PEARL JAM give very few in­ter­views. But, ahead of their first shows on UK soil in four years, Ge­orge Gar­ner speaks to bassist JEFF AMENT about his new solo record, HEAVEN/HELL, and the past, present and fu­ture of the Seat­tle rock le­gends...

Kerrang! (UK) - - WELCOME -

Some­times, Jeff Ament ends up sleep­ing in his car. It hap­pens when a par­tic­u­larly bad thun­der­storm looms over his house: Pearl Jam’s bassist will herd up his dogs, head to the garage, open his car door and let them file in. There he will join them, sleep­ing through the night by their sides if nec­es­sary un­til the omi­nous sounds out­side have passed.

“It’s the only place my dogs feel safe,” Jeff ex­plains to Ker­rang! as we reach him in Seat­tle. It is but a small snip­pet of his life, yet this ges­ture of ca­nine sympathy re­cently blos­somed into the lead sin­gle from his ex­cel­lent third solo al­bum, Heaven/hell, re­leased this month.

“It ended up be­ing a metaphor for try­ing to find that place where you feel safe and can think straight,” he ex­plains. “The state of the world and the planet sort of seeped its way into most of these songs. There’s an im­pend­ing doom.”

The video for said track, Safe In The Car, sheds fur­ther light on the mat­ter, vividly cap­tur­ing Jeff speed­ing away from flash floods, vol­canic erup­tions and for­est fires. As he laments a civil­i­sa­tion that has al­lowed glaciers to ‘re­cede to your doorstep’, it’s clear that Jeff is acutely aware of what is go­ing wrong with the world right now. And so, too, are Pearl Jam.

In March, the band re­leased Can’t Deny Me, their first brand­new stu­dio song in al­most half a decade – one that sees Ed­die Ved­der howl a di­ag­no­sis of an Amer­ica in ‘con­di­tion crit­i­cal’ over a fe­ro­ciously chopped Mike Mc­cready riff. Be­tween Jeff’s new solo al­bum, Can’t Deny Me be­ing con­firmed as the first song from Pearl Jam’s next al­bum, plus the band re­turn­ing next month with two London O2 Arena shows (their first UK per­for­mances since their grand­stand­ing Mil­ton Keynes Bowl set in 2014), there is a lot to talk about.

Yet dis­patches from in­side the PJ camp are rare. In­deed, one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing things about Pearl Jam, along­side their unim­peach­able mu­si­cal legacy, is that they are one of the big­gest rock bands in the world and also – even by, say, Tool’s stan­dards – per­haps the most ret­i­cent. All the way back in 1993, Ed­die Ved­der ex­plained to K! scribe Liz Evans why he wasn’t plan­ning to do many in­ter­views go­ing for­ward.

“I per­son­ally think the less you know about a mu­si­cian the bet­ter,” he ob­served. “All that you need is the mu­sic.”

The Seat­tleites still don’t open up of­ten, but that’s not be­cause they are overtly mys­te­ri­ous or un­ap­proach­able. In­deed, when K! con­ducts this long-over­due catch up with Jeff, he is both ex­tremely per­son­able and dis­arm­ingly hum­ble. His laid-back voice sparks with en­thu­si­asm when he re­calls Pearl Jam’s four shows in Chile and Brazil ear­lier this year, at one point jok­ing about the phys­i­cal toll their cus­tom­ar­ily epic set lists can take on him.

“We’ve done it all back­wards,” jokes Jeff. “When we were 25 years old it would have been great to have 45 songs to play… And here we are in our 50s, and just try­ing to stay up­right for three hours is a process.”

He is, how­ever, very ex­cited about re­sum­ing this process on our shores, not least be­cause of the transat­lantic per­spec­tive it will af­ford him on his own coun­try.

“Hon­estly, I feel we’ve been at a tip­ping point for about 20 years, but it feels like we’re re­ally at a tip­ping point right now,” he says. “I think, es­pe­cially po­lit­i­cally in our coun­try… It’s got­ten to seem in­sane.”

Now is the per­fect time, then, to find out more about life in Pearl Jam circa 2018. In the five years since K! last spoke to the band, there have been tragedies on both a global and na­tional scale, and one in par­tic­u­lar that was al­to­gether much closer to home. It has been a time of much fight­ing and soul-search­ing.

With the ex­cep­tion of Pearl Jam gui­tarist Stone Gos­sard, who has ac­com­pa­nied him ev­ery step of the way, it is pos­si­ble to ar­gue that Jeff Ament’s mu­si­cal CV has vir­tu­ally no equiv­a­lence in terms of sheer qual­ity and in­flu­ence. Here is a man who played in Seat­tle pioneers Green River and Mother Love Bone, plus Tem­ple Of The Dog with Chris Cor­nell, formed Pearl Jam (85 mil­lion records sold world­wide and count­ing), and made a record with Neil Young (1995’s Mir­ror Ball).

Be­lieve it or not, there is a down­side to this when it comes to pur­su­ing a solo ca­reer. Hav­ing worked along­side a plethora of the great­est singers, song­writ­ers and mu­si­cians in rock, Jeff sums up the shadow this legacy casts over his pre­vi­ous solo ef­forts with one sim­ple word – “daunt­ing”. He punc­tu­ates it with a quick laugh.

“It used to be a much more ar­du­ous process for me,” he ex­plains of his ear­lier solo work. “I think I was re­ally ham­strung by try­ing to do some­thing orig­i­nal, or maybe over­sen­si­tive about not hav­ing Ed­die or Chris’ voice – those things can freeze you. I don’t feel that way any­more. I’m in a place where I’ve fi­nally worked that song­writ­ing mus­cle enough so that I don’t over­anal­yse.”

In­deed, this year marks pre­cisely 20 years since Jeff’s first lyri­cal con­tri­bu­tions to the Pearl Jam canon on 1998’s Yield with Pi­late and Low Light. “It gave me con­fi­dence,” he re­veals. “Like, ‘Wow, that song’s ac­tu­ally good enough to be out there! I don’t just have to bury this and hope some­day I’ll get bet­ter!’” The 11 chameleonic alt.rock songs that com­prise Heaven/ Hell are a tes­ta­ment to his fur­ther growth as a lyri­cist since then. They teach us a lot about the man be­hind the mu­sic.

You can trace Heaven/hell’s ti­tle all the way back to a place called Big Sandy. It doesn’t quite live up to its name. Even Tiny Sandy would be tak­ing the piss. This small Mon­tana town’s present-day pop­u­la­tion? A stag­ger­ingly un-stag­ger­ing 626 peo­ple.

Jeff Ament was born in nearby Havre, but raised in Big Sandy. He may have long since pur­sued a life of glo­be­trot­ting, but the work­ing-class val­ues and spir­i­tual in­quis­i­tive­ness fos­tered by his Catholic up­bring­ing still de­fine him. At one point his dad hoped he would be­come a priest. To­day, Jeff says he is “not nec­es­sar­ily a be­liever” but recog­nises a “deep-seated Catholi­cism” and spir­i­tual cu­rios­ity tug­ging away in his mu­sic. Back in the ’90s, he vis­ited Turkey and Egypt to learn about other re­li­gions and try to


un­der­stand what it is that pos­sesses peo­ple to be­lieve so deeply. It’s a fas­ci­na­tion ex­pressed in his al­bum’s ti­tle. “Grow­ing up Catholic, heaven and hell is at the core of the en­tire be­lief sys­tem,” he ex­plains. “I’m cu­ri­ous about one per­son’s heaven be­ing an­other per­son’s hell.”

When it comes to that di­vide, the al­bum’s thrilling stand-out song, Drugs, points to the idea that hell is per­haps not so much a place as it is a time: the present. He out­lines re­cent days where he’s been so in­un­dated with hor­ri­ble news he’s been left feel­ing like he’s “walk­ing in dry­ing con­crete”. One day he wrote a note to him­self: “Clearly, I didn’t do enough drugs.”

“The re­al­ity is that I’m pretty happy I didn’t too many drugs,” says Jeff of the ti­tle, be­fore point­ing out its real mean­ing. “Lyri­cally, it was say­ing that maybe if I’d done more drugs I’d be able to han­dle the apoc­a­lypse bet­ter…”

Need­less to say, it’s been a tough time of late.

“Un­til the last year and a half, it felt like there was hope, that the glass was half-full,” he elab­o­rates. “But it feels a lit­tle bit now that the glass is half-empty. I think it’s be­cause you have cer­tain lead­ers who don’t seem to care, they’re look­ing for ways to make money im­me­di­ately, and make money for their friends, and the en­vi­ron­ment isn’t a part of that. Or the big pic­ture isn’t a part of that.”

This is re­ally where the con­cept of heaven and hell, and the faith that sus­tains them, be­comes im­por­tant: is our des­tiny in our own hands or that of a divine pres­ence?

“I’m still cu­ri­ous about all of that,” he ex­plains. “Just liv­ing and not know­ing what hap­pens to all this en­ergy when we’re gone… Even look­ing into space and the in­fi­nite [na­ture] of it – or the fi­nite [na­ture] of it, de­pend­ing – it’s awe­some to have that magic ex­ist. And I want to be­lieve, I want more than any­thing for there to be a just God who will pun­ish Don­ald Trump when he dies.”

As Jeff points out in the lyrics to Safe In The Car, how­ever, God’s work may ul­ti­mately be our own.

“There’s the idea that ‘If I pray it will all be okay’,” con­tin­ues Jeff. “I’m not of the think­ing that that’s go­ing to help any­body. If you do be­lieve in God, he’s only go­ing to help you if you help your­self, and I don’t think we’re help­ing our­selves right now.”

It sounds very much like a call to arms. And in 2018, it’s one that Pearl Jam – as so of­ten be­fore – are is­su­ing, too.

On March 13, 2018, Ed­die Ved­der stood be­fore the Mo­vis­tar Arena in San­ti­ago, Chile and in­tro­duced Can’t Deny Me’s in­au­gu­ral live per­for­mance. It was just shy of a month on from the day 19-year-old Niko­las Cruz walked into Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land, Florida armed with an AR-15 ri­fle – which he had ac­quired legally. He pro­ceeded to per­pe­trate one of the worst high-school shoot­ings in Amer­i­can his­tory, leav­ing 17 stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers dead, and a fur­ther 17 wounded. That is to say noth­ing of the psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma that many sur­vivors will face.

“This is ded­i­cated to the in­cred­i­ble stu­dents in Florida, and the United States, who sur­vived a ter­ri­ble tragedy,” Ed­die said, ad­dress­ing the crowd. “We sup­port you all, and Emma Gon­za­lez, we love you. We’d like to play this for them, and us.”

Eleven days later, Park­land sur­vivor Emma de­liv­ered her March For Our Lives speech, stand­ing silent for six min­utes and 20 sec­onds to il­lus­trate the time it took Cruz to rob her peers of their lives.

Can’t Deny Me was al­ready a com­bustible protest song, its lyrics res­onat­ing with both anti-trump sen­ti­ment (‘The coun­try you are now poi­son­ing’) and the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment (‘And now you want me to breathe and be so grate­ful for the air that I need’). When Ed­die sit­u­ated the song within the wider un­furl­ing Amer­i­can gun con­trol de­bate on­stage, it be­came even more po­tent.

“In Amer­ica, there’s a funny vibe where if you can’t have a gun, some­how we’re not free,” says Jeff. “It just seems crazy, I don’t un­der­stand. I grew up in a gun cul­ture in North Cen­tral Mon­tana, I did hunter safety classes when I was a kid and shot all kinds of guns. But when I grew up, I grew out of it.”

Me­thod­i­cally, Jeff reels off a list of places for­ever al­tered by gun vi­o­lence in Amer­ica.

“Sandy Hook. Park­land. Columbine. Vir­ginia Tech,” he says. “All of those are just bru­tal vi­o­lence. Bru­tal. And then you have the NRA stand­ing up two days af­ter these events try­ing to get their peo­ple fired up about, ‘They’re go­ing to take our guns away!’ It’s like, man, we haven’t even tried to con­trol it. Like back­ground checks… the most ba­sic thing.”

Suf­fice to say, Jeff was heart­ened when Ed­die and Mike pre­sented Can’t Deny Me to the band.

“It’s a heavy song and such a great per­for­mance from Ed,” he re­flects. “In these times, it’s good to have a song like that to get it off our chest. That’s one of the great parts about the band. We sort of earned this plat­form to speak about the things that we see as truths and to rep­re­sent the peo­ple in our cor­ner.”

In­deed, the skir­mish of Can’t Deny Me is but the lat­est in a string of sear­ing PJ protest songs. Back in 1993 they tack­led gun cul­ture on Glo­ri­fied G, a supremely sar­cas­tic spin on the pre­vail­ing psy­chol­ogy of gun own­ers. Yet it was the ar­rival of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush in the White House that seemed to most gal­vanise them.

For per­spec­tive, when Green Day re­leased Amer­i­can Id­iot in 2004, post-9/11 pa­tri­o­tism had long since cooled into anti-bush/ anti-iraq War sen­ti­ment. But in 2002, when Stone Gos­sard and Ed­die penned the Bush­lam­poon­ing track Bu$hlea­guer, it was a risk to even re­lease the song, let alone have Ed­die per­form it on­stage ei­ther wear­ing or com­i­cally ad­dress­ing a mask of the pres­i­dent. Their Seat­tle head­quar­ters were in­un­dated with threat­en­ing phone calls and emails. More­over, when they per­formed it on­stage at Nas­sau Coli­seum in Union­dale, New York in 2003, some mem­bers of the crowd did not ex­actly warm to it. “There was a hail of quar­ters be­ing thrown at us,” re­flected drum­mer Matt Cameron in Pearl Jam’s of­fi­cial 20th an­niver­sary book, Pearl Jam Twenty. “That was the first time at a Pearl Jam show where, like, I felt the crowd was re­ally mad, and they were try­ing to hurt us.”

Un­de­terred, in 2006, on their 5K-rated self­ti­tled al­bum, they had the re-elected Bush in their crosshairs again on songs such as World Wide Sui­cide. As one would ex­pect, Jeff is ex­tremely proud of this legacy.

“I come from a punk rock back­ground so I love that stuff,” he beams. “I love peo­ple get­ting mad and get­ting up­set and re­act­ing. That’s the best of art, that you can get a re­ac­tion out of some­body – whether it’s a re­ac­tion of pure joy or pure hate. I think both are good.”

He goes on to pon­der whether things are ac­tu­ally worse dur­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion than they were in the era of Bush Jr.

“There was that whole di­a­logue then where it was, ‘You’re ei­ther with us or against us,’” Jeff re­flects. “Peo­ple were re­ally afraid to speak up and dis­sent against the govern­ment at


that time. It’s the same way now, you just have the pres­i­dent say­ing every­thing’s fake news. Forty per cent of the peo­ple buy it, and start be­liev­ing this shit that’s ab­so­lutely pure lies.”

Pearl Jam have a com­pelling strat­egy for reach­ing peo­ple in the era of fake news: you wield com­pas­sion with the same blunt force as wrath.

“Your only chance is to not be su­per­ag­gres­sive,” ex­plains Jeff. “You say, in your most lov­ing, calm voice, ‘What are you think­ing? How do you sup­port this guy? I don’t un­der­stand. Help me un­der­stand, you seem like a great guy, you’re a great dad, how can you buy into this?’”

The big ques­tion now is, what sub­ject will Pearl Jam ad­dress next? And when will their 11th al­bum ar­rive?

“We’ve done a ton of writ­ing, but other than fin­ish­ing up Can’t Deny Me, it’s just go­ing to take for us to all be in a room to­gether for a cou­ple of months and record this stuff,” ex­plains Jeff. “Hope­fully we’ll get some time this fall to get back at it.”

But if the next chap­ter in the Pearl Jam story has yet to be writ­ten, there are in­nu­mer­able ones that Jeff can re­flect upon.

Back in 2011, Pearl Jam went to the cin­ema. Toronto’s lush Princess Of Wales Theatre to be ex­act. There – along­side hun­dreds of bay­ing Pearl Jam fans – Ed­die, Stone, Jeff, Mike, Matt and beloved tour­ing key­boardist Boom Gas­par con­gre­gated to watch the world pre­miere of Cameron Crowe’s doc­u­men­tary PJ20. Sat just in front of them, your cor­re­spon­dent was on hand re­port­ing for K! to see the re­sult of more than 30,000 hours of footage con­densed into one ca­reer-span­ning film. In a press con­fer­ence held im­me­di­ately after­wards, with a wide grin plas­tered on his face, Jeff ad­dressed some of his early-’90s fash­ion trans­gres­sions.

“It’s pretty shock­ing,” he said. “I didn’t know I wore hats like that…”

To­day, K! asks him for a some­what more com­pre­hen­sive over­view of his life’s work.

“It’s in­sane,” ex­plains Jeff. “It’s the great­est thing of my life, the re­la­tion­ships and the peo­ple I’ve been able to play mu­sic with. For a kid from small-town Mon­tana, it’s so be­yond any sort of dream. It re­ally is un­be­liev­able. I’ve been lucky my whole life to play with not just great lyri­cists and song­writ­ers and singers, but also great drum­mers and gui­tar play­ers.”

It is hard not to think of one of them in par­tic­u­lar in 2018.

Pearl Jam have played their re­splen­dent song Come Back 48 times live, but none has been as pow­er­ful as their ren­di­tion at Mo­vis­tar Arena in March.

“This is for Chris,” said Ed­die be­fore strik­ing the serene first chord of the song.

With Chris Cor­nell’s tragic death, the world lost an artist whose legacy, Jeff says, is “one of the best ever”. But for Pearl Jam they also lost a best friend, a peer and a band­mate (Matt Cameron was dou­ble-shift­ing with Soundgar­den, and Pearl Jam had re­united Tem­ple Of The Dog with Chris). Dur­ing one of his June solo shows in London last year, Ed­die told the Even­tim Apollo that Chris, “wasn’t just a friend, he was some­one I looked up to like my older brother.” Jeff, too, con­tin­ues to process the loss. “I think we’re all still try­ing to un­der­stand the whys and hows,” he says. “We just miss him.”

For Jeff, it is even harder to fathom given that just two years ago he was on­stage, along­side Chris for Tem­ple Of The Dog’s re­union shows. It is heart­break­ing to re­flect that a band that so elo­quently put words to the grief felt over the fa­tal over­dose of Seat­tle lu­mi­nary An­drew Wood (both Chris’ room­mate and Jeff’s singer in Mother Love Bone) has now, too, lost its voice.

“The shows were so beau­ti­ful,” he con­tin­ues. “I think ev­ery­body was play­ing at such a high level – a level we wouldn’t have been able to play at when we made that record.”

As he re­calls them cov­er­ing Led Zep­pelin’s Achilles Last Stand on­stage to­gether, his steady stream of words slows down.

“There was just some­thing so pos­i­tive and, not to use the word over and over again, but beau­ti­ful [about those shows], it makes it even harder to think that we’ll never do it again. I feel even worse for Matt, Kim [Thayil, gui­tar] and Ben [Shep­herd, drums], and the guys in his other bands, and that’s not to say his wife and kids. That’s al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.”

There are a lot of ways to look at the story of Pearl Jam, but PJ20 di­rec­tor Cameron Crowe landed upon per­haps the most grace­ful de­scrip­tion of their jour­ney to date as one of “joy through sur­vival”. They have en­joyed in­cred­i­ble highs (1993’s Vs. sell­ing 1 mil­lion copies in its open­ing week in the U.S. alone) and dev­as­tat­ing lows, no more so than the tragedy of Roskilde Fes­ti­val, where nine fans lost their lives in a crowd surge dur­ing their 2000 head­line set.

In 2018, there is grief to over­come, there is a di­vided world to con­front, but the band re­mains. Pearl Jam en­dure. Now, as be­fore, that is some­thing to hold on to.

“It seems mirac­u­lous to me that we’re still do­ing it,” con­cludes Jeff. “That makes me feel re­ally grate­ful. We some­how man­aged to stick to­gether. We re­ally are a band of broth­ers – we’ve paid at­ten­tion to each other and what ev­ery­body’s go­ing through. Ev­ery­body’s reached out a hand to one an­other at dif­fer­ent times, de­pend­ing on what’s been go­ing on. There re­ally is a depth to our re­la­tion­ship that ex­ists be­cause we’ve been do­ing it for so long and gone through so much stuff to­gether. We’ve wit­nessed and felt things that only the five of us have felt.”

He pon­ders all of this again – and then, un­der­lin­ing the point, re­peats him­self.

“It re­ally does seem mirac­u­lous.”


PJ sand­wich: (from left) Matt Cameron, Jeff Ament, Mike Mc­cready, Ed­die Ved­der and Stone Gos­sard Ed­die and Chris Cor­nell share a stage for the 28th an­nual Bridge School Ben­e­fit in Cal­i­for­nia, 2014

Jeff Ament, 2018

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