To look at the guy’s resume, you’d think that Stone Gossard is one of the busiest people working in music today. In addition to being the rhythm guitarist in Pearl Jam for the past two-plus decades, he’s also a record label and studio owner, husband, father, member of another band, Brad, and now, for the second time in his storied career, a solo artist. There’s also the ongoing concern of an upcoming, sold-out performance at Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field. But more on that later.
When the phone rings at the very un-rock ‘n’ roll hour of 10:30 a.m., an apology is immediately offered. Gossard, calling from his home base in Seattle, is having none of it. “I’ve been up for hours,” he’s says in a voice that’s so full of energy, he’s either a great liar, or indeed, telling the truth.
Appearing: 7/19 at Wrigley Field (1060 W. Addison) Chicago with Pearl Jam.
Some ten years in the making, he’s about to release his second solo outing Moonlander (Monkeywrench), and he’s anxious to discuss the work. It’s amazing that someone with so many balls in the air is alive and kicking while the sun is still warming up.
“There are commitments out there,” Gossard explains, “but I have a pretty good balance. With Pearl Jam, we’re working and chilling. I think we average six to eight weeks of touring a year. In the grand scheme of people with real jobs, I’ve got it easy [laughs]. I have free time.”
But when’s the right time to put a record out? “I’ve written 50 or 60 songs in the past ten years that could have been on Moonlander, but I had to get to the spot where I knew which ones were the right ones. It was a process that required me to let things sit for a while, then come back to them and see if they were fresh. And I had to do that at least three times. Then I finally got fed up with that and said, ‘O.K., ten years is enough. Pick 13 [songs], whittle it down to 11, and finish them.'”
But in order to look forward, perhaps it would be beneficial to first take a step back. In late 2001, Gossard was the first member of Pearl Jam to go it alone. His debut as a solo artist, Bayleaf, was released in September of that year. For someone who claims to have ample free time, it begs the question: Why did Moonlander take so long?
“Hopefully, because I was patient with it,” he explains. “Hopefully, because it’s me making a solo record I believe in, instead of me just knocking out a solo record every year just to say I did it.
“I have a certain range and a certain thing I can do, and I think being careful about when I release it and what songs I use, that I can actually make a pretty good record. But if I had to do that every year, I might be repeating myself. I think it’s because I was pretty patient with it. I wasn’t in a rush. I don’t have huge expectations of what it’s supposed to mean. I also know what I need to do for myself. It’s a labor of love and one that I took my time with . . . which is new for me. I’m not really a take your time kind of guy. In general, I don’t think anyone would have ever accused me of that as a teenager. I must say, I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve learned from my peers.”
The songs contained within Moonlander might surprise some longtime Pearl Jam fans. The trinity of “Your Flames,” “Remain,” and “Beyond Measure” sound as if they were lifted straight from a scene out of The Band’s The Last Waltz. Piano keys tinkle, horns politely burp, and a clarinet flits like the call of a morning bird. “Battle Cry” starts out with a deliberate, patient gallop before building to an almost operatic, Queen-esque finish. This is most decidedly not a retread of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy.
With that in mind, Gossard gives careful consideration to the next question about whether the different styles of music contained on Moonlander were blatant attempts to distance himself from the work of his other bands, and if the songs were around long enough to have developed their own personalities?
“I think those two things are part of it. But I also think that if you were putting together a book of your 15 favorite things that you’ve written, you might go through hundreds of piles of things that you’ve written and pick out things you know you’re capable of doing. The song is only one of many indicators of where you’re going.
“The players dictate that as well. I play with four or five different drummers on the record. Different musicians will approach things a different way. I think [multi-instrumentalist] Hans Teuber was a big, big factor in this whole record. He played a lot of the piano, but he also played the horns, the clarinet, the flute . . . there’s a lot of flavor on the record. It gives it a very ragtime quality.”
He continues, “I like ballads; I like rock songs and I like most everything in between. Some of the songs are psychedelic. There’s some ’70s spacey stuff. I was hoping that the variety is there and I’m glad you said you heard it because I think that makes for a more interesting record. But it wasn’t a conscious decision. I don’t think I went into it thinking, ‘I need this kind of song or that kind of song.'”
In the event that this might scare off some of Pearl Jam’s less-than-adventurous listeners, don’t fret. The album also contains its share of distortion pedal moments. Lead track “I Need Something Different” is pure, undistilled Gossard. It features a beyond-skuzzy bassline propelled by drumming that sounds like a neighborhood bust-out getting pummeled for not paying back the vig on a back-alley loan. “I Don’t Want To Go To Bed” infers a children’s lullaby in title only. The music has a drone and menace that’s more nightmare than kiddie sing-along: less Disney and more Brothers Grimm.
What may come as the biggest surprise is that Moonlander, once again, puts Gossard’s singing voice front and center. It’s made cameos previously in the Pearl Jam catalog, specifically on the songs “Mankind” (from the 1996 release No Code) and “Don’t Gimmie No Lip (from the Lost Dogs collection), but not like this.
When pressed about how he feels about stepping up to the mic, Gossard is surprisingly candid. “I’m not an overly confident singer. I can put a performance down that feels good to me. I’ll also go back and listen to something and think, ‘Oh God, that’s horrible.’ I’d say the great test is my daughter who will sometimes be like, ‘Oh no, Dad please!’ I think in general, the die has been cast and I don’t think in the future I’ll be a vocalist of major consequence. In the context of a record, or a song, or a moment, I can deliver a vocal that sounds pretty good. But I’m not afraid to get out there and give you the dynamic between the truly gifted and the mediocre,” he says modestly.
With all these songs floating around, not only does Gossard have to keep them prioritized, but he also needs to know which songs go where, meaning, to which band do the songs belong? “Well, I think with these songs, if I have a vocal and a perspective that feels strongly ‘me,'” he expands, “I think that’s one I’m going to keep for myself. I think with Brad and Pearl Jam, I’m better off bringing in something that’s less developed. I think it brings out the best in both of those bands by not having it too fleshed out. You always want to get the best of [Pearl Jam vocalist] Eddie Vedder and you want to get the best out of [Brad vocalist] Shawn Smith. I’ve discovered you do that by bringing them something simple, but meaty. Then they dig their teeth into it and find their thing in it, as opposed to, ‘This is how the song goes, and I want you to sing it like this.’ Plus, there are other writers in those bands, so I’m not necessarily writing a ton of material for either of those bands. So it makes sense for me to have another outlet.
— Curt Baran