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Guitar World 9/92

Alive & Kicking
by Jeff Gilbert

First, you heard the songs. Heavily passionate, they were rich with steady swirls of unforced melody, and tempered by strong, elusive riffs and a purposeful edge. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready's spontaneous blend of enigmatic chords and understated lead breaks transcended rock clichés to evoke powerful, genuine emotions. The simple one-note spiral of "Alive" and the hypno-riffing of "Evenflow" clearly demonstrated that this was no ordinary rock group.

This was Pearl Jam, riding the crest of a tidal wave of valid hype to -- could it be? -- superstardom. Pearl Jam, appearing on Saturday Night Live and MTV (with regularity), surfing hitherto alien waters. A platinum band, hanging "Ten."

Since last year's album release, the band has toured ceaselessly in a journey that has taken them around the world. In a decidedly less-than-posh Paris hotel room, Gossard answers the knock of a maid. No black silk stockings. No cute hat. If the guitarist is disappointed, however, he doesn't show it. Outside, in the cold and damp street beneath his window, a group of kids hope for a chance to get an autograph or photo. Pearl Jam, soaring in the U.S., is also riding high in France -- indeed, throughout Europe.

The demands spawned by success have made it nearly impossible for the members of Pearl Jam to enjoy the fruits of that success. "It's almost turned into the job you never wanted in the first place," moans Gossard with a snicker. When "Guitar World" came calling, the band hadn't had a real day off in weeks. It ain't easy, big success. Especially when you have to work this hard.

GUITAR WORLD: Does Ten, the title of your album, refer to the months you spent touring to support it?

STONE GOSSARD: [Laughs] Man, I'm so burnt out. All I want to do is go home. I'm ready for a long rest.

MIKE MCCREADY: We're so tired of talking about ourselves. There's only so much you can say about your band and your guitar.

GW: I take it you're not too caught up in the technical aspects of guitar playing.

MCCREADY: I have the worst time doing that. [Laughs] Guitar magazines ask me technical questions, but I don't know, I just do it! It's more of a feeling thing for me. I totally hate that stuff, it's like math. And I hate math!

GW: Okay, let's talk about something you like doing. Pearl Jam's performance on MTV's "Unplugged" must have struck you as a great opportunity to showcase another side of the group.

MCCREADY: It came out all right, but it could have been a nightmare, because we ordered some specific equipment and they gave us pretty shitty stuff. I wanted to get a Martin, some nice guitars. But when you rent equipment, you don't know what you're getting. Jeff ordered some specific basses and they didn't appear. The acoustic guitar I played had really high action, so it was totally impossible to do leads. But I thought it came out pretty well anyhow.

GW: Was it equally uncomfortable for you, Stone?

GOSSARD: No. It was a lot scarier going in than it actually turned out to be. We showed up, and instead of the Gibson Chet Atkins steel-string guitar I had ordered, they had a classical one there. It was getting late -- like eleven o'clock at night -- and where can you rent stuff at that hour? Luckily, we knew some people who were able to score us a couple more guitars, and it turned out fine. I ended up getting a Chet Atkins steel-string -- which played great -- and a Takamine that felt pretty good. In those kinds of situations, you just have to play with the hand you're dealt. [Laughs]

MCCREADY: It was weird, because we've only done five or six brief acoustic shows, and it forces you to play differently; you can't rely on feedback. [Laughs] It forces you to use dynamics, and to look at each song in a different way. Some songs turned out good acoustically, and some just didn't quite happen. I didn't think "Even Flow" was any good.

GOSSARD: An acoustic show is really sort of a naked, exposed way of playing your songs, because you can't hide behind distortion. Doing it in front of millions of people is even more intimidating. We actually went out there and had a fun, energized show. It's a cool way to hear the band, because the drums and the vocals are featured a lot more; Dave, our drummer, is a great player and Eddie can really shine when he's given room to move around vocally. It gave people a different perception of the band.

GW: How would you rate your performance on Saturday Night Live?

MCCREADY: I felt good about it. I thought "Porch" was good, and "Alive" was okay. But, honestly, I was nervous as shit. I'm just glad we got through it in one piece.

GW: Did it complicate matters that sex goddess Sharon Stone was the guest host?

MCCREADY: Stone's guitar tech, Skully, got her blouse after the sketch where she had to take off her clothes. We took turns smelling it.

GW: [Regretfully] The perks of fame. Did you feel at all mechanical during the performance?

MCCREADY: I felt really nervous during the soundcheck before the show, but when we did it, it just felt like playing live. You can't allow yourself to think, "Oh my God... I'm playing in front of 25 million people!" If you did, you'd just freak out. There was definitely a lot of tension -- it was a nerve-wracking experience -- but just being there was amazing. Me and a buddy went up in one of the rooms and got loaded in honor of John Belushi.

GOSSARD: They bring in a studio audience for a complete, timed dress rehearsal before doing the actual show, and I think the first time we played, we were totally spot-on. But when we did it live, we just sort of jumped out there. I guess it turned out all right -- everyone said it was cool -- but it wasn't a memorable performance on a guitar level. [Laughs]

GW: Does your awareness that you've sold over a million records change the way you perform?

GOSSARD: Well, I've always felt pressure to play well live and to be in a great band, so it hasn't really changed things that much. The only thing that affects me is when they charge a lot of money for the show. We've made it a point to try and keep our ticket costs down, but you really want to put on a good show for someone who's paid 20 bucks for a ticket. That's pretty expensive. So I feel responsible in that sense.

GW: Now that you've had to live with Ten for over a year, does the material still hold up for you?

MCCREADY: I think we're much better now, live, than we are on the record. The record is fine for what it is -- we were a band for only three-and-a-half months when we recorded it -- but I don't think it's the best we can do. We've been working on new songs and have developed a lot of material, so I'm way more excited about doing the next album. I'm really amazed that Ten is doing so well.

GW: Have you been prepping with demos or do you just store up jams and ideas?

MCCREADY: It's not so much demos as it is working out stuff at soundchecks. We've added two new songs to our set -- "Footsteps" and "Drop the Leash." We use the spontaneity to work out kinks.

GOSSARD: We have lots of new songs. You wait and see, you'll be giving our next record high praise! [Laughs] It's really going to be special. Having Dave in the band has given us a whole new groove and a lot of new types of jams -- a lot of different tunings, weird stuff.

GW: Describe the new tracks, "Breath" and "State of Love and Trust," included on the Singles movie soundtrack.

GOSSARD: "Breath" and "State of Love and Trust" were recorded last February in Seattle, and are just a couple of songs that we thought would be good for the soundtrack. Not much of a story. [Laughs] They're older songs. "Breath" is on the first demo we did as a band. I used a Les Paul and Marshall on that track. We didn't really have time to mess around and bring in my Vox AC30 and my Steinberger! [Laughs] We had a day-and-a-half to do it, so I just played through my normal set up.

GW: Tell me the story behind "Dirty Frank," the funky B-side of the "Even Flow" single.

MCCREADY: "Dirty Frank" was written while we were touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The song's about our bus driver, Frank -- we were convinced he was a serial killer. We would find piles of empty beer cans under his driver's seat after a whole night's drive. It was like, "Oh man; I'm glad we're still alive!"

GOSSARD: "Dirty Frank" is a pearl jam. The lyrics on that song are amazing, some of the best Eddie's ever written.

GW: The song has a real funk feel to it, no doubt reflecting the influence of touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

GOSSARD: It had a lot to do with that. You can't help but be influenced by the Chili Peppers when you watch them night after night. Rather than emulating them, we just wanted to catch their groove and feel it the way they feel it. "They cook 'em just to see the look on their face." A little hats-off tribute. [Laughs] It's cool to have moments like that. Sometimes, it's great to be dark and foreboding, but this band definitely has a sense of humor, too. It's important that it comes out at least every once in a while, to keep things in perspective. I don't think Peark Jam are doomsday predictors or sad guys; I think we're a band that enjoys life.

GW: With Pearl Jam doing so well, I don't think it surprised too many people to see the re-release of Temple of the Dog, the album you did with Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden last year.

GOSSARD: I think it was really predictable. [Laughs] It may seem crass, but I'm happy about it, because I think it's an amazing record. I'm really proud of having played and worked on it with Chris and Matt. It's about getting together and having a good time, playing some music with some friends you never get a chance to play music with.

GW: Are there plans to promote it this time around?

GOSSARD: I don't think anyone's up for touring to support it right now. [Laughs] I think we've all had our load of touring at this point.

GW: As it is, you'll have two more months of touring with Lollapalooza. What are your impressions of the other bands on the Lollapalooza bill?

MCCREADY: I don't really know Ministry that well, but I'm looking forward to checking out Ice Cube, who blows me away. My God, his album is incredible. It's such honest music, with awesome grooves -- those old Parliament samples are incredible. That, and Soundgarden, of course. It's always awesome to see them play night after night. The Peppers are an amazing band, and they were really cool to us when we toured together; they went out of their way to take care of us. Eddie incited riots a couple of times, and we were going to be forced to pay for the damage, but the Peppers took care of it. We really love playing with them.

GOSSARD: I think the Lollapalooza lineup is great. Ice Cube is probably the most exciting for me, too, just because I'm such a huge fan. Right now, he makes the greatest rap records around. I'm really interested in seeing how his show comes across live. Other than that, any time you have the Chili Peppers and Soundgarden together, it's going to be cool. Ministry could be interesting; I've never seen them live, but I've heard great things about them. I hear the singer is a totally "out there" dude. I have no idea whatsoever what Lush and the Jesus and Mary Chain are like. My impression is that they're a little more low-key than the rest of us.