Modern Drummer -- December, 1993

"Dave Abbruzzese of Pearl Jam"

By: Matt Peiken
Photos by: Lance Mercer

                    Pearl Jam was months into their first U.S. tour, their second name, and their third drummer before most people even heard of them. Their debut album, Ten, rested idle on shelves for nearly a year until songs such as "Alive", "Even Flow", and "Jeremy" became part of America's pop-culture consciousness. The rest, as they say, is well-documented history. Ten went on to turn platinum five times over, riding high on Billboard magazine's charts throughout 1992 and refusing to fade away will into '93, making Pearl Jam rock music's definitive success story to this point of the decade. Dave Abbruzzese, for his part, had no idea he was about to step into virtual stardom when he hopped in his pickup truck three years ago and drove from Dallas to Seattle to join a fledgling band with only their music to speak for themselves. Then again, the music is all Abbruzzese needed to hear. "Pearl Jam had a record contract," Dave recalls, "but all that means is guaranteed debt. And they had a record I thought was cool, but that didn't guarantee and kind of success, either. I joined the band because I was into it, I enjoyed the music, and I was into the thought of where it could end up." Meanwhile, few realized the Abbruzzese wasn't even on Ten. Dave Krusen, the drummer of the record, is destined to become a rock trivia answer, as is the group's original name, Mookie Blaylock. (The real Mookie is an NBA point guard.) The door only opened for Abbruzzese when Matt Chamberlain, a friend and hired pro who temporarily filled the drum stool, recommended him for the job. "I think Ten was a good record," says Dave. "People got a lot out of it, and I enjoyed playing the songs live with the band. But to me, being on stage and playing those songs didn't have anything to do with the record. I had no idea about the emotions that went into it or where that music came from. I had to find where the music fit into my heart before I could put everything I had into it. And with any other band, that might have been more difficult to do. But I think we all play music for the some unspoken reasons. That's why this next record pleases us all so much, and I also think that’s why I'm still a member of this band." The band's brand new album, Five Against One, will catch listeners by surprise. Abbruzzese punches Pearl Jam into wider, more dynamic expressions than the band achieved with its debut, while lending an infectious warmth that percolates from the bottom up. And for Abbruzzese, the new record is his most coveted reward for taking the risk of his life.

MP (Matt Peiken): Were you just itching to get into the studio with this band and place your own name on things?


DA (Dave Abbruzzese): Just a couple of weeks after I joined the band, actually, we went into the studio and recorded "State Of Love And Trust" and another version of "Even Flow" for a video we were doing. We ended up using that version of "Even Flow" with some film we'd shot of a show at the More Theater in Seattle because, by chance, they synced up really well together. When we finally went in to do the new record, I was really looking forward to it, but it wasn't a case of, "Now I get to prove what I can do." It was more a case of looking forward to this band going in and doing something as awesome as making a record. When we first went into the studio, there wasn't any talk of following up a successful record. We just wanted to make songs that represented us. We didn't want to make Pearl Jam Eleven. A lot of the success of the last record did go into the new record, though. I mean, you can't remove yourself from who you are.

MP: I remember when you guys flew to the Bay Area to do the record and, boom, it was done. Did the recording process seem to go by fast?


DA: Yeah, it seemed that way, but we were actually there for two months. Most of the songs were written before we got there, but we wrote a couple in the studio. We took the approach of recording one song at a time, setting up the room and our gear, getting everything down right, and putting it away before going on to the next song. And that was a great way to do things because in a typical way of recording, you lay down your rhythm tracks, then the guitar tracks, and then the vocals. So by the time it gets to vocals, the drummer's sick of sitting around listening to the same track over and over again, and you can get burned out on it. So the ability to have the whole band involved from start to finish was a great thing, and it kept it fresh for everybody. A lot of bands miss out on that.

MP: Did that add pressure to things, though? If one guy messed up or wanted to do his part over, didn't the other guys get tweaked or impatient?


DA: A lot of it was just letting out parts happen. We didn't get too technical in figuring out exactly what we wanted to do. We just wanted to let it happen and be magical rather then worked-on. So if we did the song and it felt great to everybody, even if there was a part that was a little messed up or we could have been a little tighter on, we'd keep that track and then just fix that part by editing a part in or having someone clean up their part later.

MP: Was it a lot easier to maintain a jam-type feel that way and keep a groove going?


DA: It made a big difference in terms of the energy of the music. We were just into it more. We were psyched to hear the song and know that when we were done, we'd get to hear the whole song. That's also the way [producer] Brendan O'Brien works. And one of the goals we all had was to just enjoy making a record. I wasn't around for the last record, but I think everybody wanted more out of this one, to be a little more pleased with it, make it a little less of a labor. And Brendan likes to work fast, so he fell in line with what we wanted to do.

MP: What kind of effect did Brendan have on your playing and approach?


DA: We talked about each song and bounced ideas back and forth about whether we needed a dry sound here or a tight, punchy snare sound there. Sometimes my idea would win out and sometimes his idea would, but either way we both ended up happy. That's not to say we didn't have out moments of coming from different places. [laugh] A lot of it depends on how much give-and -take goes on, and there were definitely times when it was like, "Oh, jeez!" You just try to leave yourself open-minded enough to accept different ideas and maybe something would come up that neither of us had thought of. As far as my playing, on the song "Rats", Brendan really wanted me to open the hi-hat, just let the groove open up and plow through. I'd originally approached the song a lot tighter, more hip-hoppy. But when I opened up and bashed my way through it, I felt it just made the whole song explode more. It actually gave the song a different shape, making the chorus different. Little thing like that can make a big difference. When we were originally working on "Daughter", I did a lot more stuff on the toms. But when we went in to record it, Brendan suggested trying something different, to just use the kick and snare. That was a trip, because we'd already been playing that song for half a year, and I was kind of used to what I was doing. At first I was like, "Well…okay…" so I set up a 26" kick, a snare, and an 18" floor tom, and we just used the room mic's and went for it. It actually brought out a whole new dimension of the song for me, and it felt really fresh to me to play it like that. Live, I kind of mix the two approached together.

MP: I don’t know if you guys ever think this way or not, but when I first heard that song, I thought it was destined to be one of the hit singles of the record.


DA: Actually, that song isn't even going to be a single, at least not that I know of. But we don't even thing of those things. Well, honestly, there was one time in the studio I was just trying to figure out what our future was going to by in terms of what we were going to do with the record. I asked something like, "What are we going to do about a single?" Everybody just looked at me and said, "Shut up!" So it was something we didn't really talk about. The main thing was just to play music and let it happen. And by doing it one song at a time, we could respect where each song was coming from rather then what we as a band or individually wanted the song to achieve. And due to the way we recorded and where each of our heads were at, I think each song was approached with a different energy that what the song before or the song after had.

MP: Did a song like "W.M.A." where the drums definitely set the tone and keep thing going, have to be more planned out?


DA: For that song, we wanted to sound really different because it was different. We had so many ideas for it. I laid down this two-measure drum track and we looped it all the way through the song. Eddie [Vedder, vocalist] and Jeff [Ament, bassist] came in to do vocals and bass on it, and then I went back with some Octobans and a cymbal and just winged it. I also did some tambourine and sleigh bell thing, and then we did some other crazy stuff, like using a slapstick and another tambourine and Stone [Gossard, guitarist] dancing around the hallway with this freaky "boinging" thing. [laughs] That was a song we'd already been playing for a while. But at one point, we just decided while we were jamming in rehearsal not to play it anymore until we got into the studio. We wanted to take it somewhere and not get set in playing it a certain way, with any set structure.

MP: This record seems to have mush more of a rhythmic intensity that the last one. Did you try to lock in with Jeff to intentionally create more of a bottom end?


DA: You know, we talked a lot about that when we were working on these songs and deciding how to approach them. Jeff and I were determined to play together on this record, to enhance each other, and I think we did a good job at that. I respect Jeff a lot as a bass player; he's amazing. The thing that was happening with us before was that Stone and I were working together a lot, so there was more a sense of the guitar and drums locking up and the bass falling in between somewhere. But we didn't want that for the record. We wanted there to be a solid bottom, and Jeff's such a melodic player that I knew if my kick tied in with him, the bottom would be solid and melodic, but that I'd still be able to use my cymbals to color what Mike [McCreedy, guitarist] and Stone were doing.

MP: You'd told me during the last tour that you were looking forward to having some input in the songwriting. Did that come easily on the creative end? And how did your writing style mesh with the other guys?


DA: I write a lot of stuff on my own, but a lot of it may not work with this band. The band could go in so many different directions, and most of what I write doesn't feel like Pearl Jam songs to me. But a song I had called "Go" make it on the record, and I have another song Eddie and I have worked on. I have quite a few songs I want to present to the band, actually, but there's a time and place for that, and I want my songs to be ready before I present them. The thing is that everybody in the band is an amazing songwriter, and I may just be in the typical drummer's dilemma. You know, it's not the easiest thing in a band like this for the drummer to strap on a guitar and say, "Hey, I've got some songs I want to show to you." [laughs] I just have to wait for the right opportunity. With "Go," I just happened to pick up the guitar at the right moment. Stone asked what I was playing and started playing it, then Jeff stared playing it, and Eddie started singing with it, and it turned into a song. That's basically how all or most of our songs come about, just jamming at rehearsal. But I just like writing anyway, whether my songs make it into the band or not. That's why I learned how to play the guitar -- what little I know how to play! It goes back to the days of being a kid and jamming with my first bands. I was the one with the most tolerant parents, so we'd usually play at my house and the other guys would leave their gear. I'd pick up their guitars and try to figure things out. I still barely know any chords. But I've jammed to enough records and, like anything else, if you do it long enough and for enough years, you'll figure out how to express yourself with it. I just wanted to be enough of a guitar player to express my ideas. And I've studied bass a little, too, just so I'd have more of an understanding of where the music was coming from.

MP: How dedicated were you to developing your drumming style? I know you never really took lessons, so where did your technique and flowing style come from, particularly your quick doubles with your hands and kick foot?


DA: It was Zeppelin and copping Bonham in the different bands I was playing in. I was always playing with guys who were ten years older then me, and I felt like I had to prove something to them. So it was just a matter of digging the shit out of something and pulling it off. If I heard something that blew me away, I'd put the headphones on and listen to it over and over and try to pick it up, and I wouldn't be satisfied until I learned every bit of it. And basically, over the course of time, I pretty much learned the entire Zeppelin catalog. Because at that time, at fifteen, if I could play drums like John Bonham, there'd be no stopping me. And if somebody today ever told me my bass drum style reminded them anything at all of Bonham, because he had suck a melodic approach to the kick drum, I think I'd be blown over! I think that's part of the reason I never settled for putting another bass drum up, but instead demanding that my right foot do the things it needed to do to keep up. A lot of drummers I really enjoy copying when I was younger played double bass, but I had a single bass and I just demanded myself to be able to do what they did on one kick. To me, that was all I had, so I had to work with my tomes or snare to compensate for not having that other kick. I think that accounts for a lot of the spastic style I used to have. The more I got into original music with the various bands I played in, the more I tamed and began to understand that I wanted to be more of a melodic drummer rather then a power drummer. I wanted to play powerful music, but the melody of the music has power itself. That's where a lot of the left-handed stuff on the hi-hat and cymbals come out of me. I consider myself more of a kick/snare/hi-hat/cymbal drummer than a big-fill guy. I like to find the groove, establish it, and enhance it and pull it back when it needs that. When there are four open bars, I don't want to do a big power roll there. I want to use those four bars to set up the next four bars and put everything together.

MP: Let's go back to when and how you first hooked up with Pearl Jam.


DA: I was in Texas, jamming with my friends Darrell Phillips and Pat Hooker in a band called Dr. Tongue. It was kind of a funky thing, and we were just having fun. One day I got a call from Matt Chamberlain, who got hooked up with Pearl Jam after the band and Dave Krusen split. Matt went out with them as kind of a hired gun at this showcase gig they were going. It was a three-week gig, and then he got an offer to play with G.E. Smith's band on Saturday Night Live. But before he left, he was looking for somebody to take his pace, so he called me to ask what I thought about it. We had known each other from the Dallas music scene. There was this engineer who'd call me to do a job if Matt couldn't, and we used to go out and see each other play now and then. From what Matt talk me about this band, it seemed totally different from where I came from musically. I'd never heard Soundgarden or Mother Love Bone -- or even knew anything about Seattle music. Where I came from was older music like Zeppelin and Sly & The Family Stone -- stuff like that -- all the way up to the Peppers. I was in more of a funky place, but my days were spent pretty much just hanging out with my buddies and playing music, not spending much time listening to new music. Anyway, it was a Friday that he called, and on Sunday night, I went to the little radio station where I worked and there they were -- Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam's little sampler, with "Wash" and "Alive" and that Beatles song on it. I played some of it on the air and thought it was pretty cool. But Matt didn't call me back for a while, so I just figured it wasn't happening. But a week later, he hooked me up with the band's manager. Jeff and Eddie were at their manager's office in Seattle, and I talked to them on the phone about the music and everything. So I flew up there on a Saturday and they did a show in Seattle where they filmed the "Alive" video, and that was my first experience with them. I met the guys an hour or two before the gig and saw them play the show and thought it was cool. Then on a Monday, we got together and jammed, and that was actually the first time I ever played a Drum Workshop kit, which was Matt's. We jammed jammed for a few and it just worked out from there. They asked me how quick I could go back, get my gear, and come back up. So I flew back to Texas, packed my stuff, patted my cat on the head, kissed my girlfriend goodbye, hopped in the truck, and drove to Seattle. We went on tour right after that.

MP: I suppose if you had time to really consider it, you might have realized you were turning your whole life upside down for something that was anything but a sure thing.


DA: All I ever thought about was playing music, so it didn't really catch me off guard. I just said screw it and went for it. The hard parts were being indefinite with my band back in Texas, with I was still really happy with at the time. I told them I was going to just leave and do this thing and I didn't know when we'd jam together, but hopefully it would happen again. I still say that every time we talk. I miss jamming with them, for sure, because they're just great friends. But I didn't even really thing about what I was getting into. When we started out, it was just ten or twelve of us in a fifteen-passenger van, and here we were, going on tour. But a week into our first van tour, we got work that the Chili Peppers wanted us to open for them. And I went, "Wow, this is heavy," because they're one of my favorite bands. So we did that tour and it just snowballed from there. We got better as a band and, I think, became more of a band as far as relationships go and understanding and tolerating each other and creating music and everything that goes along with being in a band.

MP: Having to play pretty much what Dave Krusen played, what kind of effect do you think you had on the music when you first joined?


DA: Well, right from the start the other guys said I was free to put my own personality into thing, because that was one of the first questions I had. But from what I understand, without ever knowing Dave myself, I gathered that he wasn't a very motivating factor in the band. And I'd like to think I put the music in a different place. The thing is, the other guys are such great players and songwriters, there wasn't a lot of pressure on me to be anything but myself. I trusted these guys a lot. I wanted Stone to tell me what groove he had in his head when he wrote a song. I want to know that because then I can take his ideas and his feel and embellish on that. That just puts me closer to where he was coming from with the song, instead of just going with my own ideas, which might be a totally different direction then what Stone had in mind.

MP: How quickly did you feel comfortable with the band and vice versa?


DA: It took a while, for one, because I can from Texas, and secondly, we're all extremely different personalities, for sure. Our common band is music, but we're all very different people. Each of the guys inspires me in a different way, and if the arrows are pointing in five separate directions, the central point is the music. Once we got on the road and it started getting heavy for everybody, it really hit me that, "Whoa, I'm traveling around the country with people I barely know." I was a guy who was just used to being around his buddies, and all of a sudden, my whole life was different. I was with people who had already toured together and made a record together, so they had that tightness and knew how to deal with each other. So it was a matter of them getting to know the new guy, but in a pretty intense, emotional situation. When the success started coming, with al the attention that went along with it and everybody wanting a piece of us, it really took its tool on us individually. For me, it just left me with a sense of feeling shattered. Through that first tour, I kept remembering all the times that, as a fan, I used to really like a band and want a piece of their tune, and how I used to feel when they snubbed me. But I started understanding how it might have been bad mayonnaise at catering or something else that made them not want to talk to me. [laughs] So I went out of my way not to take out my frustration or emotions on the kids or anybody else who was just there to enjoy us. Still, I feel like I ended up giving so much of myself away that I lost touch with what I was going and why I was doing it. I basically lost a grip on what I was all about, and I didn't start being aware of how I felt and come to grips with the whole thing until we got off tour and went back home. I didn't go back to Texas, though; I stayed in Seattle because I felt like I needed to be alone. Over a year's time had passed, and my whole life was completely different. My relationship had taken a permanent sabbatical, and I had pretty much cut myself off from a lot of people who still mean a lot to me. But all the changes, I realize now, were for the better -- musically, personally, emotionally. I lost a lot along the way, but I also gained a lot. I'm much more mature now, and I feel I can share myself with the band and other people in a more complete way.

MP: Has music always played such an important, all-encompassing role in your life?


DA: Oh, yeah, ever since I can remember bangin' on my dad's tackle boxes. I have two brothers, one older and one younger, but I'm the only person in my family who was ever really involved with music. And I think I used that as an escape from things at home. Even back in the days of my first bands, the guys I played with were like family to me, people I could be real with. My folks didn't know I smoked cigarettes, but my band did. The buddies in the band always seamed to by my core and the people who really knew me. The music was the only thing I identified with at the age -- and hangin' out with four or five other kids my age who were freaks, too. It was something that bound us together, and it made music a focal point of my growing-up years. I dropped out of school early into high school because I just wanted to play music. Nothing else felt right to me, nothing else mattered. My theory at the time was that I could always go back to school, but I couldn't always seize the opportunities that were at my door then. Looking back, it was a huge gamble, and my dad was right there wishing me the best, telling me that if I struck out, I was in for a hard life ahead of me. But even with all of that, my parents were very supportive. And I had no sense of the gamble I was taking at the time. Music was the only thing that made me happy now, and now was the only thing that mattered to me. And that's still the attitude I have. Ten years from now doesn't mean a thing; I may not even be around in ten years. The only thing that matters to me now is playing music, and I have to do it.

MP: What is Pearl Jam hadn't happened for you? Would you still be able to exist strictly playing music on the club level, like you had with Dr. Tongue?


DA: Not too many bands make a living playing their own music in clubs. Dr. Tongue was strictly fun for me, and all of us were at points in our lives where we didn't really know what we wanted to do. We just figured we'd keep on jamming and things would somehow work out, like they always had. Actually, when I quit school, I told myself that I was going to eventually re-evaluate my situation when I was twenty-five. And my twenty-fifth birthday was the day after I played the Modern Drummer Drum Festival this year. So it made me that a little that my commitment and dedication to music hasn't steered me wrong.

MP: What else do you want to accomplish in music, if and when Pearl Jam ever comes to a close for you?


DA: There's a lot of things. I'd love to play on some rap and hip-hop stuff because I just love to play that kind of funky drumming. I'd also like to eventually make a record with some of my old friends and just make music, maybe play guitar on something and produce some other bands some day. I'm looking forward to some opportunities opening up for me and playing in different styles of music. But I don't really think about it. There's no place I'd rather be right now than making music with Pearl Jam. There are so many avenues for us to explore, and we get tastes of that every time we jam. Maybe the greatest thing about this band is that the jamming aspect never takes a back seat. That's why I love the word "Jam" in the band's name. I can never see the music stopping for us.

 

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