The Boston Phoenix
May 11 - 18, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Anatomy of an interview

Pearl Jamming in New York City

by Matt Ashare

Pearl Jam It's just past lunch time South of Houston -- i.e., SoHo -- in Manhattan and I'm standing in front of the Mercer Hotel looking for the Mercer Hotel. Actually, I'm looking at the Mercer Café on the corner where the Mercer Hotel is supposed to be, so I figure the hotel itself has gotta at least be nearby, but there doesn't appear to be anything remotely resembling a sign to that effect anywhere near the closest thing I see to a hotel lobby. This being NYC, the doorman situated there could easily be, uh, protecting an apartment building. And, me being a guy, I just don't feel like asking any question that will in all likelihood elicit the response, "You're standing right in front of it." So I get creative and put into action a plan that I'll confess to being impressed with: I pull out my cell phone, punch in the number of the Mercer Hotel, walk over to a spot on the sidewalk where I've got a good view of the front desk ("This has gotta be the place," I'm now thinking), and hit the "dial" button. Sure enough, after a couple of rings the guy at the desk picks up and I spot him speaking the words "Front desk, can I help you?" or some other salutation that doesn't include "Mercer" or "Hotel."

In any case, I've overcome what will turn out to be the only obstacle on my path to interview Pearl Jam. Why should there be any obstacles? Because interviewing a band like Pearl Jam is supposed to be difficult. Generally it involves the sending of many faxes to an overtaxed publicist who's already been told by management that the artist in question doesn't want to do any interviews this time around, after which you're given the run-around for a couple of weeks until finally you're granted permission to interview the new drummer at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday when the band will be en route from taping a TV show in London to the airport so he'll be on a cell phone with middling to bad reception. Oh, and you'll have between eight and 10 minutes, because even the drummer's a busy guy, or perhaps because management wants to make sure he's not on the phone long enough to do any real damage by saying something he's not supposed to, like, "Things have been much better since the singer got out of rehab and the guitarist dropped those extra 50 pounds on a regimen that includes daily high-colonics."

No such problems with Pearl Jam this time around. At least not for me because, in addition to writing about the band for the Phoenix, I'm also doing a cover story for a magazine -- one that, as I later find out, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament is a big fan of. (And, no, it's not Bass Player Illustrated.) Besides, Pearl Jam -- who have set up camp here at the Mercer to do two full days of press or a mere two days of press, depending upon your point of view (the glass is always half full for those who are granted an audience and half empty for those who aren't) -- seem to have been doing their best over the past few years to dispel the notion that they're "difficult," if only because "difficult" is typical rock-star behavior and Pearl Jam don't want to be viewed as typical rock stars. In fact, the only difficult part this time around -- aside from "finding" the hotel -- was getting hold of a copy of the band's new CD, Binaural (to be released this Tuesday on Epic). The label or the band's management or somebody important simply didn't want advance copies of the CD sent out, a policy that usually arises out of concern that a copy might fall into the wrong hands (i.e., a renegade radio station that might do something as harmful as creating consumer demand for the disc ahead of time by broadcasting a special midnight preview of it a week or two prior to its release) or wind up bootlegged, which these days means available on the Web in downloadable form. But chances are the thing's been available on-line for weeks before I ever get my hands on it, which happens to be a full 36 hours before I board the plane for NYC.

Fortunately, I like the album. It starts off strong, anyway. Picking up where 1998's Yield left off, it doesn't waste time or tracks trying to prove anything -- like, for example, that Pearl Jam are a punk rock band, or that Pearl Jam are an indie-rock band trapped in the body of a platinum-selling major-label act, or that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Pearl Jam are by no means an arena-rock band. Hell, the mere state of being a rock band without a turntablist or a sampler specialist is enough to set Pearl Jam apart from the mainstream masses. And Binaural is nothing if not an old-school rock-and-roll album in the sense that it's just five guys bashing out ragged and raucous tunes with primitive guitars, bass, drums, and voice. If the Rolling Stones were once the world's biggest garage band, then Pearl Jam sound like the second biggest on Binaural. The addition of former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, who joined on the Yield tour and has since signed on permanently as drummer number three, seems to have pushed the band in the direction of the kind of high-octane, no-bullshit garage rock that Cameron favored not so much in Soundgarden but in his side-project band the Wellwater Conspiracy. And there are ballads and blues to round out Binaural, though the kind of heavy soul-searching that was once Eddie Vedder's calling card has continued to give way to more cryptic, less obviously personal lyrics -- which means you're not going to find anything as emotionally jarring as, say, Ten's "Black," but also that you're not going to have to deal with anything as wince-inducingly melodramatic as, say, Ten's "Black."

Back at the Mercer, I'm led into a hotel suite twentysomething floors up and told that soon I'll be joined by some combination of Eddie Vedder, guitarist Stone Gossard, and bassist Jeff Ament, and that I'll be given roughly 45 minutes during which one Pearl Jammer might be called away or another one might show up. Seems simple enough. So when Vedder and Gossard show up looking like the kind of regular T-shirt-and-jeans guys that they are (i.e., no artsy affectations like blue painted fingernails, pink-dyed hair, silly hats, or sunglasses), I get right down to business and point out that with Yield and now Binaural the band have sounded progressively more relaxed and at ease with the whole concept of simply being a rock band as opposed to trying to double as leaders of an ill-defined, vaguely anti-establishment social or cultural movement, and that that's even reflected in the technical slant of the title of the new album, Binaural, which is an approach to recording that aims to reflect more accurately the way human beings actually hear sounds. And before anyone has a chance to respond, I break the ice a bit by wondering aloud whether there's a question anywhere in there.

"The studio we record in is Stone's place," Vedder begins, helpfully. "So it's kind of a home-type environment. You know, we go in at two and then stay until eight or 10 or 12 sometimes, and there's plenty of casual hanging out." He goes on to explain rather shyly that the band have learned a lot over the past several years about how to get along with one another better, and that he himself has gotten better at picking his battles and at respecting the space and the ideas of his bandmates. He also points out that "binaural" is "a Tchad word," meaning it's something that Binaural producer Tchad Blake brought to the table by using a binaural microphone -- an apparatus that's actually attached to a plastic replica of a human head. In fact, the song "Soon Forget," which is a quiet and moody stripped-down number with just voice and a strummed ukulele, was apparently recorded using only the binaural set-up.

"I think what Ed's saying about picking your battles is true," adds Gossard, "and that as you get older, or at least as I've gotten older, you start to see that you have all this history together. So you learn that any one particular situation isn't going to be the end of the world, as opposed to the first year or two when you're a band, when one little thing can just seem like the most important thing in the world. You reach a point where you're able to take a few steps back and realize that it's going to be okay. You know, like maybe I'm not writing as many songs on this record, but I remember I wrote a bunch on the record before and, you know, I know how things work out. Or, maybe I'm not getting along with this person, but you realize that those things go through cycles. All that stuff comes around and you just have to be patient with each other. And I think that's one of the ways in which the dynamic of the band has really improved."

At the same time, it seems that Pearl Jam's relations with the outside world have improved immeasurably, especially when you consider it wasn't too too long ago that the band were embroiled in a costly battle with Ticketmaster and, before that, a war of words with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. Ament has joined us by the time I bring that up and, well, let's just say this isn't one of the band's favorite topics.

"The Ticketmaster thing was something we got involved in because figuring out things like our ticket costs was part of our everyday routine," Ament offers. "And Ticketmaster weren't letting the consumer know that they were making four dollars a ticket while we were making four or maybe five. It didn't seem to make any sense. So when the government asked us to speak at a hearing, we said sure. And then it got blown out of proportion. It was a little frustrating for us to be answering all these questions about Ticketmaster and to read about Ticketmaster as being this thing that this band was into for so long . . ."

"Especially three years later," Vedder interjects.

"Especially right now," Gossard adds. "I mean, the fact is that even at the time there were tons of other battles and other things that were going on that were far more critical or important, whether it was creative stuff or things that were going on between us and the record label. So it's funny how that thing, which was about this piddly little shit ticket company, ended up being this monumental thing that we were associated with."

"We definitely learned some lessons from that ordeal," Ament admits.

And before long, Vedder and Gossard are whisked away, leaving me one-on-one with Ament, who seems to have forgiven me for the Ticketmaster blunder as we move on to more pleasant topics, like the idea that, having gone through a rather rocky middle period, Pearl Jam are having fun again as a band. "I think that's just us trying to focus more on what it's all about. I mean, the first time we played together, we all looked at each other and went like, `Shit, something really good is happening here.' That's why you're doing this. And the more focus as you can put on that, the better off you are.

"I mean, if you can spend half your time actually being a musician and being in a band and communicating with one another, then it's great, and that's something we've just finally figured out how to balance. With Matt in the band right now, you really do feel like, `Man, we're going to go out and really kick ass tonight.' It's fun with him in the band. And it hasn't always been fun. I mean, we'd have some good nights and some bad ones. I'm 37 years old now, and it took me this long to actually get to that point."

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