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Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam: ‘Music has helped me in survival, in mental health, in dealing with aggression’

Grunge stalwarts, whose rollicking new album is imminent, get along better than ever - until they enter the studio

Eddie Vedder calls it magic time – that special, gone-in-a-fingersnap moment between an album’s recording and its release. He has experienced it on several occasions, both as frontman of Pearl Jam and as a humble music fan. He recalls how, in the early 1990s, he and his friends on the Seattle alternative scene would pass around a battered cassette by an up-and-coming local band named Nirvana. The music was incredible, transcendent. But the real thrill came from listening to the LP before the rest of the world had a chance to hear it.

“It happened with Nevermind,” he says, referring to that world-shaking second album by Nirvana. “There was this tape being passed around Seattle. I remember driving to a secret Fugazi show in the desert [listening to Nevermind]. There is this magic before it became accessible.”

Vedder, who is now 59, is in London with some magic of his own to share. He’s on stage at Lafayette, a basement club on the border between Islington and Camden that looks like Whelan’s in Dublin if it was trying too hard to be cool. The singer, wearing a felt rock star hat and holding a huge container of tequila, is hosting a playback of Pearl Jam’s excellent 12th album, Dark Matter, before its release next week. He pours drinks for the uberfans up front while offering thoughts on the new LP and musings on life, the universe and everything.

He also reveals an awkward truth about Pearl Jam: they’re stalwart chums until they walk into studio. Then it becomes a battle of wills.

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“We’ve had 30 years,” he says of the creative process. “We feel we’re getting along better than ever. When it comes time to make a record, we realise we’ve been getting along because we haven’t had to make any hard artistic decision for two years.”

On Dark Matter, Vedder and his bandmates wrestled with one question in particular: how close to classic Pearl Jam do they want to sound? The answer is “lots” – it’s an LP powered by those trademark supercharged guitars and Vedder’s velvety, rumbling blues voice.

This is the version of Vedder fans love the best: the grunge shaman delivering angst-slathered lyrics such as “steal the lights from our eyes/ take my blood from my heart”, as one couplet on the new project goes, as if it’s still 1991 and plaid shirts, soul patches and knee-length cargo pants remain the epitome of alternative chic.

Dark Matter is a rollicking listen. It has that vaguely cheesy, excessively earnest quality that always distinguished Pearl Jam from contemporaries such as Nirvana. But Pearl Jam were always more complex than the grunge tag they acquired with their 1991 debut, Ten.

Here was a dark and stormy Seattle outfit whose lead singer grew up in sunny San Diego. Alternative hipsters who worshipped the Boomer faves Led Zeppelin and The Who. A major-label group who famously took on Ticketmaster and almost ripped themselves apart in the process, and who today charge top dollar for concerts brought to you by – but of course – Ticketmaster. (They play at Marlay Park, in Dublin, in June.)

These peers to Nirvana were also their binary opposite, flag-bearers for classic rock where Nirvana were a product of the indie underground. Forgot Blur vs Oasis: in 1991, if you cared about loud music and lyrics about the futility of existence, then it was either Nirvana or Pearl Jam. People who liked both were rare exceptions.

One musician who very much appreciated the two was Eddie Vedder. He adored Nirvana and was genuinely hurt when Kurt Cobain rejected Pearl Jam as coat-tail riders. He was stung, too, by the idea that Pearl Jam were sell-outs for signing to a major label and having hits. That cliche of Pearl Jam betraying a higher ideal by daring to be successful always baffled him, as he told me some years later.

“If someone said, ‘They sold out, they are being mainstream,’ it was, like, ‘Yeah, I know. What the f**k?’” he had said. “We felt as a band that we were doing the right thing and that this was what we had worked for – to play shows, to make music. But, you know, we were questioning the stuff that was being done in the industry ... I hate to even go there. The criticism we had from Kurt – he was getting it too, from other people. From the punk side of things. There was a firestorm out there. It was a funny time.”

Cobain didn’t mince his words, calling Vedder “Eddie Bedwetter” and labelling Pearl Jam “corporate puppets that are just trying to jump on the alternative bandwagon”.

“Kurt said some stuff about us that was a real bummer,” Mike McCready, Pearl Jam’s lead guitarist, said when I spoke to him separately. “Because of that there was a perceived thing between us and Nirvana. We didn’t really know him. I thought Nirvana were a good band. Our response to their criticism was, ‘Dude, why are you being such a dick? Why would you say that?’”

The “sell-out” tag rankled. So Pearl Jam went out of their way to demonstrate their bone fides. In 1994 they released their third album, Vitalogy, on vinyl two weeks before making it available on other formats – a brave choice in an era when the medium was regarded as obsolete.

That same year they squared up to Ticketmaster by insisting that tickets for their US tour be priced at $18 – with a maximum $1.80 service charge. Ticketmaster wanted to charge more, so Pearl Jam filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the behemoth (which is even more of a monster today than it was in 1994).

They testified to the United States Congress and hoped other bands would stand with them. It didn’t work out that way. REM’s attorney and comanager, Bertis Downs, gave evidence against Ticketmaster. But REM went with Ticketmaster for their Monster tour (which included a stop-off at Slane Castle), agreeing to let Ticketmaster charge $6.50 on a $40 ticket in the United States. Meanwhile, Pearl Jam had to set up their own touring infrastructure after in effect being shut out of arenas and amphitheatres that had signed exclusive deals with Ticketmaster (which was subsequently acquired by the monolithic Live Nation).

“We had to start creating these other venues where we could play,” Vedder told me when promoting Pearl Jam’s 2009 LP, Backspacer. “And we were having week-long meetings about chain-link fences and portapotties. Even the reviews of the performances were all about the ticket-surcharge issue, which really was something small. What we were trying to say was, ‘Hey, this could get worse if someone doesn’t fight it now.’ And apparently it looks like we predicted the future, if you look at all the mergers happening now, with Live Nation and things like that.”

There were other struggles, too. Vedder, a quiet young man with a gorgeous croon, was not cut out for fame and ran shy of the spotlight. Pearl Jam got so big so fast that he and his bandmates struggled with the weight of it all.

“The conflict came with the destruction of our private lives,” said McCready, who turned to alcohol and drugs. “That was something we all struggled with in different ways. It all blew up so quickly. All of a sudden you had 100 new friends. And you couldn’t help thinking, ‘Are these people really my friends? Or was something else going on?’ It was disorientating.”

That was a long time ago. On stage at Lafayette, Vedder cuts a cheery figure and speaks with passion about the healing power of music. In addition to promoting Dark Matter, he explains that he popped along to the Royal Albert Hall the previous night to play alongside The Who.

They were his heroes growing up in the 1980s, when he would listen to their masterpiece, Quadrophenia, on repeat. For an awkward teenager with a troubled home life – it was only after his parents divorced that he discovered the man he believed to be his dad was not his biological father – it was a godsend. To be on stage next to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend is a miracle he will never take for granted. “I had no friends except for Quadrophenia,” he says.

Pearl Jam tend to go through the wringer in the recording process. For instance, during the making of their 1993 album, Vs – which produced the megahit Daughter – Vedder grew so fed up with his bandmates that he would sleep in a truck outside the studio to carve out head space for himself.

No such drama attended Dark Matter, which was one of their most straightforward studio experiences yet. On Vedder’s recommendation, they worked with a new producer, Andrew Watt, who is perhaps best known as the midwife of Rolling Stones’ comeback album, Hackney Diamonds. At his Los Angeles headquarters, he encouraged Pearl Jam to move quickly and not sweat the details. They wrote the bulk of the songs over a few days – an approach that gives Dark Matter a breakneck quality, the tunes romping by and rarely outstaying their welcome.

That Pearl Jam should be considered latecomers to grunge was always ironic, given their deep roots in Seattle music. In 1984 Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament – Vedder and McCready’s future Pearl Jam cofounders – started Green River with their fellow Seattle musicians Mark Arm and Steve Turner. Their sound was loud, dingy, electrifying – the template for grunge. But a rift would open between the more commercially ambitious Gossard and Ament and the independent-minded Arm and Turner. Tensions bubbled over when Ament courted major-label executives ahead of a show in Los Angeles. Arm and Turner were furious, and Green River fell apart.

Ament’s former bandmates went on to found Mudhoney, a major influence on Cobain. Ament and Gossard, meanwhile, hooked up with a local vocalist named Andrew Wood, whose roof-raising vocals marked him out as a sort of Gen X Meatloaf. As Mother Love Bone they championed a protogrunge sound that suggested a missing link between Gun N’ Roses and what would become Pearl Jam.

Mother Love Bone signed a major-label deal in 1988. Alas, the project was not long for this world – nor was the self-destructive Wood. In a grim foreshadowing of Cobain’s substance-abuse issues, Wood suffered a fatal heroin overdose. In March 1990 his close friend Chris Cornell of Soundgarden rushed to his bedside to say goodbye.

“That was the death of the innocence,” Cornell explained in the 2005 documentary Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story. “It wasn’t later when people surmised that [Cobain’s suicide] was the end of the innocence. It was that,” he said of Wood in hospital. “It was walking into that room.”

Haunted by Wood’s death, Ament and Stone walked away from music. They were persuaded to return by Cornell, who proposed a tribute record to the late singer. In November 1990, at London Bridge Studios in Seattle, they recorded the Temple of the Dog album – a poignant farewell to Wood featuring many of his friends from the Pacific Northwest scene. Guesting on the LP was an out-of-towner named Eddie Vedder, who had approached Ament and Gossard with vocals he had set down to one of their demo tapes. They hit it off, and Pearl Jam was born. With the release of Ten a year later, grunge went mainstream.

Dark Matter is a worthy follow-up to their blistering early output. At Lafayette, between pouring tequila for fans, Vedder speaks of it with pride. “Making music is one of the best jobs on the planet,” he says. “Most importantly, you have volume. What’s volume to a painting? Music has helped [me] in survival, helped in mental health, helped in dealing with aggression.”

Speech concluded, he pulls up a seat and the album comes on. It is loud and wonderful, and in the darkness Vedder can’t help but raise his arms and cheer. We’ve arrived at his favourite place: that magic time when a new album is still a hush-hush treasure to be passed between friends. He smiles in the shadows, eyes bright with anticipation at this secret soon to be shared with the world.

Dark Matter is released on Friday, April 19th; Pearl Jam play Marlay Park, Dublin, on Saturday, June 22nd