Inside Music: Pearl Jam’s Perfect “Ten” 

On the eve of their 20th anniversary, bassist Jeff Ament discusses revisiting a grunge grail

Special to MSN Music | March 2009

By Alan Light

In 1990, bass player Jeff Ament and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready were in Seattle, going nowhere fast. The trio had joined together out of the wreckage of two previous bands, and they were working on some new songs, trying to recruit a drummer and singer.

They slipped a five-song demo tape to former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons; Irons, in turn, passed it on to a friend, a sometime vocalist, sometime gas station attendant in San Diego named Eddie Vedder. While surfing one day, lyrics began to come to Vedder. He recorded vocals over three of the songs (“Alive,” “Once,” and “Footsteps”) in a suite he called the “Momma-Son Trilogy,” and sent the tape back to Seattle.

When the three musicians heard this home recording, they flew Vedder up to audition in person. Within a week, Vedder had joined the band.

The “Momma-Son” cassette is the moment of genesis for the group that came to be known as Pearl Jam, and those three songs formed the core of its 1991 album “Ten,” one of the biggest rock albums of all time. Though Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” yin to the yang of “Ten” as the dual foundations of the “alternative rock” revolution, is usually considered the defining album of the age, the 12-times-platinum “Ten” actually wound up selling more copies.

While working on a new, expanded reissue of “Ten,” Ament stumbled upon the “Momma-Son” tape for the first time since it arrived. “I was amazed at how a couple of the songs came out on the record almost identical to those demos,” he says, on the phone from Seattle. “I played it for Ed, and we laughed about it a lot. He said he knocked it out in the middle of the night, and didn’t know if anything would come of it. I have to say it was definitely much better than I thought it was going to be.”

A replica of this mythic cassette is included in the “Super Deluxe Edition” of “Ten,” along with LPs of the album remastered for vinyl, a DVD of the band’s 1992 “MTV Unplugged” session, a two-LP live recording from 1992, and copies of various notes, mementos, and flotsam from the era that saw Pearl Jam catapulted to superstar status. (There are four different versions of the release; the basic “Legacy Edition” is a remastering of the album, packaged with a new remix of the songs by longtime Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien, plus six bonus tracks.) The reissue kicks off a two-year catalog re-release campaign, leading up to the band’s 20th anniversary in 2011.

“As a listener, I’m always looking for demos or alternate takes, to see how songs grew and developed,” says Ament. “It allows you to get inside the songs and see the growth — or the mistakes, depending.”

MSN Music: Where did the idea for revisiting “Ten” originate? 

Jeff Ament: There have always been things I wasn’t happy with about “Ten.” There was a bit of a power struggle between me and the art department at Sony over the artwork. The last version that came to us is the one everybody knows, and at the time they basically said, “If we change this, we can’t put the record out for six months.” The most important thing for us then was to get out and play and be a better band. But we always intended for that pink color on the cover to be more burgundy. So, first, this was a great opportunity to go back and correct that. Then, in the process, we started to look at the whole thing. Ed found a box of stuff from back then, I found some stuff — there was this incredible package of preserved items. And, eventually, we convinced Brendan O’Brien to remix it, after he spent 15 years saying that he didn’t want to go back and touch such a classic, and it’s vastly improved.

Were you always dissatisfied with the sound of the album? 

When we made “Vs,” our second record, I remember thinking, “Man, I wish our first record sounded like this.” I thought it was more direct, more powerful. I know Stone felt that the reverb on “Ten” was covering up our own inability to play at the time, but when I found a tape of the rough mixes, it sounded killer. That really made me keep bugging Brendan to consider doing this.

Everyone just wanted to see what he would come up with. When we heard it, it became apparent that they had to be included — that, at the least, they were a very good alternative to the original mixes.

Were you at all reluctant to alter such a monumental album? The only precedent that I can think of is what the Beatles did with the “Let It Be … Naked” project, removing the work that Phil Spector did on the released album and then remixing the original recordings. 

That’s a good comparison, because I love “Let It Be.” It was one of the first records I ever bought, and I got used to what Phil Spector did with those songs. But I can understand why Paul McCartney would think that the “Naked” version was superior. There’s less of an imprint by the producer on those songs. I think these mixes are more like Truffaut, like the black-and-white version of “Ten.” It’s a much starker, more present sound. The package includes both, so which one is definitive will really be up to the listener. 

What did you hear in the band’s playing when you went back into these recordings? 

I knew that we played really energetic shows, but my memory was that we just weren’t that great as players. But to go back to the demos and listen in raw form, now I think, “Wow, we really weren’t that bad.” The version of “State of Love and Trust” with Dave Krusen on drums is so much better than what ended up being released. I had been thinking he wasn’t that great a drummer, but he actually did an amazing job, and I really found a new respect for him.

Pearl Jam is still hugely popular, so were you all sure that it was a good idea to devote this much attention to a reissue? 

Yeah, any time you talk about reissues or new versions of old projects, it does start to feel like, “Wait a minute, we’re still a viable band.” We’re working on a new record now, and you don’t want anything to get in the way of that. But, especially with “Ten,” there were just things that really didn’t get done the way we wanted. I don’t know about all the rest of the albums. I’m pretty happy with most of them, but I committed myself to really get into this one.

And, in the process, we all got to hear what everybody’s memories of that time are. It fills in some of the blanks, because it was such an insane time. Things were moving at a pace that none of us were prepared for. For a year and a half, on a typical day we would wake up, do five or six interviews, do an in-store, go sound check, do another interview or two, play the show, go to the after-show, stay up all night, and then do it all over again the next day. It was just impossible to retain it all.

What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you think about that period?

There was a show in Cincinnati, I think, or maybe Columbus. We’d only done a handful of shows in the States, and then we went to Europe for six or seven weeks, and while we were away the album blew up. This was before cell phones or the Internet or whatever, so I guess our managers kind of told us, but we really had no idea, it really hadn’t sunk in. In Europe, we were playing 200- to 300-seaters and when we got back, it was supposed to be in [400-] or 500-seaters. But all of a sudden we came back and were playing in 2,500-seat theaters — it was like, “Whoa, what was that?” And after this show in Ohio, there were 500 people in the parking lot, surrounding the bus. We’d never experienced anything like that before. That’s when we recognized that something had changed.

We’d all been in bands for eight or 10 years, and to go from working all month to set up a show — printing the fliers, putting them up, making the T-shirts, renting the PA — to, all of a sudden, Keith Richards wants you to play his birthday party and Neil Young wants you to go on tour with him, it’s really hard not to just keep saying yes to everything. And we really were at our wits’ end before we said, “We just have to stop.” Really, it’s a lesson in, “Be careful what you wish for,” because it suddenly all just came true.

Is spending so much time with this material influencing the album you’re working on?

We started the writing process before getting into the “Ten” stuff, so some of it was already in motion. But listening to the demos, and some of the stuff that didn’t make it onto the record or didn’t even turn into finished songs, it reminded me of a time when we were playing with a lot less rules. We didn’t have much in the way of music theory, we didn’t really know “this is major, this is minor, that doesn’t fit in this scale.” 

Do you hear that coming out in the new songs? 

I’ve written a couple of things since then and thought, “Yeah, I can put this weird note in here,” even when my current instincts tell me it’s wrong. So it’s cool to remember that rock and roll isn’t about playing within any confines.