California suburbs: The San Diego punk scene
Hershey, Pennsylvania: Appreciative of political commentary
I met Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder in Seattle in 1998, outside a club called The Crocodile Café. My band [Sleater-Kinney] was playing that night and Eddie walked up and stood in line behind me and my bandmate. He introduced himself to us and said he felt like he was standing next to Jagger and Richards. It’s a compliment a girl doesn’t hear too often.
It’s not that his comments fed my ego, or were commensurate to my own sense of self, but they were indicative of something that I would later learn is intrinsic to Vedder: he is unafraid to be a fan, and music is an entire universe for him.
Whether he’s bringing the Buzzcocks along on tour to introduce his audience to some English punks who were there at the beginning, or playing a cover of the Clash’s “Know Your Rights,” doing a pretty good job of imitating Joe Strummer’s hoarse and plaintive cry, Vedder is all about sharing. On the tour we did together in 2003, I watched musicians from the likes of Steve Earle to the Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome take the stage beside him. Well, actually, in front of him, since he often slips into the background to watch. Even when it’s just his own band on stage, he’ll step aside during a Mike McCready solo, steal glances at the crowd, rock back and forth; sometimes it’s more like he’s part of the audience than the lead singer.
We were all on stage one night, playing Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which was typically Pearl Jam’s last song of the encore. We got to the break in the song, and I guess the drummers thought the guitarists would keep playing and vice versa, but it turned out that none of us did. We all stopped. For a moment, it was just Eddie. “There are a thousand points of light,” he sang. There was nothing behind him. It was a clumsy and beautiful moment. He turned to us, smiling, as if to say, “What the fuck?” and we came back in on the next beat. I remember thinking later that he could probably do all of this on his own, but I know he’d rather be part of something bigger, and he’d rather have music filling the space around him, so that he can be a performer and a fan at the same time.
I. “IT’S AN OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD JUST TRYING TO LIVE.”
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Is tomorrow the day you’re quitting smoking? Do you want to discuss that at all?
EDDIE VEDDER: Yeah, let’s see. Well, it’s shameful that I thought that we should talk before I quit. I’m still at the point where I think that I get my best thinking done when I’ve got a fucking cigarette in my mouth.
CB: Do you quit today or tomorrow?
EV: Well, I’m going to be hypnotized tomorrow. To assist in my quitting. And I’m also going to ask her if maybe she can throw in something about writing and being able to write a better bridge. You know, better bridges for songs.
EV: We’ll see. When I think about it, man, I’ve got all kinds of things I’d love some subconscious help with.
CB: Is the process that she hypnotizes you and then talks to you about your smoking and about how you could go about writing better bridges?
EV: You know, I’m just kind of going to go in open to it. And I think I’m fairly malleable. I think I can be talked into something like smoking or writing better. I just know that I’m over smoking. You know, I feel like I’ve gone on long hikes and gotten to the top of the mountain and I’m looking at something beautiful, some great huge landscape, and there’s some of the cleanest air that’s on the planet. And then I light up, and say, “Ahh, what a great smoking moment this is!” So it’s something evil that’s taken over, and I want control over it.
CB: When you play, can you feel that you’re a smoker in terms of singing or jumping around on stage?
EV: No. That’s the problem. It hasn’t really affected any of that. And I feel I can get away with it. But now I’ve smoked since right around when Kurt died or whatever.
CB: That’s when you started smoking?
EV: That created some kind of neuroses that I needed to pacify.
CB: Your band and music community have suffered numerous losses over the years, from the events at Roskilde [Nine people died in the mosh pit at a Pearl Jam concert in Roskilde, Denmark on June 30, 2000.] to the death of friends. Do you ever feel that it’s an occupational hazard to play music? What helps you to move forward?
EV: Along with those who aren’t around anymore, I include relationships in the same loss column. It’s sad and it’s tough. But it is for those in sales jobs who have to travel, and those in the military. For most people, I guess. It’s an occupational hazard just trying to live. So there’s nothing to do but move forward. Everything’s in a constant state of change, so the challenge is to accept that and be moving with it. That Howard Zinn line sums it up: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
II. “I DON’T UNDERSTAND TELLING ANY KIND OF ARTIST THAT YOU DON’T WANT THEIR PERSONAL OPINIONS INVOLVED.”
CB: Not to necessarily launch into politics right away, but I wanted to ask about your last tour. In Denver, a comment about Bush elicited a slightly negative response from some of the audience. [During a performance of the song “Bush Leaguer,” Vedder, who had been wearing a George W. mask, removed it and placed it atop the microphone stand. He then continued singing the song to the mask. Afterwards, he took a moment to share his feelings about our president with the crowd.] How difficult was it for you to voice dissent?
EV: Well, actually that was really our tour, wasn’t it? Because you were there—
CB: Yeah. I was with you and felt it. You don’t have a small audience, and when you voice dissent or voice an opinion, it’s heard by upwards of 10,000 people.
EV: Well, we should clarify that that first night in Denver when that happened we didn’t really hear anything negative. And I think that I talked to you guys the next day when we were kind of shocked by some of the reports that were coming out. “Concertgoers jam exits in response to anti-Bush comments during Pearl Jam concert.” And, you know, when I showed that to you and we talked about it, you guys said that you didn’t see any of that at all.
CB: No. In terms of the audience not wanting to be there anymore or it affecting their love for you or the music, that was completely false. I think there is a kind of silence that comes over the crowd when you talk about politics, mostly because people really want to hear what you say. And I think in Denver there were some people who maybe disagreed with you, but I don’t think that caused them to walk out.
EV: Well, that’s what I thought. What I think was really interesting to go through was watching the effect that improper reporting, or even irresponsible reporting, had on people’s perception. That stirred up the right-wing conservative radio and everything else that was on the ticker tape of CNN or FOX News. That was the scary part. That’s when we had to talk as a band, and, you know, a couple of members had wives, homes, and a couple kids and they live in a normal area that’s not really secure. And you get this heat built up behind you, and you hear all these kinds of crazy stories like the Dixie Chicks, their houses being vandalized, and their grandparents being accosted at the seniors’ home.
CB: There’s so much skewing of the truth. And now, in retrospect, knowing about the lack of weapons of mass destruction, it seems that the media is also partially accountable for never asking this administration the right questions, for never challenging them. I think people’s eyes are opening up to a lot of these things right now.
EV: I remember when this was all kind of happening and showing up for our first shows. At sound check you guys were playing “Fortunate Son,” and Jeff [Ament] and I were sitting in the back and smiling, because we had been playing that one in Australia. And at some point we started playing it together. And at the end, it felt like real solidarity in the face of no matter what. We had our convictions, and no matter what the paying audience was there to see, or what they were open to, just to play that song or to stand at the end of “Rockin’ in the Free World” or something, and to hold Corin [Tucker, of Sleater-Kinney]’s hand. It was exciting, too, being representative of male and female, and stand there with our peace signs up, and just kind of stare at the crowd at the end of this song, at the end of this night. The strange thing about it was that at the time it was frightening and felt like a really bold stand to do that. What’s interesting now is it wouldn’t seem to be a problem a year later.
CB: Yeah, I agree. Obviously with a crowd or audience as large as yours, not everyone is going to agree with you and your personal politics. Does that ever bother you? Because it feels like, for other bands, that can feel really alienating.
EV: Yeah. I think the most frustrating thing is that I don’t know how many. Sometimes I’ll get letters or something. I like to see both sides of everything, and I’ll get something nasty like “Just shut the fuck up and play your guitar.”
EV: And that’s one thing I don’t really understand. I feel like if Kurt Vonnegut, or anybody else whose art I appreciated, volunteered some personal viewpoint, whether I agreed or not, I think I’d just be curious to hear and then take it from there. I have every right to disagree. But just to say, “He shouldn’t do that” or “That’s going to keep me from reading his books.” That, I don’t relate to at all. I don’t understand telling any kind of artist that you don’t want their personal opinions involved. Every time I mention rock and roll music as art, I just know that Mark Arm [of Mudhoney] is kicking somewhere. Which is good, because it’s a good barometer. I just think that it’s something that, for the people whose music and work I’ve always appreciated, that’s always been part and parcel. So, I’m actually someone who’s the other way. I want to hear that kind of stuff, especially if they’ve worked hard to educate themselves on the issues.
III. “THIS ADMINISTRATION HAS MADE OUR COUNTRY INTO A LIABILITY UPON THE EARTH.”
CB: Do you think that music still has the capability of being political, spearheading political movements, or bringing people together?
EV: Yeah, you know, I talked to someone who was making music during the sixties, and they felt that even then it didn’t do any good, and that it was only the body bags coming back from Vietnam that ultimately stopped this thing. And Walter Cronkite, being the kind of respectable adoptive grandfather of our nation at the time, coming out at some point to say that what we’re doing is wrong. That held more sway than all the peace movements. Whether I agree with that or not, I don’t know, but I think it’s interesting. I’m just always shocked by the number of voters there are, and that Bush was elected by less than a quarter of the voting public. That’s a very small percentage of the people that agreed to vote for him and to put a president in office. And even that, what were those people thinking? And I don’t know if people were so ignorant that they thought that Bush Jr.—a silver-spooned frat boy, doing deals all his life, failing at these business deals, rescued out of every bad business deal he ever did, getting the deals because of his last name—how people thought he was someone that they could relate to as a working guy, or as someone they could sit down and have a beer with? I don’t get it. If you think about all the people that aren’t voting… It could be the power of music. I don’t know what it could be to get people to vote.
CB: Right now the way the music industry is, there are bands that seem to be sort of punk or indie, and they’re on the mainstream airwaves and on MTV. For the most part, these bands aren’t involved in politics.
EV: I think there’s one kind of cool thing going on, it’s called punkvoter.com, and between that and MoveOn.org, those are two really interesting things. They’re kind of doing Rock Against Bush tours. They’re actually talking to people about what they can do.
CB: Is this like Bands Against Bush?
EV: Yeah, sort of. I think what’s neat about that is that they’re actually billing it like that. You know, you almost have to do that, say, “We’re actually going to be dealing with this stuff tonight, in some way or another.”
CB: I think, partly, though, they might be preaching to the converted, when you have a bunch of people showing up because they’re obviously against Bush. There’s something to be said about not billing it like that and including it in your set wherever you play. Sometimes at our show I’ll say something and I realize, oh, OK, everybody just cheered, well that was easy.
EV: Yeah. Putting it in a context where maybe you’re not necessarily preaching to the converted. But I guess even if you are preaching to the converted, as you said, it’s making sure that people who want Bush out of office are actually voting and not just cheering at your show.
BLVR: What are your thoughts on why people aren’t turning out to vote, especially those who seem to want things to change?
EV: Well, today I went to the hardware store, and I put a couple of things in the back of my truck. And drove home, which wasn’t very far. And then I got out and went to take them out, and they were gone. They were missing. There were these aluminum poles and they just flew out of the back of my truck. So, I drove all the way back looking in the gutters to see if I could find these poles and didn’t find them, so I had to rebuy them. As I was driving back, a little more cautiously this time, I started thinking about the youth vote. And that made me think, that’s kind of what it is, this incautious driving, it’s like people not voting. I think they just think that that’s all kind of taken care of. Maybe the college youth vote is different than the unemployed youth vote, and I don’t even know if it’s indifference, but there’s an idea that grown-ups are taking care of it or something. Or it’s stuff that that they don’t understand.
Well, a lot of it isn’t that hard to figure out, especially with the advent of the Internet. There’s a lot of information out there, and obviously it’s the same information that you won’t get by just watching the regular news. And you might not pay attention to it, but it’s there, and you can get to it. There’s people speaking across the country, and there’s access to this information. And I feel like they have the country’s future on the back of their truck. And they’re up front driving fairly recklessly, thinking that it’s all going to be OK. And then when they finally stop and look in the back of the truck, it’s not going to be there. And then when they turn back and try and get it, they might not even be able to replace it. I think that it’s such an important time to be participating in the process right now.
Really, it is the time to be involved. This is one of those times. This is one of those times, yet I don’t necessarily feel it coming together.
CB: I agree. I feel like, what are people waiting for? One problem that I see is that despite the fact that people have information at their fingertips with the Internet, it almost seems like the information is too diffuse. News about Britney Spears getting married was more watched than the State of the Union address. I feel like it is a double-edged sword to have so much information available at all times. Now people can tune out the thing that maybe they should be focusing on.
EV: I feel like they maybe look at MoveOn.org and just think, “Oh, someone else is taking care of it.” Because a lot of the things that seem to indicate a lot of people getting together or building means of protest seem to be happening in this sort of virtual world. And I know that there are real-world counterparts, but I just wonder if there’s some sort of passivity that’s created where we just look at MoveOn and think, “Oh, OK, it’s happening somewhere,” you know?
BLVR: How do you think we can we remove the disconnect between virtual involvement and real-life involvement? What would you like to see happen?
EV: The one thing I think is that to vote the Bush administration out of office would be such a tremendous thing. It would be such a tremendous message internationally, as well. I mean, if you’re going to have control over something, you’ve got to treat it with respect. I think right now, this administration has made our country into a liability upon the earth.
IV. “If there was a review, it was just about how we did this thing against Ticketmaster.”
CB: I think, for some artists, the fear of taking on a political identity stems from not wanting to be pigeonholed as political actor or a political musician. It becomes this thing where somehow your art can no longer exist on its own and be multifaceted. It seems like some people are afraid to venture down any road of political activism because of that, especially with how the media starts to represent you.
EV: That was part and parcel of the conversations that the band and I were having at that time about what was happening. Because after we went through the Bible Belt, we went up through Jersey and we thought, OK, now we can even talk a little more freely.
CB: Right, or play “Bush Leaguer” again.
EV; And when we did, then that was the biggest negative reaction that we got, I believe.
CB: Oh, that show. It was Hershey, Pennsylvania.
EV: I think after that show, when there was a large contingent chanting “U. S. A.,” there was a bit of a stand-off at the end of the Bush song at that moment. At that point, that’s when we were having conversations about how it’s true that we’re involved, it’s true that we kind of all share these same beliefs. But we remembered how we went through a tour after we went up against Ticketmaster and then it became like the Ticketmaster Tour. Anything that people were talking about, or if there was a review, it was just about how we did this thing against Ticketmaster, and not only did it but failed. Because there had to be a winner and a loser. It felt like it had taken away from the music. And we felt, selfishly, that we were working hard and playing well, and that wasn’t what we were about anymore. It was about something else.
V. “I’ve always been thankful that I was let in and accepted.”
CB: For how many years after you started did you guys do interviews with the media?
EV: Well, I think everything changed when we started the second record. I think we still kind of cut down, but we did some then. That’s when everything started feeling really strange. Because that’s when you get the process, at least in our kind of journey, that had that really sharp spike upwards at the beginning. It was kind of a strange feeling of being co-opted, and you were kind of just a product. You’re finding yourself on the cover of “The All-Grunge Special Issue” of something or other, with pullout posters and the whole deal. And you’re thinking, “Well, who are these people? Do I know them?” And not that you’re concerned but, “Do we even get paid for this?” It’s just out there. And the only frightening thing is even to myself this is overexposed. I’m overexposed.
CB: And probably don’t know who you are anymore. Do you ever look at a magazine with yourself in it and just think, “That’s not even me”?
EV: Well, back then, it felt like that. Or going to a Halloween party, and having someone with the pullout poster, he’s cut it out and made it into a mask.
CB: Did that happen?
EV: Yeah, yeah. He thought it was going to be funny. But I was way too sensitive at the time. It’s just like, ordinarily it might be funny, but it’s not right now. And it was hard to keep a sense of humor about it. It felt like, I think there’s a line in Death of a Salesman, “You just can’t eat the orange and leave me the peel.” And there were also just ideological issues that came up with either the music-television station or something else, where they had plans and they did things a certain way, and I just kind of didn’t want to do them that way. So in order to say no to a few people, you kind of had to say no to everybody.
CB: Did you guys have a sense of what kind of music you were playing before it was labeled “grunge”? I feel like right now there are so many genres of music; it’s become even more compartmentalized. And then this label “grunge” was placed on this certain sound coming out of Seattle. How did that feel to have a genre created for you by outsiders, instead of naming your own?
EV: I think that I felt secure, because I felt that we had our own musical language that we were kind of working with. And Stone [Gossard] and Jeff had played together for so long, and we were all integrating in this new relationship, and doing it in a way that I felt was different. I felt like it was our kind of thing. And then, as far as being put in with all the other bands at the time who happened to be from the same geographical location, I used to look and listen and read about the Who and the early days of the mod scene. This was when I was like fifteen, and I would just think, “Oh, you know, God, if I could have just could have been involved!” How great it would be to have been a band that grew up in that kind of a community thing? At this point I was in San Diego, and there were a couple of things going on, but it wasn’t an intertwined kind of community. It was too close to Los Angeles. The community’s kind of laid-back and wouldn’t come out and give themselves up at a rock show. So, to just kind of end up in a situation where there was a community, and there was all of a sudden a little bit of a movement, a musical movement, anyway. There were some really strong bands, at this point, when the attention was still kind of healthy, it was really kind of exciting. And because I was always kind of an implant, I felt like once I started to feel kind of accepted, I was always just so proud of being from here. And I still love Seattle and this area and the people. I really love Seattle and the Northwest. I’ve always been thankful that I was let in and accepted and really proud. I remember, at one point, thinking, “God, OK,” I used to read about the Who, and I used to think about this time of music and that time of music and think, “Wow, we’re in one of those right now—this is pretty exciting.”
CB: So you moved to Seattle before Ten, then?
EV: Yeah, I think it was September or October, or sometime late ’90. We kind of got right down to business. The Mother Love Bone band had just about been ready to hit the road or whatever after their first real record, when they lost Andy. He passed away because of the heroin thing. I think that they were kind of ready to go on something. There was a lot of energy there, from their loss and their expectation. They had a band, and then they didn’t have a band, so they were ready to kind of have a band again.
CB: Right. And did you audition for them, or were you just friends with them and said “I sing”?
EV: It was a tape that I sent up through my friend Jack Irons. They said, “If you know any singers…” That was just kind of a random tape that I sent up to Seattle. They had an instrumental set of tracks that I think they recorded with Matt Cameron. And I think that half of that was on Temple of the Dog, and the ones I wrote were on our records.
CB: What’s the first song that you wrote with Pearl Jam that you felt really proud of?
EV: I think the first one on that tape, there were three songs on that tape; I think that “Alive” was one of them, and “Black” was one of them, and I think “Once” was one of them. “Alive” and “Black” are the same as they were then. And they’re kind of cool. We recorded a lot, we practiced for a week and we recorded on the last day. I think I went home with a tape of ten or eleven songs, and most of them were on the record. And again, it seemed like a lot of stuff I’d participated in before was kind of derivative or overly derivative, and this kind of had its own thing.
VI. “I got started with the
Jackson Five… I grew up in a group home kind of thing.”
CB: You and I played Scrabble a few times on tour and I noticed that you are one of the least competitive people with whom I’ve ever played a board game. It could have just been the wine, but are there any areas where you are competitive?
EV: Certainly not with music. Competition is healthy, if you can turn it off and on. When someone gets too cocky in victory, that can ruin the positive aspect. Then they must be destroyed. [Smiles] Justice must be served. The trouble is, sometimes I’m that guy.
CB: Do you ever watch up-and-coming bands who are heaped with praise and hype and wish you could go back and be there again?
EV: No. Not at all. If it’s a band I like, I just hope they will survive it all. And I’ll admit that if it’s crap music, I hope they won’t and it’ll go away. Simply because there are too many great bands who should be heard in their place.
CB: Did you play in bands in high school? When was the first time that you performed in front of people?
EV: I remember some kind of block party or something. Some kind of keg party in San Diego. We had a couple of little bands like that. It was five guys and we all had jobs at drugstores and whatever. That was really bad, because one guy was really into the Cars, and I was into the Who, and the other guy really liked the Eagles. So, uugh, God!
CB: You can’t do Eagles-Cars-Who.
EV: No, it was awful. It was just awful.
CB: So your drummer sang, and you had a keyboardist?
EV: Yeah, who was into Styx.
EV: So this is good. You need to go through this.
CB: It’s true. Do you remember the first time that you heard your voice recorded?
EV: Well, that I was probably doing from a pretty young age, because I was always like into tape recorders and things like that. So I was always kind of writing, and I actually remember writing songs when I was like really small. Writing a sentence and writing arrows over it, and then two arrows if I go really high. And this is when I’m like seven or eight. My dad died of MS, and I didn’t know my father until after he died. And I guess he was a musician, so that maybe speaks something of genetics. He was a lounge singer.
EV: Well, he played with the cup on the piano and that kind of stuff.
CB: Did you ever hear anything that he had recorded?
EV: Yeah, I got one tape. And it had like a Gordon Lightfoot song, he kind of had a Gordon Lightfoot kind of voice. And then there was one that he wrote and he put my name in it, which was kind of cool to hear.
CB: When you were born, was he around? Or were your parents divorced?
EV: I guess he was. I guess he was around a year or two, which I don’t recall. And then by the time they had split up, my mom got remarried. And then he was never spoken of again.
CB: That’s pretty intense.
EV: Which was interesting. Because the theory was, because I had three younger brothers, they didn’t want us to feel like we were different. And I think it worked: I mean, we were really close.
CB: Did you ever play music with your brothers in any kind of family revue?
EV: Yeah, we played a song for my mom on her sixtieth birthday. We played “Long May You Run” and “Let My Love Open the Door,” I think. That was very nice.
CB: I love that Townshend song. What kind of music did you listen to growing up, specifically vocalists? Who was inspiring to you?
EV: Well, I got started with the Jackson Five. I grew up in a group home kind of thing, where we had like black brothers and Irish brothers, and there was a basement down there. That was the late sixties and early seventies, there was tons of Motown around. It was in Chicago. Sly and the Family Stone, and anything on a Motown label. And Stevie Wonder. And then there was the Jackson Five, which I could relate to because they were kids. So it went from that to The Last Waltz, and all those people in that movie. There was Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ron Wood, Muddy Waters, and Van Morrison. All these people just kind of got ingrained in my head as being just great. And then I used to steal records from my uncle, and he would let me, which was great. He would just call my mom and say, “Is that where the record is?” And she’d say, “Yeah.” It was nice at age eight or seven, I could listen to Woodstock and put on Country Joe and the Fish with all my friends.
CB: Were you in the Southern California punk scene at all? When you talk about block parties, was that indicative of your scene? Or was it skaters and surfers?
EV: You know, there was no scene. I was just in some kind of suburb, and the waves didn’t reach that far or something. And I think the other thing is that my parents split up when I was a teenager and I had a job. So I couldn’t have a mohawk. There was one other kid in my school who was kind of punk-rock rebel-type guy, and he had the look. The only thing I could do was wear my mod shirt or my PiL T-shirt. But I had to work at the drugstore and construction jobs and stuff. Yeah, I was the ripe age for it. Even Thurston Moore asked me about it. He was like, “God, you were just ripe for that.” And I said, “Yep, missed it.”
CB: It was going on around you.
EV: You know, I wish I was part of that. It would have been great, and it probably would have changed for me musically a little bit. The most exciting thing to do where I was, was maybe go see the midnight showing of Dance Craze. I relate to all those tons of kids out there, who at least now can maybe buy their music over the Internet or something. I think Jeff Ament was the same way, ordering music from catalogs; he grew up in a super small town. You had to find it out on your own. There wasn’t really a scene, and you were probably ostracized a bit, or people didn’t relate to you. I mean, everybody else was listening to, God, I don’t know what—Journey.
VII. “IT’S TO THE AUDIENCE’s CREDIT THAT THEY STUCK WITH US.”
CB: Is attempting to have music be very accessible the idea or impetus behind all of the live-show bootlegs that you’ve put out? Or is that more in response to curtailing the massive amounts of illegal bootlegs or downloads?
EV: Yeah, it was kind of twofold. I mentioned before that I was just really into tape recorders. I worked at this drugstore, I worked there when they came out with the first Walkman. I’d buy that with my paycheck. And then the first recording Walkman, I’d sneak those into shows for just my own personal kind of thing. I never made copies or anything. I was just so into it. I was just so into being able to relive. So much energy comes out of concerts sometimes, especially good ones that are really moving. And that energy, no matter how great the show is, it dissipates within two weeks or a month. And that was my way of being able to put myself back there into a great space. The first time I saw the Who was in 1980. I was fifteen or something; for the first half of the show, I couldn’t get around the fact that those four guys were standing in the same room in San Diego. At that point, the way I thought of geography and the way I was being brought up, I was intimidated by the rest of the world. I never thought I’d travel. It just wasn’t part of my upbringing. London might has well been Mars, you know?
EV: And that’s where the rock gods came down and blessed us. Really, the excitement of that, seeing them for the first time. To get a good tape out of a show is hard to do. There’s inevitably somebody screaming next to you or arguing with their girlfriend next to you. Even the people that you’re with keep talking in the mike. And you’re like, “Oh god, I know this is just a show, but I’m going to listen to this thing 350 times!”
CB: Yeah, and also it’s so interesting when I think about people bringing in their own recording equipment. I can understand the reasoning behind it, but the sound is so bad. I remember doing that in Seattle, just going to shows when I was a teenager and recording things and listening to them over and over again. They didn’t have any fidelity whatsoever, just static.
EV: Yeah. No, you really had to put on the headphones and close your eyes. Your ears had to do the work, and then you could get something out of it.
CB: It’s totally more about capturing the experience and having some kind of document of actually being there. After we went on tour with you I got some of the bootlegs. Just being able to hear a more nuanced show, to hear something that I didn’t hear the first time around, or even to have your stage banter on tape, it’s exciting. And I can see that for your fans, in some ways that must make them feel really special. They’re allowed to experience any show they want, whether or not they can be there. It seems like that’s one of many things that you guys do, in terms of having a more direct connection to your fans, that a lot of other bands don’t. It seems to me that not doing interviews back then created a closeness with your fans. There was a connection that was just going to be between them and you. There’s really nothing mitigating that. They weren’t going to read about you or read an interview. They weren’t going to see a video on MTV. Suddenly the experience became about the live experience, which is pretty unique.
EV: Well we certainly scaled down our crowd quite a bit, especially our record-buying crowd, to the point where we succeeded in a perfect act of sabotage.
CB: Do you remember when you decided, as you were saying earlier, to say no to the media and to MTV? Did these institutions criticize you? And did you experience criticism from your label and your manager?
EV: I think what happens is when something becomes successful, then a lot of people take credit for it in such ways that it takes credit away from you. I don’t even think it’s ego, but you’re thinking, you’re just saying that we were a successful marketed product. And that flies completely in the face of what we’re seeing when we’re playing and getting reactions from a crowd that I don’t think that you would get just normally. I really think that something pretty special was happening. So it was an insult, you know obviously there was some marketing involved and some MTV exposure, and there was all this stuff. But once people were in, they didn’t have anything to do with that. You want the power to be in the music and the credit to go to the music, and your connection with the people coming to the shows. You want to kind of wrestle it away and say “OK, we’re not just a bar of soap with a package that you created that is now selling copies and making you a bunch of money.” Do you know what I’m saying? There’s more going on here, and that’s the thing, I don’t think they get it. Or they were getting it, or they would kind of say they got it.
CB: In some ways, you proved that that was true. Your success and your fans’ connection to the music was not dependent on the media. You somehow maintained, through no videos, not as much mainstream radio play, and not a huge press blitz concomitant with the release of your albums, a completely devoted following. It does seem like in some ways you’ve tapped into a way of thinking about music, an ideology, that fans share with you. Going to your shows and seeing your fans, I realized that nobody there cares about MTV. It made all those things feel really futile.
EV: It’s to the audience’s credit that they stuck with us. We couldn’t have done any of it without them. And I think it’s happened before. Maybe even with the Monkees. You know the Monkees wanted to play on their record and they wanted to play their own songs, and no one ever heard that record. I think bands have done it and tried before, but I kind of think that we were just fortunate.
CB: Do you feel like it’s been worth it? You’ve traded some of these things, massive amounts of money and stardom in this broader sense, for having a lot of control over your art.
EV: Well, the nice thing about money is that you can do good things with it. I still feel like if something needs to be done or we need to raise money for someone on death row, like in the West Memphis Three case, we can find ways to do it. It’s harder that just writing a check, but you can still go out and do it.