Pearl Jam Interview

Pearl Jam re-issued their seminal debut album 'Ten' on 23 March. To mark the occasion here's an interview with the band, so sit back, get comfortable ('coz it's long) and read on…

Q: Seattle has always been out of the mainstream American rock circuit, so how did the scene develop in the 1980s?

Stone Gossard: Everyone just got in bands. There wasn’t a lot of trying to do anything other than that nobody was getting signed. A lot of us couldn’t play! Whatever we had we tried to bring to the table and that made some weird combinations of people playing together so everybody was going for broke in the sense of what have you got to lose?

Matt Cameron: Seattle was isolated so a lot of national known big time rock acts wouldn’t necessarily come up to Seattle and Portland. That forced the North West music scene to look inward and create stuff on our own turf, play our own clubs. At the time the 80s underground in the US was definitely getting a lot more organised with bands like Black Flag and Husker Du, Minor Threat, Butthole Surfers – they were able to create a circuit that had nothing to do with major labels and the known music industry at that time. What our music scene really plugged into was that do it yourself spirit.

Q: Jeff and Stone you started playing together in Green River back in 1984. What were your early influences?

Stone: my influences were a lot of FM rock and pop on the radio. Simon and Garfunkel and disco. You couldn’t help but be affected by disco. Even if you weren’t at the time in love with disco it was everywhere. I missed British punk I never really understood it until I started listening to the Sex Pistols in 84 and I went ‘whoa, this is a rock band’. Heavy Metal was huge too. Motorhead was the ultimate Seattle band, the lynchpin memories of how much you loved Black Sabbath when you were 8 years old.

Q: It is sometimes claimed that Green River invented grunge.

Jeff Ament: (chuckles) In the last year we’ve played four shows with Green River and while it’s been great to go back we’ve come to the conclusion that we were really just ripping off Black Flag and Motorhead and The Stooges. I guess that’s what ended up being grunge so we probably owe Iggy and Lemmy and Greg Ginn some royalties from that era. They haven’t asked yet!

Q: In early 1990 the future of the Seattle rock scene appeared to be Mother Love Bone, in which Stone and Jeff wrote many of the songs. The band was fronted by the charismatic Andrew Wood and was signed to a major label. Days before the release of the band’s debut album, Apple, Wood took a heroin overdose. He died a few days later from a cerebral haemorrhage. When Andrew died did you feel your chance was gone?

Jeff: I felt like maybe that was my one shot. I hung out with Stone a little right after Andy died. We’d go on long bike rides, sit around, have coffee and talk about anything other than being in a band together. I tried to make some sort of sense about what I was gonna do and if Stone and I were ever going to do anything together again. A friend of mine, Richard Stuverud, was in a band called War Babies. Their bass player had just quit and he said ‘we have a show in 3 days can you learn these songs and play the show with us?’ I did and I had such a great time, better than the last days in Mother Love Bone. Right around the same time Stone said that he and Mike [McCready] had been playing some new songs that he’d written and did I want to play on the demos that they were gonna cut.

Stone: I loved writing songs – I had the bug so I was just gonna keep writing. We had some really tough circumstances but at the same time I loved waking up, writing songs and playing in a band – particularly if it’s stuff you can play.

Q: How did you meet Mike?

Jeff: I ran into the singer of Shadow in the parking lot behind the restaurant that I worked in and he invited me to their show. When I got off work I walked in and Mike was on the stage by himself playing a guitar solo a la Eddie Van Halen

Mike McCready [laughs]: He shuddered. Even through Jeff was in the punk rock scene and I was in the metal scene it was a small scene up here in Seattle back in the early 80s so it was hard not to run into somebody.
By the end of the 80s I’d been through the ringer of the music business. I’d been playing in bands since I was 11 and we moved down to Los Angeles in 86 trying to make it down there with Shadow. We played for about a year, partied, ran out of money and I became totally disillusioned with rock and roll. I got Crohns disease, which just brought me to my knees so I changed everything. I just knew it was never gonna happen. I went to the illogical extreme. So I went back to school in Seattle, cut off all my hair and I was reading these Barry Goldwater books. That lasted for about a year then I heard Muddy Waters playing on the Band’s last Waltz and started playing music again. Like phew.
I heard that Stone was looking for me – he saw me playing at a party jamming to a Stevie Ray Vaughan record when Mother Love Bone was still happening – so for me it was a huge opportunity. In my mind Stone had made it ‘cos he had a record contract, he’d already put out records, he knows the game and that was the unattainable thing for me. Stone and Jeff were rock stars around Seattle I had to ask Stone after we started jamming for about a week – are we gonna start a band? What do you want to do? Cos he was keeping everything very close to his chest. It was an exciting time…brand new…. it was a twist of fate for me.

Q. The trio of Stone, Jeff and Mike quickly put together some song ideas but were still looking for a singer and a drummer. Matt Cameron, drummer with Soundgarden and a stalwart of the Seattle scene, was recruited to play on the demo tapes. Eight years later he joined Pearl Jam as their full time drummer.

Matt: I couldn’t predict what it would become obviously but they were all very well structured songs that you could definitely hear vocals on top. It was just a fun thing to do as I was between tours. It didn’t sound like Mother Love Bone to me. It seemed like Stone was going for something different.

Stone: I expected that we were going to find somebody [to sing] in Seattle only because so far that’s the way it had all worked. We loved Uplift Mofo Party Plan the Chilli Peppers record and the drumming on that record. Then because we’d had some success in terms of getting signed and we were like OK maybe we should be bold enough to call up [drummer] Jack Irons and see what he’s doing because we heard at that time he wasn’t playing with the Chilli Peppers anymore. He was playing with Eleven –and I literally just asked him on they way out the door ‘ if you know of any singers let us know” so he said ‘Yeah I do. I know a guy. Crazy Eddie.’

Q: The demo tape was passed along to Eddie Vedder who had an epiphany on his surfboard. He quickly recorded three vocals over the backing tracks and posted it back to Seattle. What was your reaction to Eddie’s songs?

Stone: For Jeff it was instantaneous – he loved it and a lot of people realised how good he was. For me it was a longer process. I was probably slow. He was clearly a good singer. I didn’t necessarily get it. You can hear a song in your head but when somebody actually brings you back a finished vocal you can be like wow that’s a different approach.

Q: When Eddie flew up to Seattle he insisted on going straight from the plane into the rehearsal studio.

Stone: Eddie wasn’t a drunk. He was mellow. He brought us gifts. He was very thoughtful and very different and that was a great change so we dove right into it and wrote a bunch of songs. Then we knew it was on. You write your songs and then you’ve got ‘em, then you go out and play, try to put yourself into ‘em and hope for the best.

Mike: the first time Ed came to the studio he was wearing a Butthole Surfers T shirt. He had long hair but it was shaved at the side, cut off shorts and Doc Marten boots that were fairly worn in and a tan because he was living in California. I had already heard him sing on his demo and I knew he had a fantastic, exciting voice so I was wondering what this guy looked like. He was my size. He was short, unassuming but when he opened his mouth he had this thunderous voice and I was stoked. Because he was still feeling the situation out he was very stoic and staid, didn’t move very much as he does now. He would sing with this incredible voice and just stand there. I was blown away.
I knew this was one of those moments that only comes once in a band’s career. He was the missing piece to our band. There were 5 guys in a band, everybody was firing on all cylinders and Ed was a guy that could lead us to the promised land. I had no idea it was gonna be as huge as it did but I knew we were good.

Jeff: When we played with Ed we knew there was something happenin’. I felt connected to what he was saying, how he was singing and the voice he brought to the band. I felt more connected to that than any other band I’d ever been in. somewhere deep inside I knew that he gave us something for people to respond to it.

Q. The band were originally working as Mookie Blaylock the name of a pro basketball player. After they signed to Epic Records it became clear they would have to find another name for legal reasons. How did you settle on Pearl Jam?

Mike: Jeff, Ed and Stone saw Neil Young jamming for a long time so the word jam was there. I remember this list of names and we were sitting around the B&O coffee shop on Broadway. Pearl was up here and Jam was there amongst all these other words and we were putting them together. Jeff put those two together and we were like that’s it.

Q: How did the recording sessions for Ten go?

Mike: we’d done a few demos prior in our studio, the Galleria Potato Head. When we recorded Ten we brought in those ideas that Stone and I had been working on, that Jeff, Stone and I had been working on and what Ed had sung on over the period of a week – Alive, Once, Jeremy and a couple of others that didn’t make the record. We were up in London Bridge Studios in North Seattle and we would go in and record takes daily, and then overdub them later or the next day.
We did Evenflow about 50 – 70 times. I swear to God it was a nightmare. We played that thing over and over until we hated each other. I still don’t think Stone is satisfied with how it came out. That was maybe the most arduous thing but it was also very exciting to be in a big major recording studio for the first time.

Q: What are your favourite songs on Ten?

Stone: I love Oceans. That probably sums up why I get excited about song writing. It’s like open detuning where the first chord’s just straight across and it’s just 2 fingers that come on and off to create the whole thing and then it moves down one position and it moves back up. It has a tiny little change in it but it’s also got 3 big movements. What I love about music is aesthetic chords; the simpler the better and then another set that does something to those original chords. It’s a really simple arrangement.
We wrote it, we played it and Ed sang it, which is another thing that he does. I’d never seen anyone engage with song writing the same way. Here’s the song, let me play it for you. It goes like this. Ok there’s a change here, let’s do it – and he would sing it. I’d hear the melodies and I’d think OK he’s gonna write words or whatever and then I realised later that he actually had written the words right there. I couldn’t understand how somebody could do that. Since then I’ve met a lot of people that can do it so it was an eye opener but he does it better than anyone I’ve ever seen do it.

Matt: When I was in Soundgarden and we were making Badmotorfinger Eddie brought up the mixes to Ten and I distinctly remember hearing the chorus for Evenflow and thinking that’s HUGE. So hooky, it’s got a really rad Zeppelin huge rock feel to it. Although we’ve played it a couple of thousand times since I’ve been in the group I think that’s the quintessential Pearl Jam song. Even though it gets played out, the nuts and bolts of that song are just amazing. Oceans is also a fantastic song. Super fun to play.

Mike: I really like Alive a lot –I look at it as a live song that we’ve done over the years and that people respond to very well and have an emotional attachment to. And I get to do a fun solo on it!

Jeff: At the time it was Oceans and it’s still my favourite track. When we recorded it I thought we were pushing the envelope and that there was a lot of other places that we could take the music that we made. I also like the intro and outro music, which was a kind of art, project that we did on a day where somebody was sick. That’s what I get most excited about, the stuff that’s just a little bit outside of our comfort zone. Every record we made has had a little art project index. Somebody would come in with a vision for something crazy or a different way to approach recording or writing or switching instruments. Sometimes they’ve failed but every once in a while something really good happens which creates a new way to make music together. If we felt like we were pushing out and people responded to that that is success to me.

Q: Ten sold 12 million copies and has become a seminal 90s album. What do you think of it now?

Stone: I think Ten’s still good but I don’t put it on (laughs). The new mix of the record is great. That’s one of the things I’m most excited about is Brendan doing another mix on it – it sounds a little bit more like our subsequent records sounded so it gives it a different treatment.

Matt: It’s definitely stood the test of time. To me it sounds like a band playing in the studio.

Jeff: A little bit of hindsight but not necessarily the 17 years that it’s taken to get to this point! Ever since we made our 2nd record we’ve been thinking about remixing Ten. The original version has a little bit more of an 80s production. When Brendan mixed Vs., I asked him ‘can you remix Ten just for me so I can listen to a drier more direct version of those songs?’

Q: The Super deluxe Ten reissue package contains all sorts of extra goodies, including Eddie’s original demo tape, a DVD of your MTV Unplugged session, a new remix of Ten by Brendan O’Brien, notebooks and vinyl versions. How did it come about?

Jeff: Sony’s been asking us to do it for a long time but Kelly our manager has had the idea to do a 20 year anniversary retrospective movie so he’s been on board with [film director] Cameron Crowe for the last few years. He presented the idea to us of reissuing some of these records leading up to that and I was really excited about doing Ten.
I wasn’t happy with the way the original package came out. We had pretty severe restrictions in terms of what we could do. They didn’t let us put it out on vinyl and that was a rough blow to us at the time ‘cos I don’t think I even had a CD player. I was one of the last people that I knew that got a CD player.
Early on I found out it was better to make bad art yourself than to have somebody else create what they thought would represent you. Ed and I have always been super hands on with all our art and Ten was the one time in Pearl Jam where the finished product really wasn’t 100% what we intended. There was a bit of headbutting going on with the Sony art department at that time. The version that everybody got to know as the Ten album cover was pink and it was originally intended to be more of a burgundy colour and the picture of the band was supposed to be black and white. I felt this reissue was an opportunity to go back and finish what we started.
We had a hard time actually finding original photographs so all we had to work with was black and white photographs so we have a slightly different version of what the original colour was. We gave it a sepia tone finish. Ed and I dug through boxes and boxes of memorabilia and journals that we kept during the tours and the making of that first record and we created a journal with a lot of those artefacts and it was super fun. I think it was the first time that either one of us had dug through that stuff for 17 years and it filled in some memory loss that we had from that time. I think it has turned into a really cool package, a real fans package.

Mike: When we did MTV Unplugged we had flown in that day from Germany so we were all tired, jet lagged and hungover. We rented some guitars that were OK and we didn’t feel that comfortable about it but we knew it was something that was good for us to do. Nobody in the band has ever been that excited about that performance but MTV Unplugged has been very exciting to many fans over the years – “like dude when are you going to release that?” So we are finally gonna release that because of the fan demand.

Q: In the early days Ten was a slow seller and the band toured for months promoting it. During his first shows Eddie Vedder was a restrained front man. By the end he was an inspired performer. What caused that change?

Mike: What made Ed change from being stoic and being introspective was when Chris Cornell from Soundgarden took him out drinking and gave him an idea of maybe loosening up. I don’t know what he did but after he hung out with Chris he started to open up a little bit more. Then we went on tour, we went to Europe a few times and he became this guy who would climb everywhere during the middle of the songs. I was worried every time he did it.
We were in San Diego – it was us, Nirvana and the Chilli Peppers. He jumped up on this scaffolding bar, threw his microphone cord over it, climbed up it maybe 40 feet up, while we were doing the solo for Alive. I’m thinking this guy’s gonna fall and kill himself and our career’s over.

Stone: Ed didn’t perform the way he was to subsequently till he’d played 40 or 50 shows. Maybe not that many. All of a sudden he figured out how to exchange energy with the crowd in a way that he’d never done before so that’s when it went pheeeeeew. Ed knows how to inhabit a song and people can see it in his eyes and they hear it in his voice and they just fall into that.
I knew everything had gelled on the road where we had transcendent shows. The next record was probably where it felt better recording wise. I saw how it could change and evolve which gave me a lot of inspiration to go ‘we can do ballads, we can do fast stuff, we can do slow stuff, we can do punk stuff.” That was where I realised there were gonna be a lot of places to go with Ed. To have Ed sing on anything, the way he writes lyrics and the way he approaches your material is fantastic. He really loves getting into it, the challenges of all of our songs and the different ways they’re brought into ‘em. He hears things and once he’s onto it he’ll give you such incredible variety in terms of vocal approaches and rhythm and story. He’s so great with different points of view that it’s like going to Disneyland.

Q: The band became hugely successful very quickly and then as a band instead of grasping for every buck you took a counter stance stopped shooting videos and got into a battle with Ticketmaster. Was that entirely popular inside the group?

Mike: The idea of pulling back at the height of our popularity was not exciting to me at the time. I wanted to continue to ride it and play the game, to do videos and go on tour, not throw away this great opportunity. In hindsight it was the right idea.
It happened so fast for all of us out of the blue. It was kind of mind shattering. It was affecting us all in certain different ways and we weren’t talking to each other, we were partying too much, Ed was on the cover of Time magazine – everything blew up and had we not done that at the time – certainly the record label wanted us to not do that. The record company wanted us to do a video for Black, they wanted us to play all the game shows, get on everything they could possibly get on and they fought us for a long time about that and were very pissed about it.
Jeff, Stone and Ed specifically wanted to pull back and that saved us.

Jeff: At the time we thought that selling millions of records was the biggest curse ever. We saw the REM kind of slow success as being the right way to do it ‘cos they came from that same kind of DIY background. But in retrospect that power actually allowed us a lot of freedom and allowed us to do things in a way that probably 99% of the major label bands that were out there didn’t get to do. We created our own method and our own handbook on how to do it and we’re still figuring it out because of the way technology’s changing now.

Jeff: The process of making a video was a painstaking process for us. It wasn’t something that we were comfortable with, making sure the editing process was going the right way and that it was going to be as edgy as we wanted it to be, those were battles that took weeks and sometimes months. Sometimes we’d spend $200,000 on this piece of art that nobody has ever seen so it just seemed like a waste of our time when we would rather be playing shows or writing songs.
After we won the video of the year for Jeremy we were like well we’ve done this. We made the best video on the planet this year so now let’s do something else.

Q: Over the years Pearl Jam have been incredibly supportive of their fans. Was that always in your grand plan or did that evolve?

Stone: It was always in the plan in the sense that we saw right away that doin’ stuff on your own is good. None of us waited for anything to happen We just started playing, touring and making T shirts, recording and making coloured singles. We started doing that on our own.

Mike: Our fan base is very important to us. They are everything. They are the reason I am sitting here on this couch in our warehouse. We run a business out of here – it’s very important. It keeps us alive as a band. Our fans are extremely important to us and they follow us around. People go and see hundreds of shows. It just blows me away.

Jeff: After we sold a bazillion records on Ten we had a bit of power so we decided to exert that power. What would a music fan want? We approached things from that standpoint. The way that Pink Floyd put out packages using Hipgnosis artwork, Led Zeppelin used real special packaging. It was mystical and super creative and a lot of times it was totally off the wall I like to think that we used that little bit of power to make stuff that looked cooler.

Q: Pearl Jam were one of the first bands to release official bootlegs – and now internet downloads – of your concerts. Did you experience any record company objection when you started doing it?

Stone: I’m sure there was somebody that said it was a bad idea but we just pushed it through and I think in the end they said ‘oh we sold thousands…so that’s cool.’ I didn’t get the memo (laughs) as to how much we had to make the record company let us do bootlegs.

Mike: The driving force behind the bootleg series was Kelly Curtis our manager who had been talking about it with Jeff Ament and Eddie. We’ve always liked bootlegs as a band but we would see our own bootlegs out there, we’d collect them and they would be inferior quality. So we decided let’s just put our own out and charge a little bit less for them and make ‘em sound as good as they possibly can.

Q: Where are you favourite places to tour?

Mike: I love England a lot. I love to walk around Hyde Park and hang out. I like to play in Rome, Milan; we’ve toured all over Italy that’s been interesting. Columbia River Gorge is a favourite place we play here in Seattle. We played some shows with Neil Young and we subsequently did a record called Mirrorball with him and he asked us if we would be his touring band over in Europe. It was a dream come true. We got to play a bunch of Neil Young songs with Neil Young himself and got to go to Berlin, to Jerusalem, to the Red Sea.

Jeff: Europe is certainly on our radar right now and we’re still trying to figure out how to sanely tour there at some point in the next 18 months. A lot of it’s gonna depend on how quickly we finish up our new record.
We’ve only been to South America once but that was pretty phenomenal. The countries in Europe that have a real similar vibe to South America are Spain and Italy. We had a great tour of Canada in 2005 – incredible. It’s cool to know there are still places that we haven’t played. We haven’t played Alaska, we haven’t played Iceland, and we really need to get back to Finland because we played a show there in 93 with Neil Young that was not the best.

Q: Pearl Jam will be celebrating your 20th Anniversary in 2010. Do you see yourself going on indefinitely?

Stone: It would be thrilling if it happened – if we all looked at each other 10-20 years from now and went how did we do this. We’d have to play a crotchety Evenflow with disco brushes. (Laughs) Our fans are gonna be so old they’re not going to be able to hear us anyway so… maybe we can be video transformed to look 30 years younger.

Matt: I just don’t want to become the Rolling Stones

Mike: I don’t think there’s any way we thought our band would last 20 years. We’re still talking. It’s incredible.

Jeff: It’s pretty insane that we’ve lasted 20 years. At the start I guessed we might make 3 or 4 records, have a little bit of success and we would have gotten to play with some of our heroes. Probably the biggest fringe benefit is that we’ve shared stages with Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins, REM, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones and Frank Black … the list goes on and on. That’s the little kid dream come true being able to play with all those incredible bands and artists that we grew up loving and we still love.

Q: What is the secret of your longevity?

Mike: Pearl Jam has survived this long by luck and because over the years the five of us have confronted each other on issues. We have open lines of communication and we’d call somebody on their shit if there’s a problem. The reason why we’ve lasted so long is we write music, we get very intense, we go away from each other, do our own thing and then we get back together. We give each other space.

Jeff: That’s the biggest reason why we’re still around. There was a point about 93 or 94 where we sort of disbanded for 6 months, didn’t really talk to one another, didn’t really know where each other was at and went off to live life and refuel. It gave us a lot of energy creatively to get away from the bubble. Right around that time everybody started doing side projects, started working on their own music and that’s been really important and satisfying individually.

Q: Has Pearl Jam always been a democracy?

Jeff: I don’t know if it’s ever been a dictatorship…. we started the band with the idea that it was gonna be a democracy but there’s been times in the last 15 years where Ed has had to take the reins because we were about to go off a cliff. At those times where we weren’t sure WHAT we were doing, he’s been great at being able to steer the ship right. He has no problem telling any of us that he needs help. Now we’re pretty good at calling one another and saying things like ‘how do you feel about this? I’d really love to take the reins on this project and work it through”. It makes everyone feel a genuine part of the band. Pearl Jam is a real band.

Stone: I’m the luckiest guy in the world ‘cos I get to be in a band and write songs in a band with 5 songwriters. I get to learn from everybody’s process of how a song structures change and how different people hear different rhythms and different melodies and different sequences. Ed can relate to all these sorts of different things, he always steps outside and keeps exploring new places. I get to play with Matt Cameron, I get to play with Eddie Vedder, come on! And I get to strum along.

Q: What’s your favourite Pearl Jam song?

Stone: Nothing Man. I didn’t write it. Jeff Ament wrote it, Dave Abbruzzese plays great drums on it. Jeff had the chord changes; him and Ed maybe worked it out before. Real Jeff Ament style, his approach to strumming. It has his character trademarks but at the same time really super simple, Ed connects so well with it that anyone who hears it will wanna sing along.

Matt: I really like playing Glorified G a lot from the 2nd record. That’s a really great quintessential Pearl Jam song 'cos it’s got the counterpoint guitars panned right and left hard and a really funky bass line.

Stone: It’s trying to be country and funky at the same time (laughs), which is really bizarre.

Mike: Alive or Evenflow but mostly Alive ‘cos it’s our classic…. a song that people identify with us. It’s anthemic. I know the other guys probably wouldn’t say that but that’s what I think of it and that’s what I’ve heard people tell me. Alive encapsulates the lyricism, the musicianship and the feeling of this band.

Jeff: I’m really fond of a handful of songs that we recorded for the Vitalogy record. Last Exit, Nothing Man and Tremor Christ were recorded at Daniel Lanois’ studio in New Orleans. There’s something about the sound of those songs and how easily they came. I love playing Last Exit live and whenever I hear it, it just sounds like we did it right, it sounds natural like we captured what was coming out of us.

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