Jeff Ament RNDM Interview: Orange Is the New Orange

by Jessica Letkemann on March 10, 2016

Jeff Ament performs with RNDM in New York on March 7, 2016 at Gramercy Theatre. Photo: Jessica Letkemann

Jeff checks in with TFT to talk RNDM, Pearl Jam, philanthropy and more.

Today, Pearl Jam’s bassist is somewhere on the east coast between RNDM gigs in Philly and Boston celebrating his birthday. A few days before Jeff Ament hit the road with his RNDM cohorts Joseph Arthur and Richard Stuverud, he graciously hopped on the phone from Seattle to chat with TFT about the RNDM tour and (really good) brand new album Ghost Riding, Pearl Jam’s plans, skateboarding and more.

 Jessica/TFT: On Ghost Riding songs like “NYC Freeks” it’s almost like you were channelling Nile Rodgers back in the day.

Jeff Ament: Before we made the record, there were a handful of records that we were talking about: some of the Bowie records, and the early Robert Palmer records and even the early Peter Gabriel records — they dabble in funk sections on songs. So [we were] going back and forth between that style and the more ethereal thing that we got into in the middle of the last tour. We were writing songs on the [2012] tour and the songs we were writing were heading in this direction.

Did any of those songs make it on this record?

They didn’t and it’s funny, there’s almost a whole other record that we made in between. I think there’s ten or 11 songs that it’s very obviously the bridge between the two records. There’s a song, Walls, that we played on our last tour that we kept trying to get in and put it into the sequence somewhere and it always just felt like it was from another time. It felt like us but stylistically it just felt like was from another time so it didn’t make the cut.

RNDM on March 7, 2016 RNDM in action: Joseph, Richard and Jeff at New York’s Gramercy Theatre, March 7, 2016 Photo by Jessica Letkemann (click to enlarge).

When we had a little bit of time for this record, we decided to start completely fresh. The idea for this record was to not come in with any songs and not come in with anything more than a handful of riffs to start off with. Once we got going, the first few songs were a little bit of a template that we set up.: Joe would play a drum beat on his iPad through his effects pedals and I was at a little keyboard station with a mellotron and played keyboards through effects. Probably half the record was initiated in that way. Then we would go out as a band and play over the top more, once we arranged the song, we would go back as a guitar bass drums trio. iI’s amazing how differently you play when you have this wall of notes on the keyboard and drum machine that keep you locked into a thing… Keyboards and drum machines aren’t Joe and I’s first instruments, so we’re playing them in more of an abstract way. I think it made the band play in more of an abstract way than we normally would.

Everybody is doing the tour for free; the victory lap is playing these songs live. These songs have had such a crazy journey. it’s been a year of bouncing stuff back and forth and mixing, and so to get out there and actually play the songs is like, ‘ok we made it,’ you know? [laughs]

What galvanized you to actually make the new album now?

We wanted to make a really different record. The first record wasn’t intended to be a record and then it turned out to be a really stripped-down, back-to-basics sort of a record, and we wanted the next record to be a stretch for us. We wanted to do some things that we’d never done before. It gets tricky. I was really excited about there being layers, but I didn’t want it to be a Joseph Arthur record. I wanted it to be really separate from that, and I think for the most part we did a really good job at that. There are times that it’s very obviously Joe but then there’s a handful of voices that he came up with on this record that I’ve never heard him sing in before, so that part is awesome. On “Got To Survive,” Joe started singing that and I was like, “Where did that come from?” Joe was like, “I don’t know!”

After RNDM’s got only a handful of shows, Pearl Jam gets back into gear on the road. Are you planning anything special?

[PJ] had such a good run last year doing those shows just as “An Evening With…,” it changed the pressure for us for some reason. And it also gives us more time, whether it’s at the beginning of the show or that first encore. It lets us play songs that are mid and slower tempo; more of those kind of songs that normally we’d use those songs to sprinkle into the set. Now we get to play six or seven of those songs and that’s exciting.

The second PJ Wrigley show in August is just a few days before Ten turns 25. Any chance you’ll play Ten in order there?

If it’s already been done, we probably aren’t thinking about doing that [laughs].

What music are you excited about this year?

I have a handful of friends that are super down on music right now. They are children of the 70s and they feel like that was the pinnacle of music, and because of technology, they feel sort of let down by discovering music. I feel just the opposite. In any kind of music that you like, if you like funk or you like punk rock, there’s great punk rock spirit out there. Parquet Courts, and those kinds of bands. There’s great music being played all over the place and it’s great to see a younger generation’s interpretation of whatever kind of music they’re into. Kurt Vile, War On Drugs… They’ve got their own agenda and that scene’s got its own unique groove. I really like all of that music a lot.

What personal philanthropy do you have going on this year?

There are three [skate] parks that I’m going to be involved with this summer. I just spent a little bit of time down in San Diego hanging out with Tony Hawk Foundation people. I think I’m on an advisory board or something with them now… It’s been really fun and mainly fun because I’m hands on. I’m usually out there getting my hands dirty and going and picking up stuff and running around.

Yeah, there is video of you actually at the parks you’ve help build over the years.

That’s really been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been involved in, and especially because a lot of it’s in my home state [of Montana]. I think partly because we don’t have kids, it really keeps me in touch with a younger generation. You find kids that you can sort of mentor. You get addresses and you try to keep them in fresh wheels.

How many skateboards do you own?

I have a really awesome collection of late 70s boards. I feel like the peak for me of skateboarding was 1978 to 1980, so I have a good chunk of … I don’t know how many. I have a set up that’s complete so when people come over to skate, we’ll pull them off the wall and ride them, make sure they’re all still ridable. In that three or four year period you really see an evolution of the artwork and just the different styles of the shapes of boards. They went from being like low key surfboards to being functional skateboard shapes.

You were a teenager at that time. Were you collecting them then?

No, I was so poor when I was a kid [laughs]. You’d save your money and then you’d get a new set up every summer and you’d basically ride that thing into the ground. You’d superglue the nose if you broke a chunk off, sometimes you’d repaint it to make it feel like it was something different. It was a really different time.

I read somewhere that you built your own half pipe when you were a kid.

Yeah, my dad was super supportive of all that stuff. My dad didn’t  care anything about team sports — baseball or football or basketball or any of that stuff. He loved that I was building something and that there was a real craft in not only building ramps but also building my own boards and the feeling that you had to use all the tools. For my dad, that was the father son experience he wanted to have. He wanted to teach me how to work.

I think you obviously learned that lesson.

Yeah, he was successful. [laughs]

To read more of what Jeff had to say about PJ and RNDM, check out more from my interview with Jeff over at Fuse.tv.

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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