Q&A: Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament

As Pearl Jam's blockbuster 1991 debut, "Ten," gets a re-release on March 24 so deluxe that it would be fairer to call it a complete reimagining, the veteran Seattle band's bassist and co-founder Jeff Ament sat down with Billboard to talk about what went into the four extras-laden editions of the 12-times platinum album. He also took a trip down the long road of memory lane back to the days when the quintet's "Alive," "Even Flow" and "Jeremy" dominated radio and singer Eddie Vedder swung Tarzan-like from the rafters of clubs and amphitheaters from Los Angeles to London.

Each of the four versions of the "Ten" reissue includes a digitally remastered version of the original album as well as a completely new remix of the set by longtime producer Brendan O'Brien. The O'Brien disc also includes six previously unreleased songs from the era: early versions of "Breath" and "State of Love and Trust," "Brother" (with vocals, not the instrumental version from the 2003 rarities collection "Lost Dogs"), "Just a Girl," "Evil Little Goat" and "2,000 Mile Blues," a Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired jam with improvised vocals from Vedder.

The "Legacy" edition of "Ten" adds a DVD of Pearl Jam's previously unreleased 1992 performance on "MTV Unplugged," including a never-aired version of "Oceans." But the package that has sent hardcore fans into a tizzy is the two-CD, one DVD, four LP "Super Deluxe Edition." The linen-covered, slip-cased clamshell box includes a replica of "Momma-Son," the audition demo tape Vedder sent to Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard in 1990 to land the job in Pearl Jam, the previously unreleased Sept. 20, 1992, concert at Seattle's Magnuson Park on two vinyl LPs, a replica of Vedder's composition notebook packed with notes and photos and assorted stickers and other memorabilia from the "Ten" era.

When you guys started conceptualizing this project, what were some of the things you wanted to make sure were included?

Jeff Ament: There were definitely some politics with the art department at Sony at the time, so the cover didn't turn out the way we intended. It was a pinker shade of red than what we intended (laughs). Also, when we started making records with Brendan, we sort of realized how we wanted to sound. We knew the first record maybe didn't sound like the band that we were. It didn't sound direct enough and was maybe over-mixed and a tad bit wet for our tastes. When we were mixing "Ten," we were pulling stuff off of it, which is hard to believe. I think those things made me want to make it the way we intended. It's one of those things: if we would have known then what we know now, what sort of record would it be? In the process of digging through things and deciding we'd put some special things and surprises together, we found a lot of stuff. We found boxes and boxes of journals and tour itineraries that had stuff written on them. It was a pretty cool thing to do. I didn't know it at the time, but when you take pictures and write little comments about shows, it facilitates your memory. It helps you remember what was going on at the time. I don't think any of us had thought much about what happened 18 years ago since. This is one of the first times I've really looked back on the band, because typically we've been so busy moving forward. It felt like a good time. It felt like there was enough separation between what had happened then. We all have a sense of humor about it, which 10 years ago I don't think we would have had as much of.

Would you say the willingness to include the original demo tape speaks to that?

Yeah. When I found it and played it, I wasn't sure if it was appropriate for it to come out, to be honest. My first instinct was, this is pretty personal and done before we knew each other. Then when Ed listened to it, he just laughed. He was like, 'Wow. I was kind of out there.' So that was a great sign, that he was willing. It made me feel more willing to put a lot of those personal things out there and be done with it a little bit. In some ways, it will probably make it subconsciously easier to move forward by getting this out there and letting go, just because it was such a huge record and such a crazy time.

Were there things you just couldn't do for the most deluxe version?

The things that ended up in the journal, that's probably a tenth of what we had laying out on the table. We put the stuff that we thought best told the story. It gives you an inside glimpse into what we were going through and doing with our pens in the downtime. There's a page from something I did about how we wanted to do this very idealistic approach to merchandising. It's kind of funny, but it's pretty right on. It's kind of what we've done, and it was funny to see that. I didn't remember us even thinking that way back then, but we were. It's interesting to think we were a very idealistic band at that time, and we actually pulled a lot of it off.

I imagine you guys were confident the fan base would snap up the deluxe version very quickly. Does it feel like an approach you'll limit to special things like this? Or would you consider putting out a new album with all these bells and whistles?

Probably not to this extent. Except for that first record, for me, I feel like on every record, we overextended ourselves with the sorts of packages we put out. With "Vitalogy," that package cut into about 30 to 40% of our royalties, because the manufacturing wasn't set up to do what we wanted. On "Vs.," we did an ecopack, which they don't do anymore. It preceded the digipak. It was us trying to take plastic out of the package and make it more like a record; to make it feel like you were opening something up and something inside would reveal itself. It would be big enough to be a substantial piece of art, and it wouldn't be in a jewel case. We hated those from the very beginning, because they were breakable. The spines would break, the cases would crack and you couldn't close them. Subsequent reissues won't be to the extent of what we did with "Ten." I haven't started digging through those boxes yet, but I can only think of a handful of things I'd like to re-do on any of those records. That would be more mix or sound things.

"MTV Unplugged" has never been out before. Had you seen this in years?

No. I don't think I'd seen it since it came out. It was a little bit before things got nuts. When we heard about it, we were actually in Europe for the second time. It was the day after we played this show in Zurich. We showed up at this club and the stage was about as big as our normal drum riser. We looked at it and wondered how we could play a show in there and fit all our gear in. Somebody said, we don't we play an acoustic show? There were some people from the label there, and they got us some acoustic guitars. We'd probably played 70 or 80 shows as a band on that record at that point, so it was a really refreshing take on things. The audience sang the songs back to us, because we had a little teeny PA. The next day, [manager] Kelly [Curtis] called and said we had an offer to do "MTV Unplugged." And we were like, we just did it! Had they called a week ago we wouldn't have known if we could have pulled it off. But in Zurich, it seemed like it was all right musically. I think this was one of the first "MTV Unplugged." We had very little experience as an acoustic band at that point, so part of us wished we could do it over. Nirvana did theirs a couple of years later and obviously spent some time on it. We literally got off the plane from Europe, spent all day in a cavernous sound studio in New York and did the show that night. It was just kind of what it was. That's part of the reason we didn't want it released on a big level. If we did one now, we could actually do it properly. But it's appropriate for it to come out with this stuff. It's pretty powerful, and Ed's singing great. Yet, it's kind of naïve, which is kind of awesome.

And because you weren't putting out new videos then, all those songs got broadcast separately, and divorced of their context in the show. For a lot of people I think it was the first time they'd seen you perform in any form.

We look crazy young. The first time I saw it, I was like, holy shit! I guess that was 18 years ago.

"Drop in the Park" was another key moment in the band's history. It's pretty well established that it was a nightmare to set up.

It was supposed to be held at Gas Works Park initially, more in the city, near Lake Union. The city has always had a big disconnect with what was going on here musically. The mayor, Greg Nichols, recently came out and said he was reaching out to the music community to be more a part of the arts movement, and they'd put money into these programs. I was like, it's 20 years too late! At that time, they really didn't want to have anything to do with what was going on in the town musically. I remember having dinner with Paul Schell, who was the mayor at the time, maybe two or three years after the show. He was incredibly condescending when we talked about how much money the whole movement brought into the city. He just thought we were ridiculous for talking about that. It felt good to finally do the show, but it was a little anti-climactic. We were really, really excited to put on the show initially, but it took six months or something for us to finally figure out a way to do it. Most of it was us kind of giving in to the fears the city had about what was going to happen at this "grunge concert." All we wanted to do was put on a free show for the town.
I heard that volunteers were let in for free with the understanding that they'd stick around to help clean up, but of course they all left, and there were like three people picking up the entire grounds.

Yeah. Putting on that show taught us a lot about how to put on your own show. There were definitely things we didn't do right. The barricade was too small. It broke at one point during Cypress Hill's set. We were definitely getting into something we didn't have the experience dealing with, but it was still great. There was definitely a celebratory vibe to that show, and relief. It took months of us working with the city to pull it off.

Let's talk about Brendan's remix. He had a crack at a few songs on the "Greatest Hits" album that came out in 2004. What is it about the sound of "Ten" that has bugged you?

Well again, it goes back to making our first record with Brendan, which was "Vs." When we heard how powerful that sounded in the way that he treated it, which was basically not treating it very much, other than making things punchier and doing some EQ and compression ... There's really not a lot of reverb on things. "Ten," you can hear when you listen that there is so much going on. You can hear the tool of the time, the Lexicon Reverb, on almost everything. Somewhere in the late '90s, I found a rough mix tape of "Ten." I played it on cassette and that's when I started saying, "We have to remix 'Ten'." It would usually happen after we'd been in a club or something and we'd hear a song from it. It was like, "Ugh! This is killing me!" At one point I told Brendan that I'd pay him to just do a version for me, just so if I had to listen to a song to re-learn it or whatever, I'd hear the proper version. He was always like, "It's a classic and I don't want to touch it." He was very respectful. That's the reason the original is still part of this package, because it's the version that 10 million or however many people bought. When you hear his version though, it's just twice as powerful to me. It's so much more distinctive. You can really hear the texture of Ed's voice and of the instruments. It also reminded me what a great drummer Dave Krusen was. The other mixes, there's so much room and reverb that you don't hear the attack on the drums, but on this version you really hear him playing hard. I think everybody is super, super psyched about it. A few weeks ago when Stone first heard it, he cranked it up and sent me a text saying how happy he was.

And this brings the representation of those songs more in line with what they sound like live.

Yeah. I think those songs changed so much the first couple months we were out touring. That's what was hardest about listening to the record. Not only were the songs slower on "Ten," they had a really soft sound to them. We felt like it didn't represent us, so here it is, represented.

Tell me about this blues jam that you found.

I think there were a couple of days where Stone was either sick or at the dentist. We had a couple of days in the studio, and on one day we did "Master/Slave," which is the beginning and end of the record. The other day, we just jammed on some things. This was one of the things we pulled up and we were like, "Wow. This isn't terrible!" It shows you, even at that time, what Ed could adlib. Nothing got changed. That's just us hacking away at 12-bar blues and Ed going off and Mike going off, basically. I think that was the sort of thing we wanted to grow into as a band. We wanted to be able to play like that; take 12-bar blues and move it somewhere exciting.

So there's no Stone on that?

I don't think so. I think it's just one guitar.

And of course "Brother" resurfaces here again, but this time it has singing.

Hallelujah! I was really, really into that song. Stone wrote that song musically. There was a point during the recording of "Ten" that Stone was like, "Eh, I'm over it." And I was like, "No! Let's work on it." We actually got in a big fight about it in the studio. It didn't end up getting worked on anymore. It got to a point and Stone was over it. I think maybe to some degree Ed probably wasn't totally happy with where it was at, so it never came out. I think there's great guitar on that song.

Was it a compromise then to put it out as an instrumental on "Lost Dogs?"

Yeah. I think at that point Ed still didn't want the vocals on it, so Mike just threw a bunch of guitar on top of it. A part of me thought some of this stuff would never come out. But it just felt like the right time to put it all out. The other thing we found which I don't think had ever been out there before is the "State of Love and Trust" that Dave Krusen played on. I think it's vastly superior to the one that's on "Singles." Again, I don't think I fully appreciated what Krusen brought to the band at that point. He really plays that song in the spirit it was written in. It's has a much trashier, Crazy Horse feel to it. It's awesome.

Is he also on that version of "Breath" on the bonus material? That's from 1990.

Yep. I think that is from the second time we went in.

Did you actually listen to "Ten" before this process began?

I didn't listen to it before Brendan did the remix. I did listen to dozens and dozens of unmarked cassettes trying to find stuff that was interesting, but I didn't listen to the whole album until Brendan remixed it.

There was that totally different "Jeremy" that was played live in 1995, but it's nowhere to be found here.

I don't know that we ever got it to a place where it would have been a really proper alternate version. I think we only played it five or six times.

Do you still find yourself experiencing the material in different ways as time goes on?

I think hearing the remixes I did, definitely. Except for that rough mix I mentioned, I don't think I've really sat down and listened to anything off of "Ten" unless we were deciding to play "Deep" one night for the first time in three years. The combination of listening to the remix and digging through those boxes brought a bunch of things to the surface that I think I'd buried. I think I felt from my side that I wasn't as good as I wanted to be, so I was looking forward and trying to be a better bandmate and bass player. I always kind of cringed when people would take about it, but because it was so huge, it added this weirdness to it.

But by the same token, almost all of those songs are still in live rotation. They still have a life.

Yeah. Especially the fact that we've had three drummers since we made "Ten" -- each one has been able to play different songs better or differently, in ways that got us excited.