Do The Evolution
by Anthony DeCurtis
Transcribed by Darlene Patten and Josh
Against all odds, Pearl Jam has achieved artistic, personal, and financial stability. So why is Eddie Vedder so afraid to open his door? "Man, Eddie has really become a great singer. He's much more relaxed now, and that's loosened up his throat."
R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills shakes his head admiringly as he watches Pearl Jam incinerate the Commodore Ballroom, a 1,150-capacity club in Vancouver, British Columbia. The show is one of several warm-up dates scheduled to help Pearl Jam shake off some cobwebs prior to embarking on a world tour in support of their powerful new album Binaural. Mills and the rest of R.E.M. are in town recording their next album, and they've come out to see in action the band that is perhaps their most significant musical heir. After the show Michael Stipe, mentor to many of the world's disaffected lead singers, will parley backstage with Vedder.
While the primary purpose of these pre-tour gigs is to test Pearl Jam's much-vaunted musical muscle against the weight of Binaural's raw songs, the band doesn't shy away from older material during its two-hour, 22-song set. The evening opens with "The Face of Love", the haunting song Vedder recorded with the late qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. [Editor's note: this is an error, the opener was "Long Road"] It continues with a host of Pearl Jam perennials, including "Evenflow", "Do the Evolution", "Wishlist", "Off He Goes", "Daughter", "Not for You", and "Last Kiss".
Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament, and drummer Matt Cameron play with intensity, but the show never quite takes off in the manner of the best Pearl Jam performances. Vedder seems to acknowledge this when, just as he's about to pick up a ukulele to play "Soon Forget", the off-kilter ballad near the close of Binaural, he says sheepishly, "I'm not sure what it took for you to get in here tonight-whether you were just lucky or it was paid for---but I hope you got your money's worth."
The audience, most of which is comprised of radio contest winners who were admitted for free, cheers reassuringly. After all, seeing a mighty band like Pearl Jam this close up is thrill enough by far. After finishing the song, Vedder hilariously makes as if he's going to smash the ukulele, then, with a smiling "Good night, take care of yourselves," strides into the wings.
Later, Vedder will explain privately that he was having equipment troubles. "My only complaint is that the sound was hard for me. I don't use those pussy little in-ear monitors, because that doesn't seem like rock and roll to me. But I got bit by that, because I couldn't hear very well, so I had less fun singing. I just had to keep my chin up, thinking that people were probably having a decent time."
About a month before the Vancouver date, Pearl Jam assembles at the stylish Mercer Hotel in New York City's Soho district to discuss Binaural with the music press. Despite having a Top Five hit in 1999 with "Last Kiss", the band has been characteristically low profile for the past couple of years. Like its notorious battle against Ticketmaster, the group's resistance to the spotlight has drawn a variety of responses, ranging from ardent support and admiration to bemusement, and worse. When the redoubtable Courtney Love, who is also staying at the Mercer, is informed that Pearl Jam are guests of the hotel, she dryly wonders, "Oh, are they still around?"
Lounging in a room littered with the equipment of a television crew, Gossard explains the band's attitude toward interviews. "It's not like we don't want to talk to anyone. It's just that we don't want to talk to everyone all day long. We've defined what's reasonable for us."
The band's determination to play by its own rules has been a constant throughout Pearl Jam's history. As Binaural demonstrates, that resolve has only grown stronger. Produced by Tchad Blake and the band, Binaural is rough-hewn and intentionally unpolished. Noisy tracks like "Breakerfall", "Gods Dice," and "Grievance" blast out of the speakers, hitting with the immediacy of live recordings or demos. Even ballads like "Light Years" and "Thin Air" sound unfussy and fractured, with none of the studied opulence and canned emotion so typical of the form. The songs' frayed edges provide points of sonic entry into Pearl Jam's claustrophobic world, in which overwhelming forces like destiny, governmental power ("Pledge my grievance to the flag." Vedder sings on "Grievance"), corporate hegemony, and the sheer vastness of the universe threaten to overwhelm the individual, and the craggy uniqueness of the individual human voice.
Of course, it's part of Pearl Jam's---and certainly Vedder's---psychological complexity that the group takes a kind of cosmic comfort in, as one song title describes it, "Insignificance." In the global scope of what it all means, we're really just passing through", Vedder says, philosophically. "I feel very insignificant---and I like that. It's pretty grounding. I mean, if I see a good pile of ants going---say they're trying to carry the corpse of a wasp out of a screen door---I'll take an hour and watch how they work. They're all working for one purpose. I feel like one of those little guys. It's like "Okay, at least I know what I'm doing here, and it's nothing too important". That's very calming. And you try to do a little bit of good within that. I'm happy trying to communicate as a small human with a fragile heart", he laughs, "and a questionable brain".
That's hardly a rock and roll statement of purpose, hardly the viewpoint of classic, world-conquering bands like the Who, the Doors, or Led Zeppelin, to whom Pearl Jam owe a debt. But when Ten exploded toward the end of 1991 and made the group, along with Nirvana, the reigning kings of grunge, Pearl Jam recoiled---big time. "Something in the way", to use Kurt Cobain's chillingly opaque phrase, made it impossible for bands of that time to wear the crown with anything like the comfort of previous generations. Pearl Jam not only stopped doing videos but on a series of tangled and sometimes impenetrable albums (Vs., Vitalogy, No Code, and Yield) challenged listeners to fight their way into songs whose sounds and meanings were often not readily accessible.
A collaboration with Neil Young (1995's Mirror Ball) and a long string of side projects and one-offs made it even clearer that the band's members regarded their relationship as, in Vedders description, an "open marriage." They wanted no part of the image shaping and brand building so endemic to pop music at the turn of the century. If the price of freedom has required PJ to whittle down its audience from the double-digit platinum sales of Ten to a faithful million or so, the band insists it is perfectly willing to make that deal.
"I don't think we consciously set out to pull back, it was more about survival," says McCready. "Seven, eight years ago, we were having a hard time communicating with each other -- or even wanting to communicate. It was like being in the circus. Somebody you didnt know would come up to you at a meal and confront you with why they didnt like you, or somebody in the band, or the band itself, or the whole Seattle thing, or whatever. It was natural to want to pull away from that. Now we're concentrating more on making music and playing music."
Adds Vedder, "After the initial popularity of the band, we didn't have to base decisions on making money, or, certainly, staying as commercially viable as we'd been. I'm sure some people wish we could sell more than a million records, but that's a huge success to us. To be able to make the music we want to and not feel that the songwriting and recording process is at all contaminated by thinking about commercial viability, we feel incredibly fortunate. We don't have to play the marketing game, so we're just taking advantage of that opportunity. It feels like it would be a shame to waste it. I don't think we'll ever go back into the ring on that scale. I'd rather just let it get smaller. "I don't want to be in people's faces all the time, because I don't like the people who are in my face," he continues. "So when I hear someone come down on us for being so big or taking attention away from the independent music that's better than ours - and I would agree - at least I can say, 'Fuck you - we could be everywhere.' We just choose not to be."
"Last Kiss" is now Pearl Jam's ideal of success. A semi-serious - at best - cover of a strange, decades-old ballad, the track was initially distributed only to members of the group's fan club. When the radio stations began to play it, the song gained a huge audience on the strength of the nation's desperate feelings about the killings at Columbine High School. The episode only confirmed Pearl Jam's conviction that not working it is the only way to go.
"It was all natural," says Gossard about the "Last Kiss" phenomenon. "If one of our records takes off, it won't be because we did three videos and were on the cover of Time and did Oprah, The View, and every radio station's X-mas show."
Still - does it really need to be said? - being in a hugely successful rock band and having arenas full of fans respond to your every gesture retains its allure, whatever the pitfalls.
"I'm a little afraid of the seduction of that," says bassist Jeff Ament, "getting to a point where you need that energy to sustain yourself. I think the last few years have been really healthy. We go play some shows, and then you have a week or two transition where you go, 'Okay, I've got to wash the dishes again, wash my clothes, clean up the house."
"Pearl Jam: The domestic band," Vedder deadpans.
"It's scary when you start to perceive your press - an interview, or what somebody says about your record - as something real," says Gossard, picking up the thread. "Or doing press because you feel the need to project your personality out into the media. You can start to believe that you really deserve this. You have a dance with your ego, where you have to figure out where reality is, where your ego stopS. For me, that was weird."
"At that time, I was just incredibly unhappy in my personal life," says McCready. "Having the band the only thing I was doing, and then coming home and being incredibly lonely - all I wanted to do was get back out there again. That freaked me out."
The excesses are fun to watch from a distance, however. "A couple of years ago, we were on tour in Australia," Ament says, "and Oasis was two days ahead of us. Man, it was great."
"We didn't get our names in the paper one friggin' time, and they were on headline news every night," Gossard adds, cracking up. "Airplane incidents, punching people, fucking drunk. And we were doing bigger shows."
"We'd sell out the same arena, twice, and they'd play to a half-empty house and be followed by the press everywhere," says Vedder. "I haven't listened to their records much - I'm sure they're all right. Their live show sucked. Meanwhile, we were hanging out on the beach, surfing, feeling all the freedom in the world. It's just two different modes of operation."
Two weeks later, Pearl Jam is on the verge of leaving for Europe - and Eddie Vedder is sick as a dog. Reached by telephone at his Seattle home, the singer apologizes for his congested breathing, panting, and prodigious nose-blowing.
Even in his pitiable condition Vedder is one of those rare people for whom the telephone enhances intimacy. In face-to-face conversation, he frequently looks away or down to collect his thoughts. But the blissful isolation afforded by the telephone somehow facilitates Vedder's access to the verbal even-flow of his inner life.
The conversation begins with Mike Mills' complimentary assessment of Vedder's vocal performance at the Vancouver show, and moves to singing in general. "I was probably overly aggressive in the beginning," he admits. "To me, it was just used as a vehicle for . . . anger." He laughs, and then starts in again. "Chris Cornell was over the other night. My brother had sent me some early demos by Nick Drake, and Chris and I were sitting there, listening. All the places where you would naturally go up to perk up a song or create a dynamic, he would almost consciously take it down and add tension. He'd avoid the obvious. It's less spoon-fed and less appealing at first, but you listen and go, 'Wow, there's a lot of dignity in that vocal."
"We try to do that as a band, take the less traveled route," he continues. "With 'Light Years,' Mike McCready had written some music. We were excited about it for a while, but when we got down to recording it, it was too nice, too right there - it was a little too close to 'Given to Fly.' We changed the tempos, and then one night Mike and I, after working on it all day and getting frustrated, just flipped it backwards, and in about 35 minutes it became 'Light Years,' with words and everything. It still has a fairly contagious chorus and melody, but it's just sideways enough to make me happy."
Vedder is about to continue when, distracted, he comes to a halt. "Someone's ringing the bell, and I can't see who it is. Can you hang on a second?" He assumes a theatrical whisper. "It might be a stalker. This might be really good, if we get this on tape."
It occurs to me that when I asked the band in New York to identify the single most unsettling thing about their success, Vedder instantly replied: "Death threats - that's one little thing." He's quiet now, so I ask what he's doing. "I'm peeking through a little porthole." He's silent again. "It's no one I know, so okay, I don't think I'm required to answer it."
i start asking another question, but Vedder, unable to get the intruders out of his head, blurts out gleefully, "I know, it's the ATF!" It's a reference to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the governmental agency whose 1993 attack on the Branch Dividian compound in Waco, TX, resulted in at least four deaths and 16 injuries. "I should hide the bong really quick,' he jokes.
In a more serious tone, Vedder starts talking about PJ's upcoming tour, about being in a rock n roll band on the road in a time when rock'n'roll is nowhere near the dominant musical force it once was. "I read something that might have come out of Billy Corgan's mouth,' he says. "It was about how, for young people, whose most popular and visible music over the past few years has been dance numbers, the myth of rock n roll show might just be that - a myth. But maybe, on a good night, we'll provide the actual experience. In clubs, they can see Dead Moon, Monkeywrench, Sleater-Kinney, or Built to Spill - bands that provide the magic that can happen with bass, drums, guitar, and vocals. It's been a couple of years and we're on an arena level, but I like to think that we're part of that, that we can be representative of a good rock and roll show.
"Philosophically, you can walk around day to day with a lot of big questions," he continues, "but, to be honest, the second you're in a room with other people playing music, eveything makes sense. The planets align. You don't seem to have as many problems. It just seems like the healthiest place to be."
The doorbell rings again. "So I'm ready to go," he says, trying to focus and coming back to the tour. "Anything to get me away from these crazy people at my door!" He laughs again, a little too loud, then calms himself. "Actually, these folks look fine. I'm sure we'd have a decent conversation, but I'd rather not have it take place at my house. I've had problems in the past."
The bell rings again. "Boy, tenacious, aren't they?" Vedder says. "Should I call the cops? Maybe I should invite them in and have them throw away some of these wet tissues."
We continue talking for a while, and the ringing finally seems to stop for good. As we exchange pleasantries and start to say good-bye, Vedder suddenly suggests, "Hey, those people probably left a note. Shall we go read it?' Then he adds, "Cover me."
I hear him trot down the stairs, walk to the door and undo the lock. "Aw, see, now I feel terrible. 'I've walked about 10 miles today hoping to see you,'" he reads aloud. "'We come all the way from England. Please, could you call us at our hotel so we could have your autograph before we go home?'"
"Oh well,' he concludes, sighing. "You just never know, you see? But this is where I live. I gotta . . . I don't know. Maybe next time."