In an exclusive interview with Billboard, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament reflected on the year that was, and looked ahead to what other surprises the band may have in store.
Pearl Jam hasn't played live in nearly five months, and it's been just shy of a year since their sixth Epic album, "Binaural," hit stores. There are no plans to record again until 2002. But this is no ordinary quiet offseason for the veteran Seattle rock outfit. Instead, Pearl Jam is gracing its fans with an unprecedented array of new releases.
By month's end, the band will have issued an astonishing 72 double-disc live albums via Epic, the third installment of which hit retail earlier this week. Then there's its first-ever concert video, "Touring Band 2000," due on DVD/VHS April 10. It all chronicles what band members say was one of the most emotionally trying years in Pearl Jam's history. The band even considered splitting after nine fans were crushed to death during its set at the Roskilde Festival near Copenhagen last July.
But Pearl Jam pulled together and pressed on, and the North American tour that followed was an unqualified success. It's from these shows that "Touring Band 2000," which will be available to members of the band's fan organization, the Ten Club, on Tuesday (April 3), was assembled.
The film sports 28 songs drawn from 19 different concerts. The footage was shot on digital cameras by crew members Liz Burns, Steve Gordon, and Kevin Shuss, and was combined with soundboard recordings made by engineer Brett Eliason. An hour-long edit of the video will air April 14 on VH1, while still another edit is set to run starting in July on PBS. Screenings in theaters with digital projection are set for New York (April 5) and Seattle (April 9).
The latest round of bootlegs, which includes the band's 10th anniversary show in Las Vegas and the three-disc tour closer in Seattle, looks set to challenge Pearl Jam's own record of seven simultaneous chart debuts, set earlier this month by the first North American installment of shows.
In an exclusive interview with Billboard, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament reflected on the year that was, and looked ahead to what other surprises the band may have in store.
2000 was quite a year for Pearl Jam, with extreme highs and lows. What made the band decide to document this tour they way they have?
Jeff Ament: Well, I think before everything kind of went down in Roskilde, I think we felt like we were playing better than we'd ever played. Two or three weeks into the European tour, we were just really excited about being a band. I think once we got back going in the States, I think we kind of continued to feel the same way. I think everything that happened at Roskilde too joined us in a new way, you know? We were feeling really good about what we were doing and how we were playing. I think that was a lot of why we felt right about putting this stuff out. And also, we've been trying to do something like this for six or seven years; doing the bootlegs, and putting a live video out. But we've just never been that excited about what we saw or what we heard.
Why is the climate right to release these things now? Does it have anything to do with lower production costs, or the increased distribution channels within the Ten Club?
JA: Yeah. I think that has a lot to do with it. Over the last two years, the Ten Club has become a whole different organization. It's a pretty amazing way to distribute just about anything, whether it's information or something that has artwork on it, or music. I mean, I think that the climate is more right just because we finally got it together to get something out that we felt good about. And um, I think that's probably the main.. and also the people that worked on it. Up until this point, in terms of video stuff, Kevin Shuss was kind of the only guy shooting stuff. Maybe he might pull someone else in from the crew or something who would help him out once in a while. But over the last year we had Liz [Burns] and Steve [Gordon] and Kevin all doing the video. We had guest video people come in and do stuff. [Soundman] Brett [Eliason] really had the sound together, which was a big, big part of it. On past things, we hadn't really been as excited about the sound. And that's more than half of it for us, because it's still music.
Do you mean in terms of [the 1998 live album] "Live On Two Legs" or something like that?
JA: Well, no, just trying to do videos in the past. Or even filming. Man, it just didn't sound great.
How involved in was the band the DVD assembly process? Did you guys shoot anything?
JA: Um, I think [lead singer] Ed [Vedder] shot some stuff but I don't know if any of it wound up on the DVD. Ed and [guitarist] Stone [Gossard] were particularly hands-on with the setlist. I'm actually super excited about it. There's some stuff on it that I didn't think.. stuff we didn't really play as much as other stuff that actually wound up on it.
Do you have any favorite moments? What about the outdoor show in Milwaukee in October [it was 28 degrees at show time]?
JA: Jesus. That was one of the strangest shows I think we've ever played. We had little heaters on stage, so in between songs we could warm our hands up. But usually about a minute and a half into a song, your hands went completely numb, so.. But the crowd was so into it, and it was kind of like, you know what, [laughs] they're all here ready to make it happen, so we need to make it happen. It really did feel like a Packers game or something, or how you'd imagine a Packers game to be.
Were there any other standout moments for you?
JA: You know, I think it's the version of "Given To Fly" where there's a woman using sign language. That was a pretty beautiful moment. I think the "Rockin' In The Free World" in Albuquerque, a nine- or 10-year-old kid came up on stage. And he gets totally into it.
What was the thinking behind tagging certain shows with the "ape man" logo?
JA: For each leg, we sat down and picked six shows purely from memory that we felt were really exciting. Those have a little asterisk. I think maybe a couple we had questions about, if somebody said, 'I think Paris was an amazing show.' And someone else would say, 'Well, I don't think it sounded that great.' And we'd go back and listen to some sections.
Describe that second night in Katowice, Poland [6/16/00]. It's one of the most unusual setlists Pearl Jam has played in years.
JA: We came out with a setlist, and the setlist was definitely a lot different than anything we'd done on the tour. Pretty much right at the beginning, we just said, 'let's relax and do whatever comes to mind.' That was a musical highlight for me live, just taking all the pressure off of being an entertainer, and just going up and playing songs like you're in your living room. Doing it in much more of a relaxed way. We just played some songs.
Well, it opens so mellow with "Release," "Of The Girl," "Sleight Of Hand," and "Thin Air."
JA: Right. Well, we've always talked about getting those kinds of songs, and going out and playing theaters; doing shows that were much more down. Maybe even partly acoustic. I'm sure at some point we'll do something like that.
Would you like to see these projects become regular documents to future tours?
JA: Um, you know, I think we'll probably kind of see how all this goes. I think in a year from now we'll be able to assess better if it was successful in our minds in terms of, do we feel like it was good, are people still psyched about it. I think at that point we can make a better decision on how we'll do things in the future. It's pretty cool. I mean, if you can put something out for a reasonable price, and keep the costs down on the production end of it, and have Liz, Steve, Kevin, and Brett be excited about doing it, then I think we'll probably continue to do more stuff like that. As long as we can change it up a little bit, and make it different.
What about releasing older archived shows on audio or video? Has the band discussed that?
JA: Yeah. I think if we could bump up the sound, or anything Brett could do to mix it a little bit better. I know when we went to Southeast Asia [in 1995], we have a ton of footage of that trip. About half of the stuff we had put together wound up being pretty cool. I think if you mix that in with maybe another European trip, you know, or maybe even some much older stuff, it would probably be pretty cool. I know there's old footage of maybe the second or third show, and Temple Of The Dog, and some of that kind of stuff.
Are you surprised at the commercial success of the bootlegs, in light of the fact that they were intended mainly for hardcore fans?
JA: Yeah. When they were talking about how many of each one they were going to press, I thought it was ridiculous. I think initially I thought it would be much better to put out a smaller number of them. I think we were shocked that Sony even was at all into taking this on, which is.. hats off to them for wanting to do it. I thought initially they'd turn it down and we'd just put it out through the fan club -- a couple thousand of each or something like that. But yeah, I think the whole thing has been surprising. I think that was the exciting thing. There was an element of just taking a rock'n'roll chance, and putting out 70-some live records. I remember when we first talked about it, we were all kind of laughing: 'that would kind of fuck everything up.' Everyone would have a comment about it for sure. So, I think from that end it felt good to just kind of fuck with the system a little bit, and do something a little bit differently. The main thing we haggled about was trying to keep the price down. Keep it bare bones and just let it be what it is: a live recording.
What are your thoughts on how receptive the Pearl Jam fanbase has been to all of this? It must be very important, even more so the longer the band stays at it.
JA: It's insane. I think as time goes on, I continue to be more and more blown away by how many people end up at our shows, and how many times you see the same faces at shows. You know, I think we're in an incredibly unique situation. And I've been fans of bands before where if you met them, or went to see them more than once or twice, somehow you were let down, you know? It almost seemed like maybe they didn't care. I think that stuff, when I was younger, 15 or 20 years ago, I think that stuff stuck with me. I think everybody has felt that before. It's one of those situations where I was like, 'man, if I was ever in a band, I would never just give up on a show, or never talk to a fan that way.' I feel like in a lot of ways I can relate to the fans, just being a fan of music myself. If I'm really into a band, I'll collect all the imports and do the same thing.
Can you talk about the evolution of Pearl Jam as a live band? Nowadays, the shows are much longer, and there are many more songs moving in and out of rotation.
JA: Yeah, I mean, there are some songs that have just naturally fallen away. Occasionally, whether it was something like "Breath," or "Garden" ... "Garden" was definitely something that I was really excited about, because I felt there was a way to rework it. We played it both ways: kind of down and a little more ambient, and we played it the old way a couple of times. Some of those songs we've played so many times that it is just naturally hard to get as excited as a new song. If anybody has any ideas in terms making a song a little different, making the dynamics different, taking a part out, or rearranging it, I think that's probably the main way you'll see some of the way older stuff. Probably by us doing something different to it. Or sometimes just giving it a break; not playing it for a tour. By the time the next tour comes along it's kind of exciting to play again.
Would you place a song like "In My Tree" in that category?
JA: Yeah, yeah. We definitely played it a few times. That was the thing, too. On "No Code," there are three or four songs that were such [former drummer] Jack [Irons] grooves, you know; grooves Jack worked really hard on developing. I think [current drummer] Matt [Cameron] for a long time was like, 'you know, it's too much of a Jack groove. I just don't feel like I can play it the way Jack played it.' It got to a point where we were like, 'just play it how you would play it' (laughs). I know we had some trouble playing that song live even back when "No Code" came out, and I think we finally realized that playing it a little bit more uptempo made it more exciting for us.
Did Ed play guitar on it during the first live go-arounds?
JA: I think initially he tried to, because there are like three or four different guitar parts on that. It might have been even that playing the guitar part and singing at the same time was a little bit harder than it is now.
Years ago, songs slated for the next Pearl Jam album would show up live beforehand. But this hasn't happened prior to the two most recent studio albums. Does it have anything to do with the band's two-year-plan for writing, recording, and touring?
JA: Yeah, I think it's the latter. It has more to do with just us touring, and then taking a break from one another, and kind of rolling in, and writing songs. We talk about that all the time. We've talked about getting 10 new songs together and going out and playing them live, just a 40-minute set or whatever. It's a little strange too, just the fact that they wind up on the Internet, and I think sometimes it ruins the element of surprise of a record. But you know, I remember seeing Van Halen back in '79. They did a warmup tour in Montana before the second record came out. That was awesome [laughs], so...
Were any of the little improvs from the North American shows actual new songs?
JA: Well, the thing that ended up on this DVD [ed. note: the piece has come to be called "Untitled"] is something that got played probably 20 times over the course of touring. That was just Ed playing a repetitive thing and writing lyrics on the spot. I remember hearing the development of those lyrics even as we continued to play that little jam. That was just a little mantra for him to sing when he was in a certain space.
What is the origin of the instrumentals on the DVD bonus footage?
JA: I think those are things from "Binaural." With every record, we've had just had songs that never ended up having lyrics on them. I think these are all from the last session.
Does Pearl Jam ever go back and revisit unfinished ideas from previous writing sessions?
JA: Probably not as much as we should. I definitely have amazing memories of some songs off "Vs." I know there's three totally finished amazing songs that don't have any vocals or lyrics and melodies. There's a couple of things from "No Code" too.
Well, there are definitely a couple of "Holy Grail" Pearl Jam tracks. "Hard To Imagine" was one for awhile.
JA: We recorded it first during "Vs.," then again later on. I think it might have been "No Code." I think that's the version that ended up on [the soundtrack to the film] "Chicago Cab." You know, I'd love to go back through all of that stuff and eventually put all of it on CDs just for me [laughs]. It's hard to access that stuff. A lot of it is on cassettes in a milkcrate or something.
What can you tell us about the unused tracks from "Binaural?" Wasn't there a song of yours that was even mentioned in the fanclub newsletter?
JA: "Sweet Lew," yeah [laughs]. That was a complete song that actually the whole band worked up. I don't know if that will ever come out or not. It really didn't fit the record. I never expected it to be on a record, but I thought it might have been a B-side.
There seems to have been a lack of Pearl Jam studio B-sides in recent years. Any particular reason why?
JA: Right. Well, I know there were a couple of outtakes from this record that we felt so good about, we didn't want to put them out as B-sides. There's a song called "Fatal" that Stone wrote, and a song called "Letter To The Dead" that Ed wrote, that we kind of felt would fit in better as an album track than as a B-side.
Could you describe those songs?
JA: "Fatal" is, you know, a little bit in the "Thin Air"-type of song. "Letter To The Dead" is just a great pop song. Pretty much every record, Ed will write a great pop song. And a lot of times, those songs end up not fitting the record as much, because we haven't really written very many pop records [laughs]. I would imagine that those things will come out at some point. I think there's a handful of songs that we're all bummed out just ended up as a B-side and got forgotten, whether it's "Dead Man," or even "Yellow Ledbetter." They're songs that we feel are really great. Even the "Merkin Ball" EP. It's hard to even find that thing anymore.
I saw that the band revived [the never-before-played B-side] U! Word was you had to go to Napster for it.
JA: Yeah, we did! And we couldn't find a single anywhere that had that on it!
What can you tell us about the B-sides compilation that has been mentioned?
JA: Well, we're definitely compiling stuff. I think probably by the summer we'll make a call whether it'll be just for us, or if the time is right for.. I mean, we're doing a lot of stuff now, so we'll see how everything is. If the recording is strong enough, and there's enough cool stuff on it, and if maybe we can get excited about remixing some versions of things, or maybe even having one or two new songs it. If we can do all that, I think everybody would get more excited about putting it out there.
Do you have any favorite Pearl Jam compilation appearances?
JA: I remember being pretty excited about the "Singles" soundtrack, having two songs on it. Both the Surfrider Foundation records, like "Gremmie Out Of Control." We just had a blast recording that in the studio. And also "The Whale Song," a Jack Irons song, which I love. I think there's a whole bunch that I'm probably not remembering.
Can you talk about the way individual members' songwriting contributions have increased over Pearl Jam's past couple studio albums? You had three songs on "Binaural" ["Nothing As It Seems," "Gods' Dice," and "Sleight Of Hand"] that display a real range of emotion.
JA: Well, I think the rest of us are fortunate to have a lead singer/songwriter who is open to that. And that is huge. It could very easily be Ed coming in with enough material to make a record of mostly his songs, or him collaborating with Stone, which is kind of the core of what we've done. But I mean, ever since I picked up a bass, I've written songs. There was a period there where maybe the wind got taken out of that aspect of playing music. Over the last five or six years, I've been doing it a lot more on my own. "Yield" was the first time I actually brought in a tape and had the balls to play it for everybody. I think the way it works is if you work hard as a musician and a songwriter, I think in this band you get rewarded for it. Everyone will get excited about a track, and we'll work it up. And usually it's the stuff that you'd never expect, which is even more exciting. "Nothing As It Seems" was like a little folk song. When Stone got excited about it, I was like, 'wow, if it had drums on it, and if [guitarist] Mike [McCready] was kind of featured.' All of the sudden it became this whole other thing.
Is it true that "Light Years" was turned inside out from its original structure?
JA: It sounded nothing like what it sounds like now. Mike had a couple of riffs, and Ed really sat down and tried to write to it. He initially had some problems, and one day he came in on his own and had some lyrics that were really heartfelt. He ended up completely rearranging the song. It got played a million different tempos and a million different angles on the drums. That was a hard song; probably more so on Matt's end just because it took so long.
What is the offseason like for Pearl Jam, particularly in the writing process? Do you guys ever convene in small groups or anything like that?
JA: Occasionally. Stone and I have talked about getting together at some point over the next couple of months. Mike is going to come out here at some point and we'll mess around and try to put a few things together. I mean, I love to collaborate in smaller groups. I think you can get a lot done with just two people going back and forth. I feel like I took two, almost three, solid months off [after the tour]. About two weeks ago, I was like, 'I need to get back to work.'
It must be a pretty special occurrence on "day one" of a new album; the first time you're all in a room running through the material.
JA: Yeah, you know, the last couple of records, we've been so excited to see each other. We take it one day at a time just to see if everybody is still excited. There have been times when somebody hasn't been in the zone, and we come back a month later, or whatever. That's the beauty of the position we're in. It allows us the freedom to be flexible, and work when everybody's head is in it. Usually one of us will call the other after a few months and say, 'how are things going? feel like getting together?' Somebody will throw out a date, and that's the starting point. But it is important for us to get away from one another and just not be in the band for four months or five months or however long it takes. It makes it easier to get it all going again.
Could you sketch out rough plan for next year in the life of Pearl Jam?
JA: Actually there isn't one [laughs]. Absolutely no plan.
Well, do you have song ideas at this early date?
JA: Yeah. There are three or four things I'm excited about. I think I would personally like to have 10 things together before we get together. I'll probably mess around. I'll get together with Richard [Stuverud, Ament's collaborator in the group Three Fish] maybe once a month for the next three months, and hopefully that will leave me with 10 Pearl Jam ideas and 20 or 30 other things.
Pearl Jam's next studio album is their last under contract with Epic. What comes next? Has the band ever considered starting its own label?
JA: Oh, definitely. I think we're going to test the market a little bit. But I think the thing we're most excited about is having a day where we're not tied to anything. We don't have a contract with anybody but the record company right now. We don't have one with [manager] Kelly [Curtis], the merchandiser, a touring agent, or anyone. To be at a point, in a day and age of contracts and agreements, where we're absolutely free agents. Whatever we do next, I think we'll want to have a little more freedom to do some different things. Sony has been great in terms of giving us control and letting us do some crazy things. There's a part of us that has a certain allegiance to them. That will be very heavily considered for sure. But it's an exciting time to be a free agent! Music is coming out in a lot of different ways right now.
Do you have some favorite recent bands?
JA: You know, I was just over in Europe, and I picked up a record by a guy named Tom McRae. It's amazing! Tom McRae just has one of those voices. It's beautiful. Sometimes it's like ambient Simon And Garfunkel. And have you heard of Sigur Ros?
JA: I think that record ["Agaetis Byrjun"] is absolutely amazing.
It sounds like they're about to get a large label deal in North America.
JA: They should, man. That record is one of the coolest records last year.
What did you think of [Radiohead's] "Kid A?"
JA: I liked it a lot. I think the climate was right for them to do something like this. I think with "OK Computer," they were a band on the verge of being huge. I think it's cool they threw a little curveball out there. It's an incredibly melodic record. I think the only thing I miss is real lyrics. And I miss some of Jonny [Greenwood]'s guitar stuff. But they're a cool band. Hopefully they just stay together and keep making music.
Have you heard any of the other Pearl Jam members' side stuff? What about Stone's album [under the name Bay Leaf]?
JA: Yeah. I've actually heard the whole thing. It sounds like songs that Stone has brought in for demos over the last few years. Some of the songs are three or four years old. I'm pretty excited about it. I don't think he knows what he's going to do with it yet. It's pretty cool. As far as Mike goes, he's been doing some stuff with Nancy Wilson, and he wrote some stuff with Ozzy [Osbourne]. I think more than anybody it's more critical for Mike to be continuing playing. It's what he loves and what he knows best.
How about the [Matt Cameron and ex-Monster Magnet member John McBain's] Wellwater Conspiracy?
JA: They're a cool duo, you know? I hope they go out and play some more shows. I saw John on the street the other day. They may do some shows in Europe. I think it's a matter of them both having families. And Matt had a pretty huge year last year [laughs].
What are your thoughts on Napster?
JA: I think Napster is great. I think the whole Internet needs to have maybe some rules in place, you know? I think Napster should have to pay artists. It shouldn't be anything obscene, but there should be some sort of licensing fee. But I think it's a great format, to be able to turn on your computer and find weird songs. It's incredible. I hope they can work something out. The thing is, over the last year, Napster is making a lot of money through advertising and investors. One person should not make all that money off such a huge catalog of music. It's unethical.
'Pearls' Of Wisdom
Facts And Figures From Pearl Jam's 2000 Tour
Pearl Jam played more than 70 shows on its 2000 tour, never duplicating the same set list more than once. Here's a look at a few tour factoids (research thanks to Pearl Jam Vault and Five Horizons):
Most Frequently Played Songs (74 shows total):
"Better Man," 69
"Even Flow," 69
Most Infrequently Played Songs:
"Dead Man," 1
Most Frequent Show Openers:
"Of The Girl," 19
"Long Road," 11
Most Frequent Show Closers:
"Yellow Ledbetter," 40
"Rockin' In The Free World" (Neil Young), 14
"Baba O'Riley" (the Who), 5
"Fuckin' Up" (Neil Young), 5
Most Songs Played At One Show:
32, Verona, Italy (6/20/00)
Rarest Concert Songs:
"Alone," last played 4/17/94
"W.M.A.," last played 2.18/95
"Leash," last played 3/14/95
"Why Go," last played 11/7/95