New Musical Express [UK], 5/13/00
words John Mulvey
Transcribed by Dave Donovan
When the glass started breaking and the crowd turned on Niketown, one of Seattle's most enduring and powerful bands were hunkered down in the studio. On Nov. 30th last year the WTO met in the city. So too did a massive coalition of liberals, anti-corporate activists, trade unionists, eco-terrorists, and radical shit stirrers: a demonstration that, with a certain beautiful inevitability, escalated into a riot.
"I was really proud of our town," recalls Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. "I mean, I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but it turned out to be a real positive thing. It's so important that people were motivated to cause such a ruckus, because it starts to make you feel crazy if you're thinking about things it seems like nobody else is."
Eddie Vedder has been thinking about a LOT of things. About the riots, of course, and the right to personal independence in an increasingly homogenized, culturally controlled world. About how so many families are provided for in Seattle: jobs with Boeing and how Boeing is making war planes for China. About how so many other jobs there are connected with Microsoft and what he really thinks of Bill Gates.
Since Pearl Jam lurched imposingly onto the world stage nearly a decade Ago, the city that spawned them and a rock n roll revolution has changed out Of all recognition. The wannabe grungers and artists fled long ago, and in Their place came wave after wave of software venture capitalists, turning Seattle into a cyber yuppie heaven with the kind of aspirations, and more importantly, astronomical rents that would keep those scuzzy rockers well away in the future.
Vedder and his band, however, remain.
Whilst the punk rock hype about their hometown faded in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain's horrible death, they continue to be one of America's biggest and most contrary bands, chipping away at the system with their incredibly rare interviews, their refusal to make videos, and a long term battle to keep their ticket prices low. As Seattle becomes more soulless and corporate -- Vedder refers to "some serious growing pains" -- Pearl Jam are working in the opposite Direction. And when a riot arrives, a pitch battle against capitalism puts so much rock n roll nihilistic posturing into a proper context.
"The anarchy of the whole event was great. I thought that was awesome" says drummer Matt Cameron, and you can see what he means. If ever a town needed a roughing up it was Seattle...
"Time to take leave of all formal functions...time to plant seeds of reconstruction...no time this time to feign reluctance"-"Evacuation"Wednesday April 12th is David Letterman's 53rd birthday. To celebrate, his programme broadcasting from New York features a torturous interview with Paul Newman and a Top Ten Signs that I, Dave, Am Getting Old. Number four runs "Told Pearl Jam I'm calling the cops if they're loud." For Pearl Jam closing the show, its the beginning of a long and uncharacteristically visible year of activity. First there's a tenebrous slow burn of a single "Nothing As It Seems" soon followed by their sixth album, the terrific, scabrous "Binaural" and an extensive world tour that includes a clutch of British arena dates on the cusp of May and June.
The Dave Letterman show then, is a way to show their country where they are. Relatively poor sales -- though still in the millions -- of their last two albums "No Code" and "Yield" may have suggested a band in decline. But that was turned around last autumn, when a charity single for Kosovo -- "Last Kiss" -- insinuated its way into becoming the band's biggest US hit. A cover of an old 60s car crash song, it had a camp morbidity far removed from the earnestness usually associated with the band. That J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers had a head on collision in which their manager died while the original version of the song "Last Kiss" was a hit back in 1964 only added a warped poignancy to the whole affair.
Tonight there's none of that. "Grievance," the new song they've chosen to play For Letterman is a splenetic state of the nation address that takes the infringements of liberty, police brutality at the Seattle protest and the dangers of a computer controlled world, all with an authority baiting chorus: "Pledge my grievance to the flag". By the end, Vedder, clenched and vicious, wailing "I will feel alive as long as I am free" while Mike Mc Cready slings his guitar to the floor. Twice. "Sometimes some things need to be thrown" he'll grin later.
This is the spirit that binds "Binaural" together.
The first records that brought the band fame, dealt -- like the music of so many Of their contemporaries -- with their own problems. The rapid stereotyping of Pearl Jam ,and especially Vedder, was as depressives, preoccupied with their own issues and with little connection to the outside world. Interalised trauma, tantrum rock.
As the band managed to circumnavigate much of the trappings of superstardom and build a protective shell, however, the music noticeably relaxed. "No Code" and "Yield" were typified by a kind of metaphysical striving, and a nebulous quest for a belief that saw a more contemplative Vedder grappling -- and failing to resolve -- the big spiritual issues. Now "Binaural" introduces a Pearl Jam resolved, focused and on the attack. Guitarist Stone Gossard calls it "pretty sombre" and the others -- Vedder, Mc Cready, bassist Jeff Ament and new recruit, former Soundgarden drummer, Matt Cameron -- use words like " dark" and "direct" a lot when they talk about it. Certainly its their bleakest work since 1994's masterpiece "Vitalogy" but it's powered by a rage and disgust at the inequities of the world that conclusively defies the self pitying legend. And while the idea of social criticism from such an obscenely wealthy men can be an awkward one, at least Eddie Vedder's aware of the incongruity.
"I think what everyone's looking for, y'know, is freedom," he says the day after Letterman in New York's studiously tranquil Mercer Hotel. "That's part of being comfortable in your own skin. I know I had a problem with being told what to do, and had a problem with being mentally and physically constricted. All of humanity is searching for freedom and I think its important to know when you have it, too." For a man who has spent so much time and energy over the past few years avoiding behaving like a rock star, Vedder is actually extremely good at being one. He has vague but unmistakable charisma, the kind of affably dislocated air that can only be pulled off by the very famous. To spend so long thinking about your every word, you have to be confident there's an audience out there interested in hearing them. In spite of "Binaural"'s apparent moral force, he steers clear of feeling any responsibility to make big statements and cringes when its suggested its a righteous (as opposed to self righteous) album. Even the scattershot polemic of "Grievance" is worked around, as if he's still terrified of being the spokesperson of a generation on any subject.
"I still feel were working on a small enough level" he rationalises. "I don't hink anybody's gonna be really threatened by it, ("Grievance") even if we're playing to 30,000 people and they're all doing this (punches the air fervently), the politicians are laughing." Sure but in terms of entertainment, you're on a pretty big level. People in the public eye who aren't politicians don't come much more influential than you, don't you think? "I'll just be perfectly honest. I might avoid being aware of that, just for self preservation, and having a good knowledge of who I am. I don't grasp that stuff, it's the best way for me to deal with it."
But it's difficult when you put those issues out there so dramatically, when you debut your new album by playing "Grievance" on letterman. It's a little disingenuous to say you don't get involved, because that's putting out a very aggressive message. "Y'know, we played it in practice, and I heard Matt's drums and he's playing so well," he swerves, "So we decided to go with an up song, that was as much as we thought about it."
"Soon Forget" on "Binaural" is even more lyrically brutal, as Vedder, bizarrely accompanied only by himself on ukulele, paints a withering portrait of a lonely millionaire. "Lying dead, clutching benjamins". "he's stiffening...we're all whistling" he croons, never having sounded happier. It's a fantastically nasty song. "I think its a good little movie," he laughs. "It's a kind of Bill Gates thing, I think. But it could be anyone or anything."
You specifically had Bill Gates in mind when you wrote it? "Someone like that."
Would you like to see Bill Gates dead? -- there is an epic pause, even by his standards, then he brightens: "Uh, immobilised" -- just take his kneecaps out? -- "I'd like to see. Maybe it's already happened -- I don't know what's going on in his personal life. But I think a guy like that could do some really interesting things if he had an epiphany -- maybe because of the loss of his kneecaps," he giggles mischievously: "but it's amazing what he could do."
You could argue the sentiments of that song could be levelled at you.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, I'm in there too. It just shows that I'm thinking about it and saying, ‘make sure you don't turn out like that.' I mean its good for me to hear this stuff too."
Do you want to be remembered? You say the character in the song will soon be forgotten. He's nothing, he's dust.
"I'd just like to be remembered as the guy whistling, y'know? By the people who are dancing, and not counting the money. Err, sure I'd like to be remembered. But as someone who – I've never really thought about this -- as someone who likes to dance."
What about someone who made a difference?
"...yeah a small one. I mean all this stuff is so small, y'know, our lives. You make progress or difference in really minuscule increments. And no-one knows. They had hugely popular music back in what we think of as ancient history, in the 20s and 30s. The universal song of the country at the time, whether it was ‘take me out to the ball game' or whatever –- you don't know who sang that song. I'm pretty comfortable with the fact that I won't be remembered," he laughs. "But even if its on a small scale or someone finds an old record and there's something there for them, that'd be great. I'm blessed."
If Eddie Vedder represents the dreamer trying to make sense of things in Pearl Jam, then Stone Gossard is its sharp pragmatic motor. Mike Mc Cready talks about the Seattle riots and how "it was kinda funny when they were breaking the Nike building's windows." Jeff Ament calmly points out that it was the corporate targets that got smashed -- "Nike and Starbucks and the Gap" -- and ridicules the mall managers who complained about losing two days Christmas shopping. Gossard, however, has a more cautious analysis, that suggests that while undeniably a politicised group, Pearl Jam won't quite be up on the barricades alongside rage against the machine come the revolution. "I think it had an effect on the record," he concedes, "but I had mixed emotions about it. The statement that was made on the first day was pretty amazing. And to a certain point, it lost power when people started rioting. They already had the worlds attention, they had 40 or 50,000 people out there making a statement, they had shut down the WTO for the day. And then the destructive side of it is not something I back. There was a lot of ramifications. A lot of people got tear-gassed and stuff -- y'know, violence breeds violence. When you take it to that level you're gonna get an equal and opposite reaction."
"The mayor just had no clue how to react to it and reacted very frightened," says Matt Cameron. "It just gave the power of the people that much more presence. The footage they showed on the local newscasts were kinda watered down versions of what actually happened. I had a lot of friends down there. They threw these bombs that sprayed little rubber pellets everywhere And when I watched the national news they showed a lot more graphic detail about what was going on. I think it did influence a lot of people at the time."
Mike Mc Cready calls Seattle "a weird city. They pay lip service to being creative and artistic, but there's also a huge conservative element. It's all that Microsoft money. It's just sick. There's this new money that tries to think they're kinda old money and it's just like ‘give me a fucking break! You're not!'" "We went from what seemed fairly bohemian ten years ago, there was a real nice energy about it," reminisces Vedder. "It's funny if you're in a travelling band or out of town for two months. You come back and whole streets have changed."
Listening to "Binaural" and talking to Pearl Jam now, it seems as if some of the obfuscations they've used to protect themselves are breaking down -- a little. The last two albums were marked by lyrics that reached toward an indefinite goal, and the band -- on the scarce occasions they talked -- gave precious little away. The machinery of self preservation in full effect, to the degree that, if memory serves, they only had one group photo session taken in all that time. Today its a little bit easier, once you've sifted through some of the platitudes. Eddie Vedder will admit that the albums standout track, "Light Years" -- a meditation on bereavement good enough to be Pearl Jam's "Everybody Hurts" -- was written the morning after someone close to him had died. ("A pretty heavy loss." ) Unlike less personal songs on the album, it's driven more by bewilderment than rage, about fate. "And loss and where does that energy go? Big questions."
Gossard, with customary neutrality, claims "As I get older, it's the grey area that gets more interesting. It's that stuff you can't put your finger on." But Vedder is more sanguine. "It's kinda nice to talk about stuff that you can't hold in your hand, y'know?" He smiles, trying to describe the art of being specific in the least specific terms possible. That's Pearl Jam all over. Still, whatever concessions you find, there are always more evasions to preserve their own security. Ask them to admit responsibility for anything and they'll shy away. Expect them to have a consensual vision and they'll closely examine the flipside of the coin. This is the way a band who've attained a state of personal grace while continuing to sell millions of records can work.
"Binaural" makes Eddie Vedder seem a pessimistic man who wants to make a difference but who ultimately doesn't seem to think he can. As the chemicals Leak, the bombs drop and the tectonic plates start shifting in the apocolyptically glowering "Insignificance", it all seems incredibly bleak. "Yeah, actually, I'm pretty balanced I think. I've got high hopes cos it's all evolution. I mean, it's important to remember there's positive things going on. I just wish there were more, or maybe we focused on them a little more than we seem to be. Maybe there should've been more on this record. I don't practice what I preach."
Do the big questions still trouble you a lot?
"I'm fortunate in that at least I get to express it and then I get to think about every time I sing, so maybe answers will come."
The problem with hiding from the world is that, for want of truth, preconceptions solidify into assumed fact. Pearl Jam are a band who've been defined first by their apparent misery, then buy what they're not -- a corporate friendly rock behemoth -- more than by what they are: awkward; anthemic, but understated; opinionated, but self-effacing; difficult to the last, and still massively successful. And perhaps a lot more optimistic and thankful for their lot than the myths suggest.
So Eddie Vedder pauses for thought one last time and ruminates about how he'd deal with those perpetually hovering big issues if he couldn't sing them out. "Erm, I can't tell you" he says finally. "If I worked in the post office, who knows?"
In a couple of days he plans to go to Washington DC where meetings of the IMF and the world bank are providing the stimulus for a follow-up to November's Seattle protests. Vedder's going as an ordinary concerned guy rather than counterculture dignitary, obviously. But when he struggles to think what another life would be like, you can see how hard it is for him to imagine being anything other than the singer in one of the most powerful bands in the world. It's what he does. And, really, there are worse ways to earn a living.