Eddie Vedder has a cell phone now, but he's not entirely happy with the whole idea.
"The way we're attached to our phones these days, they buzz and twitch in our pockets and we have to look and see if it was a text, a voicemail or an email. We're almost like lab rats," Vedder told The Huffington Post in a recent interview. "I tried to eschew the whole cell phone theory until I had kids, then I had to be reachable at all times."
As lead singer of Pearl Jam, not being completely reachable was, at one point, Vedder's modus operandi. After bursting on the scene with "Ten" in 1991 (the band's debut album spawned such classics hits "Jeremy," "Alive," "Even Flow" and "Black"), Vedder and his Pearl Jam bandmates (bassist Jeff Ament, lead guitarist Mike McCready and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard; drummer Matt Cameron joined the group in 1998) pulled back from doing many interviews.
"I think if you monitor even the amount of shows that you play, then you can keep it from something that you do on autopilot," Vedder said. "I would say the same thing was true with something like interviews. I just think that if you do less, it's better. It's not that you don't appreciate the process, and it's not that you don't respect both sides of the equation, it's just a quality over quantity thing."
With that attitude in place, Vedder and the band commissioned interviews with four people -- filmmaker Judd Apatow, musician and actress Carrie Brownstein, professional surfer Mark Richards and former NFL player Steve Gleason -- to help promote the Oct. 15 release of "Lightning Bolt," the group's 10th studio album. ("Lightning Bolt" is streaming on iTunes now.)
"You can't take it personally, because I hadn't met you yet. It was, in some way, done to avoid the situation I'm in right now," Vedder joked when asked about the impetus for the interviews. "We thought it was a way to be true to ourselves."
Indeed it was: Vedder, for instance, first met Richards when he was just 15. "His knowledge of our music might eclipse mine. He shapes boards and listens to the bootlegs," Vedder said. "He would ask questions like, "Now, E, in Sydney, you say this. Two days later, in Melbourne, you seem to contradict yourself?'" He was now laughing at the memory. "We welcome that kind of intrusion by known intruders."
Fortunately, Vedder is still willing to make room for unknown intruders as well. The 48-year-old singer spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about a wide array of topics, including his development as a songwriter, the process that goes into making a Pearl Jam record, the social responsibility that comes with being artist in the public light, and whether rock 'n roll is really here to stay. Below, an edited transcript of our 55-minute discussion.
Talking about our reliance on phones, it's hard to imagine living without one now -- especially with how much we use it to stay connected to the news cycle. It's like a big sociological experiment and I'm not sure how well it's going. I think, at times, we should monitor what's happening. Part of what happens, though, is that there's so much information, and so much tragedy coming at such a high rate, that people start to feel overwhelmed and everyone is coming down with apathy.
Then, when you get in the sights of the tragedy -- it's you directly, or your community, or your family -- you're going to be yesterday's news within a week as well. It's hard to maintain energies to help -- or the focus gets taken off. Because everything is being played at such loud volume.
How does that affect your songwriting? I suppose one of the challenges of writing the word-side of music these days is trying to decipher and communicate how this planet is very overwhelming at this point. The difficulties we face are overwhelming. It's very difficult to give yourself the time to breathe and appreciate the joy and beauty that might be just right around us. Maybe part of staying healthy is that you do what you can to address certain situations during the day, and then you just allow yourself that one or two hours to appreciate and be present and in the moment. In a way, that's being selfish, but that's the bit of selfishness that will do you good. Because then you're good for other people, because you've been selfish.
I feel like that's addressed on "Sirens" and "Future Days," which are two of the most romantic songs I think you guys have ever done. It just feels like one of the things that could be helpful to put out there as an energy is living in some kind of state of grace. There's an interesting thing that happens when being in a band: you write these songs and then you go out and play them live, sometimes for 20 years. You end up repeating these messages really to yourself, because you're saying them on a sometimes nightly basis. So when there's something positive, it's not really even for others: It ends up being this mantra for yourself in a way. I'm not sure if the other fellas feel that way, because I don't know if they can hear the lyrics [laughs]. But, at the same time, I feel like when anybody in the group is playing, they're connecting to the same kind of thing. There's a powerful act of some kind of spiritual revelation happening by playing together on a nightly basis in front of an audience and receiving the energy from a large group of people. Just being in a room with large group of people who are all agreeing on something is powerful. You can channel that. That's what gets you to a point where you can write a hopeful song, because you've been through that experience.
At this point, Pearl Jam has become a real touring band. When you're sitting down to put an album together, do you guys try to pick songs that will translate best to live performance? There's an element of that, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing. Because then you might end up writing songs that really are meant to be played live. Like, they become that piece of furniture that only fits in a giant room. At the same time, you can always boil it down to this: if it sounds good around a campfire, it's probably going to sound good anywhere. You do want to string enough songs together in a way that you really feel that you can play the whole record and that they're all going to stand up in that habitat. Because at this point, that is kind of our natural habitat.
Are you very critical of the work while making an album? Everyone in the group is doing that. We're having conversations about it, which have really become quite fascinating, because the communication level in our group is pretty darn healthy. You can fight for things. You can have someone brush off something. I might brush off the end of a guitar solo, like, "Eh, I don't know. Maybe hit that one more time?" And Mike can tell me, "There's a direction to that, you just haven't seen it through 3-D glasses." Which means I need to give it a few more listens and see it through his viewpoint. I think the key is to be hypercritical as you're making the record, and then that goes into hyperdrive, critically speaking, when you're finishing it. Then the album is its own thing. The furniture is made and arranged, you shut the door, and other people can occupy the space. Once it's done, it's done.
Of all the things that have changed with recording, that's the one thing that still kind of remains the same. You pretty much set the songs in concrete, and that can be the toughest part. Lucky for us, we have people like Matt Cameron, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard: their parts are well appointed. Once the parts themselves become galvanized, then there's space and everything gets to live in its own corner of the room.
As a group, you all seem pretty like-minded, but do you discuss the themes you want to touch on as a lyricist with the other members before the writing process begins? It's interesting you say like-minded, because in some ways, yes, we are. In fact, maybe in most ways. But it's the ways that we aren't that creates the nuclear fission of the whole thing. That's where the cells divide. That's the combustion part of the engine. Some things can be sparked by conversations. We're all in tune with many of the same things or the same issues. Or we can learn from each other about our personal issues or personal experiences. You have to know if you're hanging in a room with a guy who writes lyrics for part of his living, shit's going to come out.
But we don't know what the record is going to be about. It can be frustrating at times to have a blank page, especially with so many issues to choose from. One of the most interesting things about making a record is that you see where it grows. All of a sudden it really starts making sense. It would be really interesting to write a whole piece. In some ways that's what Pete Townshend did all the time -- he was always writing whole pieces. Even "Who's Next?" was a whole piece. It wasn't released as that, but it was. At some point, while making the Avocado record [2006's "Pearl Jam"], I kind of had the songs on a bulletin board, and I started scribbling ideas and patching them together. I thought, "It would be really easy" ... I'm not going to jinx myself, but it would be easy [to make a whole piece]! That album really could have been a story about two brothers who were soldiers. It could be a fucking play. It's too bad, because that would have been the time to do it. Because now there's a lot of that going on, and I hope it's all good, but I think that would be jumping on the bandwagon to write a musical at this point. I think what you could do is just write it and have the story be there and not tell anybody. In fact, we might have even done that.
Did you do that on this one? Let me think on that one. It was all easy until that question. Maybe we'll get back to that one.
OK, that's fair. How about this: There isn't a song like "Bu$hleaguer" on this album, but you do touch on a lot of political themes, like the role of organized religion and the state of the environment. Do you feel that being politically active is a responsibility for musicians? Whatever your walk of life is, I think you have to be real about it. I remember being a manual laborer and I would play music on the side and try to be in groups and record and try to get better at it. You didn't have much yourself, you know? The energy, though, and the time you could spend once you started getting involved and volunteering and showing up at a protest here and there and being part of little movements -- whether it was against testing on animals or the right for a woman to chose -- that was something you could do making $600 per week. We helped this one homeless guy get back to Minneapolis by talking to co-workers and raising $70 to get him a one-way ticket on the Greyhound. His name was Robert, we used to see him all the time. This was in San Diego. It was interesting that, all of a sudden, you do that in an unselfish way, and those are the things that start giving back to you. It's the gift the giving and creates a feeling of having a special purpose. That could be one of the keys to life. So, I think, we're all just doing the same thing as we've always done, it's just on a different level.
Right. I think it's interesting when you have someone like Bono do so much work. We were in Australia together, maybe eight years ago. He had been out there for quite some time and on the cover of Time magazine. He had the One Campaign, and was going to the G8 summit with Bob Geldof, and raising money for debt relief and getting contributions from political leaders to fight AIDS and other diseases in Africa. He was talking to Bill Gates. The amount of air time he was getting was unparalleled. He did it in such a way that it was astounding -- the amount of money and hope he raised. The reason I bring it up is because I'll never forget that conversation. He said he was doing one more push on the thing, but that he was going to get out of here for a while. He said something like, "There's a shelf life to this stuff and I think I just about reached my expiration date. People are going to stop listening at some point if I'm not careful." I thought that was a powerful realization.
Do you think you've reached that shelf life where people have stopped listening to you? My shelf life in the public viewpoint, I feel like it has the length of an avocado. Like a week. The people like Bono, they have some crazy organic preservative thing happening. They've taken it to another level. I've just never felt built for speed as well. I'm not talking about myself here, but I think we should all realize sensitive people -- and I'm not talking about myself -- in this day and age, on this planet, with the multitude of media input and psychological bombardment, have to be really careful. They're going to have to find some way to create some kind of forcefield in their lives to survive this thing and keep a clear head. It can be done in some kind of healthy way, but I think sensitive people have to be careful. I don't know if I can ... I should probably stop this interview right now. I'm just a little overwhelmed. I'm a little vulnerable talking!
Let's move to something a little bit lighter then: Do you have a favorite concert memory, or have you played so many that it's old hat by now? I don't think we're that confident, but it can be the crowds. That's always the variable, but -- to be honest -- they're pretty consistent. [During the July 8, 2003 Madison Square Garden concert], the stage started bouncing. First you think it's a train, and then it continues and you think it's an earthquake. Then you're looking around at people on the side, your crew members, like, "What the fuck is going on?" You can get the stage to bounce in that room. I wonder if it happens at Barclays? I wonder. [Ed. note: Pearl Jam will play at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Oct. 18 and Oct. 19.]
There is a lot of talk of the decline of rock, but bands such as yourself, The Black Keys and Arcade Fire are certainly thriving. Do you feel like rock has moved from the center of the music listening's consciousness at all? You can look at it another way, that when it does get in the mainstream, it tends to get watered down and co-opted rather quickly. If things are cyclical, and some people might look at rock as being on the downside, that probably means that it can retain some purity that maybe wouldn't be there otherwise. But I think there's some good pop music out there. I tend to know a little bit more about that than I would normally because I have kids. But, you know, you don't want ice cream for dinner every night. At some point, I imagine it might go back to hi-fi or die. We'll see.
What kind of pop music does Eddie Vedder like? There are certain songs that are empowering, especially for women. Maybe it's the fact that I have little girls, but songs that are empowering -- for really anybody -- give you the ice cream, but they become something of value. There's a finite amount of time on this planet for each of us. Sometimes the only way we figure out how to deal with that reality -- knowing that there will be an end to every story, and you don't know how many chapters are left in your book -- is by living in denial. So there's a finite amount of books that you're going to be able to read in your lifetime. There's a finite amount of music that you can listen to. So it's really what you're putting into your body and your brain. So, if it's on the lighter side of -- especially if it's popular -- you hope it would have some kind of value.
If you produce crap, you're promoting crap. Yeah, and if you consume it -- and I think that's maybe when you're looking at it from a parental standpoint. I'm not going to advocate burning books or bulldozing records, but you look out for your kids and hope they're not having toxic intake. I think in the new world, that's more difficult thing to do.
Has being a parent changed you as a songwriter? I think there are many answers to that question, and I'm not sure which is the best one. It changes you. There's no way to avoid that. My patterns as a human were fairly established. I thought that parenting would be a sidecar to everything I was doing. If anything, I was in the sidecar. In a myriad of ways, it's going to change everything. Being a parent could take your focus away, but it could also add focus. It takes your focus away because you have a constant responsibility and beautiful distraction. It can add to your focus, though, because you know you don't have three days to yourself to become a mad scientist and lock yourself in a room with three cases of beer and a carton of smokes and come out with a song. You're going to do it in an hour, with a six-pack and one pack of smokes. So, it's really healthy.
You don't have the luxury of insanity anymore. You're not really allowed to be insane. I resented that for a little bit. I was like, "No, it's important to be the mad scientist crazy person and to dig down deep and get to some place you haven't been before." Then you realize that it's not fair to your kids to have a psycho dad. That's just not the way it's going to work. You figure out other ways to generate the same results, but you do it in a way that's less insane. I think in that way it's a positive thing and it's probably added years to my life.
It's a struggle for balance, I would assume. Before you'd work your jobs to support your music habit. As a full-time musician, though, it seems like you almost have less time to write music than before, because you accept so many other responsibilities. It doesn't matter what level the group is, either. We take on a lot in this life, and you take on what you feel you can and then the universe piles on even more. Maybe it's something you get back when the kids are grown, but it'll be interesting to see if you can go to the next level. If you can carve out a little more time and a little more focus to really become the painter that only paints. The writer that only writes. It'll be interesting.
Have you given thought to how far you can take the band? What do you see happening to Pearl Jam in the future? I think it could be dangerous to focus on the future, because you know it's just going to change. Again, you don't know what the universe is going to hit you with. I find it difficult. Nowadays you tend to book shows almost six months in advance, and I think that's too far into the future. I think just hunkering down and living in the present and setting some goals that are not only manageable, but seem to push some boundaries [is best]. Then get to that point and go from there.
My friend Ian MacKaye [from the band Fugazi] says it really well: There's so many ways to navigate this open field. We're fortunate to have an open field, and the reason we have it is as much because we've had support from people who have listened over the years. So we try to navigate that responsibly, but keeping them in mind pretty much at all times. Figuring out the balance of the relationships. It's a really interesting, mostly positive relationship. If that continues, and we continue -- if that grows and we grow -- at some point the healthiest thing might be to not play. Or maybe even just ... sabbatical is a great word, I think. I can't wait to use it someday.
Before I let you go, let's get back to the theme of "Lightning Bolt": What do you want people to take away from this album? Just take away that it's really great album artwork. That's a compliment I can accept.
"Lightning Bolt" is out in the U.S. on Oct. 15.