November 03, 2002
Game for fame (source unknown)
By Katherine Tulich
EDDIE Vedder is slowly typing on what looks like a vintage typewriter. "I'm just finishing some letters to friends," he says, looking up as I enter the room. "I've never been very comfortable around computers."
Considering we are sitting in the middle of the dotcom capital of the world, Seattle, Washington – home of Bill Gates and Microsoft – his snub of modern technology seems even more pointed.
But Vedder has spent most of the last decade snubbing convention. As the front man for Pearl Jam, he has become one of the biggest enigmas in rock. And he has done it not by courting the press, but deliberating avoiding it.
So it comes as a surprise that Vedder is so willing to converse with the media on the eve of Pearl Jam's seventh album, Riot Act.
"We had put a lot of boundaries between us and the press," he says, "but then I would talk to people who were apparently great fans of the band and they would ask me when we were releasing a new album, and we had one just out.
"It made me think that we have to at least wave our arms around and say, 'Hey, we've done another, check it out if you want'."
There is no doubt Pearl Jam, who emerged from the ashes of local grunge bands in the Seattle music scene of the early 1990s, have proved to be savvy and durable, outlasting their contemporaries (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains).
Their first album, Ten, sold more than 11 million copies. By the time their second and third releases, Vs and Vitalogy hit, they wielded enough muscle to rewrite the rule books, shunning conventional promotional paths such as music videos and the media.
They even dared to take on the US concert ticket monopoly of Ticketmaster, which they accused of taking an unjustifiably large percentages of ticket sales (a battle they lost when the US Justice Department dropped its investigation).
But by the late '90s, their "too cool to be famous" stance was a little faded, especially in an era of colourful self-promotion that spawned endless girl and boy pop groups. Sales began to dip.
Their last studio release, Binaural, in 2000 sold a paltry 700,000 copies. Yet they still manage to stay one step ahead.
To circumvent bootlegging fans, they released 72 "official" recordings of their US and European concerts of 2000 and 2001.
With a sea change of musical tastes in the air, as the pop bubble begins to burst, it seems a perfect time for a major re-emergence. And Riot Act will complete the band's seven-album deal for Epic, which means their contract is up for grabs.
The Los Angeles Times recently printed a treatise on the band's worth and noted that might depend on their intent, particularly in light of "their usual aversion to the pop spotlight". The article went on to say, "This is a band that could be as big as U2 but has chosen not to be."
Puffing furiously on one of many American Spirit cigarettes, Vedder admits: "We were more popular than we were comfortable being. So we had a mission to sabotage our career and we succeeded. And I think we are much happier now."
Pearl Jam's co-founder, Stone Gossard, says: "I think we are realising that we are lucky to have each other and still be in a band. We are at ease right now and consequently we are making the best music we have ever made together."
Riot Act is a well-crafted, accessible rock album with a radio-friendly first single, I Am Mine, complete with video. It seems Pearl Jam are willing to play by the rules again – but, then, healthy sales and media warmth are bound to up the ante come contract time.
Over the years, Vedder has drawn as many detractors as fans. Cynics claim his evangelical zeal on the hazards of fame is merely a ploy – that he is far more image-conscious than he lets on.
But there is no doubt Vedder wraps you like velvet in his presence.
His words come in measured sentences, quiet in a resonant baritone. He can't help a soapbox stance, particularly on politics, but just when he embarks on a concerto of conscientiousness, he snaps into self-deprecating humour.
When I comment on his hairstyle – a mohawk is giving way to a soft cover of short brown hair – he jokes: "You know, I thought I was trying to make a statement against vanity (with the mohawk) and found it was one of the most vain things I could do. It required so much attention to maintain it."
He agrees he is finally making peace with his demons. "I just like having a handle on my life. If you are not grounded, you're not sure if your opinion counts. It's not so much being frightened of the spotlight but wanting to maintain a real place to communicate your views and writing a good song."
Riot Act is peppered with political and personal references as well as a mournful tribute in the song Love Boat Captain, which refers to the nine fans who were crushed in a surge to the stage when Pearl Jam performed at the Roskilde Music Festival in Denmark two years ago.
"I went into isolation after that, and at times I felt there was no way out of the intense grief we were all feeling at that point," Vedder says.
He calls Love Boat Captain "almost a small prayer – a place to put that in the midst of a song with rhythm and volume".
Perhaps Vedder has finally found a balance between integrity and commerciality.
"Songs are like freeloaders that aren't paying rent and just taking up room in your head," he offers, quoting songwriter Tom Waits, "so it's good to get them out and say, 'OK . . . now go make some money for Dad'."
Riot Act is out on November 11.