After more than two decades as Pearl Jam's guitarist, Stone Gossard still marvels at the band's arena-packing fans. "I'm so blessed to be playing these shows where so many people know the words," he tells Rolling Stone. "Ed [Vedder] tells so many different stories from so many different points of view – kids, guys at war, women, some sarcastic corporate militarized leader – and when people sing them back at you, it becomes way bigger than just songs. It's not something everybody gets to experience."
However, Gossard isn't coasting on Pearl Jam's prolonged success. Yesterday, he released Moonlander, his first solo LP in more than a decade. It highlights his range, from riff-heavy rockers ("Battle Cry") to folky barrelhouse singalongs ("Both Live" and "Witch Doctor") and piano ballads ("Your Flames"). Gossard drew from more than 50 demos and fragments from the last 12 years, including old demos from Pearl Jam and Brad. "I went back through everything and said, 'Does this still excite me? Does this sound dated?'" he says. "I quickly picked the 10 or 11 that I wanted to kind of focus on."
Many of the songs sound like the beginnings of Pearl Jam songs, the same way Keith Richards' solo LP Talk Is Cheap highlighted his strengths in the Rolling Stones. One key Gossard track is "Battle Cry," which begins as an ethereal ballad but evolves into a fiery, three-chord anthem and a thrashing Who-like breakdown, with Matt Cameron pummeling the drums. "I'm just hoping the vocal can stand up to all of that Matt Cameron," Gossard says. Another highlight is the aggro, dissonant rocker "I Need Something Different," which he began in 2003. "I heard it again, like, 10 years later, and I was like, 'Wow, that's just tough-sounding. I want to finish that.' I love its simplicity; I love a one-riff song."
The LP closes with the spare, acoustic sing-along "Beyond Measure," which highlights the spirituality found in music. "It's sort of a gospel song about not knowing," he says. "I like the gospel of not knowing." He adds, "I'm probably at my least religious I've ever been in a while. When you're moved by music, that's always good. But I haven't been talking to God too much lately."
From "Alive" to "Do the Evolution," Gossard has engineered some of Pearl Jam's biggest riffs. How does he recognize a great one? "It's usually about sort of stumbling," he says. "My methodology is not knowing what I'm doing and making that work for me. You pick up a guitar and the first thing you do is maybe you throw a capo on it, but you don't throw it across all of the strings, and you D-tune that string, and then you strum on that for a second, and then maybe you tune up the bottom string and do something with that. You have a thing that you do that's good, but that thing is also your cliché, so you're always trying to push it someplace new that still feels like it comes from what you like."
Gossard's all-time favorite riff of his, he says, is 2006's spastic rocker "Life Wasted." "That one just sticks out to me. But I like the way that riff has some weirdness to it, but also some AC/DC-ness to it. I just like that little bit of weirdness."
While his bandmates Vedder and Jeff Ament have taken their solo acts on the road in recent years, Gossard isn't so sure he'll do the same. "I don't have any plans to do any dates; I think that making the record is one thing but going out and playing shows is another. I may have the opportunity to do that, but I think I'm going to weigh that out as we go along," he explains. "I think if there's a big outcry for Moonlander live dates, I'll respond. If the record is climbing the charts – I'm saying this laughing – I think that some of that will dictate if there's an opportunity to do some songs."
Concludes Gossard, "The main thing with the record was really just finishing something, saying, 'Yeah, I can write a song and I like to go into the studio and screw around, and these are my favorites from the last 10 years.'"