Eddie Vedder And Gang Have An Ax To Grind — And Throw — As Rock’s Former Angry Young Men Try A New Approach
Spin | October 2009
By Josh Eells
You haven’t really tasted death until you’ve been inches away from an ax swung by Eddie Vedder. Not that Vedder is careless. He’s just… focused. He gets this look: You know the one, from the “Jeremy” video, vaguely lupine — lips curled, fangs bared, eyes crazy. He grips the haft with both hands, draws the blade back over his head, and lets it fly, watching it tumble end over end in an elegant arc, sinking into its target — a three foot-wide cedar stump — with a deep, satisfying thunk.
“Bull’s-eye. Mark it,” Vedder says, pumping his fist. “Hey, you need another beer?”
At this point I’ve been in Vedder’s company for about eight hours. We’ve surfed, we’ve swum, we’ve sailed. We’ve drunk and drunk some more. I’ve met his wife; I’ve high-fived his kids. I’m almost starting to feel like part of the family. Remember: This is an intensely private man who swats away adulation with bland pronouncements like “I don’t want the personality to become bigger than the music.” (Such principled evasiveness, of course, only makes the adulation run deeper.) As the lead singer of Pearl Jam, he found superstardom in the early ’90s, then spent the next decade and a half dismantling it, a guerrilla campaign of career suicide that’s become rock legend: The band boycotted Ticketmaster, making touring next to impossible. They refused to shoot videos, a gesture this magazine once called so “profoundly anticommercial… that it remains virtually peerless.”
Yet, here we are, in 2009, and Pearl Jam have a new album coming out, along with something an observer who didn’t know better might even call a marketing strategy. They’re on TV commercials, in Rock Band, on Cold Case. They’re selling songs to video games and ringtones to Verizon. They’re coming to a Target near you. And this afternoon, at one of his West Seattle homes, Eddie Vedder and I are drinking beer and throwing axes. Which can only mean one of two things: Either this is about to be the scene of the first-ever music-journalist ambush/murder. Or Pearl Jam have finally decided to lighten up.
“Stand clear!” he yells, setting down his beer. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Thunk.
Los Angeles, two months earlier: The machine is gearing up. Pearl Jam are at the Universal Studios lot for the taping of the premiere episode of The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien. Backstage, the scene is one of choreographed pandemonium: PAs are shouting into walkie-talkies, pages are checking and rechecking their clipboards, gaffers are… gaffing. Even the band members, comfortably holed up in their two greenrooms, aren’t safe from opening-night kinks. About 45 minutes before showtime, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron realize they’ve been locked in their dressing room. Cameron gives the knob a yank — even his drummer forearms are no help. “Is anyone out there?” he calls through the door. “Dudes, we’re fucking locked in!” yells Ament. “Someone ask Max Weinberg if he can play Matt’s drum parts!”
It might be safer in there. Three hours ago, news broke that the band’s new album, Backspacer, would be self-released and distributed in partnership with Target. There’s nuance to the deal (more on that in a minute), but right now all anyone knows is that Pearl Jam, the self-righteous standard-bearers of No Logo anticonsumerism, will be following the guilded footsteps of Christina Aguilera and the Black Eyed Peas. Out on the loading dock, their manager of 19 years, an unexcitable man named Kelly Curtis, is on his phone running damage control — while simultaneously prepping the band for their biggest rollout in at least a decade.
Back in the (now unlocked) dressing room, Ament is watching ESPN on mute. Six weeks ago, he and the band’s tour manager were robbed outside Atlanta’s Southern Tracks studio by three knife-wielding attackers who allegedly made off with a BlackBerry, Ament’s passport, and $3,000 cash. Ament was treated for head injuries at the scene.
“You doing all right?” I ask, by way of introduction. His reply is curt: “I’m not talking about Atlanta.”
Goateed and serious, the 46-year-old Ament is the group’s tut-tutting moral compass. Mike McCready calls him “intense, a decision-maker, a questioner of things.” Along with guitarist Stone Gossard, he’s the one who testified in front of Congress during the Ticketmaster crusade, and since the beginning he’s overseen most of the band’s visuals through his graphic-design shop. He seems the least likely member of Pearl Jam to advocate hopping into bed with a corporation currently ranked No. 28 on the Fortune 500.
And yet: “Target just seemed like the best partner for us right now,” Ament explains. “They’re hipper. They have a huge philanthropy side.” They were also, according to Curtis, the only big-box retailer willing to share distribution rights with independent music stores and Pearl Jam’s fan club — a must for the band. “We’ve spent the last four years thinking about this shit,” says Ament. “It’s not like we went with Target because we liked the logo.” For the band, the financial upside is clear. By releasing the album themselves, they get a bigger cut of each sale — something like $4 or $5 compared to about $2 on a major. Since they paid for everything up front, there’s also no record-label advance to recoup. And maybe most important, they own the rights to the master recordings, which not even their hero Bruce Springsteen can presently claim.
Still, there is a certain karmic irony in the notion that a band that gave corporate America the finger so hard for so long might finally be softening. Just this afternoon, in a post about the deal on Stereogum, one commenter summed up the inevitable reaction perfectly: “Looks like those thugs in Atlanta stole their cred, too.” I ask if they’re worried about a backlash.
“Oh sure,” Ament says. “Especially the way the media put it out there. We’re gonna get lumped in with the Eagles, with AC/DC. But it’s totally different. And people say, ‘Oh, Pearl Jam are working with this corporation’ — fuck that! We were on Sony for 20 years.”
The taping goes well. They play “Got Some” off Backspacer, yuk it up with Will Ferrell, give Conan a guitar. Then, after a post-show dinner at the Ivy, they scatter — like most groups who’ve been sharing a bus for 20 years, they don’t hang out much when they’re not working.
Back at their beachside Santa Monica hotel, only guitarist Mike McCready lingers in the lobby. “Check it out,” he says, grinning like a kid who just pocketed a pack of baseball cards. He pulls out a nameplate emblazoned with PEARL JAM and the Tonight Show logo, freshly swiped from the greenroom door. “Pretty cool, huh?”
One of the great myths about Pearl Jam is that they never wanted to be successful. The truth is, wanting to be successful is what brought them together in the first place. Gossard and Ament split from the Seattle grunge godfathers Green River because they wanted a major-label deal and the rest of the band didn’t. McCready was even more ambitious, moving to L.A. in 1986 in hopes of hitting it big with his hair-metal band Shadow. (The closest he got was opening for ex-Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor.)
“Of course we want to sell records,” McCready says the next morning, walking on the beach. “That’s never been a thing we didn’t want to do. But back in the day, the spotlight came on very quickly, and Ed wanted to pull back because his life had gone completely upside-down. I wanted to keep running — I was like, ‘I’ve been playing in bands all my life. Now we have this chance, let’s see how far we can get with it.'”
Pearl Jam did not keep running. But now, they’re starting to. As part of the Target deal, the band agreed to shoot a commercial with director Cameron Crowe, a friend even before he cast them in 1992’s Singles. They’re also working with the makers of Rock Band on an all-PJ edition of the game, to be released next year. And the fact that 9.2 million viewers tuned in to The Tonight Show can only help.
“We’ve always tried to subvert the business,” McCready says. “But now that we’re putting out a record on our own, we’re taking on the responsibility of sinking or swimming ourselves. If that means writing a song that sounds like a mainstream radio hit, we’re going to do that. And if it means going on TV to promote ourselves, we’re going to do that, too.”
McCready digs a toe in the sand. “At a certain point,” he says, “its like, who are we even fighting against?”
“Welcome to my hideaway,” Eddie Vedder says, greeting me with a handshake and a beer.
He’s sitting on the porch of a three-bedroom tear-down on the shores of Seattle’s Puget Sound, just down the hill from the house he’s lived in since 1992. He bought the place last September and has been refurbishing it into a surf shack. It’s very much a work in progress: stripped siding, bare concrete floors, exposed wires, no plumbing. (There’s a porta-potty around the back; Vedder usually just pees in the yard.) He built the fence himself with a backhoe and a belt sander. And though he doesn’t know it yet, he’s about 24 hours away from catching a nasty case of poison oak while clearing brush in the backyard.
Vedder, 44, is in full-on beach-bum mode today — wispy beard, long hair tucked under a mesh baseball cap, tank top, board shorts. A fresh American Spirit dangles from his mouth, and his lips are white with sunscreen. On the porch, his dog, a brown mutt named Hank, is sprawled out next to a cooler full of Coronas. Vedder fishes one out, the picks up a pair of binoculars from the table and gazes at the water. “So, you wanna go for a paddle?”
We grab surfboards and walk down to the shore. “I’m a surfer living in exile,” Vedder sighs. Occasionally, he’ll catch a few waves from a passing tugboat, but mostly he has to settle for paddle-boarding, a surf-canoe hybrid he learned from his friend, pro surfer Laird Hamilton. On his recent solo tour, he paddled at almost every stop: the Hudson, the Potomac, a lake in Nashville — everywhere but Philadelphia. (“There was a fountain at the hotel,” he says. “I thought about it.”) We’ve been out for about half an hour when a silhouette appears on shore, waving and calling for its daddy. “I think that’s my little girl,” Vedder says. We paddle over. Standing on the rocks in a flower-print swimsuit is his five-year old daughter, Olivia. Behind her is her mom (and Vedder’s wife), model Jill McCormick, holding ten-month-old Harper. The girls just got back from a day at the zoo; now they’re on their way to the pool.
Vedder takes Olivia’s hand — he calls her Oli — and they walk down to the water together. She tells him about the polar bears and the jaguars and the baby gorilla that was even smaller than her. She picks up a little hermit crab and hands it to him as a present; he finds one and gives it to her. “Aww,” she says, “yours is bigger.” After a few minutes, Jill calls to her — Dad has to get back to work. Vedder bends down, scoops Olivia up, gives her a kiss on the cheek. She squeezes his neck. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, too.”
Back out on the water, Vedder says, “I try to not be away from them for more than two weeks at a time.” He grew up not knowing his own father, who died when he was 13, and he seems determined not to let history repeat itself. He takes Olivia to Mariners games, taught her how to swing a bat, tutors her about waves and tides. This summer he gave her surf lessons on Oahu’s North Shore, bribing her with Hawaiian shaved ice. Vedder says he’d probably be a surf instructor if he weren’t a musician. But he also has this fantasy: “Sometimes I think the best thing I could do would be to get a tow truck and just drive it around. Throw a chainsaw in the back, maybe a set of jumper cables. Just look for people to help.” Somehow, coming from Vedder — rock’s closest thing to Holden Caufield — this doesn’t sound patently ridiculous. You can hear it in “The Fixer,” Backspacer’s taut, earwig of a lead single. Lyrically, the song is simple: Vedder sings about something being wrong, then says what he’ll do to make it better. If it’s cold, he’ll put a little fire on it; if it’s low, he’ll put a little high on it.
“I’m the type of person who wakes up and asks, ‘What can I fix?'” he says. “But for a long time, if there was nothing to fix, I’d break something. So I guess in terms of being happy — at least I’m not breaking things on purpose anymore.”
It’s the last weekend in July, and Seattle is freaking out. Highs are topping 90, the rain clouds have been AWOL for weeks, and pasty Washingtonians are stripping off their earth-tone flannel and partying like druids at the summer solstice. One particularly gorgeous Saturday afternoon, I get a message from Stone Gossard: We’re having a dock party at the house — come on over. Tucked away on the shores of Lake Washington, the Gossard homestead is a shrine to modern modesty: glass walls, a patio, a simple wooden dock.
Gossard, 43, in a pair of green swim trunks, has just put his two-year-old daughter, Vivian, down for a nap, and his hair is still wet from the lake. We take a seat down by the dock, his dog, Basie, curled up underfoot. For Backspacer, longtime collaborator Brendan O’Brien produced the band for the first time since 1998’s Yield. They worked fast — just 23 days from tracking to mixing, less time than any album since Ten. At 37 minutes, it’s also their shortest album ever, and “The Fixer” is the catchiest thing they’ve done in years.
“I’ve been disappointed in some of our records,” Gossard says. “It’s been awhile since people said, ‘I gotta go buy this new Pearl Jam.’ But I think this record is what we could’ve done for the last five records in terms of re-engaging with the roots of why this band works. And if no one likes it, I will be shocked. Because I know it’s good.”
Once upon a time, Gossard was as head-strong as the rest of the band. Now that they’re all (save Ament) dads, they’ve settled into a sort of middle-aged realpolitik. “Being stubborn, holding on to the core of yourself through thick and thin — there’s something to be said for that,” Gossard says. “But you’re gonna spend a lot of time fighting over a mile of territory instead of opening yourself up to those big moon shots.”
I ask him if the band ever regrets being so difficult, if maybe they missed out on something. “Sometimes,” he says, “I look back and think, ‘I could’ve been so much smarter, more helpful. Fuck, I could’ve had so much more fun.'” Minutes later, Vivian comes toddling over — the nap didn’t take. She pats Basie on the head and crawls on Gossard’s lap, her hair a mop of blonde curls. I tell her I like her pink ladybug dress.
“Thank you,” she says. “I got it at Target.”
Gossard nearly falls out of his chair. “I promise I didn’t tell her to say that.”
“Wanna take the boat out?” Vedder asks. The boat is not what you think. It’s a motorboat, about ten feet long, baby blue, with bench seats like a ’57 Chevy. Vedder found it on the side of the road a couple years ago and brought it home; his only improvement was a new motor. “Twenty-five hundred bucks,” he says. “Good as new.”
He packs a duffel bag with ice and some Coronas and we head out to sea. Cruising the sound, Vedder points out the sights — his first apartment in Seattle, the Olympic Peninsula, Mount Rainier. Neil Young’s Prairie Wind blasts on the speakers. He makes landfall on tiny Blake Island, kicks off his shoes, and parks himself on the beach. These days, when most people think of Vedder — if they think of him at all — it’s as a scowling rabble-rouser who spent the past eight years (and two albums) informing audiences that George W. Bush was not a very good president. It’s easy to forget that he was, for a moment, perhaps the biggest rock star in the world. Even if they never record another album, Pearl Jam can still sell out multiple nights in arenas. So at a certain point… what is the point? People who like Pearl Jam will listen to them; people who don’t, won’t. Why go to all this trouble? Vedder takes a sip, thinks for a minute.
“There were a few years where I’d meet people and they’d say, ‘So what are you guys up to?’ And we had just done, like, Riot Act — we’d done a couple good records. It was like they thought we were some band that only existed for a few years.”
Like, “I remember you guys — 1992, right?”
“Exactly. And I feel like if we were a niche band, then we’d have our little thing now and that would be fine. But we’re bigger than that. I think these songs are worth hearing. And it’s not like the airwaves are cluttered with the greatest music. What — if we don’t do it, American Idol will? A lot of what we’re doing now is about getting new ranks of kids coming in, and not just playing for old people all the time.”
Because then you’re Foghat at the state fair.
“Right. Which is great, too, ’cause it’s Foghat, and we’re at the state fair, and we’re waiting for ‘Slow Ride,’ and then it’s, ‘Baby, put down your chili cheese dog, it’s “Slow Ride”!’ I just don’t ever want it to be, ‘Baby, put down your chili cheese dog, it’s “Jeremy”.'”
Two years ago, Vedder recorded his first solo album, a folky, acoustic soundtrack for Into The Wild. Directed by his friend Sean Penn, the film tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a stubborn 22-year-old who, fed up with the misplaced preoccupations of modern society, decides to quit the game. Sound familiar?
“If you drew a graph of everything that was going on inside that kid, then did the same for me, you could put them on an overhead projector and our transparencies would match up exactly.”
McCandless, of course (spoiler alert), takes it too far, ignoring all the goodwill around him and literally killing himself to prove his point. He could have been a martyr, but mostly he just seems foolish — a well-meaning young man fighting battles that didn’t need to be fought. I ask Vedder if there’s a lesson there. “We still feel that drive, and we’re one of the best rock groups [around],” he says. “So forgive us if we do something to balance out that earlier sabotage.” He pauses. “We’re trying to do what he did, except without dying.”
It’s cooling off, so we head back to the shack. On the porch, someone (Vedder’s wife? His publicist?) has left a little care package: nectarines, a box of Stoned Wheat Thins, and most egregiously, a bowl of cherries. “What’s this, the cherry fairy?” Vedder asks in mock horror. “We can’t have man camp with fucking cherries lying around.” We swap stories about hiking and baseball and other man-campy things. Then Vedder starts talking about his newest hobby: ax throwing. He pulls out his iPhone and scrolls through pictures of a target he and Laird Hamilton built in Hawaii. One shows Vedder brandishing a four-foot-long chainsaw; another, a large double-headed ax.
He flashes a conspiratorial grin. “Wanna try it?”
We grab baseball helmets and Coronas from the garage and head out back. The rules are simple: zero to five points per throw depending on how close you are to the bull’s eye; first man to 21 wins. It’s kind of like darts — only with axes.
“Do you like Bruce?” Vedder asks, popping The River into a CD boom box. He proceeds to tell a Springsteen story, complete with flawless Boss impression. Pretty soon we’re talking about heroes, then dads, and all the while he keeps disappearing into the garage and emerging with more beer. Eventually I’m hit by a dreamlike realization: Eddie Vedder is drunk, and I am drunk, and we are throwing axes at a tree stump in the dark. By now we’ve gone through at least a case. Empty bottles litter the ground; Vedder is on his second pack of smokes. “Let’s take a seventh-inning stretch,” he suggests. We walk over to the western side of the lot, looking out over the sound and the islands and the mountains beyond. The late evening sun is a deep crimson, shimmery on the black water. Vedder tosses a tennis ball to Hank, then takes a swig of beer. “I don’t know why anyone would want to live facing east.”
By now it’s a little after ten. Jill has probably put the kids to bed and is wondering where he is — except she knows him, and of course he started throwing axes. He’ll turn off the boom box, toss the empties into the recycling bin, maybe have one last smoke. Then he’ll head up the hill, kiss his girls goodnight, and collapse into bed, comfortable in the knowledge that, today, he did his part.
Back in the bad old days, Cameron Crowe described Vedder as “an open wound.” Earlier, on the island, I asked him if he thought he’d healed. He took a long, theatrical drag off his cigarette. “Yeah, that wound don’t sting anymore. The trick is, you have to learn how to tap into it. Anybody who thinks it has to be gaping to make great art, I don’t agree. The memory’s enough.”
And then Eddie Vedder, the dark, brooding shaman of disillusionment and anguish, laughed at himself. “Pain,” he said. “It’s just too painful.”