Q&A: Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard On Songwriting, Making Setlists, And Lightning Bolt
There’s a good chance Stone Gossard doesn’t entirely get the credit he deserves. He’s probably best known for his role as rhythm guitarist of Pearl Jam, but such a distinction overlooks the length and complexity of the guy’s resume. It dates back much further than Pearl Jam, to Mother Love Bone, and to Green River before that, a band sometimes credited with inventing grunge. Even within the context of Pearl Jam itself, with such a visible frontman as Eddie Vedder, it’s all too easy to underestimate Gossard’s influence. For a while, he was one of their primary songwriters, helping craft that early distinctive Pearl Jam sound. As the band has grown more democratic over the years, Gossard’s remained a steady contributor of some of the band’s most beloved material. Talking to him now, he comes off as a matter-of-fact architect, calmly certain of what his band’s been good at, and what he wants to hear when working on music. This week marks not only the release of Pearl Jam’s new album Lightning Bolt (check out our Premature Evaluation of that record here), but also the 20th anniversary of their sophomore album Vs. We talked with Gossard about Pearl Jam’s new music and tour, and a little bit about where the band’s been and where he’d like to see it go.
STEREOGUM: At first I was kind of thinking, “It’s been four years since Backspacer, I wonder what Stone’s been up to, or what the band’s been up to,” and then I realized you guys toured extensively in support of that, and then you released two Brad albums, did all the Pearl Jam 20th anniversary stuff, then released a solo album this year before Lightning Bolt. Are you exhausted?
STONE GOSSARD: [Laughs] I’m good. All that sounds like a lot, and it kind of is, but it’s also not that much. Records are only really fifty minutes of music, and you could make them in fifty minutes if you wanted to. Not writing, but you could make them quicker, and I think a lot of that’s concentrated work over a few weeks, and then lots of time off in between. For the Brad record, we probably worked on it quite a bit over a nine month period, but maybe it was going in for a weekend every other week and recording a couple of songs or something like that. If you’re doing that, and picking your kids up after school, and going to the PTA meetings, and maybe taking a little break in there every once and a while, it all works out. I’m glad—you’re the first person to say “You actually did do a bunch of stuff.” Usually people say, “Well, why four years?” and partly “why four years” is that we’ve never done it before. It’s always been a little bit the band that races towards the next project as soon as they’ve finished the last, because we still can’t believe we’re able to do this and succeeding at it, and I think we’re all pretty driven in terms of loving music and wanting to do the next thing and prove ourselves still, whether individually or as a band. And so, I think it’s pretty easy for us to jump up and be “OK, let’s keep going.” I think it’s actually been a little bit of a blessing that we were like, “OK, everything’s OK. We’ve got this.” And we’re 48 years old, 50 years old. It’s time that we can take a little bit of time, and I think the albums benefit from us taking that time as well.
STEREOGUM: You wrote something like 150 songs for what became Moonlander and then of course for the stuff you’re contributing to Pearl Jam as well. Some prolific musicians—like Damon Albarn, for example—keep office hours in a studio or some space away from home. Do you have a routine or ritual you go back to like that? Or is it something you just do whenever it strikes during the day?
STONE GOSSARD: I do a lot of writing at home with the guitar and that’s just when you get fifteen minutes or everybody leaves the house or you have too many cups of coffee and you just go up to your little room and you play for a while. I’ll record to my iPhone, and after I get a handful of those I have a studio that I’m able to use and I’ll book time with my favorite engineer. I can go in there and re-demo the demos to get them at least up to speed, get them recorded someplace other than just my phone. You flesh them out a little bit, add some instrumentation to them, and see what they can be. They’ll just sit on a hard drive until either it’s time to pull demos out for Pearl Jam, or I go through them all and say, “Pearl Jam heard this one and didn’t like it. I’ll take this one back.” [Laughs] I’ll do a record of music or I’ll try to get someone else interested in one of the songs. I like songwriting. It’s fun, and it’s fun to complete things. So, to do that, you’ve gotta have a little bit of a work ethic. You’ve gotta be committed to going back in there and taking something you kind of wrote six months ago and re-listening to it, re-learning it, and figuring out what’s the next step. But that’s fun. It’s like going to an art studio and just making something up. I think when you’re working on your own compositions you’re always motivated and you’re always excited about it. I’ve worked with a lot of people that are writing songs, and if you’re the guy with the song and you’re coming in with it and presenting it, it’s exciting. It’s an exciting time. You’re basically giving birth to your artistic child. And you think it’s perfect, and it’s not. But it might be!
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about Lightning Bolt. This is the first new album Pearl Jam has released since the 20th anniversary, and it’s also your tenth studio album. What were you guys thinking about going into that? Did you feel like it needed to be a statement album for the band in any way?
STONE GOSSARD: I think each time we go into making a record, we go into it basically thinking we’re about to make our best record. That’s just the nature of how we work. I don’t think we do make the best record we’ve ever made every time, but we certainly go into it with that ambition. It’s just a real natural state for us to be in. Wanting to be better. Other than that, we never have any meetings about “OK, here’s what this record’s going to be all about.” Not to say that that’s a bad thing to do. I think setting goals or talking about what we all work on might be helpful, but we just never wind up having those meetings. What we end up doing is somebody says, “Well, we booked some time in January to get some ideas down,” and everyone takes their demos that they’ve been working on for the last, whatever, two or three years, and shows up at the studio. We’ll start with somebody, and we’ll move through the list. “Jeff, what d’you got?” He’ll pull out his favorite baby, and we’ll do a new version of that, and we’ll listen to the old version, and set it aside. And we’ll do a Mike song, or my song, and Ed will come in with a couple, and we’ll just kind of go through the list of everyone in the band, and everyone can present something. We’ll do that three or four times and it doesn’t take long before you have a list of 20 or 30 things…you know, a version you’ve done yourself plus a new version the band has done, and then those go and sit in the closet for six months. Everybody listens to them and goes “Oh, that’s my favorite.” “I don’t like that one.” “That one could be better.” “I wish I could re-do this one.” We have another studio session, and we either go back in and do some new stuff, or we re-do a couple of things, and pretty soon Brendan [O'Brien, the band's frequent producer] is like, “OK, let’s do it,” and we start presenting songs we like, and he gives his two bits. It’s a normal process. We don’t get to that point of “What kind of record is this?” until the record’s done. Something happened with this one a little bit differently. We did one of those sessions with Brendan and we went down and recorded six or seven songs. We felt at that time that we were almost done with the record and we just needed a couple more. I think when we got home we listened to those songs and I think, in general, it was a little down-tempo and a little bit…it felt a little bit like the first batch of songs. There was some really great stuff in there, it just didn’t feel strong enough for a record. Basically what we did was two complete processes of doing the demos and then coming back. We stretched it out a bit more in terms of the length of time, but really it was only about six weeks of recording. We did that twice with this record. We did a session, and then a year, or a year and a half later, we did another session. It was the best of both those sessions that became Lightning Bolt.
STEREOGUM: What stuff dates back to the first session?
STONE GOSSARD: “Sirens.” “Infallible.” “Getaway.” I think “Pendulum” is maybe a song that was actually recorded for the Backspacer session. That’s probably the oldest song on the record. The new ones we recorded were “Mind Your Manners,” “Lightning Bolt,” Let the Records Play,” “Yellow Moon.” “My Father’s Son” is a new one, too. “Swallowed Whole.” I think it benefitted us, that wait.
STEREOGUM: Which songs started out as your compositions?
STONE GOSSARD: “Let the Records Play” is the main song that I brought to the record. I co-wrote “Pendulum” and “Infallible.” I didn’t write as much on this record as maybe I would’ve liked to. I mean, I always want to write more. I ended up playing a lot of the color parts. When you don’t write the song, you get to add a part on top of it, and a lot of times that part floats above everything else. It’s up there with the vocal. I ended up writing some parts I’m really proud of. The atmospheric guitar on “Sirens,” a lot of that is me. Same thing with “My Father’s Son.” What you’d normally expect to be Mike McCready’s part is actually switched out. It’s kind of cool that even though I didn’t write as much on this record I ended up really feeling proud of my contribution because it’s new guitar territory for me.
STEREOGUM: Since you mentioned “Infallible,” what is making that sound that it’s built around? Is that an organ, or some heavily processed guitar?
STONE GOSSARD: There’s a percussion thing going on in there. I can’t remember what it’s called but it’s this little electronic percussion creator that’s run through a whole bunch of effects and it’s just sort of a little syncopated ear candy that Brendan helped create as the bed of that track.
STEREOGUM: It’s one of the coolest sounds on the record.
STONE GOSSARD: It’s probably the most production we’ve ever had. It’s a pretty electronic kind of thing, although I think it still sounds pretty organic, overall. It’s this percussion thing but it’s run through so many effects that it almost does sound like a guitar or some sort of organ. It’s been manipulated enough it doesn’t quite sound like a machine, but it has that relentless, counter-punctual thing going on.
STEREOGUM: I know this has probably been the case for a long time, but compared to the ’90s you guys seemed much more comfortable with the idea of being a big band during Backspacer, between the Target tie-in and the poppiness of songs like “The Fixer.” Lightning Bolt isn’t quite as slick, but still has a bit of that. In general, these albums sound like the band’s having more fun. There’s a similar hint of contentment on them, but Lightning Bolt does feel like it’s moving away from the brightness of Backspacer a bit. Was that a conscious effort?
STONE GOSSARD: I’m sure there was some sort of unconscious effort to not create Backspacer 2. We wouldn’t have even needed to talk about that. We know that if we were trying to write another “The Fixer,” we would be wasting our time. I think there’s a maturity that’s continuing to give the band this sense of inhabiting themselves. The band is more comfortable in its skin than it’s ever been. I think we do enjoy each other more. I think we’re more comfortable in the process than we have been in the past. I think we’re also more comfortable with the idea of the uncomfortable records we’ve made and what was cool about them. So maybe there was a slight return to some of the more sort of peculiar things we did, say, between No Code and Binaural. Some of those records in that period of time, we were searching a bit, and we were still figuring out what kind of band…We knew what kind of band we could be from the first three records, but then what kind of other band could we be? And that sort of exploration sometimes works and sometimes maybe didn’t work as well. We’re so thankful that we took that path, because even on the songs that didn’t work as well, we do go back to that territory and it just opens up more possibilities. Our listeners, our fans, are people that are ready to go with us on an experiment that maybe doesn’t quite work but still they can see the possibilities of it and maybe that song ends up being a favorite because once we start playing it we do figure it out. It does become something that, you know, has a real meaning. I think we’re continuing on that path. It’s the variety that we all love, and the quiet songs and the fast songs are both really important. I think that Lightning Bolt, to me, is a better record [than Backspacer]. I think the songwriting is a little more sussed out, I think the arrangements are a little tighter. I think it’s going to be a better record live, that we’re going to be able to play more of the material and really translate.
STEREOGUM: More so than Backspacer?
STONE GOSSARD: I think so. We’ve played the songs more, it seems. It just seems like they’re simpler arrangements. Foundationally, they really work in a room with five guys playing the music, where Backspacer was good but there was a layering we did that…not all the sounds came across in the same way as they might have on the record. I don’t know whether it’s just because I’m excited about the new record more so than the old record, but I’m really feeling Lightning Bolt right now. I feel like I know all my parts and I’m ready to go out there and play it. I’m feeling confident about it.
STEREOGUM: I haven’t seen you guys since Lollapalooza in ’07.
STONE GOSSARD: In Chicago?
STEREOGUM: Yeah. You’ve always mixed up the setlists, but some real deep cuts were coming out then. “Leash” had recently made its reappearance. “Education” was played at Lollapalooza. I missed all the Backspacer dates, but it got really crazy then. I remember seeing “All Night” on a setlist. “No Way” came back. Even “Push Me, Pull Me.” Do you have any more surprises left for this upcoming tour? I don’t even know what deep cuts haven’t been touched at this point.
STONE GOSSARD: It would be premature for me to say, because we don’t make the setlist until we get together and start doing it, but my gut feeling is that we’re going to stretch it out even a little more on this tour. Maybe even have a few more slow cuts mixed in, and I’m sure we’ll be playing a deep track, at least one or two, each night. It’s so fun. Some of these songs, the reason they’re deep tracks is you record them and you go, “Oh, that’s cool, we’ll never going to be able to play that live,” or “I don’t know where that’s going to go in a set,” and you forget about it for five years and a fan or a person reminds you of this song and you go back and you listen to it and you go “Oh, I get it. I hear it. This is pretty cool, but I should’ve played it slightly differently, or I should’ve done this and it could’ve been better.” And then you get that chance to resurrect this thing that maybe you didn’t even really like that much at the time. That’s maybe the best thing about having all these songs. Some of the ones you thought “Oh, I wrote this song and nobody really liked it,” and then fifteen years later it’s like “Ah! It’s a fan favorite!” You end up having these revivals for these songs. I know the band really enjoys that. I know “All Night” is definitely one we enjoy playing.
STEREOGUM: I love that song. When I was getting into Pearl Jam, for some reason Lost Dogs was one of the first thing I bought, and I listened to that song constantly. That and “Undone,” early on.
STONE GOSSARD: Yeah, we’ve been doing that one as well. Look for both of those for sure on this next tour.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about some of the older songs you contributed over the years. I’ve always been a huge “In Hiding” fan. I remember in Single Video Theory you talked about how the band wasn’t feeling it, and you kept bringing it back and trying to get their attention with it. What was the process of getting that song finally in the band’s minds?
STONE GOSSARD: That’s a good question, and there’s been so many songs I’ve tried to get in the band’s minds since then [Laughs], so I don’t remember all the details of that one. I know that I wrote that song when we were on the road in Europe, on the previous tour. I believe I wrote the song in Germany or Switzerland. The beginnings of it was just that little guitar melody that’s in the verse and the outro. It’s another melodic, major-key rock song. It struck me. The melody sounded familiar but it didn’t sound like a complete rip-off. You want your riffs to evoke something for you, so it usually means you’ve heard some element of them before, but at the same time you reconfigure it in a way that makes it feel like it’s a new take on it. I think that song’s funny. We play it every once in a while, and we play it pretty good these days. It’s always been a little bit of a difficult song to play because it’s a lot of quiet guitars then loud guitars, and the quiet guitars kind of almost need to be loud to hear them, so it’s a dance of figuring out how to have these subtle parts and then really rock it out. For whatever reason, it’s not the easiest song to play. There are some finger moves in there that are a little difficult. It’s fun because a lot of people feel the same way as you. I hear about that song. It’s one of those ones the fans have really made more popular. I don’t think we would have played it as much, but because of how many people talk about it and ask for it and connect with it, it’s one that we’re coming back to more and more. I do like it. And thank you for liking it as well.
STEREOGUM: Some of the other old songs you wrote for No Code or something like “Of the Girl,” have an exotic nature to them. Between those contributions and some of your solo songs like “Your Flames” or “Haiti,” you’ve done a lot of stuff that has very different structures or arrangements than a typical Pearl Jam song. Have you wanted to inject a bit more of that side of your writing into Pearl Jam recently? Revisit the weirdness or genre detours?
STONE GOSSARD: That’s out there, for sure. All of us love when those convergences happen, where we strike some territory that feels good. In the last few years there’s been a little bit of a reaction to having done that more in the late ’90s, ’00s, that there was maybe a…not a conscious effort, but maybe a general feeling of wanting simplicity. Let simplicity be our master for a little bit and let’s really write songs that are fantastically wide open vehicles for Ed to just kind of dig into and have lots of room to move around. I think sometimes those Eastern-influenced kind of things can get a little overly complex. That’s something that I love, and I write in that sort of vein pretty easily. It’s something I’m looking forward to revisiting and inserting. I’m actually working on a song that has a little bit of that going on. I’m hoping the band will like it when I present songs in 2015.
STEREOGUM: I love that side of Pearl Jam.
STONE GOSSARD: For me, it comes from loving Jimmy Page. He just made up his own scales. It’s not a typical minor scale, it’s not a typical major scale. He’s picking notes that somehow sound good together. It’s a mash-up. Harmonically, someone would probably tell you it’s wrong if you were at music school. But yet, as a kid, those wrong things, I loved those. It clearly has some tension in it, but it doesn’t sound wrong. It sounds good.
STEREOGUM: What are some of the current bands out there that you’ve been into?
STONE GOSSARD: You know, more than bands, I’m reading books these days.
STEREOGUM: What are you reading?
STONE GOSSARD: Murakami.The new Murakami one that came out, I guess last year. I love him. I just read the new Norman Rush book, which I thought was great even though it got a terrible review in the New York Times. This book called A Tale for the Time Being, which is fiction by this woman named Ruth Ozeki. She’s great. For me, I just don’t go to the record store very much. I’ll listen to pop radio and I’ll listen to NPR. I’ll listen to KEXP and I’ll hear lots of good new music and I never know who the hell it is. As far as what I do in my free time, I go to Elliott Bay Books in Seattle and I buy a $100 worth of books a week. That’s how I clear my mind.
STEREOGUM: Does any of the stuff you’re reading effect the songs you’re working on?
STONE GOSSARD: You know, if I’m writing lyrics I’m sure it does. It’s hard to tell. When I get into reading a book or into writing a song, it’s similar. Every spare moment I have I just want to slip away and work on it. I’m sure all that stuff effects it. I think my imprint for music and what I like about music was established when I was between 8 and 20 years old. The sort of main influences that are still striking me are the same. It’s Simon & Garfunkel and Led Zeppelin and ’70s pop music. Iggy & the Stooges. These kind of things that just keep coming back to me, that are just like, “This is where I’m from. This is what I want.” There’s so many great bands out there for sure, I’m just not rabid about any of them. I get way more rabid about books. I can’t read and listen at the same time. If you have kids, you’re SOL. You get an hour, you’re either reading or listening.
STEREOGUM: Pearl Jam’s become one of these resilient bands that’s never really gone away, never had a hiatus. Aside from drummers, you haven’t had any member changes, either. Now you’ve gone past the 20th anniversary and you’re still this touring warhorse. It’s become a band you can kind of picture becoming like Neil Young, soldiering on into old age. You being one of the people who really started the whole thing, what are your hopes for Pearl Jam in its third decade?
STONE GOSSARD: Deep down inside, it would be great if we played music together until we were old. I think there’s a way to do that gracefully and there’s a way to do that that accounts for the fact that you’re 70 years old. You’re not going to be playing exactly the same way as you played when you were 20. It’s an impossibility. It should be. But you look at Neil Young and Bob Dylan and you think, “Those guys have written some of their best music in the past twenty years.” And they’re well into it. That’s an inspiration, for us. The fact that we have five people that are songwriters in this band and that each of us are still growing as songwriters…I do think that’s one of our unique qualities. Our commitment to this. It’s not a democracy, but it’s not far from it. It’s beautiful in the sense that it works really well, and everybody gets a piece, everybody gets a say at different times. That’s one of the most fascinating things about the band. This continued belief in the structure we set up a long time ago. That we would more or less share a life and “the band comes first” kind of thing. It’s a difficult thing to hold onto when you’ve had long term success and everyone’s got different motivations, different things they’re thinking about, families. There’s a lot of opportunity for tension and discomfort with that, if it’s not really lived and honored. We keep coming back to it, and it makes me proud to be part of the band. It’s a big deal for us.