Kerrang!, 24 January 1998
by Kevan Roberts
"I nearly became a plumber!"
[Transcribed for 5h by Deborah Baker & Stephen Bruce]
In 1994, Eddie Vedder considered quitting Pearl Jam to unblock toilets for a living. Now, four years since he last spoke to the UK press, the enigmatic singer and guitarist Stone Gossard are finally ready to reveal why fame almost destroyed their bandů
Outside Seattle's top notch Four Seasons Olympic Hotel - a place where rooms start at $250 a night and guests with dogs can request a silver bowl for their pampered pooches to eat from - four bums are begging for change. Occasionally, one will try and sneak his way past the top hat wearing doorman and onto the premises. Each time, the doorman will wearily dismiss them. "Every day they try it," he says. "Like they'd ever actually get into the hotel dressed like that." Actually, one gentleman has got into the hotel dressed just like that. His name is Eddie Vedder.
The Olympic's opulent surroundings are serving as the centre of operations for Pearl Jam's promotional campaign to launch their fifth album, 'Yield'. The band have commandeered facing corner suites at the end of a long, velvet-walled corridor. In one, Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and a group of friends are excitedly and noisily cheering on the Seattle Supersonics in a fiercely fought basketball game against the New Jersey Nets.
I'm ushered into the plushly decorated interview room opposite. Porcelain cups and saucers are scattered around, half drained with cigarette butts floating in them. The buffet table appears to have come into close contact with either a ravenous wild animal or a plastic explosive in the recent past. From across the hall, the sounds of cheering filter through into the room.
There's a gentle knock on the door and in strolls a beaming Stone Gossard. Casually yet somehow impeccably turned out in just a t shirt and jeans, hair parted to one side and wearing spectacles, he shakes hands firmly, then sits down on the couch to my right. The door is pushed open again - and in walks a short figure dressed in a baggy, paint-stained khaki shirt and similarly decorated jeans; a green trilby hat is perched atop his head.
"Hi, I'm Ed," he says, reaching for my hand, eyes twinkling. "Thanks so much for coming out to so this; we really appreciate it."
Eddie Vedder - man of the people, reluctant spokesman for a generation, tortured artist - has arrived for his first interview with the UK press in four years.
It's hard to know what to expect from Eddie Vedder. Although you assume that his presence signifies his willingness to talk, at the same time you know he'd probably rather not. Not that you anticipate rudeness or open hostility, but his public image is such that you really wouldn't be surprised if he just mumbled a few vague answers and shrunk into the sofa.
Vedder drops onto the couch opposite, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cigarette. Leaning forward, he rearranges some of the debris son the glass coffee table and finds a book of matches. He inhales quickly, exhales slowly, then scratches his head and, gesturing with his cigarette in his right hand, looks straight at me.
"Kerrang!?, he says. "Didn't you use to run a feature called the 'Most Shaggable' or something?"
That would be 'Gagging For A Shagging', Mr Vedder.
"Okay, I remember that from when we were over there, back when, you know. I used to still read magazines. It was a few years ago. So is it still running?"
It is. At this point, I prepare for the inevitable politically correct lecture. Vedder lifts his hat, shakes his curly mop of hair and leans forward. "So, did I ever get in there?" he asks, with a cheeky grin stretched across his face.
"Hell, I think I even made it a couple of times," crows Gossard.
I tell Vedder that he must have been nominated for 'Gagging For A Shagging' more than a few times. Another grin lights up his face. "Cool," he says.
Eddie Vedder does not sulk, moan or evade answers. He is an especially attentive interviewee - even getting up at one point to switch off the television so he can concentrate on the conversation.
He speaks slowly and thoughtfully, his deep voice often trailing off almost to a standstill as he nears the end of his sentence. Then just as you are about to complete the sentence for him - or ask another question - he starts up again. But when Vedder gets going, it's actually quite hard to get a word in edgeways, even for Gossard. I tell him I thought he might be an unwilling subject.
"Nah, it's a piece of cake when you don't do interviews for years," he laughs.
"We've just been storing things up," adds Gossard. "We're kind of like Sting with his sex life. We've been abstaining for four years, just so we can give you the maximum pleasure as an interviewer!"
He and Vedder both crack up.
With the massive success of their 1991 debut album, 'Ten', the world seemed to be Pearl Jam's oyster. And when the follow-up, 'Vs', became the fastest-selling record in US history, all that they appeared to have to worry about was how to spend their money. But the period that followed was troubled and traumatic for the band.
On a personal level, the band were no longer the all-for-one, one-for-all team they portrayed on the cover of 'Ten'. Drug and alcohol problems surfaced - (now reformed) guitarist Mike McCready has since admitted that much of this time was a blur.
Says Gossard: "When you start trying to live up to what you imagine people are thinking about you - which is a very vicious circle in itself - you can definitely get into a lot of trouble and end up doing some not very functional things."
The group were also becoming increasingly unhappy with drummer Dave Abbruzzese, had stopped making videos, and involved themselves in a problematic battle with American ticketing giant Ticketmaster over their monopoly of the concert ticket industry - a move that has prevented them from touring their own country on a large scale ever since.
Then there were the pressures generated by their own fame. By the end of their first European tour in 1992, Vedder - unable to come to terms with the adulation and expectations of the band's fans - had already been transformed from a chatty, friendly guy into a virtual monosyballic recluse.
When Kurt Cobain killed himself in April 1994, few people outside of the Nirvana leader's family and friends can have felt the impact as strongly as Vedder. He was one of the few people who really knew the kind of pressures Cobain was constantly under. Vedder attempted to survive them by retreating further into his shell.
"It's always hard to believe, but the height of popularity can at the same time be the lowest point for you personally," he says with a sigh. "As a normal human in this business, it's difficult if you want to retain your soul. And there's just no way to feel worthy of all the adulation you get. Certainly I don't, anyway."
By the time Pearl Jam's third album, the darker 'Vitalogy', was released in late '94, Abbruzzese had been replaced by Vedder's long-time friend (and the man who recommended him to Gossard and Ament in the first place), Jack Irons.
'Vitalogy' was a commercial success, but during the ensuing short tour of America the following summer, Pearl Jam were plagued by a series of organisational problems. Then at a concert in San Francisco, Vedder was rushed to hospital - an incident he enigmatically refers to as "the day I nearly died".
Today, Vedder admits that there were often times following the success of 'Ten' up to the hiring of Irons when he didn't know whether he wanted to be in a band any more. He even toyed with his wife Beth's free-form, tuneless outfit Hovercraft - playing drums with his back turned to the audience.
His Pearl Jam bandmates also embarked on side projects - Mad Season, Brad and Three Fish. Gossard is almost evangelical in his belief that this ultimately benefited the group.
"Doing something new with different people helps you to see your own strengths and, perhaps more importantly, your own weaknesses," he says.
"Things like that perhaps you're locked into in your own band, and you realise need to be different - either on a musical or personal level."
What did this mean for Pearl Jam?
Vedder sits up suddenly while Stone continues: "Our strategy has always been, 'Let's cut out everything extraneous except playing music and see where that leaves us'. What it did leave us with was playing with each other, and still having to work through some of the same issues that were plaguing us before. But at least it got the focus onto them. And as a result, a lot of the hype and other stuff died down."
"Believe you me," Vedder interjects, waving another cigarette in the air, "there was a period when we didn't know if we wanted to carry on. But I think we've all felt pretty good as a band and as individuals for the last three years. There's still a few issues here and there, but..." He tails off, for once not completing his sentence.
I inform Vedder that a number of people suggested that if he were so unhappy about being in a band, he should go off and become a plumber. Gossard's jaw instantly drops and he breaks into a loud laughing fit. Eddie shakes his head at his colleague and smiles.
"It's something I definitely thought about," Vedder insists. "I mean, I definitely started to examine that kind of possibility. But luckily - for me and for people with burst water pipes or blocked toilets everywhere - there were some options we could explore to maybe have our peace of mind and still make music."
Vedder glances at Gossard, who is now wiping tears away from his eyes. "So, do you need to go to school to be a plumber?" he asks him.
"I think so," Gossard replies. "But I'm sure there's ad-lib plumbers. You could start a new breed of plumbers - you know, the Eddie Vedder School Of Plumbing, that refuses to follow the conventional rules of the system. But just remember that if you're going to do it to always show your butt-crack - that's the golden rule you can't ignore."
Vedder: "Um, okay."
Gossard: "So, are you interested?"
Vedder: "Maybe. What are the hours?"
Besides being a testing time for Pearl Jam as a whole, the past few years have also forced the band to look at their relationships with each other.
This afternoon, Vedder and Gossard seem to be reasonably close friends. During the course of the conversation, Stone will take a couple of good-natured pops at his colleague's miserable public image, which Vedder in turn shrugs off. But outside of the band, the five of them don't hang out together like a grunge Monkees any more.
"That's what gives this band a certain amount of sanity - you can escape from it," explains Gossard. "You can go off and spend a month or two doing something totally different. But we always make plans to meet up again when we leave. And when we all get back together again, it always feels so good. If we were all palling around all the time, that probably wouldn't happen."
Vedder: "You know, it's still kind of exciting the first time that all five of us get together in a room for the first time in a month or something. It's like Mount Rushmore is complete!"
"Everyone's there, kind of jockeying for position," Gossard says, evidently referring to Vedder who he peers at over the top of his glasses. "There are some mildly uncomfortable smiles: 'Now let's see what HE has to say to that!'."
Vedder leaps to his feet, throwing a mock tantrum. "It's not true!" he snorts. "'Mildly uncomfortable' indeed. HARRUMPH!"
The improved chemistry is evident on 'Yield'. Whereas 'Vitalogy' and 'No Code' did contain some of Pearl Jam's finest moments ('Corduroy' and 'Off he Goes', to name two), both were patchy. A far more consistent offering, 'Yield' sees the band gelling together perfectly.
"I'm always excited when we have a new album coming out, but I have a different and special feeling about this one," says Gossard.
He says he's still very proud of 'No Code' and blames its lower sales on the state of the music industry in general. "And anyway," he concludes, "you'd have to figure that any LP I sing on should sell less!"
The pair of them are hooting away together in unison again. It's hard to picture this Eddie Vedder as the misery guts we've all been reading about for the past few years.
In fact, the only time he looks anything other than relaxed is when Courtney Love's name is mentioned - this provokes a startled look but no other response. Then again, she did once wish him dead. Otherwise, Vedder is polite, engaging, and even pretty amusing.
So tell us a joke then, Eddie.
"Ah, everyone I know is fed up of all my stories," he pleads. He begins to shuffle nervously in his seat, only to be rescued by the timely intervention of Pearl Jam's American PR who has come to draw proceedings to a halt. Gossard shakes hands and bounds off to catch the end of the basketball. Vedder stands up and thanks me again for coming.
"I'll see you around town," he says.
Don't forget your jokebook.
He looks back over his shoulder: "But what about my plunger?"
Elsewhere in Kerrang!, Kevan Roberts writes a weekly column with news from Seattle. In the same issue as the interview, and therefore, presumably taken from it, appeared this:
You probably assumed that Eddie Vedder and his Pearl Jam partners reasons for not doing interviews for the past few years were down to them wanting their music to do the talking for them.
Now that the band has started doing some limited press in the run-up to the release of new LP, 'Yield', Vedder has denied that this about-face has anything to do with the lower sales of its predecessor 'No Code' - it's just that he's after someone to share his (occasionally eccentric) stories with.
He revealed: "My close friends are sick of hearing all my stories and I'm just looking for someone new to bore them with."
This, in turn, gave bandmate/guitarist Stone Gossard, the idea for a novel new competition for the band's fan club members (and one which will sadly obviously never happen!).
He joked: "Eddie's looking for a new best friend, so we've decided that will be the first contest we run this year, to win the chance to be Ed's new best friend!"
"The winner will have to move in right next door to him and pop round to borrow sugar, but they'll also have to listen to all his stories..."
"... And I promise you the winner will definitely be trying to get out of it in less than a day!" quipped Vedder.
The one-time grouch of grunge also revealed that he's actually quite keen now to find a copy of the infamous 'Rolling Stone' article that was written about him last year. Although many of Vedder's compatriots - Michael Stipe, Krist Novoselic and even Courtney Love - were outraged at the content of the article (and wrote letters in his defence to the magazine), Vedder himself revealed that when he finally dared read a copy of the article it made him laugh out loud.
He admitted: "When I heard all these people had written letters I thought, 'Oh my God it must be really bad if all these people are coming out in my defence'. When I did finally get round to reading it a few weeks ago, I just thought it was funny - now I'd like a copy of it."