Pearl Jam’s first album in nearly seven years, “Gigaton,” released today, is the veteran Seattle band’s most satisfying and adventurous work since the Clinton administration. For that, much credit must go to producer Josh Evans, who has worked for 15 years in various capacities behind-the-scenes with Pearl Jam and its individual members.
Recorded over the course of three years at the band’s own studio, “Gigaton” deftly balances songs unlike any in the Pearl Jam catalog (the electronic-flavored first single “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” which evokes The Cure and Talking Heads) with rockers (opener “Who Ever Said,” drummer Matt Cameron’s ‘80s metal homage “Take the Long Way”) and frontman Eddie Vedder’s signature soul-stirring anthems (the album closer, “River Cross”). A North American tour in support of the album was set to begin March 18 in Toronto but has been postponed indefinitely; a summer European tour, starting June 23 in Frankfurt, Germany, is still on the books as of now.
In his most in-depth interview to date, Evans goes track-by-track on “Gigaton” with Variety. “The mission statement for the record was, if it sounds good and feels good, go with it,” he says. “Nobody was like, how come the first verse doesn’t sound like the second verse? It was a real playful experience of going down different roads and seeing what happens.”
How did you find your way into Pearl Jam’s world?
I was 12 or 13 living in Seattle when everything was blowing up. I was right in the middle of it, which is kind of crazy to think about now.
When I graduated from college, I started interning at the Studio X, which used to be Bad Animals, where Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and all those Seattle bands recorded. I was just an assistant there, helping set up equipment and getting sandwiches. I got to know Pearl Jam a little bit when they were recording the “Avocado” album in 2005, but mostly I got to know the crew. Since I’m a guitar player, I ended up setting up guitars and spent a few late nights re-stringing [guitarist] Mike [McCready]’s Strats. When they wrapped that record, they had to move warehouses, and they hired me to move boxes, build shelves, paint walls and drive the moving truck back and forth. It was like the rock’n’roll mailroom.
When they did “Backspacer” with Brendan O’Brien in 2009, they needed to get some of the studio sounds into their live show. Since I had an audio engineering background, they drafted me to be the tech for [keyboardist] Boom [Gaspar] and help get that all sorted out. As a roadie, my first gig was a Pearl Jam gig, which was kind of funny since all the other backline guys had paid their dues sleeping on floors and driving vans. Through all of this, I ended up working with Soundgarden and was [guitarist] Kim Thayil’s tech for several years. I also worked on their “King Animal” record as an engineer. This whole time, I was still doing my own projects and recording local bands. But slowly, I started working with each Pearl Jam member on their side projects.
Around 2017, they were starting work on this record. [Pearl Jam engineer] John Burton and I were helping them record demos, and [at a certain point] it became, “We don’t think these are demos anymore, we might actually be recording an album.” I fully expected at some point they would say, “Thanks Josh, now we’re going to bring a real producer in,” but that never happened. Things were sounding good, and they trusted me to finish it. I feel so grateful and lucky.
Track by Track
“Who Ever Said”
Ed came in with a demo he’d done on his little portable recorder, with some vocals, a couple tracks of guitar and a beat on a drum machine. The [structure] of it is the same as you hear it now, with that first part that never comes back again. In the ProTools session, I just gave up on labeling things as verses or choruses.
Ed plays the main rhythm guitar. It’s doubled in the left and right channel. He puts all the same little pick scrapes and rhythmic accents in the same place and it sounds wild. He’s got an incredible right hand. You’re hearing him hit the strings so hard that the guitar almost wilts.
The sound at the very beginning is a trail of delay from Mike McCready from an entirely different song, I don’t even remember which one. Some of the sounds at the end of “Retrograde” are things flown in from other songs. Over three years, I accumulated quite a collection — a sample library of things to play with. I’ve seen the intro described as an arpeggiated synth, but it’s actually a feedback-ed, delay looped guitar. The other sitar-y, droning sounds are actually from the bridge.
The last few seconds when the drums kick back in were something that just happened. It wasn’t on the demo. That was them recording live in the room. I think it just adds to the chaos. This sounds so pretentious, but it’s almost like an overture for the symphony of the record. Some of the themes, textures and sounds you will hear later are teased here.
Again, the experimental nature here is in the songwriting and the structure. For a while, what I was calling “chorus,” Ed was calling “verse.” At some point, we realized it didn’t matter. Some of that led to these textural elements, like, OK, we don’t have an easily digestible structure to hang your ear on as a listener, so let’s play around with the sound a little bit more to push things from one section to the next, or build the tension up and release it. In a traditional songwriting structure, some of those things are more baked in. This is them teetering on the edge a little bit, and it can be a little unsettling for the listener, because you don’t know what’s coming next. The normal roadsigns for what a song is aren’t there.
“Dance of the Clairvoyants”
This came around at the midpoint of the sessions. Vibe-wise, it felt like a watershed track. It started out with a weird Matt Cameron drum machine beat, [guitarist Stone Gossard] came in and spent time rearranging that beat and built a structure out of it. He put that bass line you hear on it — the first time he played it, that’s what you hear on the record — I don’t think [bassist Jeff Ament] ever thought, hey, I’m the bass player. Let me come in and show you how it’s done (laughs). Mike did a funky, Nile Rodgers-style guitar part, and at that point, I thought, oh my God, this track is ridiculous, but how could this be on a Pearl Jam record? Then Ed came in and sang his parts, and it became a Pearl Jam song. For me, it validated the way we were working: If we could do that, we could do anything. It felt like we cracked the code after this song. I’m even more excited they chose it as the first single. It makes such a statement. Tracklist-wise, it’s perfectly placed.
Certainly Mike’s wild solo at the end makes me think of something like “Reach Down” by [the Pearl Jam-Soundgarden 1990 side-project] Temple Of The Dog. The lyrics are this sci-fi journey that name-checks other bands and places around the world, and that inspired everyone to take the song on a musical journey as well. That section before the first solo, I imagine that as the rocket taking off. Stone does that first solo. He came in one day and played it plugged straight into ProTools with no amp. He was like, eh, that’s cool, but go ahead and mess with it. I wanted it to sound like an army of robotic bees crossed with the strings from Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” That’s what I was thinking (laughs).
Jeff wrote it, and brought in a version with him singing. He showed it to the band and they thought it was amazing. His demo, which he started at home in Montana, had that Kalimba loop that goes throughout the song, plus some of the piano chords and acoustic guitars. I think some of the bass and piano are what’s in the track now.
The performance you hear is pretty much a live take of the band playing together, certainly for the verses. The initial inspiration came on literally the first day we started recording this record. They were just improv-ing while Ed was scatting some vocals and strumming some chords. That ended up being at least an hour-long extended improv of them trying stuff.
We picked out a few spots where Ed was doing something interesting, and made sonic Lego blocks for him to play with. We rearranged them until we built a skeleton of what the song could be, and then he wrote lyrics to that. It wasn’t a song written for these parts to be together. But it forced us to be creative. How do we make these things that happened 30 minutes apart, off the cuff, connect together? That melody Ed sings at the very end, there’s something in that rhythm, kind of “Yellow Ledbetter”-style, that he went back to from the very beginning of the jam and used for inspiration.
This is another Ed song with a very interesting structure. There’s a completely different chord progression in the last 30 seconds or so that we haven’t heard up until that point. That’s something he’s on right now. I don’t know if it’s the surfer in him — waves and nature rather than building a city block. I always think of that song as a surf rock song. Ed’s vocal, lyrics and aggression were the north star for the song, so we built everything around that to keep it exciting.
“Take the Long Way”
I don’t think it was necessarily written for Soundgarden, but when you hear a Matt song, you hear exactly what he brought to that band. These guys are always recording or demoing something. They’re so creative. This is a song Matt had demoed at another studio here in town amongst all the other songs he was working on. He brought it to the band and they were like, this is ridiculous! It has these layered background vocals from Meagan Grandall of the Seattle band Lemolo. The producer, Nate Yaccino, who Matt was doing demos with, was also working with her. So she threw some vocals on it just for fun. I certainly wouldn’t have had the creativity to go, oh, this Judas Priest/Soundgarden song needs some dreamy, layered, synthesized vocals on top (laughs). Because it evolved backwards from there, it just works. Matt plays some guitar on the chorus but it ended up being mostly Mike playing the rhythm parts — those are his metal roots coming out. Stone plays that Mudhoney, fuzzed-out guitar stuff.
This whole time we were demoing songs for what ended up being “Gigaton,” we were in their own studio, so they were always coming in and out with ideas. Stone had the lyrics and melody. He’s written a song about hospital rooms and people dying and children and parents. How many of these lyrics seem so eerily relevant now? Lyrically, it’s pretty dark, which is fun to contrast with the music, which is light and little bit airy.
You can hear Stone singing on that “bah-bah” breakdown, which some people think is a kazoo. It’s just fuzzed-out guitar and some other weird sounds stacking up. As Ed was singing and re-singing it, he was super concerned about getting it right. He was trying to inhabit the character Stone created and convey the emotions he wanted to convey. Ed would change one word, or delete an “and” or a “the,” and even with that he’d check with Stone. And of course Stone was like, “You’re Eddie Vedder! Do whatever you want!”
“Comes Then Goes”
This song is just Ed’s guitar and vocal, which is either the first or second take. We recorded it on a day a couple years ago when we were about to get snowed in at the studio. We didn’t necessarily think it would go on the record that way. His performances are so perfect and so intense and so emotional that I don’t think there was ever a question afterwards that this was the song. Different people tried different things, but anytime we added something, it didn’t actually add something. The rest of the band realized their part for this song was to not play. Why mess with it?
There’s a great Thelonious Monk quote: don’t put all the music in the song. Let some of it happen in the audience’s mind. In the flow of the record up to this point, you’ve had all these tempos and sounds. This gives you a break. Sonically, it’s simple, but emotionally, it is very complex.
This is one of the earliest songs we worked on. The structure was in place early on, but it being Mike’s song, we tried it all kinds of different ways: with acoustic guitar, electric guitar, 12-string. When it came time to mix, I think I literally had 30 tracks of different guitar ideas and ways we could go. We navigated through all these different layers to evolve the textures and build to that big outro. We wanted to make it soar, so you hear big guitars, delayed keyboards, Mellotron and bass drum. When Ed gets into it, it almost feels like him flying off a cliff, and the world falls out underneath him.
Ed has an old pump organ from the 1850s in his home studio and what he played on the demo is what you hear on the finished track. He even outlined some drums, so we used those as our backbone to build on. It’s such a great song and such a great performance, vocally. Aesthetically, it really came together with Jeff’s bass part doubled with the kalimba. We layered a lot of stuff on there at first, but we wound up removing almost all of it. It was all in support of the lyrics and melody, which are so incredible. Complicated and complex are not the same thing. These guys are so great at knowing the difference.
Did you finish any other songs during the recording sessions?
They’re always working on something. It’s hard to say, because it’s not really done until it’s out. There are all kinds of things sitting on hard drives — from pieces of ideas to something one of the guys might consider a finished song. As far as mixing the record, these were the only 12 songs we mixed. Sometimes you have to capture these moments. If “River Cross” had sat around for another four years in its two-thirds-finished state, it probably never would have gotten finished, because the world would have changed. Creatively, they’re looking forward right now — that’s what’s exciting for them.