The timing of Pearl Jam's genesis both elevated the group to massive fame and nearly crushed it. Though dismissed by many (including, famously, Kurt Cobain) as a grunge bandwagoneer, Pearl Jam quickly became Seattle's biggest band, and its debut album Ten outsold even Nirvana's Nevermind. Faced with enormous commercial success, Pearl Jam's members did the unthinkable: They tried to preserve their sanity by becoming less famous. They refused to make more videos and turned down most interview requests, which led to gossipy speculative articles, including a sleazy Rolling Stone exposé that prompted letters of protest from Courtney Love and Michael Stipe. Then, in 1994, Pearl Jam waged a seemingly unwinnable war against Ticketmaster, which stymied tours. But the band's musical reaction to its success was just as memorable: It produced three remarkably strong albums—1993's Vs., 1994's Vitalogy, and 1996's No Code—which proved more visceral and adventurous than Ten. Vitalogy is particularly striking, shifting from punk-inspired rock songs to radio-ready ballads to unexpected experimentation. In spite of great records and fiery live shows, Pearl Jam succeeded in scaling back its fame to a manageable level. With some of the pressure off, 1998's Yield and 2000's Binaural were considerably more relaxed (and less interesting), and those albums found audiences organically, as the band wished. Press and video blackouts were partially lifted, and Pearl Jam was able to shift some of its energy away from fame deflection and toward more productive ends, such as rallying behind its favorite causes and stumping for Ralph Nader in 2000. Those experiences show up in earnest on the terrific new Riot Act, a big rock album that takes on politics of a less personal nature. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to the press-weary but affable Eddie Vedder about fame, politics, and the politics of fame.
The Onion: What's your state of mind about the interview process at this point? Have you done a lot today?
Eddie Vedder: This is the third one today, and I've done 'em for a couple weeks here and there. At this point, I'm having a hard time trying to figure out how to say things. I'm a little exhausted by the process. I know how I feel, but at this point… It was hard enough just finishing the record. I felt like, "Okay, good, that's over. I'm done saying what I need to say."
O: When was the first time you realized that Pearl Jam had become a huge band? You get questioned a lot about your later reaction to fame, but was there a time when everything was more exciting or pure?
EV: I remember the excitement of being in a studio with nice tape machines, and knowing we were going to be there maybe two or three weeks. It seemed like a real exciting premise. I think the goal at that point was some number, like 40,000… For some reason, I remember that if you could get to 40,000 records sold, they'd allow you to make another one. That was the big goal, 40,000. [Laughs.]
O: But at what point did it hit you that Pearl Jam was becoming insanely popular?
EV: We toured Europe, and at the beginning of that tour, we did some filming for the "Jeremy" song, and before we even got home, that thing had been out. And then we played on Lollapalooza with other bands we were friends with, like Ministry and Soundgarden. The reaction when we started playing those shows seemed a little intense. At the beginning of that, it was kind of exciting, and at the end of it, it was terrifying, you know? I remember one show in Chicago, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and I went over and played a few songs on a side stage, kind of behind a hill. When we were playing a song, all of a sudden these people started coming over the hill like it was Custer's last stand or something. It was weird. Exciting, but completely unnerving.
O: There's obviously a point in there where the scales tipped toward unnerving for you. Can you pinpoint the things that bothered you about the situation, that maybe you weren't prepared for early on?
EV: God, it's all stuff that we've been through and survived. It's almost like a bad relationship, in a way. At some point, you just resolve that you made it through and don't really think about it that much. I don't even know how I feel about those days anymore. At the time, when it's happening, it's really hard to lift your head up, because the light is so bright and you're fairly claustrophobic with what you're surrounded by. It's hard to get a good overview of where you are and what to do. Obviously, it's the first time that's happened to you, the sense of having no control. When something gets that big and co-opted, people start making fun of it. I remember wanting to have a sense of humor, but where we were coming from wasn't funny. Liz Smith dressing in grunge wear in Vanity Fair—that wasn't funny. [Laughs.] Or the Kmart supplements in the Sunday paper with grunge wear for kids. Actually, that was kind of funny. We put our heads down and got through that period simply by being devoted to what we feel comfortable doing, which is making records and playing live, not some of the peripheral stuff, like being on people's TV sets. Looking back, it seems like it shouldn't have been as hard as it was. If this was Behind The Music, they'd try to glorify that period and make it seem worse than it was, or make it seem like we were all ticking time bombs… To be honest, it was a difficult time, and we were young men who wanted to do the right thing and preserve our dream, which was to be in a band and make music.
O: It seems like most people who get a taste of celebrity embrace it and bend their ethics a bit.
EV: I thought that I would try to approach it, and if asked about it, I would say, as a human being, "This isn't easy." It's difficult to talk about, and of course it was suspect, like "What's he complaining about?" Really, it is one of the better jobs. At that point, it's no-win. Still, talking about it now, it's no-win. I guess I would have advice now, and would be able to talk somebody through the situation, but I almost have locked away some of those memories. Even if you feel like you're not changing, other people seem to change how they regard you. I think just being from Seattle and not being part of a bigger city, where you're exposed to… whatever, the glamour and the cocaine… [Laughs.] I think that probably helped us a lot. It wasn't too long ago where I was having dinner with a few surfer guys and some fishermen that I know, and they were asking me about the group—the same questions that you are now. They didn't know much about it, and looking back on it after a few glasses of wine, I had a sigh of relief that we'd gone through it. I feel like we did survive it, and I patted myself on the back a little bit.
O: To what degree do you think the tension of that time informed the music you were writing? Vitalogy is often cited as the pinnacle of Pearl Jam's power, and it's filled with songs about that tension.
EV: I guess that was part of what was on our plate to write about at the time. Are you talking about a song like "Not For You"?
O: "Corduroy" has always seemed like the most direct one.
EV: Yeah, that song was based on a remake of the brown corduroy jacket that I wore. I think I got mine for 12 bucks, and it was being sold for like $650. [Laughs.] The ultimate one as far as being co-opted was that there was a guy on TV, predictably patterned, I guess, after the way I was looking those days, with long hair and an Army T-shirt. They put this new character on a soap opera, so there was a guy, more handsome than I, parading around on General Hospital. And the funny thing is, that guy was Ricky Martin. [Laughs.]
O: You've been portrayed as the anti-rock-star, but that doesn't really do justice to what you do on stage.
EV: I guess for all of us, whatever our part in the band is, we're satisfying whatever our standards are these days, which are probably higher and more well-rounded than they were 10 years ago. I think every once in a while we're impressed with ourselves. [Laughs.] There's a reaction from a large group of people, and I think we're able to appreciate that and know that there's a bit of a force there that can happen at times. I don't think we're self-satisfied—one of the reasons we keep making records is that we think they can be better—so I think it's pretty easy to be humble. I probably get strangers coming up to me two or three times a week to just say something nice. I get more than my share of compliments as I walk through my daily life. I'm not having to show off or make a point about how good I am at doing something. I think I've always kind of been that way. Even when you work on issues, when you work on the Nader campaign or a pro-choice issue, or work on things like opening birth records for adoptees… You might donate some money and donate some time, or use your voice to bring up the issues, but there's humility in the understanding that other people are doing the real work on a day-to-day basis. That's their full-time job, to get a bill passed or make progress with intense issues that sometimes seem like they're perpetual.
O: Since the beginning of the band, but particularly in recent years, you've been actively political, doing things like publishing the Manual For Free Living [an issue of Pearl Jam's fan-club newsletter with contributions from Michael Moore and Ralph Nader, among others]. Do you ever worry about alienating fans?
EV: I think that if your approach is one where you don't want to alienate anybody, you're going to have to soften the viewpoint or the information that you're offering to such an extent that it doesn't have the power to make any difference. You have to take that risk. That's part of creating and participating in open and honest debate. I saw a few responses to [the newsletter] that were pretty intense, and I guess they were questioning how we could align ourselves with someone like Noam Chomsky. I personally didn't follow up on it, but I felt like it was misguided. I don't know if there's going to be a record-burning party any time soon. I wrote a letter at the beginning suggesting that this was some stuff we found helpful when forming an opinion, and you can put it in your pipe and smoke it and see what it does for you. Even when we were last touring—our last show was the day before the presidential election in 2000—at the beginning of the tour, I was just suggesting that people vote. We had voting tables out, thinking, "We're not gonna tell you how to vote, just create a voice for yourself and see if you can get the politicians to respect your voice." We just wanted to encourage a younger crowd to activate themselves. By the West Coast in November, I was just saying, "Vote for Ralph Nader, c'mon." [Laughs.]
O: Have you changed much politically since the band started?
EV: I've had more firsthand experience, just participating in the rallies for Nader, witnessing what would be achieved at those rallies—how many people would show up, what the energy was, and then seeing how it was represented in the media. Having a friendship over the past few years with Howard Zinn, sharing things about life, not just history and politics… That's been a tremendous addition. As far as viewpoints, I think I'm more well-rounded and definitely more educated, and probably more hopeful than I used to be. I think when you're young and you get into a cause, you get frustrated with it within a few years, or six months. [Laughs.] Now I seem to harbor a little bit more hope and understanding that things don't necessarily change overnight. There's a death-penalty case that we've worked on fairly closely for several years, and it's gone on for seven years now. We thought that once we got involved with it, we might be able to help right the wrong in a year or two, and it's been seven years. You mature as far as your understanding of what it's going to take, and you increase your stamina. You don't let frustration overtake you when you're looking for change.
O: How much time do you spend on these things?
EV: Usually Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, from 10 to 6, I put in… [Laughs.] Holidays, I take off. No, it's all woven into everything we do. First and foremost, I'm in a group, and as a byproduct of that, you end up with a bit of a voice, and it's about using that where you can best apply it. It seems to happen an awful lot, especially since a lot of stuff that we do is kind of below the radar. It's also important to have a life and spend time outside of both those things, in order to appreciate what you've achieved as far as just spending time with people you love, and doing things like painting. I think it's just a healthy way to be, that you're not a liability to the planet and that you're doing something positive. It seems like a necessary balance to life, being part of the community. At some point, you feel that no matter what's said in the music or how pointed it may get, the most you can wish for is that it plants a few seeds. No music is going to stop the war. What's going to stop the war is a large amount of body bags, or a large amount of people in the streets, protesting it before it starts.
O: Riot Act seems a lot more invigorated than your last two albums—somewhere between optimism and disillusion.
EV: I think that perfectly represents my state of mind these days. [Laughs.] I'm optimistic yet disillusioned, hopeful yet frustrated. There's a song called "Green Disease." Sometimes I hear news about the huge dollars involved with CEO pay and corporate-management salaries, and I'm mystified at how someone can justify taking that much at the cost of other people's livelihoods. In a bizarre way, I'm almost kind of curious, like "How can they absolve themselves and enjoy their wealth?" I don't understand it. By the end of the song, it's saying, "Can you see this world with your heart and not your brain?" or something like that. Some of that stuff comes from being in a touring band that actually stays in some of the nicer hotels. You see some of the wealth being thrown around firsthand, and you're like, "My God!" I guess it comes down to the art of the deal. We apply our creativity toward art and music and a few other things; for them, the excitement is the art of the deal. I just don't understand, if they see numbers that represent people, how they can somehow skirt around that and morally justify taking or ruining those lives and leaving them with nothing. That, to me, is violent crime. It's certainly more violent than selling grams of pot to other adults.
O: There seem to be more personal songs on this one than on the last two albums—particularly "Cropduster" and "Ghost."
EV: I think "Cropduster" at some point has some stuff about the life cycle, which, whether we want to or not, everyone's participating in. Where does it go from there? [Laughs.] It's actually been a couple weeks since I listened to it: "Seed to seedling, root to stem… the world thought me." I think it's all about man's giant ego, that he's the most important thing on the planet. I don't know how it got so imbalanced. At this point, we've got the power to destroy human life, and we're kind of cavalier about it, and it's gotten to the point where we've trivialized it into "Showdown Against Iraq" or "Showdown In Iraq," as if it's the O.K. Corral and George W.'s got the below-the-waist belt buckled on, and he's gonna quick-draw somebody. I'm angry that George Bush got to be in the White House, and I'm angry that Gore wasn't able to be a better candidate after eight years of a great economy and being an incumbent. And I'm angry that before that, all the talk was about a blue dress, and we can't even open up the information and let people understand Dick Cheney's involvement with Haliburton and his involvement with oil in Iraq, and oil deals directly with Saddam Hussein through front companies that had to do with Haliburton. I'm frustrated with the amount of information that doesn't seem to be able to surface.
O: Do you think the media are to blame, or is it an apathetic public?
EV: At some point, when you read about this factual information that comes out in The New Zealand Herald and it's barely mentioned in The New York Times, then I think you've got to question where this is being manipulated, and where the filters are. I've found it helpful to follow the money, and it starts becoming clearer… like General Electric owns this company, and they make bombs, and they're pro-war. Okay, that seems to make sense.
O: You record for a major label, essentially working for a huge company. Does that bother you in the context of your other political beliefs?
EV: We try to keep a positive relationship going, but we're probably a difficult band to work with, period, just in that we don't go about things the same way. I think they feel in general that we're trying to sabotage our careers. [Laughs.]
O: Are you?
EV: At times, for sure. I think that's our right, or part of it. I think our approach has always been infiltration from within. I'll just kind of leave it at that.
O: You've been a champion of interesting music, taking bands like The Frogs and Mudhoney out on tour with Pearl Jam. What's exciting you right now?
EV: Sleater-Kinney just made a great record. I'm still listening to the Fugazi record they put out a year ago. The new Sonic Youth record. A guy that works with Sonic Youth named Jim O'Rourke—he's got a whole catalog that I've been getting into really deeply. He's really something else, amazing. Wilco, who Jim's got some involvement with. I've been listening to Cat Power for a number of years now, and I think she's gonna come out with a new one next year… I just got [Chris] Cornell's new record, Audioslave, and that's gonna be pretty powerful.
O: Is there anybody you're interested in collaborating with outside of Pearl Jam?
EV: Actually, Cat Power, I added a couple of things to her record. We actually got in a room and sang together, and that was one of the highlights of last year—or was it this year? This year, I think. It might be under a pseudonym, though. That might be a secret. [Laughs.] Beck and I did an Everly Brothers song at a recording artists' coalition-type gathering in Los Angeles. It's fun singing with other people who are really good singers. There's something kind of poignant about braiding a couple vocals.
O: Not to open old wounds, but Kurt Cobain's diaries are in the process of being published. What do you think of the idea of their publication in general, and specifically the bits that slam Pearl Jam?
EV: We were the corporate representative of Seattle, or something like that? I think that with whatever information he had at the time, however he and some of his peers were viewing our group at the time, I think we've probably made any of those arguments or criticisms a moot point at this stage of the game. I probably could relate to suspicion coming out of his brain at that time. It was a weird time, and there was a lot of opportunism going on around the record industry, and what they could suck out of Seattle. We were all very sensitive to that stuff at the time, and if it manifested itself for him being directed at us, I can kind of understand it.
O: What do you think about the publication of something like that in general? On one hand, you'd probably want to read something like Bob Dylan's or Jim Morrison's diary, but Kurt Cobain's seems awfully close.
EV: I've gotten to spend time with Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, and I've listened to their bands since, but as far as the Nirvana records, I've had a hard time even listening to them, because it still reminds me of a very traumatic episode. I'm still not comfortable with the reality of how that all went down. I hate to even comment on it, because Krist and Dave and his other close friends probably have more to say about it. But just me personally, I've just had a hard time with it. It always comes back to just, "What a shame." At the same time, I've only felt in the past few years that there's no blame in those kind of situations. I used to kind of blame someone for not being able to get through that—I'm talking about the addiction part—but I've had a few experiences recently where you don't blame the person anymore. It could happen to anybody.