Vedder Talks Backspacer Track by Track

Jamming over Pearl’s latest tracks

With his band’s ninth studio album about to hit stores, Eddie Vedder gives Brad Wheeler a backgrounder on its 11 new songs

By Brad Wheeler 

The Globe and Mail | September 16, 2009

‘I think we’ve been discovered,” says Eddie Vedder, waving back to a pair of fans who watch him through the ceiling-length windows of his corner dressing room, set a couple of stories above the water at Toronto’s lakeside Molson Amphitheatre. “They might have seen me earlier, when I changed my clothes.”

The warrior-singer hadn’t considered the glass walls earlier, when he stripped without closing the bathroom door. He laughs at the thought of it, but, really, what’s funny is the notion of Vedder offering himself up to the world. He’s always been a generous performer onstage and he’s plenty outspoken, but he’s been guarded otherwise, particularly early on, after the whirlwind success of Pearl Jam’s smash 1991 debut, Ten. The band stopped making videos, battled Ticketmaster on pricing. They made music, but didn’t play the game.

Now, though, a couple of hours before Pearl Jam’s concert here in August, Vedder was more than willing to talk about the band’s ninth studio album, the Brendan O’Brian-produced Backspacer , out Sunday. “This one seemed to sequence itself,” says Vedder, stroking his beard. “The songs kind of wrote themselves, too, in a weird way. As much work as we put into it, it was quick and it was also very effortless.”

Sitting on a couch with all his road companions – pack of American Spirit cigarettes, song-catalogue binder, travel-size acoustic guitar, retro suitcase – within arm’s length, Vedder gives a track-by-track lowdown of a lean rock record that clocks in at just 36 minutes. “None of these songs became homework,” he explains. “The ones that did, they didn’t make the record.”

And if the material came quickly, there’s nothing fleeting about the album, says the man who writes the lyrics and the set lists. “I think it’s going to be a batch of songs we’re going to like playing for quite a long time.” Herewith, Vedder gives the back story on songs you’ll be hearing for a while.

Gonna See My Friend

A tough, high-energy rocker that likes to be heard loud.

“All I remember is writing it in a little room on a small table with a little four-track tape machine. I got it sounding loud real quick, without disturbing the neighbours. I work using headphones a lot. I’m not going to have any hearing left. We all make sacrifices at our jobs, and my hearing is obviously going to be the first thing to go.”

Got Some

One of the songs influenced by eighties new-wave pop.

“I’m talking about music to put on when you don’t know how you’re going to get to work, when you’re just not feeling it. It rains in Seattle 220 days a year on average – there’s a lot of mornings it’s hard to get going. This song will do it.”

The Fixer

The lean riff-rocked first single.

“Men, we all think we can fix anything. It’s not necessarily a good thing. In a relationship, a woman will say ‘This is wrong,’ and we’re like, ‘I’ll fix that, don’t worry about it, we can fix it.’ These wonderful people, the woman you’re in a relationship with, they don’t want you to fix it. They just want you to listen to what’s happening: ‘Don’t fix it, I want you to own this with me – feel it.’ This is a reminder song to me, to stop fixing.”

Johnny Guitar

An angular Elvis Costello-like number motivated by an album-cover photo from a record by pimp-blues guitarist Johnny (Guitar) Watson that was pasted over a men’s room urinal. “It’s actually not the first time we’ve got our inspiration from something on a bathroom wall. It’s a made-up story about a kid falling in love with a girl on a record cover. I imagine that must have happened a few times.”

Just Breathe

Triggered by a song from Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack, with added strings and French horns.

“There’s never a dull moment on the road – every day it’s something. Maybe that’s why my goal is the dull moment. That’s what this song is: It’s saying, ‘Just stop, and be together. Don’t talk now, just breathe and feel each other’s presence – now that the kids are in bed.’

Amongst the Waves

About ebbs and flows – of a couple’s relationships or even those of a long-running rock band. “On the strength of this album, we feel good about where the band is at. Our relationship is long-standing, but it’s turned into a forthcoming relationship. We’re open and honest. Things go pretty easy – we feel like a gang. We feel like a galvanized group of individuals. As far as waves, I think we’re up there.”

Unthought Known

Culled from a book, a talk with an actress, and one late night.

“It’s about a conversation with Catherine Keener, and a book – I think it might have even been called Unthought Known . I got back late to my hotel in New York, and I pushed it that extra hour. I pushed the limits of how much you can drink and smoke, and this song came out of it. I think the thought of the song is that there are things that you know, and they’re in us, but we just haven’t thought of them. But they’re there, and we base decisions on them.”


A towering track written two years ago by guitarist Stone Gossard, with Vedder adding lyrics about living life with the volume on full, and the need for loud music.

“There’s something about this infusion of energy. It’s a tangible thing that gives you as much energy as a drug. It can change the shape of your mood. I think [rock music] is the greatest art form there is, because there’s so many elements to it, volume being one of them. But momentum, and rhythm, and the literary side of a good lyric, it can really transport you.”

Speed of Sound

A brooding, down-tempo track with complex chord changes that stemmed from a songwriting session with a Rolling Stones guitarist.

“I was working with Ronnie Wood on a record he’s putting together. He asked me if I could contribute some words, which really excited me because I love his voice. This particular song was a little difficult to transcribe though, so it ended up in [Pearl Jam’s] court. I played it to Brendan at four in the afternoon, and by the next afternoon it was complete.”

Force of Nature

A classic grungy Pearl Jam vibe, originally titled Distant Planet .

“It’s about the strength of one person in the relationship, when they can withstand some of the faults in another – maybe drug addiction, or straying off the path. The person in the song is the lighthouse for the other person caught in the storm.”

The End

A Springsteen-like ballad with strings, about an unknown future.

“I got a phone call from a friend, from Spain. I couldn’t pick up the phone because I was recording the guitar part. I had written half the song’s lyrics. When I checked his message, he had said something that enabled me to write the second verse, and in 20 minutes, it was done. That’s how it happened on this record. It was writing the quick ones – there was no room for the other stuff. We’ll see how long approaching it like this goes. But it’s the right way for us to do it right now.”