May 2000 Sonicnet Interview
This is the story about a band that has done most of the things big rock bands aren't supposed to — a band that reached the top then searched for a way to "raise the stakes to bring them down," as singer Eddie Vedder shouts in the song "Grievance," from the new album. When, during the interview, I refer to Pearl Jam's decade-long tenure as an "anti-career" and cite the above line from "Grievance" as an unofficial motto, Vedder smiles and twists his red-white-and-blue wristband. "Taken out of context," he says, "that works."
On five multiplatinum studio albums, the band has explored faith, love confusion and devotion with increasingly textured and intricate music. The group has built the kind of career few of their rock peers have been able to sustain. And what they've finally got is what any 30-ish rocker brought up on a steady diet of the Who, Rolling Stones and '70s rock would give their strumming hand to have: Neil Young's career. Which means that — as with their musical hero and occasional collaborator Young, whose fans are willing to follow him from noisy garage rock to folk and back — the usual rules don't apply to Pearl Jam anymore. "It seems like we've got some open ocean in front of us in terms of where we can go," Gossard, 33, says. "Now we just wanna sail a bit."
The band has navigated some choppy waters in the past — from battling Ticketmaster over what Pearl Jam alleged to be that company's exorbitant service charges to unwelcome intrusions into their private lives. On a bright April afternoon in New York, Vedder (who has done relatively little U.S. press during the past five years) and Gossard sit for a rare interview. Vedder, 36, wears his blond-streaked, brown hair shoulder-length and sports worn skateboarding sneakers, jeans, a blue hooded sweatshirt and a car mechanic jacket. Dressed in black, Gossard's wire-frame glasses lend him a professorial air. Vedder plays the gracious host, moving a flower arrangement that was blocking a clear view of Gossard, and jokingly offering to hold the conversation on the king-sized bed in the style of late Beatle John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono's 1969 "Bed-In" interviews. The pair hold court in an all-white suite at the chic Mercer Hotel in Soho. They share a couch, a pack of American Spirits and the secret to succeeding in rock 'n' roll and having your fans still respect you in the morning.
Sonicnet: How successful have Pearl Jam been at maintaining their anti-career?
Consider this: The group recorded a cover of J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers' 1964 soul-stirring hit "Last Kiss" during a soundcheck in 1999 and sent it to fan club members as the annual Christmas freebie. The recording was never intended to be heard on the radio or sold. But within a few months radio programmers across the U.S. picked up on the song's infectious retro-rock vibe and "Last Kiss" began topping playlists. It also became the biggest radio hit Pearl Jam has had. Ever. Bigger than "Alive," bigger than "Jeremy." It hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and sold a half-million copies. The track and B-side, a cover of Arthur Alexander's "Soldier of Love," appear on the all-star No Boundaries compilation, which raised millions for relief efforts in war-torn Kosovo. Even taking into account the band's stature and the fact that they'd released no new singles that year, the incredible success of the song was still surprising.
Sonicnet: How did the band react to the unexpected hit?
"Best thing that ever happened to us!" Gossard says. "That's the kind of thing that proves you over and over again. You just don't know why people respond to a song. And certainly throwing money at it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with why people suddenly respond to it." Proof of the "power of music," he says.
Vedder calls the song an "absolute gift." "You didn't know what the marketplace was and you didn't know how to digest any of that," he says. "It just reaffirmed the fact that you don't have to think about it and that a soundcheck record can do well."
Gossard boasts that they spent maybe $1,000 recording "Last Kiss."
Vedder disagrees, suggesting that Gossard has grossly overstated the costs.
"At the most," Gossard responds.
"That's including the printing of the vinyl, right?" Vedder shoots back with a look of incredulity. "That's a DAT of the soundcheck; probably cost $4.50," he says.
"Well, to mix it," Gossard reminds him.
"We had to mix it?"
"Yeah, we mixed it for a day at a studio and it only cost $1,000."
The exchange ends with Vedder making a comment to the effect that the catering bill probably ate up most of that $1,000.
'You Sold Out With The Ukulele'
After introducing world-music vibes on their previous two studio albums, Pearl Jam have raised the stakes again on Binaural, Vedder says. The 13 tracks trace fractured lives, dead-ends and the redeeming qualities of imperfect love.
From the blistering punk opener "Breakerfall" to the dramatic sweep of the viola and cello-aided closer, "Parting Ways," the songs are a collaborative effort, with each member taking a stab at writing. Former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron checks in with the post-punk tune "Evacuation," with lyrics contributed by Vedder, while bassist Jeff Ament wrote music and lyrics for the moody first single, "Nothing As It Seems," and the fragile folk-rocker "Thin Air." Gossard's spectral "Of the Girl" is matched in tone by Ament's dark world-music rocker "Sleight of Hand." Guitarist Mike McCready co-wrote the music to "Light Years."
Sonicnet: Your past two albums had a lot of experimental songs, but this one seems more stripped down.The first couple of songs sound like they could've been on Ten.
Vedder: I think in our bag of music, in our bag of whatever's been formed from past influences to current experience, you're gonna reach in and there's going to be similar-sounding things to some of what you've done before. I think we've grown as music writers and [have benefited from] having Matt [Cameron] in the band, and being able to take advantage of someone who can grasp an intricate drum change in 15 seconds and play it solid every time.
You're able to grow, and I think we did that. The nice thing about the first record — we didn't know it was going to be heard. But after it was, it was nice that there were things like "Release" and "Deep" that cover a bunch of different moods. We were able to keep our musical landscape fairly open. I think we've always taken advantage of that. I don't think [the new album is] that much different in that way. That way you can put a song ["Soon Forget"] with a ukulele and a voice on there and it doesn't cause too much of a commotion.
Sonicnet: You've set yourself up, especially after Yield and No Code, where there aren't any rules that you have to follow. you can do a song that's percussion-heavy, a reggae thing, or you can do a ukulele song.
Gossard: No one's gonna bat an eye. People are going to say, "Hey, this is a real straight-ahead record," as opposed to if Metallica did a ukulele song, they'd go, "Whoa, you guys are stepping out into new territory there."
Vedder: "And it sucks! You sold out with the ukulele!"
Gossard: All of us have pretty diverse likes in music, so we've always wanted to be more than just a rock band. All of our favorite bands have had a multidimensional quality to them.
Sonicnet: Like what types of bands?
Gossard: The Who, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin. Maybe less the Rolling Stones.
Sonicnet: This is the first time you've worked with producer Tchad Blake. Do you think there was anything he helped bring out that was different from what Brendan O'Brien contributed?
Gossard: Yeah, definitely! Tchad is a guy that came in with a whole new and different appreciation to the band than what we were used to. He was a very patient producer who let us work on stuff that maybe wasn't even necessarily a song he thought might make the record. He was just there for us the whole time, wanting us to create different moods. He makes great-sounding records.
Sonicnet: "Evacuation" has this post-punk, Wire type of feel. Your vocal especially — it's totally unhinged. At first it sounds like the lyric and vocals are about a guy running away from something, but on second listen it seemed like he was running toward something.
Vedder: Matt wrote it, and there's a lot of momentum in it. I couldn't sit down and write to it, so that was when I'd take it in the car and just go for drives — the open road thing. So it felt like I was evacuating. The theory behind the song, which I've probably done four times already, is getting out of a situation. "Rearviewmirror" might be the same song. But it's time to make a change — it's a song about change.
Sonicnet: It's interesting that you say you've written that song four times because I was listening to this new Neil Young record [Silver and Gold] ... and he somehow finds a way to make some of his usual tropes, like love, not feel old or repetitive. Is that an inspiration to you?
Vedder: Love's an important subject, and you shouldn't be stuck with just one song on it. He's the king of readdressing love, how it grows ...
Sonicnet: There are quite a few love songs on your album that don't necessarily sound like love songs. I'm thinking of "Thin Air." For the most part, it's this beautiful song about deep love, but then there's this line in the second verse where you say, "When I feel I may do harm to her. ... " Where does that line fit into a song about a deep connection between two people?
Gossard: I think the stronger your connection with someone, the more chances you can really hurt them. I think that's the key to that. You put yourself into a situation where something really means something to you, and if you lose that situation, it can really be painful.
Vedder: I appreciated the fact that it was a song about new love. I couldn't have written that song.
Sonicnet: Why is that?
Vedder: Because my love is actually really very, very old. It's on a whole other spectrum.
Sonicnet: Because you've known [wife] Beth [Liebling] since high school?
Vedder: Seventeen years. So, to hear this one, and know that that stuff is true ... I responded to the apprehension that was in there. I thought it was beautiful.
Running Off The Edge Of The Cliff
Pearl Jam's debut album Ten (1991) has sold more than 10 million copies, while their sophomore album, 1993's Vs., has sold just more than 6 million (without the aid of the glitzy videos that usually accompany such huge successes). Vitalogy debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts with sales exceeding 870,000 during its first week. But rather than embrace their superstardom, Pearl Jam reacted to their success by rebelling against it. In 1994, the band waged a public campaign against Ticketmaster, decrying what they considered to be that organization's exorbitant service fees. That summer, the tour in support of Vs. was scrapped when the band was unable to find enough non-Ticketmaster venues to play.
The band's decision to retreat from the public spotlight has earned them the respect of many of their fellow artists. Vedder friend and sometime-collaborator Joey Ramone said he finds Pearl Jam's unconventional approach to being a superstar rock group refreshing. "One thing I like about them, and Eddie especially, is that they maintain their credibility," the former Ramones bandmember said. Ramone contributed vocals to Pearl Jam's live version of the punk classic "Sonic Reducer" on a 1995 Pearl Jam fan club single, Vedder made a cameo appearance at the Ramones' final show in 1996 and members of both groups have since remained close.
"Pearl Jam understand the word integrity," Ramone said.
Friend and fellow Seattle rocker Mark Arm of Mudhoney said he saw that strong vision more than a decade ago in pals Gossard and Ament. "They were involved with the hardcore punk scene [and] the whole DIY ethic was very much a part of what [Ament] was doing," Arm said. "Both guys took an active interest in what their bands were doing and where they were going. By they time they started working with major labels, they had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted and weren't about to give up control."
"Comfortable In Our Skin"
As the interview unfolds it becomes clear that, in addition to Vedder and Gossard's agreement on the importance of integrity and creative control, the pair's easy give-and-take and shared sense of humor have seen them through some tough times.
Sonicnet: Is it easier to be an artist now than it was earlier in your career?
Gossard: I think we're more comfortable in our skin these days. Just in terms of our relationships with each other, and the fact that we all feel like we're not all going to fall off the edge of a cliff in two weeks — we have a couple months. [Vedder and Gossard laugh.]
Sonicnet: What do you mean?
Gossard: Well, it was just a very high, volatile time when we first started making music together. We didn't know each other very well, and over 10 years, we've really gotten to know each other better and become at least generally more accepting of each other. I think we all look back and feel pretty fortunate that we have a band together, and that we make records the way we want to make them, and that we don't have to do a million interviews, and we kind of set ourselves up in a pretty cool way to just make records for the next 10 years, or however long we do it.
Sonicnet: How do you think you've done it? I look not just at your peers from Seattle, but anyone who's on your level and has been around for as long as you have. How is it that you're able to maintain so much control over your career?
Gossard: We just look at guys like Neil Young. In the early '70s, mid-'70s, how huge he was. ... He went away, then kind of came back, and all of a sudden he's got this catalog of friggin' 60 records, or however many records he put out. ... That's what you aim for — the ability to make a bunch of records and look back on it a long time from now and see the arc of that career, that that group had significance.
Vedder: I'm sure there were times when it might have seemed easier to surrender and just stop, because there is some madness involved every once in awhile. For me, it was [being] driven to still make better records. I just wasn't willing to stop yet. I'm still not. ... Actually, maybe this one. ... [laughs]
Sonicnet: Do you need each other to do that?
Vedder: Well, yeah, I think so. I mean, no matter what, even if we were to separate, or if we do separate, those records will never be listened to like these. Now a certain kind of legacy is involved, I'm fortunate enough to say. That's the work that people are going to respond to. And I just felt like we still needed to do better. That's just me personally.
Gossard: I think everyone in the band is driven to say, "That was a cool record. That was a cool record." But two years from now, it's pretty open as to what kind of music we could be playing together.
Put Your Words In My Mouth
Binaural brings with it Pearl Jam's fourth drummer in six studio albums. Matt Cameron played on Pearl Jam's early demos before being replaced by Dave Krusen, who appeared on Ten. Krusen, in turn, was replaced by Dave Abbruzzese, who hung around for Vs. and Vitalogy and who paved the way for former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons. Irons performed on No Code and Yield. Citing health issues, Irons stopped touring and recording with the band, making room for Cameron to step back in after a decade-long absence.
Vedder and Gossard say Cameron has brought with him not just a booming sound but also a spirit that has rejuvenated the band's songwriting process. The drummer's muscular playing on the band's 1998 album, Live on Two Legs, and his songwriting on Binaural's blistering punk-rock tune "Evacuation," bodes well for his reintegration into the group, according to Vedder.
Sonicnet: Is it hard for you to sing someone else's lyrics?
Vedder: Right now they're good, so it's really easy. No, I'm impressed.
Sonicnet: Despite the fact that you're all writing songs, a lot of these tracks have this similar, poetic meter to them. How do you achieve that kind of consistency with so many voices?
Gossard: Me and Jeff [Ament] have been ripping Ed off, so it all blends together. [laughs]
Vedder: No wonder I like it. That's good. [laughs]
Sonicnet: Do you have to ask them where they get inspired? Do you need to know what the song's about?
Vedder: I might ask them a little bit. My only question to Stone on "Thin Air" is, "Do you want to sing it?"
Gossard: Every night? No.
Vedder: Actually, when he said yes, I was pretty happy. I turned around and said, "Yeah! Great!"
Gossard: You don't know what it's like to be in a band with a singer that's open to looking at somebody else's songs and saying there's value in that. That's what gives life to this band, and what will sustain it, the idea that if everybody just writes two to three good songs a year. And usually it's the ones you don't even think that anyone will respond to that everyone responds to.
You come in with your A-list, and you think, "I got this one surefire." But, by the end of the day, everyone is like, "You know that one on the second side? That kinda weird one? That's the one we should do." That's great. That's such a great process — to be in a collaboration where people are pulling stuff, and responding to your music in a way that you don't expect.
Vedder: And that reggae one that you really like? How can I do that one? [laughs]
Time To Dig In Our Heels, Again
Now 10 years and more than 20 million albums into their career, the band is still finding ways to rebel. These days, some of that rebellion is channeled into the way they buck music industry conventions.
Since 1994's Vitalogy, Pearl Jam have typically released unconventional songs as first singles — including the dirgelike "Who You Are" (No Code) and the explosive "Given to Fly" (Yield) — rather than offering the album's more accessible, singalong tracks.
Vedder says the band's fans appreciate the effort.
"It actually felt like we were offering them something fairly challenging," Vedder says of Binaural's first radio track, the brooding "Nothing As It Seems."
Sonicnet: Did "Nothing As It Seems" ever strike you as an odd choice for introducing the album to people?
Vedder: Those are interesting conversations. Because after you make the record and you're ready to display it publicly, and then the first single comes out before the record, then it becomes a strange conversation. ... There's a bit of manipulation going on there, what you would like people to hear. At that point, you try to do it for a few minutes, there's a few back-and-forths. ... To me it starts getting a bit ridiculous. It seems like, in a way, you're trying to fool people. The record company would like the absolute singalong, the immediate melody.
Sonicnet: Something like "Alive"?
Gossard: Which not a lot of people thought was a great single when we released it ... "Alive" ... I don't think that the record company thought it was a slam-dunk. They went, "Oh! This seems like the best one so far." I think there was a lot of confusion about that. That just shows that when you go with your gut instincts, at least you're making your own mistakes or you're doing your own thing. With that song, we talked about four other songs, and then, all of a sudden, someone said what about "Nothing As It Seems"? And we all went, "That'll work, let's do that!" We just agreed on it and we dug in our heels and said that's what you're going to get.
Vedder: With that one we felt like we could do that and we weren't trying to fool people. It actually felt like we were offering them something fairly challenging. We obviously respect the audience.
Sonicnet: You seem to respect your fans. Is that a big part of how this band operates?
Vedder: That's what I think we all feel when we're an audience, whether as a theatergoer or seeing films or reading. I'm insulted when I'm not respected as an audience member.
Now That's The Eddie They Came To See
"Progress ... laced with ... ramifications," Vedder sings in "Grievance," the words like lyrical hammers wielded against unseen enemies. One verse later, his voice takes on a hint of weary resignation as he moans, "For every tool they lend us/ A loss of independence." But just as you fear he's lost the battle, the singer rallies with, " 'Cause you don't give blood/ Then take it back again." In the end, he collapses in a punch-drunk heap as he sings, "I feel alive/ As long as I'm free."
Vedder says those lines, which he wrote, are not about the band.
Rather, they're about governmental and corporate manipulation of the consumer. "I was talking about interest rates," he deadpans, letting out a throaty laugh. The Dow Jones and NASDAQ had crashed just days before.
Then Vedder launches into a monologue about corporate welfare, sounding not unlike the anarchists who trashed his hometown during November's World Trade Organization riots.
"It's the corporate welfare and paying and subsidizing and bonusing mergers," Vedder says, his brow wrinkling.
"It's interesting because we've got an election here, and everyone has a platform on welfare to people where we'll give them a certain amount, but then cut them off after five years. But that's small potatoes compared to corporate welfare, where they're subsidizing McDonald's who, I'm sure, has plenty of dough at this point."
Vedder's discussion touches on everything from subsidizing McDonald's outlets in Singapore to his anger at what he says were million-dollar tax-payer-supported bonus payments for Martin-Marietta executives and questions about where presidential candidates George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore stand on these issues.
I decide to hold off on questioning the "champagne breakfast for everyone" line from "Grievance" as a comment on Pearl Jam's lavish rock-star lifestyle.
They've Got The Biggest Balls Of Them All
There's a knock on the door. It's locked.
"It's funny that it is, isn't it?" Gossard says.
"One more question," the band's publicist shouts from the other side.
"What is it?" Gossard asks innocently.
"No, for him," Vedder says.
"Oh," Gossard nods.
"What's your favorite love song of all time?"
Gossard thinks for a minute then names "All Night Thing" by Temple of the Dog, the grunge supergroup he was a member of in the early '90s.
Vedder is silent. He appears to be thinking it over. Or maybe he's just ignoring the question until someone scares up a key to unlock the door and he can avoid answering it. I turn to walk out of the room.
"Big Balls," he blurts just before the door swings closed, grinning a sideways grin.
Yeah, that's the one."