16 Nov 2002 Kerrang!
Nice Guy Eddie
Words: Ben Mitchell.
Photos: Ross Halfin
After years of intensity and introspection, Pearl Jam are finally starting to lighten up. Their singer’s even trying his hand at comedy…
“I read lately there’s this restaurant on the moon. Have you heard about this? The food’s ok, food’s actually pretty good, but there’s no atmosphere.”
Eddie Vedder is telling a joke. Its not the greatest joke in the world, but it’s a joke nonetheless. What is remarkable isn’t so much what’s being said as who’s saying it. Popular lore dictates that Pearl Jam’s legendarily intense frontman doesn’t do ‘funny’. Angst, yes. Gravitas, certainly. But humour? This is a man with a reputation as a fairly serious customer.
“Serious?” he says. “Ahhh, I’m trying to think of a funny answer and I can’t, so apparently yes (laughs). You know, it depends. I’d say no but with a straight face. I think Seattle’s been really good as far as that’s concerned. Everyone takes the piss out of each other. If you make a video that’s kind of fancy, there’s not too much you can’t do without feeling you’re wearing a pink tutu by the time you get together with your friends.”
In the nondescript warehouse in downtown Seattle that serves as their rehearsal rooms and storage space, the five members of Pearl Jam have got together to discuss their seventh studio album, “Riot Act”. Enter through the side door and a fat brown envelope tacked to the wall with ‘Parking Nazi Letters’ scrawled across it in black marker pen suggests that even this famously public-spirited band are sometimes forced into supporting the local economy against their will. The stripped floorboards inside are partially covered with rugs, the central space are being taken up by a drum kit set up in front of a wall of guitars and guitar necks awaiting reattachment.
Beyond that is a small kitchen, where Jeff Ament is making a cup of tea. Today, the bassist wears trademark baggy shorts and NBA socks, though not his familiar headgear.
In the corner, set apart from the racks and racks of equipment – carefully knotted metres of cable, effects pedals, stacks of amplifiers, basketball hoops and a folded table tennis table – stands the logo photographed for the sleeve art of the band’s first album, 1991’s ‘Ten’. Though a couple of missing letters has reduced this prized piece of rock memorabilia to ‘ARL JAM’.
Eddie Vedder sits on a couch in the window-less back room when he sometimes writes lyrics and various correspondence – a recently completed letter to The Who’s Pete Townshend is folded beside him. His typewriter and a half-empty packet of American Spirit cigarettes rest on the low table in front of him, an acoustic guitar on the floor. His handshake is firm, accompanied by a welcoming smile and some polite small-talk.
“Usually it looks a bit more like London here than it has for the last two days,” he says of the unexpected brilliant sunshine outside.
Vedder’s voice is low-pitched and warm, his speech interspersed with the odd rumbling “yeah” when he needs thinking time. The first thing you notice about the 37-year-old is his hair, the shoulder-length surf do that recently cropped to a Mohawk now grown out to a neatly-trimmed short back and sides.
“Well, with that last haircut I really asked for it. I was guaranteeing I was going to be searched on every airplane I got on. Also, I thought that maybe some issues might come up with political attitudes and whatever…”
“During the interview process, I might say something that a kid might want to show his dad and say, ‘What do you think about this guy?’ and he wouldn’t listen, he’d just react to the ridiculous haircut.”
So this is your hello parents look?
“Just something a little more conservative” (laughs).
Do you still see yourself as someone with that kind of influence?
“Well, its pretty easy to humble yourself. I’m basically a dog-owner who has a type-writer and a guitar and I don’t see it going past that. It’s healthy. I mean, what else am I going to do? Wouldn’t it be paralysing to think (taps keys on typewriter), ‘How will they react to this and should I say this?’”
Pearl Jam seem to have outgrown the geographical pigeonhole of Seattle…
“I think that’s outlasted more than outgrown.”
Right, mention Seattle now, though, and most people think of ‘Frasier’.
“I know, and we were once such a force!”
Eleven years on from ‘Ten’, the mood around Pearl Jam is markedly relaxed, a stark contrast to the cagey introspection sparked by the media feeding frenzy of grunge’s heyday. Though the influence of the Seattle bands can’t be measured by sales figures alone – ‘Ten’ sold 11 million copies, pipping Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ by a million – it is fair to say that Pearl Jam’s appeal has become more selective, albeit mostly by design.
Since their second album, 1993’s ‘Vs’ sold ust shy of a million copies in its first week – eventually reaching the seven million mark – the band have pared down the crunching stadium angst in favour of a looser, more experimental attitude that pleases both themselves and those who have persevered with their evolution.
“We’ve done pretty well,” says Vedder. “We’ve succeeded in bringing it to a level where we’re comfortable and controlling things where we’re still excited about what we do.”
“The music has gone in certain directions nd people can either identify or not identify with certain records that we’ve done” says guitarist Stone Gossard, dressed for comfort in flip-flops. “I don’t think any of us would do it any different in terms of the records we made.”
So who do you think your fans are now?
“We don’t think about it much. We put out a record and people show up and we’re excited about it; but in terms of defining who that is I have no idea.”
“I think it runs the gamut from 16 up to 50 or 60,” adds guitarist Mike McCready. “That’s what I see from looking out into the audience.”
Like its immediate predecessors, ‘Riot Act’ seems set to mollify this loyal audience as much as it remains a matter of indifference to the unconverted. A tour will follow – most likely sold out – and two years on, the band will release another album. It’s a cycle they have repeated since 1994’s ‘Vitalogy’ (at five million units shifted, the bands’s last really big seller; since then their records have tended to stall at around the million mark).
With the exception of Mudhoney, all of Pearl Jam’s peers have self-destructed or disbanded and moved on – indeed, ex-Soundgarden drummer, Matt Cameron, has played with the band since 2000’s ‘Binaural’. Increasingly, Pearl Jam seem to occupy the same space as their hero and friend, Neil Young – always challenging on record, hugely successful as a live act, financially secure enough to be numb to external pressures, though healthily aware of internal ones.
“The only pressure we feel is the pressure among ourselves,” confirms Ament. “If someone else has written a song, you really want your part of that song to make it better. Whenever we come back in and play songs we want to impress each other, show the next guy that we’ve been working hard, so outside pressure… I don’t even know that it exists.”
Similarly, as the intensity of attention on Vedder has diminished, so have occasionally fractious relations within the band eased.
“I think it has a lot to do with making things easier and making everyone a little less paranoid,” agrees Ament. “We ended up working through all that by actually talking about it. I think it was weirdest for us when people weren’t talking about it, everybody goes off on their own tangents…a typical rock band story too – if you’re not communicating then shit falls apart. Luckily we started talking before the shit really went down.”
When it comes to decision making for the group, Vedder still ultimately holds sway. “We sit down in the same room and throw ideas out,” Gossard explainsd. “In the end, Ed’s going to have a lot of influence over what’s going to happen in terms of making decisions. His comfortableness with any idea is going to carry a lot of weight – that;s appropriate, he’s the strongest central musical force in the band and a lot of the pressure rests on the singer in terms of delivering.”
“He’s the singer,” says McCready simply. “We defer to that, and that’s fine.”
Vedder however, doesn’t see it that way. “I think we’ve all let go ogf a lot and realised its easier if we choose our battles, whether it be song arrangement or artwork,” he claims. “Communication has gotten a lot better; everyone’s got better at figuring out how to play with the ultimate idea of playing for the song and not playing for their ego.”
Frankly, you’ve got the ultimate say though…
“With lyrics maybe, but that’s probably the only place. And I still accept input.”
Would you say you’re a controlling person?
“(Long pause) Well…(Adopts a stern voice) I’d rather you not ask that question.”
Okay, sorry. Should we move onto another subject?
He chuckles loudly, delighted to have suckered me in.
You got me. Have you considered therapy?
“The group? I think they’re great! Really, I have enough friends who are really smart and I feel really comfortable talking with them about anything.”
That’s not a very American attitude…
“I know, but its cheaper ad I can drink at the same time. Is it normal to have cocktails during therapy? It’s probably a great idea, it’s good to know its there.”
Do you think people tip-toe around you?
“Some people should! Its not a bad rep to have. You don’t like to be bothered everywhere. I don’t mind if people come up to me once, but a lot of times the same people keep coming back.”
What about within the band?
“Well I would hope not. We’re all pretty comfortable communicating.”
Looking back, how do you feel about the way you’ve conducted yourself?
“Pretty good. The only one intense regret I have is to do with the worst thing we’ve ever been through, which is Roskilde (the Danish festival where nine people died as a result of injuries sustained when the 50,000 crowd surged forward during the band’s set, June 30, 2000). We didn’t feel responsible for the security that night, what we did feel responsible for was asking people to see the group in Denmark, by having to attend a festival, not by playing smaller shows. We agreed to four or five festivals on that European tour – to be honest – to help cover costs. This way we could go home with some money. Usually when money decisions come up we say no, we don’t let it be a factor. We did in this case, and it’s something that I regret.”
Though much has been made of the added pressure on Vedder as both mouthpiece and icon – consistently cast in the press during the band’s early years as a spokesperson for the children of broken homes and a largely imagined following of socially concerned coffeehouse chin strokers – it is McCready who succumbed to, and eventually defeated, the familiar chemical temptations available to the multi-platinum rock star.
“I’m clean and sober right now” he says with unaffected dignity. “I have been for two years and eight months. I just do that one day at a time, do what I need to do and that’s my main focus. Everything after that is better because of taking care of myself. In the past, my life was this complete hell I’d created: drugs, drinking or doing whatever. Now that’s not the case. It makes me appreciate life in general. So it’s the most important thing to me right now in my life, staying clean and sober. It has to be because everything else falls apart when I’m not. On the last record, I was kind of excited about playing those songs, but not as excited as I am about these. When we did the last record, I was pretty fucked up.”
‘Riot Act’ is Pearl Jam’s last record under their current contract, though there will certainly be more once options are considered, negotiations resolved and various ‘percentage issues massaged’. For now, though, the band remain a major label concern, and as such their output is protected by typically irksome major label security measures. At Seattle’s nearby Edgewater Inn – famous for being a favourite hotel for the Beatles, notorious for Led Zeppelin’s alleged fun and games with a groupie and a red snapper – the album is available from a record company representative for short term listening on a numbered discman, the eject button rendered inoperable by nothing more sophisticated than superglue. Though this prevents Riot Act being listened to properly, at length and at full volume, fear of the music being leaked onto the internet is perhaps understandable.
However, even the lyric sheet must be returned before leaving the band’s warehouse. Extreme measures, particularly for a band who have been so stridently anti-corporate in the past.
“There are some elements that are contradictory,” says Gossard. “I’m a little uncomfortable with it in general, but we are a business too, and as much as we love to make music and hang out with each other, its also about selling some records. I think the band feels comfortable with the idea of as few people getting this record before it actually comes out as possible – it just takes one person saying ‘Fuck it, let’s put it on the internet and see what happens’. So we’re still trying to maintain some control. In the future, if its absurd to try and do that, maybe the band will just make money off touring and let the music go… You never know, we may embrace that philosophy, but we haven’t yet.”
While the future of Pearl Jam remains uncertain in terms of who will sign – or perhaps re-sign – the band, that they will continue making records is a matter of fact.
“We get to come back and make records with each other, its even more pleasant than it was, and we remain friends,” says Gossard.
Indeed, the guitarist and McCready, pals since boyhood, still enjoy playing tennis together when not involved in band business (“Stone’s probably winning the most these days,” shrugs McCready, “but we’re both hacks”). Matt Cameron is kept busy by his family, though likes to ride motorcycles when he gets the chance, and Ament enjoys, “pretty much any board sports”.
Eddie Vedder, meanwhile, indulges his life long love of surfing with trips to Hawaii, including a recent session with world champion Kelly Slater on the notoriously brutal waves of O’ahu island’s Waimea Bay.
“It was intense,” says the singer, “the faces were about 30 feet tall, but it’s the closest I’ve got to seeing Hendrix livce, because I’ve been looking at pictures of this wave since I was a teenager. To be right up next to it and feel it and hear it was pretty exciting.”
So how did you get on?
“I almost caught one at the end. Next time. Kelly caught everything – he didn’t any for me! He asked if I wanted to get one, I started to go for it, thought of all the advantages, handicapped parking and so on, and decided against it.”
Life seems a lot more laid-back for you now. Do you ever miss the early days, when millions of fans looked to you for the answers?
“No, I mean that selfishly, what am I going to get out of that?”
It sells records.
“It sells records, but at certain times, I mean just from the success of the first record, even monetarily speaking, we probably made more money than we’d ever dreamt of making in our entire lives.”
So you really don’t miss that fever pitch of 10 years ago?
I don’t believe you.
“Mmmm. How can I make you believe that?”
Alright, I find it hard to believe.
“Yeah, I’ve got a ’64 Plymouth outside. I’ve had it for 10 years, it’s a little beat up. That’s the only car I have, besides my old truck.”
“(Laughs) No. I haven’t done that yet.”
Why not? Why not enjoy the money?
“That’s my point about the Plymouth. It’s a convertible right, I’m going to put the top down on this rare sunny Seattle day, I’m going to drive home and nobody’s going to recognise me.”
Unless you stop at some lights…
“No, no! I can stop at a light, I ca have 10 15 year olds walking in front of the car and I look like an old man behind the wheel of an old car. Back in the day, I would drive the same road and I’d have people putting themselves in danger trying to shout at me from alongside me. I’m thinking, ‘Well, you’re gonna die by rear-ending the back of that truck if you’re not careful’. Those panic-type situations, I don’t miss them at all.”
Pearl Jam’s new album, ‘Riot Act’, is out now through Epic.