CMJ, July 2000
THE SWEET SMELL OF (moderate) SUCCESS
Pearl Jam is less commercially viable, and happier than ever. By Matt Ashare
Transcribed by Melissa Bartman
It's not easy being Pearl Jam. Since the band emerged from the shadow cast by Nirvana in '91, there have been times when Eddie Vedder and his adopted Seattle family apparently couldn't help but make things hard on themselves, to appear dysfunctional even, like miscreants competing for a prime spot on the Springer show. Following the breakthrough of Ten (Epic), the band seemed stricken with a textbook case of Multi-platinum Stress Disorder (MpSD), the common affliction affecting so many underground artists guilty about success. And the bandmembers had plenty of reason to bring on a nasty case: Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament built the band out of the wreckage of Mother Love Bone left by singer Andrew Wood's fatal overdose; Vedder was still painstakingly unpacking all kinds of baggage from a troubled youth imported from California; and it didn't help any when Saint Cobain decreed publicly that Pearl Jam were the false prophets of grunge. A little self-flagellation was in the cards.
Pearl Jam isn't the first band to be angst-stricken as a byproduct of commercial success, to resist giving up its abstract ideals to the practical realities of the music business or, worse yet, turning them into yet another selling point. But what's remarkable is that Pearl Jam managed to survive those rocky early years to become the last of the original Seattle titans still standing. If Cobain was indeed crushed by the weight of a world where the forces of art and business often clash, then Pearl Jam is the band that proved it was possible not only to reconcile the tensions between creativity and commerce, but to actually scale back one's success to a more comfortable level while focusing more on simply making music and less on cranky activism.
In retrospect, it looks easy: stop making videos and granting interview requests; start a feud with the nation's largest ticketing agency that gets so blown out of proportion that it overshadows your music and makes touring next to impossible; cancel some of the tour dates that you are able to book and then, as the climactic anti-climax, have your singer contract food poisoning during a free show in Golden Gate Park. Ridiculous, right? But what if it worked? What if five or six albums into your career, the band's sounding better than ever, more confident, comfortable and cohesive than before? That would be pretty cool, right?
"I think that has everything to do, even thematically, with what happened with this record and even the last record, Yield," says Ament, referring to the fact that by the time Pearl Jam went into the studio to begin work on 1998's Yield the band had significantly reduced the size of its record-buying audience to, oh, a none-too-shabby couple of million. "I mean, I think if Ed's not on the cover of every magazine and on MTV every 30 minutes, it makes his life a lot easier. I'm sure that that created a lot of resentment when it was happening, resentments that we just didn't know how to communicate to each other. So it would be like, you know, 'Ed's not talking to me right now, does he hate me?' And it gets to the point where people come up to you in a public situation and have a really intense opinion about you or someone in your band, and you end up having to defend yourself and your band when you're just trying to have dinner with some friends. So we did have a lot of conversations about scaling things back, and once we got some perspective I think we realized that all we're doing is making music. It's music that makes me feel good and it puts us in this great space and maybe it's even therapeutic. But, you know, in the grand scheme of things, it's really not that important. And I think when you come to terms with that, it's huge. It's like it's when you actually do open up and relax and enjoy yourselves."
And that's the sense you get from the new Binaural, an album named for a special kind of microphone that the disc's producer, Tchad Blake, has championed. This in itself hints at the fact that five members of Pearl Jam have focused inward on their music--right down to the recording equipment they're using--instead of outward on problems (like, say, Ticketmaster) that aren't theirs to solve.
The disc, the first PJ recording to feature former Soundgarden drummer (and Yield tour sideman) Matt Cameron, opens with a trio of souped-up garage-rocking tunes that are as raw and muscular as anything the band's ever committed to tape (think "State of Love and Trust" from the Singles soundtrack). And yet, in contrast to some of the punkier tracks on Vitalogy and No Code, which had a tendency to sound a lot like a band trying to hard to reclaim some alternative cred, there's nothing stilted or forced about "Breakerfall" or "God's Dice." Vedder also has a number or opportunities to exorcise some of his moody blues, in mid-tempo rockers like "Light Years," folkier pop numbers like "Thin Air" and psychedelic guitar workouts like "Nothing As It Seems." And the mix is rounded out by the stripped down, ukelele-based tune "Soon Forget," which features Vedder's somewhat humorous use of the word "Benjamins," as in "He's lying dead, clutching Benjamins/ Never put the money down."
"I'm pretty happy at this point," a shy Vedder admits, "because I feel like in this last record, every song absolutely feels like...I don't know if this makes sense, but every song feels like me. I think in the past, especially if it was like a third-person song, my voice would kind of mimic the emotion, or something like that. It was more mimicry involved on the third record or the second record. It was like, 'this is an angry song so I'm going to use the angry voice.' And that's changed for me. I haven't really addressed this before, but I think it's almost because there are a lot of singers I've noticed who are sounding like they're mimicking me mimicking. I hear a lot of people tell me about it. You know, they'll say 'I heard this song and I thought it was you, then the song sucked so I knew it wasn't you.' So that became a little strange for me, especially when we'd play old songs live and I felt like, 'oh man, this sounds like some other voice.' So I'm feeling pretty good about my singing. I think everyone's got their own voice, it's just a matter of going through the process to find out what that voice is. And I'll just be honest and say that I'm pretty psyched because I think that I did that."
Ultimately, though, Pearl Jam's biggest recent gains have been internal ones. They're the elements that you don't necessarily hear on a recording, but without them you'd have to wonder how many more recordings there would be. But you can see it in the way Vedder, Gossard, and Ament interact. "We communicate much better with each other now," Gossard explains. "We bring up issues instead of skulking away and leaving and not showing up for two days. Our fights are shorter..."
"...And filled with laughter and humor," Vedder interjects. "The tensions don't build up like they used to, which I think is the key in any relationship. I think we're all just a lot more..."
"...Old," Gossard jokes.
"Well, we're just more settled," Vedder continues. "You learn to pick your battles, and not to over-react before you know what the situation is. I remember there was one song we were working on--one that I wrote--and I was in the basement typing the lyrics and I had asked Jeff to just play really straight, just really straight, just kind of really thump your way through and keep it straight because that's what the bass needs to do. So I went down to the basement to type something and I could hear the bass and it was just crazy, like eight notes in two bars..."
"...The lyrics got more and more angry as he was writing them," Gossard adds.
"I was thinking 'what the fuck is he doing? Goddamn it, if I didn't look him in the eye and ask him to keep it simple," Vedder goes on, "I was just pissed and it was building up and building up, and I walked upstairs and they're playing back the track, and it was just this one little tag, this one little tag that he kept replaying. And I'm just so glad that I didn't run up there going, 'What the fuck?!' because the part was beautiful, you know, it was great."
When Ament hears the story later on, he laughs, claiming not to know which song Vedder's talking about. And then he stops to reflect: "So many people get into bands and get taken on that ride where you have to make videos, and have to do all this press, and you're going all over the world. Your personal life turns to shit, you end up having all these resentments toward each other, and then you break up." Pearl Jam opted for the road less traveled.