by Nicole Brodeur
Seattle Times columnist
Eddie Vedder’s favorite place to perform is Easy Street Records in West Seattle.
Matt Cameron has never forgotten is early days behind the kit at bygone Seattle bars like the Ditto Tavern.
And someday far in future, Stone Gossard hopes he’s anywhere but doing to Britney/Celine thing and taking up residency in Vegas.
These are just a few of the truths that emerged Thursday night, when the five members of Pearl Jam gathered for the first time with a small group of fans for a “Town Hall” sponsored by Sirius XM, home of Pearl Jam radio. (A broadcast of the event will air on Sirius XM Oct. 11. “Lightning Bolt” will be released Oct. 15.)
More than 4,000 fans submitted questions to Sirius XM executives, who pared them down to 15 winners, who were each allowed to bring a guest. Everyone came on their own time and dime, except for one member of the Ten Club fan club, who won an all-expenses-paid trip.
“This isn’t just check a box,” said Sirius Vice President Gregg Steele. “You had to think about it. And these people are definitely hard-core fans. Intelligent and thorough.
After checking in at the Crocodile Café, the lanyarded lot was escorted down the street like a tour group and entered Studio X, where Pearl Jam recorded parts or all of some of its other albums, including 1997’s “Yield”; 2002’s “Riot Act” and 2006’s “Pearl Jam,” known as “The Avocado Album.”
“We’ve made a lot of music in this room,” Vedder would say later, “and I’ve never seen so many people in it.”
Once inside the studio, security collected cellphones and directed people to the studio, usually filled with instruments but now with chairs. On every seat, a souvenir program with artwork by “Lightning Bolt” designer Don Pendleton. Each song has its own image, and page.
For an hour or so, people helped themselves from a table stacked with pizzas, salads, snacks and soft drinks.
Then longtime producer Brendan O’Brien, who produced “Lightning Bolt” at Los Angeles’ Hansen Studios, took the small stage, welcomed the crowd and said of his work with Pearl Jam, “It’s really not business. It’s more like family.”
“It’s going to be awkward, staring at the speakers,” he said, “but please enjoy ‘Lightning Bolt.’”
For the next 45 minutes, the group said very little, most staring at the floor or bobbing their heads. Those who had downloaded “Mind Your Manners” or “Sirens” mouthed the words, and almost everyone recognized the little-bit-country remix of Eddie Vedder’s “Sleeping By Myself,” from his 2011 solo album, “Ukulele Songs.”
When the record finished, people sat back and applauded.
There was another break, during which winners were moved to the first two rows. Someone from Atlanta. Another from Pennsylvania. A guy from Las Vegas. Another from Los Angeles.
Mary Jo Werlech came over from West Seattle with her brother, Larry Dominico. She was especially nervous, “Which is dumb.”
After all, her brother said, “We’ve seen Eddie at Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond. It’s just that I have to stand up and talk.”
Stephen Mugg, flew in from Chicago with his wife — which was no small thing.
“When Sirius called, I was very excited,” he said. “Then reality set in.”
He and his wife had to take off from work; buy plane tickets and reserve a hotel room and enlist his mother-in-law to watch their three children,
But it’s worth it, Mugg said. “No question.”
A few minutes later, the band came in through a side door: Eddie Vedder first, in an “Every Mother Counts” sweatshirt, followed by Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Matt Cameron, Mike McCready and keyboardist Boom Gaspar.
They sat down, and took in the crowd, which must have been strange, considering the last place they took the stage was in front of 40,000 fans at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. They could see every face. And the fans, well, they looked like they didn’t know what to do, except smile.
“Let’s just pretend this is not the weirdest thing we’ve ever done,” cracked O’Brien, who served as moderator. With that, the questions began.
On the band’s longevity:
“We’re still inspired to make music and be creative,” said Cameron, adding that “Lightning Bolt” was “a fun record to make.”
“We wanted to be brothers in a band,” said Gossard. “That’s built into our DNA. Our initial commitment carried through.”
“It’s like dying,” said Vedder. “You don’t want to get old, but what are the options? What are the options to not being in a group?”
On the difference between “Lightning Bolt” and “Backspacer”:
“This record felt more confident,” McCready said. “We had a lot more ideas. We were more focused.”
Ament noted that “Lightning Bolt” was recorded in two sessions, two years apart.
“The record benefitted from that time,” he said, when he the members were working on side projects. (Ament on RNDM; Gossard with Brad; McCready with soundtrack work and Cameron with Soundgarden.)
“There’s nothing that makes you appreciate this band more than being in another situation,” he added.
“The arrangements are stronger,” Gossard said. “”We’re just wiser.”
On the process that pulls them back together after they’ve been apart:
“There is no break,” said Ament. “There is day-to-day business that we do every day. We’re our own thing. We’ve created this stuff and the stuff that you see (albums, merchandise), that all comes from us. It doesn’t ever feel like I’m not in the band.”
Cracked Vedder: “At the warehouse (where the band is headquartered), we don’t have landscapers or gardeners. It’s all us.”
“We live for picking up our guitar,” said Gossard. “We love that.”
On how their music has changed, now that most of them were “family men.”
“It’s all about balance,” said Cameron. “It’s important to have that safety net, to have our minds settled so we are able to create.
“We’re all proud to have families,” Cameron continues. “It helps with being connected to the creative side of things. It’s bigger than being a rock guy in a band.”
Said McCready, simply: “My values have changed.”
On the inspiration for the Vedder-penned “Just Breathe”:
“A bunch of things,” Vedder said. “Seeing that energy around. Sometimes it was my kids, sometimes my grandmother … or my most significant other. You don’t want to be writing sentimental songs all the time, but the truth is, you do try to pull everything in. I hear that people play that song at weddings. So that’s nice.”
On the inspiration for the new song, “Sirens”:
“That was a Mike (McCready) song,” said Vedder. It stayed instrumental for quite some time for a couple of variables. I worked late through two nights. It was in my that I really wanted to finish that song.”
“When I first heard it, I teared up a little bit,” McCready said. “It was very emotional and beautiful — much like Eddie approaches lyrics that we can all feel. It was a very cool process that I am very grateful and proud of.”
On knowing then what they know now, and what they would have done differently:
“The hard thing is remembering what we knew before ‘Ten,’” Vedder said of their first album.
“Maybe we would have enjoyed it more,” Gossard said. “And been less stressed.”
On if they had started the band now:
“We’d have a dad band,” said Cameron. “A weekend dad band.”
“It would be killer,” Vedder said.
“I think we’d enjoy it more now than we ever could,” said Gossard. “Nothing gives you that sense of family and community than playing music with people you like. We come back and it’s five guys in a sandbox making a castle together. You never know what it’s going to be, and it’s magic for us.”
On whether writing songs is easier now:
“It’s a treat to write for your bandmates,” said Cameron. “It’s nice to have that creative rapport.”
“Everybody does a lot of work on their own,” said Gossard. “If you have five things from everybody, then it’s a matter of Ed finding that alchemy and equation.”
“You can have a whole month when there’s not a shoe in the closet that fits,” Vedder said. “There’s no muse. You just have to do it. Tuesdays have been good lately.”
“With my demos, I’m finding more keys that Ed has responded to,” said Ament. “You always want three or four things on the record that rock, that are weirder or up-tempo.
Said O’Brien: “Songwriting takes time and effort and usually doesn’t happen very quickly, and these guys work pretty hard at it.”
On their biggest challenge:
“Playing Wrigley,” Vedder said of their show last summer, for which they sold the storied ballpark out in record time — and then waited out a two-hour rain delay with 40,000 fans.
“To walk out after that time,” Vedder said. “It was as if everybody was there the whole time. It was a dream come true. But most of the time, you don’t remember your dreams.”
“These are first-world problems,” Gossard said. “I would say relationships, families, being a middle-aged guy. Mostly personal stuff.”
On their favorite place to play:
“Easy Street in West Seattle,” said Vedder.
“I have great memories of starting out and playing locally,” said Cameron. “Anywhere our audience is, is a blessing. But we came from the Ditto Tavern. I don’t think that’s lost on any of us.”
“You can never predict when those nights are going to happen,” said Gossard.
“It’s kind of crazy,” said Vedder, “but every night feels like a…winner. It’s amazing. We’re not lying when we say, ‘This is one of the best crowds we’ve ever played for.’ If you were there, it was.”
“All of them,” said Gaspar, at which point someone mentioned Bondi Beach, a topless stretch of sand in Australia. He moaned like a wookie and put his head in his hands, while Vedder nearly fell off his chair laughing.
On how Vedder creates a setlist:
“This year, I’ve been calling 1-800-SET-LIST, which is 50 cents a call,” he joked. “This tour, it will be interesting, because I have a bunch of new material to work on. For a while, it depending on what the shows were. It was what people know. In an arena, I am trying to get to the people in the back row, so I want to play the hits. But then I am also trying to gauge how open people are to experimenting with us, and reach through the ether.”
“Better to try and fail than not to have done it at all.”
On where they see themselves down the road, and their legacy:
“Hopefully not a residency in Vegas,” Gossard said.
“It’s hard enough just staying in the present,” said McCready. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. I would love for people to enjoy our music and have feelings from it. That’s all I can hope for.”
“The legacy is the songs,” said Cameron. “It’s bigger than us.”
“Watching everybody together at the shows, together at Wrigley,” said Vedder. “To me, that’s the legacy part. We are in awe of that happening around the simple thing of making music. That’s the wonderment.”
Nicole Broder: firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: An earlier version of this post had an incorrect release date for “Lightning Bolt.” It will be available Oct. 15.