Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament on life, loss and his most personal solo album yet

Jeff Ament has spent the past 18 months writing and painting his way through the pandemic. Here he opens up about the love and loss supercharging I Should Be Outside, his most personal solo outing yet, and looks ahead to Pearl Jam’s impending live return…

Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament on life, loss and his most personal solo album yet
George Garner

At first, Jeff Ament was no different to the rest of us during the pandemic. With his band’s touring plans on ice, Pearl Jam’s bassist stayed inside with his wife at their Montana home and watched on with horror as the devastation of COVID-19 unfolded on the daily news. Like everyone else, he did what he could to keep his head above water. It was after he got through Schitt’s Creek for the second time (“It was a saviour at one point,” he laughs) that he realised he was going to need more than Netflix to occupy his attention.

“The main thing that's different between me and the other guys [in Pearl Jam] is I don’t have any kids,” he tells K!. “I have to stay busy.”

What he needed was a self-imposed grand distraction. So it was that Jeff elected to hit the studio. Hard. Currently in one of the most prolific patches of his career, in the space of 18 months not only have Pearl Jam released their stunning 11th album Gigaton, Jeff has also delivered his American Death Squad EP and, this month, his brilliant new solo LP I Should Be Outside. You could say he had a pretty ambitious plan for it, but that would be underselling it. Moving between his art table and studio each morning, Jeff set himself a task of creating a song and/or painting every single day. Pressure? Schmessure.

“It was actually great to have the distraction because if one thing wasn’t happening, then you could always bounce over to the other thing,” he says. “It’s kind of always been a dream. For the past 10-15 years, I would always say that I was going to move to Spain and paint. I’m sure every musician says that at some point after you’ve been doing it for 20 or 30 years, the ‘musician painter’ is a bit of a cliche. But I was in art school before I was a musician, so I feel like I’ve gotten to go back and touch on that first love a little bit, which has just been a blast. It’s really just been a joy to go deep and come out with a document of the last year-and-a-half. I was driving my wife crazy saying, ‘Hey, what do you think about this one?’”

In all Jeff completed over 180 portraits and wrote, he gleefully admits, “lots of bad songs”. Rest assured, none of the bad ones have actually made it onto I Should Be Outside; instead we have a record of meditations on family, society and grief, all of which are made even more powerful by the portraits that accompany them. Jeff recently fired up a new Instagram account to share his artwork and offer insights into the songs and his life – one of them a painting to mark the anniversary of the Roskilde Festival tragedy that saw the loss of nine fans during Pearl Jam’s set in 2000.

“When that day comes around every year, I think everybody in the band has some praying, some of their own version of praying, going on that day,” he reflects. “The way for me to do it was just to tell the backstory of what I did those couple of days after that happened at Roskilde and explain the artwork.”

Both with and without Pearl Jam, Jeff has penned some deeply personal songs in his time, but we have perhaps never had such an intimate a look at his life as this project. When K! reaches him in Montana, fires are raging over the western part of the state and Canada.

“It’s real smoky here right now which kind of sucks,” he says, “but yeah, that’s the planet we live on right now.”

The blur of committing to a song and painting a day now over, soon he’ll reconvene with Pearl Jam as they prepare for their first post-pandemic live dates, the group rehearsing between 50-60 songs right now. In theory.

“I haven’t started yet,” he laughs. “Which I desperately need to!”

Before he hits the road again, however, it’s time to dive deep into the music and art that have shaped Jeff’s life lately…

You’ve been sharing various paintings on Instagram and connecting them to your new material. Are there any songs on this record that flat-out wouldn’t exist without a corresponding painting? Or vice versa?
“The song Despite All Odds. I had a childhood friend pass away a month into the pandemic. As a child, he had multiple heart surgeries – I remember hearing that it was 50/50 as to whether he would make it through, it was that heavy of a surgery. He weathered all these things as a young kid, and he played on the varsity basketball team, and was part of our crew and we were friends until the end. I woke up one morning and just started trying to do a portrait of him, or what I remembered of him as being as a kid. I don’t paint from pictures, I try to paint from memory. That afternoon, I went in the studio and just started writing down this little thing like, ‘Despite all odds, you’re one of us.’ I started singing it over this little drum loop and then it just caught fire and became a song. There’s a few tracks on here that are almost like meditations, it’s a way for you to process your grief. You can’t go to the funeral, you can’t be with his family, so you write a song and try to hit some part of the vein of your grief and move through it.”

You previously told K! how, over the years, you had to really grow in confidence when it came to writing lyrics. Is it harder – or more nerve-wracking – to put your emotions and feelings out there in a song or a painting?
“I didn’t intend to have my paintings be a part of this project, but it’s inspired my songwriting so much, just in terms of taking chances, and throwing technique out the window and trying to do something new. That’s the buzz. I feel like I’m maybe halfway through the 10,000 hours of painting [the duration said to be required to achieve mastery of an art form], and I don’t feel like I’m there yet. There’s a part of me that just didn’t want the paintings to be out there, but when I was trying to come up with artwork for the record, I just kept going, ‘These things are so connected.’ I would have been faking it if something else was the visual for the songs; it would have been a lie.”

You connected the opening song Lightmoves on Instagram to words by Lou Reed. Does that track have an actual relationship to him, or were you just listening to him on the day when you wrote it?
“[1992’s] Magic And Loss is a really big record for me, and I kept thinking about it when I had a few songs down and was dealing with a couple of deaths. I just kept thinking about what an amazing, vulnerable record that was – he was talking about losing people to AIDS at a time when I worked at an amazing restaurant in Seattle called the Raison d'Etre, which was full of artists. Probably two-thirds of the people that worked there were these amazing artists from within the gay community. We started losing people who I worked with, so when that record came out it touched me in such a profound way. That’s always been a reference point for me, it’s just a great, raw piece of art. We actually got to meet Lou a couple times. I was afraid to talk to him – I’d read all those [awkward] interviews – but he was so nice! Ed [Vedder, Pearl Jam frontman] and I met him in, like, 1992 and he couldn’t have been nicer. So, sometimes meet your heroes (laughs). He was just fantastic.”

From Pearl Jam’s Pilate to your solo track Safe In The Car, dogs also seem to be an animating force in your lyrics. On Sweet Boy we hear dogs barking in the background of the song. What was behind that decision to include that?
“It was at the end of a drum tape, they just started barking so it ended up on there. Right before the pandemic, we lost sweet boy, we lost [our dog] Otis, and we also lost our cat who was the ‘Killer’ in the American Death Squad song [of the same name]. So I had to write these tribute songs. Our pets are like a life-force to us. You come home, and you just get that love, that consistent love, every single day. Again, it’s just a way to process loss and give tribute to 15 years of that love that you get from your pets. Otis was such a great dog.”

It seems as though you’ve been through so much loss lately…
“When I was in like my late 20s, I remember my dad started losing his siblings and friends and he said, ‘The curse of growing old is that you lose a lot of people.’ I guess I’m entering that zone right now.”

Perhaps the most powerful song on the record is For The Ones – and that was twinned on Instagram with your personal reflection on loss and the idea of the afterlife. What was behind that track?
“I have a picture of my dad – my dad and mom are both still alive – and it’s of him on this spot on a hillside where he had a farm my entire time growing up. It’s his spot; it’s the place where he’s happiest. He told me that’s where he wants his ashes. We’ve had some heavy discussion about that. Somehow my friend made this beautiful stencil art piece out of that photo, and on the back he wrote ‘For The Ones’. And so I started thinking that I hadn’t really ever written a song for my parents. That song is such a meditation, it was one of those ones that I just felt like it had to be on the record because, even though it’s not a fully realised piece, and it’s not a pop song or whatever, it felt like it belonged.”

It seems quite deliberate that your cover of Flipper’s song Life comes straight after that one in the tracklisting and has you singing, ‘Life is the only thing living for’…
“So many Flipper songs have such great lyrics and there was such heavy sarcasm, you didn’t know where they were coming from – that’s a funny statement, ‘Life is the only thing worth living for.’ As a kid, I thought that was hilarious. Now when I think of that song, all of a sudden it starts to mean something different. I don’t know what state of mind those guys were in making that record, but they were connecting to some stuff that was pretty special. That record’s one of the greats.”

You’ve described the lead singles Bandwidth and I Hear Ya as two sides of the same coin that deal with trying to understand the people in your life. One side seems to suggests that we have to try and find peace with the people we share the world with, while the other suggests detaching from them…
“Right, it’s the pendulum. One day you’re like, ‘I’m gonna stay in my little bubble and be with the smart people.’ And then the next day, you’re like, ‘Man, but I care about these other folks.’ I certainly hope that I can put something out there and get them to just think about the thoughts that they have about immigration, or thoughts that they have about Black Lives Matter – all these movements that are so welcome and so overdue. When it comes to hate and racism and that shit, I just have a hard time with it. I have a hard time wrapping my head around it, because a lot of times these people that are down with that are so-called ‘Christians’. I was raised Catholic, and I have a pretty good grasp on what I feel like is at the core of that, and hate’s not one of them. It feels like they’re lost in some weird Old Testament shit. On paper, I can’t stand those people, but there’s some part of me that feels like our only chance in this world is to try to connect with them and try to get them to see the other side.”

You also wrote Alright on Pearl Jam’s Gigaton which seems to explore a similar kind of idea of finding your place in the world and your relationship to others. Is there a connection there?
“Alright was [about] having a few friends over the course of my life who committed suicide. I was trying to wrap my head around that sort of despair and, I think, trying to tell those people – or myself – that if it ever gets that bad, there’s a way out. There’s always a way out, and sometimes the way out is saying goodbye to everything and everybody that you love to save yourself. I read an interview with Mark Hollis from Talk Talk once, and he was talking about making his last solo record and how he felt like he had done everything he wanted to do artistically. He had a couple of young kids and he just wanted to go home and be a dad, and I just thought that was so heroic – that this guy who I thought was one of the greatest musicians on the planet just decided that something else was more important. I sort of tied those two things together. At any point, you really can turn your back on the great loves in your life. Sometimes you have to do that to survive.”

On the Pearl Jam side of things, you said you desperately need to start rehearsing songs for the group’s impending live return. But surely it’s all muscle memory at this point?
“Oh, man, but the Gigaton songs are… (long whistle). We spent about two weeks on those songs and then the rug got pulled out and I got into this [solo] world. I just haven’t been thinking about anything Pearl Jam for so long that I’m sort of nervous. But, man, I can’t wait to play Dance Of The Clairvoyants and Quick Escape. Both those songs are gonna be really fun. When Ed wrote the lyrics to Quick Escape, there was an instant visual to that track. It was a brand new thing – he wrote from a perspective I’d never heard him write from with Freddie Mercury and Zanzibar and all that stuff which is just so fantastic. It’s almost like a little tip of the cap to Andy [Wood, the late singer of Jeff’s pre-Pearl Jam band Mother Love Bone], because Andy was such a Freddie Mercury fan. Seven O’Clock is gonna be good, too. I think there could be some journeys that those songs go on.”

Pearl Jam are renowned for playing a different set every show, but are there any songs that you normally get nervous about playing live? Where you're like, ‘Oh, shit!’ before you start it?
“It’s the songs that we don’t play very often. There’s a song that Stone [Gossard, guitar] wrote called No Way that has a weird little bass drum thing in the middle that they spliced up. And it’s just the weirdest time with the way the bass comes in, and the bass kind of leads the track back in! I’ve screwed that up a couple times live (laughs). Literally, if somebody says, ‘Hey, we might play No Way tomorrow,’ I’ll be in my hotel room for, like, four hours counting beats over and over. I think everybody in the band has a couple songs like that, where there’s just some way in which it’s written that isn’t quite in your wheelhouse. We always call it the spotlight clam, it’s the part of the song where the spotlight’s on and you’re like, ‘Uhhhh…’ When you get it right, it’s so fantastic, but you’re sweating (laughs).”

You recently declared River Cross to be one of your favourite Pearl Jam songs. What was it that resonated with you on that one?
“Ed laid down a version of it that was just him and pump organ and some of his drums. I was in the studio by myself and I just took it upon myself to do the fretless bass answer to what was going on. Just lyrically, in the sentiment, there’s a real heavy quality and it’s a really different kind of a song for [us]. Ed wrote some songs like that for [2007 film soundtrack] Into The Wild, and there’s been moments where he’s touched on that, but this was all the way in. And it wasn’t a guitar song, which I loved. That’s just going to be such a mood to play live.”

On the subject of life getting back to normal, when you announced I Should Be Outside you wrote about how the pandemic had led you to contemplate waste vs. value in your life. What have you diagnosed as waste? What will you be taking forward with you now?
“With where technology has brought us as a race, it feels like we’re probably at the same tipping point where the Roman Empire was 2000 years ago. Everything was just fantastic, they’d taken over the planet and then, all of a sudden, one of the Caesars stops paying attention to some part of the uprising. It feels like that’s what’s happening with us a little bit right now. For me, personally, in the last 10 years, I had this incredible freedom – I’ve had a life of a lot of once-in-a-lifetime activities (laughs). Having all this downtime made me grateful, like, I don’t need to get on a plane every time that my friend has a birthday, or when your favourite team gets to the playoffs. There was just so much joy in slowing things down and making the space to be creative. In some ways, I felt more connected to a lot of my friends and family through this process, just because I was going deep inside my own psyche. You come out at the other end just feeling really grateful. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to get to that (laughs).”

Jeff Ament’s I Should Be Outside is out now via Monkeywrench.

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