Bass Player Magazine 4/94
Godfather of the "G" Word
by Karl Coryat
Seattle in midwinter is a gray place. Out of the airplane window nothing is visible but an endless ocean of uniform clouds. Descending through them is like crash-landing into a sea of smoke, fog trickling eerily off the wing's edge as the plane nears the runway. On the ground, too, everything is gray; the downtown area is a conglomerate of gray walls, cubic concrete buildings, and unattended pay parking lots. But this is no cultural ghost town, no industrial city robbed of heart and soul by economic downtown; this is the birthplace of one of the most stirring genres of popular music since rock & roll itself. And this is where Jeff Ament lives -- one of that genre's most important founding fathers.
Ament's career parallels the rise of Seattle rock or "grunge", a now-tired term that's been used to describe practically all contemporary music that's distorted, sloppy, and punky. Music journalist Vic Garbarini has called it "where melody meets mayhem" -- and Ament's band, Pearl Jam, epitomizes that description. Before Pearl Jam, Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard joined forces in Green River, a band that was the nucleus of the burgeoning Seattle music scene. Around the time their Seattlemates Soundgarden were signed their next band, Mother Love Bone, attracted a major label but was slain by the tragic death of singer Andrew Wood. Temple of the Dog, Ament's and Gossard's collaboration with members of Soundgarden, helped to heal their wounds and introduced lead guitarist Mike McCready to the recipe. Finally, with the addition of singer Eddie Vedder and drummer Dave Krusen, Pearl Jam was born -- yielding a quickly recorded debut, Ten, that became a smash sucess. The band fine-tuned its rhythm section by replacing Krusen with Dave Abbruzzese and hit the road with the 1992 Lollapalooza tour.
Live, Eddie Vedder is Pearl Jam's focus. With the magnetic charisma of Jim Morrison and the vocal chops of Robert Plant, Vedder has the power to transform a basic groove into an extraordinary performance. Meanwhile, Ament throttles his bass with superb taste, dropping out at all the right moments and managing to turn out complicated lines while hopping maniacally around the stage.
The debut record spawned three smash singles, "Alive," "Even Flow," and the Ament-penned "Jeremy." It was followed up with a richer and more diverse sophomere effort, Vs., with no single or video promotion and limited touring and press. The result? It sold almost a million copies in its first week and continues to break records. Vedder even graced the cover of Time Magazine. These guys are big!!
Yet Ament still lives in the same building he moved into five years ago, in a one-bedroom apartment. It's packed with books, records, instruments, and a collection of still-packaged NBA action figures (others adorn his rig on stage). Despite an untold fortune from the success of his records, he hasn't bought a big house or an expensive car. Why? He doesn't have time to deal with such things. He'd rather just make music.
BP: Both live and on record, Pearl Jam reaches moments of incredible intensity. How do you get to that point?
AMENT: It basically comes down to us getting into the songs as much as possible -- just closing our eyes and finding our places in the tunes. The bottem line is that each of us figures out what it is about the song that touches us, and then we add to that, making it more intense. There are so many different ways to do it, and a lot of times it's not a mathematical thing at all -- it's purely emotional, where you don't know why you came up with your part, or even why you decided to play your instrument to begin with.
BP: You've mentioned you need a massive bass sound onstage to get into a song.
AMENT: To feel it, yeah. I have a pretty ridiculous sub-system, and if anything has to be working, it's that. I have to be able to feel the bass. I've worked hard with our producers to make sure that when you play our records on your stereo, you can feel the bass. You might not necessarily be able to hear it all the time, but if you turn it up you can feel the movement in the low end -- that it's moving the song. And when it's not there, it should be creating a dynamic. I've been involved in too many records where my sound just wasn't what I heard in my head. The prime example is Mother Love Bone's Apple. We spent two months making that record, and we did all of the basics through headphones. I don't know how other bass players can record through headphones; I did, only because we were making our first major-label album, and someone said, "This is the way you do it." I had a lot of trouble, because it sounded as if I were playing a banjo or something, and so I was playing tentatively. On Ten I did all of my tracks through headphones, but I decided the bass just wasn't aggressive enough so I overdubbed about half of the songs by playing in the same room as my amp. For Vs. I told (producer) Brendan O'Brien, "I'm not putting on headphones." And except for Temple Of The Dog, which was cut very live, this was probably the most fun I've had making a record.
BP: How did you set up to record?
AMENT: Our original plan was to rehearse in the same space for five or six days before we started. So we set up in a semicircle, with the drums in the middle. We started playing and it was feeling really good, so Brendan started putting up mikes, and we ended up cutting three songs: "Rats," "Go," and "Blood" in the first five days. We were looking to get a different drum sound on a couple of songs, so Dave set up in a small tiled room, and Brendon put three mics on the kit. We cut everything live except for some vocal overdubs and lead overdubs. Eddie even kept a few of his (reference) lead vocals: "Blood," "Leash," and "Indifference." We were going for takes where everyone felt good about the groove.
BP: Did Dave Abbruzzese make a big difference?
AMENT: I've been lucky, because pretty much all the drummers I've played with have been good. But Dave is a more steady drummer, whereas Dave Krusen is kind of hit or miss. When Dave Krusen was on it was great -- it had a loose, laid-back, Charlie Watts-type feel, but often the feel of the songs pushed and pulled a little too much. Dave Abbruzzese is more of a rock drummer.
BP: Did you use click tracks on Vs.?
AMENT: On a couple of songs. We sometimes rehearse to a click track, which makes it easier. When you're trying to get four or five instruments to lock into one thing, if the pulse is dead-on there's not much room for error -- either you're playing on it or you're not. Overall I think Dave did an amazing job, and on the average I don't think we did more than four five takes of each tune. We'd play the song two or three times, and if it wasn't happening we'd move on to something else. We got to the point where were getting ahead of Eddie; we were getting a lot of musical ideas, and trying to write lyrics for 20 songs in a month and make them mean something is a pretty intense job.
BP: You seem comfortable locking in with hypnotic, repetitive grooves, like on "W.M.A."
AMENT: I've always liked hypnotic grooves -- ones that make you want to move. Sometimes when things are all over the place, you're never really able to get into the groove. On "W.M.A.," I originally wanted my part to be a bass loop, but we ended up using a drum loop instead, with percussion on top. The idea was to have the drums and bass be a steady motion throughout the song, with the vocals and guitars moving around them. When we're picking songs to keep, not everyone was sold on "W.M.A." -- but I felt strongly about it. I figured if people thought it was a failure, I didn't care -- I just wanted us to be able to do things like that down the road.
When we were picking songs for Ten we thought it was important to pick the weirder moments, like "Oceans," because we wanted to be able to explore those areas down the line. Some bands seem to back themselves into a corner with a certain style, and then when they try to do something different people get all freaked out.
BP: Did your appearance on MTV's Unplugged give rise to the new record's acoustic numbers, "Daughter" and "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town?"
AMENT: That gave us confidence, but it actually started a little earlier. We were in Europe and had just played a disastrous show in a small basement club in Milan. There should have been only 100 people in the place, but there were 300 downstairs and 400 more upstairs. The sound was terrible, the stage was about a foot square, there were three white lights on the whole time -- and these 300 Italian people were just going crazy.
About three shows later we were in Zurich, and we showed up to a place that was even smaller. The stage was barely big enough for the drum kit, and we decided there was no way we were going to repeat what had happened in Italy. So we rented some acoustic guitars, Dave set up a kick drum and a bongo, and we had one of the greatest shows we've ever had. Two days later, our manager called and said MTV wanted us on Unplugged. So on our way back from Europe we stopped in New York and did the show. That was the second time we had played the songs acoustically.
BP: Was acoustic bass guitar new for you?
AMENT: I had taken a fretless Washburn AB20 on tour, but by the time we got to New York all of our gear had been flown back to Seattle. So I played a rented fretted Washburn. I think we could take an Unplugged performance to another level if we did it again; I'd like to experiment with keyboards and standup bass, to make it even more acoustic than it was.
BP: It is possible to achieve a high level of intensity without electrical power?
AMENT: Definitely. I find that sometimes not playing in certain places creates more intensity and tension than playing. A prime example of that is "Black," from Ten. That has become a totally different song now when we play it live; since it's a quiet tune, we can really hear the sound coming back, so it's easy to feel the power of not playing. When we play it now, parts drop out all over the place. Our egos have gotten to the point where we're comfortable doing those sorts of things now.
BP: You're playing a lot of electrical upright these days.
AMENT: I played my Carruthers SUB-1 on "Daughter" and "Indifference." I had been looking for an electric upright for a while, but I never found one I really liked. Most of then sounded fine plugged in, but I wasn't crazy about how they sounded unamplified. I tried the Carruthers in a music store and bought it -- and I have no complaints. In a rock situation the piezos feed back occasionally, but on the whole our sound man likes it a lot.
BP: How long have you been playing fretless?
AMENT: About four years.
BP: Most of your fretless basses don't have fret markers. How do you approach intonation?
AMENT: My first fretless had markers, but they can get you into trouble -- especially if your instrument's neck moves around with the weather. I learned early on you can't always rely on the fret markers. It requires listening, and it requires practice. All of the fretless basses I bring on the road, including the Carruthers, have different scale lengths, so in my case it takes a lot of practice. Someday I may decide to take just one bass on the road, but right now I like the challenge of playing different instruments on many of the songs.
BP: Was the Carruthers your first experience with an upright?
AMENT: Actually, for the Ten sessions I rented an acoustic upright. But I had a hard time with it physically, and I ended up not using it. When I first got the Carruthers, I played it every night -- which was cool, because it had been years since I practiced every night. I'd put on some music that was just in some key and jam along. At first, I could play it for only a few minutes, but before long my hands got stronger and I was playing it for a half an hour.
BP: Did that improve you electric playing?
AMENT: A lot. After playing standup for a couple of songs, you can pick up an electric and think, 'Hey, this is cake.' The 12-string is similar; after playing the 12 for a while a 4-string feels like a little toy.
The first five or six years I played bass I used a pick, and I played as hard as I could because I had the most underpowered rig in the band. If I were to look back and name one great mistake I made at that time, it would be that I had too small a rig to play in a rock band. I've found you need a lot of power to play bass correctly.
Ament was born in Havre, Montana, in 1963; shortly after his family moved to Big Sandy, "north-central nowhere Montana," as he puts it. The very small town of 800 didn't have a music store; the closest one was in Great Fall -- and even there, rock records were hard to come by. Jeff's parents were strongly religious, as was much of the Great Plains town. So how did Jeff fit in? Hint: Imagine Wendy O. Williams, chainsaw in hand, on Prairie Home Companion.
BP: Were you heavily into music from the very beginning?
AMENT: Not really. My mom played piano, and by the time I was in the first grade she had me taking piano lessons. That was okay for about two years, and then I got really sick of it. I got to the age when none of my friends were playing piano; they were playing trumpet or other, more manly, instruments. And I had to pay for my lessons by mowing the teacher's lawn, which was kind of a drag.
BP: Do you think the discipline was good or bad for your musical development?
AMENT: A certain amount of discipline is always good, but being a kid and being told what to do can get frustrating. Sixth grade was a big turning point for me; my parents started giving me a little responsibilty, and I quit taking piano lessons and started getting heavily into sports -- basketball and football.
BP: When did you start to get the music bug?
AMENT: Before that time, actually. I had an uncle who was into rock music; he had all of the Beatles records, Santana, and Simon & Garfunkel. Every once in a while he would give me singles he wasn't into anymore; he gave me "Help!", with "I'm Down" on the other side which I thought was an amazing song, and also "Proud Mary." I thought Uncle Pat was one of the coolest people in the universe -- he had long hair and sideburns, and his room had candles all over the place and Santana posters on the walls. I probably got as excited about hanging out with my uncle as I did about anything.
After a while I started getting more into music -- especially through magazines. By the time I was in the fifth grade, my friend Reggie and I would give each other rock & roll quizzes. We'd ask each other stuff like, "How long is Gene Simmons' tongue?" Reggie and I would tape each other's records, and some of those probably affected me musically more than anything else: Ted Nugent, Aerosmith's Get Your Wings, and Kiss' Alive.
In the eighth grade I went out and bought a cheap SG-copy guitar because it looked a little like Gene Simmons' bass. I'd stand in front of the mirror and just play slides -- whoom! Reggie and I decided to take guitar lessons, but we got frustrated. We'd be playing plink plink plink plink plink, and I'd be saying, "I want it to sound like this: Krang!" I didn't know what a distortion box was; I didn't know what a barre chord was, or anything. So after a couple of months I gave up and decided to concentrate on basketball.
In high school I was into sports full-time, but I was still listening to music. One of my favorite tapes had AC/DC's Highway to Hell on one side and the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks on the other. I also ordered some punk records through mail-order from the back of Creem magazine.
BP: Did you parents support your alternative attitude?
AMENT: I don't think they understood it, but they were pretty supportive. I always got into trouble at school for drawing, but they stood behind me even though the school didn't have a good art program. But having to do chores, having to go to church, and being an alter boy made me want to rebel and see the other side.
There were times when I wasn't sure the other side really existed. When I first started getting those magazines, I'd see Kiss and wonder if they were real -- do they really play their instruments? I'd hear Ace Frehley's guitar playing and think, 'How's he doing that?' It would tickle my spine and make me feel funny and I'd think, 'Why is it doing that to me?' Or I'd hear Michael Jackson singing "Ben," and it would make me cry and I'd have to go hide. So at an early age I realized music was a very powerful thing.
By the time I was 14 I knew I had to leave Montana, to experience life. Even though my family was pretty poor, my dad always figured out a way to take us on a vacation every year. When we went to L.A. or Minneapolis or Portland I felt an incredible energy and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
BP: How did you finally break out of Big Sandy?
AMENT: I went to college at the University of Montana in Missoula, which was about the closest thing to an art community around. I was studying art, but I wanted to play basketball for the school. After about a month, though, I gave it up.
BP: When did you start playing music again?
AMENT: I met this kid on my floor, Jon Donahue who had a '77 P-Bass. When I was moving in I was playing a Black Flag record, and he poked his head in and said, "I used to go see them last year" -- and then he was gone. I thought, 'How could a person from Montana have seen Black Flag?' It turned out his parents had moved from L.A. to Butte, and he had played in some punk bands down there. He said to me, "I have a bass -- do you play anything?" I said, "I have a guitar at home, but I quit playing." He told me to bring the guitar the next time I went home. So I did.
Jon knew barre chords and could play a couple of things on guitar, so we'd spend weekend nights drinking beer, plugged into the same amp, playing Ramones and Clash songs. Later on we went to see a local pop/punk show, and we decided to wear makeup and boots and everything -- and we started slamming. The crowd in Missoula was all hippies, so they were freaking out about us. After the band finished their set, we asked if we could borrow their drummer and play. We played the Romones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Pinhead" and also a 999 song called "Homicide." Afterwards, the leader from the other band said if we found a drummer we could open up for them next time. So from that point on school, basketball, everything, was out the back door.
BP: When did you make the move to Seattle?
AMENT: Our band in Missoula played five or six shows and started writing some originals, but after a while I decided I needed to move to a bigger city -- either to play music or to paint, or just to experience some shows. The Clash, The Who, and X played Seattle in the space of two days, so I came out to watch The Clash from the front row of the Kingdome. That's when I decided to move.
I started hanging out at a club called the Metropolis, where I met Mark Arm and Steve Turner (currently of Mudhoney) and Stone. I got to know the club owner, and he let my band, Deranged Diction, open for the Butthole Surfers, Husker Du, and DOA. That lasted about nine months.
I was getting frustrated with Deranged Diction; I didn't think the other members were taking it very seriously. At about that time Mark and Steve approached me about being in a band with Stone. I was hesitant because I thought their music was a little arty and not as fast and heavy as I wanted to be, but we wrote seven or eight songs and recorded them as Green River. We got a deal from Homestead records and recorded some songs at a 24-track studio. We wanted to tour, and I spent all of my spare time trying to get contacts and booking shows.
We toured around the country, but by the time we were done our record still hadn't come out. When it was finally released we were broke from the tour, but we started saving our money again. We recorded 7 more songs and were shopping them around, but no one was interested. Then a guy named Bruce Pavitt approached us, and we ended up putting out some of our tunes on the first record from his label, Sub Pop.
Stone and I had taken the reins and started making Green River more of a rock band than a punk band, but the group was starting to separate. We toured the West Coast but when we got back to Seattle Stone and I decided we didn't want to be in the band anymore.
Opening for Jane's Addiction taught me a lot. Here was a group with limited technical capabilities, but they were doing something incredible and actually using their limitations. They also grooved heavily and had an intense energy about them. So Stone and I decided to find musicians who were committed to doing something more along those lines.
We got together with Andy Wood, a singer, and played a show at a shoe store. We did a lot of covers -- stuff Stone and I wanted to play in Green River but couldn't. The more we practiced and worked up new stuff the more we realized we had something. We made a demo as Mother Love Bone and I sent the tape around to some people I knew, including a woman who had just moved from Slash records to Geffen. She said she wanted to do a demo with us, so we recorded 16 songs.
Things began to snowball at that point. Soundgarden had just been signed by A&M and a bunch of labels started to send people to Seattle. We played one show with 8 or 9 labels checking us out; one guy said to us before we went on, "You don't need to talk to those other people -- we'll give you $300,000 right now." So the next step was to get a lawyer and a manager.
So much happened so quickly. There was a lot of pressure to make something amazing happen, because we had signed a pretty big deal. We were being presented as the Next Big Thing, and we hadn't even made a record yet. That's a lot of pressure to put on anyone.
BP: How did you handle the pressure?
AMENT: I didn't have a lot of problems but in terms of communicating we were a pretty dysfunctional band. There was a lot of intimidation going on, and we were four strong personalities trying to out maneuver one another. We made Apple and were in the process of getting a tour together but right before the record came out, Andy died from a heroin overdose.
I strongly considered never playing again, because I had worked so hard to get to that point only to have it all taken away. I didn't feel like starting over. But I had quit college and didn't know what I was supposed to do with my life.
I played on a friend's demo and found it to be easy and fun, and Stone started writing some more songs. But there were some things he and I needed to talk about before we could play together again. We went to dinner and decided we needed to communicate more. We had been playing together for years and had developed an unspoken musical connection, but I felt if we took our personal relationship to another level, that would take our music to another level too. So we aired a lot of the negative feelings we had about each other and that's how we got through Andy's death and started putting things together again.
BP: How did Pearl Jam emerge?
AMENT: The way things fell into place was pretty frightening. We started to look for a drummer and singer, and we met several singers who wanted to be just like Andy, but we weren't into reliving that experience. Then former Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons recommended Eddie Vedder who lived in San Diego. Eddie came up to Seattle to meet us, and we gave him a tape. He didn't seem to know anything about Andy which was refreshing.
About a week later he called and said he was really into our songs and had started to sing over some of them. He had written lyrics to what would become "Alive" and "Once" and overdubbed the vocals on our tape, and he wanted us to hear it. When I first heard the tape I couldn't believe it; it sounded like he had written the songs with us. I called Stone and said, "I may be totally whacked out, but I think this guy is amazing."
Eddie agreed to come back to Seattle, his only stipulation being that we go straight to the rehearsal studio and not work out anything beforehand. We started in the afternoon and played for about ten hours. By the end of the week we had written three brand new songs and he had written lyrics to three more of our songs. We went into a studio to record and on the last day we played a show. Our friends were blown away; they wondered how this could have happened after only about a week. Three weeks later, Eddie moved to Seattle.
We practiced for a couple of weeks and wrote "Deep" and "Jeremy" and we went on the road with Alice In Chains. We didn't have a name yet, but I had put a Mookie Blaylock NBA trading card in our demo tape, so we were billed as Mookie Blaylock. We finally settled on Pearl Jam, and it's been pretty intense ever since.
BP: What were your intentions for the first record?
AMENT: We knew we were still a long way from being a real band at that point, and we needed to tour. So essentially Ten was just an excuse to tour. We told the record company, "We know we can be a great band, so let's just get the opportunity to get out and play.
BP: The success of the record must have been a huge surprise.
AMENT: Completely. When it was released I figured if we sold 100,000 copies it would be a total success. At the same time, though, I knew after jamming with Eddie just a few times that there was more potential in that combination than in any other combination Stone and I had been in.
BP: You must have been excited when "Jeremy" took off.
AMENT: It was nice not only because I wrote it but because we struggled so hard with it. We knew it was a good song, but it was tough getting it to feel right -- for the chorus to sit back and the outro to push over the top. The tune went from practically not making it on the record to being one of the best takes. I'm not sure if it's the best song on the album but I think it's the best take.
On "Jeremy" I always heard this other melody in the choruses and the end, and it never sounded good on guitar or bass. So we brought in a cello player which inspired a background vocal, and those things made the song really happen. Most of the time if something doesn't work right away, I just say fuck it -- but this was an instance when perseverance paid off.
BP: Once Ten exploded, how did you handle the pressure of the follow-up?
AMENT: The success was so weird and unexpected following it up seemed easier than if Ten had flopped. We've always made sure to challenge ourselves and to write better, but once we get in a room and start to play the pressures seem to go away. We all have high standards for our own playing and each other's playing so we're pretty much bound to do something at least halfway decent. In other bands where one person writes everything there's a lot more pressure on that person; for us it's spread around. And as much pressure as Eddie has to deal with, we're always there to help him.
BP: What do you think of the Seattle music scene today?
AMENT: One reason I think the original Seattle bands have been so successful is there's a great sense of do-it-yourself here. Before any of the publicity we had our own thing going on, we stuck to our guns, and we made the people come to us rather than going to them. But right now there are about 300 Seattle bands and many of them have moved here to be discovered. Those bands unfortunately, are missing the point.