Musician Magazine 5/95
Mother of Pearl -- The Stone Gossard Interview
by Vic Garbarini
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine -- and he looked a hell of a lot like Stone Gossard. Pearl Jam is the band, Eddie is the man, and Stone is who? The still point at the center? The altered-tuning, funky-riffing mystery man of the Pearl Jam phenomenon? Like the band itself, Gossard is a work in progress, an evolving and shape-shifting kind of guy. He's self-effacing and proud, shy yet articulate, boldly innovative while plagued (or blessed) with Augustinian self-doubt. He's a soft-spoken visionary who's more wary of his own ego and motivations than he is of others', inside or outside of his band. He's Hamlet with a sense of humor.
The sign on the marquee of Seattle's cozy Moore Theater says "The Piss Bucket Boys." [No... it said, "Piss Bottle Men," borrowed from the Mike Watt song. -- 5h] It's Pearl Jam's leave-us-alone nom du jour for a rehearsal/free show, performed for the band's fan club prior to their current world tour. Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready are butting heads like two stags in heat as they thrash furiously on their respective guitars. Bassist Jeff Ament is on his back, staring at the ceiling, keeping the pulse, while new drummer Jack Irons hammers out the beat with a swinging ferocity. And Stone Gossard bounces joyously at the center, locking simultaneously into the rhythm section, guitar and vocals, keeping an eye and ear for the groove. But as they pound through the neo-punk numbers from Vitalogy something is definitely different. That's Stone, not Mike, tossing out lead lines, and in standard tuning. Now Eddie's churning out the Gossardian chords of "Better Man," which Vedder, in fact, wrote. For Pearl Jam, it's therapeutic role reversal time.
The story behind the story here is Gossard's willingness to forego musical creative control of the band, not because he was forced to, but because of his vision of the band as an organic family unit. If Eddie or Mike need to grab the guitars and jump in the front seat for a while, fine. If the songwriting has gotten simpler and more direct, breaking down to primal riffs and sketchy ideas as part of the process, so be it. Never have I seen a band whose disparate personalities pull them apart more, but whose common consciousness and mutual respect and feeling allow them to hang together so tightly. They'll all tell you that the band has never felt more like a unit. And they'll tell you it could fly apart tomorrow. Gossard will offer the paradox that, as long as they attend to the needs of the moment, they're anchoring the future.
Gossard is as close as you'll get to Ground Zero of the Seattle movement. Born and raised there, he founded Green River with Montana transplant Jeff Ament in the mid-'80s. Their debut album was the first ever released on the now legendary Sub Pop label. Later they landed in the equally crucial Mother Love Bone. Stone's father is a prominent attorney, his mother worked in city government and the family unit stayed together. He was spared the emotionally shattering childhood that crippled the trust and confidence of so many of his contemporaries. Education at Seattle's progressive Northwestern School of the Arts encouraged his creative impulses. His love of guitar bands like Zeppelin, Kiss, Hendrix and the other usual suspects sustained him as a teenager.
But it was African-American music, particularly funk and rap, that captured his soul. He became determined to learn and transfer the same sense of groove that had awakened his body and emotions to the guitar. In fact, we'd struck up a relationship a few years back when I apparently became the first journalist to note that those staccato, chattering riffs on "Even Flow" and "Alive" were more Ice Cube than Cream.
Recently, Gossard set up his own label, Loosegroove, to be distributed by Epic. It's a chance for him to indulge his love of mutant funk-punk metal groups like Devilhead, and rap bands such as Prose and Concepts. He sees these bands as part of his extended musical family many of whom might be bypassed in the Great Seattle Gold Rush. His sister Shelly runs the label.
Before our interview Gossard takes me past his new, custom-built studio -- airy and sunny (with windows even) -- where the Loosegroove bands, and Pearl Jam itself, plan to record. Later, dressed in a red flannel shirt and looking whippet thin, and with short hair dyed the color of lemon ice, he leads me into the artsy health food restaurant in Seattle's bohemian Belltown district. As we thread our way to the table, I wonder out loud if he agrees with Vedder's statement at a recent pro-choice rally that drummer Jack Irons literally "saved this band." Irons is the ex-Chili Peppers drummer who Stone and Jeff contacted when Mother Love Bone dissolved after the death of singer Andy Wood. At the time, Irons was already working with a new band, Eleven, but yes, he could recommend a singer -- this guy named Eddie Vedder... Gossard begins to answer, then stops. A wry, Roger Rabbit smile spreads slowly across his face as he notices someone at the next table. He leads me over to a surprised slight young guy in a crew cut and sweater, with his right hand wrapped in ace bandages. "Meet Jack Irons," he says.
"Hi," says Jack. "I'm sorry about the hand -- leaned over a bit too far during the show."
"Kind of poetic, isn't it?" Stone grins, as we sit down to talk.
MUSICIAN: Eddie did say that Jack Irons saved the band. Was there literally a chance that things could have spun apart at that point?
GOSSARD: I really don't know. Coming into this album was the most significant time in the last three years, in the sense that everything was up in the air. If we didn't find a drummer that everyone felt good about, it would have been difficult to keep moving forward. Jack's just a very generous and wise drummer. He concentrates on the groove of a song, and that allows everybody's heart to have a place to sit, and yet be part of the whole. He's very conscious of what everybody's playing. He's working to balance out all the elements of the band.
MUSICIAN: A lot of people feel that Dave [Abbruzzese's] Texas, pick-up-truck personality clashed with Eddie's sensibilities.
GOSSARD: It's a very complex scenario, and certainly Dave was, and is, not the only person in Pearl Jam with personality flaws. Everybody in this band exhibits some form of neurotic behavior. And we couldn't find a balance, a mutual respect for each other. Because of that, nobody was really playing with their hearts as open as they could be. But in the process of deciding 1) we still wanted to be a band, and 2) we really did want to work things out, we felt that improving our inner band relationships meant making a decision to find somebody else.
I think your artistic style and your personality are very interrelated. Dave played an important part in our growing, but change occurs. We're more confident now about the band's longevity and our relationships with each other. We may take breaks and do other things, but we feel we'll ultimately have Pearl Jam as a family. It's really comforting for me and Jeff, at least, that after 12 years we finally feel we've reached a place where we can be more honest, real and loving with each other. And we're finally in a band that we know is good, and deserves the credit it's getting.
MUSICIAN: Vitalogy is a pretty raw album. Most bands start off raw. Then the second album gets a bit more complex, and the third...
GOSSARD: Gets bogged down in a mini-opera. [laughs]
MUSICIAN: But you guys have gone in the opposite direction. Did you have to break things down and start over?
GOSSARD: It really is more of an Eddie record in terms of his influence playing guitar, for instance. The record was symptomatic of the band's state. In fact, it was probably the only record we could have made due to the problems we were going through in relating. We really weren't collaborating with each other at the time very much. So the only way we could make something happen was by going into the studio and deciding on it then and there, in the moment. Eighty percent of the songs were written 20 minutes before they were recorded. Eddie had "Better Man" from a long time ago, but most of the songs were a result of jamming in the studio and coming up with a quick arrangement. It felt like what we needed to do to really break the band open.
MUSICIAN: And did it work, musically and therapeutically? Will the next album be more rounded?
GOSSARD: It's going to be a much different band than on the last record. You'll still hear more of Eddie's songwriting, but there will also be elements that'll enable everybody's personality to shine through. You'll hear that spontaneity, but I hope to spend more time arranging material and trying to get everybody involved in the songwriting process.
MUSICIAN: Were there songs that you felt captured that balance between structure and spontaneity that compare with your best work?
GOSSARD: "Tremor Christ" seemed to write itself. It was just a riff-and-a-half, basically. On a muggy, beautiful New Orleans afternoon we came into a very cool studio and it poured out. That and "Nothingman," which Jeff wrote, were recorded a day apart. They were very spontaneous, but with a simple yet indescribably beautiful vibe to them.
MUSICIAN: Having founded the band and written most of the first album by yourself, why was it necessary to share songwriting? "Even Flow," "Alive" and "Black" were pretty incredible compositions.
GOSSARD: If it had remained always my band, my natural tendency would have been to get more complex and arrange things more and more. That wouldn't necessarily be good for Eddie, or anyone else in the band. Of course, I enjoy being self-indulgent. [laughs] And I look forward to the time when I can become more indulgent with my songwriting. But this band is a family, and it's a process that we have to grow with together.
MUSICIAN: Eddie is an emotionally intense person who had a difficult family life. Does the Pearl Jam family have to accommodate that? Some people believe he calls all the shots now.
GOSSARD: It's a combination of things. There's no getting around the fact that Eddie is the man. As far as emotional and spiritual energy goes, he IS the leader of this band. But Eddie does not make all the decisions. Eddie can listen to reason; Eddie can be swayed or talked in or out of certain things. Eddie allows other people to lead in this band and to have certain roles that are very fundamental to the decision-making process.
Eddie is a natural leader. Jeff and I have been very much in control of previous bands we've worked in. But the way Eddie grew into being the leader of this band was the most gradual, slow and respectful process that I've ever been involved in. That's not to say Eddie's never done anything malicious. But he never grabbed power for power's sake. His position was gained only because he has that energy, and that's naturally where he ended up. I struggle with my ego every day, all day long. There's no break from that. Every day there's some sort of revelation about how I'm misinterpreting something because I'm thinking of myself as the center of the universe. Once you realize everybody in your band has that problem, it becomes easier.
MUSICIAN: You've spoken of how you admired Mike's fluidity as a player, and wanted to emulate that, while letting him in on the songwriting process. And you have been doing more leads...
GOSSARD: There's been a lot of role reversal going on in the band. The roles people have been playing for a long time will always be there, but everybody's willing to try on different outfits. I think Mike will be trying on the outfit of a songwriter as much as anyone. But he can always still break into a blazing fast lead. It's going to be a different band. In any given song there's plenty of opportunities for structure, for improvisation, for both left brain and right brain thinking on the part of everybody. I think that's what we're finally all beginning to understand. Or maybe it's just that I'm finally beginning to understand that. Or maybe I'm just IMAGINING that I understand it. [laughs] The point is, it's about balance, and how no one individual can see the whole picture. We need each other's perspectives.
MUSICIAN: You once told me that this was more than a band to you -- it was an experiment in faith.
GOSSARD: I think I was on my Gaia kick that week. No, I do think that's a valid comment. Call it holistic or holographic thinking, it's been quite effective imagining the world's problems are all right in front of you on a smaller scale with your band. You deal with those relationships, and that's where real major change begins.
MUSICIAN: So your family's problems get repeated in your band, and in the world. The microcosm in the macrocosm?
GOSSARD: Right, those relationships with your parents and family are the hardest to figure out, and the same patterns get carried into a band situation. In Pearl Jam, the cliffs are very high and the chasms very deep. You have to face your own neuroses and problems through your band members. And everything that pisses you off about somebody in your band or your family is something inside yourself that you haven't dealt with. Every time we've realized, okay, we've fucked up about this or that, we've learned to find that space where the group is more important than any individual problem. And we've grown from it.
MUSICIAN: Let's get specific. Mike has been very open about how he's kicked his alcohol habit. How did the band handle that?
GOSSARD: Mike's a pretty awful drunk. Not that he got malicious or mean openly to people, but he would get out of control consistently. It was a difficult situation where you could find yourself blaming Mike for a lot of your own frustrations with the band when he was fucked up or couldn't come to practice. And we're used to loving Mike and knowing how much fun and how talented he is. I got upset that he might throw away a great opportunity to be in a cool band and work it out. He decided to go into treatment and everyone was thrilled. How could you not be? Here was Mike taking responsibility for himself and his own happiness, going to a new level. He's a treat to be around. He's just as raw and fuckin' crazy as he ever was, but he's not drinking. And we're there for him in the long term. We love Mike and nothing's gonna change our feelings about wanting him to be in the band.
MUSICIAN: Many artists start vanity labels. But Loosegroove seems to be more about the community ideals you mentioned.
GOSSARD: Yeah, the template for the label has been Sub Pop and people like Rick Rubin that you sense have been inspired to put out the music they love, and watch them become successful. And I hope I can share what I've learned about the business with my friends, and avoid some mistakes. Like one way of helping a first-time band is having my own studio where we can charge what we want to and keep the prices down. It'll just be studio maintenance, basically. If the studio can just stay in the black, that's fine.
MUSICIAN: You improve your guitar technique by playing drums with R & B and rap records.
GOSSARD: Yeah, particularly the first TLC record. LA and Babyface keep doing great stuff, and the new OutKast record is amazing. The focus of my playing is the groove, and every time I find a new rhythm, I find I can write a bunch of new songs. Learning how to dance, or drum, or to swing my body in a new way is the fundamental way I find a new riff. Because when you learn to swing your body in a new way, you begin to swing with your instrument differently, and it affects where you drop notes in a phrase. That riff dance changes, as you feel drawn to let one note come in a millisecond later, and another drag.
MUSICIAN: So it's a new chapter in the old story of the intellectual white boy trying to get in touch with his emotions through African-American music?
GOSSARD: That's it. Because a lot of the emotional issues they address are very much things I've been deprived of, growing up in a very left-brain hierarchical culture. What's appealing about any dance music or rhythm and blues is that it includes that right-brain freedom of dance, movement and intuition.
MUSICIAN: Speaking of dancing, what's the band's main problems with Ticketmaster, and where does it all stand now?
GOSSARD: Basically, they're the largest ticket distribution company, and they set up contracts with venues. It's a very cozy relationship between the building owners, and promoters and Ticketmaster.
MUSICIAN: Are they the only kids on the block, like the old Bell Telephone?
GOSSARD: That's what we contend and hope the Justice Department will find. Because there's no real competition for them in terms of how difficult it is to start one of these companies now that Ticketmaster has got a grip on the business. Testifying before Congress about it was a very surreal experience.
MUSICIAN: Why is the service charge issue so contentious?
GOSSARD: Say we, Pearl Jam, want to sell our tickets for $18, which is a relatively low price today. So Ticketmaster says, well, Christ, if they want to sell their tickets for $18 and we know they're going to sell out, let's tack on a $5 service charge. And there's no standard service charge, they can tack on whatever they feel. They can go low for a family event like a circus or much higher for an Eagles show. One of the issues we're hoping to get the government to act on is to say, "You can't have a service charge that's more than ten percent of the actual ticket price," or something so you'd know where you were standing. We're a band that's willing to compromise to make things right for both parties. But in [Ticketmaster CEO] Fred Rosen's case, he's not really willing to do that in a way that makes us feel comfortable in terms of knowing he's not screwing us.
MUSICIAN: R.E.M.'s lawyer testified with you, but felt they had to go with Ticketmaster in order to tour, it seems. And Green Day lowered their prices, but I don't believe it involved the service charge issue significantly. Do you understand their situation?
GOSSARD: Sure, it's not weird for us. We picked this fight, and we're going to see it through. How everyone else does their business is their own doing. Green Day and R.E.M. probably got better deals due to the fact that Fred's taking a lot of heat these days and wants to make people happy. So I'd like to think that it's having a ripple effect. And I think it's admirable that Green Day wants to charge a low ticket price.
MUSICIAN: Another group you've had an ambivalent relationship with was Nirvana. How did the loss of Kurt Cobain affect you all?
GOSSARD: [long pause] It was tough... because all the things Kurt Cobain said we were guilty of, we were -- on some level. Kurt had us pegged in a lot of ways.
MUSICIAN: In what sense?
GOSSARD: Somebody from the outside can sometimes see the ugliness in our situation more clearly. He saw us in a way that was accurate to him. I can only say that I don't want... I don't think that I'm exclusively what he, at one point, claimed we were! Which was everything bad about rock music in terms of the music not coming first. Jeff and I have been very driven about wanting to be successful -- sometimes at the expense of a lot of people's feelings -- without even realizing it. Our wanting to get things done has ruffled a lot of feathers and stepped on a few toes. We're still learning how to live life and be true to ourselves and to our spiritual natures, and we've learned a lot of lessons. I feel bad that Kurt's not still writing songs, because he was brilliant and that guy could emotionally twang my heart strings. Every song that he wrote spoke to me.
MUSICIAN: You're recording now with Neil Young, and have cited him and the Grateful Dead as role models for how to deal with your musical careers. What's the main problem these great bands you guys admired ran into that you've tried to learn from?
GOSSARD: To stay together and work it out. And that there's going to be someone who is gonna knock you right on your ass if you're NOT working it out. I feel like the band finally is a family right now, and that we're in it for the long haul, and that there's nothing we can't work out in terms of being able to play music together. The bottom line is that when we all plug in, Eddie can make us dance and play like little molecules bouncing off the wall. And, for whatever reason, we can make him feel like singing.
The artists on the Loosegroove label "are all people I've had relationships with," Gossard explains. "So it's definitely as much because I really like and trust the people that I'm working with as the music that's moved me -- although that's equally important. I've watched other people be successful because they're going with their guts, you know?"
We asked Stone for capsule reviews of some current and upcoming label releases. Critters Buggin': "An amazing group. It's Matt Chamberlain, who we played with before, and Brad Houser -- they both used to play with Edie Brickell, but they've done a lot of drugs since then and really expanded their frame of reference. They have their own trippy samplers and tape loops running and it's all instrumental, or a lot of it is, but amazing gongs too. It's full-on-rhythm-oriented power freak-out rock."
Prose and Concepts: "It's a Seattle rap band whose demo I heard two years ago and got to know them as people and really respected their family. They're an interracial rap band so they're faced with, you know, some pretty heavy-duty outside forces, and I'm down with them. Very talented."
Malfunkshun: "It's an eight-year-old tribute to Andy Wood that's gonna be a real treat for anyone who was into Mother Love Bone or wanted to know some of the early Seattle inspirational figures, 'cause Andy Wood left an impact on the city and everyone that ever heard his music, I think. Charming and funny and funky and heavy. They do a cover version of 'Wang Dang Sweet Poon Tang' by the Nuge!"
Devilhead: "Brian and Kevin Wood, who are Andy Wood's brothers; John McBain, John Waterman and Luke Kimble are also in the band. It's a real rock band, and they will wear their rock on their sleeve, but they're groovy -- they have a great rhythm section."
Stone Age Tools
Stone Gossard's guitar of choice varies between a classic '54 Les Paul gold top with PAF humbucking pickups, and a considerably less classic Epiphone: "It's got an f-hole with a little hollow body and a single pickup, like a student model. I don't even know what the model is, but it's funky and it's got a good sound." He also plays a Hamer Duo-Tone acoustic/electric combination: "I'm not even sure they're on the market. They made one for me a long time ago. It's got a piezo pickup in the bridge and two humbucking pickups. It's got a toggle switch so that I can play acoustic, you know, hearing acoustic coming out through the monitors. Then if I put the volume pedal down, it plays electric too, so it really is two very distinct sounds."
Gossard employs GHS strings -- "light for the Epiphone" -- and cranks them through Fender Deluxe amps and Matchless heads. His effects include a DOD EQ pedal for distortion, along with a delay reverb pedal and a distortion box.