Pearl Jam is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a flourish: a Cameron Crowe-directed documentary; reissues of its 1993 and ’94 albums “Vs.” and “Vitalogy”; and a forthcoming festival at an as-yet-unannounced location.
In addition, the band is in the midst of recording sessions for a new studio album, and some members are still neck-deep in side projects – at least one involving a ukulele, of all things. That would belong to singer Eddie Vedder, whose “Ukulele Songs” solo album is due out May 31. A solo tour brings him to the Chicago Theatre on June 28-29.
“I’ve been writing and collecting songs on the ukulele for at least 10 years, so it was time to clear them out of the apartment building and make room for some new occupants,” Vedder says. “I need to make room for the bassoon record.”
It’s a busy time for a band that defined the alternative-rock era with its introspective lyrics and heavy guitars (call them “grunge” if you must), then nearly imploded after taking a firm stand against what it felt were excessive Ticketmaster service fees in 1994. In recent years, as sales of recorded music have plummeted and concert ticket prices have soared, the band has left major-label affiliations behind in favor of independent releases on its Monkeywrench Records label while continuing to attract arena-sized audiences around the world.
In an interview, Vedder talked about his love for the most un-rock ‘n’ roll of instruments and how Pearl Jam is navigating the new landscape of an economically challenged music industry.
Q: How did you start playing the ukulele?
A: It was about 13, 14 years ago. I was in a tiny row of dilapidated shops on an outer island of Hawaii with Kelly Slater the surfer (Vedder himself is a dedicated surfer). I went to buy beer at the liquor store and Kelly went to buy fish at the grocery store. I was done first, so I was sitting there on a couple of cases of beer waiting for him when I saw this ukulele in a storefront window. It was a nice Kamaka Tenor. It wasn’t a kids’ toy. I went in empty-handed and walked out five minutes later with a great sounding ukulele, and had a chorus and a verse written a few minutes later. I was halfway through writing the bridge when a few people walked by and threw some money in the open case. I had a $1.50 from playing the ukulele after owning it seven minutes. I thought, “Hmmm, this has some possibilities.”
Q: Did the ukulele change the way you write songs?
A: I learned so much about music by playing this little, miniature songwriting machine, especially about melody. The motto is less strings more melody. I was able to apply it to whatever I’m trying to write. It’s become part of songwriting for me, the knowledge I gained from hearing the melodies come out, and then applying that to guitar or vocals. I was starting to play the ukulele at the same time I was having all these conversations with (the late Ramones guitarist) Johnny Ramone, these intense tutorials staying up late and listening to the music he grew up on, and picking up what’s a great song and what makes a great song. He was all about lists and dissecting songs, like what’s a better song by Cheap Trick: “No Surrender” or “Dream Police”? Sometimes you’d be surprised by the answer. It was an interesting dichotomy between hanging out with the godfather of punk rock and starting to play the ukulele. They came together.
Q: “Ukulele Songs” is coming out on Pearl Jam’s label, Monkeywrench, as did the band’s last album (“Backspacer” in 2009). Are you done with putting your music out on outside labels?
A: One thing you might suggest to a young band is don’t get involved in any kind of long-term contract because everything changes on a bimonthly basis: The way people hear music and access it, the way it is distributed. I can’t say what the future holds for us. You have to be able to grow and move with the organism that is the music industry. You need to maintain flexibility. Ownership of your own stuff is key and then you’re able to dictate on a present-terms basis what would be the most effective way to protect yourself and what you’ve created. You also don’t want to lock yourself into a situation where a major label owns part of your touring and merchandise.
Q: I like that in the liner notes to “Ukulele Songs” you give credit to your 50-year-old Torpedo typewriter.
A: Yeah, I love the script — a German script font. I’ve had a lot of typewriters that I’ve had relationships with; one still has a piece of masking tape that says “$8” on it. I love working on them. I can’t fix a computer or a car, but I can fix a typewriter. I like them because you can write on them late at night, depending on what you’re fortifying yourself with, and the next morning you can still figure what you wrote. There are times where I would keep three typewriters on a table, and I’d have three complete thoughts going. With computers, you make folders, files – I don’t know about those things. I have sheaves of paper polluted with words and paragraphs. I found it a good tool for me. And it keeps your hands strong for guitar playing.
Q: Are we going to see any new Pearl Jam music this year?
A: We’re just past the embryonic stages of songwriting for the next album, and it seems to be going quick. But whether we put something out this year I just don’t know, because we’re doing all the hindsight stuff this year. We’re fully in support of that, but it’s not what fuels us. The way we write as a group, we all bring songs in and invariably in the past it would take a lot of time to get things right. Now I jump on things immediately. The band will have a piece of music with no lyrics, and now it has to be a knockout in the first round. The ones that go 15 rounds, they become harder to appreciate, because you only remember the battle after they’re done. If you can get in there right away, you capture something in those first 15 minutes. That’s the way it seems to be working best for us.
Q: And yet you once said that you didn’t trust music that’s made without some pain and insanity.
A: (Laughs) Oh, that’s got to be vintage. Can I almost guess when I said that?
Q: About 1994. In the mountains outside Denver during the infamous Ticketmaster-boycott tour.
A: Wow! At some point I no longer bought into that. Believe me that when I said it, I meant it. Maybe it was a way of validating, accepting — obviously I was going through myriad issues — it was a way of making use of those sorts of feelings. At some point you realize there’s got to be a better way. I think the idea of putting yourself through that and thinking that’s all that legitimizes your art, to be on the edge of not even being on the planet, it’s just destructive. You can still create art without being that way. Bonnie Raitt says, “I can still write blues songs because I remember everything.” There are people on farewell trains with our group. We saw the fragility of that at Roskilde (the 2001 Danish festival that Pearl Jam headlined in which nine people were killed). At some point, you come a long way from going through what you were as an adolescent. At some point you’ve earned the right to be happy. It’s a challenge for all of us. Can you be happy for a whole day? Can you link two days together? Having a house and a car that starts, and all these things I still feel fortunate to have; I’ve been through the other side of that. Things happen every day that could potentially make you feel really distraught. So you exorcise that emotion, write a song about it, process it, but then get back to living your life. These days being a parent (of two daughters ages 6 and 2), the kids deserve to have someone who is consistently a solid force in their life. You can’t be romantically drinking into the early hours of the morning, putting yourself in some psychological dilemma in order to create a good song. It’s unfair to the kids.
Q: What about the 20th anniversary shows?
A: We’re just trying to get together a bunch of friends and bands we’ve played with in the past and do a couple of shows in the States. It’ll probably all come together last minute. I don’t want to make it seem like any crazy, big deal. It should just be a natural thing. (The Band’s 1976 farewell concert) ‘The Last Waltz’ is great, one of the greatest things ever, but it had that impact because it was the last gig. For us it’ll be like ‘The Last Waltz,’ except we’ll be playing a show again the next week (laughs).
Q: You’ve reissued the first three Pearl Jam albums in the last couple years. Can you still relate to the guy who wrote those songs? In some ways it sounds like you’ve left part of that guy behind.
A: I had a long talk with Bruce Springsteen on a rooftop during the Vote for Change tour (in 2004). And it boiled down to this: That guy you used to be, he’s still in the car. He’ll always be in the car. Just don’t let him drive. He might be shouting out directions. But whatever you do, don’t let him get behind the wheel.
Q: People still hold Pearl Jam up as an example, a lightning rod, for the economics of putting on a concert because you went to the mat over service fees in the ‘90s. And now your solo show is $58 and $78 with $15 service fees, and people email me complaining that you’ve lost sight of what you were. They want you to be Fugazi and charge $5 for a show. How do you respond to those sorts of expectations?
A: I think that with where we are as a group, and where we are with how we make a living, and no longer selling records — that’s probably the biggest aspect of why tickets have gotten to the point where I consider them expensive. I can only attempt as part of a group or on my own to make it worth whatever we’re charging. And that’s where you humbly try to say that longevity becomes honored at that point as well. It’s tricky. The other thing that comes in is that, what do people sell these tickets for (on the secondary market) after we sell them? It’s not something that we don’t think about. The main thrust of the answer is that touring is where you connect the dots and keep your bottom line from going in the red. People can argue that and call you names and say this doesn’t resonate with what it was like in the past, but hopefully people will realize how things have changed in the industry. And for some groups that wanted to keep the ticket prices low and T-shirt prices low, and maybe even the cost of their records low and looking out for consumers, as soon as the consumers didn’t have to buy records (by getting them for free on the Internet), did they hold up their end of the deal? That’s being critical of our audience, and I hate to do that. I should probably cut out our main constituency when I say that. But for most artists, selling records no longer pays the bills.
Q: Does that frustrate you?
A: It’s been a full generation of that and so there is no turning back. At some point, believe me, this group likes to get together and talk about music, songs, live shows, other bands. (Pearl Jam bassist) Jeff (Ament) and I get excited talking about making record artwork or working with T-shirt designs. The least exciting part for us is talking about the finances; it’s like going to the dentist for us. But we at least try to do it in a creative way and put our stamp on it. I can only think that we create something that’s worth the value of that dollar.
Q: You’ve been a role model in the way you conducted your career as a band and as a business, so you probably get more scrutiny than most.
A: We understand that. I remember back in 1994 when the Eagles charged more than $100 for tickets. They said, ‘We ain’t Pearl Jam.’ That’s back when records were selling and the Eagles had sold just about as many as anyone on the planet. And 20 years later we’re still charging less than them (laughs).