Pearl Jam: The 'Backspacer' Q&As

Pearl Jam Scores First No. 1 On Billboard 200 In 13 Years
Kathy Davis

Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (right) and Stone Gossard live in Los Angeles 2006.


Pearl Jam Frontman Eddie Vedder

The new album, "Backspacer," seems especially personal.

I guess we end up being conduits for whatever's around us. You don't really think about it while it's happening, but then you look back on this group of songs and that seems to come out. You write a song, you look to the sky, and it somehow comes out. It's no surprise that it's representative of the atmosphere. I do think there are things in there that are universal.

It has an optimism you don't always hear from Pearl Jam.

Well, it's tempered with some of the saddest stuff we've ever written too (laughs). There's some optimism that just came out, but there's the other side of it too. It's just the natural balance of things.

You are speaking so honestly. "The End" is almost uncomfortable.

You know, I'll admit that even I felt some impact myself listening to it back the first time, and not even really knowing where it came from. A lot of the songs on this record were ones I just tried to get out of the way of, without self-editing. It made it easier. That was the one thing I realized while putting together that boxed set [of the band's 1991 debut album, "Ten"]. We had to revisit some things to approve the content. It was interesting to hear that when we were just starting out, I just didn't edit that much. Whatever I wrote or the way I sang it the first time was the way it ended up being. Over the years, you get the luxury of taking more time and really refining and going through many different versions.

On the last record, there was a song ["Comatose"] that started out being called "Crapshoot Rapture." There must have been literally 20 different, almost complete lyrics for that. The more options you have, the more you can confuse the issue. Early on, we didn't have as many options. You made a record and made it quick. We kind of went back to that. Even if we have the luxury, why indulge if it's just going to create confusion?

Do any of the "Backspacer" songs originate from "Into the Wild"-era writing?

Everything I contributed is from the last few months. "Just Breathe" uses the first chord from an instrumental called "Tuolumne." There was a lyric or something that hit me, and I picked up the guitar and played that chord. I thought, well, I'll just go with it and make something different out of it. It was a shorter song, and then I wrote a bridge to it while the other guys were working on something else. It was like our own little Brill Building at the warehouse. I ran in and wrote the bridge, which became the chorus, because [producer] Brendan O'Brien heard it that way. That's an example of letting Brendan hear things objectively and following him whatever way he wanted to take it. We weren't that malleable 10 years ago and all the years previous. You'd write something and say, "Well, no, this is how I want it done." One of the things as you get older is that you welcome others' input. You don't feel like you have to prove yourself.Brendan has some orchestral touches here unlike anything Pearl Jam has done before.

Well, I was thrilled. On "The End" there are some strings and French horns. It became kind of emotional when we laid the strings down. I was reallymoved by this song when I was a kid called "Street in the City" off of "Rough Mix" by Pete Townshend. It was such a powerful juxtaposition of strings with just acoustic guitar. His was a full-on orchestral arrangement that I believe his father-in-law did. It sounded like one guy playing with an orchestra behind him. It was a real powerful thing. To get a chance to explore a little bit of that sound ... it's really pretty subtle, but it turned into something very cinematic.

Your bandmates seem to think that you are "The Fixer."

My answer is, aren't we all? Maybe I'm wrong to think that, but it seems like we are. I read something Stone said in relation to the band, and he might be right to a certain extent. If it were to be about the band, then it would actually be more about each different song. But that's not fixing; that's just directing it somewhere. I'm thinking more on a worldview or a community view. I read this quote from Rick Danko, maybe from before "The Last Waltz." He said, "We used to think with music that we could save the world, but now we're old enough and wise enough to know that all we can change is our community."

Above: the music video for "The Fixer."

Well, then it turns out that our community is a fairly large one. I think it's a classic kind of man/woman thing, and this is where it's not necessarily a positive trait to always try to be fixing things. A partner will tell you what's going on with some issues and then you say, "Well, okay, we'll fix it! We'll do this and we'll do that." Then they'll say, "But there's something else." Okay, we'll do this and we'll do that. For some folks, it's just the desire to express their emotions of frustration. Certain kind of knucklehead male counterparts that I can relate to will simply say, "Don't get upset. We'll fix it."

It's not about the fixing. It's about the listening. That'll be the next one: "The Listener" (laughs). Of course, I can't say anything in the song. It's going to be an instrumental, because I'll just be listening (laughs hard).

You wound up with by far the most lean and mean record Pearl Jam has ever made. What are you most excited about with this group of songs?

I think it's more internal; it's more how we accomplished it. That's what'll last. We're already looking to the next batch, and touring, and knowing we'll enjoy playing these songs. It was funny, because I told the guys when we were working on some arrangements, for better or worse, when we're talking about how many times to play the bridge or how many bars to add, I'm actually thinking about the set list. I may be getting ahead of myself here, but seriously, I'm thinking, if we double the bridge, this might end up being a song we play once a month, as opposed to three times a week. So, what do you think? How many times do you want to play this song? Is this song going to put wind in our sails, or will it be one we have to row through? At one of our gigs, without flashpots and electricity (laughs), there's only so much room for those more difficult listening songs. That was one example of how we kept the arrangements lean. The songs come off more like sparkling water than pea soup, and I think that's good for our group right now.
Isn't it great that you never know who is going to come up with what? [drummer] Matt Cameron winds up coming up with the first single, "The Fixer."

Yeah, I was thinking about it this morning. Matt Cameron being in our group was a huge event, just as a player. But he's so multi-faceted. He's not a dilettante in one way or another. He's mastered all elements of his playing, singing and writing. Years ago, we kind of started figuring it out. Really, this group is just like a vessel for everyone to put their songs into. We pretty much won't deny anybody any kind of idea. That's what made the last record [2006's "Pearl Jam"] take so long. We were ready to trust somebody to say, "Okay, that's fine, but let's not work on that now." It was kind of like a singles-only approach (laughs). We ended up getting streamlined into just the best ideas, or just the ones that really peaked. They had a certain level of quality and they got to make the team.

It sounds like there are three or four tunes that could easily make the next record.

Yeah, I don't think we're going to whore them out as B-sides (laughs). I just called all B-sides whores. I think that allows us to be well on our way to the next galvanized batch.

What is the significance of the title. It's a typewriter reference?

Yeah, it started with the typewriter. I'm not sure when they changed it, but typewriters from the '40s and '30s, instead of "backspace," it said "backspacer." And we don't have those keys on computers. It's just "delete" (laughs). That's a cleaner way of getting rid of your mistake, but with backspacer, you actually have to kind of look at your mistake. I was actually working on an art project with typewriter keys and I had a number of them from different typewriters. I saw that they were making jewelry out of typewriter keys years ago, when I'd look for typewriters. For me it was like shark fin soup: you're killing typewriters for a bracelet! I had an idea to make a mosaic using the typewriter keys, like a sculpture, so I was surrounded by all these keys. That key just kind of jumped out.

Tell me about the artwork that Tom Tomorrow made for "Backspacer."

I've followed his work for years. I read "This Modern World" way back in the early '90s and thought we should and could collaborate. The night at Madison Square Garden when Ralph Nader spoke, in 2000, I was quite thrilled to meet Tom. He came to a couple of gigs here and there and we stayed in touch. Previous to meeting him, I wasn't sure that even our politics were up to par for his biting take on things. I wasn't sure that as a popular band if we were underground enough for him. We just happened to be talking at the time this came around, and we thought, "We'll give it a shot and we'll remain friends if it doesn't work." What he did was phenomenal. He put so much thought into it, to the point where we had so many conversations about each drawing, that I said, "Look, I just need a week to write lyrics" (laughs). At the same time, it was invigorating. Certain ideas came from him as far as the overall scope: the randomness, but also the detail. It's really a cool piece of art.

When it came time to discuss how to get the new music out there, what were the most important things to consider?

You know, we were loose going into it. Again, our focus is going to be on music, and then there's a process we have to go through. Nowadays, you have to go through it in detail more than ever. Not to be a Luddite about it, even though I'm talking about typewriters, it's like running a business, and then every year, it switches to the Metric system. Or now you're going to use a different kind of currency. You have to shift your whole program. There's this ethical litmus test that goes with it, with all these new ventures. It's this constantly changing playing field, and the goal posts keep moving, or disappearing, or ending up outside the arena itself.

We need people to investigate the options. What is going to be the best thing for everybody? It's not about win and lose situations. It can be win-win, or that's what you're always looking for: something good for the consumer and also allows us to keep doing what we're doing. We're only trying to support ourselves in the same way we did when we first started. I was going through this Neil Young boxed set yesterday and there's a picture of a guy standing behind a record rack. There were just stacked up records. There was something that really made me miss that. I remember seeing Jackson 5 records when I was seven or six, seeing them all lined up, picking one up and throwing down your five bucks and ripping open the cellophane when you got home.

Not only has it changed, it just keeps changing. I guess what we're trying to do is be malleable. All these decisions are made to bring it back to the most romantic way that it can still happen. We can work something out with Target, but we can still sell at mom and pop [stores]. You can still have that experience of going into a real record store and picking it up, with a real selection of records. That's the drawback of Target. Maybe it will change, but I'm not going to find the Headcoatees at a Target (laughs). But if they only have 300 records at Target, and you can be one of them, and that's how people are going to hear your music, you have to think about that.

What would you tell the confused fan, who isn't sure the Target deal jibes with his or her perception of Pearl Jam?

We've put a tremendous amount of thought into this, and done it in a way that we think will be good for everybody. If somebody doesn't understand that right now, I don't blame them. We've thought about it for months; they just heard about it and have only thought about it for five minutes. We've come to our conclusions based on a lot of research. We've never done anything -- I can't think of anything we've ever done without putting it through our own personal moral barometer. Target has passed for us. The fans just have to trust us. If they don't understand it, I would understand (laughs). I see other bands do certain things and I think, "Why are they doing that? Why are they singing songs for Honda or whatever? They have the people's ear." We turn down the big money stuff a lot. This is more like the real stuff, like getting the music out there. As much as we love Cameron Crowe, never in one of our meetings have you heard the world "show me the money" (laughs). It's just not where we come from.

What did you take away from the solo touring you did in the past couple of years?

Well, as liberating as it was on some levels, it just made it really exciting to know that you're in a band. The thing about touring on your own,you have a smaller crew and it's a little less intense. You have a big semi truck out in your driveway, and that's the band, and that's what you take out every time. You have to pack it up and downshift and it's treacherous in a different kind of way. The solo tour is like having a sports car, which I don't have (laughs). It was a different way of getting around. But knowing you can get back and do the other thing really is kind of having your cake and eating it too.

The idea, not knowing if it would work, was that whatever you'd learn as far as communicating with the crowd or playing live, you could apply to playing with the group, and that absolutely turned out to be true. That was something positive that came out of it that wasn't necessarily an individual thing. It was getting better at what you do so you can make the band better with your new ability to contribute in different ways. What really made it fly was the crowds. They really put the wind in the sails. I didn't have to paddle the whole time on that, even though some of the crowds were a bit stormy (laughs).

I have just one final question. What is your favorite Bruce Springsteen bootleg?

Sh*t! I just gave it away to the guy who runs Easy Street in West Seattle. There was a really good one called "Piece de Resistance." I think it was right before "The River." The first time I saw him was '77, I think. I saw him on "The River," so that was '81? He played "Trapped" and it took me a while to track down a version of the song. It was one of those songs I'd never heard. It's super dynamic. We saw him in Atlanta when we were mixing the [new] record. He asked if we had any requests, and sure enough he opened the show with "Trapped," which was pretty cool.

It's the same with Neil [Young]: they just keep setting the bar higher for themselves. Going back to "The Fixer," it's like, even when there's nothing wrong, you break it, so you have something to fix. You'd like to be able to go to work and have everything be smooth, but there's some weird artistic gene in some of us. It can feel like a curse, because it makes you push yourself to make things better and not allow them to be easy. That's how you get the good stuff.Pearl Jam Guitarist Stone Gossard

How did the first ideas for these new songs came together. Did you write at all with the other guys or just solo?

I think immediately, everyone had five or six things on tape that they threw into the pot. But most of that stuff didn't make it. Most of the songs that did were from the second stage of the writing. I think I wrote five or six things, and none of them stuck right away. For me, it was great in the second stage, because that's when I wrote "Amongst the Waves." "Supersonic" was old; the chorus was old and the bridge section, but I reworked the whole verse and re-imagined the whole thing. The band got together two or three times before Ed dove in all the way. He's always the last to fully engage in the process. It worked out well. We ended up with a pretty concise bunch of material and a pretty good variety. There's that "Into the Wild"-sort of style that Ed does so well, and lots of high energy stuff too.

What about [drummer] Matt Cameron writing the first single, "The Fixer"?

I'm so f*cking proud of him. He's such a great person and great musician. With that song, Matt came in with a riff and we worked out a few different arrangements. Then Ed took it and re-arranged it with Pro Tools, to get the parts he needed in the right place. You don't want to get a final arrangement for a song before he's had a chance to screw around with it, because once he gets it, it can all change. What you thought was a chorus can end up being a verse. There was a real collaborative effort on the whole album. Ed, in particular, worked with everyone on their songs.

Doesn't [guitarist] Mike McCready always say Matt's songs are the hardest to learn?

This song in particular is a departure from that. It's relatively straightforward, but it has Matt's love of odd time. It also breaks back down to something very three-chord and fun. We need that. If Pearl Jam is thinking too much, we're not very good. We're much better when we're not thinking.

What songs were among the first batch of instrumentals for the new album, "Backspacer"?

I would say one or two things that made it. "Got Some" was in on that first batch, and maybe "Force of Nature," which was called "Distant Planet." The riff for "Supersonic" was around.

Can you give some specific examples of how [producer] Brendan O'Brien helped the band shape a song?

Brendan was just huge on this record. We had more interaction with Brendan than on any other record we'd worked with him on. Everyone was very open to his input. He had lots of arrangement suggestions, and in general, he really listens to everything. He doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about the little details until its time to think about the little details. The way he works with Ed, and the way they cut vocals together, there's a special trust there. He helps Ed bring out more of the vocal.

In any given take, Ed can sing in a variety of phrasings. Brendan adds these little keyboard melodies and percussion touches and background details that you might not necessarily even hear the first time. He also lets us be ourselves. His trick is knowing how to be simplistic and find the right spot in a song to make a little something happen. It's nice to work with a guy who is a total professional. And we made this faster than we've made any record. We were 30 days in the studio total, including mix. I think we had 90% of the record cut in the first nine days.

Ed seems to be speaking about as honestly as he ever has, on a song like "The End," but he's also creating characters like "Johnny Guitar."

I think ["The End"] is going to stand out as being one of his greatest songs ever. To have a song that is so simple in terms of the vocal melody and delivery... for the words to have that much impact and to flow without a complex rhyme strategy -- the words rhyme, but that's the last thing you think about -- I just think it is a stunning example of Eddie on his own. There are some strings and horns, but that song, he just came in and played us a demo he'd recorded the night before on his home four-track. It's just ridiculously good. He just about breaks his voice. It's so vulnerable.

"Johnny Guitar" is almost an homage to Elvis Costello in terms of Ed's phrasing. That's another Matt Cameron song with a crazy beat, but Ed glues it together with his vocal melody. It never feels uncomfortable, because he winds this story all the way through it. He doesn't let you think too much about the odd time signature. He found the right path to make it not too complex.

And "The Fixer" is so catchy and optimistic.

It was Ed that really made the arrangement of the song. Matt had two or three more parts. When you don't have a vocal, you just put it all in there and hope for the best in terms of your arranging skills. Literally we went away and left Ed with it the night after we recorded it, and he came back with this three-minute pop song. He probably cut half the parts out and re-arranged it.

My personal interpretation is that it's about how he makes our songs work. He's talking about a lot of stuff, but the idea of somebody singing a song about how he helps other songs come to life... he's like that. When someone inspires him, he's an incredible collaborator. If you know him as a friend, you know he has this enormous capacity to give. You don't get it everyday, but when he works on your behalf, he really does something special. He puts a lot into it. Overall with the record, because the last two [2006's "Pearl Jam," and 2002's "Riot Act"] were pretty political, Ed may have been 5,000 feet above the ground looking at America, and this one feels like he's 200,000 feet above the planet looking down with a little more optimism. I love his political lyrics, but it's so great that he can reflect on things that aren't that."Supersonic" is like "Mankind" [from 1996's "No Code"] on steroids.

Yeah, that's probably not too crazily far off. I wrote the riffs. The verses are what I wrote last. The original arrangement was overly complex. When I first heard Ed start singing it, I thought it had this Ramones or Springsteen thing going on. It feels very New York.

What's the significance of the title? Some people thought it was named after the turtle Peal Jam sponsored in a race.

I actually asked Ed what the name of the record might be, and he said "Backspacer," and I said, "Well, maybe I'll name the turtle that. We'll get the name out there early." There's some retrospective moods on this record, where Ed is looking at both his past and his future.

On to business. What are your reservations about going it alone to release the album?

I think that in general, America is the place for us to take some chances. We know how to do certain things on our own pretty well, and we've always been pretty adventurous with the business of Pearl Jam. Signing with Universal worldwide, but focusing on America through deals with as many partners we could find, was appealing. But it has been a lot of hard work. The band is lucky to be represented by a lot of great people.

In terms of the Target deal, it's pretty cool that they were willing to look at what normally would be an exclusive deal and cut in 800 independent or mom and pop retail stores. They were willing to let us sell it online and at iTunes. But, you know, it's new territory for us. We were used to a record company. Comparatively, Target, as the main seller of the record in the United States, has given us a great deal without asking for a tremendous amount. We own the rights to all the material. It's a one-off. And they paid us excellent money. And, they've done something that Wal-Mart and Best Buy wouldn't do.

There was some fan pushback about the Target deal. What are the pros and cons?

Trying to balance in your business, in terms of where you are trying to make money and how you do it, with how to be an artist, and how to be philanthropic and good for the whole, it's not a perfect equation. It's a one-off deal, so we'll see what transpires next time. The way I look at it, Wal-Mart is twice as big as Target, so we're supporting the number two guy.

There comes a point when you have to become good at navigating what feels right for you.

If somebody would have said 15 years ago that they were going to give us a great chunk of money and let it be a one-off and not hold us to any strings, we would have said, "Come on! This is the best deal ever." We fought our way through eight records at Sony and J to get ourselves in a position where we could cut a deal to get paid $5 a record, rather than $1.50 or $2. It was the right compromise for this record, and I think it will give us even more flexibility in the future. The fact that we cut out a few other chains, I think it's our prerogative to do that. We're bringing a lot of smaller stores with us.