A Place That's Believable: An Interview with Stone Gossard
Pearl Jam. Temple of the Dog. Mother Love Bone. Stone Gossard's career is nothing short of iconic. With the release of his first solo album in 12 years, the man himself speaks to PopMatters about creating with his daughter, adjusting to social media, and the chances of a Temple of the Dog reunion.
In 1984, when Seattle native Stone Gossard met Jeff Ament, it was likely unbeknownst to either of them that their musical endeavors in the band Green River would pioneer grunge music. They also could not have foreseen that their career trajectories would lead them into the heart of the Seattle music scene. After Green River dissolved, the two went on to be in not one, not two, but three other significant Seattle bands: Mother Love Bone, Temple of the Dog (with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden) and their present outfit, Pearl Jam, whose longevity has exceeded two decades.
Over Gossard's 30 year musical career, he has honed his songcraft with Pearl Jam as well as the band Brad, a rhythm-and-blues driven project with five albums under its belt. Yet the prolific Gossard composes more tunes than can make it onto an album from either band, or may not necessarily fit the stylistic repertoire. As he recalls in the Pearl Jam Twenty chronicle, Gossard "had been recording and trying to learn how to sing and attempting to finish something without it having to be a Pearl Jam song." The 2001 collection of songs became Bayleaf, an album produced by Pete Droge and the first solo release from any Pearl Jam member.
The Moonlander Development
In the subsequent years, after Gossard amassed over 150 demos, he decided to go through them and whittle them down to eleven for a new solo album, Moonlander. He took some time out one evening after getting food for his family to speak about the development of the album. The oldest songs on the album include "I Need Something Different" or "Bombs Away", both of which "are from 2002 or 2003. The newest might be 'Moonlander' or it might be 'Beyond Measure' but either would probably still be about five years old."
He expounds on how he reached his selections, "the last part of the process was going back in time and going 'Okay, I have 150 things that I've kind of bandied about over the last ten years', taking a quick listen to everything and identifying 15 or 10 that still resonate with me.
"It needs to have a good musical foundation. It needs to have a lyric that I can at least understand a little bit so that I can either finish it or it can carry a song and feel good about my singing on it. The singing sounds like it's coming from a place that's believable to me. Quickly I can go through a big list of demos and say 'Okay, if it was these 12 songs how can I finish them?' Then I start rearranging, editing and overdubbing. Pete Droge, the executive producer, helped in terms of harmony and background vocals."
Was there any risk that going through old material would result in Gossard finding new inspiration and drafting new songs for the album?
"When you go back and hear the [older songs] again you can feel confident when they've sat for a while. You think, 'this still sounds good to me, so I can be proud of it. I should put it out there.' Sometimes the newest stuff is the hardest to hear. There is a tendency for writers to be most exciting by whatever they just wrote. Sometimes that excitement is warranted. Sometimes on further listen it's not as good as something they did a couple of years ago but it's just not in their sights at that particular time.
"I just know that I love to write songs and I have for a long time. Sometimes part of the process requires you to finish them. Once you finish them it requires you to put 'em out there [for] people. That's basically where I am right now."
Out of Your Head.
Studio Litho, Gossard's recording space and the same location Pearl Jam's No Code came about, is where he produced Moonlander and some other musician's albums. Though Gossard never received formal musical training, he is still proficient around the studio and with songcraft. This innate sense directed him to argue against Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder's removal of "Better Man" from their album Vitalogy. The song ended up big on the radio and remains big on the band's arena tours.
"You get to know how songs are constructed," he tells us. "As a producer, you listen to other people's music and say, 'I love this song. Up until the second chorus it's moving along great then all of a sudden you take this left turn, so let's try where you take a right turn there and see what it sounds like or maybe if we just change the beat there.' It's problem solving. You just try A, B, C, D and then you move on. I love making music. I love being involved in arranging music. It's very natural to know what I want to hear next and come up with ideas that are variations of what might be good.
"Like I say in 'Witch Doctor': 'I finger paint with my fist.' I don't really know what I'm doing, but I've got instincts about arrangements and about songs. That's what I go on."
Finger-painting generally lacks finesse though the bold strokes provide a jumping off point for Gossard's inspiration. The technique is unmistakably a metaphorical approach to the songwriting process but painting is also literally employed in the creation of artwork for songs on the album. When Gossard's daughter is doing arts and crafts projects, Gossard may join in.
"My daughter loves to do art stuff. As a father, I like to play with her. We break out the big pads of paper and the glitter and all the stuff. She likes to do what she likes to do. I want to do something too. So I've just started using her same materials -- a lot of crayons, a lot of sparkle, charcoal, pencils, markers and glue.
"It's such a great medium to come up with images that are off the cuff. You're sort of drawing out of your head; drawing like a child. I just found that very fun. It reminded me of the best times in my childhood. It reminds me of why I love playing music and why writing rock and roll music is so fun. The best ones are relatively simple. Artwork can be very similar to that in terms of just approaching it like a child. Big bold strokes. Without thinking too much about it, you can create images that are fun. Those images I created when doing art with my daughter, I look back on and go 'that's pretty cool.' That day I did it in fifteen minutes and I still like it today. It's a very kind of simplistic approach to generating artwork. Usually we start out smearing and go from there. But she wants to do her own stuff and doesn't want me messing with hers. So I just do my own."
Trusting in Digital Distribution
Gossard took the visual fruits of his creativity one step further and teamed with a craft artist who transforms his artwork into unique plush toys. These "softies" are being given away via contests from Gossard's Twitter account, a form of social media that is a relatively new tool for Gossard, but one that he is exploiting to promote Moonlander.
"I definitely don't do a lot of social media. What I do do is almost exclusively philanthropic stuff I'm involved with. I want to get information out. But this was a chance to start a Twitter account and a Facebook page and see that people are interested [in Moonlander]. Watching as fans of Pearl Jam's Facebook page get connected with it. How many of those people we're able to send emails to directly. It's amazing. I'm so far behind it in terms of being connected. But this is a chance for me to begin to explore it. Mainly I look at it as an opportunity to get music directly to people that could be possibly interested in it."
Online distribution allows Gossard to reveal his tracks slowly and deliberately. He's offered one album track weekly in the buildup to the album release. This process "seems to be working out pretty well. It's not a record that's gonna necessarily get a lot of attention. I'm just having it stretched out a little bit so people have multiple chances to go 'I didn't listen to the first three, but I might check this one out because I'm getting tired of being pestered by him.' So far it seems like it's working out.
"I don't know if it's gonna ultimately mean that we sold a bunch of records, but it's kinda nice to know that [we've got more] chances to let people know it's coming out. So far that's been a good thing."
When Gossard shares a track online, he posts a little explanation along with it. As someone who doesn't share even the banalities of his life online, Gossard amazingly isn't concerned disclosing personal details, allowing the familiarity to draw people closer to his record. The inspiration for "Your Flame" was something utterly shameful if it hadn't been just a dream -- 'I woke feeling guilty and horrified over the idea of striking [my nephew].' But the other songs are more oblique and may even arrive via an external hand.
"I'm open to giving my interpretation. You can say what you think music is, but the only way it really is is how people experience it. It's okay for me to make that interpretation. I don't feel that I shouldn't. But it's certainly okay for people to ascribe a different meaning to it. Music is very serendipitous. It's very mystical in terms of what it can mean in different times and where it comes from. Who knows, maybe somebody is trying to send a message through me and I'm not even aware of. It could be coded. I have no idea. There's a lot of different ways to interpret music. I'm giving my view as to what I thought I was coming up with and why. It may not be the only way."
In the Tracks of Moonlander
The title track has a dual meaning. "The lyric and the chorus [asks] 'is love as easy as they say in the movies or are its odds astronomical?' Hearing somebody talk about a single cell animal developing to the point where it can launch a space vehicle to land on the moon. What are the odds of that? It's so astronomically improbable that would happen [that it] becomes a funny juxtaposition against the romantic notion of honeymoon and how that is presented in our culture as something that everyone is owed.
"Then again, in the lyrics and the verse had gone through a few permutations. It's an apocalyptic end of the world scene happening on the planet. I'm not quite exactly sure what that song is about but I like the way it feels. It evokes something in me that I like. It feels right."
When asked if the christening Apollo EP after the moonlander unit also referenced the Greek God of War, Gossard admitted, "I chose it totally based on the space side of it. Now that you are saying it's the God of War, there's sort of synchronicity there. That's pretty cool. I wasn't thinking about that. I'm glad that all worked out."
Conflict themes surface throughout Moonlander. The track "Both Live" was described as 'a conflict that can result in a new way of understanding.' And "Battle Cry" is an outright bellicose title but it too has a tender counterpoint to balance it out.
"That's where 'Battle Cry' comes from at least emotionally for me. This revelation of being in love -- so get ready for conflict. It's better to know what your battle cry is than to try and avoid it altogether. It's a declaration that it sometimes gets bloody in a love relationship because if you are truly in love, it is jeopardy -- if you really care about something you invest a lot of yourself into it. You're gonna come in conflict if you're ever in fear of that relationship not being what you think it is. There is something that diverges from what you're idyllic view of love should be.
"When I was playing a guitar and that line just came out, I really wanted to follow it. It's a joyous song in a way. It's a positive affirmation but at the same time it has an edge to it. You've got to get ready for some bumps and bruises."
"Witch Doctor" lyrically differs from the many love, conflict and exploratory ideas as it has got it's tongue firmly rooted in cheek. Gossard shares, "if I look at the arc of my life from other people's point of view, I've succeeded in terms of manifesting those ideas I want to do. But if you try to nail down exactly what my talents are, [that's] hard. Maybe my talents are special. Like French cheese. There are certain people who like a really stinky French cheese and those are people that are responding to stuff I'm doing. It's just way of poking fun at yourself."
People are Listening
Gossard appreciates that you can connect with almost anyone through social media nowadays. Twitter is proving to be both a communication and a promotional tool. But what if he could broadcast his ideas from a whole new level, one with zero gravity? Recently, Commander Chris Hadfield broadcast his version of "Space Oddity" from 250 miles above the Earth. So if Gossard had the opportunity to sing any song in space, what would he chose?
Gossard excitedly responded, leaping past any anxieties about space travel. He acknowledged some trepidation over the song selection. "What am I gonna do?" he asks rhetorically, "people are gonna be listening from outer space. It would probably be something quiet. Maybe 'Your Flames' because it's one I feel confident about being able to play and it wouldn't get too loud in the Space Station."
So the second single released in orbit has been decided. But after Moonlander is released terrestrially, Gossard will presumably devote his attention on finishing a new Pearl Jam album. He probably won't take the songs on the road, as the band is expected to tour the US in the fall (though little info is available so far). The band's drummer, Matt Cameron, also performs those duties for Soundgarden, who are touring presently. Many fans hope for a joint tour though it would be tough to get Cameron's hands to agree to that. I decided to to wonder aloud if there was any chance for a Temple of the Dog reunion. Gossard appreciated the thought. "I would be so into it. I can't wait for that day," before he then solicited help, "You want to work that out with those guys? I'm in." Considering most members of that band form the core of Pearl Jam, maybe it won't be so hard.
But we may be better off waiting for more of Gossard's music to see the light of day. If you do the math: there were over 150 demos, minus 11 that make up Moonlander, leaves approximately 140 compositions in draft form. Hopefully it won't take another ten years, right Stone?
"I'm gonna keep releasing music, whether it's stuff I'm writing now or whether its stuff that's been written," shares Gossard. "Sometimes it has to go on the big pile before it can go in the small pile. I'm gonna keep writing music, finding different ways to put it out and collaborating with people that I like to play music with."