October 19th, 1993, TAD released their fourth album, Inhaler, on Giant/Warner Brothers Records. “If it wasn’t for bad luck, You know I wouldn’t have no luck at all,” sang Albert King in his 1967 song “Born Under A Bad Sign.” A litany of bad luck besieged TAD throughout their recording career. Threats of litigation from multi-national soft drink companies, rejected by MTV for being too “ugly,” dropped by their label for lampooning Bill Clinton, and having to recall all copies of their newly released album after the cover art, which featured a photo of an unknown couple in less than salubrious surroundings, was seen by the couple in question, who didn’t see the funny side.
Make no mistake, despite these bumps in the road, TAD was the epitome of all that was essential about the Pacific Northwest music scene of the ’80s and ’90s. Sub Pop Records carefully created an image of the band as chainsaw-wielding behemoths lumbering from a dank swamp to corrupt your soul, which initially garnered them the type of attention reserved for a carnival sideshow but ultimately only cloaked the band’s actual depth and brilliance in ridiculous folklore.
“The guys at Sub Pop, Jon Poneman and Bruce Pavitt were experts at augmenting information and backgrounds, making them bigger than life,” said Tad frontman Tad Doyle, “All of the things the TAD mystique was built around were true. I was a butcher; Kurt Danielson grew up in a logging town. I cut cordwood one summer in the woods in Idaho, so we both had wilderness backgrounds. So there is truth to that. But they liked exaggerating it and making it more fantastic than life.”
“It was initially a fun thing, and we loved it,” continues Doyle, “But it became rather bothersome after a while 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. We were all well-educated in the band, so it was funny to have the kind of people showing up to shows that identified with our persona, 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.”
TAD was a primal, heavy, cathartic, earth-shatteringly loud, life-affirming juggernaut. They were sledgehammer blunt, with a gilt edge sophistication and sardonic wit. They were forefathers of a scene that did the unthinkable, and they wrote the blueprint for the sounds that would conquer the world. 1993’s Inhaler was the band’s first for a major label, having released two stellar albums and a mini-album on Sub Pop Records: their debut, God’s Balls, in 1989. The Steve Albini produced mini-album Salt Lick in 1990 and the band’s final Sub Pop album, “8 Way Santa”, in 1991.
After Tad Doyle’s hilarious cameo in the Cameron Crowe rom-com Singles in 1992 and the feeding frenzy among record company A&R staff to sign anything that moved in the Pacific Northwest, TAD decided to give major label life a shot too, signing to Warner Music Group’s Giant Records. What could possibly go wrong that already hadn’t gone wrong before?
TAD’s string of bad luck is almost as notorious as the band’s backwood image. “It was demoralising,” said Tad Doyle, “But we were always like, “Fuck that, we’re gonna move on. We’re an unstoppable force of nature.” It isn’t easy, but you realise why you’re in this music and why you’re doing it, and that’s what keeps you going. We hung in there when many would have quit long ago. A lot of these circumstances were extenuating and had nothing to do with us.”
The promotion of the band’s savagely brilliant 1992 album, 8 Way Santa, was hit hard. Tad used a “found photo” of a gloriously moustachioed man cupping a bikini-clad woman’s breast and slapped it on the album cover. The band found the photo in a thrift store in Seattle. Looking like it emanated from a 60’s bong haze; they never thought the couple would re-surface or knew if they even existed.
As (bad) luck would have it, the woman in the photo later divorced the man, became a born-again Christian, remarried, and, on seeing this relic of her former life, got angry that her picture was used on the cover without her consent and sued. Sub Pop had to scramble and change the cover to a photo of the band, pulling all original copies and promotional material from stores and publications, seriously impeding any momentum the release may have garnered.
8-Way Santa yielded two singles. “Jinx” was used in the 1992 film Singles (in a scene when Cliff Poncier installs a new stereo in his girlfriend’s car) but didn’t make the soundtrack release. The other, “Jack Pepsi,” garnered Tad the second lawsuit, this time from the soft drink company Pepsi. Tad used the soda brand’s logo for the single artwork. The song tells a tale of Tad and his friend Jack Helton stealing Jack’s father’s truck and driving around on a frozen lake while sipping the blend of Jack Daniels and Pepsi in the song title. Eventually, they wrecked the truck as the ice wasn’t thick enough, and they fell through.
Rumour has it someone had recently been fired from Sub-Pop, and the jilted ex-employee called Pepsi to tip them off on TAD’s use of the Pepsi logo on the single cover, resulting in the lawsuit. Mortified that their sugary ditch water was linked to a song about driving a 4×4 on ice while dosed up on their product and Jack Daniels, Pepsi’s lawyers swooped in.
Despite these setbacks, TAD continued to churn out incredibly potent music. The band toured consistently, garnering legions of devoted fans with explosive live shows. Major label Warner Brothers came knocking in 1992. The fallout of Nirvana’s colossal success had turned the rock music world upside down. Labels were scouring the Pacific Northwest for the next big thing. If a major label can provide anything, it’s exposure, and TAD deserved to be heard. Like their peers, Mudhoney, they had helped make the template for what was now engulfing the planet. Signing to a major was a logical step.
The band entered Studio D in Sausalito, California, to begin work on the follow-up to 8 Way Santa and their first for Giant Records, the major label offshoot of Warner Brothers. J Mascis, the notoriously lethargic frontman of Dinosaur Jr., was hired to produce. Mascis brought in some decent equipment and taught Doyle to be less hard on his drummers by cutting them some slack. “I love J, and he was helpful,” recalled Doyle. “But I swear to God, the guy was asleep 90 per cent of the time! He got a credit for that, got paid, and got a rental car on our dime. It says ‘Produced by J Mascis,” but I think J produced more zees than he produced any results.”
Inhaler opens with “Grease Box”, the piledriving bass and drums of Kurt Danielson and Josh Sinder. Danielson crushes his part with impeccable groove and precision in what could easily be considered the best alternative rock bassline of the era. Gary Thorstensen and Tad Doyle’s guitars bounce off the rhythm sections’ monstrous hooks like sparks from a welder’s grinding wheel. Doyle sings, “Dig dig deep, For yourself. Dig dig deep, For your soul,” over the infectious romp.
“Throat Locust’s” surging riff is laced with metallic start/stop grooves and powerful dynamics. Doyle sings, “You save yourself and no one else; you take my time and call it yours.” “Leafy Incline” opens with single strummed open chords; Tad sings over a melodic verse with arpeggiated picking and a snaking slide guitar weaving between his lyrics. The song’s pre-chorus and chorus up the anti, thrashing from tight, grinding grooves to slashing, heavy melodicism.
“Luminol” opens with a fast, staccato guitar riff. Josh Sinder’s drums add a mammoth halftime groove; his double kick drum attack driving the action. This was Sinder’s first album with the band after his time as drummer for Seattle’s legendary “splattercore” thrash crossover band The Accüsed. “Ulcer” drives a mid-paced groove with a menacing feel; its jerky verse leads to a compellingly melodic, descending chorus hook.
“Lycanthrope” is a demented blues thrill ride; its whiplash riffs and stinging attack cut a savagely anthemic din. “Just Bought The Farm” opens with a hypnotic pounding drum and bass pattern coloured with shards of guitar feedback before transitioning into a sledgehammer riff as Doyle sings, “Burnt the hips, Don’t say a word, Take the bait, The ignorant jerk.”
“Rotor’s” sludgy bass-bouncing groove and contagious chug is the embodiment of early ’90s alternative rock, topped off with a chaotic, atonal guitar solo from Gary Thorstensen, “Rotor” is a riot. Josh Sinder’s rolling toms introduce “Paregoric.” It’s a typically abrasive TAD riff-fest with an incredibly melodic, vocal-less chorus hook.
“Pansy’s” knotty intro riff gives way to a slamming behemoth. Tad Doyle sounds maniacal and on edge as he takes on the first-person viewpoint of a desperately deranged individual, “You want some candy, get in the truck, And take some candy; we won’t go far; your mother told me to come pick you up, Today you’ll ride up front, tonight in the trunk.” Unsettling and bleak, the band take no prisoners, shining a light on the dangerous reprobates of society.
Inhaler’s final track is a shaft of light after the heaviness of “Pansy.” “Gouge” pushes acoustic guitars to the fore. While the introduction of acoustic instruments for most rock bands pre the Seattle invasion, usually spelled vomit-inducing, lighters aloft, cringy introspection, TAD, like their Pacific Northwest peers, dragged the use of acoustic instruments in songwriting back from the doldrums and used them more as another colour in a richly vibrant but musically heavy pallet.
Inhaler found TAD at a crossroads; it was their step to the next level on the corporate ladder. That said, signing with a major didn’t change their approach to songwriting. If anything, Inhaler proves their focus was sharper than ever. The songs they brought to the recording sessions were some of the best of their career. The album sounds incredible; like a brilliant reverse engineering job, no expense was spared in making it sound as raw, massive, and unwieldy as possible.
TAD’s bad luck wasn’t too far away, though. After Inhaler’s release, they headed out on tour with Soundgarden. A promotional poster for the tour emerged featuring a photograph of President Bill Clinton with a marijuana joint superimposed between his fingers. “It’s heavy shit,” read the caption. At the time, Clinton was under scrutiny in the press for supposedly smoking a joint while in college, to which he claimed he “didn’t inhale.” Warner Brothers unceremoniously dropped the band mid-tour, citing the poster as the reason.
Tad Doyle recalls the furore, “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 it 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.”
TAD should be lauded as highly as their Pacific Northwest contemporaries. They were trailblazers of the alternative rock scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Their hulking sound was laced with sarcastic wit, sneering social commentary, blazing riffs and robust, head-nodding grooves.
When asked in 2016 what he was most proud of regarding TAD, Tad Doyle replied, “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 thought of us or how we could look better—just being open to what we were doing musically and always trying to one-up what we had done in the past. Not settling for making God’s Balls three times. It’s 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.”
“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, nudging things, and moving things to make them perfect.” continues Doyle, “The imperfections are what make the songs have character. And 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 wild and haywire with what’s going on musically. Let it take its course, and don’t play it safe. Trust your heart, not so much your mind.”