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."