The TFT Interview: “Grunge is Dead” Author, Greg Prato

by Jessica Letkemann on May 19, 2009

As previously written, Rock journalist Greg Prato, who writes for All Music Guide, Billboard, Classic Rock and Goldmine has written Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music. The book contains over 130 original interviews conducted for the book over a three-year period. Amongst the interviewees are our boys Ed Vedder and Jeff Ament along with every important witness to the rise of Seattle music – Kim Thayil of Soundgarden,  Layne Staley’s Mom Nancy McCallum, photographer Charles Peterson, Pavitt and Poneman from Sub Pop, Mark Arm – you name it.

Jessica had the opportunity to chat with Greg following his book signing at the Easy Street Records in West Seattle. Enjoy!


Jessica: So you just got back from your book signing at Easy Street in Seatle, right? Tell me what that was like.

Greg: I was doing a signing and reading at the West Seattle location and I got to meet quite a few people that I spoke to for the book. I got to meet [guitarist] Kim Thayil and [bassist] Ben Shepherd from Soundgarden. Also Mark Arm from Mudhoney and Green River. I also met Krist Novoselic and [early drummer] Chad Channing from Nirvana. [Soundgarden and Alice In Chains manager] Susan Silver also came to the signing.

Jessica: Your book was really interesting because I admit I have an addiction to the Pearl Jam prehistory, the story of how it all came together before the band formed. You talked to people like Susan Silver, which was great. She was one of the people unofficially booking the Metropolis in Seattle in the early 80s, and that’s where people like Jeff Ament met Mark Arm and Steve Turner to form Green River.

Greg: She was also a great help with the book. She was very sweet. She put me in touch with the Alice In Chains guys and also Kim Thayil, who really doesn’t do that many interviews anymore.

Jessica: What was the signing like? Did a lot of fans come up and try to pick your brain?

Greg: It was a mixture of people I spoke to for the book and fans of the music. I read a portion of the first Pearl Jam chapter. It’s the quote where Eddie talks about the first-ever Pearl Jam show where he has his eyes closed [to an empty club] and he opens them and suddenly there’s the crowd. I also had all the people there that are in the book sign my book, so that was cool.

Jessica: What has been the reaction to the book among the musicians and other people you interviewed?

Greg: I heard from Jeff Ament two weeks ago. He sent me an email  and said that the first three chapters were great. My publisher is sending copies to Eddie and Kelly Curtis, Pearl Jam’s manager, and I’m really curious to see what they have to say.

Jessica: Aside from Clark Humphrey’s “Loser” about fifteen years ago, nobody has really dug into the early stuff. It’s still amazing to see that all these random people ended up in great bands together.

Greg: Basically the whole purpose of me doing this book….. I have to confess that my favorite Seattle band of all time is actually Soundgarden. But I definitely love Pearl Jam, I definitely love Nirvana. Soundgarden, though, is the top band for me. I did an article for Classic Rock magazine about five years ago and I was able to interview several people and through that article I came up with the idea of trying to do a book about either Soundgarden or the whole scene. From there, it grew. I’m a very big fan of a book that came out in the 90s called, “Please Kill Me.” That book focused on 70s New York punk bands.

Jessica: Legs McNeil, right?

Greg: Exactly. It was set up as an oral history, meaning it was all quotes. I came to the realization that I wanted to put together a book like that of the people that were actually there telling their story. It snowballed. The more people I spoke to, the more I was able to get people suggesting other people. Two or three years later, here I am. I’m happy with how it all came out.

Jessica: One of the cool things about this group of people is that they are all still kind of friends with each other. It’s not surprising to me that once you talked to a couple of people, you got passed along through the whole network.

Greg: Right. The more interviews I did, the more people realized I was really, truly a fan of the music and not just trying to throw together some quick book or some sensationalistic book. They began to trust me. They knew I was trying to put together something that was really a snapshot of that entire time in Seattle.

Jessica: You take a giant step in that direction automatically by virtue of the fact that it’s all of them talking. There’s no room for editorializing, which is great.

Greg: For me, personally, whenever I’m reading an article, I enjoy the straight-ahead Q&A’s, where you hear directly from the person what they’re thinking rather than what a writer thinks. You get it straight from the horse’s mouth.

Jessica: I totally agree. I deal with music writing for a living too and I feel the same way. What the artist has to say is usually more interesting than what I might write about them. You already answered two of my big questions: what prompted you to do the book and which Seattle band made you so interested in this subject. It’s interesting that you say Soundgarden, too, because Matt Cameron made his way through the scene from left field. He came out of San Diego like Eddie did later, and landed in bands with everybody. He was in a band with [Nirvana producer] Jack Endino and then everybody wanted him.

Greg: Yeah. First a band called Feedback, then Skin Yard [with Endino] and then Soundgarden.

Jessica: Right, and he’s been in Pearl Jam now for eleven years. I can’t believe it!

Greg: Right! It’s weird. It seems like yesterday that we heard he was playing in Pearl Jam. And of course he had also already played in Temple of the Dog, if we’re talking about the Pearl Jam connection.

Jessica: What were some of the most surprising things that people told you for the book? I geeked out on all the Pearl Jam stuff where you have Eddie sleeping in the basement while they were recording.

Greg: There was definitely a lot of stuff about Pearl Jam that I didn’t know. Eddie talking about the first Pearl Jam show. I also like the story where Eddie says he spoke to Chris Cornell afterwards and his eyes and his teeth were glowing and that he basically looked like Satan. [laughs] I didn’t realize, when I spoke with Jeff, that there was some friction in Pearl Jam between Vs. and Vitalogy. He said that if ever there was a time period in their career where it made sense for them to break up, that would have been it.

Jessica: Well, that was 1994 you’re talking about. A lot happened that year.

Greg: I was kind of surprised about that because as a fan looking in, I would have thought that that was when they may have been at their strongest. That was when the whole world was worshipping them and any album they would release would shoot to the top of the charts and they would sell out huge stadiums and everything. Which of course, they still do, but back then it was crazy how widespread they were.

Greg Prato with Krist Novoselic and Kim Thayil

Greg Prato with Krist Novaselic and Kim Thayil

It was also cool to hear Eddie talk about his memories of and views on Nirvana or Alice In Chains or Soundgarden. He was talking about going hiking with Chris Cornell before Vs. came out and right before Superunknown came out and they almost got stuck on the mountain. They didn’t know if they were going to be able to get back down. [laughs] I can’t imagine what must have been going through their minds. Here they are on the verge of releasing these two huge albums and I’m sure there’s a chance they were thinking, “are we even going to be able to get out of here.” That was a pretty crazy story.

Jessica: There are a lot of Eddie stories from the 90s that show him to be more than a little bit of a daredevil when it came to physical stuff. He was out surfing with the guys from Crowded House in New Zealand and they caught out too far in the ocean in the riptide.

Greg: Right. I was lucky enough to see them at Lollapalooza ’92 at Jones Beach [in Long Island, New York] and that was the show that he climbed all the way up the huge tower.

Jessica: Yeah! Right over the water with the huge rocks sticking out.

Greg: It was absolutely crazy. To this day, that remains one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. I would put it in my top five. That’s not something you see everyday.

Jessica: I bet the security guys were losing their minds.

Greg: [Laughs] Yeah, definitely.

Jessica: Funny enough, Lollapalooza ’92 was also my first Pearl Jam show. I went to the Chicago show. We were on the lawn. I went because I liked the Chili Peppers and Soundgarden. I was really into them. I knew Pearl Jam, of course, that was after “Alive” and “Even Flow”, and I liked them, but I didn’t love them until 1) the “Jeremy” video came out that summer and 2) at that show, Eddie said, “okay, everybody on the lawn has my permission to come into the pavilion and go right up to the stage.” And I thought, “Who is this guy? I’m really listening now.”

Greg: [Laughs] Lollapalooza really put the exclamation point on the whole Ten era.

Jessica: Lollapalooza is actually exactly when Ten reached it’s peak on the charts. Right at the end of the tour, Ten reached No. 2.

Greg: I actually remember that very well because at the time I was going to Stonybrook College, and walking through the dorm, you could not escape hearing Ten being blared from everywhere. People that may not have been rock fans were even latching on to them.

Jessica: Obviously on TwoFeetThick, we’re deep into Pearl Jam, but all of these bands are near and dear to us. You can’t have Pearl Jam without Mudhoney. You can’t have Pearl Jam without Soundgarden. What are some of your other experiences seeing Pearl Jam and some of the other bands? What was your first Soundgarden show? Did you ever see Nirvana?

Greg: My first Soundgarden show I talk about in the forward of the book. It was in 1990 when they played with Faith No More, which is also one of my favorite bands of all time. It was at a venue in Brooklyn called L’Amour, which is no longer there. I was blown away because at that time I was primarily into metal and getting into Soundgarden and like the Chili Peppers opened a new door for me. That’s how I was then introduced to punk bands and different types of music like funk.

I’m sad to say the only time I’ve ever seen Pearl Jam was that one Lollapalooza show, which I am actually embarrassed to say. I consider Pearl Jam one of my favorite bands, but for some reason I haven’t been to see them again. Either I haven’t had the cash or wasn’t in town when they were playing. I want to see them again soon because in preparation for this book, I went out and bought the last few live Pearl Jam DVD and it definitely proves they’re as great now live as they were back in ’92.

Jessica: Well, I’m biased, so I would agree that they are great live. [both laugh]

Greg: Seeing how they still play with such heart and energy, I really have to catch a show. Because sadly when the day comes that Pearl Jam is not around anymore, I don’t want to say “I should have seen them more often.” But getting back to the question, Soundgarden I’d seen over the years about five times.

One of the best was Roseland [in Manhattan] in ’92, the Badmotorfinger tour. And there was a great show I saw them in 1994 [June 17] where I’ve never seen a band at again. It was the New York State Armory. It was them and Eleven and Tad, I think. I don’t know the city that well because I’m from Long Island, but I had a friend drive me because there was a strike on the Long Island Railroad. Soundgarden played all of Superunknown, which was fantastic. That was also the night that OJ Simpson was caught trying to flee from the police in the white car and Chris Cornell talked about it. The crowd thought it was a fabrication. But when we left, we saw it on the news and thought, “Oh shit.” It was so hot, they didn’t have AC. Everyone was drenched and they played for super long, two and a half hours or longer.

I’ve also seen Alice In Chains. I saw them at Lollapalooza ’93 in Jersey. Tad opening up for Primus in ’91. That was another one of those things where you walk in and don’t know who the bands are and by the end of the set you’re like, man I gotta go check out some of their stuff. I’ve seen the Melvins really not too long ago. And they’re still as great now as they were then.

Jessica: It’s funny that you saw Soundgarden on a bill with Eleven; two bands that each begat Pearl Jam drummers.

Greg: It’s true what you were saying earlier that with all of this friendship going on, and the fact that people playing in the bands were fans of the other bands, that’s what separates the Seattle scene from some of the other scenes. It seems like almost everyone was supportive of each other.

Jessica: I think it was necessary too, because in the early days they had to dodge around the weird Seattle laws about live shows. They had to book their own stuff too.

Greg: Yeah, definitely. And something else I was a big fan of with all of those bands, which I don’t think is true of the hard rock scene, is that there was a very small difference between the audience and the band. It could have just as easily been an audience member that was on the stage. It was totally like, we just happen to be the band, you could easily be the people up here playing to us. In the book, I talk about the fact, that you would see the same core of people going from show to show pretty much.

Jessica: Going back to the book, what was it like specifically interviewing the members of Pearl Jam?

Greg: Speaking to Eddie has to be one of the best phone interviews I’ve ever done. I’ve been a longtime fan and I admire everything that he stands for and how he’s never sold out. He always stands up for exactly what he believes in. I think I even told him that during the interview. The causes that he supports and of course all the great songs he’s written. I told him that.

He was also nice enough to speak to me for a full two hours. That was fantastic. He just told great story after great story. I think people vouched for me with him. He was one of the last interviews I did. I had also spoken to Jeff already, so I think a lot of people already told him, “alright, this guy knows what he’s talking about. he’s not just writing about Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam is part of the story but it’s also about all the other bands. He’s a fan of the music.” [Eddie] told me a lot of stories I’d never heard before, like the story with Chris Cornell’s eyes glowing.

I found it interesting that Eddie was interviewed by Rolling Stone around that time [in 2006] and I remember the writer asked him to talk about the early days and he just skipped over it. But for me, he gave me a gift and totally opened up about that stuff.

Something that I’ve always found to be fascinating is you take Eddie, who was surfer not doing anything, and it shows you that in life things can happen. You can’t predict it. Completely out of nowhere, a band gets in contact with him. He happens to go surfing that day. He happens to be inspired. He writes those songs. I’m sure he couldn’t have predicted that things were going to happen how they happened.

Jessica Letkemann ( Twitter: @Letkemann )
TFT co-editor Jessica Letkemann is a New York based digital music journalist & editor. She's currently VP & Editor-In-Chief of Digital at Fuse Media (Fuse.tv) and was previously managing editor of Billboard.com. She has also been on staff at Spin and Premiere magazines. Her first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 2, 1992.

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