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Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard on ‘Dark Matter’ album, upcoming tour

By Michael Rietmulder, The Seattle Times
Published: April 21, 2024, 6:00am

SEATTLE — In some ways, it’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Pearl Jam last played Seattle, when their ballyhooed Home Shows drummed up more than $11 million for local homelessness organizations. Between a barrage of side projects and lead singer Eddie Vedder’s and guitarist Mike McCready’s penchants for onstage pop-ins when their rock star buddies come to town, it’s not like the guys have been laying low in their hometown.

But a full-fledged, sweaty-browed, arena-rocking Pearl Jam show (or two) in their backyard is a different animal.

The PJ machine is officially fired up, as the Seattle juggernauts release their 12th studio album, “Dark Matter,” on Friday, with a pair of local dates — their first at Climate Pledge Arena — coming May 28 and 30.

“Dark Matter” differed, at least in process, from its predecessor, 2020’s striking “Gigaton” LP. As opposed to individual members of the band — rounded out by bassist Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Stone Gossard — coming in with near-complete demos over long gestation periods, many of the new songs were hashed out during quick-paced sessions with everyone in the same room.

“We’re all musical adventurers,” Gossard said earlier this month. “Everyone in the band wants to get into that moment of creativity and to be part of something that has that sort of magic and that feeling that transcends reality in some way.”

That all-hands, keep-it-moving approach hearkened back to the band’s early days and was largely spurred by hotshot producer (and low-key guitar hero ) Andrew Watt. Despite the 33-year-old’s pop pedigree, Watt is a not-so-secret Pearl Jam superfan who had been clamoring behind the scenes to work with the band for a while. After first making his name producing for pop A-listers like Justin Bieber and Post Malone, Watt’s become something of a whisperer to rock’s elder statesmen, working on recent albums with Ozzy Osbourne and Iggy Pop, the Rolling Stones and Vedder’s rewarding solo album, “Earthling.”

“He understands our songs from an outsider’s perspective,” Gossard said. “He knew that our early records were thrown together pretty quickly in terms of our process. There wasn’t a lot of time to think about things and I think that was part of what he fell in love with. He encouraged us to be in that same state of mind.”

Even if the guys brought in what they thought were solidified song skeletons, “everything that came in just got immediately thrown in the blender.” Parts were rearranged, keys shifted, new parts added. Nothing was too sacred. “That is a daunting process if you’re in a band because you’ve gotta be able to let your baby go,” Gossard said. “But that’s where some really magical things happen for us.”

“Dark Matter” was recorded during two stretches, the first taking place in 2021 at Watt’s studio.

“We walk into a room, here’s a guy that Ed has made a record with, but we’ve never met before, and he’s bouncing off the walls, super excited,” Gossard said. “He’s got a great little studio that the board is in the room, it’s all one room so we’re all in it together. We didn’t have any of our instruments, he just had guitars laying all over the place, and amps, and he’s like ‘Try this, try that, anything you wanna try!’ It’s a little bit ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ [laughs], he has a little bit of Willy Wonka [in him].”

Things started clicking immediately in Watt’s guitar-strewn Wonka factory, as the crew knocked out “Scared of Fear” and the swinging “React, Respond” — twin kickers that open the album — that first day. With Watt whipping up quality rough mixes on the fly, it was easy for the band to feel good about the takes and move on to the next song.

“He won our trust by having it together the first day and knowing how to get a song out of us,” Gossard said. “That set the hook for us, because we knew those songs were great. After that, we recorded another handful, but as we started to get more into the process, I think we got a little more cerebral again and [took] a little bit more time.”

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After letting the first batch of songs breathe for about a year, largely due to scheduling constraints, Pearl Jam and Watt reconvened in Malibu’s Shangri-La studio last year to finish the second half of the album. On the whole, one of the strengths of “Dark Matter” lies in how the band’s individual talents and impulses — whether it’s Ament’s anxious post-punk (“React, Respond”), McCready’s fire-raining solos or Vedder’s Who-like crescendos (“Got to Give”) — shine through in a more cohesive setting.

The result is a loose, no-bull collection of songs that often fall squarely into the band’s wheelhouse — like watching ‘em crank slow-pitched baseballs over the center field wall in a home run derby. Songs like the crushable “Waiting for Stevie” — its origins tracing to when Vedder and Watt were literally waiting for Stevie Wonder to show up and record a part for Vedder’s “Earthling” album — are destined to go down live as well as a $6 value beer in the T-Mobile Park bleachers.

Here’s what else Gossard had to say about working with Watt, the Home Shows and Pearl Jam’s upcoming tour. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

  • On Watt’s writing contributions …

“It’s funny, but Andrew has a guitar on all the time. That’s how he works. So while we were recording, he was in there playing along and he helped write parts to songs. He helped us with sections and had great, great intuition about getting from point A to point B and [how] to build suspense — things that you learn in pop music that can help you that are basically arrangement moves of tension and release, making something pop. Those things can all be part of a rock song. But it’s [the] sounds and the attitude and the tempo that you can play with that make them sound different.”

  • Reflecting on 2018’s Home Shows …

“I’m still unpacking that, honestly. I think it highlights how difficult things are to change without the right blend of partners and our intentions were to help create an opportunity to kind of build that. … But I think that we’re also human and definitely fallible. I’m not sure what we achieved, but I think at the very least we sent a signal that said it’s possible to do things on a large scale and it’s possible to be catalysts for change.

  • On playing Climate Pledge Arena for the first time …

“I saw the Cure there and it sounded great. I’m barely going to concerts, but I really enjoyed that. It was a very stripped-down affair and it felt like a club show in terms of the mood and how they just jammed. So, I’m excited, it’s good. I’m excited about this record [and] the way the band is thinking about this tour and I think we’re going to be ready to come out and have a good show.”

  • On recent tourmates Deep Sea Diver, the Seattle indie rock favorites opening the Climate Pledge Arena shows, and supporting Seattle bands …

“Jeff Ament is the one that fell in love with them early. They’re an amazing band live and did great opening last year. When you’re moved by music, you’re motivated to want to be around it, so I don’t know that it’s anything more than that. It’s cool to be where you’re from and to participate in your own city’s talent.”

On what keeps Pearl Jam exciting after 34 years …

“It’s still making art with your friends. That always excites me. In that collaboration and the mix of being part of something that you’re not really in control of but you know that you’re playing a role in it, that’s a fun place to play. And it’s still fun to play, like a kid.”

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