Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam photographed circa 1992.

Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder Talks Surfing, Story Behind 'Jeremy' In Rediscovered 1991 Interview

Just before the Seattle band exploded, Vedder had a candid chat with a future Billboard contributor.

On Sept. 18, 1991, just three weeks after Pearl Jam's debut album, Ten, came out on Epic/Sony, this neophyte music journalist living in Toronto had one of her all-time favorite interviews. It was with Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder for a metal magazine called M.E.A.T.  (originally an acronym for Metal Events Around Toronto) that covered such acts as Skid Row, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe, Metallica and more. I wasn't too into all the glam bands I had to interview during that era, but I was given an assignment to interview Mother Love Bone, whose album, Apple, was getting a release in Canada, even though its singer, Andrew Wood, had died of an overdose. I loved that album and either guitarist Stone Gossard or bassist Jeff Ament told me about their new band, Pearl Jam. 

When they had a pair of gigs at New York's New Music Seminar festival, I made sure I went to one of them. I was hooked. When I got the Seattle band's debut, Ten, co-produced by Rick Parashar, I couldn't stop listening.

By the time I was set to interview Vedder, I knew that album front to back. I called Curtis Management, and it took quite a while to get him on the phone -- they kept coming back and asking me to wait just another minute, and when he finally took the phone, he seemed out of breath. The following is a transcription of that interview recorded on cassette via my answering machine. Just as the cassette ran out, he told me I could call him back if I needed anything more. Not long after, Pearl Jam blew up and Vedder was very selective about the press he would do; this music scribe, who has since interviewed thousands of people, unfortunately could never get another interview with him.

Eddie Vedder: Hi, Karen, how are you?

Karen Bliss: I'm alright. You sound…Is this Eddie?

EV: Yeah.

KB: You sound uncertain if you're good or not.

EV: Um, for a reason. I every day sound like that.

KB: Tired?

EV: Well, no. I don't know. Even when I feel good… it seems like every time I start to feel good, something really awful happens. It's like… it's really terrible.

KB: Like some little… [at the exact time I say this, he says loudly, 'phenomena'].

EV: No, no some BIG thing. I mean, something really awful happens.

KB: Really? Career-wise?

EV: Oh, no! I mean, career-wise, everything's going good, if you can call music a career, I mean. Music-wise, everything's beautiful. But it just seems like in my other side of my life, it seems like the more together my music is, the rest of my life — because I'm so focused — just goes to shit.

KB: I know the feeling [laughs]

EV: Yeah! Good.

KB: I saw you guys play down at the NMS a couple of months ago.

EV: What's NMS?

KB: New Music Seminar.

EV: Yeah yeah — PMS [laughs]. Post-music. It's not New Music Seminar! It's Middle of the Road Seminar.

KB: Yeah, you know what? I was really disappointed this year. You were the first band that I saw and it was great; it was completely intense and then everyone else I went to see, they were bands that pass through Toronto all the time.

Paul Bergen/Redferns
Pearl Jam photographed in 1992.

EV: Wow.

KB: But yeah, you put on a pretty intense, engrossing show.

EV: [softly] Yeah.

KB: What are you thinking up there? Your eyes are really glassy; you're like staring out into space, completely absorbed in the words. Or is it the band?

EV: It's kind of the everything. I'm totally hypnotized by the music. I mean, that's like… it's, it's, it's why this music, why we work so well together I think. I mean, it's very groove-oriented the music side, and so it kind of gets you in the state of hypnotic trance [laughs].

KB: Are you aware of the audience?

EV: Oh, very much so. I mean, actually that's where… I mean, right in the middle. I'm right in the middle, behind…I'm riding the wave of this music into the shoreline, which is the audience and I'm very much…actually, I mean, most shows…I think you must've seen the show at the Marquee then?

KB: Mmmhmm. Was that the very first one

EV: Yeah. That was the first one that we played and then after that, actually the show at Wetlands was much more intense in the front rows. I mean, everyone was pretty mellow at Marquee. They kind of watched, but Wetlands and many other shows it gets totally intense and I turn into a lifeguard, you know? I'm aware of every person in the audience. I mean, I'd look down and I memorize their faces and I'd sing a few lines to the people in the back and then I'd look down and make sure that all those same faces are still standing.

KB: I think a lot of people went back to see you on the subsequent night. People were very impressed.

EV: Yeah, the show at Wetlands was amazing. It was religious, for me anyway.

KB: I guess, this band, or the material, is probably a vocalist's paradise. You can rage on a song or you can do something like "Porch," very rhythmical, with your vocals.

EV: Right, right.

KB: It sounds a lot like you're running your voice pretty ragged. Have you always sang like that, in past bands?

EV: Well, yeah. I mean…but I never learned how to sing or anything, so…I probably should. Because when I do it every night, it probably is gonna hurt 'cause I really don't know what I'm doing. I get really worried though, like if they say, 'Take vocal lessons,' or something because it's kind of like I used to really love to draw when I was a kid and then I took like an art class — because everyone said, 'Oh, you're so good, you should take a class and maybe you can be really good,' and then I went to the class and then they showed me how to use a ruler and perspective and all this stuff and it totally made me not want to do it at all.

KB: I don't think you need to take vocal lessons because you have such a range. There's even kind of a slight quaver to your voice in places.

EV: Yeah. It just worries…because people have actually told me, well, yeah, they'll show you how to hold your throat like this and how to do this and I'm like, 'Yeah, that's all well and good but I think I'm just gonna hang out.' I'm not gonna worry. 'Cause that's the thing, I'm totally within the music. I'M LOST.  So if I had to start thinking about how my throat is being held or where my tongue is in my mouth, then I'm not gonna be in that same spot. So maybe in a few years.

KB: When you were recording the album, did you lay down your vocal tracks with the band?

EV: Yeah.

KB: I don't think you could have done it any other way to get this kind of intensity to it.

EV: No, it's all really live and some of the…even the video that we just shot [for "Alive"], we did it all live and recorded it live, which the record company of course didn't want to do because they want to sell the version that's on the record and then they worry, well maybe it won't be good and you've only got like…you know we played it twice that night [Marquee]; we played it once towards the beginning and once as an encore just to give them a couple of times to sell it. I mean, it was great. It was amazing. But the whole band thrives on that live energy.

KB: Is it very intuitive. You've got the basic structure to the songs, but live does it go off in all different directions or not really? It sounds like there's a real jam thing happening on a lot of these songs, at the ends apparently.

EV: Definitely [laughs] Hey, I mean, we're just letting it [speaks slowly] take us where it may. We really, at times, at least I feel very much like — and I think the other guys do too; I know Stone has mentioned something about this and even Jeff — we just kind of like, we feel like, um, some kind of conduit for some other kind of energy. We're just really opening ourselves up and we're not…we're not really following any straight forum or anything. [speaks louder]. But now that I think about my voice and voices, I'm really paranoid, maybe. I'm really worried that my voice is gonna go out like every other night.

KB: [Laughs.] Yeah? Well, it just might.

EV: God.

KB: All the drinking, free beer and the smoke and all that.

EV: I won't be doing that. I won't be drinking any beer, and, um, smoking I really detest [laughs]. So does [Chris] Cornell. We get to be freaks about it. It's just so awful. It's just so…

KB: You're a surfer too, right?

EV: Yeah, yeah.

KB: Hence all those analogies at the beginning of the interview with oceans, and the metaphors [laughs].

EV: Oh, right. It comes out doesn't it? I'm very much…I feel like…although that's definitely…that's an amazing bond with nature.

KB: Do you miss that?

EV: [Big sigh] Oh man, yeah. I can't wait…I mean, we're touring so we'll be in San Diego Oct. 5 and I've got boards waiting for me, wet suits ready to go, can't wait.

KB: [laughs]. You'll probably have to do a couple of interviews or something and cancel out.

EV: No. I won't. Actually, this is probably one of my last interviews because I'm not gonna do any from the road 'cause, um, my voice problem. Chris Cornell's giving me all the…

KB: I can't believe you're so into it.

EV: All the kids…like, he [Cornell] won't talk at all during the day. So actually before I leave for tour, I'm getting one of those…it's like a little slate. I'm gonna go to a toy store and get one of those little slates where you can just pull up the paper. You know what I'm talking about? You write with not even a pencil; it's just a little instrument. You know which one I'm talking about, do you?

KB: Yeah.

EV: It's like a grey slate.

KB: Yeah, and you write on it and if you shake it, it comes off.

EV: You pull it off.

KB: It's like what you have when you're a little kid.

EV: Right. You just pull it. You just pull it off the back. So I'll write messages to people like that…like, 'Fuck Off.'

KB: Yeah, you could get those little signs that you hold up in the car with various things on it.

EV: Yeah yeah.

KB: Your lyrics — this is my segue — you're not a wordy lyricist at all.

EV: I'm not.

KB: No. And I guess when you have them written inside on the insert, you've just written down the basic words and things. Is this poetry that you've written down on your own time or were these written for these specific songs?

EV: These were written actually for these songs. I mean, there are other things that exist, but obviously the only ones that I put in the record were the songs [laughs]. But, no, there's the fact of turning in — Hey, can you wait just one second? I see a ghost…

[Talking to someone in room] We did MTV last night, man; Thought I'd do a little advertising. Still never do a video. Riki Rachtman didn't know what the fuck I was talking about. I was impressed by that [laughter from other person].

[Comes back on phone]

EV: I'm sorry.

KB: How would you describe…

EV: I did an interview with Headbangers Ball last night and I drew Fugazi all over my arms with marker. And he didn't know what the fuck I was doing. But Riki Rachtman has all these tattoos. Do you know who he is? Riki Rachtman? He's like this metal guy who does this Headbangers Ball thing on MTV. So we interviewed with him and I kind of made a joke of his tattoos by writing all over my arms. So you would look at it and go, 'God that's really foolish drawing all over your arms 'cause like it's permanent marker and it's really big and it's black and it's going to last for like a couple of days,' and then as soon as they think of that, then they'll think, 'Oh my God, look at this guy. He's got them on for life, what an idiot.'

KB: Did he say anything?

EV: No, he was totally freaked out, and I was on there with Mike, our guitar player, and the person that went with us said it was the coolest thing because Mike didn't even react to my…he didn't even notice my total screwing of the arms and Riki is staring at me going 'What the fuck are you doing?'

KB: You weren't waving your arms in front of him?

EV: No, no, at one point I made a muscle so they could see. It said, 'Fugazi.' I love Fugazi.

KB: So you would never get a surfboard or seagull tattooed?

EV: Well my friend Jack Irons, my best friend in the whole world, he's got some amazing tattoos of whales and one of a dolphin. And if I do, then I might get that, but I wouldn't just get all of my arms and my whole body. I don't feel like the illustrated man; I do – but on the inside.  I just wouldn't. I wouldn't want that printed though [Note: for 25 years I honored that request and didn't print this, but, heck, he probably wouldn't mind now; it's funny]. You can write anything about any of that, but I don't want it to be in print saying I disprove of tattoos, really. I'm friends with guys in the [Red Hot Chili] Peppers and stuff. And I don't know what they might think. But I don't think me and Cornell are gonna get any for a while.

KB: No? Okay. So your lyrics, a lot of them sound…when you're singing them, it sounds like you're almost tortured. But a lot of the words, I find them esoteric. I'm not quite sure what your singing.

EV: Yeah. So, do you think that leaves it for you to interpret?

KB: Yeah. Definitely. Which is a good thing.

EV: That's even why, some of the words on the inside [of the album], I didn't want to write out everything. I still wanted it to be open. I mean, sometimes I don't even approve of lyrics on the inside at all. Because you listen really close, then it makes you… if they aren't there, you end up kind of listening to the music a little closer sometimes.

KB: Which sometimes isn't a good thing [laughs]. I find a lot of times the bands, or the singer's whose lyrics are very close to them or very important to them they want their lyrics in there but then you get these cheesy heavy metal bands who, thank God, they don't put them on and when they do, you wonder why they did. It's kind of embarrassing.

EV: 'Cause it just looks so silly, like, 'She's my baby. She's really mine.'

KB: Get down on your knees. [Laughs.]

EV: Oh, yeah. Oh yeah, to write that out really looks silly.

KB: But also, it's really hard to hear them sometimes. I wanted to ask you about "Alive" and "Jeremy" and "Why Go" because it seems to me that there are similar sentiments in there.

EV: I think there might. In weird ways…

KB: Like family. "Alive," you're talking about some mother telling her kid that his father isn't his father?

EV: Yeah and that maybe… that was the very first song that I ever wrote with this band. I was… just one second. [talks to someone. Person says, 'oh cool, why don't you come by [inaudible] and pick me up; we're playing at five'].

That was Stone. And Stone's music moved me to kind of open up with a few things and there were some things on my mind and it was actually, um, I think a lot of things are written from experience, but then [pause] you become a writer and talk about other people's experience and you tell stories. I mean, you can't just tell your own story all the time.

KB: Not unless you had some harrowing or exciting life.

EV: [Laughs] And then even if you did, it becomes like… I don't know…[says to person in the room, 'I'll do the photo thing']… it becomes… I'm sorry about the interruptions. I really apologize. I mean that. Because your questions are really good and I want to answer them properly. Um, so [pauses] there comes a point when you're writing and then you work with other influences around you, whether it's a newspaper article. Because what happened is I used to work midnight shifts for years and years. The last six years of my life I worked the midnight shift and stayed up all day playing the music. I would usually write words at night and then record music during the day when everybody else in the apartment went to work, you know. So I could be really loud, and then because of my lack of sleep, I would never sleep. Rarely more than a few hours days, maybe two, three, and um, and sometimes I wouldn't sleep at all, and it was this sleep depravation thing where I was just so sensitive to everything. And this is for years and years, so I would be so moved by anything. I mean, I could see a mother walk her child across the street and [laughs]…awful [laughs]. Thought I was probably crazy because I could break down or something because of the connotations of what that might mean.

KB: It's strange because when I do that and I don't sleep, I feel like I'm floating or watching the world. It's a very different perspective.  You really feel like you're not on earth, that you're just watching things go by.

EV: Isn't it weird?

KB: It's kind of neat sometimes [laughs]

EV: If you understand that, that explains a lot. Then that explains a lot about the writing and where it comes from.

KB: "Jeremy" is a childhood experience of yours? I know kids can be really taunting or is it something completely different?

EV: Well, I think it's…that was a newspaper article. And then when I went to write about it, I thought of actually getting a hold of what the actual person it was written about, but then I thought that would be intruding. And I totally related because I had a very similar experience with a kid who I grew with. I didn't really grow up with; I just had a couple of instances with him and he ended to be a, you know, kind of a…I mean, he freaked out. His world blew up. He kind of freaked out and brought a gun into class one day. It was geography class and shot up a [chuckles] 1000 gallon fish tank or something. I was in the hallway and I remember hearing it.

KB: That was in high school?

EV: That was in junior high, seventh grade. And I had gotten in a fight with this kid like a year earlier.

KB: So that fish tank could've been you.

EV: And this happens all the time. A kid, just a week ago, I heard about another one, held his classmates hostage. Ordered the teacher out and held his classmates hostage. Finally, one of the kids, while he was lighting a cigarette or something, grabbed the gun away from him and the kid wanted him…he said, 'Just kill me. Just kill me because I don't want to deal with what the repercussions of this are.' He was unhappy. He wanted to die anyway. But that kid's still alive. He's probably more tormented than ever. But basically, you talked about parents and combining threads through this album, and I think there's many. But as far as parenting, like "Why Go" and "Jeremy," it's weird, they're certainly not about the same person. They're certainly totally different stories, but the combining thread would be lack of parental attention.

KB: Is "Why Go" someone who is institutionalized?

EV: Mmmhmm.

KB: It is. It's a very angry song.

EV: Yeah, well, when you're inside and you have no control and when you're the 14-year-old version of Frances Farmer, you know, you have reasons to be angry. You have reasons to be angry when your parents, who are very sheltered themselves, make decisions as to what you should experience in your life and what's normal and what's not. And then you've got institutions on the other side, who are taking large money amounts of money through insurance companies by diagnosing their children unfit for this or that, or, yes, they do need help, and then they find out that…and one of the telltale signs is when the insurance starts to run out, let's say, all of a sudden they say, 'Oh your child's fine now.'

KB: [Silent]

EV: Were you with me on that? I was talking a bit quick. It's a big thing. Have you heard of this or do they have it up in Canada? It's happening a lot in American suburbs, where people that can kind of afford it and with people who don't really pay a lot of attention to their kids and don't really know how to deal with them, they just put their kids in hospitals.

KB: I don't know anyone who has experienced that. Most of my friends are typical middle class backgrounds and good families. You get the odd stray and usually the odd stray is from a rich family who either went off the deep end or got totally consumed by drugs because they've got everything; they don't really need to do anything; they just party and live off a fund from the folks. Does it get disturbing to sing these songs onstage?

EV: Yeah. Well, actually, a stage is a bit more of a release in ways. I mean. It depends. I mean…It's exhausting [laughs]. I'm simply exhausted after the show and it's weird because if anybody would like to come up and say 'Hi,' come before the show because afterwards I'm just a mess.

KB: Actually you get that sense of exhaustion from listening to the record.

EV: Yeah.

KB: Which a lot of bands nowadays, you don't get that, you can't get that from their recording because it's so polished. But it seems like this [Ten], the band, everything's kind of bleeding into each other, the guitars and all the sounds. So when Stone actually called you up, how did you guys get together in the first place?

EV: It was Jack, my friend Jack with the dolphin tattoo [laughs]. He used to play drums for the Chili Peppers and Stone and Jeff asked if he wanted to play drums with them, but he's got a band called Eleven, which are amazing. I hope you get to hear them one day; they were just released on Morgan Creek Records. You'll probably get it soon, I hope. He said he couldn't do it because of that, but when they asked about singers, he mentioned me and then he gave me this tape. And I hadn't slept at night, as usual, and went surfing in the morning and I just had all these ideas. And I had this idea for this three-song like mini-opera kind of thing. And I had listened to the music, just the instrumental tape. What they sent me down was Stone sent me down the tape of Mike playing lead with Jeff and Stone, and then Matt Cameron from Soundgarden playing drums. No vocals or words or anything. And so I went into this little shack I was staying at and wrote "Alive" and "Once" and there's one other song called "Footsteps," which actually Cornell did a version which turned into "Times of Trouble" from the Temple record [Temple of the Dog].  So that was the third song.

KB: I really like "Once." That, and "Garden" are my two favorites.

EV: Really? That's tremendous. I love that [laughs].

KB: "Garden" is an interesting song because I can almost picture some folkie from the '60s doing it on acoustic guitar around a campfire [laughs]. It's very different from the other songs.

EV: Do you have an interpretation of it? Have you thought about it enough.

KB: [Pause] Let's see.

EV: I don't mean to put you on the spot.

KB: [Pause] Well, Is it greed?

EV: Well, it was actually written… I remember sitting in this pool hall with Stone and Chris and we watched — this really old, really classic pool hall — and we were sitting there and it was really rainy out and George Bush came on and started telling us about the [Gulf] war and that we were going and [sighs], and the whole thing, and there's part of that in it, when we talk about 'I don't question our existence / I just question, our modern needs.' Why were we doing this? And why were we going off? And it could be interpreted as greed because some people interpret as going off to fight for their country: 'I will walk with my hands bound.' But the thing is it was walking away from it — 'I won't be taken, yet I'll go.'

KB: Sorry, did you think I said "grave" or "greed"?

EV: Greed. Which is correct in ways. I mean, it just about holding your own I guess, and then "garden of stone" I think is an analogy for cemeteries.

KB: Anyway, I got off topic, but I think what I wanted to ask you was …

EV: No, please. I got you off. I was asking you questions and threw you off [laughs]

KB: Yeah you did throw me off. Yeah, I just wanted to know what your very first session was like when you flew in and started jamming.

EV: It was pretty intense. That whole week was totally intense, a lot of…these aren't like rock 'n' roll songs where we kind of like sit and smile afterwards and give each other high-fives and light up another cigarette or pop open a beer. It was more like…I mean the ultimate response to us was having to take a huge deep breath, and the silence that followed, along with the slight buzz of somebody's distortion box or something [laughs].

KB: So you just knew it worked when you got together?

EV: Everyone felt pretty intense. I mean, there was definitely something happening there, like the song "Release," you know? Did you listen to that one?

KB: Yeah.

EV: Well, that was never written. In fact, that version is only…Well, I'll explain to you that…

KB: There's a spiritual feel to that one.

EV: Well, that was totally…see, we didn't…Stone picked up the guitar and was like tuning up and he was plugging in and everyone was like plugging in their guitars and tuning up and setting up for when we started playing, and Stone starts doing this little thing, and I started checking the mic and I started humming or moaning or whatever the fuck I was doing, and all of a sudden we were playing this thing and it just builds and it was like eight-minutes long — and that was it. It had words. It had everything. A really good friend of mine worked at Virgin Records. She gave me all these blank tapes, all these tapes of artists that never got sent out and we would just record over those, and there was this artist named Kipper Jones. He's an R&B artist or something and we recorded over 10 Kipper Jones tapes and we recorded every rehearsal. I was there for a week. We had five days of rehearsal, played a show on the fifth day [laughs] and the seventh day we recorded it in the studio — and that version of "Release" -- 

At this point, the cassette ends. The interview continued after that - I'm not sure for how much longer, but Vedder did say I could call back if I had any more questions. I have more than 25 years worth, if he's up for it.