In this exclusive excerpt from "Pearl Jam Twenty," a year-by-year oral history of the band's career to date, writer Jonathan Cohen gets the inside story of Pearl Jam's 2002 album "Riot Act." The book is part of Pearl Jam's 20th anniversary celebration that includes a Cameron Crowe-directed documentary and a festival held in Wisconsin over Labor Day weekend. "Pearl Jam Twenty" will be available September 13th, but you can pre-order it here. The documentary soundtrack, available September 20th, is also available for pre-order.
Ask Eddie Vedder why after more than a decade in Pearl Jam, the creative process continues to inspire him, and he's quick with a proud smile. "We have five songwriters," he says. "The band has really become a vehicle for everyone to offer up their songs, have very adept musicians play them, and have a very good communication with those players. That's why I can see us going on for a long while."
"No lead singer of his caliber has come anywhere near worrying about whether everybody in the band has written a song. Most of them could give one shit about that," [guitarist] Stone Gossard says. "And for him, it's important, and that's the difference. That's one of his weapons. He's very thoughtful, in that sense."
Indeed, Riot Act is an exceedingly collaborative affair, channeling that creative energy into a host of showcases for the band's signature rock power: the tense, psychedelic opener "Can't Keep"; the unhinged guitar assaults "Get Right" and "Save You"; and the propulsively melodic "Green Disease"and "Cropduster." Elsewhere, "Thumbing My Way" and the gorgeously bittersweet closer, "All or None," reveal the band's deft dynamic touch, trading power chords for acoustic strumming and Hammond B3 organ flourishes.
Produced by Adam Kasper, who had previously worked with Matt Cameron in both Soundgarden and the drummer's side band, Wellwater Conspiracy, the album also finds the group realizing its collective creativity to an often stunning degree, with myriad songs that find little basis in any prior Pearl Jam album. "You Are," penned by Cameron, is a monster of jagged guitar outbursts fed through a drum machine and welded to a gritty groove, while Jeff Ament's "Help Help" careens from sweetly sung verses to maniacal choruses and an even more intense instrumental breakdown.
"When somebody has a clear idea what a song is going to be, inevitably the band will say, ‘Well, I don't know. Let's try something else,'" Gossard says with a laugh. "Instead it will be some riff you've played three times. You just wrote it this morning and don't even care about it, but everyone will say, ‘That's killer! Let's do that!' The process of letting go is constant in this band. Sometimes you have to."
The sessions got an extra boost of experimentation thanks to the presence of keyboardist Kenneth "Boom" Gaspar, whom Vedder met and quickly began collaborating with in 2001 in the midst of a yearlong sabbatical to a remote Hawaiian island. One of their songs, "Love Boat Captain," serves as the album's emotional centerpiece, as it reaches out to the families of the nine fans who were killed after a crowd surge during Pearl Jam's June 30, 2000, set at Denmark's Roskilde Festival.
"I started disappearing into surfing areas about five or six years ago, as a way to refuel whatever I'd lose being around a lot of people," Vedder says. "I'd just go where there was no people. This place where there's no stoplights. It's very small-town living. I met this big kahuna-type guy on the island. His friend was this other guy who was a musician. There was another guy on the island who was recording some of the locals there. He passed away; a young guy. He left a wife and kid. I would never go to functions or whatever, but I went to this wake on a big porch. Musicians were playing all night; the guys he had recorded. It was pretty intense and very sad. I noticed this guy playing B3, just world class! I bumped into him a couple other times, and then I threw it out there that we should play sometime. I had a little recording setup for when I wanted to get away and do some writing. He just showed up, and we started playing. That night we wrote what turned into ‘Love Boat Captain.' Within an hour, we had this thing we put on the stereo and played it loud. It was probably about an eleven-minute version at that point."
Prior to meeting Vedder, Gaspar had never heard of Pearl Jam, much less recorded with a multiplatinum rock band. Vedder says, "Without really any knowledge of our band dynamic – although I have to admit, since it's such a solid one, it's a little easier to fit in – he was able to find his place and was doing just what we were: adding things and not subtracting."
When it came time to write lyrics, focusing more on the bigger picture – love, loss, and the struggle to make a difference – eased Vedder into the prospect of commenting directly on such tragedies as Roskilde or the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. "You start feeling like, ‘What do I have to say? What is my opinion?'" Vedder muses. "Then I realized I did have an opinion. Not only did I have one, but I felt like it was formed by processing a lot of information and having good influences.
"You'd think it'd be easy, with so much material out there and so much in the atmosphere to choose from and write about," he continues. "If you think about it, it's all very confusing and overwhelming to try to grasp it all and put it down."
The job ahead was made even more difficult thanks to a conversation with a familiar face at Neil Young's 2001 Bridge School Benefit. "I saw Michael Stipe. Of course, we drank a lot," Vedder recalls. "At the end of the night, he said, ‘Write a great record.' And then all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh, fuck. That's going to be tough.'"
Cameron says "I Am Mine" was a key starting point. "It has all the elements this band is known for: strong lyrics, strong hook, and a good sense of melody." [Guitarist] Mike McCready adds, "It's kind of a positive affirmation of what to do with one's life. I'm born and I die, but in between that, I can do whatever I want or have a strong opinion about something."
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