"The Rules of RNDM": An Interview with Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament
RNDM bassist Jeff Ament discusses their new album GHOST RIDING and he offers insight into his creative processes and expresses pride in touring with Pearl Jam.
During a live chat on Twitter in December, Jeff Ament was asked why he doesn't have his own handle. His kind response was a simple deflection, he was too busy working. Which is understandable. On the music front, Ament and his primary band Pearl Jam were planning a 2016 tour, having just completed a run of shows in South America in the latter half of 2015 as well as headlined the Global Citizen Festival, and are at work on reissuing older albums (presumably Yield and No Code), as well as (hopefully) crafting new material for a future album.
Over the course of 2015, Ament, with his pals Richard Stuverud (The Fastbacks) and Joseph Arthur (Fistful of Mercy), spent time recording, mixing and preparing RNDM's second album, Ghost Riding which was released last Friday, three and a half years after their debut Acts.
With 2012's Acts, RNDM released a solid album built upon the musicians' core instruments, guitar, bass and drums. When it came time to record Ghost Riding, RNDM stepped things up in the musical department. In the album's press release, Ament explained that the band was "pushing [themselves] creatively with new songwriting approaches." Listening to the album, the sonic evolution is clear. But it wasn't a deliberate decision by the band to go in this direction.
Ament describes the process, "Well I think it was accidental. There was a little bit of talk before we got together. What albums or what artists are going to be our spirit animals. We talked about David Sylvian; we talked about Talk Talk. That put us in a certain mindset. We had keyboards set up and some electronic drums. Joe had a bunch of drum machines on his iPad."
"The first day it happened that Joe and I woke up earlier than Richard. And I said, 'do you have a beat?' He pulled up a drum machine and started playing a beat. I went over to the keyboards and started playing something."
"By the time Richard came over, we already had two parts. When he went out to play drums, I picked up the bass; Joe picked up the guitar. We created a method on how we were gonna make a record by that first sort of mistake (starting off with a drum machine and a real simple keyboard melody)."
"Consequently, probably six or seven of the songs on the record were done that way. It felt new to us -- a way to put down like a super basic melody and chord progression that would be easy to put more melodies and more instrumentation over the top. Really different for me in terms of how I've worked with other bands."
Arthur, prolific in his own right, having released more than five albums in the last five years, had the primary responsibility of writing all of the Ghost Riding lyrics, plus he guided some of the final mixing stages for the album. Ament explained the process, "We recorded the initial stuff in my studio in Montana then we went into Studio Litho, which is Stone [Gossard]'s studio in Seattle, for two weeks. Joe wrote a good chunk of the lyrics during that time. We mixed it once, then Joe decided he wanted to have a go at mixing it. He actually added a lot of instrumentation and a lot of extra vocals and worked super hard on fleshing it out a little more."
"It was as much of a process as any record as I've ever been involved in. It was a good solid year of us, a couple of recording sessions, three different mix sessions, trying to make it right. There was a lot of discussion on the instrumentation and the arrangements. It was a lot of work -- a lot more work than the first record."
Ghost Riding has a variety of instrumentation worth exploring in depth. So rather than inundate Ament, I asked him about two tracks that stood out to me. One, "NYC Freeks", recently available for streaming, glistens with a disco / funk vibe unlike any others on the album.
"Richard and I have always jammed [and] been into the white funk of [David] Bowie. Robert Palmer, Power Station -- that era of white funk. So we have a thing that we can go into rhythmically. [On] that first record, "Walking through New York" [has] a similar disco / funk vibe. We took "NYC Freeks" to the next level in terms of the drum machine; the way Joe is playing guitar is so Nile Rodgers. That dance, disco funk is in all of us. It's probably something we might not do in our other bands. It's under the rules of RNDM."
Another track that wouldn't fit within Pearl Jam's musical structure is "Stronger Man". The song begins with a sample from an outgoing prison phone call (which immediately reminded me of the calls Adnan Syed had made countless times for Serial) and contains two distinct, compelling voices.
"That happened in the studio. We're asking questions about the lyrics and Joe explains this perspective of this guy who goes to prison and the conversation that he has with his wife or his partner (or whoever it is). That wasn't how I was hearing it when I was listening to the song. It just sounded like a couple having a conversation. But then, when he created this visual element, it became, 'how do you make that part poke through a little bit more?' So we just Googled, "prison messages" and came up with one that fit. It sets a crazy tone for that song. It makes it really sad."
Even before their first public appearance, RNDM sought to break the rules. They developed a brash persona that immediately set them apart from Pearl Jam, A Fistful of Mercy and Fastbacks (or practically any other contemporary rock band) by donning aggressive ski masks and striking neon orange jumpsuits. It wasn't clear why they possessed such a bold attitude but Ament distilled the process.
"When we were making the first record, we were like, 'Wow, we have seven or eight songs'. Then we started joking, this is gonna be the record and we're gonna do the world tour. That turned into us fantasizing about what we were gonna wear. Basically it was just us riffing back and forth, but not in a serious fashion. I said, 'well this band has to be everything that my other band wouldn't be'. Like, if I have these unwritten rules of things that I can't do or shouldn't do, being a 50 year old rock musician, this band is gonna be all of those things. I'm not afraid to do all the things that seem silly or uncool."
"Wearing fluorescent orange and ski masks fit perfectly. That part has been really fun. As long as it's not gonna break the bank or whatever -- you can realize a lot of ideas pretty simply. The orange thing seemed simple. I mean it caught on. Maroon 5 wore all orange on SNL." [Laughs]
RNDM appeared on Jimmy Fallon's late night show back in 2012, but there are no TV appearances planned yet to support Ghost Riding. They did create two music videos, for the title track and "Stray", back to back in one day after they had finished mixing the album and when their schedules aligned.
"I was in New York for [the] Global Poverty Project show at Central Park. It all happened really quick. We've made a ton of videos with Joseph's buddy Ehud [Lazin] who's super-fast and super up for anything, even if it means borderline breaking the law. He's helping [us] realize all that stuff. Christian, who works with us up here, was in town and helped us get the bikes. We spray painted the bikes. Over the course of that day we made the video[s]."
"I can't think of too many times in my life when making videos was fun but almost all videos for this band have been a blast -- putting ski masks on and painting BMX bikes orange and riding around Brooklyn. Being silly."
RNDM was free to be silly in the music videos since the recorded music would be overlaid on the visuals. But the band does have to prepare for a short run of live shows. By incorporating that additional instrumentation for the record, but remaining a three piece band, the prospects of a live performance must have become more challenging.
Ament confesses, "This band is a little trickier. It's gonna be tricky playing this record because there's a lot of keyboards and overdubs. We're trying to figure out how do you trigger all that stuff. Can we play something and loop it and then play over it? Or do we have things in loopers. I'm actually down at the warehouse working through all that initial stuff. Joe's been working on all that stuff back in Brooklyn. We'll have all next week to [prepare]. It will be more preparation in some ways than a Pearl Jam tour because it's only three of us. And we're only going out for seven or eight shows. It's a lot of preparation for a short amount of time.
Ament is a man with many extracurricular activities including music, basketball, art, philanthropy and skateboarding. Those interests have informed his being and given him a definition of self. In the past several years, Ament has incorporated the latter two interests into his charitable endeavor, the Montana Pool Service, through which he supports the building of skateparks in his home state. He puts a lot of his own money into the efforts and has helped build over a dozen parks. So, I commended him for his charity and also asked what springs of inspiration he draws from on a day-to- day basis.
"If we have time off, a perfect day is wake up and take the dogs for a walk. Then come back and paint a little bit. Then make lunch. Then go into the studio and knock something out. And it's all within like a hundred feet of each other. [Laughs]
"Then it's time to go back outside. So maybe you go into town and you skateboard for an hour and then come back and make dinner and paint a little bit more. If you're still inspired, then sometimes you'll go back in the studio and work 'til late. If there's something worthy that you id earlier, sometimes it takes getting away from it for a few hours. In between that, I might be out painting the bottom of a skateboard or, like every tour, I usually get a couple of bass bodies and necks and I paint 'em up. You go into the tour with some different colors and different things written on the back of the bass just to inspire you. Those are thrown into the mix.
"So it's all being creative all the time or creating space to help you think through your ideas. When you're walking the dogs, you might be humming the melody of the thing you put down in the studio earlier that day. And then you hum into your phone and then you go back and put a keyboard over that. And that's that melody. That's sort of the ultimate day. That's my "work" day. I think it all sort of inspires each other.
"You get inspired by different mediums at different times. The last few years I've been painting a lot more. I went to art school for a couple of years like twenty-seven years ago and was painting a lot in those days. Then when I got in bands, the graphic part of it, making t-shirts and album covers and all that stuff, sort of took precedence. You get into this mode of creating something that is representing the band. Sometimes that is not always something that's specifically coming from you. You think, 'what does this record sound like?' or 'what does this band look like?' and you create something in that regard. In the last few years, I've been painting and drawing just for me. There's no end result. I'm not having a show. It's doing art to do art. Sometimes that's the most satisfying.
"I think everybody, in both bands, is always working on music. Before Pearl Jam goes into the studio, I don't know what makes me go like, 'well I'll put these six songs on a tape and see.' I think maybe Ed[die Vedder] will respond to this. Or I would love to hear what Stone [Gossard] or Mike [McCready] do with this. [Or] I can't wait to see what Matt [Cameron] comes up with. I'm making music to make music. Music that entertains me and puts me in a position to do something new, do a different chord progression or a different riff. Experimenting. Doing things you haven't done before.
"The difference with the RNDM record is we didn't come in with anything. The idea was we are gonna write stuff on the spot. Create stuff from the ground up. There's something pretty magical about making music that way too because it feels like the stuff comes out of thin air. It's cool to be in the room, working on an overdub and you see Joe outside working on lyrics and then sing a killer melody with great words."
Last year, I caught a set of Joseph Arthur's during which he painted a barrel in between songs. He was (presumably) conveying what was coming to him at that moment. Could an audience anticipate any collaborative RNDM live painting?
"Probably not, that's kind of [Joseph's] thing. If he started painting a painting on a RNDM show, I would feel obliged to go paint because that would be the band's stage at that point. As long as I brought my own paints I guess."
Even if he doesn't bring his own paints, if Ament finds time when on the road, he may hit up an art gallery or exhibition. On a recent visit to New York, he popped into a particularly moving exhibition.
"One of the great fringe benefits of touring is being able to go to art museums. The last time that we were in New York, Raymond Pettibon had a show in Chelsea. That was super inspiring because he was doing stuff that he had never done before -- taking old, sort of failed paintings and making collages out of them. Some of them are just crazy. It made you wonder, 'how many failed paintings does he have?'
But I've always loved his art and so just to be in town when he had a show going on and see something brand new from him. He's the guy who did the all the Black Flag stuff. He actually created the Black Flag bars and came up with the name. He does great social, political commentary. A lot of times the paintings are inspired by quotes or things that he's written down. He doesn't seem like he has any boundaries. Some of the stuff is shocking. Some has really acerbic social commentary. It's cool to see an artist have so much freedom. 'Cause it feels like he's kind of not afraid to write anything or to paint anything. That's inspiring too."