Irons Travels To A New 'Dimension'

If it weren't for Jack Irons, two pillars of alternative rock may have never even gotten out of their rehearsal spaces.

If it weren't for Jack Irons, two pillars of alternative rock may have never even gotten out of their rehearsal spaces.

As a California teenager in the mid-1970s, he and his friend Hillel Slovak decided to take up drums and guitar, respectively, and before long were jamming with an eccentric bassist named Michael Balzary (soon to be known to the rest of the world as Flea) and a wiry poet-turned-vocalist named Anthony Kiedis. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were born.

But in June 1988, just as the Peppers' party-friendly funk-rock seemed primed to explode internationally, Slovak died of a drug overdose. Distraught and suffering what he thought at the time was a nervous breakdown, Irons quit the band checked himself into a mental hospital.

It took years for the drummer to correctly diagnosis his bipolar disorder, but he soldiered on musically, touring with Joe Strummer and eventually forming Eleven with longtime friend Alain Johannes. In 1990, he was approached by former Mother Love Bone members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament to join another fledgling band. Although he declined their offer, they presented him with a three-song instrumental demo in the hopes he would pass it on to any vocalists he might recommend for the gig.

Luckily for Gossard, Ament and millions of fans that would later buy their records, Irons had befriended a San Diego-by way of-Chicago rock fanatic named Eddie Vedder, and handed off the tape. Within weeks, Vedder had moved to Seattle and the band that would become Pearl Jam set off on its journey into the annals of rock history.

Vedder returned the favor in late 1994, when he talked Irons into joining Pearl Jam following the dismissal of drummer Dave Abbruzzese. Irons thrived in the role, helping the band become comfortable in its own skin and pushing it into new sonic territory on the subsequent albums "No Code" and "Yield." But on a 1998 Australian tour, the drummer suffered a major setback, his mental condition barely allowing him to sleep each night, much less competently play a two-hour plus concert.

Irons felt he had to immediately make a choice: his health or his band, and with a major North American tour looming, opted to leave Pearl Jam outright. In the ensuing six years, he has kept an extremely low profile, having only recently reached out to his former Pearl Jam bandmates to set the record straight on his sudden departure.

On Aug. 17, Irons will release his first solo album, "Attention Dimension," an 11-song, hour-plus opus that literally amounted to a musical therapy session spread out over years of work. The set features guest appearances by Gossard, Ament, Flea, Johannes and, on a cover of Pink Floyd's "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond," Vedder and Primus bassist Les Claypool.

In one of his first interviews since leaving Pearl Jam more than six years ago, Irons talked with about his long journey back to health, the cathartic power of music and the unseen magic of being in the right place at the right time.

Take me back to the spring of 1998. Your health had taken a turn for the worse. But what would happen when you went on stage each night?

That's interesting. It's hard to remember. I will be honest with you. The actual playing part was probably the easiest by far. But toward the end of the tour in Australia, it was all hard, because the pattern had been set up where when I got off [stage], I'd be like, 'Am I going to sleep tonight?' My mind would run and I'd be overwhelmed. That process went on for a while. It's hard to remember the beginning. Certainly my playing could have been better if I was more grounded and balanced.

[After leaving the band], there was a five-year period where I had at most three or four conversations with the guys in Pearl Jam. At most. When I left, it wasn't totally understood what I was going through. On another level, all of those guys were going through things in their own lives. So, it was hard for them to get involved in my journey. I sort of just left it.

So what is the origin of the material on this album? How long have you been working on the project?

The very first piece of drum music I ever did was right when Pearl Jam was looking for another drummer. It was in Flea's basement. I was just hanging out at his house. In June of 1994, my wife and I and my son left L.A. and went to Northern Cal and got a little cabin. It was at the end of an Eleven tour with Soundgarden. We felt like we wanted to move away from the city. But we'd visit and I'd come down. I did not know where my career was going to go after that. Flea had a little studio in his basement with a drum set and four-track. I recorded a piece of music and I was so excited by the idea. When I joined Pearl Jam, we used that as an opening track [before taking the stage]. That started in Flea's basement.

Once I moved to Seattle, I became really active with it. Pearl Jam had a rehearsal place at the time and I'd go in there and record stuff. I would take whatever drum tracks I did, and whenever I could squeeze in some studio time during Pearl Jam sessions, I'd do that too. I have a lot of demos like that that aren't released. There's no way to mix them per se. I just have quick mixes of them, so one day maybe they'll serve or maybe not.

One day in 1995, I went to this studio called John and Stu's in Seattle. It was a cool, understated, funky studio. I had some ideas to record and one of them was for 'Shine On, You Crazy Diamond.' I was just into the way that album sounded. At the time, I was becoming a bit of a stereo geek. I'd go into Hawthorne Stereo to check out all the stereos. They'd let you bring home speakers to check them out, and I would always use that record. So, I just got into the song. I think the reason that was chosen is that on the steel drum, it was easy to play the melody. I ran with it. I had this idea in my head and basically recorded it all out of my head, with timpani and steel drum and percussion.

That version sat until I played it for Les Claypool in 2000. I did one show with Les as part of his first Frog Brigade experience. He and I are neighbors. When he was first talking about Frog Brigade, I played him 'Shine On' and he dug it. So we did a version of that version, so to speak. Les had been coming over to my house and hearing the recordings I was doing, so I asked him if he wanted to play bass on that one. But that took awhile to get together. Eventually, Alain got the tracks together to where he could send them to Les in a Pro Tools session. Les then just mailed me down a bass part! Alain sculpted the song, he got [Eleven member] Natasha [Shneider] to do synthesizer and brought it together to where I was ready to ask someone to sing on it.

Last June, Pearl Jam playing down here [outside Los Angeles] at the Verizon Amphitheatre. I started thinking, 'Man, are they ever going to call me?' But I thought, this is stupid. I have to just go down there and say hi. If I go down there and show them how much better I'm feeling and doing, and [that] where I was at that time is really not who I am... those guys mean a lot to me. That's what happened. I ended up going down there and they were really happy to see me.

I had actually phoned Eddie when the instrumental to 'Shine On' was done. I thought he'd be great for it, so I asked, 'Do you want to do it?' And when I saw him that night, he said he'd love to do it.

So were you actually playing in a room with all the guest artists?

No. None of the guest stars actually played together. Everything always started with me. Flea came over to my house to do his part. Alain did everything at his place. Stone did it in his studio and Jeff did it at his house. That was sort of the cool part about the record. There was no pressure or time schedule. Really, the guest parts are the smallest part of the record's journey.

I used to think, years ago, it would be really great if I could do something and get my friends to donate parts, because it would make the record way more musically diverse. It just would be interesting for the people too, to hear it. I got the music to the point where it was like, OK, if they say yes or no, this is going to be done.' That took, you know, four and a half years! Most of the guests came in at that point where I could say, 'What do you think? Can you do something on that?'

Alain was more involved. The record was mixed over the course of a year because he had things going on. He took his time; he didn't just hammer it out. He would do a mix, give it to me, and I would a lot of times have a lot to say about it and what I wanted to hear differently. There are so many different instruments coming in and out. He also did a lot of music. He had the freedom to do something if he felt it needed something. That took over a year.

How many things were actually put to tape?

Actually, there's a whole other version of "Whale Song" [an Irons-sung Pearl Jam B-side released on last year's "Lost Dogs" rarities compilation] that is re-done. That was even a legal battle, to get the rights to re-release my own song. It was part of Pearl Jam's publishing at the time. So there was that going on. I got all the rights. I went through all that trouble, but at the end, I just decided my record was too long. It's still almost too long, to some degree. But that was one I decided to cut. There's one more that needs to be completed and another that will probably never get heard, amongst the hours of demos of things I did while I was in Pearl Jam.

Now that the album is finished, you have to deal with getting it out into the marketplace. What has that process been like?

It's my own label, Breaching Whale. That's been a huge challenge. I've had to adapt a different sort of mindset in doing it, because it's very oriented toward business, details and paperwork, which as a rock'n'roll drummer, especially someone with my stress history, I've shunned like a vampire with a cross. I've had to dive into that, or else the record would never get out.

Basically, Pearl Jam, [the band's manager] Kelly Curtis and everyone in their camp has been very supportive of this record. They're going to release the record via the [Pearl Jam fan organization] Ten Club as of August 17. Then, I have a distribution deal with Burnside. They're a smaller company but they've been really enthusiastic. That's September 7th. Essentially, it's a soft release. The press is starting to come and we're trying to get some footwork in so that after the holidays, more things can happen.

Have you considered making any appearances? Is touring out of the question?

I have no problem doing that. It's a matter of having a band together. I've actually even been sitting at home composing loops I can actually play over. But I'm not going to rush out there and try do something artsy that is half together. I decided it would be much cooler to use [loops], along with getting players together. That's what I've always done: played with people and played in bands. I'm actually in the process of trying to get some musicians together to start jamming. Whether that turns into a tour for this record, I can't say. It's too early to say. But I want to get some people together and use this record to break ground with some musicians. I think whatever we did, we could perform a song or two off the record, but it'd have to be a new direction.

Is it your hope that this album begins what could be a regular schedule of solo releases?

Well, I love to record and make music. If things could fall into place to allow me the time to regularly get into my studio... this record was a huge push for me. I'm going to be honest with you: finishing some of these things took a lot more out of me than I would have ever thought going into it. But then you get to a point where you've hiked three-quarters of the way up a giant hill, and you can't turn back even though you're really tired. In the future, I'd like to work a bit more simply. I already have three things for the future I've already worked on. I'm approaching it more simply.

This record for me, musically... I never had the opportunity to sit and record myself at a pretty good quality, and be free to do whatever I wanted. That was sort of a manic thing. This was a way for me to work through my manic tendencies. It was just me, in a room, with gear. If I wanted to waste myself for endless hours and sort of hurt myself in some ways, I had the opportunity to do it. And, I couldn't blame anybody. I couldn't blame a touring situation or other situations that tended to bring that out in me. It was just me and it.

It really helped me to learn to work in balance. I was very pleased and happy to finish the creative process of this record so I could get to a point where I could get a regular routine going. Whatever I do [next] will be simpler. It will definitely sound musically simpler and maybe it will be for the better. I will always make music, but making music is different than completing a record and putting it out with all the things that go into it.

Isn't it amazing how such little twists, like you and Hillel teaming up with Flea, or you passing the pre-Pearl Jam demo to Vedder, yield so much history?

When I look back on things, I always figure, what if Hillel and I never started playing together? So many things happened out of that moment, Hillel and I saying we wanted to take lessons. I think life is like that. For some reason, there was a huge period of time where I was at the right place at the right time in many occasions. I always felt I could succeed in this business. I was a good student, but as soon as I graduated high school, I just knew music was the only thing I wanted to pursue.