Whitney Pastorek chats with all five members of Pearl Jam about their die-hard fans, their new album, and more
Over the course of a week this March, the members of Pearl Jam sat down one by one to discuss the career rebirth that’s accompanied their self-titled new album, as well as their devoted fan base (who call themselves the Jamily), their politics, and even their socks. ”I don’t want to seem to be the nicest band in rock,” claims lead singer Eddie Vedder. ”I think that would create an audience that didn’t think they’d be challenged.” Too late: Here are excerpts from five open, honest, and, yes, very nice interviews.
EDDIE VEDDER (FRONTMAN)
When did you notice your fan base becoming the Jamily?
You know, I can’t date it. For me it’s really just a feeling, you know? There’s a communal exchange, and there’s obviously a line drawn between who’s on stage and who’s in the crowd, but not really. It feels like they’ve forgotten who they are in the crowd, you’ve forgotten who you are up on stage, and it’s like this pure exchange of rock & roll. Sometimes as the lights come up and everyone can see each other… I’ve said it before, but I’m always just amazed that everyone is agreeing on something at the same time.
But obviously your fan base is incredibly disparate — do you run the risk of alienating some of them with your outspoken liberal politics?
I think you have to be aware that there is a risk there, and you have to take seriously the idea that music means different things for different people, and that you’re threatening their experience by bringing in some issues that you feel you need to talk about. You best be damned sure that what you’re talking about is important. It only is a testament to how important these issues have been of late that we bring them up. We’re not even really trying to sway anybody’s opinion. I think with things like Vote for Change, we’re feeling like it is an incredibly important time for people to have access to information… and maybe, if nothing else, just provide a little bit of fire to look into these things.
There a feeling that this new album is a bit of a rebirth for you guys.
Well, it’s interesting, because lately, I feel some of those same things I used to feel.
Can you be more specific?
Lately… I’ve been feeling some of those things I used to feel. [Laughs] This is all so subjective and in a way self-important, but when you have completely commercially produced acts and artists kind of taking up the space that you used to, then it’s like, Do we want to allow ourselves to be pushed out in the mainstream again, to do our part to have it be a real experience? I’m not talking about the young bands that are good, I’m talking about the crap that is a insult to what I think of as good rock & roll. I feel like we have a lot to offer. And so in order to do that, it feels like we’re being shot out of a cannon. And that brings those feelings of, Okay, are we going to that same place where we had to climb the barbed wire fence to get the f— out of there? Being outside of all that is a much more comfortable place to create and to live. So we’re searching for that balance.
It’s probably helpful to sell 12 million records your first time out of the gate.
Well, that was one of the blessings coming out of it. We saw what it looked like at the top, and it wasn’t this romantic kind of Eden. It was just kind of… strange. It seemed in order to stay there you were going to have to sacrifice so much — and was it worth it? If you get too high up, all you see is clouds, you know? And even if it’s sunnier up there than it was below the clouds, there wasn’t anybody else to hang out with.
Your live shows are amazing to watch, just what the fans do and how they react. I’m wondering how much you see and perceive what’s around you. Do you know they have coordinated hand gestures?
So it’s like Rocky Horror or something? I love that. We’re less Grateful Dead and more Rocky Horror. [Laughs]
Do you recognize people in the crowd, night after night?
Yeah. They know that I do, too. We connect. If you see people that you recognize, when you acknowledge their presence, then I think they can be more comfortable. They’re like, Okay, he knows I’m here. Now I can put my sign down. [Laughs]
Ever poke around the message boards?
I’ve never replied to anything. Well, no, I did. I replied once. A kid had the lyrics for a song called ”State of Love and Trust,” and it was just bass-ackwards. So I wrote to him and said, ”My brother’s good friends with Ed’s brother, and he got a copy of the lyrics, and here’s what it is.” And then like two days later I got a reply and I thought, Oh, this’ll be interesting, he’ll probably be thanking me… and it was just one word. It said, ”Nope.” That’s when I realized, Okay, I don’t have time to get in the ring.
Talk a little about the new album. Your last two albums seemed quieter — this is really just full-out rock.
The times…the times kind of demand a little bit of intensity. I don’t think two or three years ago you could even get a song called ”World Wide Suicide” with the word soldier in it played on the radio. The fact that it’s getting played a lot, maybe that means that the ocean that is freedom of speech is still healthy enough for a fish to survive in.
Were you surprised that so few people turned out for protests on the third anniversary of the war?
I think they’re exhausted. I don’t think they’re any less interested. At some point it would help to have the numbers stacked in order to create an atmosphere where politicians feel pressured to change their arrogantly focused paths. I read a Kurt Vonnegut quote where he said that soldiers in this war have been treated like toys that a rich kid got for Christmas. I think he’s right.
Does it frustrate you that you can’t walk out to the parking lot before a show, pull down a tailgate, and have a political conversation with a small group of people?
[Smiles] But I have.
Have you really?
How do you not get mobbed?
First of all, you use a bike so you can do a quick getaway if you have to. And as soon as you get there, you just tell everybody, ”Shhh. It’s okay. What are you drinkin’? Got an extra?”
JEFF AMENT (BASS)
If you had to sum up a Pearl Jam fan, who are they?
JEFF AMENT There’s actually a guy in Missoula, Montana [Ament’s hometown] who I see occasionally, named Richard — he manages the movie theater. He came out for some of the Vote for Change shows — flew into somewhere, drove, and flew out of somewhere else. In Canada, he did the same thing. And now he’s asking me, ”Should we go to Europe, or should we go to Australia?” And I was like, ”Depends on what you want. Do you want the beach vacation, or do you want the culture?”
You guys should open a travel agency.
But that’s the greatest thing about all this. We’re dragging people out of Missoula and sending them to Italy, or Newfoundland. Places you’d never go in a million years. And that’s probably half the reason I wanted to be in a band, you know? I wanted to see the world. And so it’s great that people are basically spending their two weeks of vacation to come out and be with us in some weird part of the world. And I think we owe it to them to take ’em to some cool places.
You’ve been really involved with the art — album covers, posters, merchandise — from the beginning. Does it freak you out to see something you’ve drawn end up as a tattoo?
I think more so in the early days, because I’d never witnessed that sort of thing. But where it freaked me out the most was at one point, somebody said, ”Hey, sign my leg!” And I signed it with a picture, covered his whole calf — next day, he showed up, and it was freakin’ tattooed. And that was the last time I ever wrote anything on anybody’s skin.
MIKE McCREADY (GUITAR)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is grunge still a bad word?
[Laughs] Yeah. But it’s used so much. So I don’t have the reaction I used to have to it. I used to be like, ”NO. WE ARE A ROCK & ROLL BAND. WE PLAY ROCK. WE PLAY HEAVY ROCK. WE’RE A HARD-ROCK BAND.” And I don’t feel like I have to counter it with that anymore. It still seems weird to me when I hear the word, but I don’t know. S—. It’s a label. We all have labels.
Ed has a pretty specific relationship with the fans, but you have your own. I mean, you get up there on the corner and solo and the place goes nuts.
I watch them. I work at it the whole night. If some guy’s not really giving me a reaction, I’ll try and f—ing get a reaction out of him. And I feed off of that. I go crazy. In a good way.
Are there moments coming back from the fans that you look forward to seeing?
Oh, yeah. Well. In Mexico, when they were doing all the lighters?
That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
I know — that’s the only place I’ve ever seen it. Flicking their lighters to the beat, and it’s just surreal. There are moments in South America, in Brazil, where you look out and there are literally thirty, forty thousand people jumping up and down at the same time. Even back when we were doing Lollapalooza, when we were second on the bill and we were playing at 2:30 in the afternoon and there were ten, twenty thousand people running down to see us. It was like a flash-flood mob of people. Those are the things that stand out in my head. When they’re singing the guitar lines of songs in South America? Never heard that before. And in Canada, when they’re singing all of the lyrics to every song — that blows me away. I don’t know all the lyrics to every song.
STONE GOSSARD (GUITAR)
I’ve met people who are more obsessed with you than they are with Ed. Does it wack you out to know you inspire that kind of devotion?
That’s all good. I don’t think about it. I really don’t. I mean, I like myself. I think I’m cool. But I think when you’re in a band you take on a role within the band, and I think people over the course of years can identify those roles as almost being bigger than just the individual. I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to talk about.
I hear you’re personally obsessed with the Pearl Jam socks?
I like our socks. I hear we make a fine sock. I always say, You might not love our records, but I think you’ll like our socks.
MATT CAMERON (DRUMS)
You came into the band last [in 1998]. Do you have more of an outsider’s persepective on why the fans have become so dedicated to the group?
I really think Eddie is a great communicator, and people f—ing relate to his lyrics because they’re so incredibly real and heartfelt. And he’s a machine. I mean, he’s never off key, he never complains, he gives his all every show we play, and just to see that is what keeps people coming back. It’s all Eddie. I know we’re great and we sound great and we play great, we’re amazing musicians, we could play in any group we wanted to… but we got EV up there. He just brings it all together.
That’s high praise. How much of what’s going on during the shows can you see from your kit?
I don’t really look out there. I’m just back there playing the drums. If there’s people behind me I’ll look back there sometimes. If they’re not throwing stuff at me, it’s pretty cool.
To read the diary of a fan who followed Pearl Jam on their Canadian tour last fall, click here.