An Interview with Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam

Feature Image credit: Jim Bennett


By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

In the world of alternative rock, or “grunge,” as it’s often called, guitarist Stone Gossard, and his band, Pearl Jam, are titans who are in 2022, standing up top the mountain as lone-wolf survivors of thirty-two years of rock ‘n’ roll volatility.

While Pearl Jam might be Gossard’s proverbial feather in his cap, his journey did not begin there. Ten years before the formation of the era-defining band, the six-string hero cut his teeth in various Seattle-based outfits, culminating with his indoctrination into seminal and highly influential “pre-grunge” bands Green River and Mother Love Bone.

With an established musical vision in hand, Gossard and his cohorts formed Pearl Jam and, within a year, took the rock world by storm with Ten, an album which, along with a few others, ushered in an entirely new era of rock music, leaving all that came before it in its wake.

In the decades since, Gossard’s inventive, primal, and boundless approach to the guitar has expanded his listener’s minds not only with Pearl Jam but also with his other musical outlet, the Painted Shield. If you’re looking for something outside the veteran rocker’s established norm, give Painted Shield a try.

When it comes to Gossard, his style is bred through ideas greater than the sum of their parts; still, the Painted Shield offers a new flavor to an already established group of musicians’ musical pallet. If that interests you, soak up the sounds that Stone Gossard, folksinger Mason Jennings, soul innovator Brittany Davis, and iconic drummer Matt Chamberlain have to offer.

Consistently hard at work, Gossard and his Pearl Jam bandmates Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, and Matt Cameron are also finding time amongst a busy touring schedule to record their follow-up to 2020’s Gigaton.

“We’re going to do some more touring next year in the States, said Gossard. “And we’re going to keep recording music. We’ve got some songs recorded that we’re going to put out at some point. I don’t know when but we’ve got to finish those, and beyond that, it’s just business as usual.”

During a break from the road, Gossard recently dialed in via phone to discuss all things Pearl Jam, his take on the demise of hard rock and heavy metal, and much more.

Andrew:
Obviously, you’re in a sort of delayed support cycle for Gigaton. What sort of feedback is the band receiving on the road?

Stone:
Well, it’s really been amazing, actually, because we haven’t played in so long. And I think there was a moment there where we were all convinced that this thing was never going to change back to where we were. We were hoping and waiting to get back to doing what we used to do, you know, playing in arenas and having these joyous musical nights. So, we’ve managed to string a bunch of shows together now, and the band’s playing really well and is really together musically. We’re back to a point where there’s a lot of harmony in the band. We’re playing a lot of old songs, playing some new stuff, and mixing up the setlist. It’s really been a joy, and honestly, it’s as much fun as I’ve had on tour in a long time. And it’s really good to be back in Europe; it’s just so great to be in front of an international crowd because they can just be so amazing. You know, when you see flags from all over the world, so many different faces, and a lot of young people coming out and seeing the shows, all of us have just been kind of pinching ourselves going, “Wow, this is hard to believe that this is still happening.”

Andrew:
What are some of the most significant differences between playing Europe and the US?

Stone:
You know, I think Ed [Vedder] will try to communicate with the crowd every night, like, we’ll do some translations and make a really valid effort to kind of be in the zone of the country in terms of language. And I think that that’s probably a challenge for him, and he has put a lot of energy into that in order to make that work. So, I think that just from a communication standpoint, traveling in all of these foreign countries is something where you’re not quite sure how you’re going to walk around and do simple things like getting dinner, you know? Those are the things that can be a real challenge, but in general, we’re well taken care of all over the place, and I’d say that we’ve got it pretty good on the road for sure.

Andrew:
If my memory serves, Pearl Jam’s first show in nearly three years was in September of 2021. What emotions were you feeling during those first few moments of stepping back onto the stage?

Stone:
It’s hard to explain, but I’d say mostly nervousness. I mean, we rehearsed a handful of times, and honestly, we’re not known for a very rigorous rehearsal schedule. [Laughs]. So, we were basically stepping out there and kind of hoping for some magic. Luckily, we started playing pretty good right away, but I’d say that in the last five or ten shows, all of a sudden, it’s like now we’re kind of hitting our natural stride even more. It’s so fun to feel that confidence of just stepping out there and knowing that you’re firing on all cylinders. So, that first show, it was nervousness for sure, but mostly just joy and some anxiety. You know, it’s an anxious time, and there’s plenty to be nervous about with large crowds and COVID because it’s still there. Sure, there’s probably some anxiety, but really, particularly when you step out there, and people’s faces are showing that sense of joy and excitement. So, for us, here in the band up on stage, it’s hard to feel anything but joy when you see that looking back at you.

Image credit: Dan Clinch

Andrew:
Throughout
this tour, Pearl Jam has faced some adversity. You were without Matt Cameron for a while, which hasn’t happened in a long time. How has the band adapted to those challenges?

Stone:
Well, obviously, the protocols are in place, but we did lose Matt for a while there, and also, we’ve had to integrate Josh [Klinghoffer] in as a multi-instrumentalist, too, I suppose. Honestly, missing Matt was a big challenge for us. I think that we improvised in a very Pearl Jam way by just sort of thinking, “Well, you know, Josh can play some drums. Let’s let him play a few songs, and then Rich [Stuverud] can play some too.” Rich is a friend and drummer who has helped us out before. He lives in Oakland, CA, and we were going to be in Oakland, so we figured, “Let’s have Rich come down, and he can play some songs.” And it was kind of fun for a couple of shows to kind of go, “Well, we’re just going to do what we can, and we’re going to kind of wing it and keep it in the family.” But, you know, after a few shows, I think we were like, “Okay, this is hard work.” [Laughs]. We’re so thankful for Matt’s musical presence because it is so baked into what we’re doing right now and has been for a very long time. Man, it was a real challenge to do and was kind of an adventure, almost like camping or something. [Laughs]. In a way, it can be a fun thing to discover new things about the songs because with a new drummer you learn you learn different things about these songs. At the same time, Matt is playing so well right now, and he’s just been driving the band and sitting back so nicely. It’s so great to play with him.

Andrew:
And you’ve got Josh Klinghoffer touring with the band now as well? What has he brought to the table?

Stone:
Josh has such a great voice, and he’s singing so many harmony parts that have been ignored for a long time. Matt can sing pretty good, and me, Jeff [Ament], and Mike [McCready] can kind of throw up a background every once in a while too. But Ed writes pretty intricate, complex, and extremely challenging background vocal parts, so if you don’t really sing, you’re not going to be able to just wing it. So, for us, to have Josh singing all these parts from these old songs, and the new ones too, while also playing these keyboard parts that we have been missing, it’s incredible. It’s funny because Josh is a Pearl Jam fan from way back, so he sort of knows our material better than we do, which is kind of hilarious. It’s just a joy to be around him, and he’s an amazing and personable guy too. Really, he’s a musical genius who has a lot of deep harmonic knowledge and a tremendous understanding of music. And so, Josh is really informing the band and making us so much better, but he’s also a brother and really somebody who is fun to tour with. So, being out with him, it’s just been nothing but a joy, and I think we probably sound better than ever, and a lot of that is Josh adding back in some parts that have been ignored for a while.

Andrew:
How have you gone about integrating the new material alongside the old?

Stone:
We’re playing maybe three or four songs from Gigaton every night. We’re switching that up, though, so there are some songs that we are playing a lot and a few that we haven’t played very much, but we’re working Gigaton songs into the set every night alongside the classics for sure.

Andrew:
Gigaton serves as Pearl Jam’s first album in seven years. What is the biggest progression from 2013’s Lighting Bolt?

Stone:
Well, Gigaton is a record that we made by ourselves. We made it by ourselves with Josh Evans, who’s an engineer that has worked with us back in Seattle. So, it was a lot more homemade in terms of everybody making demos and then compiling those afterward. And then, in the end, Ed was taking this big pile of material, and he began honing it down. I think that Gigaton is a record that we really took on as a personal challenge to kind of see if we could do it ourselves. And it was a good growing experience also because everybody did something that they didn’t expect to do or had songs that ended up on the record that represented a new plateau or something new for them. So, it was a great experience.

Andrew:
When you first joined Pearl Jam, how did your time with Mother Love Bone and Green River prepare you for what was to come?

Stone:
Well, you know, I think being in bands just offers you the experience of working with folks and honing your skill set, whatever that may be. I think just the general experience of being in bands and having recorded a few times, you know, that helped me too. That said, I still feel like I’m learning and discovering new things all the time. When it comes to playing music with other people, writing songs, how to be good within a song, how to be yourself, and how to play a role, I think I’m still learning. When it comes to collaborative songwriting, that’s just an ongoing process, and I think I’ve been learning from the time I started playing guitar, and I’ve never stopped. So, I don’t really know that I have got any specific sort of things that I necessarily learned in Green River and Mother Love Bone per se.

Then again, as far as the studio, those bands did give me recording experience and showed me how to calm myself as I record and how to identify riffs that have some meaning. For me, really listening back after I record is important because I need to get everything down and then give myself some time to go back. When I go back, that’s when I’ll see what sounds catch my ear from a listener’s perspective, as opposed to when I’m playing it. When it comes to songwriting and being in a band, to me, it’s much more about subtraction than it’s ever been in terms of why and how a part of a song makes sense. It’s also about what you can do to help elevate a song, and it’s usually the simplest thing, you know? It really is the simplest thing sometimes because when you take something away, that makes room for something else or something new to be there. So, it’s trying to find those moments and arrangements that open up to ideas that you might not have thought of otherwise. Those are the things that I think about a lot these days, and those are the things that I’ve been learning since I was in those earlier bands.

Image courtesy of Missing Piece Group/Getty Images

Andrew:
The 30th anniversary of Pearl Jam’s sophomore album, Vs, is coming up fast. As we know, Ten was an immense success. What sort of pressure did the band feel as it entered the studio to record the follow-up?

Stone:
I don’t think we are thinking about it. We had been writing songs, and we felt that they were good. Jeff and I had been writing songs in bands for ten years at that point, so we just knew that we wanted to record and everybody was excited about that. We didn’t think about it that way, really. Vs was the first record we had made with Brendan O’Brien, who was, as you know, a huge and impactful personality for us in terms of making records in a specific way that was very much a faster process. You know, Brendan, he liked to move quickly, and he didn’t take anything too seriously, and that was a really important thing for us at that time. I think there are a lot of people who record that end up spending a lot of time mired in the details of the recording, and those details a lot of times don’t really mean anything to the end result. But Brendan, he was a big picture guy; he got great sounds out of us, he was quick, he liked us, and he didn’t overthink what we were doing. We had ten or fifteen arrangements going in, and we had a twelve-song record coming out. It wasn’t like he had us write fifteen more songs or anything like that; that’s not where we were. I remember it as very much an extension of what we had been doing, and there wasn’t a lot of hemming and hawing going into it. If anything, Ten was already so big that I think, in a way, the pressure was off because we knew that we had more to do musically. We knew what we were writing, and we knew that we had good songs coming. If anything, we knew that we didn’t have to match Ten because we felt that we’d accomplished a lot of what we wanted to do already, so now, we could just concentrate on the music.

Andrew:
Yourself and Mike McCready form an incredible guitar tandem. How do you find balance?

Stone:
You know, with two guitars, or sometimes three guitars, you’ve got to find your spot. And sometimes, your spot is don’t add anything at all. [Laughs]. With Mike, we are very considerate to each other, and we really want to find the right ways to play together and to do it naturally. We also wanted to find ways to do it without it being cerebral, and honestly, I think we’re still figuring that out. Playing live helps because you sort of get that interplay, and you’re not overthinking it. Instead, you’re just sort of thinking about playing, and so you get to explore a lot in that world. Now, again, a lot of it is subtraction, where to double up, and where to play something different. I think that there are these musical questions that we’ll just keep asking ourselves over and over again, “What makes the song better? What sounds good? What is natural to you? What’s your voice? How do we mix our voices together?” To me, and I think for Mike, it’s fascinating, and it’s an amazing process to be involved with. We’re still like kids when we’re looking at it because we still have no idea what could happen. It might be that one of our parts could be something as simple as just banging on an opening through a section, and all of a sudden, it’s like the coolest thing in the world. It’s not about any sort of science, and it’s not about anything other than just a feel and an intuition about how to approach something. It’s as simple as hearing a melody and trusting that melody will count for something.

Andrew:
How would you describe your approach to the guitar, Stone, as opposed to Mike’s?

Stone:
I mean, they’re pretty different. I think, in general, I tend to look at my guitar as almost like a percussion instrument, you know what I mean? I’m pretty dedicated to the part, and I’m constantly thinking about my role in terms of the groove and the rhythm of the track. Once I lock that in, then I look for spots to offer support, and I’m looking for spots to make an impact. I think Mike, in general, he has a tendency to float more above the track. He has this ability to like lose his mind in these sorts of religious trances, where he can just explore and feel so comfortable. It’s these moments where he can free himself up to basically channel this creature that comes out in his lead playing, and that that doesn’t come naturally to me so much. So, Mike and I, we play different roles, but I think each of us can play the role of the other as well. Now, that’s more of a challenge for us both, though, because that’s where we step outside of our normal comfort zone.

Image credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Andrew:
There is a long-running narrative that grunge killed the career of many hard rock and heavy metal musicians. What’s your take on that?

Stone:
I think there’s always renewal in the world, and with that renewal comes new perspectives. And I think that hard rock was really stagnating at that point in a way that gave an opportunity to what I’ll call “less musically talented” musicians to say, “Hey, there’s another way to play rock songs. There’s another way to have songs that are heavy. And there’s another way to create chaos and energy from those songs that would be outside the normal color palette of a heavy metal song.” I mean, coming up, I listened to a lot of heavy metal. I listened to a lot of Motörhead. I listened to a lot of Iron Maiden. I listened to a lot of Merciful Fate. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin. I listened to all those New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands, and I was into it. This said, as a kid, I didn’t really know how to play like that, so I was just doing what sounded right to me. And I think that in the late ’80s, there was a very free attitude about art and music that was brewing in the wake of hard rock, and a lot of people were experimenting with sounds, and the bands formed from there. There was something about it that was fresh, that really captured people’s ears, and that had a huge effect on it all too. But you know, a lot of those heavy metal bands you’re talking about are still around, so clearly, they all didn’t die. Sure, a lot of them had to regroup, and yes, some did die, but that’s part of the life cycle, right? There are still a lot of fans out there who love hard rock, and I’m one of them. I love hard rock, and I always have, but renewal and rebirth are a part of art, I think.

Andrew:
In your opinion, is rock dead?

Stone:
I mean, who knows, and who cares? [Laughs]. Honestly, Pearl Jam is playing shows, and we’re having fun, so whatever it is that we’re doing, we’re having a good time, and our fans seem to be having a good time too. I love the open-endedness of rock music because there is no defining quality to rock music. It’s about multiple people playing music together, with whatever instruments it is that they choose to play. Whatever it is, if it’s anything that could be rock, I love it. I love bands. I love collaboration. To me, the frame of “rock music” can hold a lot of different pictures, and there are a lot of pictures that haven’t been made up yet in terms of how a band might sound together. With that, we don’t know what the instrumentation might be and why it would be heavy, but it could still be rock, but it might be different instruments that still that evoke that same heaviness that rock evokes, which is something that’s primal. I think that with rock, it’s something that’s honestly relative to the blues, which, again, is what we’re all sort of connecting to on a fundamental level, right? So, the blues has been around for a long time, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere. It’s just gonna keep changing shape.

Andrew:
Pearl Jam has more or less outlasted most of its contemporaries from the initial early 90s era. To what do you owe the band’s longevity?

Stone:
We didn’t break up. [Laughs]. It sounds silly, but it’s true. The other thing would be that we went into this with an idea about what we wanted to do, and we had goals. The goal, moreso, the idea, was that we wanted to be in a band that we were going to share with each other. We knew that we were all going to support each other because all of us were artists, we all wanted to write, and we all do that at different levels and in different ways. So, over the years, we stayed true to that, and I think that having that ideology built into our DNA as a band, I think that has carried us through periods of time where maybe we wouldn’t have lasted because we did give each other a break. Honestly, you can have years where you feel like, “I’m not quite sure anymore. This is not working in the way that I want it to.” And then, five years after that, you’re like, “Man, you know what? This is great. I’m so glad I stuck around.”

The thing is, in order to get that perspective, it takes a lot of perseverance, and it takes a lot of stubborn competitiveness. You have got to believe in yourself even when you know you’re not playing your best, or you don’t feel like you’re being supported, or whatever. All of us have had those moments in this band where it wasn’t quite right, but like a family, you stick it out with each other, and you work on it a little bit every day. For us, the ideals of what we set out to do are still paying off for us now. The only difference is that now, we’re just a bunch of fucking old guys who feel so fortunate and so lucky to be with each other still. We feel lucky to have a bunch of songs that we’re still learning how to play in new ways. Beyond that, we have a bunch of songs that we’ve hardly ever played, and those might end up being the ones we want to play a lot on the next tour. We’ve got hundreds of songs and covers that we play, and it’s just a really amazing thing to be able to go out and do that. Still, I think all of us just feel like, “Wow, how did this happen? This is amazing.”

Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at andrew@vinylwriter.com

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