Getting RNDM: An interview with Jeff Ament

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RNDM

 

It’s been more than three years since Pearl Jam has released a studio record and bassist Jeff Ament has found plenty of ways to bide his time until the alt-rock icons jump back into the studio. Tomorrow will see the release of the third record Ament has been a part of in the past 36 months when RNDM, his latest side project, releases its debut record Acts. The band is a power trio which features Joseph Arthur (Fistful of Mercy) and Richard Stuverud (Fastbacks, Tres Mtns) and the album is a potpourri of rock filled with uptempo, grooving numbers  (“Look Out!”), quieter cuts (“Walk Through New York”) and straightforward power-rock songs (“Modern Times”).

If you’re a regular Guerrilla Candy reader you know I am a big Pearl Jam fan so I was thrilled when the RNDM camp got in touch and offered up a chance for me to chat with Ament. Below is the first part of our conversation where Ament talks about his new band, its origins, color scheme and his experience behind a barber stool. The second half of the interview will be posted tomorrow when RNDM’s Acts is released into the world.

Is the band’s name any indication of how the three of you got together? Is there any meaning behind RNDM?

For me, I’m really visual, so if somebody says something I sort of visualize the word, and Joe was telling us this crazy story. Some artist friend of his was telling him that he had to go to his neighbor’s house because there was something he had to see. So he went over to the house and he had this whole room full of gongs. And he goes, ‘Yeah, there were random gongs everywhere.’ And I was like ‘Man, that’s a band name, Random Gongs.’ So that was kind of the working title for the project for three or four days. We actually even wrote an instrumental track called “Theme from Random Gong.”

That’s kind of the way the whole project went. We were constantly spewing stuff back and forth between one another. But then as time went on I was like, ‘the gong is kind of wearing off on me, but I like random.’ And then to kind of contemporize it we pulled vowels out of it and that’s the name.

Jeff Ament onstage with Pearl Jam. Photo by Karen Loria/courtesy Pearl Jam

The three of us had still only been in the same room together for seven days during the whole course of this, so it’s still a pretty honeymoon feeling. Most of it has been Joe and I sending texts back and forth. That’s how the video thing came up. He sent this creative treatment and we started throwing ideas back and forth and in a couple of weeks I was going to New York and shooting a video.

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I read that you guys had a four-day recording process. That sounds pretty intense. 

You know, there really wasn’t any plan for there to be a record or for this to be a band. If I had anything in the back of my head, I was thinking maybe we’d release a seven-inch, or a four-song EP, and it would be this weird little thing we threw out there. But after the first day we had six or seven things down already and then we started talking as if we were a band. We were like, ‘well when we are on tour and we’re in Australia we’re going to do this …’ It was just a big joke, the entire thing. I think even at the end of the four days we still didn’t even think it was going to be a band. We all thought we probably had a record, but we weren’t thinking about being a band. But then after sitting with the record for a couple of weeks it was like, these songs would be fun to play live. They’re all pretty straightforward and most of it kind of rocks, so after a few dozen texts back and forth we kind of turned it into a real thing.

That sort of sounds like how Tres Mtns started. From what I’ve read that started out with the thought of the songs being fun to play live and then the band sort of came together.

Yeah, the difference there is with that thing is that it took us almost ten years to finish that record. The Tres Mtns thing was two, maybe week-to-ten-day sessions, of which we got ten things out, of which is still a pretty good clip compared to other bands I’ve been a part of. This thing was totally different. Joe chose a song or maybe I would have an idea and show them what I had going with it and then we’d go through it three or four times and if it wasn’t happening we would move on to the next thing. We didn’t really waste a lot of time producing the tracks or getting too precious with them so it was very much a pro atmosphere. We were super-focused. … In the beginning we were super-stoked and knocking ideas back and forth and it just got to the point where we were staying up until two or three in the morning and by nine or ten in the morning people started waking up and were excited to start working on more stuff. So by the end of the four days we were pretty wrecked. I’m almost 50 years old so if I only get four or five hours of sleep a night for four or five nights in a row it’s not enough.

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Was it difficult to get Joseph to turn things up a bit? He’s more of a quiet singer-songwriter on his solo material and RNDM is a rocking power trio. 

Jeff Ament. Photo by Karen Loria/courtesy Pearl Jam

The song that he put vocals on for my last solo record, “When the Fire Comes,” sort of started this whole thing. The conversation we had at PJ 20, when we played the song, he said it was really fun to work on that song because it is a little more uptempo than what he is used to doing. He said ‘I have a really hard time writing more uptempo stuff’ and I said ‘Man, I have tons of uptempo stuff that’s already on tape so if you want to come out and throw vocals on stuff …’

That ended up becoming “Throw You to the Pack,” “Look Out!” and those kind of songs. That was probably the one premeditated idea we had about the band; that we wanted it to rock a little more than some of the stuff that he would normally do. The other thing was to strip it back. I think his nature and my nature when we work by ourselves is to just layer things and multitrack with tons of vocals and tons of keyboards and stuff. With this it was kind of like, I think the one guitar sounds good; we don’t need to put another guitar under it. Or, I don’t think you need to double your vocal on every single song. It was kind of trying to limit ourselves into keeping within the space that was there. It always sounds so great whenever you have three instruments – drums, bass and guitar – it always sounds so cool. You can always hear the textures of the instruments and we were trying to keep it like that as much as possible.

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So how does the creative process with RNDM differ from the creative process with Pearl Jam?

With RNDM there was no history with the band. In fact, it wasn’t a band. It was just three guys getting together to do some recording. I think sometimes when you take that little bit of pressure away from a situation it really frees you up because there isn’t really anything there. There are no expectations. There’s nobody at the other end saying ‘Hey, when’s the record going to be done? Is it good enough to stand up to the rest of your catalog?’ I think sometimes that freedom can make it better because there’s no fear involved with any of it.

With Pearl Jam we have certain expectations with ourselves. We don’t want to do anything half-assed. You kind of want to your best foot forward. I have to say the last few times Pearl Jam has gone in the studio it’s been in a similar way. We knock out seven or eight ideas and everyone gets super-excited. Maybe we’re starting to get back to that way of making music. For a few records it was people bringing in complete demos and the band playing the demos.

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You mentioned that you’re a very visual person. Tell me about the orange color scheme with RNDM?

Jeff Ament, far right, with Joseph Arthur, far left, at PJ 20. Photo by Anna Knowlden/courtesy Pearl Jam

The orange thing initiated from my drum kit in Montana. It’s a fluorescent orange and one of the tracks was called “Orange Drum in the Forest” or something like that, I can’t remember what it was called right now. And so over the course of these texts Joe and I would send back and forth it got to the point where it was like, ‘Okay, having been in the music industry for thirty years you see bands where everybody has an opinion on different things. You always witness somebody in the band doing something where you’re like, you should never do that. What that guy is doing right now should be against whatever is in this book of unwritten rock rules.’ So we started talking about all of this stuff and we thought that this band should be all about breaking all the rock rules we’ve created over our crusty thirty years of being in bands. Let’s do things we never would do in our respective bands and careers.

Then we just started pushing ourselves to do these things. Let’s shave our heads. Let’s dress up in orange jumpsuits. Let’s wear suits. I’ve always been an anti-suit guy. So it sort of became this thing where we were daring each other to do things that we never would do. That just ended up making the whole process super-fun and edgy. Those guys letting me shave the sides of their heads … They had to trust I wasn’t going to butcher their hair too badly. Those guys have good haircuts. Richard and Joe have real stylish, proper, English, rock-style haircuts.

You had to sport the shaved head too, right?

Yeah, I had to show them I was serious so I pretty much took mine to the bone. I actually sat in a chair and shaved it all the way down to show them I was serious about it. It’s grown back now but there’s already talk about tightening things up before the first show.

Maybe if RNDM sticks around there can be free buzz cuts at Safeco Field. Instead of Buhner buzz cut it’d be RNDM buzz cut night. Anyone who wears orange gets a free shave from Jeff.

There ya go. Well, my dad was a barber so I was around that culture.

One of my favorite scenes in PJ20, aside from finding out where Stone keeps his Grammy, is when you go back to Montana and are skating in a bowl. Tell me a little bit about the work you do in rural communities and skate parks.

Rural life in Montana is getting smaller and smaller. Any time I can help a small town do something unique culturally, I’m always up for it. There’s been a couple of parks in Montana over the past few years that I’ve been involved with, be it either giving money to or helped build – there’s one in Great Falls, which is very close to where I grew up – it’s just very cool. Growing up in Montana in the late ’70s there were like four ramps so sometimes we have to travel 300 miles to skate for four hours at a ramp in Helena or Bozeman or whatever, so it’s just been fun to be able to help out.

Jeff Ament onstage with Pearl Jam. Photo by Karen Loria/courtesy Pearl Jam

I know the guys in Grindline (Skateparks) and  Dreamland who build skateparks and they’ve helped me build a few things. Whenever I can get a community to be stoked about building something I’m always super-excited to lend a hand however I can. We’re looking to do some more of that stuff (building skateparks) next year. We’ve talked to the Blackfoot Reservation, which is on the east side of Glacier Park. We’re talking about building a park there. It’s sort of my way of giving back to the state of Montana, which I feel gave me so much growing up there. As frustrating as it was for me as a 15-year-old wanting to move to California more than anything, it was a pretty idyllic childhood for me.

One of Pearl Jam’s only U.S. shows this year was in Montana in support of your friend Senator John Tester, who is in a pretty tight Senate race this year. That was another way you’ve been able to give back to Montana.

It’s probably a closer race than the presidential race is right now … I was there (Montana) all summer so I got to witness a lot of the ads and it’s just super ugly. Basically it’s just Karl Rove money coming in and repeating the same lies over and over again.

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It was real interesting. I hung out with him (Sen. Tester) for three or four days and we did some interviews. The people who follow him around, they have this tracker guy who follows him around and puts a camera in his face and yells at him for a reaction. …They just want to catch you a little bit off or get you to overreact. It’s just ugly. It doesn’t have anything to do with helping the people or helping the country, which is what government is supposed to be all about. It got to a point where I told him that he’d probably just be better off going back to his farm.

Within the last three years you’ve released a record with Pearl Jam, Tres Mtns., a solo record and now RNDM. Pearl Jam is in its 21st  or 22nd year now …

I think it’s in year 22 now. Actually Ed came up and joined the band 22 years ago some time this month.

So the various members of Pearl Jam have all these side projects – Ed is touring solo, Mike is working on a Mad Season release, Stone has Brad and Matt is obviously busy with Soundgarden – is having all of these projects a key to Pearl Jam’s longevity?

I don’t know if it’s key. I think it’s one of the fringe benefits of being in the band.  That’s how I met Joeseph, and how I met Dug Pinnick was because I was in Pearl Jam. I got to become friends with these people, and the fact that I can do something like call up Joe and ask if he wants to do some recording, that’s really awesome. It’s how I would imagine it would be if you were Kevin Durant. He can call up LeBron James and say, hey do you want to work out this summer. It’s sort of the same for me. I can call up these guys who are some of my favorite musicians and artists and we can collaborate and have fun and learn a ton in the process. Everybody has a different creative process so just to get inside that world … I’m always intrigued by how people write. Watching Joe was awesome.

Jeff Ament with Joesph Arthur at PJ 20. Photo by Anna Knowlden/courtesy Pearl Jam

What are Pearl Jam’s plans for 2013? 

There really are no plans right now. We have a few shows in South America on the calendar and that’s about it. I think that’s kind of by design. I think the idea is that everybody takes the holidays off and then at some point somebody will pick up the phone, maybe late January or early February, and that will kind of start the (recording) process over again.

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People want to know what’s going on with the next record and I think everybody has sort of talked about it, but it still really isn’t anything. We still don’t really know exactly when we will finish it so it’s hard to talk about it. It really could be anything at this point. Even though we have seven or eight songs recorded it’s still sort of a blank slate and that’s exciting.

I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re going to make a record, but when that’s going to be, and when everybody is ready to do it, well that’s another story. And there’s no pressure. So if at any point the guys called up and said “Hey, we’re ready to do this,” I’d have no problem dropping everything because that’s my first love. I’m going to do whatever works for everyone else.

That lack of pressure has to be a nice byproduct of being an independent band now and being able to call your own shots when it comes to recording and releasing an album.

I think just as long as we create deadlines for ourselves. I think, well, we’ve all witnessed how that turned out for Axl Rose … You know how it is when you write. You can always rewrite everything. You can make it better, or different, or more unique. Every day you’re going to improve as a writer and your take on things might be different. At some point you just have to let go and move on to the next thing. That’s always the tricky part of being in a band. When is it good enough? When is there too much paint on the canvas and when isn’t there too much paint on the canvas? That’s always a tricky balance.

So right now it’s sort of like a blank canvas with only a sketch?

Yeah it really is. There is some stuff that’s pretty well finished and sounds good right now, but who knows if that stuff is going to end up on the next record. We may get together this spring and come up 15 things that are better than that, and that’s the new record. As long as around the first of the year we have some studio time booked and we’re focus on a new batch of songs, that’s the fun part for me of being in Pearl Jam. Just being in a room with those guys and watching a riff turn into a song … the power that the band has and just the sensibilities everyone has with knowing when to contribute and when to lay off. It’s a pretty special thing.

Jeff Ament onstage with Pearl Jam. Photo by Karen Loria/courtesy Pearl Jam

It sounds like the wheels are turning but things aren’t quite happening yet.

That’s the thing. If we don’t get together for the next three of four months it’s going to be a whole new batch of songs. Nobody ever really stops writing. That’s the exciting thing. If you haven’t gotten together in a while you get to see what everyone else has been up to and that’s really exciting.

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So how does Pearl Jam tread the line between being a relevant band and not a nostalgia band?

I think the reason we’ve never become a nostalgia band is because we’ve never gone three years or so without making a record. It’s been a little more than three years since we released a record this time around, but we’ve been in the studio four times since and we have a huge bunch of new ideas and songs. I think that as long as every six to nine months we go in the studio and write some new music, that keeps us out of the nostalgia conversation.

There are plenty of bands out there that haven’t made a record in ten years or fifteen years and are still out there touring telling people that they’ve been a band for twenty years. But I don’t know if that constitutes being a band for twenty years if you’ve only released three records. And that’s fine. There are plenty of bands that don’t make records very often that I will go see at the drop of a hat. Our influences in terms of that stuff are guys like Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Guys that are changing things up and making relevant music. Le Noise by Neil Young is one of the greatest left turns ever. Seeing someone in their mid-sixties making relevant music is pretty inspiring. That’s what I’d like to see happen with Pearl Jam.

Travis Hay

About Travis Hay

Travis Hay is a professional music journalist who has spent the past 14 years documenting and enjoying Seattle's diverse music scene. In 2009 he established Guerrilla Candy and is currently the site's editor and publisher. He has written for various media outlets including MSN Music, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut.com and others and was the founder and editor of defunct music site Ear Candy.