Fantastic Ed Vedder Interview at Surfline

by Kathy Davis on June 1, 2011

photo by Danny Clinch

“Ukulele Hate Songs”… surfing as part of Ed’s creative process…music as part of the surfing process…meeting Mark Richards in 1982…the first wave he ever surfed…his connection with Hawaii… all in one interview! There are so many reviews, and a few nice interviews with Mr. Eddie Vedder in celebration of his May 31st “Ukulele Songs” release, but this beautifully presented Surfline online magazine style interview by Tim Donnelly has a page-flipping, stylish and photo-filled presentation – its a must see! The text is below, but you won’t want to miss the original article here.

Eddie Vedder talks with Surfline about his new solo album ‘Ukulele Songs’

By: Tim Donnelly

For most rock ‘n’ roll frontmen, putting out a solo record of songs all done on the ukulele could be considered career suicide. But not for Eddie Vedder. The strum of the ukulele is the sound of the Islands and as of late, Vedder is an Islander. It is coursing through his veins.

Pearl Jam’s lead singer is set to release “Ukulele Songs” (Monkey Wrench) on May 31st — and it just may be the laidback summer soundtrack that’ll resonate on the beaches the world over. It’s tried-and-true beach music, which will echo from the Maldives to Maverick’s, from Lake Michigan to Maine. It is the perfect romantic accompaniment to stargazing under the swaying, lazy palms while the shifting tide laps at your feet — even if you live in a Brooklyn apartment. Maybe especially if you live in a Brooklyn apartment.

Vedder just checked in with Surfline from Pearl Jam’s warehouse studio, fresh off the plane, all full of Aloha to talk about “Ukulele Songs” — writing tunes while he rides waves, what songs not to get stuck in your head while surfing, and his love/hate relationship with his first surfboard.

A lot of the tunes on Ukulele Songs have a timeless feel to them, like they’re from the ’30s. How did you find these songs?

I bought a random, tattered book that had a few chords and these old songs in it. The kind that Darla sang Alfalfa (The Little Rascals), that kind of shit. [Laughs.] Somehow, I was relating to the lyrics and they had chords in them, but I had no idea how they went. So with restructuring some of the chords, I just made my own versions of them.

A couple of months ago we were finishing the record, and one of the guys I work with pulled up a couple different versions of different people singing them. There was a Billie Holiday version of one of the songs — it was this torch-song jazz kind of thing, but it was completely unrecognizable to whatever my take was on it. But it all seemed to fit into whatever theme is to the record.

I get a love songs and lullabies vibe from it.

Love songs, hate songs. I’d like to market the record as a “Ukulele Hate Songs Record.” [Laughs.]

When did this love affair with the ukulele start for you?

I was just sitting on a street corner and this ukulele came up and had a strong opening line and we’ve been together ever since. It’s never cheated on me. I don’t always have to pick up the tab. The ukulele is a good listener, but chimes in when it’s helpful. It’s really one of the best relationships I’ve ever had.

We are 14 years in, and going strong. I’m into long relationships. Oh, and another thing: it doesn’t get jealous when I play guitar. The ukulele has helped me with my relationship with the guitar. It taught me a lot of what I could bring to the other relationship, more about melody and song structure.

I think everybody should own a ukulele. People need a way to express themselves, they just do. It’s not like they don’t have time to learn because obviously, they’re watching shit like American Idol. Reality Shows offer nothing but hollow versions and the lowest common denominator of American lifestyles in 2011. I suggest turning off the TV and pick up the ukulele.

Because the friggin’ ukulele will write it for you! It’s not that hard. You’ll feel like you know how to play, just give it two weeks or a month, and you’ll lose 10 pounds! I can’t verify that, but it might be a good selling point. People lie in advertising all the time. Maybe it’s about time I start.

Lose 10 lbs and get bigger — and you’ll sell a million copies in a week.

No, a bunch of people will go on the Internet and pay nothing. Then what? [Laughs.]

Chaos…Surfing has always been a part of your creative process. How does that alone time effect your writing?

The good songs ain’t ten yards offshore, being out there for ten minutes and coming back in and going back out. You gotta go deep, and get into some kind of mad-scientist phase at some point, to where the good stuff is. Like when you wake up the next morning and look at it or listen to it, whatever you’ve done and you don’t even really remember. It’s your voice, your handwriting but you don’t remember doing it. You gotta get to an extraordinary circumstance sometimes to get to the good stuff.

I’ve always thought that as a surfer you need to be careful of what the last song you hear before you paddle out is going to be — ’cause that’s the song that could be playing in your head. Say if you’re at the parking lot at El Porto, and you are hearing maybe “Footloose ” coming out of one of the other cars as you’re putting on your wetsuit — you are f**ked. You’re going to be listening to “Footloose” for the next hour and a half in your head. So one thing I try do is to listen to The Ramones or Fugazi. [Laughs.]

It’s like, you hear something you’re working on and play the instrumental in your head. Then you go out and actually formulate it — and might have the whole thing written when you come in. Hopefully the lineup isn’t too thick or filled with people; you can actually get a lot of work done while waiting for waves.

Another thing: I take the underwater iPod thing and go out on long stand-up paddles on my own. I could paddle for like two hours if I had music, rather than 40 minutes. I go out on the Puget Sound where there are no waves; it’s a little like hiking on the water.

I had never surfed with music until a couple of years ago and the first wave I caught, I can definitively state that it was such a powerful thing that it was like almost hearing music for the first time.

What song was it?

I was listening to a Neil Finn live record; it wasn’t until my third session that day that l I had a wipeout. It was actually during a drum solo, and I was in the little mini-washing machine. The waves weren’t too big, so the headphones stayed in as I was getting tumbled to the drum solo. Ah, a fond memory.

Nowadays, I can take the music that I worked on, go for a paddle and actually catch waves. All of sudden the notes get a little higher, all of sudden the soaring chorus is right there for ya; it all works.

It’s an invention that I’d dreamt about since I was just a kid. I was 14 or so when the first Walkmans ever came out. The very first person I ever saw with a Walkman was the first time I met Mark Richards, in 1982. He got a plane and had this personal listening device in his hand. It was the first one I’d ever seen and I was in awe. Immediately, I started thinking about how you could listen to music in the water. They had shitty versions back in the day and now they work pretty good.

When you write music, you have chord structures. This part goes into that part. But I’ve always looked at it like skating a ramp — there’s transitions. To me, the difference between a song and music is the transition. A song is different than music. A song should sound like music, but sometimes it just sounds like a song. Sounds like a part, with another part and another part. But it’s those transitions that are the key to having a flow, like a cutback or a top-turn. It’s how you maneuver, how the lyric and vocal approach ties all that in. It’s like the music is the wave — the lyric and melodic structure — I feel that’s where the transition comes in; that’s the moves on the wave that you make and trying to pull that off without wiping out.

You’ve played music onstage with legends. Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, The Who. You surf with legends all the time, MR, Kelly and Laird. Do you ever pinch yourself, like, whoa?

You know as well as I do that when you’re surfing, the focus is on the wave. You can’t really think about much else. The one thing surfing with MR, Kelly or Laird is that it really comes down to wave selection. They assist you with wave selection. When they tell you they see one coming out the back and this one is yours and you know that one is yours, you have to go for it, no matter how late the takeoff might seem. They are always right.

It might help that someone like Kelly, Laird or MR thinks that you are capable of catching that wave and that little bit of confidence coming from someone of that iconic stature will lead you to believe that you can actually ride the f**king thing and then you do. That works really great. [Laughs.]

When you’re playing music with Bruce or Neil, it’s all about being in the moment. You don’t have a chance to think that, ‘this is really cool.’ There’ll be time for that later. You gotta make the play. If Bruce throws you the ball, you gotta catch it, because Bruce is gonna hit ya in the numbers.

Where was the first wave rode?

The first wave I rode was at Doheny Beach. I think I was 12. We had a friend that lived in San Juan Capistrano. I had a $12 board; we went to Jack’s Surf Shop, bought a bungee cord by the foot with a vinyl strap that cost $13. So with $25 invested, I caught waves. I was there for week.

It was the worst f**king board. I tried to buy a version of it — it was a Channin something-or-other. I tried to find one on EBay so I just so I could shoot arrows at it. I’m still frustrated. It set my surfing back. It put me in the red before I even caught any waves; it was the worst board ever. I’ve been struggling to get out of that hole ever since. [Laughs.]

I think now that beach, if I’m not mistaken, is the most polluted on the California coast, so um…that’s exciting. [Laughs.] Actually, that’s really f**king depressing.

Where was the last wave you rode?

Last wave I rode was on the North Shore; I won’t say where. [Laughs.] On the last day I was there, an hour or two before I got on the plane.

You’ve spent a lot of time in Hawaii over the past couple of years. What has Hawaii meant to you?

I could write my own book the size of James Michener’s Hawaii just on my experience. I can honestly say I feel that those Islands, that place — without being melodramatic, though what I’m about to say sounds melodramatic — saved my life. Not only that, but after it saved my life, it protected me.

I can be there and feel like that I am being upheld by the energy. Not to mention the deep relationships I have with some of the locals and other friends are in the top echelon of the best relationships I have to this day.

At the same time, so much of what I have learned about myself or learned humanity or learned about society or learned about nature, it was all from the time I spent there on my own, being in deep isolation for sometimes months at a time.

I consider it a privilege that I was able to exploit those experiences in a positive way. I saw it as a really healthy place to write from. When I say learning about society, you learn from society when you are out of it, you see it objectively. You spend a lot of time away from people, the more you like them, and it works vice versa as well, you know. It refuels the tank as far as your faith in people. I always trusted that whatever I was coming with over there that it came from a pure place. So I felt that if those ideas or ideals ended up in lyrics that people would hear, that they could be trusted.

Pearl Jam is celebrating 20 years together, which is quite a feat in today’s music industry. What is it like for you guys now as a band?

We have five guys who bring their lunch boxes to work, say hello to each other, pick up our instruments, make sounds and then interact, focus it, then music comes out of it, until there’s enough music to put out, then we go out and play.

It boils down to bringing your lunch box to work. It shouldn’t be that hard. It really shouldn’t. It’s not like music doesn’t offer you an open field to navigate and a million ways to grow if you are determined not to be stagnant.

Looking back at the past and honoring it is all well and good, but if you start walking backwards you might walk off a cliff, you may not see what you are going to run into or walk backwards into the street. I think we’re always looking forward. We can be proud of it and I think we are. But that lasts about 45 seconds. Seriously.

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.

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