Jeff Ament (©Karen Loria)
Pearl Jam's bassist talks about teaming up with Joseph Arthur, breaking rock 'n' roll rules and the future of Pearl Jam
By Travis Hay
Special to MSN Music
He's released three albums in the past 36 months, including a solo record and a record with Tres Mts. The latter was 10 years in the making due to Ament's commitments to Pearl Jam, but it didn't take nearly that long for Ament to record an album with his latest side project, RNDM (pronounced "random").
The band is a power trio which features Joseph Arthur, an accomplished singer-songwriter, who, along with Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison make up Fistful of Mercy, and Ament's Tres Mts. collaborator Richard Stuverud. Earlier this week the group released its debut record, "Acts," which was put together during a four-day session at Ament's home in Montana.
"The three of us had still only been in the same room together for seven days during the whole course of this, so it's still a pretty honeymoon feeling. Most of it has been Joe and I sending texts back and forth," Ament said, describing RNDM and their time in the studio.
Ament said the newness of the group and their relatively quick recording process helped the fledgling band's creative flow.
"I think sometimes when you take that little bit of pressure away from a situation it really frees you up because there isn't really anything there. There are no expectations. There's nobody at the other end saying 'Hey, when's the record going to be done? Is it good enough to stand up to the rest of your catalog?' I think sometimes that freedom can make it better because there's no fear involved with any of it. With Pearl Jam we have certain expectations with ourselves. We don't want to do anything half-assed. You kind of want to your best foot forward."
MSN Music caught up with Ament before RNDM started a month-long tour in support of "Acts" and he talked about the band's origins, its peculiar color scheme and Pearl Jam's future plans.
MSN Music: Is the band's name any indication of how the three of you got together? Is there any meaning behind RNDM?
Jeff Ament: For me, I'm really visual, so if somebody says something I sort of visualize the word, and Joe was telling us this crazy story. Some artist friend of his was telling him that he had to go to his neighbor's house because there was something he had to see. So he went over to the house and he had this whole room full of gongs. And he goes, 'Yeah, there were random gongs everywhere.' And I was like 'Man, that's a band name, Random Gongs.' So that was kind of the working title for the project for three or four days. We actually even wrote an instrumental track called "Theme from Random Gong."
That's kind of the way the whole project went. We were constantly spewing stuff back and forth between one another. But then as time went on I was like 'the gong is kind of wearing off on me, but I like random.' And then to kind of contemporize it we pulled vowels out of it and that's the name.
I read that you guys had a four-day recording process. That sounds pretty intense.
You know, there really wasn't any plan for there to be a record or for this to be a band. If I had anything in the back of my head, I was thinking maybe we'd release a seven-inch, or a four-song EP, and it would be this weird little thing we threw out there. But after the first day we had six or seven things down already and then we started talking as if we were a band. & We all thought we probably had a record, but we weren't thinking about being a band. But then after sitting with the record for a couple of weeks it was like, these songs would be fun to play live. They're all pretty straightforward and most of it kind of rocks, so after a few dozen texts back and forth we kind of turned it into a real thing.
Was it difficult to get Joseph to turn things up a bit? He's more of a quiet singer-songwriter on his solo material and RNDM is a rocking power trio.
The song that he put vocals on for my last solo record, "When the Fire Comes," sort of started this whole thing. The conversation we had at PJ 20, when we played the song, he said it was really fun to work on that song because it is a little more up-tempo than what he is used to doing. ... That was probably the one premeditated idea we had about the band; that we wanted it to rock a little more than some of the stuff that he would normally do.
You mentioned that you're a very visual person. Tell me about the orange color scheme with RNDM.
I think the orange thing initiated from my drum kit in Montana. It's a florescent orange and one of the tracks was called "Orange Drum in the Forest" or something like that; I can't remember what it was called right now. And so over the course of these texts Joe and I would send back and forth, it got to the point where it was like, 'OK, having been in the music industry for 30 years, you see bands where everybody has an opinion on different things. You always witness somebody in the band doing something where you're like, you should never do that. What that guy is doing right now should be against whatever is in this book of unwritten rock rules.' So we started talking about all of this stuff and we thought that this band should be all about breaking all the rock rules we've created over our crusty 30 years of being in bands. Let's do some things we never would do in our respective bands and careers.
Then we just started pushing ourselves to do these things. Let's shave our heads. Let's all dress up in orange jumpsuits. Let's wear suits. I've always been an anti-suit guy. So it sort of became this thing where we were daring each other to do things that we never would do. That just ended up making the whole process super fun and edgy.
The various members of Pearl Jam have all these side projects: Ed is touring solo, Mike is working on a Mad Season release, Stone has Brad and Matt is obviously busy with Soundgarden. Are these side projects a key to Pearl Jam's longevity?
I don't know if it's key. I think it's one of the fringe benefits of being in the band. That's how I met Joseph, and how I met Dug Pinnick was because I was in Pearl Jam. I got to become friends with these people, and the fact that I can do something like call up Joe and ask if he wants to do some recording, that's really awesome. It's how I would imagine it would be if you were Kevin Durant. He can call up LeBron James and say, 'hey do you want to work out this summer? ' It's sort of the same for me. I can call up these guys who are some of my favorite musicians and artists and we can collaborate and have fun and learn a ton in the process.
What are Pearl Jam's plans for 2013?
There really are no plans right now. We have a few shows in South America on the calendar and that's about it. I think that's kind of by design. I think the idea is that everybody takes the holidays off and then at some point somebody will pick up the phone, maybe late January or early February, and that will kind of start the (recording) process over again.
People want to know what's going on with the next record, and I think everybody has sort of talked about it, but it still really isn't anything. We still don't really know exactly when we will finish it, so it's hard to talk about it. It really could be anything at this point. Even though we have seven or eight songs recorded, it's still sort of a blank slate and that's exciting.
I don't think there's any doubt we're going to make a record, but when that's going to be, and when everybody is ready to do it, well that's another story. And there's no pressure. So if at any point the guys called up and said 'Hey, we're ready to do this,' I'd have no problem dropping everything because that's my first love. I'm going to do whatever works for everyone else.
That lack of pressure has to be a nice byproduct of being an independent band now, and being able to call your own shots when it comes to recording and releasing an album.
I think just as long as we create deadlines for ourselves. I think, well, we've all witnessed how that turned out for Axl Rose. ... You know how it is when you write. You can always rewrite everything. You can make it better, or different, or more unique. Every day you're going to improve as a writer and your take on things might be different. At some point you just have to let go and move on to the next thing. That's always the tricky part of being in a band. When is it good enough? When is there too much paint on the canvas and when isn't there too much paint on the canvas? That's always a tricky balance.
So right now it's sort of like a blank canvas with only a sketch?
Yeah it really is. There is some stuff that's pretty well finished and sounds good right now, but who knows if that stuff is going to end up on the next record. We may get together this spring and come up 15 things that are better than that, and that's the new record. As long as around the first of the year we have some studio time booked and we're focus on a new batch of songs, that's the fun part of being in Pearl Jam: Just being in a room with those guys and watching a riff turn into a song.
How does Pearl Jam tread the line between being a relevant band and not a nostalgia band?
I think the reason we've never become a nostalgia band is because we've never gone three years or so without making a record. It's been a little more than three years since we released a record this time around, but we've been in the studio four times since, and we have a huge bunch of new ideas and songs. I think that as long as every six to nine months we go in the studio and write some new music, that keeps us out of the nostalgia conversation.
There are plenty of bands out there that haven't made a record in 10 years or 15 years and are still out there touring, telling people that they've been a band for 20 years. But I don't know if that constitutes being a band for 20 years if you've only released three records. And that's fine. There are plenty of bands that don't make records very often that I will go see at the drop of a hat. Our influences in terms of that stuff are guys like Neil Young and Bob Dylan; guys that are changing things up and making relevant music and changing things up. "Le Noise" by Neil Young is one of the greatest left turns ever. Seeing someone in their mid-sixties making relevant music is pretty inspiring. That's what I'd like to see happen with Pearl Jam.