The belly of Seattle's rock-music scene has spit out few beasts more magnificent than Tad Doyle. He possesses a combination of brains, brawn, and barbarous waggery—the likes of which have never been seen before, nor since. Back in the day, his band TAD bored a hole in your head, and you loved them for it. They were big, nasty, nutso—their deafening, darkened heaviness helped usher in the hallowed sound of Sup Pop's dominant early-'90s era. Exhibit A: "Behemoth" off TAD's 1989 release God's Balls—a perfect storm of punishing guitar, crazed vocals, and blistered playing. Onstage, Tad enacted the character of a madman-butcher to the hilt; his oversize frame and agile hurling of meat-flesh-riffage and hair was a thing of wonder. Between songs at shows, his chatter with the crowd was renowned. If you were lucky, Tad would tell you to fuck off. If you were luckier, Tad would dive off the stage and crush you, and then tell you to fuck off three more times.
Life after TAD for Sir Doyle brought about more heaviness with now-defunct band Hog Molly, and his current band, Brothers of the Sonic Cloth (his wife, Peggy Doyle, on bass and Dave French on drums), who pound and roam down stoned, 12-minute-long corridors of doom, psych, and metal. As well as playing music, Tad Doyle also applies his engineering knowledge to recording, mixing, and mastering bands in his own Witch Ape Studio.
For Sub Pop's Silver Jubilee, original TAD guitarist Gary Thorstensen will be joining Brothers of the Sonic Cloth for a few TAD songs. Doyle spoke. His voice low, his thoughts clear. The man is a legend.
How do you get into the character of your live persona?
I am what I am, but I definitely turn it up a notch when there are a lot of people there—the entertainer comes out. Maybe I'm inspired by comedians, there are some comedians that I love—Jim Gaffigan, Will Sasso, those guys just kill me. I'm inspired by a lot of music, too. I'll go to any show that I can find something good in. I'm not a hater. I'm a liker. Sometimes I'm a lover [laughs].
Walk me back to the formation of your band TAD and your Muzak employee days. How did it come about that TAD would put something out on Sub Pop?
We were all working at Muzak, the unlikely bastion of tomorrow's punk rock at the time, and Bruce Pavitt was my boss. Mark Arm was in the same room as me. It was fun, we'd listen to music all day, cleaning Fidelipac cartridges. We'd crank Butthole Surfers and whatnot.
I was kinda bored in my band at the time, H-Hour—I'd played drums for so long and wanted to play guitar. I had a $600 tax return, so I bought a guitar and went to Reciprocal Recording to record with Jack Endino. I'd heard stuff that he'd done with the Melvins and Green River, and I really liked what he did. I recorded all the parts myself; it was basically three or four songs. We mixed it, and the next day, I brought a rough mix on cassette to work and played it in the cart room. Bruce came in, and much to my delight, said something to the effect of "Oh wow, is this the new Butthole Surfers?" I started smiling from ear to ear—that was a great compliment. Soundgarden's Screaming Life was just about to come out, and he said he wanted to put out a single with me.
Bruce had started Sub Pop in Olympia as a zine—he was basically a record collector and very hip on what was happening in music. The first compilation he put out had such great bands on it, like Shonen Knife and Sonic Youth.
Did your single have national distribution?
No, it didn't have any kind of distribution. Bruce was from Chicago, and we all liked what Corey Rusk at Touch and Go Records was doing at the time, and all the bands on that label, like Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid. And Tom Hazelmyer with Amphetamine Reptile Records in Minneapolis. Those were two of the labels that Bruce liked and looked upon as contemporaries—he just decided he wanted to put out some really radical product. I'm glad he was there. I think one of the things Sub Pop had going for them is that they weren't really trying to do anything on a national level. It was just "have fun and be as big and as loud as possible." If that translated into world domination, then great. It was a tongue-in-cheek attitude.
One memory that stuck out to me is when Jonathan Poneman—the head label guy with Bruce—came out to one of our shows somewhere in the Midwest and sold shirts for us. I thought that was really cool. The guy gets into it. He's not just there for the prestige, he's there to help the bands, and he always had that great attitude. I don't know if you'll find any other labels doing that. Both those guys are such great guys, good hearts.
We must speak the name of sound engineer and holy sonic 206 guru Jim Anderson. Jim is absolutely the man.
Yes. Great guy. Great soundman. Probably the best sound engineer in Seattle, in my opinion. He's actually doing sound for us at the Sub Pop Jubilee. He's the first guy we called.
What have been your favorite Sub Pop releases through the years?
That Screaming Life EP is up there. All the Mudhoney stuff, Superfuzz Bigmuff... I have a bazillion records and not enough time to listen to records.
Who have you been working with lately at Witch Ape Studio?
Just finished recording Caligula, getting ready to master that. Also just finished recording and mastering the new Eternal Bad, which is Jason Parker from Tooth and Nail Records, and Sub Pop for a while. He's a great singer and a pleasure to record. I'm also working on the new Heiress record.
How do you go about getting a band's sound when you're recording them? Not just good sound, but their sound.
That's a great question. I like to see the band live, or go to one of their practices, and do a quick stereo recording and get a feel for what they're about. I also like to ask the band what they want to do with the recording and how they want to approach it. It's an organic process for me—you'd think I would just be the guy sitting back, moving faders and twiddling knobs, but I get creative with it and have a lot of fun with the bands. I try to capture the essence and archive exactly what's happening with them at that time. I don't really try to put my spin on what they should sound like. Of course I'll make some suggestions if I think something could sound better, but I spend a lot of time just listening and trying to enable the recording to mirror what is actually coming out of the speakers and the instruments.
How have you trained your ears to mix? What do you listen for when you're working with a louder band?
I try to mix on a number of different speaker sources. Something I've learned is to put your mix through the lowest common denominator. Sometimes that means laptop speakers. When it comes down to it, all sound is, is moving air at different frequencies. So low end is gonna move your pant legs a little bit, and high end is gonna give you a haircut. You don't ever listen to music the same once you've started mixing and recording people. Rarely do I hear a band as a listener until after I'm finished working with them. Then I can let go of it and hear it as a whole, instead of a bunch of individual parts that I'm trying to bring together.
I'm also one of these guys who don't like slamming limiters to get the music to be as loud as possible. I'm an advocate of keeping it regular and letting the listener turn up the music. I think the loudness war has ruined a lot of music—it's fatiguing to listen to. I try to capture what is actually happening. Mics hear things differently than people do. I think I can usually help someone get to realize their best performance. It might not necessarily be about the best sound, but if the energy and emotion is there, that's really what's important to me. Obviously, making it sound good is, too, and we do that at the source. The best recordings mix themselves, so to speak.
What's a way you've been able to extract a take out of somebody? Do you fire people up with pep talks? Are you like, "Let's get this guy nine blowjobs right now"?
[Laughs] I think a lot of it has to do with attitude. I try to get people comfortable. If the band is uneasy, they're probably not gonna get a good take. I ask 'em if there's anything they need, get a good headphone mix for 'em, and make sure everything is working the way they want it. After that, it's about having fun—that's first and foremost. There's no secret to it. If you're having fun, you can hear it. I'm not as anal about fixing every tiny thing that, to be honest, most listeners won't hear or care about. I'm not the hard-ass engineer that's like, "Nope, do it again. Nope, do it again. Nope, do it again." If it's gone up to five or six takes, it might be time to let it go for a while and come back to it. People are such perfectionists these days, but I just want the band to sound good and capture the best performance. Humor is a great venue for that—if you're laughing, you're gonna feel comfortable. If the situation is uptight, and you're looking at the clock, and money's ticking away, it's not good for creativity.
One of the reasons I got into music is that I wanted to escape the constraints of time. I can help somebody get their music going, or get going with mine, and I lose myself in it. That's one of the beautiful things about music and art in my opinion—it's a release. Maybe not an escape, but a release from daily pressures, and social pressures, and all the things that go with being a human being in 2013, you know?
Have you been following the Snowden/NSA story? Are you a heavy news guy?
To be honest, I find the news and general media to be constraining. It entices and increases... What's the word I'm looking for?
Fear, yeah. And low-level anxiety. For one thing, the news is usually bad. I'm much happier when I don't watch it and I don't read the paper. My wife tells me everything I need to know. At least what she thinks I need to know. I'm a much happier person since I quit getting involved in that. Politics put me to sleep. Some of the most angry and unhappy people I've met are really deep into politics. That might make me uninformed and ignorant, but I'll tell you what, I sleep a lot better than you do.
Do you have any strange hobbies that people might not know about?
No, I'm pretty transparent. I think there might be a misconception that I'm kind of a dick or an asshole. I don't know if those are the right words. Like, a hard-ass. But really I'm just a gentle guy who likes to have fun.
Your "love" of piccolo snare drums has been well documented. Why do you love piccolos so much?
[Laughs] I guess part of it is that I studied music at Boise State University. I was a percussionist and dealt with a lot of strange percussion. Believe me, I don't have anything against piccolo snares, but in the rock and metal genres, I don't think it has any place. It's an annoying sound. I think a snare drum should be throaty. It should sound like a clap of thunder and scare the shit out of people. It should startle your heart.
If you're in a rock band and you play a piccolo snare, you're a pussy. I'll say it.
All right, you said it. That's not really a true statement either, though. It just doesn't sound effective—you don't bring a knife to a gunfight, is what it boils down to. They're hard to make sound good because they have such a limited frequency spectrum that they fill. I've heard recordings, not naming any names, where they're obviously using a piccolo snare, and it sounds like they're hitting the metal side of a coffee can. But a coffee can sounds better than that. I don't want to shoot myself in the foot now, because there might be some band that uses piccolos looking for a studio that are going to say, "We can't go there, that guy hates piccolos." I could work with it [laughs].
Have there been any Sub Pop sessions with other bands that you've been a part of?
I played brushes on a Mark Lanegan track one time. That was cool. And there was another band, you may have heard of them... But I'm not gonna go there.
I know what you're going to say. You have to go there.
No, I don't.
Yes. Iron Maiden. I played shaker on an Iron Maiden track.
I got a hot tip that one of your animals was recently at the vet. What happened?
My little girl cat, Rabby—a little tortoise tabby—got in a scrape with a neighborhood cat. She had a pierced paw and was limping, so we took her in. They prescribed an antibiotic and a painkiller, and man, she doesn't do good with painkillers, she's wobbly and resting. I'm gonna put a warm compress on her here in a few minutes. But she'll be fine and will be inside for the next seven days minimum. There are some pretty badass cats in this neighborhood.
Did Rabby fuck some shit up out there?
It's funny, we have two cats, and the other one, Lord Tufu, also known as Bear, he's a big male, gray, medium hair. Rabby will stand her ground when he runs up—she puffs up, hisses, and arches her back with her hair sticking up, you know, like a Halloween emoticon. She will stand and fight. Her spirit is immense. Bear is like, "Nope, I'm out."
What's the status on the new Brothers of the Sonic Cloth album, Empires of Dust?
It's pretty close to being finished. We're winding down to the end of the tweaking, and I've got one more vocal to sing. We're doing some touch-ups, and then turning it over to our mixing engineer. With my own stuff, I admit, I'm obsessive—I probably tweak it too much. I guess it goes against what I said about not fixing every little thing [laughs]. And I might fix something that no one else is gonna notice but me. We're already writing songs for our next album, and at the Sub Pop Jubilee, we'll be playing two new songs.
How does Brothers differ from TAD?
From an outside perspective, they're similar by virtue of the fact that I'm the vocalist and the guitarist, and I have a feel with the way I do things. But Brothers has more girth to the tonality. There's just more, period. More depth to the music and to the the lyrical content. It dives deeper into the human spirit and our surroundings. TAD had a lot of redneck stuff in it—I'm basically an educated redneck from Boise, Idaho—but I think we've shaken that. There's nothing wrong with redneck stuff, this is just more where I'm at now. Brothers is also slower. We found this out while working on a couple of the TAD songs for the Jubilee. We'll be playing with Gary, the other original guitar player.
Define girth. Girth is good. Are you talking low end? Tempo? Is it a midrange thing?
Girth is all those things. The songs are longer, more intricate, and have more parts to them. The typical TAD song in the past was maybe three parts. With Brothers, there are more—eight more minutes, with 12 more parts to go, so it's more of a story. There's more of a trail that you're being taken through, more of a journey.
Talk about your song "Fires Burn Dim in the Shadows of the Mountain." Definitely a journey right there.
It's about how huge the universe is and how we're just small parts of it. I think of spirits as fires. We burn dim compared to the mountain—we're small in the universe, yet we're all integral parts of it.
Someone needs to invent light speed. Because there are other planets out there in the habitable zone of Gliese 667C.
Or a wrinkler. Robert Lazar was working on them at Area 51, supposedly. Reverse engineering for a supposed alien spacecraft. They would bend space and time, compressing it, and then expand it back once they made it to the other side. If you think of space as a two-dimensional plane, you take that space and fold it up like an accordion. So you'd move the spaceship from one end to the other, reopening it once you've traveled through. I love to read about stuff like that. It stimulates thought. Do you remember Carl Sagan's Cosmos show? Neil deGrasse Tyson is going to be doing the next step in that, sometime this year or next.
I've been writing a story about a sinkhole in the Mojave that turns into a bottomless pit/wormhole/portal. A society of people builds a 20-story-tall craft and drops in. But I need to know what happens on the other side. What happens on the other side of the wormhole portal? Would the physical form of a human being survive? Screw the music and this Sub Pop thing, this is what we need to know from you.
[Laughs] I have no idea. It's intense gravitational pull. It rips things apart. Crushes them. It bends light, so it's pretty powerful. So you'll have to find a way to overcome all those energies. Keep me posted.
And speaking of time, you've been around for a minute and you've acquired some knowledge. What's your advice to all the up-and-comers out there in this business of music?
Number one: Don't take any advice. Number two: Believe in yourself and don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something. If someone tells me I can't do something, I will kill myself to prove that I can. And be true to yourself—don't be a copycat. Certainly wear your influences on your sleeve, but be yourself, be original. Let what comes out of you flow. Don't try to suppress something that doesn't fit your mind's eye of what you think you should be doing. Play what comes freely from you.
And don't do heroin. Well, yeah, that's probably a good idea, too.
Was there ever a Sub Pop release you weren't sure of? What did you think of the CocoRosie?
No, CocoRosie. Two girls. Operatic and rapping, artistic, toy sounds, a beat boxer. Vastly different from TAD.
You know, I haven't heard of them. To be honest, there's been some stuff out on Sup Pop that I'm not aware of. Since the announcement of this silver anniversary, I've been going back and looking at all the stuff that's come out over the years. I will say, my wife and I like this Father John Misty guy a lot. There's something elegant about his music. But I chose to be in punk and metal, so that's where my ears and heart are.
What do you remember from your time in Boise State's music school?
I remember ear-training classes and theory, and thinking, "God, this is boring the shit out of me, but I guess I should learn it if it's going to be my craft." My second year in, I decided that it really wasn't for me. What I wanted to do with music wasn't being taught, so I decided to blaze my own trail. I learned useful information, it just wasn't where I wanted to go—I had to be it, experience it.
When did you move to Seattle? You were originally a drummer, right?
In October of 1986, I moved up with my band H-Hour. I was the drummer—yeah, drums were really my first instrument. I wanted to play drums really bad, my older brother was a drummer, but when I told my parents, they said, "There's an old tuba up in the attic. If you play that and show a commitment to it, we'll talk about doing drums." So I was a tuba player for two years in grade school, enduring two years of haranguing and harassment from other kids in school 'cause I was a chubby kid playing the tuba. It was an e-flat tuba, like a bugle-corps tuba. Which, incidentally, will be on this Brothers record—I pulled it out and got a mouthpiece for it. So the tuba was my gateway to drums. I suffered for my art, man!
Where was your first show in Seattle?
We played at a place called the Ditto, down on Fifth Avenue, I think, in Belltown. We were supposed to play two sets—one at the beginning of the night and one at the end—but we got kicked out because our singer got too drunk. Consequently, Jonathan Poneman booked some H-Hour shows for us. He used to book a place called Scoundrel's Lair, which was down near the Eastlake bridge. It was in the upstairs of a place on the Capitol Hill side of the bridge. That's where I first met Jack Endino—he was running sound there.
What about the Toe Truck? That truck that was an actual toe on top? They should have made that thing a Seattle monument. But they took it away.
Well, get ready for more of that. I don't even like going into town anymore. It's just gross—all the condos and new buildings. They tore down all the cool-looking shit. I could see out with the old, in with the new, but the condos, who is filling up these place? And who would want to live in that kind of situation? The thin walls, zero character. I guess I grew up too much in the country. I don't like living that close to people. As I'm getting older, I value more space.
Save us, Tad. Save us from the encroaching evil, blank-faced, soul-draining condos.
No, thank you, I'm fine. [Laughs] That's not my fight.