He’s with the band: Ed Vedder interview

Eddie Vedder has fronted Pearl Jam for nearly two decades and he’s far from done

The Australian | September 12, 2009

Tuesday evening, the Shepherds Bush Empire, London. Two thousand members of the Jamily can’t quite believe their luck.

Heads thrown back, plastic pints spilling, their mass chorusing threatens to drown out the earthy vocals of Pearl Jam main man Eddie Vedder, who variously grins, cups his ear and swigs on a bottle of pinot noir as the crowd recites his words verbatim.

In a few days the Seattle alt-rock superstars will play the 20,000-seat London O2 Arena. Tonight, however, is for the Pearl Jam fan club only.

“Hey, I know your face.” Vedder tugs at his beard and points into the front row. “And yours; aren’t you from Italy?” Like Deadheads, of yore who followed the Grateful Dead across the US, the ever-faithful Jamily thinks nothing of travelling thousands of kilometres to see its heroes in the flesh. This is some clan: since the grunge movement kapow-ed its 1991 debut Ten into the mainstream, Pearl Jam has been attracting ardent admirers for nearly two decades.

When the band launches into The Fixer, the first single from its new, ninth studio album Backspacer, it’s no wonder, perhaps, that everyone knows the words already.

Influenced by punk, heavy metal and indie rock, grunge was the big musical movement of the early 1990s. Bands including Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam kick-started grunge in Washington’s Seattle, a secondary city overlooked by a music industry focused on Los Angeles and New York. Stripped down and guitar-distorted, with angst-filled lyrics sung by long-haired frontmen who wanted to rock out rather than entertain, grunge wasn’t an obvious money-spinner. But then the big record labels did a double take and came in waving chequebooks, changing the course of pop music in the process.

Pearl Jam was always more rock ‘n’ roll than the rest. Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain might have sneeringly dismissed it as a commercial sell-out (Ten has too many guitar riffs, apparently), but it is the last big grunge band standing.

Its hook-filled sound has sold 60 million records to date: there’s the crashing electric guitars of Vedder, Stone Gossard and wiry, tattoo-ed Mike McCready; the pounding bass riffs of Jeff Ament; the inventive drum patterns of former Soundgarden kit man Matt Cameron. There are the lyrics that tell of love and loneliness, freedom and individualism, politics and the environment.

Then there is Vedder. The charismatic 44-year-old has always had a symbiotic relationship with Pearl Jam fans. Butch enough to appeal to men (he looks bigger on stage than his 170cm) and surfer-dude-pretty enough to appeal to women (he is a former child model), he wrings every ounce of emotion out of his grainy baritone; these are lyrics, you feel, that he’s lived, and is living. His body language is similarly passionate; right arm in the air behind him, sun-bleached brown hair falling over his face, he falls to his knees with the microphone stand. He used to stage dive and crowd surf when he was younger and wilder. Not any more.

“At a certain point you realise you have a responsibility that overrules your need for adrenalin,” Vedder – the father of two young daughters with supermodel girlfriend Jill McCormick – has said. “I don’t know how I’m going to explain (to his children) photos of me hanging thirty feet (9.1m) off a rafter over a crowd, but I’m glad I did things in my 20s that were more reckless.”

The day after the concert – at which Ugg-boot wearing Rolling Stone guitarist Ronnie Wood turns up to play on All Along the Watchtower – Vedder is in a buoyant mood. Dressed surfer-style in a flannel shirt, long khaki shorts, desert boots and dazzling if daggy white socks, he’s busy writing in a notebook when I enter the central London hotel suite booked by Universal, the record company releasing Backspacer outside the US. When he looks up, his blue eyes are friendly; his face slightly weathered by jet lag and booze. “Drinking helps a performance,” he says with a wry smile. “Absolutely it does. Over the years it’s become a sort of tool. I’ve done shows where I don’t drink but they always felt like everyone else was having fun and I was just doing a job.” I tell him that my brother (who happens to do an excellent Vedder impression) was there when Pearl Jam played Melbourne in 2003 and was allegedly very drunk indeed.

“Ah, yes.” He nods. “That happens every once in a while. Sometimes it’s the temperature of the room. But last night I was so jet-lagged (the band had flown to Britain from Canada) that I didn’t feel a thing.”

Last night Vedder’s good mate Neil Finn was playing his own special one-off gig (for his 7 Worlds Collide project) on the other side of London. “I got a message from him right before we went onstage. He’s doing what I’m doing today,” he says with a shrug, gesturing at my tape recorder. Along with Californian singer-songwriter and Australian favourite Ben Harper, Finn’s singer-songwriter son Liam, 26, will be opening all shows on Pearl Jam’s forthcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand.

“Liam was 11 when Neil brought him to see us in Auckland; he’s evolved into this incredible musician. Neil is a positive force,” Vedder adds, eyes twinkling. “He’s a great example of how to balance family and work. Which should be easy but unfortunately isn’t always.”

Enjoying a tipple on stage doesn’t stop Vedder wanting to be the best he can be. Ditto for Pearl Jam, which has embraced causes from the Rock the Vote campaign to raising awareness of Crohn’s disease (from which McCready suffers) to the fight against world hunger (on their last Australian tour in November 2006, Vedder joined U2’s Bono onstage at the Make Poverty History gig in Melbourne for a version of Neil Young’s Rocking in the Free World). They intend to leave more than a musical legacy: “We want to give people something to believe in. We all had bands that gave that to us.”

For the adolescent Vedder growing up in San Diego, California, belief came in the form of British legends the Who, whose seminal 1973 album Quadrophenia – a rock opera told from an anguished teenage perspective – offered a soundtrack to play his guitar to.

Things weren’t as they seemed: the eldest of three boys, Vedder was reared to believe that his stepfather, an attorney, was his biological father. It wasn’t until he was in his Vedder that he now mixes with the very musicians he idolised 20 years ago, and even more that they seem to respect him back. Springsteen has given him tips on performing. Grumpy old Young turns out to be so avuncular that Pearl Jam actually call him Uncle Neil.

“So in this way you’re learning more about music and the fourth dimension of it all,” says Vedder brightly. Fourth dimension? “Outside of all this.” He sweeps a flannelled arm around the room.

“Past the records, past the live shows, past the interviews and the movies” – Vedder wrote the Golden Globe-winning acoustic soundtrack from 2008’s Into the Wild – “you have to see the human being behind all that.” He pauses and sighs. “There’s no other way with this stuff than from the inside.”

The Jamily tree, then, has many branches. But for Pearl Jam fans Vedder is the star at the top. He waxes rapturously about the way many of the band’s followers have embraced the band’s causes as their own: lobbying for corporate responsibility, voting for (Democratic) change, doing grass-roots activism for peace, equality and love.

Singing along all the while. “Yeah, it’s incredible, isn’t it?” says Vedder, looking pleased. “I like to think that because they know all the words, all the content, that they’re absorbing their meaning. So even though it’s loud and the vocals are mixed in with drums and guitars and things, anyone who doesn’t know the songs will still feel their impact.”

While Pearl Jam played 26 such songs in last night’s 2 1/2 hour show, there were many they had to leave out. “It’s a good problem if you don’t have time to play all the songs that are favourites. We always vary the combination.”

Vedder flashes a grin. “Most people are coming to more than one show, anyway,” he says. “After three shows you’ve usually got all of it.”