It's hard to imagine Pearl Jam — who have sold more than 35 million albums in the U.S. alone — playing an in-store for 200 people. But that's exactly what the group did on April 29 at Seattle's Easy Street Records.
Playing the quick gig provided the hoops-loving lads a brief respite from the recording studio. Bassist Jeff Ament says the band's eighth studio album, which frontman Eddie Vedder hasn't gotten around to naming yet, is about halfway finished and could see release this fall "if we can finish [it] in June." Ament says they've been working on the material — the first new batch of Pearl Jam songs since 2002's Riot Act — in "three separate three-week chunks" since February with producer Adam Kasper (Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters).
The long recording lull hasn't hurt Pearl Jam, Ament said, because playing with the band is "kind of like riding a bike at this point." In fact, for the first time since the sessions for 1993's Vs., the always-behatted bassist said Pearl Jam have been collaborating on the material, rather than coming into the process with the songs already written.
"We came together kind of with the idea of not bringing any complete songs initially, and just coming in with riffs and trying to write a bunch of stuff together," Ament explained. "We probably ended up writing 10 things as a band, like full-on collaborations with everybody in the room. It feels great. The collaborated songs somehow, to me, feel better — I think just because everybody had a little say, and everybody kind of got a little piece of their personality in it. It makes us feel like a band."
Which, Ament admits, had become something of a problem for Pearl Jam. But, like any relationship, the situation has improved as the band members — Ament, Vedder, drummer Matt Cameron and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready — have worked at improving it.
"In the last few years, we've learned how to communicate with each other better. And in the process, we've learned to trust one another and become friends," Ament said. "It's a great thing to be able to just go into a room with four other guys and be able to make music easily. It's typically easier to make music with one or two other people, or if you're playing in a situation where there's a real bandleader or single songwriter who's coming in with all the ideas and you just play. But I think in making a real band work, it feels like we kind of got through that rough patch, and it's that tired analogy of getting married and having the honeymoon and then going through the rough patch, and then going to therapy and coming out of it feeling you know each other better than ever. And the sex is better than ever! It feels a little like that.
"It's the classic thing: learning how to speak so that the other person or people listen, and on the other end of that, learning how to listen. It's pretty powerful stuff when you break through," he continued. "It's like you can't believe you've been missing that part of that person for that long when you finally understand the language that they're speaking. And then it makes it easier. You can be there when the person needs you, and you start to understand the way people react to things, and it makes it a lot easier to be in a band and run a business. Consequently, it makes it easier to be friends."
So far, the band's written a total of 25 songs, but the final track listing will have around a dozen songs — and the decision about which tracks make the final cut largely rests with "Ed, because he's writing 95 percent of the lyrics," Ament said. But the bassist did reveal some potential song names: "Marker," "Crapshoot Rapture," "Worldwide Suicide," "Cold Concession," "2X4" and "Severed Hand."
Ament singled out two other tracks as his current favorites. "One is called 'Of the Earth,' that's a song Ed wrote that is kind of a cross between early Peter Gabriel/ Genesis and Sleater-Kinney with, like, the Who's Live at Leeds or something. There's also a song that Stone brought in that Ed wrote some great lyrics to [a song] called 'Parachutes.' That's probably one of my favorite pieces of music that Stone has written in a long time. It's got a beautiful melody."
As for the focus of Vedder's lyrical direction, or whether the album would convey any specific themes, Ament wasn't so sure.
"There's some imagery that makes me think that he's talking about the state of the union, but he's so good with words that sometimes I think it could actually end up being about a friend of his or a relationship that he's witnessed," he said. "He's so sensitive to so many different things that he can pull things out of some pretty interesting places and combine them with politics or religion or whatever. I think there's a lot of nature involved in the stuff — that's the thing that I relate to the most, the imagery around nature and wanting to keep it intact."
Ament says it's likely the band will launch a U.S. tour after the album is released through PJ's new home, J Records, in the fall. But at this stage, it's still too early to tell when Pearl Jam might turn this latest opus in. The band has lined up a 15-city Canadian tour, which is set to begin on September 2 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and run through September 24 in St. John's, Newfoundland. And there's also that little gig they'll be playing on September 28 in Pittsburgh, opening for the Rolling Stones (see "Black Eyed Peas, Maroon 5, Pearl Jam Join Rolling Stones Tour").
"It could be their last tour, and they treated us really great the last time we played with them," Ament said. "I think Mike and Stone are really huge fans, so it makes it especially fun to watch those guys when they're hanging out with Keith and Ronnie."