“It rained most of the night but nobody is that bummed out cause it really hasn’t rained here in over two months.” If you had a chance to talk with one of the most famous Seattle bass players, you probably wouldn’t be asking him about the weather. But Jeff Ament is kind of excited about the night’s precipitation. “I think everybody’s happy to have a little bit of wetness to wash everything away,” he says with a laugh.
Unless you have lived under a rock for the past, say, twenty years, you already know that Jeff Ament is the bass player for Pearl Jam. Before that he was the bass player for Mother Love Bone and Green River, both forefathers to the 90’s atomic music boom that fermented in the drizzly Pacific Northwest. The band he helped create from the brokenhearted demise of MLB following the death of beloved frontman Andrew Wood, became one of the biggest bands in the world, where it still remains to this day. It is an event that many young musicians wish would happen to them and Ament has become a hero to skateboarding bass players ever since.
But down-to-earth better describes this Montana born man than hero, a term he would shrug off with a hearty laugh. He was a music fan who became a music maker. That his music became one of the voices of a generation was a nice surprise that has enabled him to make even more music … and continue to skateboard and play basketball instead of punching a time clock every day of the week.
So it was on a dew-sparkled new Seattle morning that Jeff Ament called in to talk about a new project he has been working on called RNDM (Random, in case you haven’t already heard) whose new CD Acts hit record stores and iTunes last week.
You have some really good things going on in your life right now. You released a solo CD a few months back, you have a new band called RNDM with Joe Arthur and Richard Stuverud with a new CD, you’re still doing stuff with Pearl Jam. How did you find time to do all this?
Well, you know, the amazing thing about it is the guys haven’t taken up hardly any of my time. Probably working on the artwork and I just finished up some t-shirts and stuff for the tour, that stuff’s taken up actually more time than the recording part of it. We only spent four days recording and then probably a few days doing recalls on the mixes and that sort of thing. Then I spent three days in New York with Joe and Rich shooting some photos and making a couple of videos and we did a few interviews when we were there too. So it’s been pretty low key for the most part.
But how did you do it so quickly?
I have no idea (laughs) I’ve been in a couple situations like that and I guess I’ve been playing music for thirty years where something really unique happens right off the bat and you just go through song after song and everything feels pretty good. You write songs on the spot and challenge each other creatively and do some weird stuff. It was just really, really special and really fun. Like we were up till two or three in the morning and then we were kind of up by 9:00 in the morning ready to go. Then after we had been there a couple of days we realized that we were probably about half-way through making a record, so then we kind of worked even harder and made the most of the time we had together. It’s kind of why you do it, you know. It’s that thing where you play with different people and every once in a while it really clicks and it’s easy and everybody is laughing and having fun.
And that’s really what it’s all about: to have fun while you record and not make it so stressful.
Yeah, I’ve been in bands where it has been stressful, where you’ve demoed songs two to three to four times and then you’re in the studio and you spend two days hammering out one song or whatever cause you’re trying to get it just right; or maybe the communication isn’t great so you think you’re saying different things but actually you’re saying the same thing. That’s the bonus of being a little bit older. And with this there wasn’t any baggage attached from the beginning. We didn’t think it was anything so we were just doing it to do it. Only when we were kind of done with it did we kind of feel like, oh wow, we have a record here, that’s amazing (laughs).
Was there any method to your madness as to what kind of record you wanted to make or was it just a bunch of songs you just started playing that you picked what you thought might work good on an album?
We didn’t play any of our ideas for each other before we all came together but I’m a big fan of Joe’s so I kind of know what his tendencies are and kind of what his strengths are. I kind of had it in my head that he’s such a great pop writer and he’s got such a great voice and I thought, If we could somehow keep it stripped back and maybe give it a little bit more energy, it would be something kind of unique to both of us. That was the only angle on it initially, just to keep it simple and to keep infusing it with a lot of energy. To push the beats per minute a little bit and even be creatively open to doing stuff that was a little bit out of our wheelhouse; to do things that we weren’t comfortable with initially. But I think anytime we did something like that it ended up being great. So we started to trust the process, whatever the process was (laughs).
Why did you pick “Modern Times” to introduce RNDM to the world?
That to me sort of encapsulated what was going on. Joe played that song for us basically at the breakfast table the second day that we were recording. When we started to play it then all of a sudden we thought, what if we have a little drum intro. Then Joe started playing a cool fuzzy guitar lick at the beginning of it and that all happened really quickly. We didn’t play that song more than three or four times and then we just kind of left it alone. There’s not a lot of overdubbing on that song. But it just felt like it represented what we were going after and the guitar sounded so great, such a great album opener.
It has an interesting video, what’s with all the orange?
(laughs) You know, those are all just kind of dares. It was like Joe and I, especially the first couple of months after we recorded, we would send crazy ideas back and forth to one another and I think sometimes the crazy ideas would get crazier just because we were trying to dare each other, like how far would you go? (laughs). That video sort of represented probably about a month of kind of going back and forth. Joe and Ehud, the photographer who shot the whole thing, they came up with kind of a basic treatment and then it was on, just kind of back and forth, let’s do this and let’s do that, mostly trying to have fun. My experience shooting videos wasn’t typically one of having fun. It’s usually like an all day or two day affair where it’s kind of more like a Hollywood thing where there’s a lot of people involved. And this thing was completely gorilla. Ehud was the lone crew person and he shot the whole thing and we basically would go shot after shot and we probably spent four or five hours on that video or something, which was pretty cool.
You’re still skateboarding, I see
Yeah, a little bit. That was a tough road to skateboard on cause it was the worst, lumpy asphalt ever that Brooklyn has to offer (laughs)
Did you fall?
No, I didn’t fall but I was like, this could turn out bad if I hit the wrong little divot.
What is the worst spill that you have ever had?
I still skate a couple days a week and I play basketball a couple days a week. I fell pretty hard yesterday playing basketball but I’ve broken fingers and torn ligaments in my ankles and my knees are kind of toast right now. I don’t have very much cartilage in my knees but you just got to keep moving.
What are your plans with RNDM?
Well, a lot of it will depend on how the tour goes in terms of how we get along and kind of all that stuff. I don’t think any of us wants to do anything that’s not 100% fun at this point. So if the tour goes good then I think there’s a plan. We have four or five songs that didn’t make the record that we recorded. Joe and I have been sending ideas back and forth the last few weeks so there is probably another ten ideas that we could knock out in two or three days if we got it at some point. We’ll try to make time for that sometime this winter. I don’t think Pearl Jam is going to be doing anything till the spring really.
So you’ll have time to do more things with RNDM
Yeah, yeah, I have all the time in the world right now
You were raised in a small town in Montana. What was your youth like?
It was pretty simple. When I was growing up there was probably about 900 people there. It was a wheat farm, really isolated, about forty miles from the Canadian border. I played all sports from when I was a little kid. It was basically about keeping yourself busy. We were either on our bikes or we were playing some sort of ball. We went to California when I was about twelve and my cousin skateboarded and he gave me a skateboard magazine and that kind of changed my path quite a bit because that’s how I found out about punk rock. That whole culture kind of told me that anything was possible in terms of what I wanted to do. I think that combined with being in a small town where there is not a lot of competition. If I wanted to be a skateboarder and I wanted to be a painter and I wanted to play in a band, there wasn’t anybody else in town doing that so I could be the best (laughs). And there’s nobody really there to tell you that you couldn’t do it so that was kind of a huge thing, I think, for the first eighteen years of my life, to just sort of have carte blanche finding out who I was creatively. As tough as it was during my teenage years, being in a place where there’s really nothing going on, it was a huge blessing to not have anybody tell me I couldn’t do anything. As soon as I was eighteen I was out the door and I was on my path.
Was it a big culture shock jumping into Seattle?
Yeah, probably a little bit. I went to college for two years in Missoula. At the beginning of my second year, we actually went out to Seattle to see The Clash open up for The Who. And X played the night before that. I had a friend from Montana, who was actually living in Seattle at the time, and he was talking about this club that was opening up and all these punk rock bands that were going to be playing there that next spring so that was pretty much when I decided that I was going to at least put school on the backburner for a little bit and I was going to move to the big city. It was a tough transition because there were times when I was like, I didn’t know a lot of people so when you’re in a big city surrounded by more people than you’ve ever been around and you don’t know anybody, it’s even twice as lonely I think. But it was good. I grew up a lot those first couple of years.
How did you stay grounded through everything when Pearl Jam just exploded?
You know, there was probably a time in the late 80’s where it might have gone to my head a little bit, maybe for a few months or something where I kind of thought I was something special. But I don’t know how that stuff could last very long for most people. I don’t think it does. I think when Pearl Jam blew up and it was the first time I was really in a band that was actually making a splash, I was already like twenty-eight at that point and had already been through some ups and downs with other bands so I don’t think it was as shocking for me and maybe for Stone [Gossard] as it was for maybe the other guys cause they hadn’t been through that before.
But you put it all in perspective, like I have a couple really good friends, one of my oldest friends I grew up with, he’s a doctor, and I always compared myself to him in terms of like making a difference. I was like, well, I’m involved in something that makes people happy for a moment and my friend’s a Doctor and he’s saving lives and diagnosing people that are sick and actually really making a huge difference in people’s lives. And I think the fact that I’ve traveled a fair amount too. I’ve seen all sorts of stuff. You see people that volunteer and people that just do amazing work for virtually nothing in return so it’s pretty easy to keep my little musical career in check (laughs). It’s awesome and I love what I do but really in the big picture of things it’s not. I’m not all that.
You were in Mother Love Bone with Andrew Wood. Would you mind sharing a special memory about him?
I worked at this coffee shop for about six years called Raison d’etre and I worked there with tons of artists and musicians and Andy worked there and Steve Turner worked there and Roderick Romero, who is in a band called Sky Cries Mary, worked there; an amazing group of creative people that I worked with. It was crazy, cause when Andy and I worked there we mostly talked sports, which is kind of weird because the group of people that worked there at that restaurant really weren’t sports people. So I think that was kind of how we became really good friends. He was a big Cowboys fan and I was a big San Francisco 49ers fan. Then a kid named Mike Mora, whose dad Jim Mora coached the New Orleans Saints, started working there right around the same time so that was sort of our big connection. I think that was how I kind of ended up being in a band with him. He was just such a unique personality. I always say he was the Marc Bolan of our time. He kind of wasn’t afraid to push boundaries and do things that were a little bit outside of what everybody else was doing at the time. He was just super funny and really sweet and I miss him for sure.
You have been playing bass for a long time. Is there anything else left for you to learn?
Oh yeah, I’ve probably been playing an upright for about eighteen years or something but I still feel like if I don’t play it for a few months it always feels like I’m back at ground zero or back at first base. And the best thing about when we started Pearl Jam was I kind of decided I wasn’t just going to play like a 4-string and I started playing different basses and that sort of has been the best thing I could have done because I always feel like I can never just rest on my laurels. I always feel like every time we play a show there’s some aspect of it that’s going to be work for me and that’s been great. It’s like doing anything. You can always be better if you truly understand writing or playing anything or doing anything physical, you always realize you can do better and understand it better.
I heard that you climbed a mountain a few years ago.
That was probably ten years ago but that was a trip to Africa with my friend Donovan Cook who we actually met when he worked at CARE. The proceeds from “The Last Kiss” record we gave to three different charities and CARE was one of them. Donovan was the guy at CARE that we dealt with and he stayed in contact with me the whole time. Like he sent me pictures every two or three months of where our money was going and what it was doing and I was just really super impressed to how well he communicated what was going on. And there came a point where when he was with Save The Children there was a trip coming up and it just so happened to include another friend of mine who is from here in Seattle who is a sportswriter, Steve Kelly. That wasn’t anything that was ever on my bucket list but just listening to Donovan talk about it and what a great trip he thought it would be for us, and it was. It was kind of like one of those once in a lifetime things. Conditions were all over the map. It was 80 degrees when we started the hike and it snowed the night before we summited.
They tell you initially you could be in the best shape of anybody in the group and still not be able to summit because just the way the oxygen and elevation. I mean, Martina Navratilova, I think she was fifty-something when she tried to climb it, and she didn’t make it and she was probably by far the most in-shape person out of their group. It’s fairly random in terms of how it affects different people. But everybody in our group made it and it was hard at times. You’d have terrible headaches and you can’t eat for like the last two or three days but it was awesome.
After all that you have been through, after all these years, who do you think you are today?
Who am I today? Oh man, I would like to think that I’m good at a lot of different things and that’s the thing that keeps driving me. I still want to be a better bass player and I still want to be a better songwriter and I still want to be a better painter and a better skateboarder and a better basketball player, all that stuff. I think I’m a true lifelong student. I think that’s who I am.
Join us next week as we talk with Ozzy Osbourne’s guitar player Gus G