Jeff Ament seems to have discovered soul asylum. After several years under the pop microscope as Pearl Jam's chapeau-lovin' bassist, the 33-year-old California resident has taken refuge in Three Fish, a side project with friends Robbi Robb, formerly of Tribe After Tribe, and Richard Sturverud. Borrowing their name from a poem about three fish of varying intelligence by Rumi, a 13th-century mystic, the band recently recorded a debut of free-form spiritual melodies that owes more to '70s prog rock than to Pearl Jam's late-'70s arena-rock inspiration.
A reinvigorated Ament stopped by New York recently on his way to Turkey and Egypt to see local musicians. (Three Fish are currently on tour. Needless to say, they're not using Ticketmaster.)
Which fish are you: the intelligent fish, the half-intelligent fish or the stupid fish?
I'm probably the stupid fish. Sometimes I feel lucky to be one. I get lost in my right brain, especially in creative things. When I moved to Seattle, I was the epitome of one because I came from Montana. I was hanging out with kids who were five or six years younger who knew much more about living in the city. They had done drugs, had sex a million times. I look at them now and realize their childhood was taken away. I wasn't pressured to be an adult – even though at the time I was pissed at my parents because they made me grow up in Bumfuck, Montana.
Why did you pick Seattle to move to?
I had a friend who moved there. I went to visit him, and I was like, "I have to go someplace where I can soak myself in a creative atmosphere." There were shows that had huge impacts: Black Flag, Bad Brains, X, Dead Kennedys. We opened for Black Flag, and none of the bands had dressing rooms, but Henry Rollins had his own. He had struck me as different from that.
So you're saying he was a punk diva?
[Laughs] You said that. He's an interesting guy. I don't relate to him necessarily.
How'd you get involved with Three Fish?
Tom Petty gave me a tape of Tribe After Tribe. Pearl Jam was out touring, so we asked Tribe After Tribe to come out. Robbi and I hit it off. He grew up in a Tibetan Buddhist community, and I grew up in a hardcore Catholic one. It's interesting how similar the experiences were: sheltered, quiet and introspective. Then when I was in Cairo and Turkey last year, I saw dervishes and incredible musicians performing rituals. It was one of the most captivating experiences I've ever had.
What do you get to do with Three Fish that you don't get to do with Pearl Jam?
I played djembe, percussion, keyboards and I sang. With Pearl Jam, everybody is so good at what they do, it's hard to get up the courage to say, "Can I sing this part," or, "I want to play guitar." I feel like I have more courage to do that.
When did you first play with Robb?
We went to Big Sur about three years ago and hung out at the Esalen Institute. Neil Young had invited Pearl Jam to his place for a barbecue. I said to Robb, "We can go if you want." Everybody picked up instruments and started playing.
Who was there?
Eddie [Vedder], Dave [Abbruzzese], Robbi, Neil, managers and family. Robbi had some of the same qualities as Neil. I was watching these two musicians being completely uninhibited. There was no fear, so the rest of us just fell in. At that point I knew I wanted to play music with Robbi.
When did Pearl Jam last get together?
Two weeks ago. We just finished making a record. I imagine it'll come out in late summer or early fall. Everybody wants to play shows, so we're going to after that.
What is the new record like?
The fact that everybody got away from what Pearl Jam are supposed to be brought a new feeling. Mike [McCready] did things with Mad Season that allowed him to bring back some confidence. Stone [Gossard] brought back hip-hop elements. Jack [Irons] went into the studio and created these drum songs, and he wrote based on that. Eddie did things with Mike Watt and with Nusrat [Fateh Ali Khan]. Not that this record is going to be a drastic left turn, 'cause we're still a rock band, but it's been allowed to wander a bit.
Did you win anything in your fight over service charges with Ticketmaster?
Yeah. People understand better where their money is going. And we've gotten incredible support from fans. A lot of bands said after the fact, "We totally support you." The only people who really supported us were Tim Collins and Bertis Downs, who are Aerosmith's and R.E.M.'s respective managers.
Do you feel like you were left in the lurch?
To an extent, but nobody had the power we had or the support from our record company. We've always been a band that stood up for what we thought was right.
Some thought Pearl Jam were ungrateful in their acceptance speech at the Grammys this year.
Every few years I'll party way too much to remind myself what an idiot I am, and going to the Grammys was a little like that. It was all these high-society people coming up to us and acting like they were related to us. I think Eddie explained himself really well. It was like, "C'mon, people, wake the fuck up." Maybe one of us should have expanded on that. The reason we're there is to hang out with our peers. This little award saying we're better than somebody else is ridiculous.
You get the impression Vedder's not very happy. Do you ever feel like telling him, "Hey, lighten up a little"?
Oh, sure. But there's probably times when he says, "Jeff, lighten up." He's a really sensitive guy. I can't say you're a jerk because you're too sensitive. People see him for 20 seconds at the Grammys and think, "Goddamn, he must be like this all the time. I feel sorry for his friends." I've been out in the middle of the ocean with him just being ecstatic on a surfboard. So, you know, he has his moments.
This story is from the August 8th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.