Interview with Matt Cameron & Mike McCready
Teraz Rock | September 2009
Polish-English translation: I Sh*t And I Stink@PJ Message Board
The new disc doesn’t have a title yet but I believe that ‘Joy’ would be apt. Or ‘Hope’. During the making of the previous album, when it was without a title, it could have been called ‘Pissed Off’.
MM: That’s true. Times have changed. We’re in a different moment with a different political outlook, the situation in the world has changed. It’s still the same crazy, unsafe world but there is certainly more hope and a new will to do positive things. Maybe our music reflects that on some level, we got our soul back in that moment. We made the record fast, maybe the energy to do so came from that fact.
Was the pessimism of Avocado related, on a personal level, to the death of Johnny Ramone and, on a political level, to a government which you couldn’t accept?
MC: It certainly crept into a lot of the lyrics. We definitely all felt influenced by life in America under the Bush administration. We didn’t feel a bond with the powers that be and, to a certain extent, with our own country. It felt as if there was a great divide within society. Such a situation came about in an underhand way and we felt that something wrong was happening – that really came across in our last record.
Is it true that Eddie waited until the results of the last election before writing any lyrics to this album?
MM: I don’t think he especially waited for that moment. I don’t know for sure when he wrote the lyrics. I think he wrote them when we composed the music before the election but I saw him writing some stuff in the studio with my own eyes. It’s his world, you’d have to ask him.
And you started writing here in the warehouse last summer?
Yes, it started here and a little in Montana at Jeff’s place. That was the first session. We wrote, with breaks, over the course of a year. We decided to work with Brendan O’Brien again and it was his theory that we should compose at least a portion of the songs without Eddie. That way we could give him concrete stuff to work with in his process of creation. The idea was to give the lyric writer no more than 15 to 18 music arrangements to work with.
Why did you then record in LA?
MM: Brendan really likes the Henson studio there. It really is a nice place. More than that, it got us out of Seattle which, selfishly speaking, suited me fine because I was based in California at the time. I like to go there for the sun when it’s cloudy and cold here. It was a personal pleasure for me, but generally Brendan wanted to take us to a new place where we could find a new sound.
MC: Exactly. In Seattle we’ve got one or two studios, there they are on every corner.
How long have you been working out of these head quarters, if that is what you call it…
MM: Hiding place. I call it a hiding place (smiles). We’ve been here three years. Before that for ten, eleven, maybe fifteen years we practiced in a different place, a different warehouse. It was rented.
Was it connected to Litho, Stone’s studio?
MC: No, that’s a completely separate thing, it’s in the Freemont district of Seattle. It’s a real studio with does great work, it’s really amazing. We’ve also recorded there.
I’m interested, what came first: co-operation with Brendan on the Ten reissue or the invitation for him to work on the new material?
MM: I think that Ten was first. Jeff asked him endlessly just to remix Ten for him, because he was interested to hear how it would sound and we were all so happy with how it turned ou, it just sounded great, so it ended up that we asked him to work with us again.
I wonder, why Jeff changed his mind over the years on the mix for Ten. Similarly, during the original recording he had a pretty big influence on the shaping of the album…
MM: We mixed the record in England with Tim Palmer. It was our first mixing and recording session although Stone and Jeff had done that kind of thing before. I think that with the passing years he longed to hear it in a different form. Something more raw.
During your previous work with Brendan you’ve argued with him, you were a stubborn, young band. I suppose that you now accept his vision?
MC: He certainly has his own way of looking at the smallest details of even fragments of music. Working with him is easy, because he knows how to offer help when it comes to small interludes, fragments, he’s brilliant at adding small parts with the piano or percussion… small things which we certainly couldn’t come up with and work out by ourselves. Really, all of us are now very open to working with him and we invited him to make this disc using his own methods.
MM: When we worked with him on VS we were fresh from selling millions of records all over the world, after Lollapalooza we were just getting bigger and bigger… and everything within the space of a year. The expectations on the second album were huge – would we fall into the second album trap or would it be good… I knew that we had lots of pretty good stuff, and above all that we were young and full of enthusiasm. The same as when we went to California now. We knew that Brendan was a good fit to our vibe. He had a certain innocence within him. I’d say that he has more now, but he also had it then (laughs). He’s one of those versatile musicians, when me and Stone play we just play guitars, I don’t even know how to count the notes, I just know my part. I play songs the way I know how, but Brendan looks at it from a different angle… the difference between those two records is huge. We’re at totally different points in our lives. We feel more comfortable with our roles: ‘Ok, let’s listen to him, make use of him, trust his methods’. Sometimes they are crazy! It’s incredible to watch Brendan work.
We can hear a lot of space on the new album, not present on the raw Pearl Jam. It’s funny, bearing in mind that you got rid of the spatiality of Ten in its’ remix.
MC: The whole spatiality on Ten is really just a reverb. On this new record we gained it in completely different way. It’s a matter of instrumentation.
MM: I agree. There are strings, French horns, other types of percussion and interesting keyboards sounds. Brendan played the keyboard parts, he dubbed them and added pieces to a few songs… he’s good at it so we let him do that kind of thing. It’s a totally different quality in comparison to just turning up the reverb, as we did it on Ten.
You can hear a lot of piano on ‘Speed of Sound’ and ‘Unthought Known’. Can you tell us about the process by which that came about?
MM: Speed of Sound was mine, I thought up the melody solohere, in the style of the 70 – I wanted it to become an important part of the piece. Ed composed it California. Matt, Tell them how it was, you did it with him…
MC: Yeah, Ed played guitar and sang and then the rest of us began to add our parts. It was the last song that we put on the record and it came together pretty quickly. Mike’s solo part is great, it gives the song a whole other dimension. It reminds me if the Beach Boys, it’s a sunny Californian sound that just falls into your ears…
MM: Thanks. That was just what I was hoping to create. I usually just come in and play. That time I carefully planned exactly what I wanted to do and it paid off.
MC: ‘ Unthought Known’ was also written by Ed. He thought about the song’s crescendo really precisely, he worked out exactly what he wanted us all to play and we followed the map he had drawn up to the note. Mike came up with a nice percussion part and Brendan added the piano which has a key meaning. It didn’t come out too bad at all in the end.
My favourite song on the album is ‘The Fixer’, it’s got a lot of different vocal harmonies which are littered throughout the album…
MM: Matt wrote that one…
MC: I didn’t write the lyrics! (laughs). I did the melody. Ed brought in a lot of pop aspects to the song. Brendan encouraged him to add so many vocal harmonies as he could and still feel comfortable with it. I think that the songs profited from the pop aspect because it didn’t sound like that when we played it here in the Warehouse. We didn’t do the whole disc that way though.
There are a fair few hard rock songs on the new album. That must be your influence, Mike…
MM: Of course, I love hard rock. But I’m sure that some of the songs you are thinking about, like ‘Gonna See My Friend’ were written by Ed.
I was thinking about ‘Force Of Nature’
MM: That’s definitely mine. It’s interesting that I set out to create something poppy if I only could. I’d never thought like that before, I normally just compose… Mind you, it didn’t turn out particularly poppy. It’s more like the Stones. When the whole band gets into a song you lose certain elements and gain others and it takes on a new quality. So it turned out differently to how I’d imagined it and that’s good because maybe my vision was a little limited. I’m glad that it made it onto the record and that you spotted it.
Are the lyrics outlining the bands ecological manifesto?
MM: I have to listen closely to the lyrics. I got more of a feeling that it was about a woman as a force of nature. I didn’t recognize it but maybe it’s there in the depths.
MC: Exactly, maybe there is something more to it, something we haven’t read between the lines yet.
You’re known for more than music, your active politically, socially, environmentally, in healthcare – I’m thinking of you there Mike…
MM: About Crohn’s. Oh yeah, that’s my contribution. My pain.
…how much meaning does the fact that you come from Seattle, a town that is known as being more aware than the rest of America, have?
MC: There is a lot of money here in Seattle, in the North-West. A lot of affluent people become philanthropists, like Bill and Melinda Gates who run the biggest charity fund on Earth. There has always been a heightened awareness here about a lot of different things Let’s take care of the environment, remembering that tropical forests are here, real rainforests and we also have incredible mountains… it’s a wonderful place that nature has shaped for us to live in around here. We can’t ignore that. Our band has tried to open people’s eyes to a lot of things over the years, one of those has been taking care of the environment. At the moment we are concerned about the advancement of global warming and so on.
Do you personally have very green lifestyles? Do you drive hybrid cars, for example?
MM: Yes, I’ve got two hybrids and an old petrol BMW, so I can say I do.
MC: And I’ve got a hybrid and a 425HP V8. Two extremes…
‘Just Breathe’ differs from the rest of the album in that it has strings. Was that your idea?
MC: Me? No, that was Brendan. Ed wrote the song. We were learning it and trying it with the whole band and some kind of country style came through the song. We intended to bite into it when we go to LA but Brendan said to just do the guitar and voice. I think he already had it in mind at that time and was thinking of a string arrangement. It sounded great from the moment we laid it down. It’s great that we got two pop numbers with an orchestra on the record, they fit alongside the rock songs. We got an interesting mix of different styles.
A little of the country element remains in the song though, particularly in the vocals…
MC: Ed used his amazing baritone. He’s good at low registers, like you often hear good country singers use, like Merle Haggard or George Jones. It’s very American, it’s gives an American value to our music. Ed uses it freely.
You probably won’t bring in the country listeners though, at least because of you ideological opposition to one another.
MM: Well, I dunno. We’ve got a big fan from the world of country music. Dierks Bentley, my friend, it’s going up in his estimation. I got to know him some years ago… we’ve definitely got a number of fans among the country listeners. I don’t think they are all against us.
MC: I reckon a lot of Nashville musicians value rock. We label them all as conservatives and to a certain extent that may be true. However, I think that a lot of them like our rock group.
I wonder if the return to Ten, hearing that record again, didn’t inspire you to create some songs in the spirit of classic Pearl Jam. I’m thinking about ‘Amongst The Waves’.
MM: Stone wrote that one. I love it but I wouldn’t say that by reaching out to that record we grabbed the new one. In my opinion they are different matters. That one is over and done with, it was a part of my life 18 years ago. A different version of that album has come to life now but I listened to it and that was the end for me. I can separate the two things. We’re going forward, making new songs, in a new phase of life. One thing doesn’t connect to the other.
MC: The fact still remains that the song does have all of the aspects that you expect of classic Pearl Jam. It’s my favourite song on the album.
There’s a classic rock sound on the solo. That’ll be yours, won’t it Mike?
MM: Yeah, that’s me! I tried to get into the shoes of Mick Taylor in the early 70s. It’s played on a low pickup Les Paul with a solid sound of old Bad Company. Brendan called me and said he wanted something just like that. He wanted me to compose a solo for part of a solo, or better still the whole of it. I didn’t have the strength to do the whole thing, I’m too lazy for that! (laughs). So, I just wrote the end where the harmony with Stone appears (he sings it). It came about by two things: I was in the right mood and the band’s playing inspired me.
In a few places we can hear that you are moving in the direction of the inspirations of your youth, stuff you listened to in the 70s
MM: Yes and no. I’m also open to new things. I listen to a lot of satellite radio and get new vibes from there, although they also play a lot of older stuff. Sometimes I discover something “old-new”. I’m thinking in particular about new wave, which didn’t interest me at the time because I was into metal… From more recent things, I’m inspired by Radiohead or Death Cab For Cutie. It all depends upon the mood. Yesterday I listened to the Stones’ ‘Sticky Fingers’. Indeed, I often fall into that kind of stuff.
‘Amongst The Waves’ should appeal to you because of the lyrics about surfing.
MM: It could be about other things, but I certainly like it… You know, Ed has a very visual, tangible bond to water. Throughout our career he’s connected with that.I’m thinking about the line: ‘Everything flows amongst the waves’. It’s surfing, a time when there is something liberating and a person knows they are alive. You have to remember that human beings are made up of about 80% water… Every time I go to the shore I feel like a newborn.
I’ve seen the boards hanging here, do you all surf?
MC: Yes, on those boards*. If someone disappears we know what to do (laughs)
*I don’t know if it was mentioned earlier that each board has member of the band on it. T
MM: It happens like this, for example, Stone says ‘there’s a wave, where’s my board?’ And where’s Kelly (Curtis – band manager)? Kelly is sitting smoking a cigarette… (laughs) A few of us surf. I started a long time after Eddie. I just didn’t know anyone who did it before. When I met my wife, who comes from California, I got to know a friend who just did it non-stop. But it cost a lot of my time learning to use that fucking board. It required years. Now I can finally do it.
Can you surf around Seattle?
MC: You need to go a long way up the coast, about one and a half hours from here. And you need to wear a thick suit because the water is cold, but it’s fine.
MM: I’ve gotta go, I’ve never been there… It’s hard to find an hour and a half to travel there and then surf and come back again when, in California, it’s just on the other side of the street.
Did the Californian climate have a positive influence on the record?
MM: Maybe something comes through. When we arrived in LA we surfed a lot, that’s the upside of the stay there.
MC: Mike brought the sun to our record
MM: I was in the sun, I went there with my wife and child, because she has family there. It came about that we could surf and chill out. I’ve got a job where I can let myself do thatm my child doesn’t go to school yet… I’m trying to make the most of everything I can, that’s where learning begins. But I didn’t drag the rest of the band to California – that was Brendan.
I always wondered how Ed, as a Californian surfer, go on with you guys. He represented another culture, another musical culture, too. Do you remember a period of coming to understand one another?
*Mike just relates the story of how they made a tape with Matt drumming and sent it to Jack Irons, whose drumming Stone had loved on ‘Uplift Mofo Party Plan’…. And the rest is history for you all, I’m sure. He doesn’t actually say if it was difficult getting to know Ed. [T]
Okay, I’ve stressed you enough with questions about your beginnings, but… in the special edition of Ten there is a replica of the cassette recorded by Ed. Who had that ‘Holy Grail of Pearl Jam’?
MM: Jeff Ament. Or Ed. Jeff and Ed keep all of those things.
MC: Jeff is a very good archivist. He keeps everything in order – quite the opposite of me (laughs).
MM: I also keep everything in some boxes. But I’m working on it, I’d like to be tidier.
You have said that the last record was the first truly democratic record in the band’s history. Was it that way this time around?
MM: It’s different every time. On the last record I wrote on a few songs, on this one – just one. Matt wrote a few. Ed brought three or four… it all depends which ones are good. All of us bring a book of ideas, we’re all composers. Some of it comes together while we’re working. Certain songs come to the fore, is it because they move Ed one of us others…? We always have too much material. It’s good to have such a problem.
There is a round number on the horizon for the band. The majority of grunge bands didn’t have the luck to celebrate twenty years. Is it luck or something else?
MM: It’s a lot of things. Luck, the right time; it’s true that we separate ourselves from one another when we are not on tour or whatever and we can speak face to face when there are misunderstandings or problems… we have open channels of communication as much as is possible. It’s important that I love playing music with these guys and that fans still want to hear us.
I have to tell you that your band is particularly important for Polish fans. The popularity of grunge was concurrent with our country gaining its freedom. Were you aware of the ‘You forgot Poland’ t-shirt campaign when you didn’t play there for some tours?
MM: Oh yeah, I knew about that. But we got there in the end…
MC: Yeah, in 2007. And we were in Katowice in 2000. It’s true, we don’t play there too often. The last time we were there, in 2007, the fans we just incredible.
There was also your first concert in 1996. Why did you then decide to go behind the former iron curtain?
MM: Because there’s Poland and other Eastern Block countries! We wanted to see them, experience them, get to know what goes on there. We’d got our deformed view of what the situation looked like the from the Western press but the reality is completely different. The possibility to see it personally, talk to people, walk the streets and smell the smells, taste the food; it’s a lesson, that’s how you learn. It’s an important part of life. We can say ‘ Hey, we were in Poland, we saw this, this and this’… we’ve got our own opinion about it, not from a newspaper, not warped through the years. It was also important that we had fans in that part of the world that we wanted to play to.
About the concerts in 2000, you’ve said that the first was one of the worst in the band’s history and the second one of the best. We know the story of the second but what was wrong with the first?
MM: I’m trying to remember it. Perhaps we had some strange technical troubles. Or there were only a few people…
MC: No, the second had less people.
MM: Oh, yeah. The second was really markedly better because it was so unusual.
MM: We played a lot of songs that night that we hadn’t played live for a long time. It turned out to be one of the best gigs on that tour.
MM: Exactly. And it happened because we didn’t try to do something grand, we just threw some different songs in there. Eddie is very conscious of the place we are playing in. He goes to them earlier, gets the feel of it, as I’ve seen, and writes the set list depending upon his feeling towards the town he’s in. Maybe that evening he was just (Mike he clicks his fingers) ‘Let’s go with the flow’. Basically, ‘Let’s try something different’. It was fucking great. I remember it clearly now.
The performance in 2007 was also atypical, with Linkin Park as co-headliners.
MC: We did a few concerts with them on that tour. It was a pleasure, I’ve got it written in my memory, because we hadn’t played for you in a long time. Although, I do remember some problems with the power during the show.
MM: I remember the journey, I’ve got it on tape, I was filming the landscapes during the trip. And I remember the fans, when we were standing in the wings and they were shouting, ‘Lin – kin – park! Please – come – out!’. I was like: ‘What’s this about, we’re here too, aren’t we?’. The next generation must have come (laughs).