Rolling Stone [Australia], August 2000
by Michael Dwyer
Transcribed by Cameron O'Connor
When Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder finally beckoned, it was like being summoned by the Queen of England. I'd chased him clean across the country, from Perth to Melbourne to Brisbane, trying the nab the elusive world exclusive interview during Pearl Jam's famously non-media-friendly tour of 1995.
I wrote all about the failed odyssey in Rolling Stone of March '98, just as America's greatest rock and roll band grand-slammed the country for the second time. Now, finally, here was Vedder, standing in a dimly-lit room, kind of embarrassed, holding something soft and black over his arm.
"I've been looking for you," was the best greeting I could muster.
"Oh yeah, I read that," Vedder concurred distractedly. "Do you know what this is?" he unravelled the black bundle to reveal a worn but laundered T-shirt with the letters "NW" hand written in white ink on the pocket.
I knew what it was. He'd worn it on stage in Melbourne in '95. In my article I'd transcribed his rambling, poetic monologue about what the two letter might stand for. "I was wondering why I packed it this time," Vedder mumbled. "I'd like you to have it if you want it."
When I woke up I had a headache. I also had Eddie Vedder's T-shirt draped triumphantly over my bedroom mirror, the only evidence that the previous night's meeting had not been a rock & roll dream. For two years since, I've had no idea what to tell people when they ask what the "NW" on my T-shirt stands for.
"Well, the first time I came to Australia I kinda pent-up," the singer explains two years later via telephone from Bellingham, Washington, where his band is soundchecking audibly in the background. "The ceiling had been lowered and the clouds were inside my head and people would say 'No Worries, Mate!' and I would say 'No Worries!' " He laughs at how a subtle shift in intonation can mean a world of semantic difference. "But I'm back on track now. I'm right with you guys."
He sounds like it. Pearl Jam's air of torment and anguish has slowly subsided over their last three albums, since the grim introspection of Vitalogy exorcised Vedder's backlog of childhood trauma in 1994. The mere fact that he's up for talking about the band's sixth album, Binaural, suggests he's more relaxed about the whole rock stardom trip.
"Uh, yeah, sure," he replies uncertainly. "I've been avoiding that whole issue for a long time. It actually is a nice way to deal with it for me, just kind of avoid it. We've tried to walk the line a little bit; staying under the radar and yet still (being) able to sustain ourselves artistically and we seem to have managed an interesting place."
"It seems, from what I know, a little bit like a Zen philosophy: just slipping in the middle there. It's like surfing. You're not under the water and you're not off the water, you're just right in that spot where you're moving across the top."
Hence the moratorium on the in-depth interviews?
"Uh...there's certain things for mental heath and physical health you need to do to protect your own personal.....I dunno if it's space or....You just try to kinda keep yourself in a healthy place.
"The other thing I was protecting was not just the music but the ability or the opportunity to make it. You weren't the band that everyone was fucking sick of and you weren't the band that was in your face in every magazine. Though I might be in this one, huh?"
Vedder laughs. He's apparently forgiven [U.S.] Rolling Stone their famous transgression of 1997, when the controversial "Inventing Eddie Vedder" cover story drew outraged responses from such friends of Vedder as REM's Michael Stipe. Even old Nemesis Courtney Love penned a letter to the magazine in support of Eddie Vedder's integrity.
"I'll just say it was kinda hitting below the belt." he says today, reluctant to dwell on past negatives. "Upsetting people is not what I want to be doing. I'm into positive energy. It comes at you and you give it back."
The symbiotic exchange clearly applies to that frequently prostituted art of commodity, rock & roll. One of the things that set Pearl Jam and it's pedestal in the early '90s was their desperate, no-nonsense attitude to the stuff. From Ten to Vs., to Vitalogy, music was clearly a crucial lifeline for the borderline suicidal Eddie Vedder of old. "Alive" and "better Man" weren't just smash singles, they were startlingly eloquent and emotional ways of dealing with unfinished family business. By the time of No Code in 1996, "Who You Are" and "Off He goes" were like affirmations of a new self acceptance. Hell, Yield (1998) was even playful in parts. Has the songwriter been aware of the role of music evolving in his life?
"It's a good question," he says thoughtfully. "I guess all I'm aware of is my own personal standards and I think they keep rising. I dunno if it's because of the great bands that I'm listening to and am inspired by. It might not be some of the songs that are on the top 40 lists, but there's a lot of great writing going on and all of a sudden you find your standards are a lot higher than they were. That makes it a lot tougher."
So when was the last time he turned on the radio and thought "Shit, I better lift my game"?
"I don't think that's happened listening to the radio," he says with a chuckle. "Last time I listened to the radio it was more like, 'Who the fuck is this guy and maybe I should call an attorney! It's kinda funny that you can copyright a note progression... but you can't copyright your voice and the way you sing."
Again the carefree peals of laughter, but it's revealing to note that allegedly self-absorbed rock recluse does keep tabs on his imitators and would-be successors in the cannibalisitc pop world.
If he bothered to check the Billboard charts the week Binaural came out in May, he would have noticed Britney Spears holding a new Pearl Jam album off the top spot for the first time. Does the champion of pure rock & roll values despair at the rise of this vacuous pop candy?
"Uh, despair?" He finds this amusing too. "I don't like to condemn something I don't understand. You know what was interesting? The 'Last Kiss' single was something that was recorded at a soundcheck and given away as a Christmas single on 45 vinyl to a small amount of people, friends or fans of the band, and it kinda took off on radio.
"It was a stange little anomaly. It somehow cut through all that (pop) stuff. here was a song that was not produced, it was one take and somehow it was getting played on the radio 'cause it had a nice story to it, maybe. Did that get much airplay down there at all?"
Is he serious? The word "Saturation" springs to mind. "Last Kiss" went to number one in Australia last July, stayed there for seven weeks and went platinum three times. Worldwide, the single and it's parent album "No Boundaries" have now raised around US$6 million for Kosovo refugees.
"That was kind of uplifting," Vedder reflects, "or at least it re-instilled some faith that a good song can cut through, even though there's no dancers on stage when we do the song, or video to go with it or anything like that. That helped me feel like all was not lost or something, at least in our world here."
His choices of words falls a long way short of rock superstar arrogance. Vedder speaks of the making of Binaural in terms of "a construction job", and even confesses to his first bout of writer's block in the lead-up, as comically endorsed in the album's unlisted closing track: the sound of mechanically pounded typewriter keys. It's tempting to see some self-deprecating relevance, too, in the album's art-work, especially the cover image of a dying star. Does it have any metaphorical significance for Pearl Jam at this point in their career?
"Well, it could," Vedder says breezily. "I think it's a good to put that kind of metaphor out there. That way if the record is a complete failure you've kind of owned up to it in a subliminal way. No Code was the same thing. For me, No Code meant 'Do Not Resuscitate'."
Weird, it's beginning to feel like nothing I say can shake Eddie Vedder out of his carefree and light-hearted frame of mind. I inform him that every track from Binaural was downloadable via controversial file sharing web site Napster.com, days before the album's release. Still, he sounds more amazed than outraged.
"You know, maybe it will encourage people to make better packaging, good album covers and something nice to go with the record, the real release," he says. "I just think that the more music that's out there the better. I'm sure it could affect up-and-coming bands more."
Despite Pearl Jam's early embrace of the internet, Vedder claims to have lost track of the daily developments in web culture which have such bands as Metallica screaming blue murder. When this rock star picks up a newspaper, he's more interested in this year's US presidential election, "Plus there's this death penalty case I've been keeping tabs on," he explains.
He's not even aware that an American anit-abortion organisation Rock for Life is urging boycott of Pearl Jam's albums and concerts due to Vedder's well publicised Pro-Choice stand. But once informed, he lets slip a little of that legendary seething rage.
"I've never ever heard of them," he mutters. "A pro-life christian right group or something that's boycotting Pearl Jam? You know, fuck 'em if they can't wake up and live in the present. What they're trying to do is base laws on religion and there's some human issues here, this is not just theology.
"I absolutely believe that if it was males whose stomachs grew and they had to shoot a baby out of their bodies, it wouldn't be an issue. There is no way men would accept that loss of independence. If all those guys stayed out of the argument I would too."
The famous Vedder social conscience. Even when Pearl Jam go on Holidays, it's working hard. In the past year he's teamed up with Olympia metal duo C Average to play a free Tibet Benefit, a fundraiser for the LA drugs refuge that saved Chili Peppers John Frusciante and Neil Young's annual Bridge concert for phyicalled challenged kids.
"I'd accept order to do a couple of benefits by myself and I thought God, that's really boring to go up with an Acoustic guitar," he says. "I'm kinda bored by the folkie thing. I'm not bored by Neil but I'm bored by -- God forbid that I mention a name but, you know, like....a female (Sheryl Crow was the much derided solo headliner of the Bridge concert).
"I didn't want to do that emotional acoustic thing so we decided to do a three-piece garage rock thing; did covers of bands nobody's heard of, like Dead Moon and the Mono Men, played some clubs just for fun, gave the money away. It was great."
This year, Australian audiences are more likely to see this kind of combo, it seems, than Pearl Jam "What (Pearl Jam) tend to do is play America and one other place," Vedder says. "This year we're doing Europe. But I'm kinda jonesin' to go down to Australia to surf so I think even before the band goes I'll go and maybe set up some three-piece gigs with Ross from the Cosmic Psychos or something.
"You know, Ross and Matt Lukin from Mudhoney wanted to do this... it was gonna be called The Drunken Word tour, just the two of them talkin' and hangin' out and I was gonna kind of MC it and make a film of it."
It might be just the ticket to finally lay the old, angsty and gloomy image of Eddie Vedder to rest. With scribbled thanks to Pete Townshend, he even plays the ukulele on Binaural, an instrument that's only one step up from a kazoo in the sure-shot comedy stakes. I suddenly wonder aloud if Eddie feels his sense of humour has been under-appreciated all these years. He pauses for a last laugh to well up from somewhere around his ankles.
"If it were my close friends that didn't appreciate it, then I'd be upset! But in terms of the general public, well, I don't know what the view of old Uncle Ed here is. It's open for debate and if you like it, it's great, it's nice. I appreciate the fact that we have listeners that have enabled us to do so many of the things we choose to do. And if it's not your cup of tea, that's great too. Turn the channel."