CHICAGO — Pearl Jam is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a flourish: a Cameron Crowe-directed documentary; reissues of its 1993 and '94 albums Vs. and Vitalogy; and a forthcoming festival at a not-yet- announced location.
In addition, the band is in the midst of recording sessions for a studio album, and some members are still neck-deep in side projects — at least one involving a ukulele, of all things. That would belong to singer Eddie Vedder, whose solo album Ukulele Songs is due out May 31, to be followed by a solo tour (the closest he comes to Central Kentucky is Chicago on June 28).
"I've been writing and collecting songs on the ukulele for at least 10 years, so it was time to clear them out of the apartment building and make room for some new occupants," Vedder says. "I need to make room for the bassoon record."
It's a busy time for a band that defined the alternative-rock era with its introspective lyrics and heavy guitars (call them "grunge" if you must), then nearly imploded after taking a firm stand against what it thought were excessive Ticketmaster service fees in 1994. In recent years, as sales of recorded music have plummeted and concert ticket prices have soared, the band has left major-label affiliations behind in favor of independent releases on its label Monkeywrench Records while continuing to attract arena-size audiences around the world.
In an interview, Vedder talked about his love for the most un-rock 'n' roll of instruments and how Pearl Jam is navigating the new landscape of an economically challenged music industry.
Question: How did you start playing the ukulele?
Answer: It was about 13, 14 years ago. I was in a tiny row of dilapidated shops on an outer island of Hawaii with Kelly Slater the surfer (Vedder himself is a dedicated surfer). I went to buy beer at the liquor store, and Kelly went to buy fish at the grocery store. I was done first, so I was sitting there on a couple of cases of beer waiting for him when I saw this ukulele in a storefront window. It was a nice Kamaka Tenor. It wasn't a kids' toy. I went in empty-handed and walked out five minutes later with a great-sounding ukulele, and had a chorus and a verse written a few minutes later. I was halfway through writing the bridge when a few people walked by and threw some money in the open case. I had $1.50 from playing the ukulele after owning it seven minutes. I thought, "Hmmm, this has some possibilities."
Q: Did the ukulele change the way you write songs?
A: I learned so much about music by playing this little, miniature songwriting machine, especially about melody. The motto is "less strings, more melody." I was able to apply it to whatever I'm trying to write. It's become part of songwriting for me, the knowledge I gained from hearing the melodies come out, and then applying that to guitar or vocals. I was starting to play the ukulele at the same time I was having all these conversations with (the late Ramones guitarist) Johnny Ramone, these intense tutorials staying up late and listening to the music he grew up on, and picking up what's a great song and what makes a great song. He was all about lists and dissecting songs, like what's a better song by Cheap Trick: No Surrender or Dream Police? Sometimes you'd be surprised by the answer. It was an interesting dichotomy between hanging out with the godfather of punk rock and starting to play the ukulele. They came together.
Q: Ukulele Songs is coming out on Pearl Jam's label, Monkeywrench, as did the band's last album (Backspacer in 2009). Are you done with putting your music out on outside labels?
A: One thing you might suggest to a young band is don't get involved in any kind of long-term contract, because everything changes on a bimonthly basis: The way people hear music and access it, the way it is distributed. I can't say what the future holds for us. You have to be able to grow and move with the organism that is the music industry. You need to maintain flexibility. Ownership of your own stuff is key, and then you're able to dictate on a present-terms basis what would be the most effective way to protect yourself and what you've created. You also don't want to lock yourself into a situation where a major label owns part of your touring and merchandise.
Q: Are we going to see any new Pearl Jam music this year?
A: We're just past the embryonic stages of songwriting for the next album, and it seems to be going quick. But whether we put something out this year I just don't know, because we're doing all the hindsight stuff this year.
Q: What about the 20th anniversary shows?
A: We're just trying to get together a bunch of friends and bands we've played with in the past and do a couple of shows in the States. It'll probably all come together last minute. I don't want to make it seem like any crazy, big deal. It should just be a natural thing. (The Band's 1976 farewell concert) The Last Waltz is great, one of the greatest things ever, but it had that impact because it was the last gig. For us it'll be like The Last Waltz, except we'll be playing a show again the next week (laughs).