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Guitar World 2/95

Spit Fire
by Vic Garbarini

"I just spit in this guy's face," announces Eddie Vedder, prowling the stage like a feral child. We're at the Mesa Ampitheatre near Phoenix, Arizona, where Pearl Jam are in the midst of a benefit for the local Native American community. Eddie's looking for the jerk who has been harassing him all night. The other members of Pearl Jam keep pumping out the main riff from "Even Flow," waiting for the man Stone Gossard acknowledges as "the real spiritual leader of our band" to finish his point. This is not cock-rock posing or cant; Eddie customarily uses his unsought status as the resonant voice of a lost generation to challenge, inspire, and sometimes berate his audience when they act more like a mindless herd than an awakening community. "I just wanted you to know what it felt like," rumbles Vedder to the disgruntled fan. "You know, the Indians around here have been spat on every day for 400 years."

Pearl Jam are here in Mesa to do two benefits for the San Carlos Apache, who are fighting to preserve Mt. Graham, their most sacred source of spiritual energy, from the clutches of the University of Arizona and, believe it or not, the Vatican, who plan to desecrate this holy ground by building an astronomical observatory on top of it.

Pearl Jam, at this moment, are arguably the most important band in rock music. Their daring second album has just broken all records, selling almost a million copies in one week. Their lead singer's face adorns the cover of Time. Are they preparing a video for MTV? Are they releasing a single yet? How about the stadium tour? No, they're doing a benefit for something that matters at a 5,000-seater in Mesa. Not because they're defiant or politically correct. "We just need to stay sane and balanced," sighs Gossard later, "and that means doing things that feel right to us, not what the media or whatever expects or demands."

Thanks to the band's superb road crew, I've become the Eddie-Cam for tonight, perched directly behind the band. It's unnerving to watch tumbling bodies hurtle toward you, from the Dante's Inferno of the mosh pit, like huge cannonballs. Shoes, pieces of clothing and other missiles come flying out of the dark, occasionally bouncing off band members. Drummer Dave Abbruzzese grumbles about walking off if one more projectile slams into his kit. "Come on, souls, unite!" wails Eddie, as the band roars into "Leash." As if on cue, a University of Arizona sweatshirt comes sailing out of nowhere and lands on Eddie's head. He holds it before him, still singing, then grins and drapes it over the mic stand. Seconds later he whips out a lighter and the shirt bursts into flames, looking eerily like a man burned in effigy. As the flames leap higher, security men quickly evacuate tribal elders, young Indian activists and other V.I.P.'s from the stage. George, Jeff Ament's bass tech, grabs me and pulls me back to my perch, silently urging me to feel what's going on.

By now, cerebral Stone, intuitive Mike McCready, big-hearted Jeff and extraorindary Eddie are circling the fire, pounding out a throbbing tribal rhythm, primal and exhilarating. The concert has been emotionally compelling since the first note; now people are actually weeping. This isn't showmanship, this is the kind of music that creates a space where audience and band can meet as one. Mike McCready, normally rock-solid on stage, gets this maniacal gleam in his eye. To hell with it. He dashes across the stage, a man possessed, and repeateldy smashes his Les Paul Black Beauty into the roaring flames. Somewhere, Jimi is smiling.

You really sense that Pearl Jam is an organism, not a hierarchy. But the other band members know Vedder has got the toughest role. "I think the band itself helps ground Eddie, and all of us," offers Mike. "Eddie always says the music is the key thing to him, not awards and all that baggage," offers Jeff. And with quiet emotion, tinged with a wee bit of exasperation, Stone Gossard talks of people leaving the guy alone when he needs it, "so he might actually, you know, keep singing and writing for a while."

The disparate personalities in Pearl Jam have formed a remarkable sacred space of their own, in which band members are encouraged to trust their instincts, let down their ego walls, emphasize their strengths even as they overcome their weaknesses. To see their diversity as a challenge and not a threat. The recording of Vs., their uncompromising new album, involved maintaining a go-with-the-moment spontaneity that only truly grounded players can handle. It meant letting their drummer write the first track on the album, and having riffmeister Stone spend hours alone in a rehearsal room, playing drums, so he could transfer certain grooves to his Les Paul. Mike's fluid improvisations became a more integral part of each song's structure, and the rhythm section was truly cut loose to use their tastes and instincts freely. Here's how they did it.

GUITAR WORLD: Stone, you've talked about wanting personally to be less structured and more fluid on this album, and to encourage intuitive band members like Mike to become more structured, and also to free up the rhythm section. So how did the creative dance unfold? Could you all trust your intuition and let it fly? Or was it nerve-wracking chaos? Or a little of both?

STONE GOSSARD: Absolutely both. There were times when we'd look at each other and just think, this sucks. Other times it was amazing. Then there were moments in the middle of a song where you'd ask yourself, "Is this any good, is this really working out?" I think we allowed things to develop in a more natural, band-oriented sort of way, rather than me bringing in a bunch of stuff that was already arranged. For instance, if I had a riff idea, maybe I wouldn't spend as much time trying to finish it as I would have in the past. I would just come in and sort of play it. And I found that by letting everybody jump on board and contribute, ideas popped up just as spontaneously and developed into a final structure as naturally as they would have if I'd just sat at home and did it myself.

GW: A lot of musicians say that, but you seem genuinely pleased to share the songwriting burdens with the band. After writing almost all of the music on Ten, did you have to overcome ego fears and control tendencies to get to this point?

GOSSARD: It's been a long evolution over a lot of years and bands. First, I had to find my voice as a guitarist, then finally realize that I could write. Eventually you have a different kind of confidence, where you can actually step back from it and say, "Okay, I can do it -- and so can everybody else." So, you encourage other people to contribute. And that's what ultimately is going to make this band stand out -- if everyone's really confortable with diving into the creative process. I'm so much more easy with it now. But sure, there's definitely times when I'm strained about it, or my ego gets involved over some riff that I want in there. But, in general, I feel the band has opened in a way that allows everybody to continue to explore that creative space. We just made a record in three weeks that we mostly just jammed on; we hardly had anything written. People seem to be enjoying it, and that tell us, "Great, we're heading in the right direction." So if Eddie writes a song, maybe we'll play it exactly like he wrote it -- which is essentially what happened with "Rearviewmirror." Or if I have a specific song idea, we can do it that way -- or we can jam on my idea so there's room for anyone's input. There's an infinite amount of ways we can write songs if we maintain this trust and confidence in each other as a band.

MIKE MCCREADY: It has to be that way, or it'll begin to stagnate. Like Stone says, people may be surprised to hear that Eddie wrote "Rearviewmirror" -- all the riffs, the whole song. He plays guitar on a couple of tunes, like "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," but it sounds like us. And Stone is starting to do more leads. He did that wah-wah solo on "Rats" that some people think is me.

GOSSARD: Hmm, I've been kind of hacking that thing out lately. Neil Young was a real inspiration to me as far as developing my lead style goes. Watching him, you get that sense of rhythm and riff, and that's the only way I can approach it -- and only when I'm not thinking about it...

MCCREADY: [to Stone] You did some great stuff on "Porch" last night. I can't play "Go" lately unless I do some serious finger exercises. That lead is such a funny thing, and if my hands are a bit cold it doesn't happen.

GW: Mike, your leads feel even more off the cuff on Vs. than on Ten, yet they also form more of the structure of the song themselves. So playing them live must be something of a challenge: How do you go with the flow and still maintain your part?

MCCREADY: Exactly. That solo on "Go" was probably the second of three or four takes. And I do have a problem recreating it live, because I wasn't thinking about it at all when we did it in the studio. So on stage, I get into this mode where I'll start to think while I'm playing, "Okay, this sounds like the album, and I want to emulate that." But to really capture that feel of being in the moment, I have to be in contact with the emotion that's running through me RIGHT NOW. So... I have to figure out a new way to approach it.

GW: Nice paradox. But isn't letting Dave, your drummer, actually write that whole song on guitar taking this creative sharing thing a little too far? Isn't there something in the bible that forbids that kind of thing?

MCCREADY: Nah, he's a hell of a guitar player. I remember he wrote "Go" on an acoustic, without a pick. Stone put in that melodic bit that sounds like a siren...

GOSSARD: ...that thing in the chorus I ran through the Leslie, yeah. That song went through a cool evolution that goes back to what we've been saying about creative input. Dave played us the two main parts, that BAM-BAM-BAM groovy chordal riff bit and then the main ascending riff in more of an acoustic vein. Then, when he got behind the drums, everyone turned up real loud and it evolved into something else, a little more hard core.

GW: Was there any song where you felt, "God, this collective consciousness approach is never going to work here -- we've hit a creative gridlock?"

GOSSARD: "Glorified G" was one that went through a series of changes, and barely held together the whole time. We all knew there were melodies and riffs in it we liked. But even listening to the song right up to the mixing stage I was going, "Does this work at all?!" Here was Mike playing a very up, country guitar line while I'm playing this choppy down riff on the opposite end of the groove spectrum. Meanwhile, Jeff's got this totally other bass line going that's not really steady, and he's going off in a melodic direction, too. So there's not really anybody holding it down, and Dave's got to decide either to play it more the country way or play it the funky way. There was this precarious balance, and then suddenly the bridge comes in from out of the blue, which, if Eddie doesn't sing it just right, sounds sort of foreign. Finally, it never goes back to the chorus at the end, it turns into something else.

MCCREADY: Yeah, a song about a glorified version of a pelican! [general laughter] But those challenges -- that's the excitement of it. If it's sounding crazy and maybe it isn't working, then let's try to make something happen out of this. That's the impetus to me: Let's go for it.

GW: You also had Eddie in the studio with you for the first time as an emotional and vocal factor, not just writing to finished demos like he did on Ten. How did that affect the musical chemistry?

MCCREADY: He usually jumped right in when he felt it. He's always writing his thoughts and ideas in a booklet. On "Rats" he was just sitting around while we jammed, and suddenly he started writing.

GOSSARD: So much of the album aranged itself once he started singing. We'd come down after rehearsing in the studio with some new ideas, and he'd come down later and we'd play him the tape. And he'd say, right, let's jam on this riff or that section. Maybe originally we'd played four bars of something, and then with Eddie there we could feel it wanted to go twice as long. You could tell when the music wanted to change just by the way he was singing. It was sort of unspoken.

GW: Did "W.M.A." really come about as a result of Eddie having seen some street people hassled by cops right outside the studio? And did the song actually evolve out of the rolling bass and drum track?

AMENT: Yeah, Eddie told me about that incident the day it happened. If you want the whole story, you'll have to talk to him, but essentially, our practice places are in a pretty hard-core part of Seattle. There's a park where a lot of homeless people hang out, and probably about 90% of them are either black or Indian. There's always cops hanging around and a lot of weird shit going down, like people smoking crack right in the alley near where we practice. So that day Eddie went out to the grocery store or something, and I think he saw some pretty intense stuff going down concerning those street people. And when he came in we happened to be jamming on what later became "W.M.A."

GOSSARD: It was the very first time we even started to jam on that version, and he just jumped on the vocal mic and sang the whole thing. It was all in A, kind of a groove-oriented thing that had a few smaller changes in it, but it stayed pretty constant as far as I remember. The bass and drums were locked into a real steady thing.

GW: Right, it seems very wild and loose, but the bass and drums hold your attention because they're so tight. Was that a case of stepping out with a "more is less" approach?

AMENT: Before we'd gotten to the studio, a version of "W.M.A." had begun to evolve with more parts to it, where we played things differently. And then from my end, I decided to pull back the reins and play the same bass line through the whole thing -- just play this groove over what is essentially a drum loop. So the bass and the drums are this steady train throughout the whole song. The layers of guitars and vocals, those are the real dynamics of the whole song. Dave and I just laid down the foundation.

GW: Not only is Stone playing leads, but Mike is getting more rhythmic. That chordal funk lead you did last night on "Even Flow" was a total surprise.

MCCREADY: Well, I do like to listen to that kind of music. And when Dave and Jeff lock into a funk groove and Stone starts doing some weird funky riff, I love to jump in and play off that. [long pause] That said, the real reason I went off into that funk thing on "Even Flow" last night was 'cause some kid jumped on stage and landed all over my pedals. [general laughter] So my usual lead was definitely not happening because my wah was down and really screeching. So I had to bring it down a bit and try to funk my way through. I have been playing like that regularly lately -- but that's why it came up last night like that.

GW: Well, creative accidents are inevitable when...

MCCREADY: Speaking of creative accidents, I had quite a wet fart on stage last night. I just looked over at Dave during "Garden" and suddenly...

GOSSARD: On stage? I've never done that. I'm impressed.

GW: But did you get it equalized? But seriously, when you're working in a limited format like rock and blues, isn't that sense of immediacy and depth all the more important?... Mike, in an earlier conversation you spoke of Muddy Waters' ability to create powerful, emotionally spontaneous music while performing live. Can you elaborate?

MCCREADY: I can't recreate the passion in the way I originally talked about it.

GOSSARD: [nods] That's exactly what you can't do! If you're really playing the blues, you cannot recreate a moment of history. That's a prime example of it right there. For me, in order to keep creating, I have not second- guessed myself or engaged in that kind of thinking. Whenever I feel like it would be cool to write a song in that pre-conceived way, nothing good ever comes out of it. I have to pick up the guitar and not have anything in my mind and just play. And if I make a mistake, and that mistake sounds good, I'll repeat it four times in a row and suddenly it's a riff. For me, musically, nothing good ever comes out of being conscious about it.

GW: So you've practiced and absorbed all those scales, tunings, even rap rhythms into your subconscious, where they integrate and pop back into your consciousness in new forms, or hybrids. But Mike, try a second take. You were talking about going back beyond Hendrix and Vaughan --

MCCREADY: -- to hearing about how Howlin' Wolf was illiterate, and how Willie Dixon would yell the words in his ear, and then he'd just sing them. To me, that represents the purest form of musical emotion, which involves realizing that recording music in its purest form means the first few takes, and not overanalyzing it.

GW: Great second take. Now, you were talking about watching Muddy Waters on the screen...

MCCREADY: It was the first time I saw the movie The Last Waltz. When Muddy Waters started playing, I couldn't fucking believe it! What the hell is this? The whole movie is cool, but Muddy really stuck out. I didn't understand it, but it was like I literally felt this giant sun rising. It was like, God, I've got to get ALL this music!

GW: Neil Young has become an obvious father figure and role model for you guys. Did you gain any insights into how he's managed not to have lost it, despite being twice your age?

GOSSARD: I didn't even have a conversation with him. I just looked at him on stage and he looks right back at you and you feel it. It's there in the way he relates to his band, his family, his land.

MCCREADY: He smiles and there's this intense, total love. I'd never felt that sort of energy before. The first time we played "Rockin' In The Free World" on stage with him it was like, "What is this tremendous heat that's hitting me right now?" I felt like I was drugged out of my skull every time we played with him.

AMENT: Here's this 47-year-old guy who just sent this chill through my body that lasted long after we left the stage. Before we even played with him, a couple of us went down to his farm, and he was sitting in his living room, playing his acoustic guitar. Two words came to mind and inspired me: pure and uninhibited. When he plays the guitar, it's instantly a part of him, and whatever is coming through him is coming out of that guitar -- and it's this pure thing. And he's fucking up and making mistakes, but it doesn't matter... it all sounded so beautiful. It's like finding the truth in yourself and just being able to speak it as it comes through you, especially to the people you love who are around you. But he could even do it in front of people he didn't know anything about.

GOSSARD: I think it has to do with how comfortable he's become with himself. He has this anchor that comes from all this music he's done and the challenges he's gotten through in his life.

MCCREADY: What's that solo he did with the Buffalo Springfield? Not "Down By The River."

GW: The famous one-note "Cinnamon Girl" solo?

MCCREADY: That is one of the greatest solos of all time. With that one note, he transfers more emotion than a hundred guitarists do with a thousand notes.

GW: Is there a new "political correctness" in alternative music? Isn't it contradictory to have an external set of rules about how to be "honest and uninhibited," as Jeff says? Just being raw or loud doesn't automatically give you integrity, any more than becoming popular automatically means that you've sold out, no? Did you feel any pressure to make this a more "raw" record?

AMENT: I'm probably as guilty of what you're saying as the next guy. But then you get to where a band like Stone Temple Pilots talk in their record bio about how they all met at a Black Flag show -- as if that was supposed to give them some sort of legitimacy. That's ridiculous. At the same time I was going to Black Flag shows, I was going to see Iron Maiden, listening to as much different music as I could. Anything that was loud and intense.

GW: Even the Beatles started as a rockabilly cover band. It's funny how many alternative "guitar gods" confess they cut their teeth on AC/DC or even Kiss --

MCCREADY: Kiss is the reason I started to play guitar!

AMENT: Kiss is acceptable in the alternative underground now. It's okay to like them -- but it's not okay to admit you liked Iron Maiden or Venom. And Venom essentially was one of the bands that brought me together with Mark and Steve and those guys in Mudhoney. I mean, the Melvins, all those guys actually loved that shit!

GOSSARD: What you say about alternative "correctness" is absolutely true, but actually we all wanted to make a raw record. We wanted Ten to sound like this; all our favorite records are raw and immediate. A lot of times when you make records they end up being slicker, not because you want them to be, but because of the modern process of making records. You tend to fix things all the time, make them work, because technically you have that option... that's why we basically wrote this record in three weeks and then went right in and recorded it. We intentionally didn't leave a lot of time for fine tuning or second-guessing.

GW: All modesty aside, you guys must know that a special energy often comes through when you play that's cathartic and healing for millions of kids that sure can't reach that higher part of themselves through TV, or their families, or anything else in this culture. Are you aware of the power of that on stage?

MCCREADY: It's not like drugs; it's better and completely different. Some nights when it hits, I just look out at the audience and think, "Oh my god, this is the greatest thing in the world, I don't want this to end." And then the show's over with, but you're still up in that state for hours afterwards.

AMENT: Either that, or you can't talk to anybody, and you just fall into bed and have the most incredible dreams. You wake up totally refreshed and ready to go on with the tour, and realize, "Wow, what happened last night made me feel this way."

GOSSARD: For sure, you feel it. I think all of us get lost on stage, in the best sense, on certain nights. And the best nights are when we all look at each other, and you realize that everybody's got that look in their eye and is feeling that sense of "I don't know or care what I do next." It's just... an incredible thing. Letting go and trusting that in ourselves is what gives us the potential to grow and evolve. That's only going to happen if we're all helping each other write songs -- or not write them, letting other people get in there, trusting the group process and not over-thinking --

GW: -- Or else you fall off the bicycle.

GOSSARD: That's it. You have to grow together. Where you run into problems is when one person finally takes over and turns it into their thing. And it's never as good after that as when it was this magnificent, rickety bicycle which was some of this person's thing here, and more of that person's thing there, including some weird nuts and bolts that maybe a few people in the band hated at the time, but two weeks later wound up loving. [laughs]

GW: It must be terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

GOSSARD: It's getting a lot less terrifying. I'm growing more comfortable riding that bicycle all the time.