Frontman Tad Doyle discusses the word “grunge,” his post-TAD career, and those long-awaited Sub-Pop reissues (which are—finally—out now!).
Despite touring with both Nirvana and Soundgarden, and being one of the first bands to grace the roster of Sub-Pop after they formed in 1988, there's a good chance that, of all of the bands who came out of the grunge era, TAD is the band you've heard the least about—because TAD continuously had shit luck. In contrast to the mega successful bands of that era, part of the cult lore surrounding TAD has a lot to do with their non-success (despite their successes, which have been regaled over and over as one of the greatest "band that could have been" stories during the 90s, and ultimately documented in the movie Busted Circuits And Ringing Ears). But despite their luck getting in their way, TAD still managed to crank out six great records, which are still lauded as some of the most crucial and influential heavy music to come out of the 90s. Luckily for TAD fans, who have been waiting around 20 years to be able to purchase a record, Sub-Pop finally reissued their first three albums—remastered and blessed by the godfather of grunge, Jack Endino— God's Balls, Salt Lick, and 8-Way Santa, last Friday. Stream 'em, buy 'em, whatever. But either way, if you consider yourself a fan of heavy riffs, you must hear them.
Before we dig any deeper, let's have a short history of TAD's shit luck. It began in 1990 when their video for "Wood Goblins," off their second album Salt Lick was rejected by MTV because, in fewer words, they thought it was—or rather, that they were— too ugly. Their third record, 8-Way-Santa, originally featured a cover photo of a drugged-out couple in the 60s, which their friend had found in a photo album she purchased in a thrift store, and was pulled from shelves the moment it was spotted in SPIN Magazine by the woman in the photo. The artwork for their single, "Jack Pepsi"—a cheeky homage to drinking and driving a 4x4 on an icy lake—utilized the Pepsi logo. Rumor has it someone had recently been fired from Sub-Pop, and the jilted ex-employee called Pepsi to tip them off, resulting in another lawsuit. Those instances both happened during their time on Sub-Pop, before subsequently getting dropped from two major labels—once because an A&R rep got fired and all her bands got dropped, too—and once because someone in the art department created a promotional poster for their tour with Soundgarden featuring Bill Clinton smoking a joint under the words, "TAD: IT'S HEAVY SHIT." That, combined with both their drummer at the time deciding to throw in the towel and Tad's drug-and-alcohol habit catching up with him, ultimately caused the band to call it quits in 1999 despite never reaching the stardom they seemed to be destined for.
When I first told a few music journalist friends that I'd be interviewing Tad Doyle, the namesake and former frontman of TAD, the response I got—aside from choruses of "Oh, you'll love him; he's great!" was a piece of stern advice: "Whatever you do, DON'T mention anything about Kurt Cobain or the word 'grunge.'" One even told a tale of Tad hanging up on him during an interview about his new doom band, Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth, because he went off topic and asked him a question about the TAD years. At the time, I had never met him, so all I had to go off of was the image that Sub-Pop marketed him as in the 90s: A lumbering, confrontational, irreverent, chainsaw-wielding man who embodied the idea of Pacific Northwest "redneck drug culture" and habitually stage-dove with his guitar, despite weighing the equivalent of two or three show-goers.
Make no mistake: Tad Doyle is absolutely one of the forefathers of the genre that launched the monstrous careers of bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and many others—what was packaged and sold and lumped into one giant, soggy, flannel-clad umbrella deemed "grunge." It's a great catchall term for rabid music nuts to identify and categorize a certain type of music from a specific era and location, but for many musicians who were a part of it, that term was frustrating. To a bunch of bands playing heavy, catchy music together in Seattle in the late 80s and early 90s, it felt like a commodity; a term they never chose for themselves, and a way to make it seem like they all sounded just like one another, when in reality, they were all vastly different. It also represents a time when their close-knit Seattle music community suddenly got thrust under the world's spotlight and, eventually, turned into a bit of a circus. So I get both sides, and it's certainly not my place—as someone who was born arguably the same year grunge was, two states away—to have a say. I figured I'd tread lightly on the subject—and after all, our interview was set to be about the TAD reissues, so that era would likely have come up somehow.
So I show up to Square Knot Diner, the Georgetown, Seattle restaurant Tad had suggested we meet for an interview, 20 minutes early despite making two wrong turns. When I walk in, I find Tad already waiting at the corner booth, donning a thick flannel and a hat almost covering his face, like a cheerful lumberjack. He smiles and waves. He seems happy. These days, he lives in Seattle with his wife (and Brothers of the Sonic Cloth bassist) Peggy, and records bands at his studio, Witch Ape Studio, whenever he's not playing in town or touring. He hasn't touched drugs or alcohol in years, and is, in general, a stark contrast to man seen in TAD promotional material 25 years ago, save for maybe his large stature—literally and figuratively.
Before we start off, I figure I should make sure I know which questions are and are not off limits. "So, I know in the past, you've been adamant about not talking about TAD. But since this interview is specifically about the reissues, are you cool with it?"
He nods. "Yeah, of course."
"And I know that, for a lot of Seattle folks, there is a sensitivity surrounding the word 'grunge.'"
"Not for me!" he replies, raising his eyebrows, but still smiling.
"Really?" I ask. This seems like the exact opposite of what I'd been warned about, but I'm glad I wouldn't be stepping on any toes.
"Really," he says. "You know, I've given up! It gets brought up. It's one of those elements that's associated with something I've done in the past. Initially, a few years ago, yeah. I went in like, 'NO.' The G-word! [Makes a cross with his fingers and hisses jovially.] It's just, whatever."
And there you have it. We all evolve.
Noisey: How do you feel now when people talk about that era and use the word "grunge?"
Tad Doyle: I'm cool with it. We just thought it was interesting. You'd hear it over and over and over. I was able to be in close proximity, and a part of, every press and music-oriented person just swarming Seattle when it was becoming a thing, you know? And we were laughing about it, mostly. It was absurd. Although the music had its own thing, and there was nothing absurd about that. It was definitely unique at the time. It just seemed over the top and not necessary. Especially when the feeding frenzy started happening. "We're looking for the next Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam." All of a sudden every band was trying to do that. Not necessarily here, but everywhere else.
What were the label execs looking for when they came to down wanting to find the next Nirvana?
More often than not, they were looking for a look. You know, flannel, disenfranchised teenager, hair down over the face, disconnected and disjointed from society, having interesting takes on social situations, probably more than anything.
So why do you think so many people from that time period have such an aversion to using the word "grunge" now?
I don't know. Maybe just growing completely tired of hearing it. And, maybe I'm stating the obvious, but none of these bands sounded like each other. They all got lumped into this genre. As an artist and as a musician, you want to present something that's unique and genuine. So if, you know, you get pigeonholed into a category, a box to put on a shelf, it's very demeaning and it's not very human. It's very clinical and scientific, for lack of a better word.
After the oversaturation of Seattle's music scene, and music journalists started interviewing everyone, it seemed like musicians around there started getting a reputation for being surly and making things up all the time. There's that Headbanger's Ball interview where Soundgarden goes bowling and Kim Thayil spends the whole time sabotaging the host, and the part of Hype! where you and Kurt [Danielson] are talking about how you go to Sunday youth groups and teach kids about Satan and abortions. Is that indicative of Seattle's humor at the time, or was it just a response to getting bombarded with dumb questions?
Probably the latter. We would get a lot of the same questions. Even to this day, it can be challenging. And you can tell which journalists are really in it. And serious about getting something fresh. We usually tried to have fun, and just be bizarre and weird, and say off-the-wall things. Sometimes it would go way too far. But I think the whole point is that we wanted to have fun doing it. If we were getting the same black and white questions, we would spice it up with really bizarre answers and try and lead it in another direction. Sometimes, we would completely take hostage the interview and make it ours. That was kind of fun stuff to do. I wish I could remember specific instances, but those interviews were over 25 years ago, and damage was done, you know? [Takes a drag off an imaginary joint.]
One of the overarching themes I hear when people reminisce about TAD is that there seemed to be a disconnect from your real personality and the one Sub-Pop sold the world in your videos and cover art. How did it feel to have your personality morphed and commodified like that?
Well, the guys at Sub Pop, Jon [Poneman] and Bruce [Pavitt], were experts at taking information and backgrounds and augmenting them, making them bigger than life. All of the things the TAD mystique was built around was all true. I was a butcher; Kurt [Danielson] grew up in a logging town. I cut cordwood one summer when I was out in the woods in Idaho, so we both had wilderness backgrounds. So there is truth to that. But they liked to kick it up and make it more fantastic than life.
It was initially a fun thing, and we loved it. But it became rather bothersome after awhile because I think a lot of people coming to see us were coming to see a freak show of whatever that was, as opposed to really digging into the music. And over a period of time, that's flipped, so people are obviously more interested in the music than the mystique, which is really cool. It helped, and hurt it, at the same time. I mean, we're all well-educated in the band, so it was funny to have the kind of people that were showing up to shows, that identified with us, because a lot of them were that. And then there's the people that were showing up that were just entertained by it, and then there's the voyeurs that would show up. It was a double-edged sword. It was good, initially, but we grew tired of it.
Did it ever affect you personally? That people thought you were a different character than you were in real life?
Well, yeah. On the road, I couldn't find any girls to talk to! [Laughs.] I'd always be surrounded by these dudes who were like, "Heyyyy man, PARTY! Let's get wrecked! Let's go cut some cordwood!" Or whatever.
If you were to go back in time to when you started TAD, do you think you'd call the band something else? Or were you comfortable with it being named after you, and being the central character?
Well, initially, I did want a different name. I kept coming up with different names. An acronym was "Total Audio Destruction"—that's one of the names I wanted to use. I think Bruce and Jon were stuck on the fact that I came up with a few songs by myself and did all the playing, so the vision was strong from the start. I certainly grabbed guys that were able to add to that and be a part of that and make it better and bigger than what it was on its own, but yeah. I honestly didn't want the name of the band to be TAD, initially. And then I just grew into it eventually. I became resigned to the fact that the name doesn't matter.
There's an interview with Jon Poneman of Sub Pop where he talks about the real need for a mythology behind a band in order for people to find it interesting. Do you think that still holds true today?
Well, I think it was necessary at that time. I don't think it's as paramount now. That laid the fabric and the groundwork of what was to come. Certainly it helped us to stand out as a distinct entity from everything else that was being put out there. And the bottom line is you can be a good player and write good songs, but there's gotta be something interesting that sets you apart from everybody else. That's just the way it is. So we were completely cool with that. And I think a lot of what we brought to our music was the humor aspect. Not taking ourselves too seriously, and having fun with it, you know? And the mythology of it all—the redneck drug culture that reared its head in that music—was fun to do, and a lot of it was based on real things. Because life is stranger than fiction. It makes for good subject matter.
Has the Internet removed the mythology, now that we can see what's really going on with a musician, 24/7?
Well, I think it takes away from the fantasy of everything. When you can start analyzing things instead of absorbing them as being fresh and in your face with the moment, it can become that. And there are people where that's how they like to see their music. I like hearing music and learning about it and taking it face-worth and being completely stunned by something that's different. And not having a need to know right away what it came from or how it came about. I'm completely cool with just being in the moment with that song, or that piece of art.
If you're a young kid, and you've never been to a record store in your life, and you maybe don't know what it was like to truly be in the moment without distractions, is it possible to find that magic?
I think it happens for a lot of people, and I think it's gonna happen more and more as people realize that these things [holds up his smart phone] are nooses rather than tools. I mean, I'm old school, so I was touring when the Internet wasn't even around. And I like that it makes it easy, you know, you can pull up a navigation app, you don't have to read maps anymore. And you can instantly blast the Internet and say, "The venue changed, we're playing somewhere else tonight." That's really cool stuff. But then it becomes the old thing where you see over and over where it's just, like, zombies looking at a phone. Something that illustrates it really well is Black Mirror. Have you seen that?
I haven't, but I've heard that I should.
There's one episode where everybody's rating each other on their phones as they run into each other. And the whole thing is your social status. If you can reach a 4 or above, you're looked upon in society as being cool. It's so inhuman. It's gross, the judgment that goes into it. And I think that's a lot of what social media is. There's "like" buttons. Like, like, like, like, like. And, "Oh, look how many hits I got on my post!" What really matters, or, what's going to return to what really matters, is like, okay, if you're a musician, spending my time playing music instead of talking and writing about it, or blasting social media with it. In my opinion there's been a lot of bands that have no business being out of the garage. They've got a Facebook page, they're recording sub-par music, it's cut-and-paste, there's no real musicianship behind it, and it's really clogged up a lot of the freeways for real musicians who have worked hard at their craft. And I think people are smart enough to know the difference. But at the same time, I'm disgruntled about it.
As someone who has had a touring band then and now, do you find that crowds are too distracted and less likely to rock out these days?
I think crowds still get into the music. But it is annoying to see people holding their phones up and taking pictures. Put it down. Be present in the moment with the thing, you know? I understand that it's like, "Hey, look! I'm here with this band!" But I think eventually that's going to run its course.
You, and a ton of other Seattle musicians have consistently said what a magical, fun, pure music scene it was during the early '90s before the world took hold of it. Are you optimistic that we'll keep seeing more of those? Even though we can be influenced by music all over the world now?
I do. I do think it's possible. That's how it starts: A few people in a community who come out and support each other. I think that can happen still anywhere, even today. Maybe even in some remote little city in North Dakota or something. There could be an amazing music scene that's gonna pop in the next few years that we don't know about.
That's initially what I witnessed here. When we first started out together that's how I got Kurt Danielson in the band to begin with. I was in a band called H-Hour and I played drums, and in his band Bundle of Hiss, he was playing bass. We'd play shows together and make each other laugh, and we became friends. That was throughout the whole thing. I remember going to see Soundgarden shows with 30 people.
People connect in a level where it's like, "Did you hear this? Oh, then check THIS out." You might wind up playing music with this guy, and share a love for a specific band or whatever the common ground is that starts the glue.
One major part of the TAD mythology is the terrible shit luck you had. How did it make you feel to keep on having so many setbacks?
It was demoralizing. But we were always like, "Fuck that, we're gonna move on. We're an unstoppable force of nature." It's difficult, but you realize why you're in this music and why you're doing it, and that's what keeps you going. We hung it out when many quitters would have quit a long time ago. A lot of these circumstances were extenuating and had nothing to do with us. Like when we got dropped from Giant/Warner. We were told it was because we did a promotional poster for our tour with Soundgarden in Europe with Bill Clinton smoking a doob. And we had nothing to do with that. I think, really, what it was, was somebody in the art department covering their ass, saying, "The band did it." One of the higher-ups saw that and said, "You can't do that!" And they said, "Well, it was the band." When in actuality, we had nothing to do with it. Believe me, we always take responsibility for anything we've done.
Whose responsibility was it when the photo of the unsuspecting couple showed up on the cover of 8-Way-Santa and the record got pulled? Yours or Sub-Pop?
Both. We had a friend who had gotten a photo album at a thrift store. And it just happened to have photos in it still. It wound up in a thrift store when they got rid of it, and it makes sense in retrospect when you figure out the whole story: They were divorced, not together anymore, and you don't want to look at photos of your past relationship because it'll remind you of all of the quirks and weirdness. So [our friend] found this photo album, and we were at a party with her, and we said, "Hey, can we look at those?" And Kurt and I started looking through these photos of these people's lives, and that one in particular was pretty cool, so we said, "Can we take a couple of these? We're looking for album artwork." So we brought it to Sub-Pop and Bruce and Jon loved it, so they said, "We'll take this to the art department and see what they can come up with." So yeah. Both of us. We were both responsible. However, when you get photos in a thrift store in an album, you're not going to consider that somebody's really going to give a crap about 'em.
Or consider that they'd even find out, to begin with.
Well, unfortunately it was in a record review in SPIN and the woman saw it and did a double-take and said, "That's me!" You know? "That's my ex, and he's grabbing my boob, and there I am, looking like a stoner." For a born-again Christian, that's not gonna look good at church. [Laughs.]
At the time, did that upset you? Or were you like, "Okay, I guess we deserved that"?
No, I didn't think we deserved it. But I can see how it would happen. I could see their side. But at the same time, there's some stewardship that you've got to take responsibility for yourself and not take photos and leave them in a thrift store. That's why you burn them!
So what about the Pepsi logo?
I think there were a lot of bands back then were incorporating corporate logos and making them their own. I think Melvins used the Mattel logo with Hot Wheels. A band called Urge Overkill from Chicago had the Union 76 orange ball. So it was kind of a fun thing to do. We thought it was harmless. However, it was associating a certain product that is owned by a religious group with bad decisions and drunk driving. So, I mean, in retrospect, probably not a good idea. But at the same time, who give a shit about what this little band's doing?
Right, especially because Sub-Pop was still such a small label. It's not like it was a record that was going to show up in every Target and Walmart worldwide or something. It just seems ridiculous.
We were magnets for ridiculousness, I guess. And then when we got dropped from EastWest/Elektra, we had the same A&R person as Clutch and a few other bands, and that person—Wendy—got fired, and all of her bands got dropped. That's kind of what happens: You don't have any representation at the label anymore. Two weeks into what was supposed to be the release of Infrared Riding Hood, and our manager calls and says, "What's going on with the record?" And they said, "You're representing who?" They had no idea who the band was. That says two things to me: Corporations and big business are very profit-driven and there's not much humanity in it, and secondly, there's a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks type of mentality. And that's not art at all. That's dehumanizing. And I'm one of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of musicians who have experience with that. But whatever, that's life. You keep doing what you're doing. That's what separates the tire-kickers from the racecar drivers.
Was that the final straw that made you guys call it quits?
Well, it was the final straw for the drummer we had at the time. He lost faith, and decided to go on on his own, and Kurt and I were just left holding the ball. We decided to keep moving forward because we had a great synergy when we were writing music together. So we got another drummer and tried it for awhile. But that's when things started going pretty south for me in my life. My extracurricular drug activities were becoming paramount instead of the music. So that started to ruin a lot of things. Relationships, the open portal to creativity—and you know, that happens. A lot of people die from that, and lose themselves in it, and never emerge again, and I can only speak for myself, but I can't lay down. I get up. Even if the punches keep coming, I'm one of those guys—I keep getting up. And that, I think, is a strong suit for me. And being genuine in what I do.
If it weren't for the drummer quitting, and the mounting drug habit, would TAD have continued on?
Well, that was just my aspect. I can only speak for myself and take responsibility for what I do. Certainly we could have hung it out longer, but in retrospect I think it was time to call it a day with that chapter of my musical career. And that's a hard thing to let go of sometimes. It's like building a house and watching it deteriorate and return to the soil. You put a lot of heart and love into it. I've learned that my mansion isn't built in any one specific home, so I just keep on going and doing it because I am a lifer for any lack of good common sense, or because I love it. And I think it's the latter. It's been the one thing that's made sense, and the one thing that's made my life worth living. Music and art.
What are some things, either personally or professionally, that you'd do differently if you could do it all again?
That's a good question. Being a drummer, it was very difficult for drummers to play with me. First of all, I was pretty decent, so I wouldn't accept anybody that could play less than what my abilities were. And I had very strong ideas about what the drums should be doing at a certain time in order to make the guitar or bass work better. So I was very opinionated, and I said "Well, I want it this way." And that was one of the reasons, aside from being tired of being on the road all the time, that Steve [Wied] quit. And although he's a phenomenal player and had his own thing, I might have overstepped my authority, for lack of a better word, for what I thought he should be doing musically. And I don't do that as much anymore.
I've read a few interviews with you where you really iterate that you feel it's important not to regret anything.
Right. You can't change it—it's only a platform for more pain. I feel pretty good about who I am. Whereas a large share of my life, I didn't feel good about myself. Which is why I probably started doing those things to begin with. There's a lot of noise between my ears most of the time, and I get to choose as a result of being somewhat centered and clear on what's important to me that I can filter those swinging monkeys in the trees out of the jungle, and really be aware of what's real.
What are you most proud of?
Oh, just the integrity we brought to everything we did. Letting our freak flag fly. There were no holds barred. We weren't worried about what people were thinking of us, how we could look better—I mean we definitely did some things that would make bands go, "Eek!"—So I think that was one of the best things. Just being open to what we were doing musically, too. And always trying to one-up what we were doing as a personal thing. Not settling for making God's Balls three times. It's very easy for a band to say, "Well, people like this, so we'll keep doing this." That happens a lot. So just pushing ourselves, staying fresh. Sometimes beyond our musical abilities.
If someone were just hearing of TAD for the first time in their lives because of the reissues, what would you want them to know?
God, I don't know. Just let them experience it in the way that they'd want to experience it. For professional reasons—and this comes from a place of pride, obviously—I'd say we laid it to tape as a whole. There was no punch in, punch out, cut and paste, fix this, fix that, getting down to the micro parts of the drums and nudging things and moving things to make them perfect. The imperfections are what make them have character. And I think that's what I'd implore younger musicians to examine. Your musicianship is more important than making things sound perfect. Don't be afraid to let things go crazy and haywire sometimes with what's going on musically. Let it take its course sometimes, and don't play it safe.
Trust your heart, not so much your mind.
Cat Jones is staying grungy on Twitter.