When Jeff Ament says he’ll be “plenty busy” for the rest of 2011, he’s not kidding. We are honored to be able to present only our second TwoFeetThick.com interview with a member of Pearl Jam.
Our favorite bassist graciously called in from Seattle earlier this week and fielded questions about everything from plans for a new Pearl Jam album and tantalizing tidbits about the Pearl Jam festival this year, to touring with old buddies Dug Pinnick and Richard Stuverud (and Mike McCready!) in Tres Mts., a new Jeff solo album and Ed on tour solo, and lots more. We can’t wait.
Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament Talks to TwoFeetThick
Jessica: I actually wanted to start out by saying thank you for taking time out to talk to me and to be open putting the Q&A on our Pearl Jam site, TwoFeetThick.com
Jeff: Absolutely. You’ve been with us since the beginning.
Jessica: That’s really cool. We never know how much you guys in the band are aware of fan activity.
Jeff: I visit [the boards] occasionally, mostly to see what people are saying about merch and stuff just because that’s kinda my thing. It’s a little bit weird sometimes because people are more invested in certain aspects than I am [laughs]. People can get really passionate about things and it’s kinda tough to read some of that stuff. But it’s cool.
I have my own little skateboard and music websites that I go to partake in. There’s a couple of old school skate sites, like Skull and Bones Skateboards, and a bass forum that’s basically tons of bass players, mostly nonprofessional, but it’s a million different angles on any given subject and it’s always educational. So if I’m looking to get a new effects pedal or bass or amp or something, I’ll hop onto that and usually there’s a hundred other people out there that are thinking the same thing.
Jessica: Are you looking forward to playing South By Southwest with Tres Mts.?
Jeff: This is my first time. It’s kind of Dug’s homeland, so I’ll be fun to be down there with him. I have a couple of friends from up here [in Seattle] that are [going] this guy Jake One; he’s a hip hop guy that I play basketball with. It’ll be good.
Jessica: Are there shows there other than yours with Tres Mts. that you’re looking forward to?
Jeff: I think the Bravery is playing the same club that we’re playing, so I’m interested in checking that out. I think Brendan [O'Brien] said he’s maybe doing their next record.
Jessica: With all of the activity around Pearl Jam’s history coming up — the box set, the movie, the festival, it’s interesting how Tres Mts. is part of that history too. I think you’ve been working with Tres Mts. drummer Richard Stuverud just as long as Pearl Jam has been around.
Jeff: I’ve known Richard since the 80s and we started playing together in 1990 in LuvCo. and then I played with him in War Babies for five or six weeks. We did a few shows together. We’d always get together early before everybody else showed up and we’d jam along to Prince and Cameo and weird funk. His band, War Babies, was a very AC/DC kind of band and we were always trying to push the band into other directions rhythmically and make it more groovy. That was where we fell in love with playing with one another.
Consequently we’ve gotten together at least twice a year since then. He comes out to Montana or Seattle and we record for five days or a week or ten days. He’s a great songwriter so we work on his songs and we work on my songs and some of those songs end up being Pearl Jam songs and some don’t. But it’s always a super creative collaboration.
Jessica: Which ones of those songs turned into Pearl Jam stuff and what happens to the rest? Another solo record?
Jeff: Well, there’s another one that’s pretty much in the can of solo stuff. And that’s what’s been good as of the last four or five years. I’ve been finishing songs. It’s so easy to let that initial burst of ideas just kind of lay there. But Richard comes out a couple times a year so if we work on something the first time before the next time that he comes out I’ll polish it up a little bit more and maybe write a bridge and maybe change a part or whatever and the next time comes out we’ll re-record it. So there’s all these works in progress. He has to have probably 20 great pop songs that he probably should put together and put out. He’s got a total Cheap Trick, Faces, that sort a real pop sensibility.
Jeff’s Band Lineage
Deranged Diction - 1981-1984
Green River – 1984-1987
Lord Of The Wasteland – 1987
Mother Love Bone – 1988-1990
LuvCo. – 1990
War Babies – 1990
Pearl Jam – 1990 – Present
Three Fish – 1996-1999
Tres Mts. – 2010 – Present
I try to push him in other directions. He’s a really good singer. He’s a real basic sort of guitar player but he always comes up with really interesting melodies. He’s one of those guys that we can both just push each other into weird places, places that aren’t necessarily comfortable. We push each other to be more songwriters an overall musicians rather than being virtuoso at our singular instruments.
Jessica: And you mentioned solo in that context, did you mean you’ve got a new Jeff Ament solo record done, a follow up to “Tone”?
Jeff: There’s a whole ‘nother group of songs that we finished up a few months ago and I’m just waiting for a little bit of airspace to finish it up. I think Brett [Elliason] has mixed most of it already and trying to figure out how it all kind of fits together and which songs make it and which songs don’t.
There’s so much going on between this Tres Mts. project and Pearl Jam stuff the rest of the year that I’m going to be plenty busy. Once the calendar comes up when [PJ] all get together in April I’ll be able to look at it and say there’s a little spot right there maybe. The cool thing is that we only do three thousand of those [solo records] and put them out there and it’s over and done with. It’s not a catalog record anything like that. It’s more just cleaning off the shelves and putting my art out there and having it be my [laughs] vision and my lyrics.
Jessica: It’s great that Pearl Jam as a unit is in a spot where all of you guys can do that, you can release whatever you want and find your audience. We certainly appreciate it.
Jeff: We’ve talked about it for ten years, we’ve talked about getting to this point where we would be out of our record deal and we’d have our own label and we could just put music out when we wanted to. Probably the biggest gift of having stayed together this long is being at this point where we creatively can do whatever we want. Whether people dig everything or not is another thing. But everybody has a creative wishlist and it’s awesome to have a place to make that stuff available.
Jessica: You mentioned April. I guess the other day in Australia, Ed mentioned something about you guys planning to go back into the studio in a couple of months to work on the next Pearl Jam record. Is April when that will happen?
Jeff: We did a whole bunch of demos and everybody’s got a disc of 25 demos right now. April will be the time where we get together and learn to play all these demos and figure out which 12-15 of them float to the top. Hopefully we can get something done this year.
Ed’s going back out [on tour] at some point this year. And I think we have some things in the works for later in the year. In April, we’re going to figure all of that stuff out; look at the calendar and say ok we’re going to do this here and this here and this here. There’s the movie and trying to work everything around that. There’s been so much focus on the past that I think all of us are really excited to work on something in the present and make a new record and have something to look forward to because we’ve been digging in the boxes in our basement a lot the last year or so.
Jessica: We talked to Stone for TwoFeetThick.com last fall and he joked about being glad that you hold onto so much PJ stuff so he doesn’t have to.
Jeff: That’s the benefit of being poor when you’re a kid. You don’t really have that much stuff so you just find yourself taking this box around with you wherever you go [laughs]. I’ve lost some things along the way for sure, but I still have those boxes that I moved out [to Seattle] from Montana with.
Jessica: A box of like Deranged Diction “No Art, No Cowboys, No Rules” cassettes or something?
Jeff: Totally, yeah, all that stuff. And my little punk rock fanzines that I put out there.
Jessica: Wait. You published a zine?!
Jeff: Yeah, in Montana I put out two issues of “Hicksville Trash.” And then when I moved to Seattle I changed the name to “Grasp,” because I was much more serious and emo at that point [laughs].
Jessica: That’s really funny to me because me and another of the trio that runs TwoFeetThick.com, Kathy, were both Pearl Jam fanzine editors before launching the site.
Jeff: That’s mostly what’s in that box. It’s that stuff and then it’s also old copies of Forced Exposure and Matter and Maximumrockandroll and all that stuff. That was the community then. I wrote and traded music with 200 people probably back at that time. That was a cool thing.
Jessica: I wonder how much of your archive has made it into the Pearl Jam Twenty movie and book?
Jeff: I was just looking at the layout of the book and there’s so much stuff in there it’s ridiculous. And there’s probably another book worth of stuff that didn’t make it in there because you’re forced to choose. The last couple of years I’ve been going through stuff so I think the most interesting things are when somebody else unearths something. Stone and Mike have brought in a few things I hadn’t seen. They don’t have as much stuff in their basement as Ed and I have [laughs] but it’s always interesting to see the photos and pieces of paper that they wrote on at the time. It fills in the picture a little bit more, especially the first few years when it was pretty insane. That’s the best part about the movie is that there’s actually footage of stuff where I had there was no idea that there was cameras in the room.
Jessica: It must have been really hectic, ignoring a camera is pretty hard.
Jeff: I don’t know if I was oblivious to it just because there were cameras around so much. You have certain memory and it’s taken on its own tangent in your head. And then you see this footage of really what happened exactly [laughs], and, ‘Whoa, ok. It’s a little different than I remembered it. But that must have been what happened.’”
Jessica: We figured out that last week was the exact anniversary of you naming the band and starting the “Ten” sessions. So happy birthday, to you and the band.
Jeff: Wow. There’s so many good things that have come out of the fact that we’ve been around this long. It’s such a big lesson in terms of holding onto friendships and persevering through things. And at times I think all of were thinking that it was the last thing we wanted to do. And for some reason we kept coming back together and almost every time after a couple days being back together it would turn into something where it’s like, ‘Wow, we’re doing something really great again.’ So just from a creative standpoint that creative thing that happens when we get together to play music or make music, that’s the thing that’s kept it together. That’s the best part of it. It hasn’t been anything else. I think if we got together and creatively it wasn’t anything happening I think we would probably stop.
Jessica: And that applies not just to the albums but to Pearl Jam as a live unit too. When you get together to play a show, the sets just get better and better.
Jeff: Initially it always feels like we’ve created a monster with it too, like, ‘Oh God we have 120 songs’ or whatever it is. But I think that’s the thing that keeps our brains and our creativity moving and it keeps us focused. We can’t just show up and dial it in. We actually have to do homework and make notes and practice. And that’s really important for a band at this point. Being forced to do your homework, I think, is a good thing.
Jessica: And everyone is speculating about where and when this Pearl Jam festival is going to be. I don’t suppose you’d confirm that info for me?
Jeff: [laughs] I just talked to Kelly [Curtis, PJ's manager] the other day. There’s a few possibilities out there. At the end of this month they’re going to go to those sites again, and based on all the feedback that we’ve given them, see how they could make it work at these different sites. We’re only going to do it at one site this year. We’ve done a lot of festivals and stuff and we want to take the best of the cool elements from those. I think the Lollapalooza that we did in ‘92; there were so many interesting aspects of that; what was going on with the side stage. Whether you go to a Vans Warped tour or go to any of the bigger fests in Europe, you want to pull the best elements out of those things.
One bad thing that I see with fests is when the bands start at noon and the last band goes on at midnight and people are there for 13-14 hours and they’re just hammered at the end of the day. So I think we probably won’t have as long of a day.
Jessica: Have you picked any of the other bands yet?
Jeff: We’ve reached out to a few [other bands]. It’s mostly people that were friends with. I don’t think that anybody’s fully signed on yet. We’re not 100% sure where we’re going to have it yet so it’s a little bit tricky. We’re going to make all of those decisions [and by] the first part of April, hopefully we can tell everybody… If it gets out there in April, if it’s Labor Day, that’s three or four months, that should be plenty of time for people to make reservations to go.
Jessica: To Wisconsin?
Jeff: [laughs] Or Texas or New Jersey or something [laughs].
Jessica: [laughs] Are there any other Pearl Jam shows on tap this year yet?
Jeff: No, that’s what’s gonna happen in April. Every year we hear from promoters in Australia and South East Asia and Europe and South America. We’ll look at what we’ve done in the last three years and go, “Well, we haven’t been here in a while and so we should do that.” We try to make these decisions diplomatically and try to spread it out a little bit. It makes it more fun for us if we haven’t been somewhere in a few years. The other thing is trying to make this record, so it will be awesome if we could finish this record this year and then that sets up next year for us.
Jessica: Is there any one of those 25 demos that you’re especially excited about?
Jeff: Every record, there’s always a song or two that I think is a slam dunk. And very rarely is that one of the songs that ends up on a record [laughs]. I gravitate towards the stuff that’s less poppy. I fall in love with the stuff that’s maybe going to push the band into a stranger place. I set myself up sometimes.
Jessica: Things like “Help Help”?
Jeff: The funny thing about “Help Help” is that the demo is more of a rock song, and so was “Push Me Pull Me” and those songs ended up being weird art projects. Those songs were just rock songs, so it’s always interesting to me when the band decides to get out of the rock mode and mess it up. I’m always for that. We probably did less of that on the last record than we have in a long time but I really look forward to those art projects in every record.
Jessica: I can’t help but think about the examples of that on “Vs.” and “Vitalogy,” since the box set is almost out. Like “Stupid Mop.”
Jeff: [laughs] And “Bugs.”
Jessica: And “Aye Davanita.” Was that ever a full song?
Jeff: I don’t think so. That was a full-on art project, a Stone Gossard art project. There was a loop and we threw things on top of it.
Jessica: And speaking of the past and the future, and back to Tres Mts., I know about the 25-year friendship with Richard, but Dug Pinnick has a long-ago Pearl Jam connection too. And you’ve been talking about doing a project with Dug for about a decade, right?
Jeff: I probably first mentioned it when King’s X toured with us in ’94. We used to have a practice setup backstage and I think there was a couple of times that we were jamming and I would say, ‘We gotta make a super heavy old school 60s R&B record together’ [laughs]. This record isn’t necessarily that but there are moments. I love his voice so much it was trying to create songs that put more focus on his voice and that would free him up. King’s X is such a heavy band and I always just wanted to pull a little bit of that heaviness out to let his voice have more space in the songs. That’s been the funnest part about it. The songs that are more spacious — like “Life” — those songs that are not in his comfort zone in terms of music but right in his wheelhouse ion terms of how he sings. If you give him a little gospel groove he can sing the shit out of it.
Jessica: I was reading an interview with Richard where he said Dug goes way back with gospel because his mom used to play it for him when he was a kid.
Jeff: I think he grew up in a pretty conservative household, very religious. I think his only exposure to music till he was 18 or 19 was mostly just singing in church. I think he had some relatives that maybe played some blues for him and played him Little Richard. So he knew that that other type of music was out there but mostly it was church music. I relate to that, music for me early on was mostly about singing in church.
Jessica: You sang in church?
Jeff: Ooooh yeah. I was a Catholic boy. Altar boy. Piano lessons. CYC (Catholic Youth Council) President for three or four years. I think my dad really wanted me to be a priest, which [laughs] is just incredible.
Jessica: [laughs] That is hard to imagine.
Jeff: [laughs] Without saying anything really horrible about the Catholic Church, I don’t have what it takes to be that sort of a person. I actually had a really great priest growing up who I’m still in touch with. Father Tobin. He’s a super-incredible guy. We play tennis. He’s one of the good ones.
Jessica: Back in Montana, I imagine.
Jeff: Yup, he’s still in a small town in the southeast. We went through there on our way to Colorado about a year ago and I hadn’t seen him about ten years. But he’s Irish, so every time I go to Ireland I send him a postcard.
Jessica: So the other part of Tres Mts. is that Mike McCready is involved. I guess he came down for one of those Montana sessions and ended up signing on?
Jeff: Mike’s come out three or four times to work on demos. If Richard was coming out for five or six days, Mike would come out for a couple. It just so happened that it was me and Mike and Richard for three days and Mike stayed for a couple of the days when Dug came up. There are four songs on the record that he played on. He added such a cool touch to those songs. When we decided to do a few shows I called him up and said, “I know you’re busy but if I have the ultimate guy to come out and play guitar with us on this thing, it’s you. So I have to ask you first.’ He called back an hour later and said, ‘I’m in.’ Then I got super cranked about it. Because I just knew the way that Dug and Rich play. I’ve noticed in rehearsals the last few days that he really responds, when the music starts to go off, he’s hat guy that can take it to the next level.
Jessica: Have you worked up anything special for the Tres Mts. live set? Other than the tunes on the album will there be King’s X music? Pearl Jam stuff?
Jeff: No, no. There’s some covers that we’re working up. We’re playing most of the [Tres Mts.] record. We’ve learned everything but we’ll probably leave one or two of the down songs out of the set. The main set’s only going to be about 40 minutes long, and there’s a handful of covers that we learned.
Jessica: Are the covers songs we’ve never heard you, Mike, Richard, or Dug play?
Jeff: Yup. It’s a surprise. [laughs]
Jessica: Well, I’ll wind this up with a question that came from my co-editor at TwoFeetThick, John, which I thought was interesting. Basically, you’ve been in bands for 30 years. All kinds of bands. Deranged Diction and Green River and Mother Love Bone and of course Pearl Jam. And Three Fish. Do you have any unfulfilled career goals in music left?
Jeff: It’s pretty amazing when I think of all the bands that we’ve [worked with]. Getting to be Neil Young’s band. Being able to play a couple of Zeppelin tunes with Robert Plant. There’s stuff that we’ve done that’s amazing. I have friends, though, like my buddy David Garza… I would love to make music with him at some point. I
Jessica: Didn’t he open for Three Fish back in 1999?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s him. And I did play a show with David probably four or five years ago. And Joseph Arthur and I have talked about doing some sort of weird session at some point. There are people out there that I really love as artists, guys that are I really, really look up to and not necessarily guys that are Paul McCartney [level] or whatever. Just in terms of pure artistic integrity that are, in my eyes, equal to people like that. People that just live music and live being an artist. That’s the sort of people I love to be around. I just love to be inspired and pushed in weird directions and be around people that have that sparkle in their eye. So that’s two names off the top of my head in terms of guys that I’d love to do stuff with.
Jessica: I’d love to hear that. Well Jeff, I know time is short. But I wanted to thank you again for chatting and I am trying not to go too fan-geek on you here, ask about the fascination with threes — 3 Fish, Tres Mts., and even Andy Wood’s Malfunkshun was all “333″ — or anything.
Jeff: [laughs] There’s all the numerology. I was born in 1963. I was born in March and that’s a three. I was born at three in the morning. So I gotta keep the three power going.