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Q&A: Eddie Vedder on Pearl Jam's New LP and Hate-Watching the VMAs

The rocker talks about mortality and 'tabloid' pop music

September 27, 2013 9:00 AM ET
Eddie Vedder
Eddie Vedder performs in New York City.
Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Clear Channel

Eddie Vedder is really trying to take better care of himself. "I quit drinking and smoking all the time," he says with a laugh. "I'm currently not drinking – because it's 11:00 in the morning." Sober or not, Vedder sounds pretty riled for a 48-year-old father of two on Pearl Jam's 10th album, Lightning Bolt, which ranges from Vitalogy-style punk­iness to unabashed balladry. "We've got a situation in the band," says Vedder, "where, hopefully, we can explore the possibilities of the whole spectrum."

Pearl Jam Producer Brendan O'Brien on the Making of 'Lightning Bolt'

Given all the time between records, and all the band members' side projects, is Pearl Jam itself now a side project for you guys?
I could see, perhaps, where that assumption is made. But we're more of a group than ever, and the space in between is healthy. It's a big part of everybody's life, to be playing music, at all times. And at the same time, it's important to us to be part of our families, to not be absent fathers.

Also, actually putting out the record is a little bit of a shock to the system. That's what we remember as being traumatic. Probably, when you take longer between records, there's more importance placed on the records. Maybe the next thing you do is put out another one in the next year – just put it out, and not have a buildup.

Are you still trying to make the greatest Pearl Jam record ever?
I say this in the least-competitive way possible, but we're trying to make not just the best Pearl Jam record, but just the best record. It's about getting to the next level of communication, or just trying to crack a code into some higher plane of playing music. Because when we're making a record, I'm more of a listener than a player. That whole time, you're staying in this weird, objective place, like you're writing from a hot-air balloon, looking at the landscape and trying to zero in. You're trying to create a giant crop circle, and that's the mystery behind it. Like, how would you make that if you were on the ground?

The new record has a lot of lyrics about mortality.
They say to write what you know. I think that's maybe one thing that we all know [laughs]. It's living while you're alive, and living to the day you die, and being cognizant of the end, and you might lead a more appreciative life, if that's part of your approach.

I thought maybe you were just getting old.
Yeah. Well, no! I'm probably in better shape than in many, many years. But, you know, they say that your kids make you young – I say they'll make you tired, trying to keep up with them. I used to think getting through adolescence was going to be the hard part. It's watching other people get old, dealing with other people's mortality. A lot of us live in denial, given how we treat our bodies. So to extend it, you start treating yourself a little better.

You hurt some nerves in your back that affected your hand last year, and you had to cancel some dates. Is that related to this revelation?
That was a major inconvenience that, when I look back, was really minor. But, you know, in the middle of it, I didn't know if I would play guitar again. I could picture sitting there with [guitarists] Mike [McCready] or Stone [Gossard], calling out chords. "No, go to a B-minor! Go to a B-minor-7!"

The new song "Infallible" seems to be about American decline, questioning whether we're really progressing as a culture.
Well, I wouldn't want to limit it to just our country [laughs]. But if you're a casting director, you'd say, "Well, wow, this country certainly fits the part." You know, we legalized gay marriage in the state of Washington at the same time we legalized pot, and it was a great reason to celebrate! But then, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for minorities and less fortunate people on the economic scale to vote. That was a huge step backward. We could've made two big strides forward. Instead, we're just, you know, prone, doing the splits.

With the solo ukulele record you put out in 2011, and Pearl Jam's hit "Just Breathe," it seems like you've opened the door for a bit of, not softness, but. . .
Sentimentality. For years, it was playing word games and expressing those emotions, but doing it in such a way that was cryptic and where Mark Arm from Mudhoney would still have some modicum of respect for me. But nowadays, it's more like sitting down and writing a song, and whatever comes out, comes out.

The new album also has the power ballad "Sirens," which sounds big – dare I say "commercial"?
You've already said it! You want to say something else? You want me to double-dare you? [Laughs] You know, a lot of these songs were written in the middle of the night, and you're the only one awake, it seems, for miles. There's no one criticizing what you're writing.

On another note, there's no doubt that rock isn't the cultural force it once was.
Oh, so you saw the MTV Awards.

Wait, you saw the MTV Awards?
I was able to fast-forward through them, yes.

I take it you're not into much new pop music, then.
These pop songs almost feel like tabloid journalism, in a way. It's crap that people seem to like. And I don't know if it has meaning. I don't know if one of the pop songs of the summer has any fiber in it. People are consuming it, and is it healthy? I don't know. Maybe it's some kind of way of taking themselves away from their problems. Maybe there's some healthy property or some restorative property that I'm not receiving. It seems like it has a really high fructose content.

As unpleasant as it often was for Pearl Jam back in the Nineties, shouldn't more good young rock bands be shooting for the pop charts?
Bono talked a lot about, you know, "We can't let rock & roll become a niche." I thought, "Well, that's kind of crazy. I have more faith in it than that." But I can definitely see his point. When there's a pop song that seems a little bit better than others, it's usually one that has some real guitar, real drums in it. I still feel like the best stuff has natural elements.

You're about the same age now that Neil Young was when he made Harvest Moon in 1992. Does that feel right?
No, I'll always be younger than that. Just on achievement levels alone.

Can you imagine pushing into your seventies, like the Stones and Paul McCartney?
It's actually really rare. The more you look at it, you realize how rare it is, and how difficult it is. I first saw the Stones in 1981, and at that point they were elder statesmen. So we're lucky to see these old poets being able to read their work in their own voice, you know? I mean, they came from the same generation that said, "Don't trust anyone over 30." It reminds you to be open to the possibilities.

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