Pearl Jam: Ten Revisited

Grunge. Remember the first time you heard that word? What about the first time you heard Pearl Jam? To many, that would be with Ten – the debut album that sold 12 million copies and introduced the world to Pearl Jam in 1991. Nearly 2 decades down the line, Pearl Jam has reissued Ten in 4 different, expanded editions. JUICE digs our lumberjack plaids and gets nostalgic with the legendary band in this vivacious interview….

It is sometimes claimed that Green River invented grunge.

Jeff Ament: (chuckles) In the last year we’ve played 4 shows with Green River, and while it’s been great to go back, we’ve come to the conclusion that we were really just ripping off Black Flag and Motorhead and The Stooges. I guess that’s what ended up being grunge so we probably owe.

The trio of Stone, Jeff and Mike quickly put together some song ideas. Matt Cameron, drummer with Soundgarden and a stalwart of the Seattle scene, was recruited to play on the demo tapes. Eight years later he joined Pearl Jam as their full time drummer. The trio were still looking for a singer and a drummer.

Matt: Obviously I couldn’t predict what it would become, but they were all very well structured songs that you could definitely hear vocals on top. It was just a fun thing to do as I was between tours.  It didn’t sound like Mother Love Bone to me. It seemed like Stone was going for something different.

Stone: I expected that we were going to find somebody (to sing) in Seattle only because so far that’s the way it had all worked. We loved Uplift Mofo Party Plan, the Chilli Peppers record and the drumming on that record. Then because we’d had some success in terms of getting signed, and we were like OK maybe we should be bold enough to call up (drummer) Jack Irons and see what he’s doing because we heard at that time he wasn’t playing with the Chilli Peppers anymore. He was playing with Eleven – and I literally just asked him on the way out the door ‘ if you know of any singers let us know,” so he said ‘Yeah I do. I know a guy. Crazy Eddie.’

Eddie Vedder: I was more familiar with Soundgarden and Mudhoney than Mother Love Bone. Maybe that was good, so it didn’t come with a whole lot of weight attached to it. I played the tape at work on the midnight shift at the gas station and there was something different about it. It stood out musically though I wasn’t sure how I would fit into it, but the songs stuck in my head that night.  The next morning I had a surf and it was still in my head.

That’s something about surfing. The last song you hear before you surf best be a good one because it’s gonna stick in your head. You’ve got 1 hour or 2 to listen to it while you’re out there. I listened to the instrumentals before I jumped in the water, and this idea started forming of a little 3-song mini opera in the spirit of Pete Townsend (The Who) or Roger Waters (Pink Floyd). When I got out of the water I wrote a few songs. It wasn’t any kind of audition tape, just an art project. I can’t imagine that I spent more than 3 or 4 hours on the 3 songs ‘cos I sent the tape off on my way back to work that night.

The band was originally working as Mookie Blaylock – the name of a pro basketball player. After they signed to Epic Records, it became clear they would have to find another name for legal reasons. How did you settle on Pearl Jam?

Mike: Jeff, Ed and Stone saw Neil Young jamming for a long time so the word jam was there. I remember this list of names and we were sitting around the B&O coffee shop on Broadway. Pearl was up here and Jam was there amongst all these other words and we were putting them together. Jeff put those two together and we were like, that’s it.

Ten sold 12 million copies and has become a seminal 90s album. What do you think of it now?

Stone: I think Ten‘s still good but I don’t put it on (laughs). The new mix of the record is great. That’s one of the things I’m most excited about is Brendan doing another mix on it – it sounds a little bit more like our subsequent records sounded, so it gives it a different treatment.

Matt: It’s definitely stood the test of time. To me it sounds like a band playing in the studio.
Jeff: A little bit of hindsight but not necessarily the 17 years that it’s taken to get to this point! Ever since we made our 2nd record we’ve been thinking about remixing Ten. The original version has a little bit more of an 80s production. When Brendan mixed Vs, I asked him ‘can you remix Ten just for me so I can listen to a drier more direct version of those songs?’

Eddie: It was our first record so there were certain things to fight for – lyrical content, arrangements. I had never made a record before so I thought some of the production values – reverbs and sounds – were how you did it. Now we certainly know better. In the end it’s nice to hear it stripped away, to hear the performance a little better. I’ve been hearing these songs live on a weekly basis for the last 17 years so obviously it’s gonna sound more present for me to hear them in a raw form.

In the early days Ten was a slow seller and the band toured for months promoting it. During his first shows Eddie Vedder was a restrained front man. By the end he was an inspired performer. What caused that change?

Mike: What made Ed change from being stoic and being introspective was when Chris Cornell from Soundgarden took him out drinking and gave him an idea of maybe loosening up. I don’t know what he did but after he hung out with Chris he started to open up a little bit more. Then we went on tour, we went to Europe a few times and he became this guy who would climb everywhere during the middle of the songs. I was worried every time he did it.

We were in San Diego – it was us, Nirvana and the Chilli Peppers. He jumped up on this scaffolding bar, threw his microphone cord over it, climbed up it maybe 40 feet up, while we were doing the solo for Alive.  I’m thinking this guy’s gonna fall and kill himself and our career’s over.
Eddie: When we got in front of a crowd it was hard not to push things to make sure that it was gonna be a gig to remember.  Of course you should be able to do it just with chord changes and the way you deliver a song. But suddenly the Evel Knievel part of me took over and I felt the urge to push the audience to the edge and pay attention.

Stone: Ed didn’t perform the way he was to subsequently till he’d played 40 or 50 shows. Maybe not that many. All of a sudden he figured out how to exchange energy with the crowd in a way that he’d never done before, so that’s when it went pheeeeeew. Ed knows how to inhabit a song and people can see it in his eyes and they hear it in his voice and they just fall into that.

I knew everything had gelled on the road where we had transcendent shows. The next record was probably where it felt better recording wise.  I saw how it could change and evolve, which gave me a lot of inspiration to go “we can do ballads, we can do fast stuff, we can do slow stuff, we can do punk stuff.” That was where I realised there were gonna be a lot of places to go with Ed. To have Ed sing on anything, the way he writes lyrics and the way he approaches your material is fantastic. He really loves getting into it, the challenges of all of our songs and the different ways they’re brought into ’em. He hears things and once he’s onto it, he’ll give you such incredible variety in terms of vocal approaches and rhythm and story. He’s so great with different points of view that it’s like going to Disneyland.

Pearl Jam was one of the first bands to release official bootlegs – and now internet downloads – of your concerts. Did you experience any record company objection when you started doing it?

Stone: I’m sure there was somebody that said it was a bad idea but we just pushed it through, and I think in the end they said ‘oh we sold thousands…so that’s cool.’ I didn’t get the memo (laughs) as to how much we had to make the record company let us do bootlegs.

Mike: The driving force behind the bootleg series was Kelly Curtis our manager who had been talking about it with Jeff Ament and Eddie. We’ve always liked bootlegs as a band but we would see our own bootlegs out there, we’d collect them and they would be of inferior quality. So we decided let’s just put our own out and charge a little bit less for them and make ’em sound as good as they possibly can.

What is the secret of your longevity?

Mike: Pearl Jam has survived this long by luck, and because over the years the five of us have confronted each other on issues. We have open lines of communication and we’d call somebody on their shit if there’s a problem. The reason why we’ve lasted so long is we write music, we get very intense, we go away from each other, do our own thing and then we get back together. We give each other space.

Jeff: That’s the biggest reason why we’re still around. There was a point about ’93 or ’94 where we sort of disbanded for 6 months, didn’t really talk to one another, didn’t really know where each other was at and went off to live life and refuel. It gave us a lot of energy creatively to get away from the bubble. Right around that time everybody started doing side projects, started working on their own music and that’s been really important and satisfying individually.

Eddie: It’s always been about protecting the ability to play music and to do it with these guys in this band. Whatever we’ve gone through relating to each other, it’s always been small potatoes compared to the bigger picture of this band doing something worthwhile and achieving good things for others on the planet while we’re at it. There have been a couple of times in my personal life where I’ve felt ready to self-destruct and it was the band that helped me through. If I’m having a bad day (laughs) and it does happen (more laughing) – all I have to do is remind myself that I’m in a band with Matt Cameron and I feel a lot better.

On the last album, Pearl Jam, many of the songs seemed inspired by this righteous anger, anger at the Bush administration.  So what’s driving this new record?

Eddie: It is different.  The last number of years there was so much to write against. The first time I started writing words for this record was about a week after Obama had been elected and it changed everything. There’s no way to put it into proper context. It’s a different place to write from. You’re fighting for something rather than fighting against it. It’s a whole different energy. This last administration didn’t give us 1 or 2 big issues to deal with, rather 1 or 2 big issues a week! How could you focus it down into a 3-minute song or a 45-minute record?

There’s a Pete Townsend lyric off of Who By Numbers ‘There’s no easy way to be free’. (Laughs). I’m certainly more at ease now – though I anticipate the condition to be temporary.

Ten has been reissued in 4 new and expanded editions and is available in all good record shops now. The re-issue of Ten serves as the launch of a planned 2-year catalogue re-release campaign leading up to the band’s 20th anniversary in 2011.

Image and text Sony Music