Artist Spotlight: Skin Yard / Gruntruck (or; Where Drummers Come From) [Part 1 of 3]

A music scene, two bands, and six drummers… Part 1 of 3

Pre-Skin Yard

Jack Endino moved to Bainbridge in the 70s at 17, in the 80s he started working in a naval shipyard as a civilian electrical engineer, but walked out when he decided that he needed to do something with music in his life. In 1983, he rented a mobile home in the middle of nowhere, set up drums, guitar, bass, and his four-track recorder, and taught himself how to record music. When Endino returned to Seattle, he found his friend Tom Herring playing in a band called Feedback with Daniel House and Matt Cameron.

Before going any further, though, I want to address how Endino is often considered the “Godfather of Grunge” or the “Grandfather of Grunge”. Even though The U-Men, Fastbacks, and 10 Minute Warning all predate Endino, it’s still mostly accurate. In part because of his recording of Nirvana’s Bleach for $606.17 (He’s not that cheap anymore, so don’t ask him), also his involvement of Sub Pop’s “House Style” (with Charles Peterson photography serving as cover art for their singles). Not many people cared about his playing in Skin Yard, or Crypt Kicker Five, or any of his 1,000 other bands he’s played in (not to mention is jazzy solo work).

Daniel House had been bouncing from band to band, and had started Feedback which was a prog-rock instrumental trio. He had spent some time also in 10 Minute Warning after future Guns N’ Roses bass player Duff McKagan (who had also drummed in the Fastbacks) had quit to move to L.A.

Matt Cameron, at the age of 14, sang a song for Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the song at the end of the movie that makes all of the tomatoes explode. It isn’t relevant, I just think it’s neat. Anyway, House had seen him playing in other bands, and approached him to start Feedback.

By the time Endino was back, Feedback was falling apart, so Endino, House, and Cameron started working together. They had wanted to get a singer, but hadn’t really found a good fit, they were playing art-rock in basements and just letting any old person jump up and sing, but no one was really getting it.

Until Ben McMillan. McMillan was comfortable at improvising and had a rich, deep voice that fit well with what the band were doing. But McMillan wasn’t a singer, but they found he had a real knack for lyrics.  In a prior life, he was a street artist who airbrushed t-shirts down at the pier, making $150 a day ($360.64 in 2019 money), yet he still couldn’t pay his rent. Apparently, the bohemian lifestyle is expensive.

Deep Six

The Seattle scene was growing, but there was no real document of what has happening musically. Sup Pop existed as a column, and a cassette trading network, but not yet a label. Chris Hanzsek and Tina Casale moved to the city from Boston after friends told them about the excitement of the growing scene.

Hanzsek and Casale started Reciprocal Recordings (Where Endino would do most of his early engineering and production work) in 1984. Because of it’s inexpensive recording rate, the studio was inundated with local bands recording demos. The duo met lots of interesting and cool bands, but there was a problem. No one was releasing records.

There had already been one compilation in 1981, but nothing since then, and there were a bunch of new bands that demanded attention. Hanzsek and Casale started C/Z Records with no real plan, only to throw together a compilation. To put a finer point on it, they wanted to put out some Green River material (the duo had already facilitated the band’s 1984 demo, and their 1985 EP Come On Down, and then they let Green River run point on picking the rest of the bands.

The recording sessions took place in August and September of 1985, and here were the earliest recordings of Skin Yard, “Throb” and “The Birds”.

The Deep Six compilation was released in March of 1986, with tracks by Soundgarden, Green River, Malfunkshun, Melvins (more on that in the future), and The U-Men, who were the big draw for the release. The compilation was re-released in April of 1994, the peak of Grungemania. It was released as a co-production with A&M Records (Soundgarden’s label at that time) and C/Z Records, which after releasing 6 Songs by Melvins, was sold to Daniel House in 1986.

I remember walking through a Sam Goody (R.I.P.), and there was Deep Six, sitting out there where everyone could see it. Of course, the big draws was Soundgarden and Melvins, but I was deep in the Seattle Sound so I knew about Malfunkshun being the precursor to Mother Love Bone, which of course was the precursor to a little known band who was going to go head to toe with Ticketmaster. My cousin had found Green River’s Come On Down, but I wasn’t really that into it, but I recognized the name.

I got the disc home, and the Green River tracks were really good! The Soundgarden tracks were also good, but not great, they sounded pretty tinny. Malfunkshun was wild, and eventually their lone album that was never released would be put out by Stone Gossard on his Loosegroove imprint with Epic. But Skin Yard stood out. They were darker than the other bands, and they were kind of heavy musically, but they seemed to trade more in atmosphere than anything resembling a crushing riff. McMillan hadn’t quite figured out what to do with his voice yet, the band was still figuring out what they wanted to be. “The Birds” has a saxophone on it, for Christ’s sake. Both songs would be re-recorded on future releases.

Skin Yard (and Gelatin Babies / Bleed 7 inch)

Throughout 1987, Skin Yard was unable to generate any interest in their album, and since House had recently took over C/Z, they decided to put their first album out themselves. Many sources state that Skin Yard was “too metal” for most labels focusing on the new Seattle Sound, in fact, that’s the excuse Sub Pop would use over and over again, but I think that’s bunk. I think there is a distinction between “metal” and “heavy”, but Soundgarden and TAD were definitely heavier than Skin Yard, but it’s not like any of these bands sounded like Queensryche or Metal Church.

Even the band themselves say it’s not really a great representation of what they were about. It’s weird, and jazzy, and prog, but it is also dark. “Bleed” and “The Blind Leading the Blind” are lyrically heavy in an emotional sense, “Dear Deceased” is a distant cousin of an angular post-punk song, and “Skins In My Closet” is a weird choice to open the album, as it’s a blues song that turns into a prog-stomp.

Not long after the album’s release, Matt Cameron left the band. Many think he left the band to join Soundgarden, but Cameron maintains that he was actually looking to do more jazz, and he didn’t know that Soundgarden was looking, but when he found out he called them up. Ironically, he snatched the drum position from future Skin Yard/Gruntruck drummer Scott McCullum (aka Norman Scott, aka Scott Norman), who pretty much already had the job.

Skin Yard has a rotating drum throne before McCullum would land in the role, however. First came Steve Wied, who went on to drum in TAD, he played two shows. Then Greg Gilmore, formerly of 10 Minute Warning, who then went onto drum in Mother Love Bone, he lasted two shows. Then Jason Finn, who later played in The Fastbacks, Love Battery, and Presidents of the United States of America (Lump!). Finn lasted 8 months, and recorded the B-side “Bleed”.

The self-titled album was re-released in 1992 on SST subsidiary Cruz Records, with five bonus tracks, including a live cover of David Bowie’s “She Shook Me Cold”.

After hearing Deep Six, I went hunting for Skin Yard albums, which was quite difficult in those pre-internet years. This is the second album I bought, and since I already had Fist Sized Chunks, I was more prepared for more solid grunge, but this was something else. I didn’t care for it at the time (maybe half of it), but today I like it more and enjoy it for what it is, instead of what it isn’t. If nothing else, the band is tight. “Jabberwocky” is still kind of bad, though.

Hallowed Ground

With the lineup solidified (for now), the band entered the studio to record their sophomore album Hallowed. This is the album that really made Skin Yard Soundgarden’s “sister band”. Endino said, “We got sort of an ex-punk rock kid, who really lit a fire under us and just raised the energy level tremendously by not concentrating so much on careful playing, so we became thrashier and noisier. To those guys at Sub Pop, we were too much like Black Sabbath or something – not alternative enough, we were a little too lose to heavy metal, I think, from their standpoint.”

While I would certainly not call this Black Sabbath or thrash, this is really far more “grunge” than the previous album, and its atmosphere is twice as dark. Drawing from post-punk (borderline goth) and psychedelic rock, some songs crank up the shrill guitars and spooky cavern drums, while others are straight forward near metal masterpieces.

This was the last one for me to get, it had been unavailable for quite some time. Endino used to run an online garage sale, and he actually ran me a cassette off of the masters. I received it on Halloween, and I ended up driving around that night listening to the album, and it was bittersweet in that I completed my collection (at least what existed then), but it was so great to hear this album after such a long time.

(No YouTube links on this one, as they are all NSFW cover art.)