New York Daily News - September 19th, 2001
Stone Can Rock
Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard has no illusions about his talent as a singer. "In the grand scheme of things, if Pavoratti is a 10, I would be about a 2½ ," he says.
"But, then, I'm not trying to shoot the moon. I'm going for more of a Lou Reed thing."
By that measure, Gossard does well. His first solo album, "Bayleaf," reveals a voice of character, albeit an odd one, not to mention a broad range of songwriting styles that would surprise anyone expecting Pearl Jam's full-tilt roar.
Gossard credits his solo music's variety to its long gestation. He husbanded the songs on "Bayleaf" for seven long years; he began cutting casual demos for it as far back as '97. "I didn't even know I was making a record at the time," explains the musician. "I was just collecting stuff, getting used to writing lyrics and singing."
With Pearl Jam, Gossard wrote riffs and melodies, not words. He also wrote music for his earlier bands, Green River and Mother Love Bone, and for his Pearl Jam side projects, Temple of the Dog and Brad. "Bayleaf" gave Gossard his first chance to express himself verbally in song — and he didn't hold back. In the blunt and autobiographical "Pigeon," he ends a relationship by telling a lover coldly, "I'm not through sleeping around."
"I have had a long string of girlfriends," Gossard admits. "I'm still practicing." He deals with the problems of group relationships in the psychologically astute "Every Family." "In any grouping of human beings, there's dysfunction," Gossard says. "You can take somebody who was a childhood hero, and the closer you look at how they operate and what drives them and their insecurities, you begin to realize that the concept of finding that perfect person, that savior, is an illusion. At 35, I'm coming to grips with the fact that in your family and your friends, you shouldn't get bogged down in the fact that something's broken. There's always something broken."
It's new for Gossard to reveal himself this way, and he likes it. "Before, I always approached music as rhythm. 'Does it make my head swing?' was my only question. To expand that and see that I've got a lyric in me that shows a perspective on life, then to channel that into songwriting, is thrilling."
Gossard didn't realize all this potential by himself. He had two key collaborators on "Bayleaf" — the solo star Pete Droge, who produced and played on the album, and Ty Williams, who sings lead on three tracks. That Gossard relied on the latter's voice shows some hedging on his part at playing frontman. The record company went further on that score, releasing a Williams-sung song as the single.
It's not the first time Gossard has modified his role for a group project. When Pearl Jam started, he was the main melody writer. Over the years, that role has shrunk as more band members have written usable songs and as singer Eddie Vedder become the group's clear leader. Gossard admits that this "was a hard transition at first, suddenly not to have control. But at the same time, I look back and see that it helped me to learn how to play other people's songs, and to ask the question, 'What can I do to make their song better?' If that didn't happen, I wouldn't have done lyrics and I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now."
Though he says Pearl Jam "is [Eddie's] band for sure," he calls the singer "an amazing team player."
He says Eddie's image in the press, as a self-important sourpuss, is "just an image." But he admits the band has done its share of what he calls "annoying things" over the years. Declining to be specific, Gossard suggests music writers get together and compile a list of the "10 most annoying things Pearl Jam has ever done."
"That would be great," he laughs.
One image Gossard enjoys is that of Pearl Jam as the new Grateful Dead, established by the group's accent on live shows. "We change the set list every night, and we're looking for magic to happen," he says. "Sometimes, it's terrible. Sometimes, it's great."
That iffy ratio didn't stop the band from putting out no fewer than 72 live double CDs in the last year, allowing fans to hear any show from the most recent tour. Gossard admits he "can understand people's complaints about so many live albums. It's not like we're doing any long improvisational thing [to make the shows] radically different from each other. There's probably [only] five or six of those records that are great."
Gossard is looking to Pearl Jam's future. They'll begin recording a studio album in February, and he hopes it resolves his quibbles with the band's last two studio records. "On both those records, I don't think all our pistons were firing at once. We were underutilizing [drummer] Matt Cameron. If you listen to the rhythm section of 'Temple of the Dog,' you see what we're capable of with him. I'd like the record to rock out a little more."
In the meantime, Gossard already has completed another album with his side project Brad, which should come early next year. He still says he's unlikely to tour on his own. "It took me seven years to do this album. It may take more to feel like a frontman. I've seen too many good ones."
Regardless, Gossard says he's just glad finally to have found a way, after 10 years with Pearl Jam, to bring a solo project to fruition. "At 35," he announced, "I feel like a door is just opening."