Jeff Ament Of Pearl Jam: “We’ve Somehow Stuck Together; We’re A Band Of Brothers”
Sometimes, Jeff Ament ends up sleeping in his car. It happens when a particularly bad thunderstorm looms over his house: Pearl Jam’s bassist will herd up his dogs, head to the garage, open his car door and let them file in. There he will join them, sleeping through the night by their sides if necessary until the ominous sounds outside have passed.
“It’s the only place my dogs feel safe,” Jeff explains to Kerrang! as we reach him in Seattle. It is but a small snippet of his life, yet this gesture of canine sympathy recently blossomed into the lead single from his excellent third solo album, Heaven/Hell, released this month.
“It ended up being a metaphor for trying to find that place where you feel safe and can think straight,” he explains. “The state of the world and the planet sort of seeped its way into most of these songs. There’s an impending doom.”
The video for said track, Safe In The Car, sheds further light on the matter, vividly capturing Jeff speeding away from flash floods, volcanic eruptions and forest fires. As he laments a civilisation that has allowed glaciers to ‘recede to your doorstep’, it’s clear that Jeff is acutely aware of what is going wrong with the world right now. And so, too,
are Pearl Jam.
In March, the band released Can’t Deny Me, their first brand-new studio song in almost half a decade – one that sees Eddie Vedder howl a diagnosis of an America in ‘condition critical’ over a ferociously chopped Mike McCready riff. Between Jeff’s new solo album, Can’t Deny Me being confirmed as the first song from Pearl Jam’s next album, plus the band returning next month with two London O2 Arena shows (their first UK performances since their grandstanding Milton Keynes Bowl set in 2014), there is a lot to talk about.
Yet dispatches from inside the PJ camp are rare. Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about Pearl Jam, alongside their unimpeachable musical legacy, is that they are one of the biggest rock bands in the world and also – even by, say, Tool’s standards – perhaps the most reticent. All the way back in 1993, Eddie Vedder explained to K! scribe Liz Evans why he wasn’t planning to do many interviews going forward.
“I personally think the less you know about a musician the better,” he observed. “All that you need is the music.”
The Seattleites still don’t open up often, but that’s not because they are overtly mysterious or unapproachable. Indeed, when K! conducts this long-overdue catch up with Jeff, he is both extremely personable and disarmingly humble. His laid-back voice sparks with enthusiasm when he recalls Pearl Jam’s four shows in Chile and Brazil earlier this year, at one point joking about the physical toll their customarily epic set lists can take on him.
“We’ve done it all backwards,” jokes Jeff. “When we were 25 years old it would have been great to have 45 songs to play… And here we are in our 50s, and just trying to stay upright for three hours is a process.”
He is, however, very excited about resuming this process on our shores, not least because of the transatlantic perspective it will afford him on his own country.
“Honestly, I feel we’ve been at a tipping point for about 20 years, but it feels like we’re really at a tipping point right now,” he says.
“I think, especially politically in our country… It’s gotten to seem insane.”
Now is the perfect time, then, to findout more about life in Pearl Jam circa 2018.In the five years since K! last spoke to the band, there have been tragedies on both a global and national scale, and one in particular that was altogether much closerto home. It has been a time of much fighting and soul-searching.
With the exception of Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, who has accompanied him every step of the way, it is possible to argue that Jeff Ament’s musical CV has virtually no equivalence in terms of sheer quality and influence. Here is a man who played in Seattle pioneers Green River and Mother Love Bone, plus Temple Of The Dog with Chris Cornell, formed Pearl Jam (85 million records sold worldwide and counting), and made a record with Neil Young (1995’s Mirror Ball).
Believe it or not, there is a downside to this when it comes to pursuing a solo career. Having worked alongside a plethora ofthe greatest singers, songwriters and musicians in rock, Jeff sums up the shadow this legacy casts over his previous solo efforts with one simple word – “daunting”. He punctuatesit with a quick laugh.
“It used to be a much more arduous process for me,” he explains of his earlier solo work. “I think I was really hamstrung by trying to do something original, or maybe oversensitive about not having Eddie or Chris’ voice – those things can freeze you. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m in a place where I’ve finally worked that songwriting muscle enough so that I don’t overanalyse.”
Indeed, this year marks precisely 20 years since Jeff’s first lyrical contributions to the Pearl Jam canon on 1998’s Yield with Pilate and Low Light. “It gave me confidence,” he reveals. “Like, ‘Wow, that song’s actually good enough to be out there! I don’t just have to bury this and hope someday I’ll get better!’” The 11 chameleonic alt.rock songs that comprise Heaven/Hell are a testament to his further growth as a lyricist since then. They teach us a lot about the man behind the music.
You can trace Heaven/Hell’s title all the way back to a place called Big Sandy. It doesn’t quite live up to its name. Even Tiny Sandy would be taking the piss. This small Montana town’s present-day population? A staggeringly un-staggering 626 people.
Jeff Ament was born in nearby Havre, but raised in Big Sandy. He may have long since pursued a life of globetrotting, but the working-class values and spiritual inquisitiveness fostered by his Catholic upbringing still define him. At one point his dad hoped he would become a priest. Today, Jeff says he is “not necessarily a believer” but recognises a “deep-seated Catholicism” and spiritual curiosity tugging away in his music. Back in the ’90s, he visited Turkey and Egypt to learn about other religions and try to understand what it is that possesses people to believe so deeply.
It’s a fascination expressed in his album’s title.
“Growing up Catholic, heaven and hell is at the core of the entire belief system,” he explains. “I’m curious about one person’s heaven being another person’s hell.”
When it comes to that divide, the album’s thrilling stand-out song, Drugs, points to the idea that hell is perhaps not so much a place as it is a time: the present. He outlines recent days where he’s been so inundated with horrible news he’s been left feeling like he’s “walking in drying concrete”. One day he wrote a note to himself: “Clearly, I didn’t do enough drugs.”
“The reality is that I’m pretty happy I didn’t too many drugs,” says Jeff of the title, before pointing out its real meaning. “Lyrically, it was saying that maybe if I’d done more drugs I’d be able to handle the apocalypse better…”
Needless to say, it’s been a tough time of late.
“Until the last year and a half, it felt like there was hope, that the glass was half-full,” he elaborates. “But it feels a little bit now that the glass is half-empty. I think it’s because you have certain leaders who don’t seem to care, they’re looking for ways to make money immediately, and make money for their friends, and the environment isn’t a part of that. Or the big picture isn’t a part of that.”
This is really where the concept of heaven and hell, and the faith that sustains them, becomes important: is our destiny in our own hands or that of a divine presence?
“I’m still curious about all of that,” he explains. “Just living and not knowing what happens to all this energy when we’re gone… Even looking into space and the infinite [nature] of it – or the finite [nature] of it, depending – it’s awesome to have that magic exist. And I want to believe, I want more than anything for there to be a just God who will punish Donald Trump when he dies.”
As Jeff points out in the lyrics to Safe In The Car, however, God’s work may ultimately be our own.
“There’s the idea that ‘If I pray it will all be okay’,” continues Jeff. “I’m not of the thinking that that’s going to help anybody. If you do believe in God, he’s only going to help you if you help yourself, and I don’t think we’re helping ourselves right now.”
It sounds very much like a call to arms. And in 2018, it’s one that Pearl Jam – as so often before – are issuing, too.
On March 13, 2018, Eddie Vedder stood before the Movistar Arena in Santiago, Chile and introduced Can’t Deny Me’s inaugural live performance. It was just shy of a month on from the day 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida armed with an AR-15 rifle – which he had acquired legally. He proceeded to perpetrate one of the worst high-school shootings in American history, leaving 17 students and faculty members dead, and a further 17 wounded. That is to say nothing of the psychological trauma that many survivors will face.
“This is dedicated to the incredible students in Florida, and the United States, who survived a terrible tragedy,” Eddie said, addressing the crowd. “We support you all, and Emma Gonzalez, we love you. We’d like to play this for them, and us.”
Eleven days later, Parkland survivor Emma delivered her March For Our Lives speech, standing silent for six minutes and 20 seconds to illustrate the time it took Cruz to rob her peers of their lives.
Can’t Deny Me was already a combustible protest song, its lyrics resonating with both anti-Trump sentiment (‘The country you are now poisoning’) and the Black Lives Matter movement (‘And now you want me to breathe and be so grateful for the air that I need’). When Eddie situated the song within the wider unfurling American gun control debate onstage, it became even more potent.
“In America, there’s a funny vibe where if you can’t have a gun, somehow we’re not free,” says Jeff. “It just seems crazy, I don’t understand. I grew up in a gun culture in North Central Montana, I did hunter safety classes when I was a kid and shot all kinds of guns. But when I grew up, I grew out of it.”
Methodically, Jeff reels off a list of places forever altered by gun violence in America.
“Sandy Hook. Parkland. Columbine. Virginia Tech,” he says. “All of those are just brutal violence. Brutal. And then you have the NRA standing up two days after these events trying to get their people fired up about, ‘They’re going to take our guns away!’ It’s like, man, we haven’t even tried to control it. Like background checks… the most basic thing.”
Suffice to say, Jeff was heartened when Eddie and Mike presented Can’t Deny Me to the band.
“It’s a heavy song and such a great performance from Ed,” he reflects. “In these times, it’s good to have a song like that to get it off our chest. That’s one of the great parts about the band. We sort of earned this platform to speak about the things that we see as truths and to represent the people in our corner.”
Indeed, the skirmish of Can’t Deny Me is but the latest in a string of searing PJ protest songs. Back in 1993 they tackled gun culture on Glorified G, a supremely sarcastic spin on the prevailing psychology of gun owners. Yet it was the arrival of President George W Bush in
the White House that seemed to most galvanise them.
For perspective, when Green Day released American Idiot in 2004, post-9/11 patriotism had long since cooled into anti-Bush/anti-Iraq War sentiment. But in 2002, when Stone Gossard and Eddie penned the Bush-lampooning track Bu$hleaguer, it was a risk to even release the song, let alone have Eddie perform it onstage either wearing or comically addressing a mask of the president. Their Seattle headquarters were inundated with threatening phone calls and emails. Moreover, when they performed it onstage at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York in 2003, some members of the crowd did not exactly warm to it.
“There was a hail of quarters being thrown at us,” reflected drummer Matt Cameron in Pearl Jam’s official 20th anniversary book, Pearl Jam Twenty. “That was the first time at a Pearl Jam show where, like, I felt the crowd was really mad, and they were trying to hurt us.”
Undeterred, in 2006, on their 5K-rated self-titled album, they had the re-elected Bush in their crosshairs again on songs such as World Wide Suicide. As one would expect, Jeff is extremely proud of this legacy.
“I come from a punk rock background so I love that stuff,” he beams. “I love people getting mad and getting upset and reacting. That’s the best of art, that you can get a reaction out of somebody – whether it’s
a reaction of pure joy or pure hate. I think both are good.”
He goes on to ponder whether things are actually worse during the Trump administration than they were in the era of Bush Jr.
“There was that whole dialogue then where it was, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’” Jeff reflects. “People were really afraid to speak up and dissent against the government at that time. It’s the same way now, you just have the president saying everything’s fake news. Forty per cent of the people buy it, and start believing this shit that’s absolutely pure lies.”
Pearl Jam have a compelling strategy for reaching people in the era of fake news: you wield compassion with the same blunt force as wrath.
“Your only chance is to not be super-aggressive,” explains Jeff. “You say, in your most loving, calm voice, ‘What are you thinking? How do you support this guy? I don’t understand. Help me understand, you seem like a great guy, you’re a great dad, how can you buy into this?’”
The big question now is, what subject will Pearl Jam address next? And when will their 11th album arrive?
“We’ve done a ton of writing, but other than finishing up Can’t Deny Me, it’s just going to take for us to all be in a room together for a couple of months and record this stuff,” explains Jeff. “Hopefully we’ll get some time this fall to get back at it.”
But if the next chapter in the Pearl Jam story has yet to be written, there are innumerable ones that Jeff can reflect upon.
Back in 2011, Pearl Jam went to the cinema. Toronto’s lush Princess Of Wales Theatre to be exact. There – alongside hundreds of baying Pearl Jam fans – Eddie, Stone, Jeff, Mike, Matt and beloved touring keyboardist Boom Gaspar congregated to watch the world premiere of Cameron Crowe’s documentary PJ20. Sat just in front of them, your correspondent was on hand reporting for K! to see the result of more than 30,000 hours of footage condensed into one career-spanning film. In a press conference held immediately afterwards, with a wide grin plastered on his face, Jeff addressed some of his early-’90s fashion transgressions.
“It’s pretty shocking,” he said. “I didn’t know I wore hats like that…”
Today, K! asks him for a somewhat more comprehensive overview of his life’s work.
“It’s insane,” explains Jeff. “It’s the greatest thing of my life, the relationships and the people I’ve been able to play music with. For a kid from small-town Montana, it’s so beyond any sort of dream. It really is unbelievable. I’ve been lucky my whole life to play with not just great lyricists and songwriters and singers, but also great drummers and guitar players.”
It is hard not to think of one of them in particular in 2018.
Pearl Jam have played their resplendent song Come Back 48 times live, but none has been as powerful as their rendition at Movistar Arena in March.
“This is for Chris,” said Eddie before striking the serene first chord of the song.
With Chris Cornell’s tragic death, the world lost an artist whose legacy, Jeff says, is “one of the best ever”. But for Pearl Jam they also lost a best friend, a peer and a bandmate (Matt Cameron was double-shifting with Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam had reunited Temple Of The Dog with Chris). During one of his June solo shows in London last year, Eddie told the Eventim Apollo that Chris, “wasn’t just a friend, he was someone I looked up to like my older brother.”
Jeff, too, continues to process the loss.
“I think we’re all still trying to understand the whys and hows,” he says. “We just miss him.”
For Jeff, it is even harder to fathom given that just two years ago he was onstage, alongside Chris for Temple Of The Dog’s reunion shows. It is heartbreaking to reflect that a band that so eloquently put words to the grief felt over the fatal overdose of Seattle luminary Andrew Wood (both Chris’ roommate and Jeff’s singer in Mother Love Bone) has now, too, lost its voice.
“The shows were so beautiful,” he continues. “I think everybody was playing at such a high level – a level we wouldn’t have been able to play at when we made that record.”
As he recalls them covering Led Zeppelin’s Achilles Last Stand onstage together, his steady stream of words slows down.
“There was just something so positive and, not to use the word over and over again, but beautiful [about those shows], it makes it even harder to think that we’ll never do it again. I feel even worse for Matt, Kim [Thayil, guitar] and Ben [Shepherd, drums], and the guys in his other bands, and that’s not to say his wife and kids. That’s almost incomprehensible.”
There are a lot of ways to look at the story of Pearl Jam, but PJ20 director Cameron Crowe landed upon perhaps the most graceful description of their journey to date as one of “joy through survival”. They have enjoyed incredible highs (1993’s Vs. selling 1 million copies in its opening week in the U.S. alone) and devastating lows, no more so than the tragedy of Roskilde Festival, where nine fans lost their lives in a crowd surge during their 2000 headline set.
In 2018, there is grief to overcome, there is a divided world to confront, but the band remains. Pearl Jam endure. Now, as before, that is something to hold on to.
“It seems miraculous to me that we’re still doing it,” concludes Jeff. “That makes me feel really grateful. We somehow managed to stick together. We really are a band of brothers – we’ve paid attention to each other and what everybody’s going through. Everybody’s reached out a hand to one another at different times, depending on what’s been going on. There really is a depth to our relationship that exists because we’ve been doing it for so long and gone through so much stuff together. We’ve witnessed and felt things that only the five of us have felt.”
He ponders all of this again – and then, underlining the point, repeats himself.
“It really does seem miraculous.”
Words: George Garner
Jeff Ament’s Heaven/Hell is out now via Monkeywrench Records.
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