Pearl Jam is either album number eight or 188 from Eddie Vedder and Co., depending on whether you include official bootlegs (there’s 176 of them), live records (two), best-ofs (one) and odds ‘n’ sods collections (one). Either way, the 13-track LP is easily the Seattle quintet’s best studio effort since 1998’s Yield and a welcome return-to-form following 2002’s awkward Riot Act. Pearl Jam left longtime label Epic in 2003 and signed to J Records, the imprint run by 74-year-old music impresario Clive Davis. (The band’s new labelmates include Barry Manilow, Kenny G and Whitney Houston.) For a group as self-sufficient as Pearl Jam, something as cosmetic as changing record labels has zero effect on its musical output. Nonetheless, a change in scenery seems to have re-energized the band. While Pearl Jam finds Vedder once again raging against the machine (he has made no secret of his opinion of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq), this time out, his anger is focused and perfectly suited to these mostly hard-rocking songs that address the current state of the Union.
The 41-year-old Vedder spoke to MAGNET from Pearl Jam’s Seattle warehouse space.
I thought that after Pearl Jam left Epic, you would go the indie route and put out your own records. But you signed to J, which is owned by the same company as Epic.
They weren’t owned by the same company when we started talking to them. It just turned into this sort of ironic situation. To be honest, I think talking about labels—except for exciting labels like Sub Pop or Epitaph or Kill Rock Stars—is completely boring. We tried to find somebody who’ll allow us to be who we are and respects how we do things. But I think it really came down to the facilitation of getting the music out there. It might have even come down to something like foreign publishing. See, I told you it was going to get boring. [Laughs]
On the new album, three of the songs were written solely by you. The remaining ones were written by six different pairings of band members, a way you guys have worked since (1996’s) No Code. I can’t think of another band that’s had that kind of continual variety in the songwriting process.
What the group has evolved into unconsciously is like a vessel or vehicle for everyone to express themselves musically. And, in the past, lyrically; this time it was kind of left up to me to round out the lyrical content. Everyone in the band has a drive to get back into the room and do it again because they know they will get to express themselves.
In the story we did on you guys when Riot Act came out, (bassist) Jeff (Ament) said that in the past, it would always come down to you alone in the studio trying to finish 20 songs and that that wasn’t fair to you.
Well, this new record took a different turn. It didn’t stem from demos or songs that were prepared the day we went into the studio. We really went in with nothing, which I wouldn’t recommend to anybody. It started to feel like our second or third record. There were a couple guys who hung in there until the end, but in the very end, it was still me. [Laughs] An interviewer told me that (guitarist) Stone (Gossard) said, “Everyone in the band has one hand on the wheel, but Ed has always had two.” I thought about that last night. Yeah, but they had the comfort of being in the car. I was, like, on the hood, hanging on for dear life.
The lyrics are very dark. There aren’t many glimmers of hope.
I was hoping that the, uh, hope was going to be in the guitar solos. It was the guitars and drums going at it that was going to lift you out of the dark abyss that I had painted.
Now that we’ve gotten some distance, how effective do you think the Vote For Change tour was, given Bush won the election?
After the election, you felt like you really didn’t know the people in this country, even though you just visited Ohio and all the other places that were considered swing states. Looking back, even though the Vote For Change tour was a failed experiment because our candidate did not win, it was also a flexing of the muscle of freedom of speech and preserving the rights that were written into the Constitution by some incredibly smart individuals a couple hundred years ago. That’s something kids in school are being reminded of. I was probably not listening that day, but I finally figured it out years later. It’s a very important part of living in America. In no other time in recent history has it been as intense. I think what’s happening now are things that will affect the next few generations, whether environmentally or just corporate globalization. I think it’s a radical time in America.
Though you’ve always been outspoken about politics, you kicked it up a notch since Bush was first elected. Some of your fans say they don’t like the Bush bashing at shows.
I guess you have to realize this is just part and parcel of what we do. It’s not all that we do. I think you can still have a good night out and, at times, a great night of rock ‘n’ roll if you come see our group. I don’t think we are going to hit you over the head with anything. Hopefully, the music is powerful. At this time, I feel, “How can you not be talking about this stuff?” I’d be talking about it if I was a bartender. I’d be talking about it if I was a druggist. I’d be talking about it if I was the head of a corporation and how we’d deal with that. If there’s any job you should be expressing yourself this kind of way it would be that of a musician or a writer. When some of these bigger problems end, we can shut up and play. I look forward to the day and welcome it. I would love to stop thinking about this stuff. I’m fucking sick of dealing with this. I’m sick of living as an American and knowing that our government has run rampant and, even worse than that, has treated us like we’re idiots.
When you interviewed Sleater-Kinney for MAGNET in issue #67, you talked about the importance of Fugazi and Sonic Youth as bands that do what’s right and correct. The people in those bands are in their 40s and 50s now. When you look around, what bands do you think will take their place?
Although I would put Ian MacKaye up for sainthood, I don’t think I’d ever want to wear the robe. The whole doing-right thing is just what you do. It’s not a thing. I guess it’s a goal. It’s tricky. It just feels weird to hear it. I think you just want to reserve the right to be a human being and have flaws. As far as younger bands, ones out there with a modicum of success who don’t find ways to share it, I feel bad for them. They’re missing out on one of the great parts of being alive. The success of our first record or two was so off the scale that it was just a natural reaction to want to include others in the success and help out where needed.
Each of your records has sold fewer copies than the one before it, which sounds like a negative thing. But your first record is like the 40th best-selling record ever.
Is that right?
Ten has sold more than 12 million copies, and now your records aren’t selling a million.
I guess we should’ve kept some of that money. [Laughs] We shouldn’t have been so generous.
I don’t think it’s a Pearl Jam thing. I think it’s an industry thing. I can’t imagine any band selling close to 12 million copies now.
We haven’t really done much to participate in the mainstream over the past few years. I think the goal at the beginning of this band was to sell 50,000 records, so the fact that we can still get close to a million is still beyond the beyond. There are no complaints from our side.
As you might know, MAGNET can’t go an issue without an obligatory Guided By Voices reference.
[Laughs] Well, I’m glad we didn’t make it through the interview without mentioning them.
How did you come to ask Bob Pollard to open for Pearl Jam on your recent tour?
At the beginning of making this record, when we were wondering where it was all going to go, Guided By Voices was playing down the road; it was their last Seattle show. I had never seen them. Me and (producer) Adam Kasper had talked about going, but when it came down to it, we were tired from working, but we still made it over there. They played for three-and-a-half hours. We went from being tired and beat to having one of the greatest musical experiences of our lives. Just having guitars and drums and vocals and beer—with those elements, they just take you off the planet. And what’s interesting is that the day we finished mixing our new record, Robert Pollard was playing solo. So we went over and saw him. It made us realize how long it took us to make the record. So he kind of bookended our record-making experience. And it really inspired me, just how he is.
—Eric T. Miller