American Masters celebrates Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary with Pearl Jam Twenty, a portrait of the band featuring never-before-seen footage and interviews, directed by Academy Award-winning director Cameron Crowe. Here, the band discusses their musical beginnings and life before Pearl Jam.
Interview courtesy of American Masters.
What was your first instrument? When and where did you start playing?
Jeff Ament: I took piano lessons from first to sixth grade in Big Sandy, Montana, from Mrs. Giebel. I mowed her lawn, raked leaves, and shoveled snow to help with the cost. From fifth grade through my sophomore year in high school, I played snare drum and percussion in the school band and also sang in the choir. I forgot all of this when I heard the Ramones and bought the same bass that Dee Dee played.
Matt Cameron: My first instrument was a secondhand drum set at the age of eleven. I had been banging on everything in the house since the age of three. Luckily, I had very supportive parents who were both big jazz fans.
Stone Gossard: Aside from a trumpet in third grade and some boys choir stuff in fourth (1975-ish), my first real instrument was the mandolin I got in 1980. There was a band called the Probes at my high school that were killing it and making everyone dance. They didn’t have a mandolin, so I thought maybe if I learned some tricks I could get in. It was a lot harder than I thought. I was never asked to join.
Mike McCready: My first guitar was a Matao Les Paul from my parents. It was black and cost a hundred dollars. They said I could get a guitar if I took lessons, which I did, from Mike Wilson. He was a fantastic teacher who taught me scales and Kiss songs and also made it fun, so I wanted to go back. Later I wanted to make it a gold top, so I chiseled—yes, chiseled—the top layer of the guitar off, then I spray painted it gold. Oops. It was never the same. I wish I knew where it was today.
Eddie Vedder: A beat-up ukulele. To keep the strings taut, I had to wrap the headstock in masking tape. My first instrument, in a way, was one of those little green memo pad notebooks when I was really young. I’d write songs, putting arrows over the notes so I’d know which note was higher than the other. The ukulele thing probably happened when I was ten. My mom would go to garage sales or yard sales, clean up all the toys, and put them under the tree. I’d get a little racetrack, and a key piece of track was missing. I think it was probably a yard sale, and they just gave the ukulele to us as an act of pity.
What was the inspiration behind why you wanted to play music?
Ament: Initially, it was Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, and Kiss, until I heard the Ramones, Devo, the Clash, and all the hardcore bands in California. Playing music was an occupation furthest away from what I thought was possible.
Cameron: Self-expression, trying to be like my heroes, girls, in that order.
Gossard: In 1981, at the urging of Steve Turner, I got a bass and then a guitar and we formed Ducky Boys with Jeff Covell and Chris Peppard. Steve told me that garage rock was the way and that you can be crappy and still have cool songs and a band. It was a revelation. He liked the most underground, noisy punk, which I didn’t really get. But he also loved Alice Cooper and even Black Sabbath. I never let go of that advice.
McCready: Well, I have to say, Kiss. I was a Cub Scout, and then Kiss came along. I remember just jumping around with a tennis racket pretending I was Paul Stanley or Ace Frehley. It also felt cool and was really fun to play in a band—probably to meet girls, too. I played my first “concert” at Jenny W.’s birthday party in 1978.
Vedder: I just loved it. I was onto a record player early, early on; one of those plastic kids’ record players that came with a single of “Puff the Magic Dragon.” If we went to visit relatives, I’d take my little plastic record player, go find a room, and sit there with my records. I probably had three. Then I started raiding my uncle’s singles collection and got into adult music fairly quickly. The crossover was “Yellow Submarine.” I remember borrowing or perhaps stealing that single from him. He’s ten years older, so if I was five, he was fifteen, and he had some pretty cool records. He wore an army jacket. He was just cool. This was probably 1969 or 1970. He’d give me records, but then he’d go off with his buddies, and I’d take a few more. I distinctly remember my mom on the phone saying, “Do you have Hot Rocks?” And I’d go [sheepishly], “Um, yeah,” while I was cranking “Brown Sugar” or “Mother’s Little Helper.”
What are some of the earliest/most influential concerts you attended?
Ament: My first show was Styx on their Equinox tour in 1975. They played Havre, Montana, at the NMC Armory. I didn’t see another concert until I saw Van Halen in Great Falls in 1979. The most influential shows that I saw early on were X, the Clash, and the Who on my first visit to Seattle with some friends in 1982. I moved to Seattle the next year, and seeing Black Flag, the Ramones, Bad Brains, and a slew of hardcore bands at the Metropolis had the biggest influence on my musical life.
Cameron: In the mid to late seventies, I had the honor to see Queen, Kiss, Bowie, Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, Shelly Manne, Bobby Hutcherson, and Jaco Pastorius. I had my mind blown wide open at a very early age. I do not miss the M80s people used to bring to big rock concerts back then. It sounded like a war was breaking out between bands. I also remember a lot of kids partying way too hard the day of a big concert and ending up passed out in a pool of vomit during the show. I wanted to soak in every detail, so the idea of being too high to enjoy the concert experience made no sense to me. I guess I was an early straight-edger.
Gossard: Randy Hansen’s tribute to Jimi Hendrix in 1979, then UFO at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. My first punk show was Black Flag at Eagles Auditorium in 1982 or ’83.
McCready: The Heats at Mural Amphitheatre; Van Halen on the Van Halen II tour at the Seattle Center Arena; Cheap Trick at Hec Ed Pavilion (waited all day and skipped school); TKO at Lake Hills, the Moore Theatre, or anywhere in the early eighties; Kiss in ’79; Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Girlschool at Hec Ed Pavilion; Motörhead at the Paramount Theatre; the Girls in 1980 opening for the Ramones; and Silly Killers at Laurelhurst Club House. I watched through the window. Probably all the Warrior and Shadow concerts set in motion what I am today.
Vedder: I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with my uncle in 1977 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. It was the first show of any kind I saw in person, I believe, unless there was one a year before. There was a little theater called La Paloma in Encinitas, California. It was the summer The Last Waltz came out. At this point, I’d had a few guitar lessons. My guitar teacher and I went to see Rick Danko play solo along with Jack Tempchin, who wrote “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone” for the Eagles. Rick Danko pretty much played acoustic, but he sang “Stage Fright” to a tape. Then, all the bands I wanted to see weren’t playing all-ages. So I had to get a fake ID to get into punk shows. I remember getting into an X show and it being a really big deal. I got right into the front, and Exene Cervanka handed me a Miller Lite to hold in between songs. I just had this feeling that it wasn’t mine to drink; it was mine to hold while she played. I also saw the Pretenders at Golden Hall in San Diego. There was no barricade, and no monitor between me and Chrissie Hynde. People are pushing and shoving. I got pushed forward and my hand landed on Chrissie Hynde’s left boot. She immediately flicked it off. I thought it was so fucking awesome. I saw Sonic Youth on the Daydream Nation tour. I didn’t know if it was the greatest thing ever or if they were disrespecting us. [Laughs] By the next morning, I knew I had been changed.
What are some of the best memories you have from playing early shows with your first bands?
Ament: Getting to play through a real PA was always a big thrill. Hüsker Dü giving us a joint and twenty dollars for opening up for them when the promoter screwed us. Mostly just trying to impress your friends. Hell, that’s still how it is.
Cameron: Playing my high school graduation party in 1980 with the band Faultline at Fiesta Island in San Diego. We brought a generator, parked two vans in a V behind us, and started rocking. Our classmates (mostly from the smoking section) were rocking out and loving every moment. Two songs into our set, the cops showed up and asked for our permit. Oops. Not a great start to the summer of 1980. My first Soundgarden show in 1986 at the Ditto Tavern was a baptism by fire. I had joined the group one week prior to the gig and I wanted to impress. The drummer I had replaced, Scott Sundquist, was in the front row critiquing my every move. I remember him saying from the front of the stage, “Kick drum too loud!” “Too fast!” et cetera. Opening for Love and Rockets in 1986 was a big Soundgarden moment for me. We had never played a show in a theater before, just local bars and such, so we were a little nervous. Our opening song, “Entering,” sounded a lot like “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” from their previous band Bauhaus. Both songs have a very similar drum intro, so when I got the cue, I laid into the beat, and I remember the first two rows looking at each other with mild confusion. Once Hiro Yamamoto and Kim Thayil hit the first gnarly guitar notes, there was no more confusion. It was the first big stage the band had played on—the Moore Theatre in Seattle—and after the show, I realized we had a sound that could fill any size venue, and we could hold our own with anyone.
Gossard: It’s fun now, but it used to scare me. I was nervous. But once we started getting drunk, it got better. More lose-your-mind rock ‘n’ roll.
McCready: Wow. Let’s see. Jenny W.’s birthday party in 1978. Warrior played a few originals. In 1979, Warrior at the Eckstein Junior High talent show. Big controversy over Danny Newcomb playing “The Star Spangled Banner” with his teeth. He did it when told he couldn’t. Right on, Danny! In 1979, a Warrior concert for Symphony Fundathon under the Monorail. I had a completely homemade tie-dye outfit. I’m sure the symphony hated us. The second Headbangers Ball with Shadow, Metal Church, and TKO. We got booed off the stage. Also, Jeff Ament came over after our singer, Rob Webber, invited him to the show. Guess who was doing a guitar solo, finger tapping his Kramer Pacer as he walked in? I gave Jeff a picture of that last year. Who knew that we would later be rockin’ side by side seven-hundred plus shows later? December 1986, Shadow’s first show at the Roxy in L.A. It only cost us seven hundred dollars to get on the bill! At least Tim Dijulio, Duff McKagan, Lauren, and about two other people were there at midnight on a Sunday. Shadow played at Fender’s, opening for Andy Taylor of Duran Duran in 1987. I met Rod Stewart there. Our final L.A. show was at Club Lingerie in 1987. I became a lead guitar player in those lean L.A. years—eating Top Ramen and payin’ those dues.
Vedder: My sophomore year of high school, I played with a friend from class who knew so-and-so, who worked at a grocery store, who had a practice space in his garage and a nice amp. But he was really into the Eagles, and the keyboard player was into Styx, and the bass player was into the Cars, and himself. The drummer was in the school band. And then I’m into the Who, piL, and Springsteen. It sounded like shit. Everybody would get their one or two songs to sing. You’d play at parties and pretty much just suck. As bad as the group was, the part of the night that the rest of the guys disliked most was when I got to sing. In the end, which shows how bad it was, they were like, “Uh, I think we’re going to break up the band.” And within a week, another guy with a better guitar and better amp had taken my place.