Singapore's BIGO (Before I Get Old) 4/?/95
Pearl Jam Interview
by Lynn Chiam
"I traded some kid's watch in Japan. We had the same watch. This is Tokyo time when I got it and I never changed my watch from Seattle time. So I said, Seattle time, and he seemed really excited. But, there's an alarm at 5:30 everyday. I don't know what it's for. Someone he's supposed to be meeting." I glance at the beeping watch on Eddie Vedder's wrist. And I'm reminded, momentarily, of a lyric from "Last Exit," a track off Pearl Jam's latest, Vitalogy: "Let the sun shine, Burn away my mask. Three days, maybe longer, Shed my skin at last." For now at least, there are no masks.
Earlier, as Pearl Jam arrived at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, I was relieved to finally know that the interview with Vedder would indeed take place. In town with Mudhoney for a one-night gig, Pearl Jam had made it known that they wouldn't be doing any interviews. So it was really on a wing and a prayer and with much thanks to Cynthia Connolly (from Dischord Records; and from ex-Angry Samoan Scott Greer, as we later learnt, who had also put in a word for us) that the interview took place at all. However, after making first contact at his hotel, Vedder seemed open to the idea. Call tomorrow at 11 am and we'll see what happens, he'd said.
"Eddie will talk to you after the soundcheck," says Eric Johnson, the band's tour manager. He's leading the way, round backstage and out front for the soundcheck. We're looking for Vedder. Johnson stops outside a room. "This is where you can go for the aftershow," he says matter-of-factly.
Now, on this Hari Raya Friday, just hours before the concert tonight, Vedder is noticeably relaxed and unperturbed. As we make our way through the labyrinth of the stadium, in search of a quiet corner to talk, a member of the local backstage crew politely approaches to ask for an autograph.
It's hard to imagine that this is the same intense frontman for one of the hottest and tightest rock outfits of the '90s. In early '91, as Pearl Jam were gaining notoriety as one of THE bands, with lineage rooted in the Seattle scene (its members hailing from seminal band, Green River), new attention was also being directed at a previously unknown sound - the whole grunge subculture, its bands and music. In fact, the music of Pearl Jam - a mix of hard-hitting heavy guitar rock tunes, from the cathartic release of "Even Flow" to the skeletal murmurings of "Bugs" - and the band's popoularity, has now transcended its own brand of radio-friendly arena rock. Most notably, without the support of videos (unthinkable in this day and age), Vs - the group's second album - has sold in excess of five million copies.
Vitalogy, the follow-up to that, is seen by many as Pearl Jam's best album to date. Even in its rich organic outlook, it is at the same time a praadox in its clinical breakdown of itself. Infused among the Foucauldian inferences are various personal markers. "You can see how we deliberately changed 'men' to 'women' here." Vedder is patiently thumbing through the pages of the album, revealing thoughts behind ideas. In retrospect, Vitalogy is almost a response to the media and how Pearl Jam are constantly finding themselves put under a microscope. With this album, perhaps they are deconstructing myths while re-building ideals.
What first strikes me about Vedder is his soft-spoken manner, and the way he holds your gaze as he speaks to you - about the music, the choices and decisions he's made along the way, and a bout his personal self. He's relaxed and earnest. Intent on answering questions, and eager to communicate. He takes my tape recorder in his hand and begins the interview. "Here," he offers, "I'll sit down on the floor, too."
LYNN CHIAM: You guys aren't doing any interviews with MTV Asia and other media here. Any particular reason? I mean, a lot of the early commercial success was due to videos and that sort of exposure.
EDDIE VEDDER: Well, we're also touring a lot. We'd come home for a few days at a time, go back for another two weeks, 10 weeks, two-and-a-half months. And I think that when you play music that hard, giving all you have every night, travelling to another place, setting up the circus again and really putting your head in the lion's mouth, doing everything you could to make each show the best it could be, I think after doing that, and then people whether they work with the record company, press department, or they work with, let's say, a music channel or something like that, and then they think the reason you were successful is because of them, you'd say, **** you. What about all this, that we've done?
It's not that we want to take credit. That's fine. I don't care. I don't want credit, it's not like I'm trying to claim that. But when they start acting like they own you that they are the reason... that's something that's not true. These attitudes out there that the music is theirs that it's the industry's music... And it's not. It's mine. And it's yours. Whoever's listening to it. It's mine and it's yours. And everybody in between, they're the distributors. I think that something like a music channel can be very powerful. Sometimes they think they're the ones who decide what's heard. I think that's a dangerous situation. And, I think, what's more dangerous is that they think it belongs to them. That's probably what Not For You is about.
LYNN: Like when the first album came out, and all the hype surrounding it?
EDDIE: It's a good example, because if you took our music at that point and as far as our recording sound and everything, we've gotten much better. We didn't know what we were doing at the beginning. People produced it so it came out a little more slick than we would've liked it, whatever. But, we've learnt a little about speaking our minds and having control artistically and using that control. But it's a good example, because I feel there's a lot of text in the songs. They're meaningful songs on certain levels, and another fact that people would say it's all hype, well that's actually completely separate from the music. It's not necessary and, at that point, it was not our fault.
LYNN: During the soundcheck, I noticed a rootsier sound. Is that a conscious effort?
EDDIE: Nothing's conscious at this point. We don't have to make conscious decisions anymore. We never have to try to say, we should sound more like this or that. We've just never had to do that.
LYNN: But how about influences, like when you were supporting Neil Young and stuff, just being more aware of other sounds out there and incorporating that into your music?
EDDIE: Yeah, you could be right. That stuff happens kind of naturally, so to try to examine that is kind of weird.
LYNN: How do you feel about the social position of the band right now? Especially when you'e thrown into the public arena, so to speak. Just because you're a rock 'n' roll band supporting a cause. When you make the choice to be socially active, what do you think it does to your life?
EDDIE: It's strange because what happens is, I've lived this certain life. I've developed certain attitudes towards certain issues. Mostly through education. Other times through personal experience and so I've felt these ways about these issues for years and years and years. Two decades, maybe. And I did things 10 years before I've been in this band on much smaller levels. Regarding these same isssues, whether it was volunteering or protests and things like that, my girlfriend, my wife now, we would go to these things. We would be in the front line of these issues. It's still the same. We're still the same people with the same ideals.
But now a whole lot of people are paying attention. So what am I gonna do? Pretend that I don't have those ideals? I mean, the Beatles were told not to mention the Vietnam War the first two times they came to America. They had to kind of joke their way around the issues. I'm sure that made them pretty sick and in the end they decided they had to make their honest statement. So you find yourselves in some very strange positions where your life is in jeopardy.
There are people on the opposition who are a little crazy right now. I feel they are misguided. Like when we talk about women's reproductive rights. We've dealt with this 20 years ago, we don't have to worry about this. But, these people are out putting together a whole army of people to change the laws, and then we realise, gosh, we have to mobilise our side once again. It's just something we do. You're basically speaking for people whose voices aren't heard.
LYNN: Sort of like when you say how "everything has changed, but absolutely nothing's changed" (from "Corduroy") - you're still the same people. Well, I don't know how much you've heard about the local scene here...
EDDIE: I heard it was hard getting playing permits.
LYNN: A couple of years ago, a local paper picked up on a Rollins gig, and blew it up. That led to the ban on slamming.
EDDIE: It (the concert) was probably normal and not out of hand. That's why journalists have to be responsible, you or anybody who reports on this stuff, because it's like Walter Cronkite says, if an airplane takes off and lands safetly, it's not news. So it's always going to be negative. But if they blow it out of proportion, they don't realise the consequences that can come out of that, which is no more shows of music any faster than Richard Marx or something. They don't understand that there can be serious consequences. Just from an article they were writing, just because it'd be more exciting if they embellished the fact and make it sound a little worse than it was.
LYNN: In the States, the band has gone up against TicketMaster because of expensive ticket prices. Any thoughts on ticket prices here?
EDDIE: I read in the papers that ticket prices were $25, 50 and 75, and I freaked out. What the ****? But then they said it's the Singapore dollar. It's different. What we do at this point is we play for as low as we can. If you see our ticket prices and you can say well, that's about as low as they can do for what they're doing, where they're playing. That's what's so exciting about Fugazi. They can create their own venue. You know, they play in a small hall where no one usually plays and they can pull it off with a five-dollar ticket.
LYNN: They did it here at a community centre's hall.
EDDIE: So it's great to know that it can be done. We'd love playing to a smaller crowd. We start thinking that we'd do something for 500 people, but we end up pissing the crowd [off], we anger the other people that can't get in.
LYNN: Do you miss playing the smaller venues and clubs?
EDDIE: We still do. We played in Seattle before we left, couple of nights for free. We played a couple of skate parties, too. Or, I have.
LYNN: You still skate and surf?
EDDIE: There's something called the triple threat. You know, people snowboard, and they skate, and they surf. But, you can't really surf in Washington state.
LYNN: Last time I saw you guys, a couple of years ago, was at this mid- sized hall just outside Ottawa. A relatively small gig with this band from Montreal. Their name escapes me right now.
EDDIE: The Doughboys?
LYNN: Yeah, And you guys were playing huge arenas at the time, and then did this thing on the side, with cheap tickets.
EDDIE: Yeah, I remember that... It was really hot. Personally, the cheaper the ticket, the better, because I don't know if we might be good. We might not be good.
LYNN: That was a good concert. I really enjoyed it. The live sound, the heat and all. Are you kidding?
EDDIE: Yeah? It's nice to hear that, you know. Because I don't hear that stuff. I used to read a lot of letters. I usually get letters from people who have problems. Other than that... it's weird at this point. It's a strange thing, the popularity of the band has made a lot of people do anything they can to get to me or at me.
LYNN: How do you manage to get around something like that? Just because you're so easily recognisable and a famous rock musician?
EDDIE: You know the truth. You know that you're just a normal guy. You know you're not even that good. You know that anybody could do what you're doing. The kind of writing I do now is like what I've always done. I really feel that way. I didn't have lessons. I just do something I like to do. Even that "Better Man" song that I wrote, I wrote 10 years ago sitting on my bed.
LYNN: That's one of my favourite tracks on the album. Along with "Bugs." So, have you done much in Singapore so far?
EDDIE: I just swam around in the ocean. Around the island (Sentosa). Me and Mark Arm rode bikes today. The whole thing is kinda like Disneyland. Plus, because it's a holiday, so all the families were out. I think every other country we were right in the middle of the city. We were in the middle of Bangkok, we were in the middle of Manila. I think they thought it'd be nice to let them hang out near the beach or something.
LYNN: Do you think you'll get to see much of Singapore? Also, have a lot of people been coming up to you when you do get out?
EDDIE: My wife's not been feeling well. So, I've been taking care of her, and writing my journal. She might not even come tonight even though it's Mudhoney's last night. I think that everywhere besides Seattle, I can just get into my car and drive for a day and end up somewhere else. They see me in a gas station or somewhere, they think, it can't be him. What the **** is he doing here? People leave you alone. It's just weird.
LYNN: You've mentioned Pete Townshend's stuff. What that must have meant to you back then. How can you relate that to how some people may feel about one of your songs?
EDDIE: Well, I never made a trip to London, to try to find out where Pete Townshend lived and to hang out at his front door. What would I say to him if he did come out? If you really want to meet your heroes, you know, go work as hard as you can so they respect you on their level, then you can have a real conversation. Because otherwise you're just gonna be someone else coming up to them fand asking for something and they're probably gonna be a little protective of their space.
LYNN: What are you listening to right now?
EDDIE: Let's see, a band called Hovercraft I was listening to. I listen to a lot of our soundchecks. That way, I always write new stuff. You get into a show, play something you've never played before. There's this song called "The Long Road" that I wrote with Neil. Here's Dave Grohl, his new songs (for the Foo-Fighters). Listened to some of that. That's about it.
LYNN: Can I ask a personal question? Is it hard to keep up a relationship with Beth all these years? As well as keeping up the relationship with the band?
EDDIE: It's just hard anytime to have a lengthy relationship. She knew me before anyone else knew me, you know. It's just hard. It's hard to say anything without getting into all kinds of things. It's just not as easy as it looks.
LYNN: Is it easier now because you've got more room to move?
EDDIE: No. There's just so many strange little things. Unless you were there, it's hard to explain. And if we talked about it here, it would be a few sentences, and it wouldn't make sense. Someone might think that I was jaded or didn't appreciate being here. We really appreciate the fact that people listen to our music right now. And we really appreciate the fact that we can come to some place like Singapore and draw a crowd and have people come and see us play. We're not necessarily making money, but it's paying our way for our trip. That's an honour. That's great and I don't want anybody to think otherwise.
You know, staying together, I've said it before, being a rock star would be easy, but if you want to remain like a real human being... I get people saying, what's he complaining about being a real rock star. Being a rock star would be a piece of cake. But, look, we have these songs, but they're not better than anybody else's. I could name bands right now that I like their music way better than ours. And there's no reason our band should be so popular; [and] theirs should be barely getting any attention at all.
There's just no way to justify that. So, you could start feeling shitty about your music, because it couldn't possibly be as good as everyone says it is. How could you possibly be the greatest band in the world, because there's no such thing, you know. I'd probably rather watch Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sit there and play with his other musicians and that to me would be maybe the greatest band in the world.
At this point in the interview, Vedder turns his attention to the deck of cards he's been fingering. "These cards got a little wet," he says, "But go ahead and pick a card, any card. It may not work. But, go ahead and look at it.
"Now, put it back anywhere in the deck. This is a new one, so I don't always get it right." He cuts the cards. "And your card is gonna be the top card, Not it? How about the bottom? Not it? That bottom. I'll get it eventually. Not this one?"
"Now wait, make a fist like this. One more chance here." I do as he says, the four discarded cards tight between my fingers. Vedder gives the cards a sharp tap, releasing a couple. Now, there is only one card left. "See if this is your card."
I'm impressed. "How did you do that? Musician and magician."
Vedder grins. "Something to fall back on."