Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament presents RNDM
Before Pearl Jam return to work on their tenth album this month, bassist Jeff Ament explains why he felt the need to get RNDM
It’s “just another mid-winter, foggy and rainy morning in Seattle,” reports Jeff Ament when our phone call connects. Throughout his three decades in the emerald city, the prolific bassist has made the most of its indigenous bad weather. From his formative days with proto-grunge forerunners Green River and Mother Love Bone, to his long-term stint with Pearl Jam ever since, Ament has played a vital part in the Pacific Northwest’s staggering musical history. But it's not quite enough; while frontman Eddie Vedder was off on a solo tour, guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard entrenched in a myriad of projects both new and familiar, and drummer Matt Cameron re-engaged with Soundgarden, Ament fell into his own extra-curricular activity.
Formed last spring, RNDM [pronounced R-N-D-M] reconnects Ament with an old acquaintance who’d helped drag him out of the doldrums when the sudden, tragic loss of Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood cast Ament's future as a musician into doubt, way back in 1990. “When Andy died I spent that summer not really playing music and just trying to figure out what I was going to do,” he recalls. “I was about halfway through college, so I had the idea that I might go back and get my art degree. Then I ran into Richard’s [Stuverud, now RNDM’s drummer] bandmate Tommy at a party and he said they needed a bass player, so I started playing with them – a band called War Babies, they had a record deal and some studio time booked. I went along and had a great time, mostly just playing with Richard, every day we’d show up an hour early for practice and we’d just work on rhythm section stuff; I’d bring a tape with a couple of songs that we’d just jam and play along with – like Prince and The Clash. We had so much fun that it made me reassess things.”
Of course, the rest is history, but Stuverud has remained a perpetual feature in Ament’s numerous side projects throughout the intervening years – from slowcore forerunners Three Fish to heavy blues unit Tres Mits. The new variable in their alliance is the addition of Ohioan songwriter Joseph Arthur – whose earthy vocals and stylistic divergence marries well with this dextrous rhythm section. Yet Ament suggests that the fact they became a band in any conventional sense, let alone recorded an album, was a bit of a happy accident.
“Richard comes out once or twice a year; we demo each other’s songs,” he says of RNDM's genesis. “I’ve known Joe for around 12 years now – whenever he came through town I’d go see him play. The last time, I just casually mentioned ‘hey, we should get together and write some songs.’ It was about having a bit of fun with other musicians, not that we’d intended to form a band and make a record. We had a great first night – Joe brought in a song called What You Can’t Control, which came together pretty quick. Listening back the next day, it sounded better than we’d thought, so we just volleyed songs back and forth over four and a half days.”
“All of our experiences outside the band only make the Pearl Jam thing better” – Jeff Ament
Whirlwind recording sessions are nothing new to Ament; with Pearl Jam’s backing, Neil Young’s Mirror Ball was written on the fly and recorded in just four days back in 1995. It’s a touchstone that RNDM looked back on as exemplary to their cause when recording their debut (eventually titled Acts), although Ament acknowledges the trade-off to working at such a pace. “There’s things about the Mirror Ball record I wish that we could re-do,” he chuckles. But we spoke about that particular record a lot when we were recording RNDM.”
RNDM are supported by Pearl Jam’s unique infrastructure as a band-turned-independent business, including their own in-house label (Monkeywrench). “We have 30 employees who are on salary, get health insurance and rely on us to be creative enough to put out records and go on tours,” says Ament of the responsibility. “That part’s probably the thing that I’m most proud of – we go down to our building and have what we consider to be this pretty cool little business going. It’s a great space and it makes you want to work hard for something beyond yourself and the band. It’s a cool thing. Sure, we need to be involved in some of the things that record companies take care of, but I think in the long-term it will keep us in the game.”
With a four-year interval since Backspacer – his other band's last recorded appearance, conversation inevitably turns to Pearl Jam's current status. Whereas Mike McCready has recently floated the idea of an experimental sequel, Ament offers a more guarded update: “There’s talk of us getting together in March – hopefully that’ll quickly turn into going in the studio. We have tonnes of instrumental ideas and partial songs – things that are in that in-between state. It’s just going to take us getting into a room together for a week to ten days and knocking through these arrangements to figure it all out. Hopefully by the end of that period in March we will be ready to do something. I try not to get too hung-up on what-ifs – we still need to have twelve really good songs before we can go ahead to the next step. When we got together and demoed last year it was super creative – I don’t think anybody’s sitting on their laurels.”
Having freed themselves of major label constraints since departing Epic in 2003, Ament attributes the autonomy that Pearl Jam’s constituent parts now have to the band’s longevity. “We’ve always supported each other’s side projects and I think we all know that Pearl Jam takes precedence over all the other things,” he says. “I think that even when Matt started talking about Soundgarden again, just as fans and friends of all the other guys in that band we were excited that they were going to get back together. We supported that fully – I mean, they’re playing here next week and we all want to go and see the show! All of our experiences outside the band only make the Pearl Jam thing better. Sometimes, just creatively, you hit a new spot in terms of how you write songs – you bring that back to the band and it’ll help us naturally evolve.”
RNDM, meanwhile, already have the makings of their next LP, which Arthur suggests will take a turn into psych-rock territory. “There’s a whole bunch of songs,” Ament confirms. “We’ve been going through mixing that stuff this week, messing around with sequences to see how it feels, talking to the people who run our little record label here and see what the feasibility of it is. RNDM’s not going away. It’s a good creative space for all of us. It’s a lot of laughs, and around this point of my life it's definitely where I’m at."