Eddie Vedder – Interview by Tim Robbins

Hobo magazine | January 2007

Tim Robbins — Hi, it’s Tim Robbins.

Eddie Vedder. — Hey, good morning.

— Are we being taped right now?

— I think we’re being taped, not unusual for our conversations (laughs). 

— Well, let’s see, let’s start at the beginning. 

— Five million years ago?

— Five billion years ago. When life as we know it came into existence, what kind of music were you listening to?

— Underwater music (laughs). Mostly a lot of gurgling. Yeah, the rhythmic patterns of the earth, the sounds of bubbles popping at the surface of the ocean…

— Do you know what kind of life form you were manifested as at that time?

— I believe it was a trilobite. I think most of us perhaps were. I don’t know, I just have these dreams where I kind of wish I still had the shell (laughs). 

— I’ve had that dream too. The protective covering would be handy these days. So you have evolved through the millions of years of earth’s history, and when we got around to, let’s say 1975/76, what kind of music were you listening to?

— Well, 1978 I can remember because it was the year of the Last Waltz by The Band. Back earlier than that I lived in a group home, Chicago Lake Bluff Home for Boys or something. They had a record player in the basement. Most the kids were older, and of different cultural origins, black kids, Irish kids, whomever. There was a lot of Motown, from Sly and the Family Stone to James Brown. I was attracted to Jackson 5 because I could relate to their age – not their afros – I had afro envy at that point. I remember my uncle took me to see The Last Waltz, and there was so much within that two-hour film, people like Dylan, Neil Young, Ron Wood, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters, so it planted a lot of seeds. There were all kinds of little detours into blues and it was packed and emotional. You could feel the emotion because it was their last concert and, you know, Scorsese did it so it looked great. I saw it in a kind of empty theatre in Chicago. I was thirteen or twelve.

— Where you playing at that point? 

— I wasn’t but I wanted to play. I’m trying to think of the time line here because I got my first guitar at Christmas when I was twelve or thirteen. My birthday’s right next to Christmas, so I lobbied my folks to put my gifts together in the form of an electric guitar. They thought they should give me an acoustic to see if I liked it. I think that was the winter after I saw that film.

— What kind of guitar did you get? 

— It was a Memphis Les Paul copy. It felt pretty unwieldy for a kid my size at the time. It wasn’t until probably the year after that all of the sudden I picked it up one day and it felt like a friend. It fit, ya know?

— OK, so let’s fast forward a little bit. When did you move to San Diego? 

— Well, let’s see, I was back and forth as a kid. I grew up in Chicago, moved to San Diego when I was ten or something and then lived there for a while and then moved back to Chicago when I was like, sixteen or seventeen. I then moved back to San Diego in the late 80s or something.

— Oh, so the late 80s? 

— Yeah, so I was there as a kid. Didn’t make it through high school.

— It was in the early 80s that punk rock started to hit the hinterlands. Were you aware of that music when it started?

— I think I had kind of a suburban mainstream taste. It wasn’t until I saw Rock ‘n’ Roll High School that I got my first taste there was a place for misfits to go. Looking back, it took a while to hear the Sex Pistols. I remember hearing Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live and he seemed intense and kind of angry. You know the looks of him, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy that could kick your ass, but his attitude (laughs)… I wouldn’t want to take him on.

— So you were in Chicago until you were how old? 

— We probably moved out to the West Coast when I was about eight or nine.

— No, I mean later.

— Oh, later. Well I wasn’t able to pull off the graduation thing. My parents split up and I was kinda working. I lived with a couple of guys, eking out some kind of existence, being in bands and stuff, and then moved back to Chicago in 82 or 83. It was then that I really started seeing bands because I had more access to bands being in the city. I didn’t see X for the first time until about then, around More Fun in the New World. I got someone’s fake I.D. and that was the greatest thing because it would have been three more years until I would have been able to get into these places. That was probably my most valuable possession for those three years.

— And what other bands did you see? 

— Well it just seemed like everything. From Firehose to early Peppers…

— Did you see Black Flag or Fear, or any of those? 

— No I didn’t see any of those bands. I think in San Diego if I’d been growing up downtown I would’ve had access to them. I lived my life by the bible of The Who. That was kind of my main focus. I just listened to those records over and over, every one of them. I think I finally saw them in 1980 and that pretty much changed my life..I never had access to bands like Fear or Black Flag. I was talking to Thurston Moore [of Sonic Youth] once about it. He just thought I was the perfect age to be a skate punk and I was like, well, I was wearing a clip-on tie at Longs Drugs (laughs), working thirty hours a week, and then going home and listening to The Who. I had my army jacket and my skateboard, but that was my transportation. I was more into Springsteen and storytelling kind of stuff. The aggressive punk thing was kind of latent for me.

— I just saw this documentary last night, that’s why I’m asking about this stuff. It’s called American Hardcore. It’s this new documentary about all these bands that were around at that time, and I realized I’d missed most of them too. I was in L.A. at the time so I saw X and Fear and… 

— The Germs?

— The Germs. And I think I saw Suicidal Tendencies at one point. I saw Fear, Black Flag and Jello Biafra. I was realizing last night that I saw a bunch of others, but I completely missed the Bad Brains. Listening to their music last night I was like, these guys are great.
It was an interesting documentary because it talked about the relationship between the music and the politics at the time. How there was a reaction to it and how there was a certain aesthetic to it. And all these bands kind of set the tone for the future. No one understood them and of course there was no radio play at all, for any of them, but that’s not the point.

— Wow. You mention those bands and it seems like ages since then I’ve seen everybody.

— Right. 

— You know I was lucky enough to see the Pretenders and the Clash with the original members. It’s incredible that, with Jello in particular, how you can overlap what he was writing then and put it against what’s happening now. It’s still a perfect fit. It’s disgusting to think that time hasn’t changed enough or that we’ve fallen back into these kinds of times.

— Yeah. They didn’t want to hear it then and they don’t want to hear it now. No surprise there. But I should send you this documentary, it’s pretty interesting. You know some of these kids were like fourteen and fifteen when they were starting their bands. It’s just really amazing stuff.
So I’ve told you what I think of the new album, but I’ll say it again: I think it’s the best album you guys have done. And I listened to it again last night and it’s really, really great. I guess I should ask you about the genesis of it and how long you’ve been working on it. What are the ideas and aesthetic behind it? How you feel about it… 

— As far as writing to the music, I was just gravitating to the more aggressive and that had momentum and seemed to match the atmosphere of America and how I was feeling personally. The lyrics were mostly kind of observational and I think that was a healthy way to approach it because at this point, you don’t want to add to the noise pollution out of just anger and moral outrage. On the other side, I thought it would be completely superfluous to add to any kind of art for entertainment, or something that would just facilitate living in more denial.

— Right. 

— It seemed an observational place was a good neutral zone. And for a lot of the songs – there were six or seven versions for each song – it kind of mutated from one thing to another. It kept going to these different places. In the end we wrote like eighty songs to come up with thirteen. It had to end, it had to finish, and it had to stop or else… I don’t know if you find when you write, these things, they take up valuable space in your brain and they’re always there and they’re pecking at you, these little ticks of lyrical inspiration. Usually a record takes us three months or something, so you know that’s part of the process. But when it continues on for fourteen months, it starts to become a ticket to insanity.

— Yeah, because then you start second and third guessing or maybe over analyzing something that doesn’t need to be over analyzed. For me, the best thing when I write a script is to hear it and then change it. Ultimately, like a song, until you put it down and hear it, you’re not going to know what it is. Am I right? 

— Yeah. The way I do it with tape machines and typewriters is I write it, I record it, and I listen to it. I smoke a pack of cigarettes, listen to it fifty times and go back. It could be the seventh time you’ve wrote the thing but then you get a line and you go, ‘that’s it, that’s the line’, and now after working on that song for two months, all of the sudden that one line enables me to write the whole song. Using only the one line, the new line, I can then write the song in like eight minutes.

— Right. But sometimes they just come too. They don’t all take months, do they? 

— There was a couple, only one or two, that just came. And for me, that’s where the tape machine becomes kind of my best friend and sounding board because when that comes I have to get it down and I have to scribe it in concrete real quick. It was interesting because we finished a couple weeks ago and I had a chance to take a week off and I thought ‘Wow, this is the first time I don’t have to take my little briefcase with the tape recorder with’. Then I thought ‘ I’m going to bring it anyway because we’ve been working together for the last year and a half, and it felt like my girlfriend, so maybe we should just go have a vacation together’. (Tim Robbins laughs). When I write some songs… there’s some kind of place where art exists, or the creation of art exists, and it’s somewhere between reality and space. Sometimes getting there takes some time, getting into that right place in the universe to make this stuff. It’s just a question of finding that place to create from.
I think even when we mix the record we’re getting into that place. It’s like the place you used to visit when you were a kid with headphones on, in the dark, with closed eyes. There is a kind of focus that’s either ten feet in front of your head or a million miles away or somewhere in between. And getting to that place, we do that so when the people, when they listen to it, we’ve put it together with them in mind. Not many people hear music that way, and who knows how this generation listens to records these days. They pull one song off a computer. We’re still making records for people who listen to it all the way through, eyes closed, in that space.

— Right. 

— It’s a lot to ask really, but if people do listen to it like that, then that’s what it was created for.

— Well, it’s kind of the downside of technological advancement of CDs and computers. It makes it possible to skip ahead to a track or skip a track if you don’t like the first couple lines. We’re in this technology now that’s so quick and immediate, but at the same time it’s taken the joy out of putting that needle on the groove and listening to a side on an album. You know when you hear an entire album of something and it doesn’t really feel like an album, it feels like a collection of songs, but not an album. You know what I mean. Then recently I got [Elton John’s] ‘Tumbleweed Connection’. I’d heard a couple songs off it lately and I had forgotten what the rest of the album sounds like. So I put it on from beginning to end and conceptually, aesthetically, it works all together. It’s like a story, like a feeling. I was struck by it because I seriously hadn’t listened to it as an album since I first had it, when it came out in 1970… 

— One

— 71. Something like that. You’d hear ‘Burn Down the Mission’ or some other song, but I’d forgotten what an affect it had had on me when I first heard it as a piece of music, song after song. And there’s the break in the middle too. You know that break in the middle where you decide – it’s come to the end of the first act and you have to decide whether you’re going to go on to the second act – whether or not to turn the album over .

— Yeah, yeah. It’s like an intermission in a play really.

— Yeah. And then the second act has its own feeling. Then there was that cool thing when you go ‘I want to hear the first act of ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ and then I want to hear the first act of this other album’, and then you got three albums stacked up on the turntable…

— That’s right (laughs). 

— So then you turn them around and you get the second acts of three different things. I miss that. I bought this record player recently – it took me forever to find it – where you actually can stack them and it goes down one by one. 

— Yep.

— But it’s so fragile now, it’s so sensitive, it’s driving me crazy. I gotta get someone in that knows how to recalibrate it so that it can work better.

— I remember too that when the second record dropped it would take a second to catch up. You know to adhere to the bottom record (laughs ). I used to max mine out. I’ll never forget because I used to fit like seven or eight on top. And every once in a while two of them would drop down. You know, it was like a long played jukebox really.

— So are you guys putting it out on vinyl? 

— Absolutely

— Good. 

— For some reason vinyl nowadays costs, you know, thirty dollars.

— Yeah, thirty bucks… 

— I was pretty young when I got Tumbleweed Connection, but Captain Fantastic was the first Elton John I had got. At that point I used to choose records by if they were gatefolds or not, because I knew it’d have more artwork and Captain Fantastic…

— Ohhh… right! 

— … had tons of stuff. And I felt like, if it didn’t have a gatefold, it’s not going to be as good. It just seemed kind of cheap ( laughs ).

— Well the other thing about albums is the art on them. They can be a work of art. It can be an entire conceptual thing with the gatefold where you open it up and you’re like ‘Oh my god, look at that in there’. Then sometimes it’d be so cool and it’d be on the sleeve too. Really a lot of thought put into it. Now with the CDs, I have got so many empty fucking CD cases and I have no idea where the CDs are (laughs). I’ve never in my life lost an album. It’s impossible to lose an album. You can break them, they break fantastically when you really hate an album, you know, chuck ’em up against the wall and they shatter to pieces. That’s the other thrill that you’re really missing with a CD, you really don’t have a dramatic demonstration of how much you hate it ( laughs ). Even with tapes, you could pull miles and miles of spooling out of it. I remember driving to college with Frank, my friend Frank, and for some reason Bread was playing and it was an eight track. I remember Frank grabbed it and broke it and threw it out the window! He said, “I don’t ever want to hear that shit again!” ( laughs ). We used to have breaking parties too. We would take all the old – you know because it was 1977 and we were into punk rock – there was all this music we had that had to be broken.

— Records were made to be broken. That’s where that comes from.

— That’s right. I never thought about that. So I’m not encouraging destruction of art, I’m just saying that, if for some reason there’s a Leo Sayer album in there, and there’s no reason why it should be taking up space ( laughs ) …

— It’s very difficult to create artwork that can compete with an LP on a CD. We tried it a lot and, you know, size matters. It’s very hard to make it have that same romantic feel. It’s just different these days.

— The other thing is the sound quality too. At Thanksgiving this year we had some friends over for dinner and at one point we found ourselves in front of the record player for about an hour and a half, just listening to Beatles albums and albums from that period like Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison. We were just appreciating the stereo distribution that was unlike anything we’ve heard on CDs for the past few years. We might have been a little bit stoned, but regardless, we appreciated actually sitting there listening to music. How often do you do that? You know, you just sit down and say, ‘Listen to this’. Listen to the way that’s in the left speaker, that’s in the right speaker. You’re at an equidistant distance between the speakers listening to what was happening. I think CDs don’t really get the distribution right.

— Not to mention the difference between the highs and lows, and the warmth. I was listening to Klaus Nomi, who’s got this incredibly kind of high voice. I had some CDs, but there were a couple of albums that I still had to find. I got them sent to me from France on vinyl and I put them on and it was a completely different listening experience. On CD his voice didn’t have the same quality. The high end of what he was doing was abused by the tinny sound or the sharp sound that the digital format created. I think it would have upset him to hear it played on CD.

— And then there’s the whole thing about mix tapes. Do you remember… it would take a while. You’d have to pick the album out, you’d have to put it on, you’d have to test the cassette to see what the levels are, if they were matching the previous song… 

— Pause and record, then drop the needle down…

— Yes, drop the needle down and make sure it’s not blown out… it took a while. Now, you can make a mix CD in about 33 seconds ( laughs ). You do it with your Ipod and Itunes – ting ting ting ting ting – it’s become too easy. 

— Now, since I know it’s supposed to happen so quick, when something happens that takes it from a five minute process to a ten minute process, I’m pissed ( laughs ).

— I’ve been a freaking luddite on all of my editing. I’ve managed to do three of my four films with just cutting actual film. There is this theory I have about choices: If you can make twenty choices or four choices in the time that you have, isn’t it better to make four so you have thinking time between the four choices? That’s my theory about it anyway… you didn’t record analogue did you? 

— At some point everything ends up on tape, and then back in to the digital realm.

— But you do put in on tape? 

— Yeah. The computer hard drives and things kind of create more tracks for options, but once we decide on what it is, it goes to the real thing.

— I think I’m finally going to admit that I have to edit on computers the next film I do, just because it seems like there’s a point of being right, and then at some point you’re just a fool ( laughs ). Like when you’re still in the horse and buggy and getting passed by… 

— Well, it becomes unsafe, really.

— Exactly 

— For the horse.

— (laughs) Let’s see here, oh yeah, World Wide Suicide, Life Wasted, Marker in the Sand and Parachutes… the freaking album is full of great songs. But first of all, World Wide Suicide, I know you might not like this, but it might be a hit. I just want to say that in print.
Now all of the songs – you talked about not wanting to join a chorus of negativity regarding what the world is going through right now – I don’t think any of them are negative. But there is an anger in them. I think that is a lot different from negativity and is a positive thing. As you said, they are observations of the world around you and reflections. But they all have, well most of them, have a real involvement in what’s going on. Not in a direct way, not in specific references to politicians or by name, but certainly they’re visually connected to what’s going on and I think a lot of people will understand that and respond to that. This is fucked up. When I say this, it’s about observing where we are right now in this world, our position in this world, our responsibility in this world, and how we fit into it. How we fit into this violence, this confusion, this patriotism, this anger… I think it’s all reflected in these songs. I think that’s why I feel it is an album. It is something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. And throughout all of that it’s not nihilistic, which I think is really important. And it does have a hopeful tone to it, even though things are fucked up, there’s an optimism in it. A defiance more so than an optimism. It’s fucked up but I’m not going to be a part of it. I’m going to take my own path. 

— I think it was part of the journey. It wasn’t conscious even in the sequencing part as far as putting the songs in order, but it just happened this way where it begins kind of talking about the outside world and the atmosphere that we’re living in. In a way it’s a lot like living in the United States these days. It’s like going to a bar and even if you don’t smoke, you come home and you’re just covered in the smoke from the club. You know you got this dirt, this residue on you, and that’s what it feels like living in the United States these days. Just by living here, you come home with this residue of being at war. The psychic energy of being a country at war. So it kind of starts out dealing with that, like ‘what is this on my skin? And can I wash it off? And is it in my lungs?’ And then by the end of the record it’s more talking about the inside, doing some kind of inventory of self amongst all this. So at the beginning it kind of starts on the outward, and by the end, all of the sudden you’re dealing with the inside. And I think that’s not just symbolic, but it is what really happens in the day in the life of an American. From the morning papers to putting yourself and your family to bed at night. After things like the last election, it made you want to draw inwards and deal with yourself because you felt like no matter what attempts were made in influencing some positive change, spreading some kind of progressive thinking and trying to educate and activate others, in the end… the frustrating results of the last election. Then it seemed like it was time to look inside and see what you could do with your own life and those close to you. Where you actually felt like you could affect change.

— And ultimately it was so incredibly frustrating to have this knowledge in our skulls from various and legitimate sources, that even though the elections were lost, they weren’t lost. The idea that there is now a tolerance in America for stealing elections… when John Conyers, a congressman from the United States Senate, writes a book about how Ohio was stolen, a book based on his findings from hearings and the investigations that he’s done, and the book is not reviewed in one newspaper in the United States, you start to realize that not only is there not an admission of any impropriety, but there is a willful neglect. And when you’re living in a world like that, and you realize that you can’t rely on your newspapers for your grasp on reality, you have to hold on to yourself and you have to hold on to what you know is true… 

— And do your own kind of due diligence

— Yeah, and not feel that you have to be legitimized by a majority. You have to follow your own path and I think that’s something that more and more people are coming to realize. It’s starting to reflect itself in these polls that are being taken. I mean we have a situation where we have a president that 65% of people don’t like and really object to. And we have a vice-president that 88% of people object to. He’s got an approval rating of something like 12% (laughs). 
I’ve been having this unsettling parallel in my head between America now and the old Soviet Union. You know, everything from Gulags to people held without trial to a state sponsored media that effectively sells a war based on lies (laughs) . I’m sorry. I don’t know. What else are we going to cover here? It’s weird talking to you like this…

— It’s pretty reserved! (Tim Robbins laughs) I mean, compared to the usual, not that we’ve ever said anything off colour…

— Oh, I think we have.

— We kind of get pretty down and dirty in most of this stuff.

— Well, it’s Canada. They can handle it. 

— You know, it was interesting touring Canada [this time] because we didn’t hop scotch between borders like we usually do when we play shows up there. We just stayed up there and did this linear tour of Canada, and after about two weeks I realized what a huge difference it was to be in a country that wasn’t at war. We get use to it, you know, like we get used to walking with a limp. We get used to this horrible news coming at us everyday. We just kind of figure out ways to live our lives. It was so interesting, the difference. The air felt different. The way people communicated, the way they reacted to each other and with each other. They were going through certain problems, this and that politically, but it just felt like freedom. It felt like the freedom that we forgot that we had.

— Exactly. And to be able to say whatever the hell’s on your mind. That’s really the core of what we’re talking about here. Isn’t that freedom? Even when people say stuff that you don’t like, you know, it’s their right. And we’re now in such a pre-packaged, pre-fabricated idea of democracy and freedom, it is just scary. But I wonder what it will take to shock us back into the idea that we do have a voice and a responsibility to use that voice [to elect] a government that’s supposed to be controlled by the people.

— Well, it’s interesting too. You look at our recent history – I hesitate trying to create a hypothetical out of a very sensitive situation or event – but 9-11 has been used as a hot button for fear. It has been used as a tool to sway the country so that they can pull off some intense neo-conservative plans that had been in the fire for decades. And yet, if you go back and think of those 2 or 3,000 lives being lost, and then the amount of goodwill that we had… when you say “What would it take to affect change?”, there was an opportunity there, and those lives, if they had to be looked at as some kind of, god forbid, sacrifice, we had the world on our side. And what our leaders could’ve done with that kind of energy…I remember you talking about how not only did we feel sympathy and compassion from people across the globe and different countries, and how we got comfort from them, but how it connected us to our neighbors. Not only was that a missed opportunity, it was an opportunity that they used for something else. 3,000 people. Their lives were lost and then it evolved into a situation where 100,000 Iraqis’ lives were lost. And you know how many casualties for the States, 25,000 injured and 2,500 dead. Everyone always remembers it as the beginning of fear, but they don’t remember that it was an incredibly positive coming together of not only our compatriots, but also the world.

— Well, we’re into shit in a major way right now. And the indication that we’re in it a lot deeper than I think either of us can even imagine is that the networks are now actually reporting some stuff. And the fact that they were such major supporters of this enterprise, and the fact that they now have to back track and admit some stuff, is an indication of something far worse. I think that the truth is much worse than they’re finally starting to admit. And where that goes, only time will tell. But the bottom line is that there’s a tremendous amount of people in Washington that are trying desperately to hold on to whatever’s left of the Republic. And those people are not democrats. It’s people in the CIA, people in the FBI, lifelong diplomats, lifelong state department people, that have seen what has happened, truly happened, and are blowing the whistle as much as they can, and leaking documents as much as they can, and are trying desperately to save the Republic. Why are they doing that? Because we’re at real risk right now. What happens with this kind of unfettered power is the president admitting that he wiretapped people, the President saying that he’s above the law and above the constitution, and a senate that is unwilling to prosecute him or even censure him for breaking the law. And then you put that situation up against what Clinton did, lying about a blowjob, it’s not even comparable. One threatens a marriage and the other seriously threatens the future of the Republic. I just fear what happens if the next step is taken, which is historically, some kind of marshal law or something like that. And I don’t think that’s overly paranoid because I think that we’re one major horrible event away from that happening.
But you know what? Fuck them and fuck their ideas and their plans because the only way they’re going to be able to do that is if we give them the power to do that. The only way that’s going to happen is by forcing people kicking and screaming. So I say they’re inconsequential and they’re pieces of dirt, and they have no idea what freedom and democracy is, so fuck ’em.
You know, they [HoBO magazine] wanted me to ask you about certain things that I haven’t asked you. I just wanted to tell you that (laughs). Because I’ve already talked to you about them, and I know the answers, and quite frankly they’re boring (laughs)… I’m just kidding. 

— That whole, ‘where did I grow up thing’, was that one of them?

— No, no, no, that was me because I figured… 

— Ok, because I thought that was boring. Sorry.

— Yeah, I think whoever is transcribing this should start later. I thought the first part was good about the trilobites… 

— Yeah. That’s good.

— And then I think if they skip forward a few years… but there was no Ticketmaster or music videos or that kind of stuff. Well, fuck it, we’ve done enough. Whoever’s transcribing this, you must be fucking exhausted by now.

— Yeah, but he’s like ‘I gotta hang in there because they might figure this whole thing out, they might solve the world’s problems, I’m going to stick with this’.

— She or he was really bored in the whole political section. Now she or he is hoping we’ll say something entertaining, funny, or talk about sex or something like that. Strip clubs, deviant behavior, alcoholic tendencies, passing out on floors, none of which we have to talk about because that’s never happened. Well, at least, for the last couple of days (laughs). 
Anyways, there’s a couple of things I want to talk to you about, but not on this phone call.

— Alright, so I will call you back.

— Cool. 

— OK Tim. Bye Canada.