The Billboard Q&A: Eddie Vedder

The Pearl Jam frontman talks at length with Billboard about his soundtrack for the new Sean Penn-directed film "Into the Wild," its impact on his life, the 2008 election and how his creative process c

Sean Penn has wanted to make a movie based on Jon Krakauer's 1996 book "Into the Wild" since the moment he finished reading it. The true story of Christopher McCandless, a recent college graduate who in 1990 cut ties with his family and embarked on a two-year odyssey that ended tragically in the Alaskan wilderness, struck a major chord with the actor/director.

And while it took him years to convince McCandless' parents and sister to give their blessing to the project, it took only a matter of hours for him to secure longtime friend/Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder to write new original material for the movie's soundtrack. On it, Vedder plays nearly all the instruments and explores more of an acoustic, stripped-down musical approach than normally heard on Pearl Jam albums.

With "Into the Wild" garnering strong reviews and whispers of Academy Award nominations, Vedder talked at length with Billboard about his creative partnership with Penn. The pair will expand on the subject during a keynote interview Nov. 1 in Los Angeles as part of the Hollywood Reporter/Billboard Film & TV Conference.

Sean says he tracked you down in Hawaii. Is it fair to say that's one of the only calls you would take in the midst of a vacation?

Well, at least I'd wait a week before I'd call them back. But I think I called him back within an hour or a half-hour. You never know what it's about with Sean. I had no idea the scope of this thing. It remained that way. It was never really a big project until seeing the film in New York for the first time a few weeks ago. I didn't really grasp what an epic story it was. Participating on a music level, it's very simple compared to what Sean's challenges were. What he had to do was kind of make six records in such a way that you could play them on all on different turntables at the same time, and all that music would fit together. It's like 3-D chess, two games at a time. In that analogy, I feel like I was an important pawn (laughs). I was more like a rook or a queen. He let me choose directions. He let me go at it in a very uninhibited fashion. It just so happened that most everything found a place.

He said he wanted you to be in a movie, and you turned him down by sending him a song with the explanation as to why?

Yeah. It was called "I Can't." He had asked me and I said yeah, because he can be very convincing. If he thinks you can do something, you start to agree with him. Then I came to my senses. For one thing, it was a great opportunity and I would probably do it just to spend time with Sean. But if you get past that, I always felt like a lot of people watching would be thinking, "Wow, this guy took the job of a working actor" (laughs). Why does he need another job? He's already got a good occupation. That came into play a little bit. I didn't want to disappoint him then, and was happy to get another shot. It was good to have another opportunity to make up for that one when I felt like I disappointed him a bit. I'm glad I got a shot to redeem myself, in an arena that is more, this is what I do. I don't do that other thing, and I've just never been driven in that kind of way.

So, you get the book and immerse yourself in it. How quickly do you start thinking about music?

I read the book and within a couple of days, he showed me the film here at the house in Seattle. In the book, what I knew immediately was, I had some insight beyond the pages of what might explain the extreme actions and reactions of Chris McCandless. We had similar upbringings and similar events in our lives. We were both young white male Americans. But I didn't have to burn my money to end up with nothing (laughs). He took a bigger leap there. I was already off the cliff. So, I understood that much. When he showed me the film, I could see the landscapes and I could hear music in my head. But to be honest, most of it was similar to the music he had in there. Michael Brook made great choices with the way he orchestrated the score. Without even really thinking about it, I saw the film the one time and our pieces of music meshed together pretty well for not having approached it in a way of, let's make sure these puzzle pieces fit. They just did, you know?

Sean said once you finished watching the movie, you told him, "It's on." True?

Yeah! The film ended and we shared a moment of silence, because it was heavy. I think I just asked him, as I'm reaching over to light a cigarette, "What do you want?" And he said, "Whatever you feel. It could be a song, it could be two, it could be the whole thing." So I went in for three days, starting the next day, and gave him a palette of stuff to work with. And then he started choosing. Immediately he had a few things he put in. I wasn't expecting that. After that, then it was really on. What I gathered was, the songs could now become another tool in the storytelling, especially when you have shots of the young man solitary. In a way, it's offering a window into what he's going through intellectually and emotionally without having to have him talk to himself (laughs).

Can you describe your writing/recording setup once things got rolling?

I went in to a room in Seattle we work in. I worked with the guys we do the band music with. In essence, they became the band. Not as far as playing any instruments, but being sounding boards for what was taking place and what was being created. You're playing the music by yourself, but you end up in a band with the guys pushing the buttons and sorting out the guitars and amps. Also Sean is in the band and Chris McCandless is in the band. The film becomes the record. In a way, I wasn't in the band (laughs). It was like being a songwriter for a band -- serving the voice of Chris McCandless. Not my voice, or something I wanted to say. In almost every aspect of this process, it simplified things. There were fewer choices. The story was there and the scenes were there.

If there was anything that I learned with my own writing process, maybe there's too many choices what to write about. Just the amount of subject matter in the world these days; maybe that feels chaotic for me. This took away all the choices. There was a point A and a point B and I found it pretty easy to get there without hitting all the other points in between, which I seem to do when we make our records. When you do that, you feel like, okay, this is a galvanized piece of work because we've done this song every which way it can go and here's the best way. I don't think it has to be that way. You can just go right to it.

One thing I found with this was, we'd go in and start the day knowing we had a few duties to fulfill. Something would start coming together and I'd realize, that's not what we want here. But I'd just go ahead and finish it and make something out of it. It's a song. Why force that song into being something else? Since it was just happening, just go with that. We were moving so quick. If at noon you sit down and there's just silence or blank tape, in an hour if you have a song, that didn't exist an hour ago. Now it exists and it might exist for a long time. There's something empowering about that. It makes you feel like you're contributing as a human being -- adding some kind of beauty or emotion to the planet, whether anyone hears it or not. Then you feel like maybe you can even do something better.

Were you consciously trying to put yourself in Chris' head or was the narration more omniscient?

It was startling how easy it was for me to get into his head. I found it to be uncomfortable how easy it was, because I thought I'd grown up (laughs). I think all this stuff was right under the surface for me, barely. Because of that, lyrics and words and even chord changes were coming quick. It was like being asked to do something you did every day for a decade -- you just hadn't done it for 20 years. You go to do it again and it's just all right there. It never left.

What are your thoughts on the perception of the character? Some people have come down hard on McCandless for never contacting his family during his trip.

I think Sean and Jon Krakuer were successful in presenting the truth. There are elements of it that weren't pretty. If the kid makes it back, I'm sure he would have shared his story with his family and I'm sure he would have reconnected. I shouldn't say sure, but you can imagine him reconnecting, certainly with his sister. As he matured, I think he'd start to forgive, if for no other reason than for the sake of progressing. At some point, you see that there's a real powerful, positive energy from forgiveness.

Some of his actions were really bold. To part with his money ... to do what he did without money to fund his trip and make it comfortable, without taking classes or waiting for permits to go down rivers or to hike trails, or the fact that he didn't take a map, were choices he made in order to get to the truth of the matter, whatever that matter was to him. The truth of his existence, or a human's existence on this planet. A lot of people aren't going to understand that, and that's their prerogative. I actually respect those decisions. I'm going to respect anyone's choices if they want to live this life to get ultimate value out of it. I think one of the reasons a lot of people are uncomfortable with this idea is that maybe they haven't done it themselves.

In regards to people having opinions, when we say things at shows, sometimes people don't like, I hear, us mentioning that we are at war. Even if we bring out a veteran and introduce them to somebody who has been involved. Some people feel that this is time when we could be playing a B-side or something. To me, this is equivalent to somebody sitting in the back seat of a car, and the car is hitting people and killing them, and they're asking for the heat to be turned up or the air-conditioning to be turned down -- something in regards to their comfort level.

Right now, if people have something to say about the issue, then I'm all for it, whatever it is. If their comment or critique is, they don't want to hear the conversation, I have no patience for that whatsoever. I think that's anti-patriotic. That's one of the reasons we got into this mess -- people shirking their duties as Americans to have an opinion and to lead our leaders. So when I hear about people talking about McCandless doing this or doing that, I'd have to know what they've been through to even know whether I can put any stock in their critique.

Click here for more of Billboard's interview with Eddie Vedder.