After Pearl Jam’s mega-platinum early success and its enshrinement as a cultural icon, the band has worked hard to step back from the limelight. The group has followed an experimental muse on its records and generally eschewed the press, videos and (after the quixotic bout with Ticketmaster) large-scale touring.
The biggest result of this path has been that Pearl Jam’s sales numbers have fallen with each new album, from 8 million copies for 1992’s “Ten” to 1.3 million for last year’s “No Code,” according to SoundScan. But the low-key ethos was partially borne out of necessity, according to the band. Without such an approach, Pearl Jam’s striking new Epic album, “Yield,” due Feb. 3, may not have come out at all.
Guitarist Stone Gossard says the fact that Pearl Jam still even exists is thanks to the quintet’s taking itself out of the “machine … Being able to pull back from all that pressure helped give us the space to figure out our internal problems, within the band and within us as individuals. We gave each other some time off from each other. Actually, it’s like we broke up but still made records.”
And with the recent dissolution of Seattle-sound pioneers Soundgarden, Pearl Jam’s struggle for space seems even more vital. “Soundgarden breaking up bummed me out because they were such a great band and that last album was my favorite,” Gossard says. “But it also reminded me of the pressures of keeping a band together, which are almost always interpersonal and rarely musical. Trying to produce an art project with five people - especially when you’re all tripping about whatever you’re tripping about when you’re in your late 20s - can be difficult, to say the least.
“Now, though, we’re more relaxed with each other in the studio. Everyone is able to ‘get their’s‘ without worrying too much. Really, our band unity has never been better. Everyone contributed more to making the record than ever, and after just opening for the Stones and getting to see them play so well after all these years, we’re hungrier than ever to get out there and play the new songs and the old songs.”
From events just before Christmas, it seems that the modern rock audience is hungry to hear Pearl Jam music, too - perhaps more than many industry pundits thought. Several radio stations leaked advance copies of the first single, “Given To Fly,” before it officially went to radio in late December. WKRL Syracuse, N.Y., even played an advance of “Yield” in its entirety, which precipitated the illicit Internet circulation of high-fidelity audio files produced from a tape of the broadcast - much to the consternation of band management, Epic, and the Recording Industry Association of America.
Hardly contrite, WKRL program director/ morning host Fatman says the new Pearl Jam tracks were wildly popular among his listeners, with calls afterward voluminous and “totally, overwhelmingly” positive.
Although KJEE Santa Barbara, Calif., resisted jumping on “Given To Fly” early, general manager/program director Eddie Gutierrez says he thinks the emotive, anthemic ballad is going to be “a smash,” despite the fact that light ska-pop has dominated his playlist rather than hard rock in the past year.
“We’ve been playing some of these new rock bands like Days Of The New and Creed,” Gutierrez adds, “but my attitude is why play pale imitations of great groups like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden when you can play the real thing when you have it.”
Beyond standard airplay, Pearl Jam will distribute one of its occasional, free-form “Monkey Wrench” radio programs Jan. 31 to any station that wants to air it. The four-hour show features live performances from the band - Gossard, vocalist Eddie Vedder, guitarist Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament, and drummer Jack Irons - along with some special guests.
But if radio is a lock for the new Pearl Jam, MTV isn’t - the band hasn’t shot a video for “Given To Fly.” Gossard says the band filmed considerable live footage over the past three years and shot some “Yield” rehearsals. Yet while a longform video may be culled from the material for issue later this year, it also may just turn out to be Pearl Jam’s “version of ‘The Kids Are Alright’ in 10 years,” says the band’s Seattle-based manager, Kelly Curtis, referring to the Who documentary.
On Feb. 20, Pearl Jam kicks off its ‘98 tour with a show in Maui, Hawaii. A late February/ March tour of Australia and New Zealand follows. An indication of the band’s pull Down Under: Tickets for the three early March shows at the 12,000-capacity Melbourne Park sold out in 17 minutes. Some 40 summer dates are planned for U.S. arenas and sheds; according to Curtis, Pearl Jam will try to avoid Ticketmaster venues in general, and stadiums in particular (“The band doesn’t have a lemon,” jokes Curtis in a reference to U2’s extravaganza).
The songs of “Yield” seem especially suited for live shows, including some of the most immediate material of Pearl Jam’s career as well as some of the hardest rocking. The raucous “Do The Evolution” is a highlight, with Vedder pushing his voice to extremes in a very musical fashion.
Producer Brendan O’Brien says he’s continually impressed by Vedder’s expressive talent: “Eddie appeals to people on a lot of different levels, but he is undeniably a great singer, one of the best. And on this new record, he really shines.”
O’Brien - who has helmed each of Pearl Jam’s records since 1993’s “Vs.” - points out that unlike “Vitalogy,” which was prepared on the road, and “No Code,” which was concocted on the spot in the studio, “Yield” reflects considerable advance songwriting by each member of the band. Aside from “Given To Fly” and “Do The Evolution,” the disc’s crowd-pleasers include the melodious raver “Brain Of J,” the soaring “In Hiding” (a good bet for the second single), and the Beatlesque closer “All Those Yesterdays.”
Beyond “Yield,” a new, non-album Pearl Jam song will be available on the spring soundtrack to the indie film “Chicago Cab,” released by Gossard’s Loose Groove label. Other bands on the soundtrack include Supergrass and Epic recording act Brad, Gossard’s side project with Satchel’s Shawn Smith.
Also, Pearl Jam recorded Irons’ tune “Happy When I’m Crying” for a 7-inch split single with R.E.M., which was a Christmas gift not only to the 65,000 members of its fan club but to R.E.M.’s club, too.