Missoulian Pearl Jammer Jeff Ament sounds off on music, politics and the art of aging gracefully
For a few days leading up to my interview with Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, I got a small taste of what it might be like playing in a band with a media darling like Eddie Vedder.
“I’m going to interview one of the Pearl Jam guys,” I’d say.
“Eddie Vedder?” would be the common response, eyes aglow.
“No. Jeff Ament.”
“Oh. That’s cool.”
The “That’s cool” part was always intoned with a poorly-veiled tinge of disappointment.
But, if Vedder gets all the attention, that’s just fine with part-time Missoulian Jeff Ament.
“More than anything, I feel bad for him,” says Ament. “With the good aspect of being the face of the band or the voice of the band, there’s a lot more negative stuff that goes with that. He can’t go anywhere and be anonymous. I don’t have that big of a problem with that.”
Indeed, Ament obviously didn’t choose to live in Missoula to be adored by fans on the street—it’s clearly in opposition to the unwritten Montana credo of “let thy neighbor do his own thing.” In truth, Ament almost shudders at the mention of the term “rock star.”
“I associate ‘rock star’ with driving around in limos and doing drugs and that’s never really been my deal,” Ament says. “But in terms of a town where you might be a little bit recognizable, it’s fine. I have my little routine and I think the places that I go people are kind of bored with my face, so it’s not really that big a deal.”
A little bit recognizable? Not that big a deal? Okay, Mr. Modest Guy, I guess I’ll have to do your bragging for you like the parents of a shy valedictorian.
Even if Ament had become a comatose vegetable in 1992, he would still have been remembered as the young man who’d written the music to the song “Jeremy,” which ranks right up there with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Under the Bridge” as one of the most influential songs of ’90s rock music. It also marks the last time MTV put a video into heavy rotation that was challenging enough to possibly cause the conservative viewer to—gasp!—change the channel. Ament still has a soft spot for the song in his heart, but he and the band are careful not to wear the old favorites out.
“That’s one of those ‘once every five shows’ songs. The only way it’s fun to play some of those older songs is if you give them a break for a while.”
After over a decade of touring, one might think that Pearl Jam has experienced all there is to encounter at a live show. One would be wrong. In fact, the band just received its first significant round of boos on the initial leg of its North American Riot Act tour. The press picked up on a Denver show in which Vedder impaled a mask of George W. Bush on a microphone stand and then stepped on the plastic Bush face (upping the ante on the Dixie Chicks considerably!) after singing the song “Bush Leaguer,” which contains Mark Twain-style social commentary: “He’s not a leader/He’s a Texas Leaguer/Drilling for fear makes the job simple/Born on third/Thinks he hit a triple.” However, says Ament, “It was a total non-event that the media kind of took and ran with.”
What was an event, and what caused the boos, according to Ament, was a Nassau show in which Vedder got into a political discussion with the audience after singing “Bush Leaguer.”
“About twenty or thirty percent of the people were booing loudly,” Ament says, “So it was definitely something that none of us had experienced before.”
Ament says that he was not troubled by the boos, particularly since he is in line with Vedder’s politics of being against the Iraq war and most other aspects of the Bush administration.
Plus, Ament notes, he was vindicated the following night. “I went to see Bright Eyes and Arab Strap at this little theater in New York and between bands I went to the bathroom and there were six young men, 18 to 22, and they were like, ‘Hey dude, great show last night.’ I was like, ‘Really? It got a little bit testy there at the end.’ And they were like, ‘Fuck those Long Island guys. That’s why we like you guys.’”
Not everyone in the band was as comfortable with Vedder’s statements.
“I know [guitarist] Mike [McCreedy] was pretty upset about it and said some things about not wanting to play [‘Bush Leaguer’] again. I think the booing kind of got to him a little bit harder. And maybe he isn’t totally in line with the way that Ed thinks and the way I think, and that’s all part of being in a band or a relationship: communicating your differences. But I’m ready to play that song every night.”
The political poses Pearl Jam strikes on its latest release, Riot Act, are nothing new to the band, but it has been several albums since politics showed up on the Jammers’ tablet.
“I think that had to do with everyone going through more personal shit at that time,” Ament says. “You write what you know.”
Over the years, Ament has put his money where his mouth is with contributions to Ralph Nader and Missoula’s Blue Mountain Clinic, to name a few beneficiaries, but the band’s next likely charitable gift to the Garden City will avoid the political realm. Ament, an avid skateboarder, wants to build a world-class skate park in Missoula. He’s worked with the Redevelopment Council and Parks and Rec to secure a piece of land between the Orange St. Bridge and McCormick Park. If the city agrees to use quality builders and designers, Ament says Pearl Jam plans to donate a considerable amount of money to the project.
“I think kids kind of get the shaft when the government decides that they’re going to spend all the tax money on bombs instead of education. Any little thing we can do to give kids and young adults things to do that are positive is good.”
Clearly the shutterbug of the Pearl Jam crew, Ament’s photography adorns most of the band’s seven major studio releases. The bassist explains that his shooting began as a cost-saving measure. These days, Pearl Jam can afford a whole corps of photographers, but Ament, who took photo classes at the University of Montana in the early ‘80s, continues to be a main source for album art. Still, for a guy into photography, Ament is remarkably unconcerned with posterity.
“Maybe after we’re all dead, some of our music will have a little bit of a life, but I can’t imagine people, other than my family, really giving a shit. I think how you live and the things that you do that help preserve the Earth or preserve a good way of living, those are the things that you want to be remembered for. And the music is part of that, too. But I don’t get too hung up on the immortality thing. It’s weird when you hear people who are alive talking about wanting to secure their place in history.”
Ament and Pearl Jam have already secured their place in history. And unlike so much of the rock and roll that has been played on MTV over the course of the last twenty years, this band has staying power. When Seven Mary Three and Creed and Bush and a thousand other bands pitched themselves to labels saying, “We sound sort of like Pearl Jam, but with a (insert your minor variation here) twist,” Pearl Jam continued to evolve, constantly fighting static cling.
On the past two albums, Pearl Jam has burgeoned not only as musicians, but as a team. Lyric-writing responsibilities, once residing solely with Vedder, are now dispersed throughout the band. Ament penned lyrics for two of the tracks on Riot Act and views writing words for another person to sing as something of an “art project.”
“It makes it more fun for us, too,” Ament says. “It’s always exciting when you’re writing a song wondering, ‘I wonder how Ed will sing this or how Mike will play guitar on this.’”
Congealing as a team, Pearl Jam shows no signs of degenerating any time soon, which is agreeable to Ament, who points to a few artists who provide Pearl Jam with a road map to aging with style.
“I think there’s older guys that are doing it right,” he says. “Anybody who loves music doesn’t get down on Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash or Neil Young. I think where people start to have problems is with Aerosmith or maybe a certain aspect of the Rolling Stones. If you can do it gracefully that’s great, but if you’re 50 years old and you’re talking about screwing a girl in an elevator, that gets tough, you know? So, I can look at those [latter] examples and say, ‘Okay. Don’t go there.’”
With the magnitude of the arena-rock shows Ament is accustomed to playing, it’s a forward task to imagine the transition of a sick-of-school young man picking up his first bass at UM in the early ’80s inside of “Jesse Hall, room six-o-something” and playing Ramones and Sex Pistols covers at the Top Hat. Yet from these meager beginnings, Ament has realized his dream. But he worries that record labels are making it difficult for other creative musicians to reach similar goals.
“[The major labels] were looking for the next Nirvana…and then for the next ten years all you got was copies. They weren’t looking for bands that were doing new things. So we kind of got locked into what Ed calls ‘karaoke bands.’ People say there’s not great music out there and I disagree, but I don’t think there’s great music being pushed into the mainstream right now. And that’s the sad thing. There is really great music out there but nobody knows about it.”
Fortunately for people such as myself, who thought Amy Grant was about as good as it got in sixth grade, Pearl Jam was pushed into the mainstream. Since that Seattle boom, mainstream rock has experienced a considerable drought of challenging, daring newcomers. Yet, with any luck, Pearl Jam will carry the torch until rock labels finally give up on the hopeless expedition of finding “the next Pearl Jam.” With the seldom-predictable evolution of this band, it’s already clear where to find “the next Pearl Jam” anyhow: on Pearl Jam’s own next album.