Guitar World March 1998
All For One
Pearl Jam yield to the notion that united they stand and divided they fall
by Vic Garbarini
Some bands like to recreate themselves through fashion," says Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament. "That doesn't really interest us. We try to work on the inside as opposed to the outside. Change means getting deeper with our music."
Ament is talking about Yield (Epic), Pearl Jam's impressive new album, their first since 1996's No Code. But he's also referring to the Seattle band's constant, and often overlooked, attempts to reinvent themselves amid the hurricane of hype (and anti-hype) that's often threatened to throw them off courseand, at times, has.
The band's travails have been numerous and highly publicized. Early on, Pearl Jam made admirable but misguided efforts to fight the media hoopla and star-maker machinery that threatened to swallow them up. They would overreact to legitimate problems, fighting Ticketmaster, for example, in ways that only increased their fans' difficulties when the alternative venues they chose proved inadequate.
Every crisis seemed magnified, and there was a real danger they would end up self-destructing like the Clash, The Police and even the Beatlesbands that tried to change the world without realizing they had to get centered and change themselves first.
"We were letting ourselves be too affected by all the pressure," admits Ament. "Those things showed themselves in some of the songs we wrote and even some of the performances. We'd get passive-aggressive with each other instead of realizing we were all in this together."
But while Pearl Jam's stormy seven-year career has been marked by tremendous internal and external strife, they've never stopped evolving as musicians. Their first attempt to remake themselves was heard on their sophomore release, 1993's Vs. Band founders Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament turned over the reins to the remarkable and then volatile Eddie Vedder. The result: a leaner, punkier Jam. No Code (Epic, 1996) was another breakthrough, brimming with spiritual insight, world beat overtones and glimmers of a newly found self-deprecating humor.
Their latest effort, Yield is at once both edgier and deeper than No Code harder rocking, yet more subtly nuanced. Of course, hard-core fans will still be able to quickly identify those familiar Stone Gossard riffs on the roaring opener, "Brain of J," and Vedder's contemplative lyrics on "Pilate" and the hymn-like "Low Light."
But these hard-core fans would be dead wrong. For the muscular skronk that powers "Brain of J" is not Gossard's, but comes courtesy of Mr. Mike McCready, who also wrote the music for "Faithful" and the album's first single, "Given To Fly." And the lyricsas well as the musicto "Pilate" and "Low Light" are not Vedder's, but were penned by bassist Ament. What's amazing is that you'd never know the creative furniture has been rearranged if you didn't check the liner notes.
The fact is Pearl Jam's latest creative evolution is both their quietest and most profound to date. With Yield, they have taken a quantum leap towards becoming a true band of equals. Vedder and Gossard, who dominated previous albums, took, a step back, allowing the other band members to fill the void. If doing so, they've opened up the creative process in ways few other established bands would ever dream of.
Whether the album will be a commercial successa true "comeback" in industry termsnever even came up in our discussion. Listening to Mike McCready and Jeff Ament, it's apparent that they've already achieved the real victory they were striving for.
GUITAR WORLD: Mike, Stone always said he wanted to get you writing songs. You did three on the new album, including the music for the single, "Given To Fly." Has your relationship with Eddie changed as a result?
MIKE McCREADY: Definitely, yeah. I used to be afraid of him and not want to confront him on things. I felt I was always walking on eggshells around him. Now I just feel more confident and comfortable with myself, and maybe the mutual respect comes out of that. We talk more now, and hang out and stuff now. There was a sense that all of you, especially Ed, were emotionally overwhelmed and a bit panicked by all the pressures of success. But on No Code and Yield you sense he's becoming a lot more centered and calm.
McCREADY: I agree with you completely. He seems very, very centered now, as opposed to two or three albums ago. I think we're all just getting over the whirlwind that happened to us. Our first record coming out was like being swept up by a tornado, it was so fucking crazy for a while. I think getting a little older gave us more perspective. And time to chill.
GW: Jeff, you had told me that, in the beginning, you were all getting passive-aggressive with each other and not communicating because of the stress. Yield implies you're going with the energy rather than trying to fight everything that comes up. Or fight each other. That's what destroyed great bands like the Clash and the Police.
JEFF AMENT: Yeah, I think we've finally arrived at the calm in the middle of the storm. Now we realize that so much more gets done even in terms of creating more good energy by giving in and flowing with it. I think we've all learned how to leave our egos at the door when someone else has an idea, or has a song to work on. For me that particularly was important in terms of dealing with Stone and Eddie. They're amazing talents, but their energy and their egos could be so strong-willed that sometimes it was hard to break through. I didn't always know how to approach it. Sometimes I was too aggressive, or let things build up to much. We've learned to take a step back and really have a heartfelt conversation with each other. For example, I don't even play bass on a couple of songs on the new album. Stone played on them, and I didn't think I could improve on them. That would have been much harder for me to do three or four years ago.
GW: It sounds like one person wrote the lyrics and music to everything. Yet you wrote the complete music and lyrics to "Pilate" and "Low Light," and Stone did the same for two songs. So everybody was both yielding and stepping forward. What sparked that?
AMENT: When we were making No Code, Ed said, "It would be great if everyone brought in more complete songs and ideas next time." And everybody stepped up to the challenge. We hadn't been together for a couple of months, and when we got together and played each other demos of songs we'd been working on it was amazing how musically and lyrically we were all coming from similar places. Before, we'd bring in fragments of music, and it often took a few hours before Eddie could have something to try and sing with. Now we were all able to work off each other's demos and begin to hammer something out after 20 minutes or so. It was so much easier to approach these songs as "our," as opposed to "my," song. When everybody got excited about a few of my songs, including the lyrics, that was a huge relief for me. I've been putting pressure on myself for years to come up with complete songs and lyrics that Eddie would be excited about singing, and wanting Stone to be into playing the guitar parts I wrote. For those guys to let down theiregos and get into it, to sit playing bass in the studio and watch Eddie put his heart into singing lyrics that I wrote, was an experience I can't put into words.
GW: When you wrote the music for "Given To Fly," did you have a sense of where you wanted Eddie to take it lyrically?
McCREADY: I just wanted him to sing on it. [laughs] That was enough. I did have the intention of making a dynamic song with a sense of flow. I built it like a wave on the ocean. It starts out slow and small, then builds until it gets really large, then breaks like a wave and gets small again.
GW: When you heard his lyrics about this Christ-like character who dies, ascends and comes back transformed, did you feel like Ed was riding the wave you'd set up musically?
McCREADY: That's a cool way to look at it. Yeah, the whole thing sounds very positive and very free, which is totally what I wanted. I took the early demos of him singing it and cranked it way up and drove down the freeway really fast. If I can do 80 and really dig it, then I know it's happening.
GW: Mike, you've totally redeveloped your style since Ten. Your playing seems much more assured and adventurous on Yield, experimenting with tones and textures, than the last few albums.
McCREADY: That probably comes out of having written three of the songs, including "Faithful" and "Brain of J" along with the single. Each of us did demos of our own songs before we brought them in, so I got to work on guitar tones before the band even heard them. Writing songs, I get in that mindset with the guitar where I'm looking to layer sounds to fit the song. Like for the guitar tone on "Brain of J, " I was looking f or a crazy effect that I finally got by combining two guitar sounds. The really menacing-sounding one involves a chorus and a wah wah pedal set halfway down, and the other track is just a heavy, distorted guitar without any effects on it.
GW: As a band and as individuals you've had to reinvent-or find yourselves musically and personally. Where there moments when you thought, God, this is all going to fall apart?
McCREADY: I was probably close to being kicked out of the band around the time of Vitalogy. I was pretty fucked up. When we were recording that album I was drinking the entire mini-bar, eating Valium and doing all this stupid shit like not showing up for sessions. Sure, I was in jeopardy of losing my position. Not that anyone ever said that to me, but I'm sure that had I kept going like that, it would have happened.
GW: Did you feel you had everybody's support when you went into rehab?
McCREADY: They were completely supportive, especially Stone. He came out and visited me in rehab, as did our manager, Kelly [Curtis]. But everybody was there for me. In terms of the band, the low point was when we had to cancel that show in San Francisco with Neil Young a few years back. Eddie had collapsed on stage from food poisoning. We had just started the tour, and then as a band we got together and just canceled the rest of it. Ed was so worn out, and we didn't know if we wanted to be on the road, and what the situation was within the band. We were all exhausted; it was a very confusing and low time.
GW: Jeff, I heard there was a point during No Code where you actually walked out.
AMENT: It was hard to get in the studio and work on a song you'd written at that point. I think my frustration was probably just my ego being disappointed or whatever. It was like, I wish I could have been a little bit more creative, or I wish I could have been a bigger part of this or that. But there was a great lesson in that, too. It's okay not being that involved at times. And it made me reassess and appreciate what I've done, and made me want to work harderbut in a different way. That's when I began to think it would be interesting just to see what would happen if I wasn't aggressive at all in terms of pushing my musical ideas. And that led to getting out of the passive aggressive thing and being able to be open and vulnerable, to having an immediate conversation about whatever conflicts came up instead of suppressing it. In some ways, we were all so sensitive to what the other person was going through that we didn't want to burden them with what was going on within ourselves.
GW: And I suspect you didn't want to feel attacked if you did open up.
AMENT: Sure, you don't want to be shut down or not listened to. I think we've gotten through a lot of that stuff. We've come to the realization that the only way it works for us is to deal with those problems and things as they come up. There's no time like right now.
GW: Your songs on Yield seem to reflect that process. "Pilate" is all frenzied frustration, while "Low Light" is like a hymn, serene and at peace. But why does Pilate have a dog?
AMENT: I think "Pilate" was the question I was asking myself, and "Low Light " was the answer, the realization. Have you ever read The Master and Margarita [by Mikhail Bulgakov]? I just read that book, and at the end they talk about Pontius Pilate being all alone on a mountain with his dog. He couldn't. sleep and he couldn't function. It really struck me hard, because at that point I was feeling very alone. I've always had this recurring dream about being old and just me and my dog sitting on the porch. It wasn't necessarily a sad dream or a premonition, but it did get me to thinking about why Pilate was so alone and freaked out. Then I realized he didn't get to finish his conversation with Jesusthat's why he can't function, because he didn't tie up the loose ends in his life. Later, I was playing the guitar, and I was hit so hard by this amazing, emotion. In that moment the words "low light" came out, and somehow those were the only words to explain what I was feeling. It was a kind of gratefulness at finding that place of calm and peace at my center and getting a glimpse of the person I could choose to be. It was the purest happiness that I've experienced in a long time, that particular emotion. God, I thought I was going to explode. I feel very lucky to have been able to put it down on tape that morning and work thorough it until it became a song.
GW: Stone told me that getting Jack Irons in as your drummer may have saved the band. Other than being a great player, how has he helped you all grow?
McCREADY: He's been a big influence in terms of opening up our communications with each other. He's a big spiritual influence, if not the biggest. He and Ed, for sure. If there are problems or whatever he's not afraid to call them out. If the rest of us start to skirt over certain issues, Jack will always-raise a red flag and then we'll sit down and deal with it. He'll just cut through and go, "Hey, something's wrong here and this is how I feel about itlet's discuss it." It's made us 100 percent closer than we were before.
GW: When Soundgarden broke up, everybody announced the death of "grunge." Then we got the Spice Girls. It seems that after every major musical movement, like punk in the early Eighties, there needs to be a break from the intensity. Remember Flock of Seagulls and Bananarama? But great bands like U2 and R.E.M. kept growing. Are reports of the death of rock in Seattle greatly exaggerated?
McCREADY: I think these things go in cycles. We had our little day in the sun, and now bands like Radiohead and Prodigy are getting the media attention. I think you're right, it changes every five or six years, like in the Eighties. Sure, there's still great music coming out of Seattle, you're just not seeing so much media attention.
GW: Are you guys more comfortable now that the lime light is finally on someone else?
McCREADY: Totally! It's very much a sense of relief. We can focus more on the music and live our lives rather than deal with the hype and get caught up in Ticketmaster bullshit. We're focusing more on the music.
GW: So is the Ticketmaster battle something you're still involved in, but not obsessing about?
McCREADY: Not, obsessing, but we're still a little bit concerned about it. We might actually do some shows with them in certain cities, because you can't really deal without them in places like Chicago and Philadelphia.
GW: On the last tour, there were those who felt you were taking things too far, even though you had the best intentions. But many people felt you were rigidly self righteous and insensitive to use alternative venues that couldn't handle the volume. A lot of people couldn't get tickets and a few I know were actually physically hurt. Did you eventually realize it was counterproductive?
McCREADY: We definitely lost some people because of that. I'm sure there are fans who would have preferred to pay the ticket price. I've actually had people tell me that instead of having to go through alternative routes. Maybe we took that a little far, I agree. I guess it was the only way we knew how to do it at the time. That probably turned off a lot of people, which is unfortunate. As I say, we're not going to push so hard about it this time, and may even use Ticketmaster in certain cities where you can't find anywhere else to play.
AMENT: I don't think those outside things we were so freaked out about, and maybe even a little paranoid about a few years ago, mean anything to us now. In the grand scheme of themes, we ourselves are so insignificant, and maybe what's a little bit more significant is what we create together, this music.
GW: You've used the word "paranoia" before, and I flashed on that time in Phoenix when I came to do a cover story for GW few years ago. I knew Stone, but hadn't met the rest of you. I wound up stuck in my hotel room while your record company people told me certain members of the band insisted I sign a letter promising not to give the story to a rival magazine you were feuding with. I wasn't really offended it was too absurd. And Eddie was decent enough to apologize later. But I did worry about the paranoia factor. Was it that overwhelming at that point, that you guys couldn't discriminate real enemies from innocent bystanders?
AMENT: I do understand how that must have seemed. But at the time, there were repetitive incidents with people that we spent a lot of time with and were befriended by, people we had long conversations and dinners with. And then to have those people fucking lie to you and renege on promises ... it puts you in that kind of a state. It's like, oh my God, I spent the last two or three years essentially becoming this person's friend, and they just fucked me over!
GW: Do you agree with Mike that all of you feel more centered nowabout outside pressures as well as your band relationships?
AMENT: I think as you get older an more aware, you just can't sustain that kind of tension that we carried around. You get to a point where you have to learn to deal with that energy and let it be transformed and pass through in a new way. For us, over the last few years, that's meant working on new perspectives by stepping out of that hurricane and not touring so much or doing interviews. When we get into a room to work at creating a song, all that other stuff we were talking aboutTicketmaster and battles with certain magazines it all seems so unimportant. Some of the people we were fighting thought they were bigger than the music. And none of us are.