When bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard founded the group that would become Pearl Jam more than 13 years ago, there’s no way they could have foreseen the frenzy that was to come.
Tens of millions of cash-register rings later, Pearl Jam has become one of the most popular and influential bands of their generation.
Their success has not been without its setbacks, however. Eight fans were trampled to death during a 2000 concert in Roskilde, Denmark, which shook the band deeply.
And Pearl Jam ran afoul of the political correctness police when singer Eddie Vedder wore a George Bush mask onstage during the kickoff of their U.S. tour in Denver this spring. The normally reclusive Vedder quickly gave an interview to Rolling Stone to defuse the growing controversy.
Pearl Jam will return to Indianapolis on Sunday, June 22, at the Verizon Wireless Music Center with special guests the Buzzcocks. We began our chat with Ament by asking him about the legendary British punk band.
AMENT: A friend of mine had seen them in Boston and said they were phenomenal. I was a big fan of theirs growing up. Originally, Joe Strummer was going to do this whole leg of the tour, and then he died. So we were thinking, who could possibly try to fill Joe’s shoes, and the Buzzcocks were next on the list ... [Punk rock] was pretty much what got me started playing an instrument. I took guitar lessons when I was 12 or 13. We were into Ted Nugent and Aerosmith at that time, and unfortunately the teacher didn’t tell us what a distortion box was, and he had us playing basic scales and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and all the simple melodies. After a few months, it didn’t sound like “Stranglehold” or “Toys in the Attic” so we bailed on it.
The guy who ended up being my best friend in college was totally into punk rock and could play guitar, so I got an old P-Bass. We both plugged into the same amp and played along to Ramones and Clash records until we learned 10 or 12 of them. Pretty soon, we had a drummer, and pretty soon, we had a band. Pretty soon, I wasn’t much interested in school anymore.
NUVO: After the Denver thing, did you think the band was going to face a Dixie Chicks-style backlash?
AMENT: It just gives us more insight into how things work in this country right now. I think part of us is ready to deal with it and take it on. It was strange, the circumstances, because it really was like a non-event. And, to some degree, the Dixie Chicks’ comments were pretty minor. Come on, all they said was that they were ashamed the president comes from Texas. I don’t understand how that can hurt the security of the country or all the things they were being blamed for. To say you can’t say anything bad about the president in a time of war ... I thought it was ridiculous that they took as much heat as they did. Hopefully, they found some lightness about it and kept their sense of humor.
NUVO: It’s like free speech is in danger these days.
AMENT: That was our main issue with it all, you know. Wait a minute. I remember the eight years that Clinton was in office, he got bashed every day. Granted, we weren’t at war during all of that, but who all of a sudden said you can’t disagree with the politics of the people who run the country? That’s kind of been our credo. It’s what this country was built on.
The thing that bothered us most was that the headlines said “Fans jam exits.” I don’t know anyone more sensitive to them portraying it as kind of a riot situation or a crowd out of control than us, after what we went through at Roskilde. That’s what offended us the most. It was like, wow, that’s a really irresponsible headline. The guy talked to about six people who were leaving after the Bush comments and then he said he saw possibly two dozen people leaving during that time. Well, we’d just played two and a half hours. Maybe they had a babysitter, maybe they were tired. I think the good that came out of it is that I don’t believe anything I read. I take it with a grain of salt.
NUVO: One of the things people say about the new album [Riot Act] is that the group sounds much more harmonious, much more together.
AMENT: Absolutely. It’s the fact that we’ve been playing with Matt for a couple of tours, and also going in and rehearsing for a couple of weeks before we made the record, we went into the studio thinking we could nail the stuff live. We were all sitting in a semicircle and Ed was singing right next to us. Granted, some of the stuff got patched up or rearranged. But 80-90 percent of the record is just us in the room playing. There’s a handful of songs where you really get that vibe: “All or None,” “Thumb In My Way,” “I Am Mine.” I get that feeling of a live band. In this day and age of ProTools and computers, I think a lot of times records aren’t made that way anymore. It’s a lot of cut and paste.
NUVO: I wanted to ask you about Seattle in the late 1980s, in terms of just what it was about that scene that made it so special and allowed it to explode the way it did. Every city wants to become “the new Seattle.”
AMENT: We were looking to Austin and Minneapolis, places that had really cool scenes and amazing bands. Even three or four years before it happened, we were thinking we had a pretty cool little scene. There were bands way early on like the U-men, who put out their first record on Homestead that kind of paved the way for a band Stone and I were in called Green River. We ended up putting out our record on Homestead. They’d been touring on their record, so we were like, “We have to tour, too,” so we fixed up the station wagon and went to the East Coast. From our end, those were pretty pioneering tours. We went all the way from Seattle to New York and played eight shows ...
It wasn’t like we had an agent, it was more like, “I have a friend in Ohio so we can book some shows there.” There was something cool about that time, where it was more about friends of friends.
NUVO: Back then, were the bands hypercompetitive, or was it more of a friendly thing?
AMENT: I think there was maybe a friendly competitiveness. Mostly, for me, when you saw someone like the U-Men touring, it was something you wanted to do. It motivated us. Once a few bands started touring, like Soundgarden, I think SST bought them a van and everyone was like, “Oh my God, they have a band.” We all kind of pushed each other in a good way.
NUVO: Do you miss those days?
AMENT: I don’t miss waking up at 5 a.m. and opening up the restaurant where I worked for eight years. Everything was so much more special, because only once or twice a month there was a happening show.
NUVO: So, do you think there could be that kind of explosion out of a single city again? What would it take for a city like Indianapolis to do it?
AMENT: Most of the bands that kind of broke out of the Seattle scene in the ’90s had been doing it for years and years and years. Stone and I had been playing together for eight or nine years at that point. I think a lot of it is sticking together and knowing what good chemistry in a band is and recognizing that and not just throwing it away if big things don’t happen right off the bat. When I see a cool young band and they ask me for advice, I tell them, “Stay together and write songs. If something is meant to happen, maybe your time will come. Maybe in a year, maybe five years. Maybe it won’t.” There’s really great music out there that no one knows about. Tons of it.