An Audience With… [Q&A with Ed Vedder]

Uncut Magazine | August 6, 2009
Thanks to primussucks@ Pearl Jam Forum for the transcript

Is it true that you recorded an albums worth of ukulele songs back in 2000? Do you plan to ever release them? – Scott Kobleske, Chicago 

I did record it and gave it to a few friends. I was going through a rough time – it was after Roskilde [the Danish festival where, in 2000, nine Pearl Jam fans were trampled to death in a stage crush] and after a number of things in our personal lives. And this tiny little instrument with four strings, which could almost fit in your back pocket, became like a good friend. The uke is an incredible machine for learning about melody and chord structure – you’re suddenly able to write ragtime classics! So I wrote these sad songs on a happy instrument. It helped me process some really painful things at the time, but I didn’t want to release it because it felt too personal. It’s funny now, with some distance, they’re not as heartbreaking as I thought. So…it may get released. We’ll see.

What are your top most misinterpreted lyrics? Keep it funny if possible – Michael Stipe, REM 

Maybe my diction isn’t so good! Ha! But it reveals a lot about Michael that he’s asked this, as it’s happened to him more than me! His stuff was always so open to interpretation. There’s a track on Murmur called “We Walk”, y’know, “Take a recess…up the stairs and to the landing”. I was in the car with my daughter, who was two, and she started singing along. I almost had to pull over and start weeping. It was one of my proudest moment. My daughter knew an REM song! Of course, she was singing it wrong, though I don’t know if there’s a right way. Those lyrics are oblique and yet they mean so much. Michael is a magician that way.

What were your inspirations when your wrote the soundtrack to Sean Penn’s Into The Wild? – Irene Mariani, Italy 

When I was 12, I remember seeing the movie, Harold and Maude, a film that is accompanied by several Cat Stevens songs. Cat’s voice represents the interior voice of the character throughout the movie, and he does it absolutely perfectly. It’s a perfect synergy between film and music, and it really inspired me to try writing for film. Take the final scene, where it looks like Harold is going to drive off the cliff, with the rain hitting the windshield and you know how he feels. Suddenly they play “Trouble” by Cat Stevens and it’s utterly overwhelming, heartbreaking. So seeing it work there made me think I could give it a go.

Has Olivia gone all four floors on the fireman’s pole yet? – Neil Finn, Crowded House 

Tell Neil I never talk about the pole! Ha ha! As Neil knows, I’ve got an adventurous young daughter who’s very rough and tumble. I guess things change as they get older and there’s a restructuring of power in the male/female dynamic. But right now my daughter’s as tough as anyone, male or female, under the age of about 15. The fireman’s pole? It’s a long story. Basically, I started smoking dope after a long period of abstinence, and I had an epiphany. I realised the house I was living in had a couple of connected closets. And after having this nice hit, it occurred to me that you could put a fireman’s pole in this house, connecting all four floors. Three months on, we had one installed. It’s really practical! I do all my songwriting in the basement, so if I’m, upstairs, I just slide down. Otherwise you might stop by the laundry room to wash some clothes and you’ll have missed a couple of songs. So it has paid for itself in songwriting royalties.

What was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan like to work with? – Zak, Leytonstone, London 

Well, it was intimidating on many levels. We worked together for a few days – we were put together by Tim Robbins for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack – and everything had to go through an interpreter because I was told he didn’t really speak English. He was very centered, like a Buddhist statue in many ways and he looked like he was made of stone! And when he sang, it was like he was channeling something incredibly powerful and spiritual. After two days of talking through the interpreter, we were left in the room alone, and he looked at me and said, in perfect English: “You have a very nice voice” And it was like that scene in One Flow Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, where the Indian guy finally talks to Jack Nicholson. I thought, you son of a bitch! And of course, we then talked and talked and got on great. I met him a few times after that. I think he pretended not to speak English as a defence mechanism. I wish I’d thought of that! Sadly, he was taken away from us much, much too early. And so many of the secrets of qawwali music have died with him.

Eddie Vedder attracts curiously obsessive fans. Uncut’s mailbag for this Audience With…far outstrips any other we’ve done, and not all of them in the “When are you next playing Portugal?” category.
“Why didn’t you turn up to our wedding last year?” asks one slightly hurt fan from Ohio. “And would you and the band like to come and play at our first anniversary?” There are other invitations to weddings in Colombia, christenings in Denmark, safaris in South Africa and surfing holidays in Western Australia. There are fans who promise to come along to a gig and accompany the band on the accordion, others who want Vedder to be godfather to their child, others offering him a spare tent to come to Glastonbury.
“That’s kinda…nice”, says a genuinely humble-sounding Vedder. “I guess that people have always seen me as a kinda regular guy. We’ve never tried to erect boundaries between us and the audience.” It’s this balance of messianic stadium rockers and “aw-shucks” regular guys that made Pearl Jam the real kings of grunge, outselling their rivals Nirvana several times and maintaining their position on the arena circuit two decades on.
Vedder, with a cigarette and a coffee in hand, is speaking from the band’s headquarters in Seattle. “You could call it ‘Pearl Jam Towers’, I guess” he says. “But it’s more of a refuge. A couple of offices, a bit of storage, a fan club operation, some areas where we distribute music and other things, and then a practice space. And a refrigerator that used to have beer in it until last night. We had a bit of a party and drank it all, so excuse me if I sound a bit hungover…”

Seeing as you were both icons of grunge, what do you think of Chris Cornell’s new LP with Timbaland? -Einat Shaul, Israel 

I haven’t heard it. Isn’t Timbaland a make of shoe? It’s a producer? I don’t know who that is. Oh well. I really like Chris’ records and I think he’s the best singer that we’ve got on the planet. I first met Chris when I moved to Seattle, and we started hanging around. I didn’t know what musicians did with their life, and I quickly realized that what he did on a Friday night was to get a 12-pack of shitty beer and chase his dog around on the mud for four hours in the forest. That was about an exciting an epiphany as I had! I haven’t seen him in town for a while, but I have taken over the whole dog-chasing practice – me and my Hawaiian mutt. The beer’s gotten slightly better too.

You do lots of great cover versions live – have you thought of doing a studio album of them? – Jeff Tweedy, Wilco 

I’m not sure why we all play songs we didn’t write, especially when nothing can be better than the original. One reason is to play them for people who’ve never heard them. When I play Cat Stevens songs, of course I don’t do them as well as him, but I feel I’m introducing him to a new generation of fans. As for a whole LP, well, imagine how many records you could put out if you didn’t have to write the songs! That’s why Elvis released so many albums!

Is there one book that you have read that has been life-changing for you? – Jennifer Coppertino, New York 

One that jumps to mind is Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. He talks about being a humanist, about it being a little different from being an atheist, which had a profound effect on me. I ended up reading pretty much everything he wrote after that, two, three, four, five times. The only other author who’s had a similar effect has been Charles Bukowski, who opens your eyes to the fact that there’s beauty in everybody’s life. The life of someone on the lowest rung of the ladder is as colourful and meaningful, if not more, as some character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. So it makes you realize that we are all individuals and we all have something going on that is worthy of introspection and respect.

When you have felt most scared and alone while surfing and where? – Selin Hall, California 

If you’re in any big body of water, you get a healthy sense of feat. I would recommend surfing to anyone who thinks they’re high and mighty. It takes all your focus, and it doesn’t allow you to think about anything else. You can even get hurt on a small, insignificant looking wave if you’re not careful. So when you’re on the wave, it’s one of those rare, purifying instances, where you can’t think of anything else apart from surviving and celebrating this wave as it hits the shore after travelling for 2,000 miles. There’s also something quite profound about it, because the ocean is the place where we all came from, and I believe that there is something about the ocean that will protect you.

You’ve been lined with David Lynch’s Transcendental Meditation movement; you’ve worn an Aleister Crowley t-shirt and you’ve stated that you’re an atheist. What do you personally believe in and how did you get there? – Stephan Rott, Germany 

Well it changes! And I think we have to be flexible. Any belief system that is inflexible, closed off to other belief systems, is profoundly unhealthy. I also think that if you look at life as a long line of evolutionary changes that started billions of years ago, from little things crawling in the mud, and the you realise where we’ve got to now, that is a remarkable set of circumstances. There is more magic in that, for me, than someone creating the planet in six days and taking a day off. When you realize how long humanity has taken to get to this point, it makes you respect another person’s life in a deeper and broader sense. I wouldn’t think of killing anybody because their lineage goes back to the primordial seas, not because there’s some eye in the sky, looking out for how many commandments you’re going to break.

Be honest. Even you not 100 per cent certain of the words to “Yellow Ledbetter”, are you? – Ed Byrne, comedian 

Ha ha ha! This is the comedian who does stuff about me, right? Well he’s quite right – the lyrics to “Yellow Ledbetter” do constantly evolve…I admit that, at times, I have sung total nonsense! The song was originally written about the first Gulf War, and I’d created this image of a young guy with long hair and funny clothes, who had just got a yellow telegram telling him his brother has been killed in action. He’s walking by these conservative-looking, older folks on a porch, flying an American flag, and he waves to them in a show of solidarity, and they brush him off and give him the finger. So, you know, what did his brother die for?

Last time Pearl Jam played Wembley Arena, at the end of the show you offered to buy the entire audience a drink. Well? It’s two years on, and we’re thirsty…. – Thomas Birch, Harefield, Middlesex 

You don’t remember? We all went around the back to that little pub in Wembley. Most of us had two drinks! Hell, I’ve still got the receipts, Thomas. Oh shucks, I paid cash. Oh well. But it was a great night, Thomas, pity you couldn’t make it…