Pearl Jam: (l-r) Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Matt Cameron, Jeff Ament, Eddie Vedder.
One happy by-product of writing my Mudhoney book was digging into that band’s shared history with Pearl Jam, which goes all the way back to the mid-’80s when Mark Arm and Steve Turner were in Green River with Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. During the course of my research, Jeff generously gave me an interview. Not only did he provide a vivid depiction of the pre-boom years Seattle scene, it was clear that although their bands operate at very different commercial levels, both Mudhoney and Pearl Jam have lasted more than 20 years for the same basic reasons: comradeship and integrity. Talking to Jeff was a real joy. It also prompted me to reflect upon just how I’d learned to stop worrying and love Pearl Jam.
I first saw them play in 1991 at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago: they were opening for Smashing Pumpkins and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a line-up I always cite to rebut the notion that music journalism is a cushy number. At that point, Pearl Jam overdid everything that could be guaranteed to offend my aesthetic prejudices, be it the inflated hair or the guitar histrionics, or simply Eddie Vedder’s sleeve-worn sincerity. Doubtless I was influenced by simplistic assessments of the post-Green River settlement: essentially, that Mudhoney were the pure-hearted punk rockers and Pearl Jam, via Mother Love Bone, were tools of The Man. Seeing two London gigs in 1992, as Ten-mania surged with that damn Jeremy video implanted on MTV, didn’t soften my view.
A couple of years later, certainly by the time of Vitalogy, Pearl Jam were a different animal – ragged sonics, media blackout, short hair – and I wish I’d seen them play live circa 1994/95. I did see them backing Neil Young at the Reading Festival, which was great but I gave most of the credit there to Neil Young. Essentially when I was paying attention, Pearl Jam weren’t really talking my language, and a little later, when they clearly were talking my language, I wasn’t paying attention.
Anyhow, the more perversely obtuse records they released, like No Code  and Yield , the more interested I became. Anyone who writes a song inspired by Mudhoney’s Matt Lukin is obviously one of the good guys. Waging war against Ticketmaster or inviting fans to bootleg your own shows are hardly the acts of corporate greedheads. Nor is regularly taking Mudhoney on tour as your opening band. In 2000 they even had The Monkeywrench, Mark Arm and Steve Turner’s side project, playing arenas in Europe. By now I was cheering them on. Yet it wasn’t until hearing 2006’s ‘Avocado’ album that I truly felt compelled to see Pearl Jam again. With that album it seemed as if they’d finally reached a comfortable accommodation between their questing aspirations and ingrained commercial instincts. This was that rare beast: a big occasion band who never lost the human touch, with deep roots and maverick tendencies, precision driven but whimsical, endearingly off-the-cuff.
On July 19, 2013 I was lucky enough to see Pearl Jam play to 40,000 people at Wrigley Field in Chicago, one of the most remarkable rock shows I’ve ever witnessed. The unscripted drama of a two-hour thunderstorm interruption seemed to both heighten the band’s intensity and loosen their limbs. You didn’t have to be a baseball nut to sense the emotion when 82-year-old ‘Mr Cub’ Ernie Banks was led on-stage at his old home ground by Eddie to join in with All The Way, Ed Ved’s self-made Chicago Cubs anthem. As one fan’s T-shirt proclaimed, “It doesn’t get Eddie Vedder than this”.
After the storm: Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks and Eddie Vedder, Wrigley Field, July 19, 2013.
From here on, I’m a lifer. Not Ten Club fanatical, but put it this way: the next time Mudhoney’s schedule permits them to accept what Jeff Ament insists is practically a permanent invitation for them to tour with PJ, then I’m there. And I can’t think of any other band that would possess me to drive to the GPS deadzone that is the Milton Keynes Bowl. There I was, however, in July 2014, eyeing up the merch, getting twitchy every time Mike McCready began loitering around the 20th fret, and scouring my PJ Stat Tracker app to assess the chances of hearing an obscuro fave like You Are or All Night alongside bankers like Even Flow and Corduroy. Hopes were high – after all, I’d interviewed Stone Gossard a week earlier and asked him to put a word in. Obviously Ed Ved had other ideas. But what the hell? Now I’m a Pearl Jam fan means there’s always a next time.
Stone and I spoke for 20 minutes on July 5, 2014, a few hours before Pearl Jam played the Rock Werchter Festival in Belgium. Here’s the interview, published in full for the first time.
Green River formed in the summer of 1984, which means that, via Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam, you and Jeff have been playing in bands together almost continuously for 30 years. Does the motivation for doing this remain the same?
“I think so! We talk about it all the time, our excitement level for writing music and still discovering things about an instrument or coming up with a riff that’s different than anything we’ve written before. Or coming up with a lyric, or understanding how pop music works and why it’s this endless mystery of simplicity: these same chords, there’s only a handful of chords, 12 or something, with variations… why is it that still even today there’s things that come out and just sound so fucking cool?! It still strikes you and it still makes you get excited about that process. Talking about the 30 years anniversary of Green River: I probably started playing guitar only six months before I was in Green River, so really, ‘get an instrument and start doing something with it’ has always been what we did. We’re never gonna understand music from a virtuoso point of view, and there’s wonderful things about that… the best players are people that can understand the simplicity and the complexity at the same time. But I think that for two guys like Jeff and I who don’t really have this massive musical talent but who are excited about art and the process of stumbling on and discovering things just by the nature of finding your own little voice and your own little style that grows into something, it’s still fascinates us and it still motivates us.
“Pearl Jam feels as good or better now than it’s ever felt because we’ve stayed with our original intent in terms of doing things as a band, trying to share as much as we can, believing that even if you aren’t at your peak of songwriting prowess that you can get better and you can find your style over time. All those things are still holding true. We look at each now onstage and we’re like, This is amazing – how is it possible that young fans are still getting turned on to the band and they’re digging through the catalogue and finding things they like, or even for us to be able to go back and play songs that were written 10 or 15 or 20 years ago that we’ve still never played live? There’s a lot of opportunity for renewal and discovery.”
You’re all strong individuals who don’t always agree on what to do or how to do it, yet the band has survived. Presumably you’ve learnt how to work as a collective?
“I think so, and it’s not always the same dynamic. It shifts and people’s potentials grow. There’s an alchemy to it that you’re not going to fully ever understand and so you have to trust in this inaccurate process of going in every day when you’re gonna do something or play a show and say OK, I’m gonna put my faith in the big picture and I’ll make a suggestion when it’s helpful. You have to know when to say something and know when to just keep your mouth shut. That’s the ideal: finding that balance. But the long term is that if everybody is at least attempting that, generally speaking – and it’s never perfect – but if there’s general attempts towards it then over the long haul you do actually get better and develop a language that is your own band’s creation. That’s what’s happened. We stuck around long enough that we actually were able to reap the benefits of having this long relationship with each other and to have perspective on it now to be able to really enjoy it and say, I’m glad we stuck around.”
Kick out the Jam: Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard joined by Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and (obscured) Steve Turner for PJ’s 20th anniversary, 2011. Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage
Like any long-term relationship, it’s had its ups and downs…
“Absolutely. And there might not even be anything going on at a certain period of a band’s existence, but somebody just wakes up and goes, ‘I’m gonna change…’ Glorious things can come out of somebody saying, ‘I’m not gonna put myself in this process any more, I’m gonna choose a different process.’ There’s nothing wrong with that. But our particular band has been stubbornly persistent at just saying: ‘Nope, we’re gonna keep doing it.’ And there’s been times when that has probably not benefited us. There’s been times when we’ve been stagnant and times where it would have been nice to have somebody come in and break the thing open and say, ‘No, try it this way’ – where we were incapable of doing that. But I think in the long run our persistence and stubbornness paid off in the sense that now I think we’re better at challenging ourselves internally. Going back in time and thinking about songs that I hated – ‘Oh, this song’s not a Pearl Jam song’ – and then just loving it 10 years later and going, ‘God, I was just in a shit mood, because I wasn’t in charge of some particular track or it wasn’t going the way I wanted it to’. I had a predisposed notion about how I felt about it. Everybody in the band has gone through moments like that, where they’re like, ‘I’m not happy right now.’ But, you can’t be happy every day! And anyone that’s ever tried to put a new band together knows you’re going to run into a whole new set of personalities and whole new set of problems, and anyone that thinks they can just go out and do it by themselves and have that same momentum is… Y’know, Ed’s as good as anyone at generating that energy by himself, he’ll go out and do solo shows, but I think at some point during those tours he’s like, ‘Ahh, I’m excited to be getting back to my band,’ just because those faces and the support that he gets and the energy he gets from the history of it and the song catalogue and the crowd’s response to it, is all still evident.”
With hindsight, No Code, a confounding record at the time, seems pivotal to the development of the band we see now.
“Yeah. I think Vitalogy for sure was a period of time where Ed really developed even more and took more control of the songwriting. The simplicity of that record, we just broke it down to its bare essentials. We’d just made Vs, and I was like, This is it, this is the prototype of how we’re going to be as a band, I understand how this is supposed to work. And suddenly Vitalogy was very different from that. Much less articulated with the guitars and much more simplistic. I was worried about that. And that record had a complete life of its own. And then, Dave Abbruzzese not being in the band and having a brand new drummer [Jack Irons]… Your drummer is so fundamental to how you interact with each other, we were learning a whole new language and we were still playing fast and loose in the studio, we didn’t spend a lot of time on takes or arrangement, and No Code really reflects that. To some degree Vitalogy too. We didn’t over-play that stuff before we went out! And maybe some of those takes aren’t as good as they could have been. But in retrospect, it has a rawness that makes you go, ‘OK – that doesn’t sound like they’re spending eight months at Versailles at some studio, over-doing things and spending a bunch of money because they’re rock stars.’ So I agree, I think that No Code is pivotal, and there was new territory that we opened up in that record. I think Jack Irons is a key ingredient to how that record developed, for sure, his personality.”
PJ circa No Code, with Jack Irons (second right).
Do you need to have processes in place to ensure you don’t go through the motions, be it touring or making a record?
“I think so, and I think those processes are: touring is never going to be something that we do all year long. Our tours are three to four weeks maximum and maybe we do at the most three of those in a year. So in the grand scheme of things, if you’re touring 12, 14 weeks out of a 52 week year, compared to most situations you’re still getting a long time at home to refuel and do things. That would be a touring year. We continue to talk about how we’d wanna go about recording, how we wanna change it up… A way of approaching a record that is different. It’s been proven to us that we can take chances and it works out in the long run, even if in the short run it doesn’t feel quite like we achieved what we want it to. And I think that we’re confident that the nature of our band and the nature of our relationship with our fans is pretty secure at this point. They’re gonna appreciate us taking some chances and I think we’ve gotta follow through on that and do it, and not make the same records. We’ve gotta keep trying to do something different. It gets more challenging the older you get, because the longer you’ve been doing a process the harder it is to say let’s do it totally differently – let’s break it, what can we do to throw ourselves into a new dynamic. When do you make your Emotional Rescue, y’know?! You think of records that were weird departures that were maybe even frustrating to listen to as a Stones fan, but you listen to it now and it’s like, God, Emotional Rescue! Records that were maybe challenging but in the long run they do something for you, like Achtung Baby or something like that, where they shift gears in a way that’s dramatic.”
Are setlists a group effort?
“Ed does the setlist in general. He’s the one who’s trying to link stories together. He’s the one who’s most closely interacting with the audience. He has the best feel for that particular task. But he will always bring in a rough setlist and then we’ll probably pull one or two things out, add one or two things. Then through the night, he always changes a song, at least one a night, and then we always add one or two more in different spots. And I think he’s got even better at it. It’s finding that balance of, for lack of a better word, songs that are surefire songs that everybody knows versus obscure tracks that maybe a quarter of the audience is gonna go crazy for and another quarter might go, ‘I’ve never heard this before, what’s it all about?’ Being a concertgoer, I know the feeling of going to a show and expecting to hear a certain song and not hearing it, and feeling, ‘Damn…’, but also being turned onto a new track that I had never heard before. And with our fans, because there is a big desire to hear obscure tracks, even if you don’t know the song you can look around and get energised by people going, ‘Ohmigod they haven’t played this song in six years!’ Or, ‘They really fucked that up in the second verse but it was kinda funny…’ So it’s become part of our language.”
Do you ever look at Eddie’s setlist and go ‘huh?!’
“The setlist gets produced sometimes five minutes before the set and there’ll be two songs that we haven’t played, of the songs we rehearsed… we have five rehearsals before we go out and we rehearsed 50 songs and it’s not one of those 50 songs. And you’re like, OK… I can do this. Or, you’re like, Let’s skip that one today, let’s play it at soundcheck and then we’ll play it tomorrow. He’s very flexible. But you want to pick and choose your battles, and I think arguing about a setlist is one of the things you could do every day if you wanted to. What you don’t play today, you’ll play two days from now. Just buckle your seatbelt and shut up.”
Do you have any pre-show rituals? Group prayers…?
“We try to at least shake hands with each other before we go out on-stage and say, ‘Hey mate, have a good one!’ I think that’s one of the things as you get older, once you’re out on-stage, the gods decide what’s gonna happen. Go out there with good energy for your fellow bandmates and that’s about the best thing you can do. We’ve had plenty of shows where we’ve given each other big hugs and smiles, then walked out and sucked. It’s not gonna help.”
“I wonder if they’ll do Dirty Frank…”: me soaking up the pre-match atmosphere at Wrigley Field.