When Pearl Jam’s 2020 world tour was scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic, bassist Jeff Ament turned off CNN, put his phone away and got busy in his Montana home studio to record a batch of new songs inspired by that unprecedented year. The result is his fourth solo album, “I Should Be Outside,” which will be released Aug. 10, just a few weeks before Pearl Jam returns to the live stage for the first time in three years at New Jersey’s Sea.Hear.Now and California’s Ohana festivals.
“As bad as this last year-plus has been, it was an opportunity to go deep for an extended period without much distraction. It kept my head and heart above water. I quite liked it,” Ament (pictured above with the group, second from left) says of the album, which features appearances by one-time Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain, longtime collaborator Richard Stuverud and even three of Ament’s dogs, who bark their way through the closer “Sweet Boy.”
Ament spoke to Variety about the new music, lessons learned from the pandemic and 2020 election cycle and his excitement about finally being able to play material from Pearl Jam’s latest album, “Gigaton,” in front of concert audiences.
“I Should Be Outside” has a lot of references to breaking free from our addiction to technology and doing something creative. Did you ever imagine that one day you’d write and record a love song about bandwidth?
(Laughing heartily) Both that song and “I Hear Ya” are words or phrases you say all the time in a joking way, and then suddenly they become part of your everyday vocabulary, like, “that person takes up way too much of my bandwidth.” Those songs came out of trying to understand the people in your life. Some of the people I disagree with are really good human beings, great fathers and mothers and friends. With some of them, I just said, let’s not talk about this stuff right now. At the same time, it’s a mindfuck trying to understand it. The early conversations were like, can’t you see that Trump is pure evil? But we don’t know how they’re getting their news and what their friends are telling each other. I’m guilty of the same thing, to some degree. I live in a little left-wing bubble, and we prop up the same ideas. If anything, I came out the other end of this past year realizing I need to keep having these conversations and not be condescending.
It sounds like the creative process was a key part of getting you through the pandemic.
I recorded the bulk of this stuff with no agenda, really. Typically I go into my studio because I know the band is recording in a few months, and I want to get some songs together that might make the next Pearl Jam record. With this, it was really different. It just kept going, because we kept getting worse news, like, OK, I guess we aren’t going back on tour at the end of the summer. During the process, I also made a record with John Wicks, the [Fitz & the Tantrums] drummer who is in [side-project] Deaf Charlie with me. We’re still working on that stuff right now. This music was a way for me to keep my head out of the news, which I started getting through channels like the BBC and The Economist — without the emotional end of it. That was a better way for me to move through this past year without the talking heads winding me up even more.
Were you inspired by anything musically during this time?
The stuff I come back to over and over is the contemporary punk music coming out of England and Ireland right now, like Idles. I really love [Canadian group] Preoccupations. They have a modern goth thing that reminds me of music I grew up with, like Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy. I was trying to write fast and not lose that initial inspiration, so a lot of this new music is representative of what I was feeling, and probably what everybody was feeling during all of this.
Matt Chamberlain plays drums on “I Hear Ya” and “Bandwidth.” Was this the first time you’d made music with him since his very brief stint in Pearl Jam in 1991?
I played a couple songs with him at the Chris Cornell tribute concert at the Forum in 2019. After rehearsal one day, he said, hey, my recording studio is right down the road. Want to check it out? I had something else going on, but that’s what led me to ask him. He’s played on so many great records and is always up for doing something weird. Both these songs were pretty straight ahead, but I said, get as outside with them as you can, and he really added a lot.
Pearl Jam will play live in September for the first time in three years. How will you prep for those shows over the next few months?
We’re gonna try to come up with 50 or 60 songs that we remember (laughs). We rehearsed the “Gigaton” songs before the tour got postponed last year, but we hadn’t refreshed on older material. Almost every time I get in the car, I’ll go over to Sirius to see what they’re playing on the Pearl Jam station. I’ve made a game out of it: “Light Years,” OK, that starts in D. Just to try to get a visual of what the song is and wake up that muscle memory. Three years is a long time. Some of that muscle memory could be gone, which could be good. It could force us to play songs in different ways. It will be fun, but we have to get the “Gigaton” songs back into shape, and then there will be probably another week of touching on 50 or 60 songs just to come up with a couple set lists for these two shows.
It must have been such a disappointment to release “Gigaton” and then not be able to perform the new material live.
“Gigaton” was all done in-house, and I’m proud of that. It wasn’t the easiest record to make, but everybody came together at the end. We worked really hard on it. A good chunk of that record could be really fun to play live. Even in the rehearsals we did, we got a sense of which sections of songs could stretch out. You really don’t know until you’re in front of a live crowd and the energy is flying around the room. That’s the exciting thing about finishing a record. We’re always surprised when a song that isn’t one of the leading candidates turns into a really fun one to play. “Quick Escape” is an obvious one that could really stretch out live. I’m excited about “River Cross,” which is one of my favorite things we’ve ever done, and one of my favorite songs Ed has ever written. It was really outside of our normal instrumentation and it’s such a beautiful song. I think that will go over really well live.
Firing up the whole Pearl Jam organization for just two shows can’t be easy. Are there plans for any other touring this year?
I don’t think there’s any way we’re going into arenas before the end of the year. I think we’ll wait to see how everything shakes out. We have so many fans that travel, and that’s the thing that freaks me out the most. You see how bad things are with COVID in South America right now and you think about 50 people getting on planes and coming to one of the upcoming shows. I would guess that a good portion of our fans are vaccinated, but some may not be, and some may be immune-compromised. The last thing we want to do is be a part of anybody getting really sick or dying. We’re going to take our time. It feels like playing Ohana and Sea.Hear.Now is a perfect way to get our feet wet. Both of those environments are going to be crazily celebratory and it’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be so awesome (laughs).
Pearl Jam is streaming its 2018 concert in Missoula on June 18. That show came right after the two biggest concerts the band had ever played in Seattle, which raised $12 million for local homeless organizations. You said at the time that the experience was so good, it might be the perfect time to retire?
Playing in Montana [his home state] is such a personal thing for me. We’ve done it six or seven times over the years. It felt like with this particular event, we finally did it right. We had a community of 25 non-profit organizations outside the stadium. It was a way to showcase 30 years of work and relationships with people here in Montana. We got to help Jon Tester pull through another election and win a super important Senate seat. We had just come out of those Seattle shows, so in Missoula, there was some fatigue, but also a sense of relief. The Seattle shows were two of the best shows we’ve ever done there, which is saying a lot, 30 years on. When you have those big moments this far along in your career, and Missoula was certainly one of those, it’s such a victory.