Jeff Ament Interview
ShockHound | March 15, 2009
by Gregg LaGambina
Has it really been just an eyelash shy of 20 years ago that a surfer from San Diego laid down some vocals over three instrumentals that would forever hence be known as “Alive,” “Once,” and “Footsteps”? That surfer, of course, was Eddie Vedder, those songs were composed by guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament — former members of Seattle staples Green River and Mother Love Bone — and two of those three songs wound up on Ten, the 1991 debut album by Pearl Jam.
Debut is a French word meant to describe “a formal entrance into society.” There was nothing formal about Ten, and the society into which it was thrown was even less refined. The album appeared precisely at the time when it was needed; cuts like “Alive,” “Jeremy” and “Evenflow” resonated deeply with a new generation of kids who were distinctly not all right. Rounded out by guitarist Mike McCready and drummer Dave Abbruzzese (who joined shortly after Ten was finished, replacing original drummer Dave Krusen), Pearl Jam crawled out of the insomniac hours of MTV rotation and into the spotlight. They toured the earth with a singer who dangled from rafters and tumbled into the arms of newly anointed devotees, created small riots in the early afternoons of the second Lollapalooza festival (back when it was still a tour), and earned their adulation one person at a time, face to face, eardrum to eardrum.
On the occasion of the reissue of Ten — which comes in four different deluxe editions, all of which include a stripped-down, remixed version by producer Brendan O’Brien — SHOCKHOUND visited with bassist Jeff Ament to discuss then, now, and all points in between.
SHOCKHOUND: You’ve been a photographer for a long time, assembling a large pictorial archive of your band over the years. Are you a particularly nostalgic person?
JEFF AMENT: I’m probably nostalgic more so now than I ever have been. But I think I’ve been kind of lazy-nostalgic because the photos that I’ve taken over the years, I only really organized them in the last year or so. Timing-wise, it worked out pretty well [for the reissue of Ten] because it was pretty easy to access a lot of the photos I took during the two years that we were putting the band together and touring. It was pretty cool. I think you always worry about getting too nostalgic about things because we’re still a working band and we still feel like we’re making music that means something. Sometimes it’s a little bit tricky to jump back and forth between those two worlds. But in some ways, it feels like we can kind of close the door on that era a little bit now.
SHOCKHOUND: After all this time, how do you feel Ten has held up?
AMENT: The reason the album got remixed is because about around Vitalogy , I saw a cassette tape that said “rough mix” — I was organizing this old crate full of cassettes — and it had the rough mixes from Ten. And when I heard it, I went, “Wow. This sounds so much better than the record.” I started bugging Brendan [O’Brien] around that time and started putting it in the ears of the other guys in the band. I thought if there was an opportunity at some point to remix that record, it would actually be a version that we could listen to. Whether it got released or not didn’t really matter to me, but I felt like I wanted to have a properly mixed version of it. Stone’s comment was he thought the reverb was covering up our inability to play [laughs]. A part of me had doubts too, but in listening to the rough mixes, it kind of proved that wrong. Listening to that stuff and listening to how Brendan remixed it — it kept it kind of punchy and raw. It really made me have a lot more respect for Dave Krusen, who was our drummer on that record. He was a really great drummer. He had a lot to do with how that record sounded. I don’t know if I ever gave him props; hopefully this remix will give him those props.
SHOCKHOUND: What exactly were the circumstances of Krusen’s exit?
AMENT: He was going through a bunch of stuff at the time. He had a wife and a newborn kid at that point. When we started touring, he just had a really hard time with it. And we were like, “Well, we’re going to be touring for the next 20 years [laughs] so if that’s something you’re not into…” So, it just didn’t work out.
SHOCKHOUND: When Pearl Jam started out, you famously sent a cassette of three instrumental songs you had recorded with Stone Gossard to “some surfer in San Diego” and it came back with vocals — the rest, as they say, is history. Almost 20 years later, you’re now in the studio recording your ninth album. Can you compare what it was like to hear Eddie Vedder sing over your music then to now? Is there a similar thrill now when you hear his new ideas for the first time?
AMENT: I have a huge appreciation for people who can put words together and be poetic. He’s always been a really strong writer in my eyes, but I think there’s been different phases when he’s really bumped it up. That’s just what he thinks about all the time. He’s always messing with wordplay and always thinking about words and how to put words together. Just the first few things that he did on this [forthcoming] record, it was obvious that he had again stepped it up a notch. It’s been really exciting these last few weeks just to hear what he comes up with and how he keeps making the words better. And sometimes he’ll come up with something great and then he’ll totally replace it with something even better. That’s a huge talent. I write some complete songs myself and it’s such an intense process for me just to get it to where it’s average. Slightly below average is really a lot of work [laughs]. He puts a lot of work into it too, but he also has an incredible gift.
SHOCKHOUND: Does he still cart around composition notebooks and jot things down?
AMENT: Yeah. He has a suitcase full of them.
SHOCKHOUND: Looking at the cover photo of Ten, you get a sense of how different things were back then, how being young and in a new band created a unique kind of solidarity. You’re all huddled there, announcing yourself to the world. For better or worse, how has that camaraderie changed over the years?
AMENT: I think partly with the relationships we’ve had with our better halves and over the years with our good friends and our families and the growing process of that — wives, girlfriends, that whole thing — we’re just having more grown-up conversations and communicating better. I think about Stone and I, and us being together for 25 years or whatever, and how we communicated early on — or really, how we didn’t communicate [laughs] — and how good of friends we are now and how we can have a pretty elevated, emotional discussion and not have it turn into something ugly like it could, or did. Even around the time we were making that record, there were strong feelings flying around and probably, to some degree, little power struggles, and really no ability to communicate in a calm, loving way what we were feeling. When we did take that picture, the idea was like, “If I’m going to be in a band still…” — because I had been in bands for 10 years at that point — “everybody has to be on the same page. If we are going to go step out into this world and really go for it, we really can’t have a weak link because a weak link is going to make us less of a band.” That was the idea — to really be a band. The cover, looking back at it, there’s a little bit of a cheesiness to it, but I think that was just the idealistic view we had at that point. We’re in this together and we’re gonna build a life out of this somehow — even if it’s only four or five years long [laughs] — we’re gonna go for it.
SHOCKHOUND: When Ten was originally released, it took a bit of time to find an audience; but when it did, you became huge almost without warning. When you were scheduled for the Lollapalooza festival that year, you had a 2 pm time slot usually reserved for smaller acts, and the crowds literally tore down barricades to get closer. Was that when you knew something was happening?
AMENT: Lollapalooza was a year after the record came out. We went to Europe three times that album cycle and every time we came back to Europe, the reception was exponential. We were playing like 200 or 300 capacity clubs and then all of sudden 2000-seaters, then we’re doing Lollapalooza at two in the afternoon. The record was doing well at that point, but we’re playing with the Chili Peppers and Soundgarden and Ministry — bands that we really looked up to. It was pretty intense. I don’t think we really knew how to handle all that energy. When you listen to tapes of some of those shows, we’re playing so fast, it’s so fucking crazy. I think we just took that energy in. I remember times on that tour when I just couldn’t go to sleep at night. I would just go back to the hotel and just lay there and it’s like five in the morning. It was great. At any given show it felt like something could go wrong too. It felt like we were playing on the edge of something. The barricades were coming down. All the people from the grass are coming down up front. Who played after us? The Jesus and Mary Chain. I think it was a bummer for them, because we had this thing going on and they played their pop music [after us] and it just didn’t translate.
SHOCKHOUND: But that band thrives on complaining.
AMENT: [Laughs] Right. Absolutely. They probably got a couple of good songs out of it.
SHOCKHOUND: The point of Lollapalooza then was to create this little traveling band of misfits who would play huge venues together that they wouldn’t be able to fill on their own. Now, there are “destination” festivals all over the place that basically have the same lineup in a different order. It might be good for the fans, but do you think the bands have that same kind of kinship of travelling around the country together like you did back in ’92?
AMENT: I think the good thing for us is that we haven’t played a lot of festivals in the past 15 years, really. We play a couple every year, and I think when we went to Europe two or three years ago, we played four or five but they were all in different countries. I think in the States, we’ve chosen every year to play a different one and not to play three or four. That makes it a little more exciting for us because only a couple times of year are we in the same vicinity as a lot of our peers. That makes it more fun as opposed to going out and doing the festival circuit every year. I think for a lot of bands that’s a way to make money and it’s a bit easier because you don’t have to carry your own sound and own lights and all that stuff. So, I think a lot of it is probably financially driven, but we’ve always wanted to change it up. There have been points over the years where we’ve toured too much in the same sort of setting, whether playing sheds or arenas and I’ve been like, “God, if I play another shed, I’m going to kill myself.” We’ve gotten pretty good at this point at knowing how to mix it up, keep it fresh, throw a festival or two in. It was fun a couple of years ago, we got to see Queens of the Stone Age for a couple of shows. For the last six or seven years, every time they’ve played Seattle we were out of town. So, it’s kind of a way to catch up. We got to see the Stooges at Lollapalooza a couple of years ago and that was great. I don’t know if that answers your question [laughs].
SHOCKHOUND: You just finished two weeks of recording in Los Angeles for your next album. What’s your favorite song, what’s its name, and why do you like it so much?
AMENT: [Laughs] Oh, man. There’s some really good stuff happening right now and it’s just starting to happen. The basic tracks are all kind of done. There are rough vocals. That stuff is getting tidied up. There are some keyboards and percussion things going on right now. It’s kind of just starting, but there’s a song called “The Fixer” that I think is really incredible.
SHOCKHOUND: Is that still your favorite part of being in Pearl Jam — seeing these little ideas hatch into brand new songs?
AMENT: Absolutely. Especially after all this time. This has been a real collaborative process. All five of us, with Brendan, have been in the same room for the last couple of months working these things out. So, from the inception of any one of us sitting on our couch or in our studio with a guitar in our hands — from that point to this point is pretty cool.
SHOCKHOUND: As a fan of basketball, do you feel a certain karmic satisfaction that the Oklahoma City Thunder are currently in last place? [The Seattle Supersonics were sold last year and moved to Oklahoma.]
AMENT: Nah. I think, for me, I have a little bit of an attachment to those guys because I saw them play some games last year, but I’m mostly just down on pro sports. In particular, I’m down on the NBA. I just think pro sports in general, everything’s caught up to it, whether it’s steroids or the price of tickets or leagues holding cities hostage over building new stadiums and all the under-the-table deals that go along with that crap. I’m a sports fan, but everybody shouldn’t be taxed to build a stadium. Not everybody is using it and not everybody is getting benefits out of it. It’s just crazy that billionaires are holding cities hostage. In some ways it’s probably good that Seattle doesn’t have to deal with that now because those teams are just money pits right now. And it’s probably not the best time now to have a whole bunch of those.
SHOCKHOUND: Remember when stadiums were named after great people who did great things and not the corporations that paid to build them?
AMENT: Yeah. And now all of those names are changing because all the banks are going out of business and all the insurance companies are going out of business. Everything has kind of caught up to the crookedness of business and the way that things have been handled.
SHOCKHOUND: Which brings us to the whole potential Ticketmaster and LiveNation deal. [The two companies are currently in negotiations to merge.] If bands can’t even sell records anymore because music is flying around the internet for free, where can an artist make a living if one corporation controls how money is made on the road too?
AMENT: Well, I have to say, I’m glad to see it in the newspapers and I’m glad to see that people are paying attention, and I hope a lot of bands get behind this thing. And then the other part of me goes, “Where were you at, like, 15 years ago?” [Laughs] Because we couldn’t get anybody. [Ament and Gossard testified in front of Congress in 1994, arguing that Ticketmaster was a monopoly in violation of antitrust laws.] It’s a joke. It works fine for the huge bands, but for anybody in between, or even worse yet, a young band who is maybe not selling records and is just kind of approaching venues that they have control over: you’re screwed. I actually really hope that Congress does something about it this time besides turn a blind eye, because that’s what happened 15 years ago.
SHOCKHOUND: Luckily for your band, you get to put out your next album on your own label and will probably have more control over your music than ever before.
AMENT: Absolutely. It’s a good time to be a free agent.