Pearl Jam Twenty Book Excerpt: Riot Act

In this excerpt from “Pearl Jam Twenty,” a year-by-year oral history of the band’s career to date, writer Jonathan Cohen gets the inside story of Pearl Jam’s 2002 album “Riot Act.”

Ask Eddie Vedder why after more than a decade in Pearl Jam, the creative process continues to inspire him, and he’s quick with a proud smile. “We have five songwriters,” he says. “The band has really become a vehicle for everyone to offer up their songs, have very adept musicians play them, and have a very good communication with those players. That’s why I can see us going on for a long while.”

“No lead singer of his caliber has come anywhere near worrying about whether everybody in the band has written a song. Most of them could give one shit about that,” [guitarist] Stone Gossard says. “And for him, it’s important, and that’s the difference. That’s one of his weapons. He’s very thoughtful, in that sense.”

Indeed, Riot Act is an exceedingly collaborative affair, channeling that creative energy into a host of showcases for the band’s signature rock power: the tense, psychedelic opener “Can’t Keep”; the unhinged guitar assaults “Get Right” and “Save You”; and the propulsively melodic “Green Disease”and “Cropduster.” Elsewhere, “Thumbing My Way” and the gorgeously bittersweet closer, “All or None,” reveal the band’s deft dynamic touch, trading power chords for acoustic strumming and Hammond B3 organ flourishes.

Produced by Adam Kasper, who had previously worked with Matt Cameron in both Soundgarden and the drummer’s side band, Wellwater Conspiracy, the album also finds the group realizing its collective creativity to an often stunning degree, with myriad songs that find little basis in any prior Pearl Jam album. “You Are,” penned by Cameron, is a monster of jagged guitar outbursts fed through a drum machine and welded to a gritty groove, while Jeff Ament’s “Help Help” careens from sweetly sung verses to maniacal choruses and an even more intense instrumental breakdown.

“When somebody has a clear idea what a song is going to be, inevitably the band will say, ‘Well, I don’t know. Let’s try something else,'” Gossard says with a laugh. “Instead it will be some riff you’ve played three times. You just wrote it this morning and don’t even care about it, but everyone will say, ‘That’s killer! Let’s do that!’ The process of letting go is constant in this band. Sometimes you have to.”

The sessions got an extra boost of experimentation thanks to the presence of keyboardist Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar, whom Vedder met and quickly began collaborating with in 2001 in the midst of a yearlong sabbatical to a remote Hawaiian island. One of their songs, “Love Boat Captain,” serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece, as it reaches out to the families of the nine fans who were killed after a crowd surge during Pearl Jam’s June 30, 2000, set at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival.

“I started disappearing into surfing areas about five or six years ago, as a way to refuel whatever I’d lose being around a lot of people,” Vedder says. “I’d just go where there was no people. This place where there’s no stoplights. It’s very small-town living. I met this big kahuna-type guy on the island. His friend was this other guy who was a musician. There was another guy on the island who was recording some of the locals there. He passed away; a young guy. He left a wife and kid. I would never go to functions or whatever, but I went to this wake on a big porch. Musicians were playing all night; the guys he had recorded. It was pretty intense and very sad. I noticed this guy playing B3, just world class! I bumped into him a couple other times, and then I threw it out there that we should play sometime. I had a little recording setup for when I wanted to get away and do some writing. He just showed up, and we started playing. That night we wrote what turned into ‘Love Boat Captain.’ Within an hour, we had this thing we put on the stereo and played it loud. It was probably about an eleven-minute version at that point.”

Prior to meeting Vedder, Gaspar had never heard of Pearl Jam, much less recorded with a multiplatinum rock band. Vedder says, “Without really any knowledge of our band dynamic – although I have to admit, since it’s such a solid one, it’s a little easier to fit in – he was able to find his place and was doing just what we were: adding things and not subtracting.”

When it came time to write lyrics, focusing more on the bigger picture – love, loss, and the struggle to make a difference – eased Vedder into the prospect of commenting directly on such tragedies as Roskilde or the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. “You start feeling like, ‘What do I have to say? What is my opinion?'” Vedder muses. “Then I realized I did have an opinion. Not only did I have one, but I felt like it was formed by processing a lot of information and having good influences.

“You’d think it’d be easy, with so much material out there and so much in the atmosphere to choose from and write about,” he continues. “If you think about it, it’s all very confusing and overwhelming to try to grasp it all and put it down.”

The job ahead was made even more difficult thanks to a conversation with a familiar face at Neil Young’s 2001 Bridge School Benefit. “I saw Michael Stipe. Of course, we drank a lot,” Vedder recalls. “At the end of the night, he said, ‘Write a great record.’ And then all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh, fuck. That’s going to be tough.'”

Cameron says “I Am Mine” was a key starting point. “It has all the elements this band is known for: strong lyrics, strong hook, and a good sense of melody.” [Guitarist] Mike McCready adds, “It’s kind of a positive affirmation of what to do with one’s life. I’m born and I die, but in between that, I can do whatever I want or have a strong opinion about something.”

“Can’t Keep” was debuted by Vedder on ukulele during two solo concerts in early 2002, but the slow-burning track is transformed here with layers of buzzing, treated guitars and a rumbling beat in the vein of Led Zeppelin’s “Poor Tom,” which would have fit nicely on the band’s 1996 album No Code. Vedder’s ukulele demo was the first song on a tape of ideas he gave to the rest of the band and was quickly seized upon by Gossard as one that would be “killer” if it could be translated to the full band.

“This is the cool thing about letting yourself go and not trying to maintain control over your vision,” Vedder says. “Sometimes you write a song, and you have a certain way you hear it in your head. The ukulele version of ‘Can’t Keep’ is much faster. It’s much more punk rock than what it ended up, for sure. And that’s okay. You can almost feel the band feeling each other out and building together.”

In contrast, Vedder’s acoustic ballad “Thumbing My Way” was barely modified from its original demo and captured on tape during one of the band’s first run-throughs. “We were out in the room playing the song and learning it,” Ament recalls. “In the process, Adam went and remiked everything very covertly. So all of a sudden, when we were ready to play it, it was up, and he captured it. Nailed it. That to me was really critical and kind of how the record sounds. A lot of times, there’s that cool thing when you don’t quite know the song and everybody is really concentrating. It lasts for four or five takes, and then it’s gone. After that, it’s all cerebral.”

The song also presaged Vedder’s acoustic-driven work a few years later on the Into the Wild soundtrack. “‘Thumbing My Way’ is kind of a beginning in terms of Ed really getting more into an acoustic singer-songwriter thing in a way that you always knew that he could,” Gossard says. “He was just finally getting comfortable with the idea that maybe he’d bring a little of that into Pearl Jam. The sentiment of the song is amazing.”

Elsewhere, songs like “Save You” and “Green Disease” offer relentless, punk-leaning rock harking back to Pearl Jam’s second and third albums. “I came in with that riff, and we just kind of started jamming on it,” McCready says of “Save You,” the tale of a mutually detrimental love-hate relationship. “It was a blast to play. The track that actually ended up on there, halfway through the song, Matt lost his headphones. He was going off. That’s my favorite part of that song – his crazy drum fills.”

With a tinge of Split Enz’s new wave-punk hybrid, “Green Disease” finds Vedder trying to make sense of a culture of greed: “I said there’s nothing wrong with what you say / Believe me, just asking you to sway / No white or black, just gray / Can you feel this world with your heart and not your brain?”

“It’s like, okay, I’m not saying capitalism is what’s wrong about this,” Vedder says of the song, for which his vision of a superthin and dry sound led him to record the basic track with just Cameron and Ament backing him. “It’s more like corporate responsibility. You can’t tell me there’s not other ways of making it good for everybody.”

There’s no doubt about the subject of “Bu$hleaguer,” a comic swipe at then president George W. Bush, on which Vedder utilizes a spoken word delivery for his pointed opinions in the verses: “A confidence man, but why so beleaguered? / He’s not a leader, he’s a Texas leaguer.” Although it would become most closely associated with Vedder once he began performing it live while wearing a Bush mask, the song was actually written by Gossard.

“It’s so satirical,” he says. “The four-on-the-floor drum feel that Matt is playing – he’s playing a kick drum pattern we don’t have a lot of in our songs. The groovy, spooky outro is kind of a different thing.” Adds Ament, “Everything Stone brought in was kind of dark. The one lyric he had was, ‘Blackout weaves its way through the city.’ That’s a totally heavy line. The way Ed wrote lyrics around that, they were almost kind of humorous. It made the song even creepier to me.”

On the other end of the spectrum is a song like “You Are,” which remains one of the strangest-sounding Pearl Jam tracks ever. It features reverb-soaked guitar riffing and a funky, strutting beat, while the middle break finds Vedder in multitracked falsetto, repeating the title phrase.

“I had gotten a new drum machine that allows you to make up patterns, and then they’ll play through whatever audio instrument you plug in,” Cameron says. “It was more of an experiment to use the parameters of this machine as well. It came out really cool, and the guys really liked it. I took my machine down to the studio, dumped it into the computer, and did an arrangement. Eddie finished up the small bit of lyrics I had written for it. It’s just another example of having your band elevate your music to a level you’ve never envisioned.”

Says Gossard, “It was a moment of inspiration, for sure.”

Adds McCready, “Perspiration for me! I was blown away by it. It kind of reminded me a little of the Cure, maybe, or something that this band has never really experimented with before. I was real excited and proud to play that song to all my friends, you know, ‘Check this one out! This is a way different kind of vibe.'”

From PEARL JAM TWENTY. Copyright © 2011 by Monkeywrench, Inc., and Pearl Jam LLC. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.