Soundgarden's first full-length album, Ultramega OK (SST, 1988), sold well, put the band on the map outside Seattle, and even got nominated for a Grammy. But it just didn't sound right. The band always meant to redo the album but... stuff happens—grunge exploded and they signed with a major label and went on world tours and became famous and broke up and reunited... you know, stuff. Almost 30 years later, the band asked producer Jack Endino to make their first record suitable for reissue.
Endino spoke to The Stranger about the project.
What happened with Ultramega OK?
Well, the story is basically this: Right after the band made the record, they realized that they didn't really like the mix, and nobody else really liked it that much, either. I had made their first EP, Screaming Life, with them, and I thought: "You guys went off and worked with somebody else [producer Drew Canulette], and you made a record, and it doesn't sound as good as the stuff we did on the eight-track machine a few years before. What's up with that? You guys went backward!"
Why didn't they go with you the first time?
Two reasons: I only had that eight-track recorder and I was still just a beginner. I'd been working in the studio for about two years as an engineer at that point. I was good at what I did, but still I was a beginner, and the band wanted to stretch a little—which is understandable—and record on a 16-track, which I didn't have.
What was wrong with the original release?
The guitar tones were very thin and shrill. There's a lot of strange reverb layered over it in various places. The feeling of the music had to come out a little bit more; it was obscured. I wanted more energy coming out of the grooves, more vibe.
I knew the way they sounded back in those days. So my approach was to mix the record as though I had been the one mixing it originally, and also keep the aesthetic of what the band did after that. I used the existing mixes as a kind of blueprint.
Ultramega OK's reissue was expanded to include the Ultramega EP—six early versions of the songs on the album including some previously unreleased tracks. What was your original role in that?
I had actually recorded those eight-track versions for the EP in 1988 before they made the decision to go off and do a 16-track album with the other guy. Which was part of my disappointment at the time, as I thought well, god, these eight-track versions actually sounded pretty good.
Was it weird to go back and hear those recordings you made back then—like reading old journal entries or something?
Oh no, not at all! It was pleasantly surprising to me how good it sounded. Which was somewhat of a relief, actually, like, oh thank goodness, I knew what I was doing back then.
What was one thing you remember about Soundgarden back then?
They were very serious in the studio! I mean, they had fun, but they also took their music really seriously, and this was a key thing about all the grunge bands of the era. We all had that in common. There was always a definite self-mocking sense of realism like, yeah, we're just having fun here, but we don't have any illusions about getting famous or rich. Which is why it was such cognitive dissonance when that actually happened to a few people later.
What was it like trying to capture the sound of the band "back then" using the technology of today?
The recordings of that era are very stripped down: basic and straightforward, mostly because there wasn't a lot of time, or a lot of money, or a lot of gear. You couldn't make a Radiohead record—you had to make a simple, straightforward rock record. And my aesthetic that I used back then still applies now, which is this: Get the sounds quickly, stay out of the way, capture the vibration, get the live feel as much as possible, and make it sound good. That's what I do.