Tad Doyle Hears the AC/DC Behind Black Flag
While undeniably contemporaries of seminal '90s Seattle groups like Alice in Chains, Mudhoney and Nirvana, TAD diverged from their peers. While the term "grunge" served as a pitifully poor catch-all for the not-quite-metal and not-quite-punk sounds coming out of the city at the time, the flannel-flying oddball quartet of Kurt Danielson, Steve Wied, Gary Thorstensen and Tad Doyle started out wanting to make the ugliest music they could, albeit imbued with an insular sense of humor. For their transgressive approach, TAD were beloved by their peers, playing and touring alongside them all over the world as their modest city rose in stature as the new model for rock’s future.
History proved somewhat unkind to the band, lumped in as second-tier artists for never going supernova like Pearl Jam or Soundgarden. To call TAD a cult act feels about as pejorative as calling them a lounge act, undermining the impact their music had on the subsequent generations of noise-rockers and metal maniacs. It hasn’t helped matters that much of their discography went out of print well over a decade ago and, up until now, maddeningly stayed that way.
Earlier this month, Sub Pop finally reissued three expanded and remastered records from the Seattle group’s early catalog — 1989’s God’s Balls, 1990’s Salt Lick EP and 1991’s 8-Way Santa — featuring the classic lineup. On the week of their release, I spoke with the ever-humble Doyle to discuss the process behind the reissue campaign, what it was like working with three of the most important alt-rock producers of the '90s and his thoughts about TAD’s place in heavy music history.
Why has it taken so long for this awesome thing to happen?
Things kinda take long sometimes. Sub Pop finally gave into the notion that they’re going to have to redo it. I’d gotten a lot of email over the years and I’d always forward them to them. I think they just gave into the fact that people are interested still. They decided it was a good idea to put something out.
From a practical perspective, once you were given the green light to do it, how hard was it to get this material together? Were the tapes scattered? Did you have to track stuff down?
Sub Pop was pretty together as far as keeping master tapes. We did have to transfer them and bake the tapes, because they were pretty aged at that point. They’re kept in a vault, so it was preserved in good temperature and lack of humidity, or just the right amount of humidity. [Jack] Endino himself took it upon himself to say, “I wanna do this.” He oversaw a lot of the processes and wound up doing the mastering himself.
It started probably two years ago, from when I got notice. Actually it was longer than that. There was a guy at Sub Pop who passed away. He was in a horrible auto accident. He was the initial guy that was behind it, name was Andy Kotowicz. It went to a grinding halt when he passed away, kinda out of respect for him and his family. He was pretty much the spearhead. Then Endino and Sub Pop took over the overseeing the project management of it. It’s taken quite a while.
In what ways were you and the rest of the band involved in this reissue process? Were you listening in the studio with Endino?
It was pretty much me and Jack Endino going back and forth. I did some forensic restoration of some of the digital files. There’s quite a bit of tape noise on some of the tracks, and I was able to remove them, being an audio engineer myself. I was able to get those done. Endino did the other work, and then I did the assembly as far as metadata for CDs and all the boring stuff that your layman is not gonna know about.
As an audio engineer, was it ever strange or funny going back to the material and hearing the way it was recorded?
It was basically [about] making it shine from where it was at. There wasn’t any thoughts of, "I should’ve done this," or, "We should’ve done that." I’m very happy and proud of what we did as a band. The funny thing is that, when I started getting treatments for me to listen to from Endino, I hadn’t heard them in a long time. So, I was hearing them for the first time as a listener, and that was really a blessing. It was really cool. I was able to listen to it as a band, and it floored me with, a) the musicianship that the guys had, and b) the impact and power with which we delivered what we did.
Were any of the other members of TAD involved in this process?
Yeah, definitely. They were asked to write liner notes. There was an interview style question-and-answer session that we all did — not together, but separately. We had somebody ask the questions and we’d all just write our answers. It’s everybody’s take on what happened and how it went down. It’s exciting from that standpoint.
Another great thing about this is, over the years we’ve had our lyrics completely butchered and misquoted. So, we actually decided, "Let’s get the lyrics included." That was a task that we had to handle, too, which I wound up doing. I felt it important, so I did it.
I think that there’s like a whole slew of people that’ve never really heard this stuff before. I’m excited that there are people who weren’t alive at the time that are going to be into it. I’ve gotten a lot of emails lately from a wide range of people, on the Facebook page and my personal email. It’s really encouraging, and it’s fun to get those from people.
One of the things that becomes clear with these reissues is the caliber of producers that TAD worked with: iconic names like Steve Albini, Jack Endino, and Butch Vig. What was it like working with these guys during this period in your career? With three different producers, I imagine there were three different approaches in the studio.
Endino was very much into the experimentation that we had. On God’s Balls, it was fun to bring in things like pieces of metal, hacksaws, gas tanks. I loved his aesthetic for being open to experimenting. That was one of the things that was really cool about Endino, aside from the fact that he got really great drum sounds.
Working with Albini was a completely different thing. We were fans of a lot of the different things that he’d done, namely Killdozer and Head of David. And also being a fan of his smart redneck type of lyrics and his delivery and the bands he’d been in. So, it was interesting to work with him as a musician. His style was much more, "Don’t fuck around, get it done. If you don’t know what you’re doing, there’s no time to experiment. You should have this ready coming to the studio." That was his attitude — no fuckin’ around. To be honest, we didn’t have much time. We had two days to track and record and mix everything. That made sense. He had a mission and so did we. We came together to do it.
Working with Butch was another flip. Whereas Albini had, like, [a] "Don’t really try to sing, you’re not a singer" kinda attitude, Butch saw in me the ability to sing. We worked on that a bit in the studio. He was actually vocal-coaching me on some of the tapes. That was really cool. I’d never had that before; never really had the time, but always wanted to. We’d taken a turn with our musical aesthetic anyway. When we first started out, we wanted to be completely devoid of melody, harmony and anything resembling pop sensibilities. That’s what we did with God’s Balls. We started shifting on Salt Lick. By the time we got in the studio with Butch Vig, we decided we wanted to start incorporating melody and harmony, but on our terms. He was into doing that with us.
All those guys have amazing work aesthetics and attitudes. They work really hard at what they do. It’s inspiring. I wish I’d paid a lot more attention to what they were doing at the time. I had no idea I was gonna be doing audio engineering myself.
All the reissues have bonus content, but the 8 Way Santa one comes with all these demos. Where were these recorded?
Largely, those demos were done with Endino at Reciprocal [Recording in Seattle]. It’s fun to listen to those. You can tell it’s the same song, but kind of a different animal in a way. I like both of them. You ask a parent what their favorite kid is and they’ll say, "Well, all of them." That’s the way I feel about those songs.
It's striking how well this material holds up three decades later, in the context of where things are at now with noise rock or sludge metal. Did ever you envision TAD contributing in such an impactful way to the lineage of heavy music?
I can’t speak for the rest of the band, but I think I can to an extent. I think we were all in it, completely present, and weren’t giving two rats’ asses about what was going to happen with it. We were just being completely authentic and genuine, and having fun doing it. I was lucky to play with really exemplary musicians. That made for a good one-two punch, as far as I’m concerned. That’s what I think contributes to the longevity of the songs. I feel the same way, but I don’t have any outside perspective. I still feel as though the songs are relevant and not dated in any way.
The sounds and styles you guys were forging across these respective records, you can hear them in the bands that are just coming up now. It’s an argument I’ve been trying to make for years to people who aren’t familiar with you — that groups like Melvins didn’t exist in a bubble. There were other bands doing things in that vein, that were complementary to that. TAD were one of those bands forging a sound that we now kinda accept with a phrase or term, but the term didn’t exist at that moment you were making it.
I think that’s well put. I wish I could remember that exact diatribe anytime someone asks me what the definition of grunge is. I’d give them that answer.
The cover of Black Flag's “Damaged” was a nice touch. Did you guys play a lot of covers back then?
Hardly at all. We would mess around with certain parts of songs for fun at soundchecks here and there. We never really sought out to cover any specific thing. The funny thing about the Black Flag cover is that, to me, it sounded very similar to an AC/DC song. So, we put that bent on it as well. I don’t know if anybody noticed, but I used some of the AC/DC lyrics in that song as well. I’m sure Henry Rollins would be upset about that, but whatever.
In the wake of these records, the spotlight was really on Seattle bands. Obviously, TAD’s profile increased, you had that cameo in the movie Singles, and your next albums, Inhaler and Infrared Riding Hood, came out via Warner Bros. imprints. Now that you’ve gone back to these Sub Pop records, do you look on the period fondly?
Yes and no. It was complicated, because things were happening really fast. Seattle as a whole blew up really quickly. It got confused for a lot of people. Of course, you had a lot of people moving here and wanting to be a part of that. In a lot of ways, it was more simple. We were just doing our music and we had our practice space. We were friends and we had our day jobs. Eventually, those went away in favor of touring a lot, a different kind of work. Perspective is everything and all I know is what I went through. I got a lot of good memories of stuff, and some stuff is foggy. Things happened really quick.