest. Every one of them just did terribly (laughs)! I put out the record by a band in Phili, called Deadspot. I put out a couple of records by a band from Athens, Georgia called Porn Orchard. I put a record out by a band from New Jersey called Semibeings. I put another band from Boston called Hullabaloo. The main creative force in that band – Sluggo – is still one of my best friends in the world. BUT none of these records did well at all!
So for better or for worse, every time I branched out… ’Cause there’s something like: “This is a really great record! Somebody needs to hear it!” – it’d just sell dismally. Because, for the most part, Seattle was getting so popular that people were buying music based just on that fact. Sub Pop, because they had such a good brand, people started to trust them for some of their music choices that were outside of the Pacific Northwest. I think, for me, they were really looking at C/Z Records being the other place after Sub Pop for discovering bands from the same region.
It’s clear that you used to go to lots of gigs at that time or tour with some of the artists. But when it came to who to sign, what were the factors that affected your choice? From a practical standpoint.
It wasn’t always practical. There were certain bands I put out and I knew perfectly well they’d never break even. But there were some records I put out, I just thought were important records. And either you put them out or they get lost and just disappear. A couple of examples of that is the band Vexed. I put out this record called “The Good Fight” which anybody who was there at that time would say “Vexed were there! An amazing live-band!” And they were!
Another one was the Tone Dogs record. With Amy Denio, Fred Chalenor and Matt Cameron. Total weird art-rock. Pretty experimental. Still one of my favorite records I’d ever put out on C/Z. And it bears no resemblance to anything else I’d put out. At all. Completely different. But it’s an amazing collection of compositions from some incredibly talented musicians. So these were cases where I didn’t necessarily think I’d break either of those. But I was very proud of putting them out and having them being a part of the identity of the label. For me, C/Z was more about putting out records by bands whose music I thought was great. Not every signing and every decision that was made was based entirely on financial outcome. Obviously, you have to have those records as well, that would sell well enough to help float the ones that are losing money. So it was the sum of both. But all I can say – these were always my bands whose music I stood behind solidly and thought it were great.
People tend to put an equal mark between historical and cultural value. For example, you have bands like 10 Minute Warning, who’d been highly influential for lots of artists of that era and have a specific cultural value. Or you have Deep Six – certainly a document of its time, which comes first to mind when people think about the musical revolution that came out of Seattle. But in between these two, there’s a factor of recognition. I’m not talking about “the scene factor”. But there’s still a certain acceptance that comes in. You tour a bit, a bit more, you release a record, you get the status – you get the listeners who’re waiting for you. Did you get that moment?
I guess, the answer would come down to how the popularity of the music happened first – locally and organically. And kind of sadly once it became enormous, which largely was thanks or no thanks to major labels. I don’t know if Alice In Chains or Nirvana or Soundgarden would ever have been as big as they became but for the deep, deep pockets of major labels. I think, they still would have left a significant mark and there’s no way to know, but I think, for a lot of us who lived there – we didn’t necessarily appreciate it. Money changes everything, right? And money changes peoples’ motivation. For those of us who had labels and who were tied to selling the music – Sub Pop is the label, C/Z is the label and there were other labels too. It was beneficial to us, obviously, ‘cause we were able to sell more records, which was great, but the whole fabric of the scene in Seattle was changed so much.
Prior to all these bands becoming huge, and before to every fashion magazine putting grunge on their front cover…. It was a much smaller, more intimate scene. It was much more organic. Which was why a lot of these bands came out as they did – similar but different. Because we weren’t pulling influences from other places. We were to a degree, but we also were just creating using a fresh slate. It’s cold and wet a lot of the time in Seattle – so you spend a lot of time inside. So you spend more time in your basement playing music and working on ideas, which is cool. But once bands are getting really big on major labels or making a lot of money or getting a lot of press coverage. Suddenly, there’s a whole bunch of bands that sound a whole lot like a lot of other bands and it’s created by people who you never heard of. And you’re like: “Who the fuck are these people?” You go to clubs and see the names of bands you never heard of and suddenly this whole intimacy we used to have was just a shadow. You go to shows, you see bands at clubs you’d never heard of and suddenly they were packed. But you might go and see your year-old friends there. Because, we might have been doing it. But now we’re just… I don’t know what’s going on.
The problem is that now you have all these bands that try to sound like Pearl Jam. And now you have all these bands that wanted to sound like Tad. But I’d rather go and see Tad. And people aren’t basically creating music for the love of what they’re doing. They’re doing it ‘cause they’re chasing the money. They want to sound like all these popular bands that get signed. A lot of bands did get signed! That formula worked for a lot of bands.
And then, of course, the other side of that is that major labels needed not just the other bands that sounded like them. They needed to have a band that was helping to build their credibility with that audience. So that’s when you have bands like L7 getting signed, or Babes in Toyland getting signed and Jawbox getting signed. The Melvins! I don’t think any of us would have ever thought that The Melvins would be on a label like Atlantic records. But they were! And I feel pretty sure that they would never have signed The Melvins if they weren’t one of the bands from Deep Six. They said: “We’re gonna make a lot of money! They’re one of the bands from Deep Six! They are one of the ICONIC bands from the earliest days of grunge. If we’d sign them – we could use them and dangle them to attract other bands to come over and sign with us!” Sonic Youth is the same way. It was a surprise that Sonic Youth went to a major label. Because, they were inherently an underground independent band. The whole aesthetic… of the band and their music. But they were fortunate and smart enough to say: “Yeah. We’ll sign with you but you can’t limit us creatively!” – that’s the case with the whole idea of having creative control. Critically important! I had a band on C/Z – Hammerbox. They weren’t around for too long. I put out the first Hammerbox record, they were a fantastic live-band, they were creatively great players, they wrote great material. And I knew they’re gonna do only one record with me. They were looking [for an opportunity] to get to a label that would support them better. And I remember telling them: “Don’t go to a major! Go to a big indie! ‘Cause a big indie would have a better idea of how to work with you. Take a step!” like “Do a Soundgarden”, right? Soundgarden were on Sub Pop, then they went on to SST. And keep in mind, SST at that point was a much bigger label then SubPop. And they did it before they went to a major. So they kind of did it as stepping stones. Which, I think, was a smart way to do it. With Hammerbox – I [recommended] them to sign to Caroline. Caroline was a pretty substantial meaningful label at that time. And also, had their own distribution. I said: “You should go from C/Z to Caroline. Do a record there. And you could really build up the foundation. More effectively.” – but they went straight to a major label. They signed to A&M and it became very clear on the one and only one record they’d put out before the band broke up that A&M didn’t really know what to do with them. They’d put them through the major-label formula. They made the band record and release while they didn’t have enough material even written for a new record yet. They hired an expensive producer, who recorded this record, making it sound super-slick and glossy. And he didn’t really do the band any favors. And what happened? They weren’t meeting their sales goals. There was a lot of pressure on the band. And the band just finally broke up – “Alright, it didn’t work!” Too bad, because I would have loved to see how they could have taken their career more consciously and slowly building it up over time. I wouldn’t be surprised if they would have ended up putting out several records. And I’d love to hear what that music would have sounded like.
When you moved to Seattle you were in your 20’s, I suppose…
I was not even 20. I was 19. I moved there a couple of months before I turned 20.
When you get to a certain climate, where everyone sort of tied together – just like in was in London in the mid 70’s where everyone knew each other, it’s interesting to figure out, what brought these people to play with those people AND form a band. What it was in your case with Jack, Ben and Matt, at first?
Ok…I have to go back further ( laughs )…My first band in Seattle was the band nobody’s ever heard of. We were terrible… (laughs). We had interesting ideas but none of us had the musical chops to play. And I wasn’t in there for a very long – maybe nine months?. But we’re talking… ’83, probably. And I was going to a lot of shows in lots of different clubs. But the main one was Metropolis. It was literally around for all of eleven months but I saw some amazing shows there. And I got to play there a couple of times, which is cool. I remember a show I saw in ’83 with a band – Bam Bam. What really grabbed my attention was the drummer. It was a very young Matt Cameron. One year younger than me, so he was probably… twenty or twenty one. But he was amazing! Absolutely amazing! And I always gravitated towards drums.
So that same year, I remember I saw 10 Minute Warning with Greg Gilmore which was an “Oh…Shit!” moment for me. Those two drummers were in my mind, the best drummers on the scene. Iapproached Matt and I started talking to him – we exchanged numbers and I called him up one day. I had left the shitty band I told you about and wanted to do something new. I didn’t know what it’s going to be. But I wanted to start a band. And so I called him up! I said: “Would you want to get together and play ?” – “Yeah, it would be great!”. I don’t remember how I met our guitar-player… His name was Nerm. If you’d go back in history and look back – he actually knew Jack Endino from high-school. And had actually given Jack some of his first lessons in guitar-playing! So Matt and Nerm and I created this band called feeDBack. We were sort of arty-prog-rocky a little bit. All instrumental. If you want to hear it, you can go to Amazon or Spotify – the record is called Home Recordings 1984 – there are several different bands who named themselves “Feedback” over the years. But we did finally release the recordings. So it was three of us doing this instrumental cerebral music. It was completely out of pace with everything else that was going on at the time. We couldn’t really get a real show. We played parties, we played places that weren’t typically clubs. And one time, we played a show at this place called “Morningtown Pizza”. We played with a band called The Shemps. Chris Cornell was their singer – That’s where Matt first met Chris!
At the same time, when I was playing feeDBack, which is 1984, I had became a huge fan of 10 Minute Warning, in 1983. And I became good friends with their bass-player David Garrigues and their singer Steve Verwolf. At the end of 1983 both David Garrigues and Duff McKagan left the band. So I had the opportunity to try out as a replacement for David. That’s where this whole 10 Minute Warning record came in. It seems like a long-winded story but it’s about to come out (laughter).
So during the course of 1984, I was in two bands at the same time. I was in feeDBack, which was this kind of cerebral proggy band… I hate the word proggy, but people would understand what I’m talking about – and 10 Minute Warning! This really darker, heavier, more primal kind of band. Between the two bands, I was practicing six days a week. Both bands broke up. And I had met Jack Endino through feeDBack. feeDBack practiced in my living room and he came to a couple of our practices and gave me a cassette of material he’d worked and played most of the instruments on. It was the cassette that later mostly became his first solo-record – Angle of Attack. And I really got into this cassette. This guy is great! He can play everything. He’s got really interesting ideas. And after 10 Minute Warning and feeDBack broke up, I had this cassette. I was like: “I have this idea for a band…” – what I wanted to do was to get the components of 10 Minute Warning and feeDBack and bring them together. I wanted something that was heavier. That was darker. But also with this cerebral quality. I wanted it to be intelligent, semi-complicated but also, really heavy and dark. I wanted to bring my experiences from both these bands into one! So I called Jack up – his number was on the cassette – and I let him know: “Let’s start a band! What do you think ?!” I had this idea for a band. I’d like you to come over. To talk about it. And maybe start playing. He does: “Yeah! That sounds great!”.
So I went over to his place with my bass. And initially we were talking about music and different influences, I was able to talk about his songs on tape ‘cause, I got to know them quite well. We just plugged in and started working on the ideas. Initially the two of us started just writing material. At first: “Ok! We’ll need a drummer!” – “Let me call my friend Greg Gilmore!” That’s where we went first. Greg came over… and it just didn’t click at all. I think some of our ideas were probably too arty and messing around with time-signatures. That wasn’t where Greg was coming from. “Well, you know, I have this other amazing drummer who you’ve seen in feeDBack. Let’s get Matt to come over!” And Matt, of course, is one of those drummers who’s an absolute wizard when it comes to technique. He’s the drummers’ drummer. He can play absolutely anything. Any idea you’d come up with – he can play. And I would not say that about all the drummers who were in Skin Yard, because a lot of them couldn’t. So we started writing a lot of material. Initially, just three of us. That’s how Skin Yard got started. We had a basement party we’d played at one time. And we just had a mic on stage. Anybody who wanted to come on and sing with us was welcome to. And that’s where we first met Ben. He got up on stage and we kind of liked what he was doing. It came together like that!
What was it like working on the debut Skin Yard LP having these two perspectives on things? A – you’re a label-owner doing some label-related work including designing the layout, printing records and so on. B – you’re a musician, a band-member, a co-writer, at the end.
It was fine! It was fine for me anyway. It was not necessarily fine for everybody else in the band. Which is why we ended only having one record on C/Z, actually. Because, if a member of your band also runs your label, it’s hard not to think in terms of “Oh…He’s making money as a band-member. But he’s also making money off of the record as a record-label owner”. So it can easily create some resentment with other members of the band. It never did with Jack. But it did with the other members. Like: “You’re double-dipping!” – “Woah…No! I’m actually putting all the money out and doing all the work!” (laughs).
In my mind, it was very easy to compartmentalize these two different roles. That said, after we recorded, we sent out a lot of different tapes to different labels. We did actually try to get signed with another label first. This was even before I worked out everything with taking over C/Z from Chris Hanzsek. Because we sent out to a lot of labels and nobody took the bait, nobody put out the record. So I was like: “Well, if they’re not gonna do it – I’LL DO IT! It can’t be that hard!”. We happened to already have a couple of songs on the label. So it all came into place very quickly and easily. Chris was like: “I won’t do it again…” and I said: “Well, I’d love to take it over and run it…” I also wanted to make sure that Deep Six would keep selling. Because, we were on Deep Six! I thought it was an important record. I had no idea that it was one of the very first seeds of something that became a huge international phenomenon. Once we got a lot of good press from the first Skin Yard record and awareness that now we were actually able to send out initial demos for the record that became Hallowed Ground with a lot of press that we received from our first record. And so, that gave us enough credibility to actually have somebody else with… maybe a few more dollars to work on a record. So it was just what I did! I just put out this record. There were plenty of records by other bands. But I was in this band…In terms of art-direction and that whole thing – that also came very natural to me. I’ve pretty much been the main visual person for pretty much all Skin Yard stuff. With one exception – Inside The Eye. Because, I wasn’t on that record. So Jack basically worked with Jim Blanchard on that one.
You mentioned most of the slower songs like “The Birds” or “Throb” while Jack was gravitating towards some faster stuff. How did you manage to find the balance between each-other’s interplay?
We just did (laughs). We didn’t think about it. In terms of our creative process… We’d put a lot of work into arranging our songs and working on parts. And we’d work on parts and talk about them – actually, play something, discuss them, try specific things. If somebody didn’t like it or somebody wanted to hear it in a different way – we’d try it: “In my mind I hear something more like this!” So that’s how it came together. It was a very organic process, very collaborative. Most of our practices started with improvisations. We just jammed for 30-40 minutes and ideas would come out that way.
And it’s actually one of the things you could feel in your music straight away. That psychedelic quality coming out of improvisation practices. Did it come out initially or evolve over time?
I don’t think we intended to do something this way or that way. Everything we did just came out very naturally. We did what felt right with us. And the thing is when you’re playing with different people, what feels right might be something different, right? Because you all influence each other. But from the very beginning improvisation was something both Jack and I immediately gravitated towards in terms of generating ideas. Sometimes when you’re not working with a fixed idea but playing around and kind of poking around the edges, some things come out of your subconscious. “Oh, that’s really cool! I like the thing you did! Just right there! I was playing this and you started that. Let’s hit record and make sure we won’t lose that. And we’ll get to this later!” And there’s a certain aspect of just playing and jamming that’s really satisfying and exciting. We’re not a band that ever… I mean, we’d played a handful of covers along the way… But generally speaking we’re not the people that came from the place of: “This is how we want to play music!” – by learning other songs by other people. Jack probably did more than I did. That was never something I did very much. I’d just grab my instrument and just explored the fretboard.
I’m also someone who’d say: “Music is coming into my head”. And I don’t know where it comes from! It just comes in. And very often, I’d hear something in my head, coming out of nowhere. So, I pick up my instrument and: “What is this thing ?!”, figure out where it is on the fretboard. And then, again, I might just record it. Again, don’t lose it! There were a couple of times when I literally called Jack on a phone, put the phone receiver down next to my bass amp and I’d play these parts. He’d pick up his guitar on the other end and I’d play along with him. Jack is kind of a mad scientist. He probably had something to record the whole thing. The song “Throb” started that way. I had this whole idea – the bass-line is very simple, just “Tu-du-du! Tu-du-du!”. It’s a rhythmic idea. It’s a repetitive idea. But I had this whole other thing in my head about how the guitar would be phrased. I kind of related that to him over the phone, while we were playing. That’s how that song started.
Most of the material on 1000 Smiling Knuckles was written by you and Jack in collaboration. At the same time, you also had Ben who, at that point had started Gruntruck and obviously was gravitated towards different tendencies. How did it go between the three of you? In a sense of an equal position.
Em… We weren’t really looking for an equal position ( laughs ). Jack and I just simply wrote the majority of material! When Scott joined the band, as our third drummer (but our second drummer on a proper record), Scott hadn’t been a drummer for very long. But he surely was a solid drummer. He also played guitar and he had musical ideas. Sometimes, if he had an idea, he’d literally take the guitar and play the idea and say: “It’s kind of like this…”. And then, I played it when he was behind the drums. Scott was somebody who was wanting to be more of a part of the creative process and write more material. On Fist Sized Chunks there are actually a couple of different compositions by him. And also, I think, the song “Needle Tree” on Hallowed Ground, I think was largely Scott’s song.
It’s kind of whoever had ideas were good enough for the band. If anybody in a band hated something – we’d just move on. We at least had an all-band-agreement that this was a cool idea. Some of Scott’s ideas, to me, weren’t necessarily what I wanted to do. Maybe it was just ego. Maybe, being one of two primary songwriters in the band, I didn’t like what he was doing. Because: “Oh, that’s not how I envision this band…”. Probably to a certain degree I was “This is my band!” – I mean, this is my and Jacks’ band. We started it together. With my initial concept. So probably I wasn’t very interested [in those ideas]. But in retrospect, we did them and I’m glad we did!
Prior to that, you took a pause in creativity. Before you got back together with Barrett and recorded 1000 Smiling Knuckles. When did things in the band start to change?
We went on tour in support of Hallowed Ground. We were playing a lot of material by then, that became Fist Sized Chunks. And it was a very difficult tour. We always call it “a tour from Hell”. There was a lot of tension between band members. During that tour Ben and Scott started working on material WHILE ON THE ROAD. The material that would later become Gruntruck stuff. Jack and I had no idea about what was going on… Which is fine. When we got back from tour, we recorded most of the tracks if not all the tracks that became Fist Sized Chunks. And then, once Scott was done – we properly fired him. Because, we were done with him. We were very frustrated with him. Musically – he wasn’t playing that well on the road. He had a very fiery temper. And when he drank a lot it was more fiery. There was just a lot of tension in the band on that tour.
After we kicked Scott out, we didn’t really bother to look for everybody new. And we spent an entire year thinking… Jack and I weren’t sure if Skin Yard was gonna be Skin Yard again or not, or if that was gonna be our last record. It was during that time that Scott and Ben really started putting Gruntruck together and actually started playing out as a band, and they put out a record during that time when Skin Yard weren’t active. But also, during that time Jack put out his first solo record. And at the same time, I made a record with Helios Creed called The Last Laugh, which was the first Helios record on Amphetamine Reptile. That was me, Helios… whom I just saw, by the way, just a few days ago – first time in 30 years, and Jason Finn, who’d been our second drummer and who’d later become pretty well-known for Love Battery and The Presidents of the United States of America. So, the three of us all went into the studio with Jack in the control room, recording us. We basically wrote and rehearsed and recorded the record in just a matter of days. So creatively, for everybody in the band it was a pretty rich time. I think, around the same time, I played in another band called Yeast as a drummer. Kind of a joke band, but we had fun! We’d put out a Yeast 45 on C/Z.
C/Z hadn’t been active for 20 years. Now, you’ve put out the 10 Minute Warning record. And as far as I was informed, there’s a plan to release a collection of 7-inches by Skin Yard. Is this correct?
Yes! I don’t have an exact time-frame and vinyl now is taking so long to press. That’s a whole other story. But I’m hoping that by maybe next November (2022), this will be out. It’s gonna be called Skin Yard Select and it’s gonna be a very special package of 7-inch 45’ records. It will be limited to 1000 sets total.
What material are you choosing for this release?
Jack and I are going through our entire discography. And giving you a selection of what we think is the great representation of Skin Yard, the band, over the course of six years. With several different drummers. The songs we’re going to release have never been on 7-inch before. There is at least one song nobody’s ever heard with Matt Cameron on drums. One of the first songs we ever wrote, actually.
There are a couple of different mixes. We’re working on a remix of “The Blind Leading The Blind” from our first record ‘cause Jack said it’s always bummed him a little bit – the drums never sat right with him. So he’s remixing that. There’s a new version of “Living Pool” with a different guitar-part in it. And there are tracks from other songs and from other records as well! So there are different mixes, there’s some of the unreleased songs. It’s exciting! Because Skin Yard will never do any music ever again. That we know. Jack continues making music – he just released his fourth solo-record called Set Myself On Fire. I’m beginning to get ready to start playing music again for the first time in a very long time, with a guy named Jason Blackmore, here in San Diego. He’s a good friend and an amazing guitar-player. Back in the 90’s he was in a band called Molly McGuire. We always had the genuine appreciation and admiration of each other, both musically and personally. Weirdly, I remember when I first started working with Jason and it feels like a good partnership. I hope we’ll generate music in the same way both Jack and I did.
And also, you’re writing a book documenting the history of Skin Yard…
Yeah. Just to be clear – this is an oral history. I’ve interviewed over sixty plus people so far. Most of the book is people talking. But I also have a lot of my own writing. The Skin Yard story and the creative arc of the band is kind of weird. I think sort of thik of Skin Yard as two different bands: The original band with Matt Cameron is the first one. To me, that first record is the only one of our records that doesn’t actually fit in a larger picture of what Seattle is known for. But a lot of people gravitate towards this first record because: A) It was one of very first ones on the scene. B) Because Matt Cameron is in the band. And he went to Soundgarden after that. So there’s a whole connection. And we used to play with Soundgarden a lot, over that period too. So there’s a connection.
But for lack of a better word, that was not a “grunge record”. Jack Endino would say the same thing. That was kind of an art-record. Which is not bad! I’m not speaking poorly of the record. I think it’s a good record! But, it’s a record by a band who was still searching for a voice, if that makes sense. I think we were still trying to figure it out who Skin Yard was. And after Scott joined…Probably, when Scott joined the band I think, that’s when everything changed. Because, Hallowed Ground, which I think, at that time was an incredibly powerful record, sounded like nothing anybody else was doing anywhere. And yet, it kind of put us squarely in the middle of the whole scene. Once, Hallowed Ground came out, I don’t think anybody could poo-poo the band because we were proggy or arty or we weren’t this enough or that enough. We weren’t trying to fit into anything anyway. But that was the point where it all clicked for us. Like “This is it!”. We were still able to have a cerebral component, we were still able to have textural parts, but we finally found that balance with the aggressiveness we wanted. And Scott brought a lot more ferocity in terms of his drumming and just his attitude as a person was a lot more punk-rock. He was younger than the rest of us and I think, between Fist Sized Chunks and 1000 Smiling Knuckles – to me, that’s when I think of the band… Like: Ok, we have the first record! And then we have the second version of Skin Yard. And it really is like a second version – a very different approach. So yeah, we started in 1985 with Matt in the band. But to me, we really re-emerged into the scene once Scott joined the band.
The situation with your records reminds me sort of a joke… When you tell a non-music person that you’re a fan of King Crimson. And you’re asked: “Oh, what’s your favorite King Crimson record?”
Yeah! Logically you should start laughing! To me, it’s an equal point with Skin Yard. You could rich a certain contiguity with all these records.
That’s true! That’s true! I like that comparison! King Crimson re-invented themselves several times…
Right now, you’re back to being a record-label owner. How does it feel?
Umm… It’s fun! The difference is – I don’t have a staff! I don’t have office space. I don’t have overhead. I put out the record right now. The record, I think is important to hear and it sounds amazing. Jack Endino did an incredible job. But in a sense, I’m kind of back to where I first started. That’s doing it for the love of doing it. Again, I’m hoping to break even. I hope I will (laughs)! It would be nice to be able to send all the other guys a little cash and put a little cash in my own pocket. But that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it for the importance of having the record be out there as a document. The whole Seattle music story…
There’s not too many bands with recordings that have not been released up to this point. But there are still a few! And the thing is, when these recordings come out they fill in a blank space of everything that was really going on. Because the Seattle history is not a history of Sub Pop. Obviously, the history of Sub Pop is a big part of it. It’s also not a history of C/Z…There were lots of labels and a lot of bands. But only the bands that actually record music get to be a part of that story. And even having a recording, it’s not enough until it would actually get released, ‘cause, then people can sort of appreciate where it is and for when it was. They can start to see the whole throughput from the beginning to an end. For me, I think, when people get this 10 Minute Warning record and listen to that… 10 Minute Warning was one of the biggest influences on Stone Gossard. If you hear 10 Minute Warning and if you listen to the Sub Pop box-set they did on The U-Men…Those two bands in 1983 were perhaps the two most important bands in Seattle, on the underground scene. So, if you listen to those two you’d really get to know the records. Then, move forward to 1985 and start listening to Green River, Skin Yard…All these other bands. You kind of see where it goes from there. Most people who are casual fans of the Seattle scene – they start in 1990 or in 1991. But there were these 5-6 years… maybe even 7 years before that. All of that was leading up to that point. There were a lot of very important bands who were creating important music. At least, to that scene it was important! None of us knew what was going to happen. We were just there loving every minute of it.
This Could Be Heaven – The Lost 1984 Recordings is out now via C/Z Records
Interview by Dan Volohov
Photographs provided by Daniel House