“Let’s just pretend this is not the weirdest thing we’ve ever done,” longtime Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien said jokingly to a small crowd of 34 people Thursday night at Belltown’s Studio X.
The crowd was gathered for a private listening party for “Lightning Bolt,” Pearl Jam’s highly anticipated 10th studio album. The lucky fans who were invited to the event, which was hosted by Pearl Jam, were hand-picked contest winners and their guests from around the country who received their invitations by submitting questions to the band. Sixteen of the winners were chosen by Sirius XM and one chosen by Pearl Jam’s fan club, Ten Club, to take part in the Sirius XM Pearl Jam Town Hall.
Prior to getting an exclusive first listen to the record, the fans milled around the studio eating pizza and snacks and shared stories about various Pearl Jam concerts. An hour-long Q&A, which was moderated by O’Brien, followed shortly after the listening session, and the band — Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron, Stone Gossard and Boom Gaspar — fielded 17 questions about everything from the band’s songwriting process to creating set lists.
You can listen to the entire Town Hall when it airs on Sirius XM Oct. 11 at 12 p.m. EST. Until then, here are 10 takeaways from the Town Hall along with a few additional observations from my notebook.
Mike McCready shed a few tears when he heard the final version of “Sirens.”
“That was a Mike song,” Vedder said about the standout ballad on “Lightning Bolt”. “A lot these songs existed as instrumental versions for quite some time, or maybe only a couple of hours. We kind of lock in. It’s like an equation with variables. You have to figure out what the a is and what the x is and the fractions and then solve for all the variables. I think that was the last song from the first session.”
McCready said he was “blown away” by Vedder’s lyrics to his song the first time he heard them.
“I heard it on headphones and I teared up just a little bit,” McCready said. “And I’m totally not that. I don’t like crying in front of the guys. It was very emotional and beautiful. It was much like how Eddie approaches lyrics in my mind and how he speaks to something we can all feel. And that was another case of it and it was very beautiful and very present. It just made me cry. And if it can do that then I know it’s going to be great.”
“Lightning Bolt” songs are intended to be played live and you can expect the set lists to be more experimental this tour.
Near the end of the Q&A Vedder was asked how he puts together a set list. He said he still struggles with creating set lists and that this tour he hopes that adding “Lightning Bolt” material to the mix will give the shows different feel.
“This tour, it will be interesting, because we’ve got a whole bunch of new material that I think sounds great live that we enjoy playing,” he said.
“We’re always trying to gauge how open people are to experimenting with us,” Vedder said. “I kind of through the ether feel like maybe it’s the time to do that (experiment) and I think it might be really interesting in that some interesting, really weird, cool shit might come from that. It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all.”
Gossard commented on how he thinks the new songs will sound live.
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“We just rehearsed and we played every song on this record live for the first time really over the past couple of days and everything sounded good right away,” he said. “And that’s a good sign.”
World events impact how Eddie Vedder writes lyrics.
Pearl Jam has a history of slipping social commentary into their music (see “Glorified G,” “Bu$hleager” et al) and the pattern of sending messages through song is still alive in Vedder’s songwriting process.
“It’s just part of what’s our responsibility,” he said about incorporating world events into his lyrics. “Communicating and keeping a dialog open … It’s part of being in that position of being in a relationship and taking it responsibly. We should be talking about what’s going on and maybe feeling each other out. Part of what world events does is make you think ‘Am I crazy?’ Am I the only one who thinks that maybe this isn’t right?’ I’m trying not to be terrified here but it’s starting to get to that point. I think there’s plenty of other music that doesn’t have those qualities so if people don’t want that input, they don’t want the fiber in their diet, then that stuff exists.”
Pearl Jam approached the album artwork for “Lightning Bolt” differently than it has with previous albums.
For the record the band chose to work with artist Don Pendelton, who had previously worked with Ament on his most recent solo album “While My Heart Beats.”
“I’ve always gone against the whole thing of the package is shrinking up. I think we’re all sort of vinyl guys and like things to be big and we want them to be really intricate. We look back at all the Zeppelin and Yes records and the records that had a story in the artwork and unfolded, and every time you looked at it in a different light it looked different. I think we’ve always approached our artwork this way,” Ament, who plays a large role in the art direction of the band, said. “This is the first time we approached that thinking that people are going to be looking at the artwork on their phones. So how do you make that interesting? And working with Don we thought we could make really simple art that could make a story for each song. It was really a different kind of angle for us to take for artwork.”
The inspiration for Pearl Jam’s more sentimental songs comes from a lot of different places.
Vedder was asked about the inspiration for “Just Breathe,” and while his response is specific to that song it gives a little insight into how he currently approaches writing the band’s ballads.
“It was a bunch of things … I know at the time I was thinking about my kids, sometimes I was thinking about my grandmother who wasn’t going to be around much longer at the time, and other times I was thinking about my most significant other. So really, I was trying to get it all down at once,” he said. “But you really don’t want to be writing sentimental songs every time. So once one starts going you have to be careful. You’ll kind of dedicate it to somebody and then on a phone call you’ll tell someone else that it’s for them and hope that they never meet. So you have to be careful about that. But the truth is you do try to pull everything into it.”
Spending time apart from one another has helped the band’s longevity.
The first question out of the gate asked about how the band has managed to stay together for so long and how the group’s longevity impacted the creation of “Lightning Bolt.”
“What surprises me most about being around still? It’s that we’re still around,” said McCready. “I was thinking about this the other day and a lot of the bands we came up with are not around … I don’t know what it is. It’s not being around each other a bunch then being around each other a bunch. Getting away from each other but still having the same humor and the same inside jokes we’ve always had but also a healthy respect for each other as musicians.”
Vedder said he has accepted that being in a band is part of who he is.
“It’s like dying,” he said. “You don’t want to get old, but what are the options? What are the options to not being in a group?”
Cameron put things a bit more simply.
“I think we’re still all inspired to make music and we’re still inspired by the process of songwriting and being creative musicians,” he said.
That time apart helped “Lightning Bolt” sound much different from the band’s last album, 2009′s “Backspacer.”
Another question was about the differences between “Backspacer and “Lightning Bolt.” Ament said spreading the recording sessions over two years was key.
“The main difference was there were two years between the first session and the second session so we had a lot of time to think about that first group of songs we recorded and the type of songs we needed to build the record out,” he said. “This record benefited from that time. We were all doing different things in the time between and there’s nothing that makes you appreciate being in this band more than being in other situations. It’s a much more cohesive record because of that.”
There’s no such thing as a day off when you’re a member of Pearl Jam.
Even though there was a four year gap between “Backspacer” and “Lightning Bolt,” the longest amount of time between Pearl Jam albums, that doesn’t mean the band members were taking time off. While each had his own side projects and other gigs going on, Pearl Jam was always in the mix.
“There’s no break. Maybe there’s a break between going out and doing a Pearl Jam tour or being in a studio, but this is a day-to-day business we deal with every day. It’s ongoing,” said Ament. “We’re our own thing. We don’t really have a record company. We’re creating all of this stuff. The stuff you see on the website, the stuff you see from the fan club, that all comes from us. It all comes from us going out and working and laying it out and getting it out there. It doesn’t ever feel like I’m not in the band. For the most part I feel like I’m pretty connected to it all of the time. I always get a little bit sensitive when people say ‘You’ve had four years off. What have you been doing with yourself?’ Actually, we’ve been doing a lot of stuff.”
The members of Pearl Jam are not concerned about their legacy.
When you’ve been in band form more than two decades and have made your mark in rock ‘n’ roll history it seems only natural to start thinking about your legacy. That’s not how the guys in Pearl Jam are thinking. Here’s what they had to say when asked about their legacy and where they see themselves as a band in 10 years.
“Hopefully not a residency in Vegas,” Gossard said.
McCready added that he was more focused on the here and now than the future.
“I think it’s hard enough staying in the present,” McCready said. “I can’t even tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. I would love people to enjoy our music and get something out of it and have feelings … That’s all I can hope for.”
Cameron was a bit more willing to play along with the question and said that the band’s music will be its legacy.
“The legacy is the songs. It’s bigger than us. I think we’re all very lucky to have come out of the same scene in Seattle. We all came from a very DIY generation. I think that really influenced the way we connected as a music community, all of the bands from this town. It’s nice to see that it’s still, not necessarily relevant in a pop sense but (the music) still connects with a lot of people.”
Playing Wrigley Field was one of the most difficult things the band has done.
The band’s concert at Wrigley Field in Chicago this summer was a show that will go down as a major event in Pearl Jam history and forever be romanticized in fan club circles. Not only was it a show where a pair of “Lightning Bolt” songs were debuted (“Future Days” and the album’s title track), it also was interrupted a few songs into the set by a massive thunder storm that forced a two-hour delay for safety reasons. The band ended up finishing the show at 2 a.m. and to the band’s amazement the more than 40,000 in attendance weathered the storm and stuck around for the entire show.
“It was pretty intense to be in our position,” Vedder said. “There was only so much we were in control of, only so much the police and fire department could do … It was a very, very tense two hours. To walk out after all that time and it was like everyone had been there the entire time. It was quite a feeling … It felt great.”
A few extra observations:
- Brendan O’Brien is very much the unofficial seventh member of the band: O’Brien described working with Pearl Jam as being like working with family. He’s worked with the band on eight of their studio albums and not only did he record all of the keyboard parts for “Lightning Bolt” (Gaspar plays O’Brien’s parts on tour) he also did a week of press for the record in Europe acting as Pearl Jam by proxy.
- Eddie Vedder still enjoys punk rock. This should not be a surprise to anyone who follows the band. When asked what bands he thought should get their own channel on Sirius Vedder responded that he listens to the Bruce Springsteen station “quite a bit” and that he would like to see the Dischord Records bands get their own station.
- Studio X is a special place for Pearl Jam: The nondescript location where the Town Hall was held is where the band has recorded parts of several of their albums. “We made a lot of music in this room. I’ve never seen it so full with people,” Vedder said.
- Eddie Vedder has a sense of humor and Boom Gaspar is quiet and has a great laugh: Vedder made quite a few jokes throughout the night. When the band was asked about what will be different from “Lightning Bolt” compared to “Backspacer” he contributed that “The artwork will be different.” When Ament was talking about how the band is more or less always working and does everything in-house Vedder quipped “At the warehouse we don’t have landscapers or gardeners. It’s all us.” And he started off his answer about how he creates a set list by saying that he calls “1-800-SET-LIST.” Gaspar was quiet through most of the Q&A. The only times he spoke was when he made a joke about O’Brien’s keyboard parts and when Gossard asked him about playing on a nude beach in Australia. The latter question resulted in a massive laugh from Gaspar, who has one of the most distinct laughs you’ll ever hear and might be why his nickname is Boom. Think of a jollier version of Bergess Meredith’s Penguin quack and that’s what his laugh sounds like.
- Pearl Jam fans are very dedicated: All of the Sirius XM contest winners had to provide their own transportation to the Town Hall. This wasn’t a problem for the roughly half a dozen who were from Seattle but others flew in from Massachusetts, Georgia, Nevada and other states showing some serious dedication to the band.