Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard: “Eddie Vedder is my muse. Every song I write is for him, ultimately”
Stone Gossard has too many songs. He can’t help it. Pearl Jam’s legendary guitarist says you can ask anyone who’s ever worked with him before, they’ll all tell you the same exact thing.
Sitting at home in Seattle, he proceeds to regale Kerrang! with his impression of what he expects other artists would say about him.
“‘If there’s one thing he’s got, its ideas,’” he chuckles. “‘More ideas, here they come, ladies and gentlemen!’”
Typically, Stone’s deluge of material is all conceived with one specific final destination in mind: the ear canals of Eddie Vedder.
“I write every song for Eddie, ultimately,” he says. “He’s my muse. I would love to write 50 songs a year with him, but it’s just not on the cards; it just doesn’t work like that for him. When he’s in a writing process, it’s different than it is for me. I can write all the time. The way Ed really operates, the way that he loves to get music, is for something that’s immediate for you coming in at a time when he’s ready to connect with it. He likes to be in the process with you. So, if I send him 30 ideas, it’s just too much information for him to manage; that’s just not how his brain works.”
The long and short of it, Stone says, is this: “I write too many songs for Pearl Jam” – his words uttered neither with sadness or remorse, but almost as a gleeful oops of an admission. Not that this should come as a surprise. Stone was the first member of the Seattle group to release a solo album in the shape of 2001’s Bayleaf. This the same man who, in the white-hot heat of grunge mania after Pearl Jam released their classic debut Ten, somehow found time to form another band, Brad, and write their stunning debut Shame in a matter of days. “It was a lesson in jumping off cliffs, and trusting in your friendships,” he reflects of their inception. He’s a self-diagnosed “tinkerer”. Ping him 30 songs over Dropbox and just see what happens. You don’t get ghosted by Stone Gossard; your ass gets 30 sets of methodical notes fired back. Surprisingly, however, the latest product of his formidable tinkering is not Pearl Jam’s 5K-rated 2020 album Gigaton. That honour is instead reserved for his chameleonic rock band, Painted Shield, and their brilliant self-titled debut record.
There’s the long version and the short version of how it came about. The long is to see it as a grand reunion between Stone and Matt Chamberlain. The wonder-drummer was a member of Pearl Jam for a few weeks in 1991 – helping them out on the Ten tour after original sticksman Dave Krusen checked himself into rehab. Van rides through the desert were endured together… without functioning air conditioning.
“We were trying to convince him all the time that he needed to be in the band, but he had a lot of other territory to cover,” smiles Stone, recalling their failed powers of persuasion at the time. That other territory has included working with the venerated likes of Bruce Springsteen, Soundgarden, A Perfect Circle, Kanye West, David Bowie, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos and, most recently, Bob Dylan. “He can do it all,” praises Stone.
The real catalyst, though, was when Stone met Painted Shield’s singer. From Mark Arm in Green River, to Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, Chris Cornell in Temple Of The Dog, Eddie Vedder in Pearl Jam, Shawn Smith in Brad and even Neil Young, throughout his career Stone Gossard has been a lightning rod for incredible vocalists. And now, with Painted Shield, he says he gets to work with another. Enter: American singer-songwriter Mason Jennings.
“I think there’s something in his approach that has elements of Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan and all these singers that I love,” salutes Stone of the man he was introduced to by a mutual friend. “He’s totally different than Shawn Smith or Eddie in terms of his approach. Mason’s subtle. His voice has a narrower range, but his storytelling, his phrasing and his accents hit me in the right spot.”
And Stone hit Mason, too. One of Painted Shield’s best tracks, Ten Years From Now, was forged during the singer’s divorce. The first incarnation was “super-aggressive” until the guitarist imparted some wisdom.
“It just didn’t strike me as a slam dunk,” says Stone. “I knew he was working through this stuff about his relationship with his ex-wife. He was right in it. I was just like, ‘Maybe you can give yourself some perspective – think about how would you feel 10 years from now? Where would you like to be in 10 years? How could you imagine it improving?’”
The recalibrated song is a beautiful meditation on hope and possible reconciliation, switching from dazed-sounding passages into a fuzzy blast of a chorus. It’s indicative of the album as a whole, Painted Shield a reminder that Stone Gossard is seemingly outright allergic to repeating himself musically. Knife Fight and On The Level summon Beck in his Odelay-era, and Time Machine has hints of Queens Of The Stone Age. At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is I Am Your Country, which starts with an ominous, slow-motion industrial throb that shares DNA with Nine Inch Nails.
You learn as much about Stone when he talks about his Painted Shield collaborators – which also includes Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Mike McCready, John Congleton and Josh Freese – as you do when he speaks about himself. His mastery of weapons-grade sarcasm is legendary, so much so it even has its own listing in the index of Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary book, PJ20. But there is another side to Stone’s piercing wit: self-deprecation. Take his summary of the contributions from Painted Shield’s secret weapon – the “keyboard assassin” Brittany Davis. “Her ear is incredible; she’s got a whole series of approaches that can be powerful… I have one approach,” he deadpans. As for the aforementioned menace of I Am Your Country? “That’s Matt Chamberlain’s baby, I’m just smart enough to go, ‘That should definitely be on this record!’” grins Stone. “That’s my skillset.”
The man whose work with Green River, Mother Love Bone, Temple Of The Dog and Pearl Jam forever altered the trajectory of rock music is, it seems, also a master of modesty. Take his explanation for why, whether it be between bands or even individual tracks within an album, so many of his songs sound so radically different… “I don’t know the first thing about music other than, like, I pick up my instrument and I tinker with it until I find something I like – that’s been my process from the beginning,” he smiles. “If a symphony asks me to come up and play, I’ll strum along and that’s about all I’m going to be able to give them.”
We have seen many sides of Stone Gossard over the years. The man who attended a congressional hearing to state the case for Pearl Jam’s right to charge their fans less money for tickets. The guy who’s taken part in a host of environmental campaigns, including Conservation International, fighting for the protection of America’s wild horses and going as far as to become a board member of Portland’s Wild Salmon Centre. But one thing we haven’t seen from him – he of too many songs, two solo albums, and even lead vocals on some Pearl Jam songs – is the sight of him fronting a band. Has the idea ever crossed his mind?
“God,” he cringes. “Lord, help me. One, I can’t sing and play guitar at the same time. And two, I can’t sing!”
Then again, Stone doesn’t need to take centre stage to have a big impact. If Painted Shield offers one lens through which to view him, another appeared this year in the form of Pearl Jam’s Gigaton. The product of a group who still largely swerve interviews, much about the record remains shrouded in mystery. It was an album born of turbulent times, and in more ways than one…
On paper at least, Ouija boards and Pearl Jam don’t appear to have a hell of a lot in common. Unless, that is, you ask Stone Gossard. He thinks they are, in fact, very similar.
“When you’re in a band where you’re sharing [ideas] and you’re not necessarily in control of all that happens, you’re sort of politicking for what you think is best,” he explains. “A lot of times, you don’t get what you want, it’s like everybody’s got to get their hands on the Ouija board.”
Some context may help. Every band has their own way of making music; sometimes there’s one guiding force, other times there’s a couple. But in Pearl Jam? There are five incredible – and incredibly prolific – songwriters. What has consistently proven to be so endearing is the extent to which, especially for a 30-year-old band, its members speak with almost sacred reverence when one of their individually-penned songs gets the go-ahead to become a Pearl Jam track.
In 2018, Jeff Ament told Kerrang! about the inordinate pride he had when his songs started getting the collective seal of approval.
“It gave me confidence,” he revealed. “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!’” Stone can relate to this undiminished excitement. And on Gigaton, he felt the five hands of Pearl Jam moving the creative planchette over one of his most personal creations to date: Buckle Up. Coming together in the last month of the recording sessions, he was playing its gently undulating guitar line in rehearsals when Eddie strolled in and zeroed in on the sound. Stone heard the magic words.
“Whoa,” said Eddie. “That’s cool.”
“I’ve written plenty of songs that he didn’t necessarily respond to and for him to go, ‘That’s the one I want to do’? I couldn’t have been happier,” enthuses Stone. “If I was ever frustrated, all of that went out the window because of him picking, really, the most personal and most ‘me’ song on the record. It was thrilling. It made it all circle around for me again to kind of go, ‘Oh my god, this is so cool how this process works.’ Ed really, really does want to share, so he’s going to pick something from everybody and, in a sense, it really is filtering it through his filter, which is great. If he can see the big picture, and put the puzzle pieces together to make it where he knows it’s right, we’re totally trusting that. He’s our leader. If you have one great moment on a record, you’re like, ‘Got it!’”
In recent months, Stone has saluted Eddie’s lyricism on Gigaton, framing it as a much-needed tonic for 2020 and the maelstrom of American politics – today he likens and Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the election result as being “like a kid’s sporting event where one kid just refuses to give the ball back”. The mysticism of Eddie Vedder is something Stone preaches, yet Pearl Jam’s guitarist has also had a lot of fans talking this year. Buckle Up has confounded many, its beautiful musical passages at odds with the allusions to bloodshed. Is it about murder? A traumatic childhood memory? Parenthood? However you take it, the through-line seems to suggest Stone Gossard has been thinking a lot about the fragility of life lately…
“I’m mixing metaphors all over the place, but that’s absolutely where it’s coming from,” nods Stone, explaining the myriad interpretations of it. “The line ‘antiquities falling into the Nile’, it’s just [like saying], ‘Everything must pass.’ It’s that inevitability of decline. You’re going to be confronted with some of the most challenging moments of your life, and you’ve got to put on your big-boy pants and buckle up. You’re going to be challenged by life, and particularly life as you get older and are confronted with mortality.”
Such confrontations in the Pearl Jam camp have, sadly, been numerous in recent years in the run up to Gigaton. In a November interview with Howard Stern, Eddie opened up about losing his younger brother in a climbing accident and the devastating loss of Chris Cornell. “I was just terrified where I’d go if I allowed myself to feel what I needed to feel,” confided the frontman.
Each member has had to contend with their grief for their former Temple Of The Dog bandmate. Today, Stone speaks with deep reverence for his late friend and collaborator, recalling witnessing Chris’ metamorphosis from delivering “punk rock screaming shows” in clubs in Seattle to the man singing on Soundgarden’s classic Hunted Down. “He elevated himself in a way that everyone dreams about,” he says. “It was like becoming a superhero or something, in terms of that voice and where it came from and how it was able to be so sensual and so piercing at the same time. He was one of the greatest vocalists of all time.” Stone’s memory proceeds to take him back to the blur of recording Temple Of The Dog’s elegiac album in just a week and a half as a tribute to Andrew Wood – the late singer of Stone and Jeff’s band Mother Love Bone and Chris’ roommate.
“Going back to the making Temple Of The Dog and how touched he was by Andy, and then him looking out for us as we lost our friend…” Stone pauses. “And just his generosity in terms of inviting us and our new singer [Eddie Vedder] to make this record that ends up being one of the greatest records of all time, in terms of my perspective. He wrote those songs, we recorded them in a week and a half. I don’t even remember being there, basically. But you listen back now and you go, like, ‘How could a 24-year-old have such wisdom in his lyrics?’ He’s touched in those songs.”
Chris’ passing was not the only loss Stone had to process. On April 3, 2019, news broke that Shawn Smith, the extraordinarily talented vocalist of Brad, had died, aged 53. Together they had recorded five brilliant, often achingly beautiful studio albums together.
“Music was always a religious experience for him,” offers Stone. “It was always a moment of grace, he was almost always singing from a place of holiness. As he was singing, he realised something about the nature of the universe that always made him be able to have some hope, and be able to have a sense of wanting to spread love, and that’s tangible. That’s something that’s so powerful.
“I wish that I had a chance to make another record with him,” he continues. “We were in a lot of conversations right before he passed away about, ‘We’re going to make this record!’ He was so excited about it. Shawn passed away in his sleep, he died of a heart attack. And I don’t think he wanted to go, he wanted to make records. We were talking about it. I think about him all the time, he’s present for me.”
K! wonders if there is any credence to online rumours about there being an unreleased Brad album…
“There’s Brad songs, for sure,” Stone says. “I think we have a record but Regan [Hagar, drums], Keith [Lowe, bass] and I have to go back in and make the right choices about presenting that record in a way that makes the most sense. There’s lots of Shawn solo stuff. There are some Shawn Smith songs that are beautiful that haven’t been heard yet. It’s going to take a little bit of time to get through that stuff and figure it out and make sure it’s right. So that’s the plan. There are songs; we’re going to put them out at some point. And I think it’s a record.”
As you might expect from the person captured in the Pearl Jam 20 film unexpectedly discovering his discarded GRAMMY Award in the depths of his basement, Stone Gossard is someone who is hardwired to looking forward, not dwelling on the past. He certainly has a lot of plans. On top of unheard Brad music, he is going to be unleashing an unreleased album by an early band of Duff McKagan, the Guns N’ Roses bassist and fellow Seattalite, on his Loosegroove label. Painted Shield, meanwhile, have already written songs for another record and plan on touring as soon as it’s feasible.
Interestingly, also occupying his thoughts at the moment is the prospect not just of Pearl Jam finally touring Gigaton – including two nights at London’s BST Hyde Park in July 2022 – but also of the record they could go on to make next. The most adventurous moments of Gigaton, including lead single Dance Of The Clairvoyants featuring Stone on bass, could just be the tip of the iceberg…
“There’s some new territory there, and I think it bodes well for whatever comes next,” says Stone. “I think we’re still scratching the surface in terms of what really could be significantly different sounding songs. I guess I would probably compare [what I’m thinking of] to an OK Computer/Kid A moment, thinking about Radiohead’s transformation and the journey that they went on.”
So do you think that moment still lays ahead for Pearl Jam?
“I hope so,” he says. “It’s not going to be OK Computer, obviously, but a moment where we stumble onto something that is significantly different. That prospect always intrigues me. I’d like to make another record that really shocks people – that makes them go, ‘Wow, that’s unexpected!’”
Read this next:
Here are 12 bands who conquered the world by refusing to sacrifice what they believe in.
Slipknot have posted a tribute to their founding drummer Joey Jordison, who passed away earlier this week.