Great Greg Kot Interview with Eddie Vedder

by Kathy Davis on May 11, 2011

photo by Danny Clinch

One of the best music journalists around, the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, has posted a fabulous, info-packed interview with Ed Vedder on his Tribune blog Turn It Up. The text is below, and the original is here. And if you haven’t heard it, Mr. Kot (along with Chicago Sun-Times’ Jim DeRogatis) has an amazing radio program called Sound Opinions. It’s the best Rock & Roll radio around, a unique talk show with two of the most-respected music writers of our time. They cover Rock with such richness and depth, and every week is a mind-expansion exercise in history, trends, current music and more.  It’s a must listen for any music fan. To get podcasts click here, and the list of local radio stations who air Sound Opinions is here.

Pearl Jam is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a flourish: a Cameron Crowe-directed documentary; reissues of its 1993 and ’94 albums “Vs.” and “Vitalogy”; and a forthcoming festival at an as-yet-unannounced location.

In addition, the band is in the midst of recording sessions for a new studio album, and some members are still neck-deep in side projects – at least one involving a ukulele, of all things. That would belong to singer Eddie Vedder, whose “Ukulele Songs” solo album is due out May 31. A solo tour brings him to the Chicago Theatre on June 28-29.

“I’ve been writing and collecting songs on the ukulele for at least 10 years, so it was time to clear them out of the apartment building and make room for some new occupants,” Vedder says. “I need to make room for the bassoon record.”
It’s a busy time for a band that defined the alternative-rock era with its introspective lyrics and heavy guitars (call them “grunge” if you must), then nearly imploded after taking a firm stand against what it felt were excessive Ticketmaster service fees in 1994. In recent years, as sales of recorded music have plummeted and concert ticket prices have soared, the band has left major-label affiliations behind in favor of independent releases on its Monkeywrench Records label while continuing to attract arena-sized audiences around the world.

In an interview, Vedder talked about his love for the most un-rock ‘n’ roll of instruments and how Pearl Jam is navigating the new landscape of an economically challenged music industry.

Q: How did you start playing the ukulele?

A: It was about 13, 14 years ago. I was in a tiny row of dilapidated shops on an outer island of Hawaii with Kelly Slater the surfer (Vedder himself is a dedicated surfer). I went to buy beer at the liquor store and Kelly went to buy fish at the grocery store. I was done first, so I was sitting there on a couple of cases of beer waiting for him when I saw this ukulele in a storefront window. It was a nice Kamaka Tenor. It wasn’t a kids’ toy. I went in empty-handed and walked out five minutes later with a great sounding ukulele, and had a chorus and a verse written a few minutes later. I was halfway through writing the bridge when a few people walked by and threw some money in the open case. I had a $1.50 from playing the ukulele after owning it seven minutes. I thought, “Hmmm, this has some possibilities.”

Q: Did the ukulele change the way you write songs?

A: I learned so much about music by playing this little, miniature songwriting machine, especially about melody. The motto is less strings more melody. I was able to apply it to whatever I’m trying to write. It’s become part of songwriting for me, the knowledge I gained from hearing the melodies come out, and then applying that to guitar or vocals. I was starting to play the ukulele at the same time I was having all these conversations with (the late Ramones guitarist) Johnny Ramone, these intense tutorials staying up late and listening to the music he grew up on, and picking up what’s a great song and what makes a great song. He was all about lists and dissecting songs, like what’s a better song by Cheap Trick: “No Surrender” or “Dream Police”? Sometimes you’d be surprised by the answer. It was an interesting dichotomy between hanging out with the godfather of punk rock and starting to play the ukulele. They came together.

Q: “Ukulele Songs” is coming out on Pearl Jam’s label, Monkeywrench, as did the band’s last album (“Backspacer” in 2009). Are you done with putting your music out on outside labels?

A: One thing you might suggest to a young band is don’t get involved in any kind of long-term contract because everything changes on a bimonthly basis: The way people hear music and access it, the way it is distributed. I can’t say what the future holds for us. You have to be able to grow and move with the organism that is the music industry. You need to maintain flexibility. Ownership of your own stuff is key and then you’re able to dictate on a present-terms basis what would be the most effective way to protect yourself and what you’ve created. You also don’t want to lock yourself into a situation where a major label owns part of your touring and merchandise.

Q: I like that in the liner notes to “Ukulele Songs” you give credit to your 50-year-old Torpedo typewriter.

A: Yeah, I love the script — a German script font. I’ve had a lot of typewriters that I’ve had relationships with; one still has a piece of masking tape that says “$8” on it. I love working on them. I can’t fix a computer or a car, but I can fix a typewriter. I like them because you can write on them late at night, depending on what you’re fortifying yourself with, and the next morning you can still figure what you wrote. There are times where I would keep three typewriters on a table, and I’d have three complete thoughts going. With computers, you make folders, files – I don’t know about those things. I have sheaves of paper polluted with words and paragraphs. I found it a good tool for me. And it keeps your hands strong for guitar playing.

Q: Are we going to see any new Pearl Jam music this year?

A: We’re just past the embryonic stages of songwriting for the next album, and it seems to be going quick. But whether we put something out this year I just don’t know, because we’re doing all the hindsight stuff this year. We’re fully in support of that, but it’s not what fuels us. The way we write as a group, we all bring songs in and invariably in the past it would take a lot of time to get things right. Now I jump on things immediately. The band will have a piece of music with no lyrics, and now it has to be a knockout in the first round. The ones that go 15 rounds, they become harder to appreciate, because you only remember the battle after they’re done. If you can get in there right away, you capture something in those first 15 minutes. That’s the way it seems to be working best for us.

Q: And yet you once said that you didn’t trust music that’s made without some pain and insanity.

A: (Laughs) Oh, that’s got to be vintage. Can I almost guess when I said that?

Q: About 1994. In the mountains outside Denver during the infamous Ticketmaster-boycott tour.

A: Wow! At some point I no longer bought into that. Believe me that when I said it, I meant it. Maybe it was a way of validating, accepting — obviously I was going through myriad issues — it was a way of making use of those sorts of feelings. At some point you realize there’s got to be a better way. I think the idea of putting yourself through that and thinking that’s all that legitimizes your art, to be on the edge of not even being on the planet, it’s just destructive. You can still create art without being that way. Bonnie Raitt says, “I can still write blues songs because I remember everything.” There are people on farewell trains with our group. We saw the fragility of that at Roskilde (the 2001 Danish festival that Pearl Jam headlined in which nine people were killed). At some point, you come a long way from going through what you were as an adolescent. At some point you’ve earned the right to be happy. It’s a challenge for all of us. Can you be happy for a whole day? Can you link two days together? Having a house and a car that starts, and all these things I still feel fortunate to have; I’ve been through the other side of that. Things happen every day that could potentially make you feel really distraught. So you exorcise that emotion, write a song about it, process it, but then get back to living your life. These days being a parent (of two daughters ages 6 and 2), the kids deserve to have someone who is consistently a solid force in their life. You can’t be romantically drinking into the early hours of the morning, putting yourself in some psychological dilemma in order to create a good song. It’s unfair to the kids.

Q: What about the 20th anniversary shows?

A: We’re just trying to get together a bunch of friends and bands we’ve played with in the past and do a couple of shows in the States. It’ll probably all come together last minute. I don’t want to make it seem like any crazy, big deal. It should just be a natural thing. (The Band’s 1976 farewell concert) ‘The Last Waltz’ is great, one of the greatest things ever, but it had that impact because it was the last gig. For us it’ll be like ‘The Last Waltz,’ except we’ll be playing a show again the next week (laughs).

Q: You’ve reissued the first three Pearl Jam albums in the last couple years. Can you still relate to the guy who wrote those songs? In some ways it sounds like you’ve left part of that guy behind.

A: I had a long talk with Bruce Springsteen on a rooftop during the Vote for Change tour (in 2004). And it boiled down to this: That guy you used to be, he’s still in the car. He’ll always be in the car. Just don’t let him drive. He might be shouting out directions. But whatever you do, don’t let him get behind the wheel.

Q: People still hold Pearl Jam up as an example, a lightning rod, for the economics of putting on a concert because you went to the mat over service fees in the ‘90s. And now your solo show is $58 and $78 with $15 service fees, and people email me complaining that you’ve lost sight of what you were. They want you to be Fugazi and charge $5 for a show. How do you respond to those sorts of expectations?

A: I think that with where we are as a group, and where we are with how we make a living, and no longer selling records — that’s probably the biggest aspect of why tickets have gotten to the point where I consider them expensive. I can only attempt as part of a group or on my own to make it worth whatever we’re charging. And that’s where you humbly try to say that longevity becomes honored at that point as well. It’s tricky. The other thing that comes in is that, what do people sell these tickets for (on the secondary market) after we sell them? It’s not something that we don’t think about. The main thrust of the answer is that touring is where you connect the dots and keep your bottom line from going in the red. People can argue that and call you names and say this doesn’t resonate with what it was like in the past, but hopefully people will realize how things have changed in the industry. And for some groups that wanted to keep the ticket prices low and T-shirt prices low, and maybe even the cost of their records low and looking out for consumers, as soon as the consumers didn’t have to buy records (by getting them for free on the Internet), did they hold up their end of the deal? That’s being critical of our audience, and I hate to do that. I should probably cut out our main constituency when I say that. But for most artists, selling records no longer pays the bills.

Q: Does that frustrate you?

A: It’s been a full generation of that and so there is no turning back. At some point, believe me, this group likes to get together and talk about music, songs, live shows, other bands. (Pearl Jam bassist) Jeff (Ament) and I get excited talking about making record artwork or working with T-shirt designs. The least exciting part for us is talking about the finances; it’s like going to the dentist for us. But we at least try to do it in a creative way and put our stamp on it. I can only think that we create something that’s worth the value of that dollar.

Q: You’ve been a role model in the way you conducted your career as a band and as a business, so you probably get more scrutiny than most.

A: We understand that. I remember back in 1994 when the Eagles charged more than $100 for tickets. They said, ‘We ain’t Pearl Jam.’ That’s back when records were selling and the Eagles had sold just about as many as anyone on the planet. And 20 years later we’re still charging less than them (laughs).

greg@gregkot.com

Kathy Davis ( Twitter: @CrookedArm23 )
A Bay-Area based entrepreneur, co-editor Kathy conceives and writes her share of TFT’s articles and sections. She was co-editor/co-founder of one of the first Pearl Jam fanzines "Footsteps" (1992-1997). Kathy’s first Pearl Jam show was at the Bridge School Benefit on November 1, 1992.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathie K May 11, 2011 at 8:08 am

I was one to whine (or gently complain) about $78 for a ticket to see Ed because I don’t have the money & because I knew PJ was against high ticket prices. I feel like I miss out on so much since I don’t have a lot to spend on my all-time favorite band. After reading Ed’s response, I will hide my head in shame. I hadn’t thought it out very well & the fact that nobody buys records anymore & just get them for free online is a good argument for higher-than-desired ticket prices. I’m so sorry, Ed. I ALWAYS buy records (or CDs) & get nothing free online. My husband is in a band & I obviously support people paying for a CD direct from him & paying a cover out at the bars to see him. SUPPORT LOCAL MUSIC (& Pearl Jam)!!!!

Jim May 11, 2011 at 9:41 am

It seems to make good sense to me that the advancements in technology; the booming age of the internet/illegally downloading music; have directly resulted in the decline of CD sales and therefore increased the price of an artist’s tickets/show merchandise. Having said that, one has to consider that the PJ of the 90′s isn’t the same as the PJ of the 00′s. Those first 4-5 years for them were a rather intense period and the world was a very different place then (Clinton years, anyone? Pre-Iraq and Afghanistan Wars? ). Think – just in the past 10 years alone how much technology has changed. Then think back to the state that the internet was in, in 1995. There has been a clear shift in their industry in regards to how profits are generated. Both of these facts coupled with the fact that they all have families to consider, not to mention, the idea that I’m sure they’ve grown accustomed to their way of life – all factor into the increase in these prices. For those that would like to cast judgment on them for wanting to sustain their way of life, put yourself in their shoes. Wouldn’t you wanna try to sustain the quality of your environment to some degree? Aren’t we all trying to do that in our daily lives now? Simply said, there’s nothing wrong with the pursuit of attempting to sustain that for themselves as individuals or as a band/company. Let’s face it, there seems to be something there; on an album and/or a live show that keeps bringing us all back. There is still some element of truth that shines through in their music. He’s spot on in regards to the way major acts make their money these days and stay afloat. I think at the end of the day, ppl simply have to ask themselves, “Is the cost of this ticket worth the event/experience?” I’ve seen PJ 20 times since 98 and EV 3 times since 08. So far, the answer to that question for me is a resounding YES!

Fantastic article. They certainly have opened up this past decade. …Thanks for posting.

michelle Raiford May 11, 2011 at 11:20 am

Great interview. Thanks for the insightful questions. I’m broke and unable to make the PJ20 shows, so Ed’s answers and attitude about that make me feel a little better about missing out. I’ve been lucky enough to see them many, many times over the years–more than a lot of people. My respect and admiration for Pearl Jam continues to grow.

Kathy Davis May 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Jim & Kathie – brilliantly put, and thanks for your honesty! I think it was smart and awesome of both Kot to ask and Ed to answer so insightfully about addressing the issue of ticket prices. It can be angering when our band gets flak for not charging Fugazi prices when they STILL keep the price modest, considering what some other equivalent acts in the concert marketplace charge (hello, $250 ticket prices!). We get moderately priced T-shirts and a WIDE and interesting variety of affordable merch – even the expensive items like hoodies are considerably cheaper than most. My respect and regard for Pearl Jam has remained steadfast, but these days I have even more for all that they do. AND they give boatloads of time and money to tons of charities! We need more like them in the world.

Rockfan May 11, 2011 at 12:39 pm

That’s nothing Ed hasn’t said before reguarding why tickets are high priced now. In fact he did an interview years ago even before they really upped the prices and he said that since so many people download the music free now they would have to start raising ticket prices because it’s either gonna be that or selling the music for advertisments and he said thats the last thing he will ever do is sell his music for a commercial. I believe his quote when asked if he would ever sell his songs for commercials he said “what do I look like a whore”. I have spent thousand and thousands of dollars on Pearl Jam’s music and merchandise yet I’ve also downloaded free all the bootlegs so I don’t mind at all paying alot for tickets to this band. I think the prices are actually low. This is the greatest rock band in the last 20 years and it isn’t even close, yet they still charge less than most iconic musicians do. I think they should charge atleast 100 bucks a ticket, they deserve it. They deserve it for many many reasons but for just the reason I mentioned above for not whoring out the music that almost ruins a song, that itself is reason to give more for tickets. Ed’s uke album leaked recently, I have pre-ordered it already but downloaded it so I could listen now (hey what if I die in a car wreck tomorrow I don’t want to have missed hearing it), but think of all the fans who downloaded it that now will save that 12 bucks and not go buy it, and Edward Vedder is the bad guy because his ticket prices seem high to alot of people. Paaaaalease! Also Pearl Jam’s fan base back in the day were teens and 20 somethings who didn’t exactly have much money at all. Now the fan base is 30 and 40 year olds who are getting their music for free, myself included. I wouldn’t fight for them either and it’s not that they are mad at us for it it’s just why would they fight to save us money on their concert tickets?????? I’d lose respect for them if they were that dumb LOL.

By the way Eddie’s uke album is really great! I can’t wait to hear it in the best possible quality which you can’t get in a leak over the internet. I wish the interviewer would have asked about the Water On The Road DVD or the upcoming Cameron Crowe film instead of asking about ticket prices. I want news and stories about the art not about Pearl Jam’s really still cheap concert tickets compared to what they actually could be charging. I guess I should and we all should thank Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder for still undercharging on ticket prices because they could charge even more if they wanted.

Mandy May 11, 2011 at 1:03 pm

I appreciate the ticket prices being addressed. I’m not totally clear on the use of ticketmaster though. Basically, too much of a fight and it’s the least of all evils/only option?

Thank you to the entire band for their years of inspiration and ability to make their audience feel sincerely connected to them. We are all lucky for the live experience. The guys do so much for the environment and human rights that I too am slightly embarrassed that I ever questioned their prices or need to make a living in an evolving industry. Thank you thoughtful, dedicated others for pointing this out. And I whole-heartedly agree that the experience is worth it. Sounds of Pearl Jam make my soul dance and smile. Hard to put a price on that. Forever grateful.

Here’s the real question. How many of us would be willing to camp out overnight for fair presales? I would. The presale process is horribly stressful. I know there are so many ten club fans all fighting for the same few seats, but how do tickets then show up on stub-hub later that day for $350+? And knowing how many people are trying to purchase presale tickets all in the same tiny moment, I’m committed to thinking of a better way. So far I’ve come up with old-school line up including wristbands and waiting all night if I have to…

Rock on!

Rich May 13, 2011 at 9:32 am

Well, I read this article a few days ago and really enjoyed it.

Now I just went to try to get soundgarden tickets for NJ and they ar $199 per ticket before fees and shipping….for general adminssion! Call me crazy, but for that price, id like a seat. And im IN THE SG FANCLUB!

I was AT the last Soundgarden show in NY in 96, and it kills me to skip this, but I dont have much choice.

Thank you Eddie, for not ass raping your fans. Sad to see soundgraden is.

Ive been to over 50 pearl jam shows, and im just starting to appreciate what it COULD have cost me.

Jim May 13, 2011 at 10:41 am

Are SG tickets really that expensive? $199 for one ticket?

PJFan33 May 14, 2011 at 10:56 am

That price for Soundgarden tickets is for 2 tickets from the fanclub. Maybe get the info right before you start complaining. I saw them at Lolla last year and believe me they are worth it. Camerons drums in SG are insane. Who knows how many shows they will play in the future? Go see em while you can. Hope to go to PJ20 as well!!

Cathie K May 14, 2011 at 2:48 pm

That still breaks down to $100 or so per ticket! Pretty steep for a place to stand. Still, as Ed remarked in his interview, no one’s buying records anymore…..

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