Pearl Jam

My favourite band of my late teens, just such an important group to me… I interviewed them first for The Times in 2000, and my inexperience and fannish tendencies got the better of me: I fawned when I should have questioned, and got perhaps the most boring interview the group have ever given in response.

Nine years later, and for my favourite magazine, MOJO, I got another shot. Here ’tis…

Tuesday, January 20th 2009. It is inauguration day for America’s new President, although you don’t need to be jammed in with the well-wishers in the nation’s capital to get swept up in the optimism and the bonhomie. Up on the North-westerly tip of Washington state, in Seattle, locals wear their jackets open, proudly exposing Obama tees to the unforgiving wind-chill.
Rolling news coverage of the ceremony – along with its extended aftermath of processions, banquets and balls – blares out from seemingly every radio, every television screen. And in a large, unmarked warehouse by the tracks of the Union Pacific railroad in the neighbourhood of Georgetown, the myriad flat-screens dotted about Pearl Jam’s centre of operations are all tuned in to the event, in the stockroom where a couple of employees dispatch orders of tee-shirts and posters and albums from the fan club shop; in the group’s recreational area, outfitted with a skateboarder’s half-pipe and a full-sized baseball batter’s cage; and in the upstairs offices, decorated with old tour posters and Obama banners, where the group’s management and publicity companies are based.
The building’s main room is two-thirds taken up by scores of shelves storing the group’s instruments and touring gear. The walls are thickly hung with Pearl Jam memorabilia: posters, surf-boards painted with portraits of each member (gifts from an Australian tour), even some of the giant polystyrene letters that spelt out the group’s name on the cover of their 1991 debut album, Ten. At one end of this vast hangar, before a massive Ramones tour backdrop, the members of Pearl Jam congregate in their rehearsal area, surrounded by amplifiers and instruments. As he tunes up, guitarist Stone Gossard’s dog Basie dozes contentedly at his feet.
The building feels like every rocker’s dream clubhouse. It is very much the house that Ten built, that album’s impressive success – almost ten million copies sold in America alone, figures that have earned it twelve Platinum disks – winning Pearl Jam an enduring creative and financial independence which (along with their political activism on behalf of causes such as Rock The Vote and Vote For Change, and their efforts against music-biz behemoths like Ticketmaster) remains at odds with the erroneous accusations of ‘Corporate Rock Whoredom’ that dogged their early years.
“They say that money is the root of all evil,” smiles Vedder, strapping on a guitar, as he joins his bandmates for a rough bash through a new song. “But we were successful enough to be able to use it positively. It gave us the power to say, ‘No’.”

Today, like an average 226 days of the year, Seattle is overcast; it rained earlier, and it will probably rain some more later. Its very British climate is often cited when explaining the city’s apocryphally high suicide rates – the figure is in fact only slightly above the national average – but the weather certainly aided the development of its local music scene.
“People stay indoors here a lot of the time,” nods Matt Cameron, Pearl Jam’s drummer and a California native who moved to Seattle in the early 1980s, playing with local groups Skin Yard and Soundgarden. “A lot of the houses in Seattle have basements, and so it was totally natural to spend your spare time in your basement with your band, rehearsing and writing songs. We all shared that work ethic, that artistic sensibility.”
The Seattle scene of the 1980s was famously incestuous, with Green River – fronted by Mark Arm, and featuring guitarist Gossard and future Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament – as the Patient Zero of the subsequent Grunge epidemic. Working with producer Jack Endino, releasing records on the local Sub Pop label, and fusing sleazy, Stoogian punk-rock with 70s stadium moves, Green River coined all of Grunge’s trademark moves, though the group themselves wouldn’t survive sessions for their debut full-length, Rehab Doll. Arm would later allege Ament’s love of Aerosmith and Whitesnake’s latest albums as the reason for his exit, going on to form Mudhoney with ex-Green River sideman Steve Turner, who had himself quit the group because “Jeff and Stone had started getting ambitious, which I thought was ridiculous.”
At odds with Seattle’s ‘Loser’ culture, Gossard and Ament then hooked up with another of the city’s misfits, a man whose hunger for stardom was evident. Andy Wood – AKA L’Andrew The Love Child – melded priapic Prince perversion with metallic riffage as frontman for the recently-defunct Malfunkshun. Together, they formed Mother Love Bone, whose glammed-up love-rock sounded like a Pacific Northwest echo of Guns’n’Roses, and, with the help of Kelly Curtis (a former tour-manager for local stars Heart who Ament had sought out for his connections to the Los Angeles music industry) provoked Seattle’s first – but not last – Major Label bidding war.
However, days before the planned release of Love Bone’s debut album, Apple, Wood would succumb to a fatal heroin overdose. “We were ready to go, preparing to tour,” remembers Curtis. “It was like someone pulled the rug out from under us. Everything just stopped.”
In the void that followed Wood’s death, Chris Cornell, frontman for Soundgarden and Wood’s former room-mate, approached Gossard and Ament with some songs he’d written about Andy. With Cameron taking the drumstool, they began recording these songs as Temple Of The Dog, their moniker taken from one of Wood’s old lyrics.
Playing lead guitar on the record was Mike McCready, a local whose metal band, Shadow, had foundered after an unsuccessful attempt at cracking the LA scene. Returning to Seattle, he promptly gave up on music, cut his hair short, and began reading books by Republican politician Barry Goldwater. “My life just took this weird right-wing turn,” he laughs. “I just felt I had to go look for my answers someplace other than music. I was pretty depressed, I think.”
It took the blues to lift McCready from his funk. “With the blues, I didn’t have to play a million notes a minute; I could play slower, with more feeling. A year or so after returning to Seattle, Stone heard me jamming along to a Stevie Ray Vaughan record at a friend’s house, and some months later I got word that he was looking for me.”
In the meantime, Gossard had begun working on some new songs and reworked riffs from unfinished Mother Love Bone songs, recording demos with the Temple Of The Dog musicians. Visiting California while on a press junket with Ament, to promote the delayed release of Apple, Gossard met up with friend and former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, who told them about a young singer he knew in San Diego who might suit these new songs.
A transplant from Evanston, Illinois, Eddie Vedder had moved with his family to California when he was twelve. His parents divorced a couple of years later, whereupon he discovered that the man who had raised him was, in fact, his step-father, and that his biological father was a man he knew as a friend of the family, who had died several years earlier of Multiple Sclerosis. The revelation was par for the choppy course of Vedder’s adolescence, which he likens to “a windstorm.” Music was his only succour, in particular The Who, and their angst-slaked rock opera Quadrophenia. “It was like hurricane conditions, emotionally,” he continues, “And those songs were like a solid tree I could hang on to.”
Vedder had fronted Southern Californian funk-rockers Bad Radio until their split early in 1990, and was working a night-job as security watchman at a petroleum company when he received the cassette from Gossard. “I remember walking around this big empty warehouse with the demo playing, the riffs echoing off the five-gallon oil vats,” he says. “The next morning, I wrote some lyrics, recorded my vocals over the top, and mailed them back. I had no idea it would go anywhere; I thought it was just some words, a little art project.”
Vedder’s demos transformed the three songs into a mini rock opera, chronicling incest, murder and suicide, entitled the Mamasan Trilogy. Soon, he was invited up to Seattle for a week, to rehearse and hang out. By the week’s end, having added backing vocals to Hunger Strike, for the Temple Of The Dog project, Vedder elected to move to Seattle and room with Ament, as the vocalist of the still-unnamed new group.
“It wasn’t the easiest transition in the world,” says Gossard. “Mother Love Bone was just saturated with double-entendre and fun, and influenced by Kiss and by Queen, who Andy loved. Whereas Ed came from a completely different point of view…”
“Ed was serious, a little reserved,” adds Ament. “We’d stay up late, having these deep conversations, about life, and music, and how we’d treat people right, if we ever ‘made it’. I really trusted in him, and in the changes he brought.”
Vedder’s darkly emotive lyrics, far removed from the glam and camp of Love Bone, would set the tone for Pearl Jam’s emotive, anthemic rock. Having bank-rolled their efforts with work on Singles, a RomCom being filmed in Seattle by film-maker Cameron Crowe (husband of Heart’s Nancy Wilson), the group signed to Epic Records in early 1991, and released Ten that August. The album cover, featuring the five members of Pearl Jam clasping their hands together towards the heavens, was designed by Ament.
“It’s easy for me to look at the sleeve and feel embarrassed by it now,” he smiles, “But the preciousness of that photograph is, at the time, that’s how I felt. I wanted to be in a group of five guys who were in it together. I was in my late twenties, and I felt we’d been given another chance, to make some important music. And I felt so fucking lucky, I really did. I felt like our potential was limitless.”

When Nirvana’s Nevermind, released a fortnight after Ten, displaced Michael Jackson from the top of the Billboard albums chart in January 1992, Grunge became an international phenomenon, leading the Record Industry to embark upon an infamous shopping spree, signing any group that vaguely approximated the Seattle sound, or its dress code of ripped-jeans and lumberjack plaid.
Pearl Jam spent that Summer performing second-on-the-bill on the main stage of touring alterna-rock festival Lollapalooza, several rungs below tour-mates Soundgarden. “About halfway through that tour, Ten began to explode,” remembers Matt Cameron, then drumming with Soundgarden. “They were on really early in the day, but you’d see hordes of kids swarming towards the main stage to catch Pearl Jam.”
It was the video for Jeremy, third single from Ten, that had captured Pearl Jam’s new audience, dramatising the song’s narrative of an abused child who pulls a gun on his teachers and classmates. ‘Heavily rotated’ on MTV, as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit had been before it, it set sales of Ten sky-rocketing, soon outpacing Nevermind, and prompting the media to erroneously portray the two groups as rivals for the Grunge crown.
For all they shared in common, the differences between the two groups were stark: while Pearl Jam’s love for Classic Rock was unabashed (the epic, fret-melting solo that closed first single Alive announced McCready as a new Guitar God), Kurt Cobain was opening Nirvana shows with a malicious mangling of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Reilly’, announcing “I hope I die before I get Pete Townsend”. The lyric sheet to Nevermind was an artful puzzle that begged decoding; Vedder’s lyrics, meanwhile, were more straight-forward, attempting a connection with his audience that Cobain could never stomach; Vedder was unafraid of ‘meaning it, maaan’, of seeming uncool in his earnestness.
For these reasons, and more, self-confessed music snob Cobain put this imagined rivalry on the record, dismissing Pearl Jam as “corporate cock-rock whores” vaulting onto the Grunge bandwagon, a criticism many of the group’s detractors would soon echo.
“I think Kurt felt we were stealing Nirvana’s thunder,” says Vedder now, of the conflict. “Years later, I can relate to that. I don’t think we ever did anything consciously to provoke that, but the record company did. We did a signing session in Germany, where our album came with a big sticker, describing us as ‘The Seattle Sound’… I was lucky, that Kurt and I had some limited conversations together later; I think he understood that, really, we were like parallel trains, in the same boat.”
Vedder, too, was feeling the pressures that were fast suffocating the fragile Cobain. “Something as simple as going to get a coffee would mean getting mobbed,” he laughs, “Like I was in Backstreet Boys, which is hilarious, because this sure ain’t no ‘boy band’ no more. Then there are the stalkers, fans who have erratic, intense thoughts about you.” One such delusional fan, who believed Vedder was ‘Jesus’ and had fathered her two sons by raping her, almost killed herself ramming her car into the wall of his house. “So, then you need a bigger wall outside your house, or 24-hour security, which is expensive. I told the label, they had to pay for it all, because I never signed up for this.”
Crazed fans weren’t Vedder’s only cross to bear. “I’d never wanted to be the guy whose picture is on the billboard, in the poster-magazine, on the side of a bus advertising some radio station,” he laughs. “I was always, fuck that guy! But then I was that guy, and I realised they don’t have to have your permission to, say, put you on the cover of Time Magazine. I’d go to little indie shows in basements, where you paid $5 to see some duo from Olympia play, and people there looked at me like I was the enemy, an intruder.
“I began to realise, okay, we can’t control everything, but let’s figure out what we can control. The label would say, but if you made more videos and did more promo, you could sell more records. And I felt, we’ve sold enough records, how many more do we need to sell?”
Their refusal to allow Epic to release Black, a deeply personal Vedder ballad, as the fourth single from Ten, was the first in a series of flashpoints where the group began to wrest back control of the runaway train that was their career, cutting back on their touring and promotional commitments, and releasing no more promo videos until 1998’s Do The Evolution.
“I remember [Sony honcho] Tommy Mottola saying, if we didn’t release Black as a single, that it would be the biggest mistake I’d ever make as a manager, that my career would be over,” says Curtis. “But it was an act of self preservation, weighing up whether they wanted to be a band for the rest of their lives, or if they wanted to milk it for a year and a half, and then break-up, and Eddie die. When Kurt died, I thought, it could easily have been Eddie. The thing we had going for us was, Eddie was never a heroin addict. But all the other things were there, the depression, and the pressure.”

Cobain’s suicide came as Pearl Jam were touring their muscular, taut second album, 1993’s Vs, the title of which commented on how embattled the group then felt. The label’s dismay at their refusal to play ‘the game’ was shared, initially, by some members of Pearl Jam themselves. “I wanted to do more of it,” laughs McCready. “I remember thinking, this is our big shot; let’s not piss it away, let’s enjoy it…”
Ultimately, however, Pearl Jam’s discovery of the power of saying ‘No’ was, in many ways, the making of the group. Their next tour, promoting 1994’s Vitalogy, was undertaken without the assistance of Ticketmaster, in protest against surcharges the company were adding to the group’s intentionally-low ticket-prices. The tour proved to be an expensive nightmare for Pearl Jam, the non-Ticketmaster-affiliated venues often inferior and in remote locations, but their integrity and their punk-rock credentials – their desire to behave like principled hardcore group Fugazi, only on an Arena level – could not be faulted.
Vitalogy balanced their characteristic heart-on-sleeve anthemicism with a fearless experimental bent; 1996’s brilliant No Code, meanwhile, mixed the rockers with psychedelic spirituals, spoken word and country-rock, evading Platinum status. Vedder likens the situation to climbing balconies and lighting rigs during early shows, launching himself to land ten feet from where the crowd were gathered to see if they’d move to catch him, “Only this time they didn’t”. Subsequent albums, however, have located a sizeable, and loyal, fanbase, while their collaboration on Neil Young’s 1995 album Mirrorball sired a stint as Young’s backing band, and regular appearances at his Bridge School benefit concerts.
With Matt Cameron installed on the famously-restless Pearl Jam drumstool since 2000’s Binaural, the group have also enjoyed a renaissance as a live act, borne out by their innovative decision to sell official live ‘bootlegs’ of every show they play. While their touring schedule is nowhere near as exhaustive, out of deference to the members’ family commitments, Vedder acknowledges a status akin to a modern-day Grateful Dead, in that their shows are “as much about the community of fans as the music, we’re the campfire for them to sit around, and dance, and drink, and commiserate.”
Of the group’s future, Vedder is sanguine. “We have our practice space, our warehouse, and if we just keep working, we can sustain this,” he says. “We have people looking out for us, trying to be creative with the operation. With the industry as it is, we’re not going to be seeing the income on record sales, so we have to find other creative ways, while still being responsible to the listeners, making sure whatever you put out there is good.”
Freed of the weight of his earlier stardom, Vedder now seems at ease with his role as frontman of Pearl Jam; enjoying it, even. Tonight, with Ament and McCready, he attends the Inauguration party at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern, where he jumps onstage The Knitters – the roots-rock side-project of X’s John Doe and Exene Cervenka – to duet with Cervenka on a joyous run through X’s The New World.
Later, at the bar, he’s neither mobbed nor scorned. He smiles, and talks about Pearl Jam’s ‘mentor’, Neil Young. “Like Nirvana had Sonic Youth, we had Neil… He changed our band. He taught us about dignity. When we first met he said, man, I envy you guys, you don’t have any ‘baggage’. He meant that we’d only recorded one album. But all I wanted at the time was that ‘baggage’ [laughs], to know what it was like to have released a bunch of albums.
“After Ten, we felt like we’d earned our independence. Our success had already gone beyond any dream we’d had as kids growing up listening to music. We decided to try and protect that, protect that goal that we’ve reached, to keep it from being some kind of… miserable experience. And to this day, I feel that way,” he laughs. “If a rock’n’roll band can’t have fun at their jobs, then what is the fucking point? We’ve got a responsibility here! To have some kind of fucking good time!”

(c) Stevie Chick, 2009


About steviechick

Freelance journalist, author, lecturer, sub-editor.
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