Eddie Vedder: Grunge control

By GRAHAM REID

For a Kiwi transplanted to Pearl Jam's rehearsal room in Seattle's warehouse district, it's easy to feel at home on this warm morning. The toilet designated for women has a handmade sign which reads, "Wahine".

In the rehearsal room a dozen international journalists have been assembled and the mood is one of nervousness, in part because Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder has a formidable reputation as a reluctant and sometimes over-earnest interview subject.

In a side room of their large, crowded but orderly rehearsal space-cum-fan club centre he is hunched over his antique typewriter, a frown on the brow beneath his number two cut. His gaze is level and unwavering, his presence one of wariness.

Yet for a man who seemed to make angst a lifestyle accessory he is quietly self-deprecating. He still lives in Seattle but admits spending winters elsewhere, although "this place is good for writing depressing songs. But I can do that anywhere," he laughs.

Their rehearsal space is lined with neatly stacked guitar cases and boxes. There are sagging opp-shop couches and high on the wall, in what looks like an impromptu shrine, is a Mother Love Bone poster surrounded by the detritus of rock'n'roll: papier mache heads, a football helmet, cereal boxes, and battered dolls.

Off to one side an incomplete marquee sign reads "ARL JAM".

It was in this homely space Pearl Jam reconvened a year ago to work on what would become their new album, Riot Act, one influenced by September 11 and the subsequent political climate in the United States which the band finds oppressive and anti-democratic. That is reflected in many of the songs on Riot Act, an emotionally powerful album which also contains some of their most direct and beautiful songs yet.

Love Boat Captain contains the lines, "It can't be said enough, all you need is love . . . there's just one word I still believe, and its 'love'." And the optimistic Thumbing My Way ("no matter how cold the winter, there's a springtime ahead") boasts a gorgeous melody.

Aside from the angry Save You (about being unable to save drug addicted friends from themselves) Pearl Jam have turned down the intensity and lyrical obliqueness because this is a time for clarity.

And as he puts aside his typing Vedder is clear and direct, and not without humour.

The last time I saw you Neil Finn's son Liam was giving your career a leg up [at a week of concerts at the St James Theatre in Auckland, New Zealand when Vedder played with Liam's band betchadupa in April 2001]

Yeah (laughs) that was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life that week.

You've been to New Zealand a few times now.

Yeah, I feel at home there

I feel the same here funnily enough. Well, it was raining yesterday and that feels like Auckland to me.

Oh yeah. A few years ago I used to go surfing on the Hawaiian Islands, I felt New Zealand was like a combination of Seattle and a Hawaiian island.

Yeah, the white sands and so on, although the West Coast near Auckland has the black sand -- which is where we almost lost you in the surf.

Oh yeah, right around Piha. I didn't have a board or fins -- well, I did have Neil and Tim. (laughs) I remember Tim and I saw one of those little orange Zodiac boats and I was wondering if we could get a ride but the guys said it was only for rescues.

So Tim and I were out swimming and I thought I'd get a wave back in but then the next thing I'm in a rip. I knew I could get out of it but I was tired, exhausted actually, and we had another show that night, so I waved myself in. They came and got me in the Zodiac and I remember driving by Tim who was still in the water and I'm like, "Hey Tim, I got my ride!"

Seattle seems like a real nice place, do you still live here or do you have a flash home in Malibu and only spent a few days here now and then?

No, the last few years I've gotten away in the winter months which helps a bit. This place is good for writing depressing songs -- but I can do that anywhere (laughs)

Let's talk about the new album which is coming at a very interesting time in the history of this country.

And I'm not unmindful of the subtext of a whole lot of the songs. It seems to me when I listen to this album -- and I consider it the most consistent Pearl Jam album I've heard -- one of the things I like is the mood has dropped.

I Am Mind for example doesn't shout at you. It seems there's a sense that this is not a time for shouting but a time for clarity, clear thought and being direct. Is that a fair observation?

I think that's probably why I got rid of the Mohawk. (laughs) That was my initial reaction [to September 11].

I felt after that I didn't want to look normal, I didn't feel normal and didn't want anyone to look at me think, "He looks okay with what's going on, he's a normal guy".

I wanted even strangers on the street who didn't know who I was to have that reaction. I felt I wanted to act out on some kind of rebellion.

You wanted to be visibly seen as a dissenter?

Yeah, and if they asked, "What's up with haircut?" I had an answer that I didn't agree with bombing indiscriminately to solve these issues. But now I think it's time to, as you said, communicate more clearly.

We have the chance as a band to communicate and get some issues across, even if it's just the kids reading some of our opinions and showing it to their dads. I don't want them [dads] to be able to say, "Yeah, but look at that wanker, you're gonna believe him?" So I'm really trying to clean up my act so I can impress on the parents, gain some trust and infiltrate from within. But there's one song that's shouting, but that one calls for it, Save You.

Yeah, I'll come to that one in a minute because I thought that might have been driven by a specific incident and person.

Yeah it is.

Okay let's come to that. But you talk about the power you might have with kids as a band. Let me ask you though, what power does Pearl Jam have these days? How do you read that?

In our fan club letter recently we asked and got responses from some of the great minds of our generation.

At the beginning I asked for the [fans'] trust and said we weren't trying to abuse their faith in the group but were saying, "Here's some information to check out, you don't have to believe it but just see what it does for you." Because it's just combating what's out there because there is a lot being said. But there is a lot out there saying one thing and I think a lot of that is news or ideas generated and propagated through the major media channels. The corporations which own those channels are the same corporations which build the warships and the build the bombs.

One of those corporations is your record company of course.

Yeah, so if we can be distributed by one of those companies and put out things which go against them and they can't do much about it, that's not a bad thing. Whether we continue to be on that label will be interesting.

This is contractually your last album for Sony, right?

Yeah, contractually. We just delivered it and are doing our bit and we'll see what happens.

You seem to be doing more than your bit, you've got two weeks of this media here and in New York. Have you done that amount of press for an album before?

Hmmm. We really pulled back for No Code. I remember right before we made Yield I heard people thought we hadn't made a record since Vitalogy and I thought it was probably important we could at least let people know it was still out there.

And people seem to really care about the group and although the hardcore fans knew an album was out we figured it was worth it to wave our arms in the air a bit and say, "We've put together another collection of songs, if you are interested."

I think that's downplaying it just a little, isn't it? This album is not just another collection of songs.

Yeah, okay, we're trying for world domination, that's what we're after. (laughs) Actually not at all. There's a magazine called Ad Busters and they are the group of people which has Buy Nothing Day. I had to ask somebody today but I think our record comes out right around that day, so I want to make sure no one buys our record on November 29 in the States and maybe the 30th elsewhere. So people should make sure not to buy the record on the 29th or 30th. But whether it's understated or not I think that's what it actually is, a collection of songs.

You've been quite consistent in that throughout your career. As far as I can tell you've never really put the ego thing out there, which I think is to your credit because this is a business driven by ego.

You've managed to step back from that and yet the messages are still the same. Do you see that ego gets in the way of the message, and that you have a big message this time?

I think we're very fortunate that whatever foundation we laid as far as trust and maybe some communication with the audience -- and I hate to mention it in some kind of sacred way -- but whatever happened there, we've been fortunate that it continues and allows us to do things in a low key way.

The ego thing doesn't do it for me or us to the point where I see other people doing these MTV diaries or shoving their face at us all the time I immediately distrust them and think they're completely whacked out.

They might be able to remain human inside that and there is a certain amount of arse-kissing that goes around this [business]. But it doesn't do it for us and makes us feel very strange. I mean it feels very strange to us to come to our practice place and see a food table out [for the journalists]. "Wow, that's kinda fancy".

The comedian Bill Hicks said that the second an artist endorses a product they were off the roll call forever because you could never trust a thing they would say after that.

Yeah, that's how I feel. I saw something with Wyclef Jean last night for some **** product and Counting Crows for Coca-Cola or something. F*** them. Busta Rhymes for anti-perspirant? What the f*** is that? Why? They have a set of morals they can run with and that's fine but I'm just gonna say, "F*** you".

I assume no corporate sponsors have come to your management for years because they know of your attitude?

I don't know. We probably wouldn't hear about it. I remember being asked by the Gap years and years ago to do one of their black and white photos and I even thought about it and taking their $60,000 or whatever and giving it to a charity. But I wanted to say it would go to the charity on the bottom and they wouldn't do it.

There are older bands which might do it. I question bands' motivations but maybe the Buzzcocks for Toyota, maybe that's okay because maybe they could use a few dollars.

But times have changed and now it's a way to promote your single as opposed to the video. So now you've got Sheryl Crow doing a video which looks like a Mountain Dew commercial and then you've got that same song being used as an ad two weeks before the record comes out. I think it's clever marketing because it works for everybody, but it also lowers the respect level.

This is interesting in that it shows that the music industry has got a whole lot smarter in terms of marketing in the past few decades.

It's diabolical.

It's evil from within, but we know that. So where do you guys fit in. Ten years ago you were at the front end of a movement that was labelled grunge. That's all gone and we live in the world of Britney Spears. How do you see yourselves? Are you the grand old men now?

There's a track on the album where you say "The young can lose hope" and that sounds like an older person talking to your generation about younger people.

Well it's more of a message (laughs) "Message"?

Watch it boy.

Oh, I know, gotta be careful. (laughs) I was happy to get that line because I'm talking about people much older than us, people who are 70 or 80 and they've got attitudes that don't have the deep peaks and valleys as someone who in adolescence who is faced with some things and they go, "F*** this, this sucks, how can we have any hope?"

These are people who been through the invention of the horseless carriage to the car to the TV set and are dealing with internet. How do they view it? It's almost with disdain. This is the wisdom they can't give away, that is what I'm talking about and that youth doesn't have that time line beneath them. So they just see something in front of them and think there's no hope, no getting over it, what's the point and so on. They are also bombarded with information more than ever these days, and negativity and cynicism and I can understand why they would feel that way. But they don't have to. There really are positive actions that can be taken.

Even just attending rallies and exposing yourself to participating in world events and letting your opinion be known, just going to the park on a Sunday when there's an anti-war rally.

Just getting out there and participating is empowering and contagious and you feel like you can make a change and are surrounded by other people maybe thinking the same thing, rather than sitting at home feeling isolated because what you see on the news is not relating to you because you see people acting in a very patriotic way and that's not how you are feeling. And you are meant to believe that everyone is feeling that way.

You can see that in this country. I came here in October last year and there were no voices of dissent then. Now I sense it is changing a little.

Yeah, it's getting a little healthier.

There seems a dialogue going on, but I did read recently that 70 per cent of people believe the television media is the mouthpiece of the government as if that were a good thing. I see no voices of dissent there, maybe a little in print these days.

If I'm not mistaken I think through the internet I read that the New Zealand Herald is one of the better outlets for information about [vice president Dick] Cheney's involvement with Halliburton [an oil service company with links to Iraq].

I was actually going to other folks giving them print outs and saying, "Here's information we're not getting". I was giving them to surfers and whoever as we got into conversations and they almost couldn't believe what I was telling them.

As a small country we have an outsiders view of this big thing.

That's how I feel as a musician, as a guy who gets a mike in his hand every once in a while. It's not just an opportunity and I hope I don't abuse it. But I do a fair amount of research and am in touch with some really good people like [political commentator] Howard Zinn and wouldn't want to steer anybody the wrong way. It's to give people more information to make up their own opinion.

If you said to people, "This is what you have to do" then you'd become the enemy too, right?

Oh yeah, and I have to be careful about that. I have pretty strong feelings about this stuff and I see Cheney on television in Washington this week not answering the question, "What right do we have to go into Iraq?"

It's just based on fear and do they have the weapons we think they might have? What right do we have to go into another country and change regimes? What right?

Indeed, why not go into Zimbabwe?

Exactly. And why do we give $3 billion to Israel and $300 million to Africa?

It seems like this is very good time to be asking those questions, and to have an album out that poses questions. That said however Robert Hughes, the Time magazine art critic once said that no work of art ever saved a single Jew from a gas chamber, but that art does prepare the mind for dissent, to stand outside the crowd. Is that how you see it?

One thing I do know is that what we say and express in our music isn't owned or controlled by anybody. In this day and age, even with these other artists doing commercials -- and what can Counting Crows say against commercialism when they are participating in it? -- I think we have to take advantage of it and hopefully it won't overshadow the music. I'm glad it's worked out we are in that position.

Ten years ago you couldn't have conceived you'd still be doing this. Back then you were taking a pasting in the media, although I guess having seven million people pay for your record puts the 20 critics who got a free copy in their place.

One thing that did happen was, whatever light came out of the darkness of selling that many records, it gave us the power to say, "No" right off the bat which we ended up enjoying that right and taking full advantage of it and shaping the way we wanted to do that and not basing things on sales.

If we would have had a tougher climb -- although there were a lot of things that happened in our other lives and bands before that -- we were fortunate in that we weren't scraping to get bigger.

It was more like accepting it had happened and ask, "What do we have to do stay a band for 10 years?".

I remember Jeff and I doing interviews way back and him saying, "Already I'm interested in hearing what it's going to be like five albums down the line because the first one was so interesting".

I said right at the outset I thought this album, aside from Save Me as we've said, brought the level down for clarity. Am I right in thinking that was that conscious?

It's definitely not conscious because I'm still amazed at how these songs have come out, as much as how good as how the players can respect the sound of a song. We work really well as a band and communicate well, but it still amazes me they come out in a way that everybody likes.

Thumbing My Way is a beautiful song.

Thanks. Neil [Finn] liked it too.

Okay Save You. It seems a very personal song. Would I be right in thinking it was prompted by a specific friendship, someone losing the plot?

One thing I've learned about addiction in the last few years is that having seen other folk go through it, and really not having done that, with heroin which can grip you that intensely.

I didn't have a complete understanding and a lot of times it was easy to come to the conclusion that you place blame on the person or accuse them of weakness or ask, "Why couldn't Kurt [Cobain] keep it together?" There was always that in the back of your mind.

So with all the sympathy and empathy you could muster you still felt like, "Wow, there was so much to live for."

What I've learned is there really isn't any blame. It has happened to some folks I cared about so much and had it so together, so it really isn't blame thing. I think the song is expressing how badly you want to help.

Was it prompted by the death of Layne [Stayley, of Alice in Chains], or is that too specific?

It was a combination of things, although there's a song about Layne which will end up on a b-side or something. It's nice to be able to put those emotions in a song.

I'm getting the nod to wrap this up, so thanks for your time. Nice typewriter incidentally.

(laughs) Journalists always notice that!

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