Pearl Jam: Steady hands on the wheel

By Scott Kara

Former grunge titans Pearl Jam return with their 10th studio album and a Big Day Out headline spot. Scott Kara reports

Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard (far right) says he loves the journey Pearl Jam has been on and is happy to reminisce about the glory days of grunge.
Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard (far right) says he loves the journey Pearl Jam has been on and is happy to reminisce about the glory days of grunge.

There is no doubt Eddie Vedder is the leader of Pearl Jam. But the guy with the beautifully grunty, red wine-infused voice doesn't get it his way all the time, because there are four other songwriters in this band.

Guitarist and co-founder Stone Gossard, on the phone from Seattle before the release of the band's 10th album, Lightning Bolt, on October 4, and their headline appearance at the Big Day Out next year, likens the Pearl Jam dynamic to a Ouija board.

"There are a bunch of guys' hands on this steering wheel and you don't quite know where it's going to go," he says with a laugh. "It's an imperfect process that I find fascinating, I love it, and it can also be frustrating and difficult but in the long run you know you're going to get what you want."

And although Gossard says Vedder is the band's natural leader who guides "the ship", there are times when "the process" - for a guitarist in a rock band he can be very businesslike - means they have to fight for something they believe a song needs.

"Everyone has a lot of influence over what happens. You've got to know your role in the band and what to fight for and what not to fight for and you don't always get your way, but in the long run you get a lot. That's how it works for us anyway. And at the end those songs go together by the nature that it's our personalities working on them and everybody is bringing a little bit of their own to the song.

"But in rock music, basically your singer and your drummer are your two biggest drivers of what style the music sounds like. And the lyrics and the vocal melodies are the biggest defining factors."

On Lightning Bolt, Vedder's vocals are better than ever. He shows that trademark rough-and-ready side on faster-paced and reckless tracks such as Mind Your Manners and the title track. But it's on Sirens ("a beautiful Mike McCready riff and arrangement") and Infallible, one of the most intriguing and oddball songs Pearl Jam has done, where Vedder's standing as one of rock's finest voices comes through.

"Infallible is a standout," reckons Gossard. "It's cool because it's got a lot going on, things are happening, it's got a lot of shape and depth to it."

Lightning Bolt is different from the shorter and sharper assault of previous album Backspacer, and is made up of a longer, more solid and diverse set of songs. What also makes the album unique from other Pearl Jam records is that they came up with the quieter, more reflective songs during a recording session almost two years ago and then took a break before reconvening to nail the other half of the album.

"That really benefited the record because we were able to really listen to what we did and analyse it and then come back and react to what we'd done first time round and where we needed to go. And we came back pretty hard the next round."

For Gossard, the dynamic between the tougher songs and the beautiful acoustic refrains of Sirens is what he loves about Pearl Jam.

"It's been in our DNA from the beginning, that to make the heavier song heavier you have to have something quiet and sensitive nearby. I've always been really proud of this band for being really adventurous on that front. You look at bands like Led Zeppelin and the Stones and think about the variety of songs that they gave you and I think we aim towards that and think, 'This is what's possible'."

They may have made their name on the back of their debut album Ten, but apart from the odd dreary moment such as 2000's Binaural, Pearl Jam have released a string of consistently strong albums, and have the following to prove it. They have also been a tight touring and songwriting unit since 1998 when drummer Matt Cameron joined the band.

"There have been a lot of marriages and long-term relationships, a lot of kids that have been born, and I think we've all been together through some tough times and then some really beautiful times. We're a better band because we have pretty normal home lives that have nothing to do with Pearl Jam.

"I think we're all calmer individuals, and more grateful. We're more likely to work it out with each other and enjoy the band these days. We're just older and wiser. But that's a normal thing everyone of our generation has come around to and I don't think it's unique to Pearl Jam."

The thing is, Pearl Jam have outlasted most of their US rock contemporaries from the late 80s and early 90s. And talking to Gossard it's no wonder, because the guy is just as passionate about music now as he was when he was a kid and in pre-Pearl Jam bands Green River and Mother Love Bone.

"I look at the guitar in exactly the same way," he says. "I don't actually know anything about guitar but every time I pick it up I just try and look at it like a kid looks at it. That's how I've been able to find riffs that I love, just look at it through a childlike blend. I love going into the studio and making stuff up. It's still as exciting to me as it was when I was a kid."

He's also happy to reminisce about the glory days of grunge and has a nice take on Pearl Jam's battle for supremacy with Nirvana back in the day.

"The impact Nirvana is still having to this day is incredible. I think any time you write a song, Kurt Cobain is one of those people in the back of your mind in terms of you saying to yourself, 'Why was he able to get so much power out of three chords? What was he doing? Why was his simplicity so important? Where was he coming from that made him such an amazing source of blues and rock and to be so in touch with that?' He was an incredible musical force. And I love being in Pearl Jam. I love the journey that we've been on. And I think Nirvana played a role in that because I think they challenged us to be better than maybe we would have been if they hadn't existed."

Who: Pearl Jam
What: Lightning Bolt, new album out today
Live: Headlining the Big Day Out, January 17, Western Springs
Also listen to: Ten (1991), Vs. (1993), Vitalogy (1994), No Code (1996), Yield (1998), Riot Act (2002), Pearl Jam (2006), Backspacer (2009)

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