In their Seattle rehearsal space, beneath a portrait of Pete Townshend and a giant Ramones banner, Pearl Jam have been hard at work on songs for their ninth studio album – which they plan to release on their own in the U.S., without a label. The band will soon begin recording with producer Brendan O’Brien and hopes to release the still-untitled disc by the fall. “The new record feels good so far – really strong and uptempo, stuff we can sink our teeth into,” says Eddie Vedder, who has seen his songwriting shift direction since the election. “I’ve tried, over the years, to be hopeful in the lyrics, and I think that’s going to be easier now.”
Pearl Jam (who are also releasing a deluxe reissue of their 1991 debut, Ten, on March 24th) have been working toward a self-released album since 2002, when they wrapped up their contract with Epic Records and became free agents. For their last release, 2006’s Pearl Jam, they struck a one-off distribution deal with J Records, but this time the band will handle everything themselves in the States.
“We’ll make deals with a number of partners – retail, online and probably mobile, too,” says Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis, adding that the group will sell digital and physical versions of the album on its own Website. “The cool thing is, as the record companies are kind of dying, the opportunities are growing.”
Judging from early demos, Pearl Jam are carrying through with the punchy, melodic energy of their last album. One song, a garage-y composition by Vedder, repeats the lyric “see my friends” over Stooges-meet-the-Who power chords and loose, Johnny Thunders-inspired lead guitar from Mike McCready.
Another tune, penned by drummer Matt Cameron, is a bigger surprise: It’s sleek power pop, with a Stones-y intro riff leading into a tight, chiming verse and a catchy vocal melody that wouldn’t be out of place on a Kings of Leon record. “That could have been a seven-minute, weird, sideways kind of artsy song with a cool groove,” Vedder says. “I tinkered with it after everyone left, and we shrunk it down and turned it into something else . . . I’m thinking about set lists: ‘Will this be a song we’ll play every night?'”
Last year, everyone but Vedder gathered in bassist Jeff Ament’s Montana house for a songwriting retreat. “It’s the first time since the first record that we’ve really rehearsed,” says Ament, “instead of just going to the studio with a handful of ideas.”
While Vedder seems most excited by the idea of short, fast songs – citing Guided by Voices as an inspiration – his bandmates emphasize other parts of the record. “There’s plenty of ballads, too,” says guitarist Stone Gossard. “And there’s some shifts in how Jeff and Matt and I are all relating – I think this record’s got a chance to sound significantly different.” Adds Ament, “There’s a couple of great things that Ed brought in that could be real departures for us. Whatever wave Ed caught with [his soundtack for] Into the Wild has taken him to different places.”
The new album is Pearl Jam’s first with Brendan O’Brien since 1998’s Yield, and they’re excited to be reuniting with their friend – who spent the past decade working with artists from Bruce Springsteen to AC/DC. “At this point, I think we’re willing to let somebody cut the songs up a little bit,” says Vedder. “In the past, Brendan would say, ‘It’s a great song, but I think you should do it in a different key,’ and we’d say no. But now that we’ve heard Bruce has listened to his suggestions, I think we will too.”
This story is from the February 19th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.