Q&A: Pearl Jam Producer Brendan O’Brien on the Making of ‘Lightning Bolt’
‘Eddie Vedder still pulls out the same typewriter he’s been using for 20 years’
Pearl Jam have worked with a handful of producers over their two-decade career, but they keep coming back to Brendan O’Brien. He first worked with the band on Vs. in 1993, and since then he’s produced everything from Vitalogy to Yield to their 2009 LP Backspacer. O’Brien teamed up with Pearl Jam again for their upcoming 10th disc, Lightning Bolt, in stores on October 14th.
We spoke with O’Brien about the new album, his long history with Pearl Jam, his ill-fated attempt to cut a record with Aerosmith and the summer he spent on the road as as Neil Young’s keyboardist.
I was just watching the footage of you playing with Pearl Jam at Wrigley Field. That must have been a lot of fun.
That was a blast.
What was the scene like backstage during the rain delay?
It was a little tense here and there, because the band really wanted it to work out. This was a real big moment for those guys ”“ for Eddie, for all of them. They were really concerned it was gonna get blown out. I don’t believe there was a “rain day” anywhere. There wasn’t a chance to make it up.
They were determined to make it work. Their road manager, Smitty, just worked those people at the neighborhood coalition to let them extend the curfew until two a.m. When it became clear that was going to happen, spirits definitely picked up.
I remember standing off to the side of the stage when they came back on. I was expecting to see a smattering of empty seats. Nobody went home. Everybody was there, ready to go.
Tell me how this new Pearl Jam album started. What were the first steps?
The seeds of this album actually started when we were doing the last record, Backspacer. Everybody was really happy with how that worked out. We had a really good time doing it. The idea was to do another record in the same way, where we get together in Seattle, work the songs up and cut them down in Los Angeles at Henson, the studio where I usually work.
We started working about a year and a half ago, maybe even longer. We did about six or seven songs that were ready. My idea was, “Let’s do these songs, make them great and be all excited about them, and then that will propel the band into writing the rest of the songs. We’ll get right back and do the rest of them.” Well, that didn’t happen. I was not able to get them into the studio for another year and a half.
[Laughs] They had a lot of things going on. I just don’t think they were quite ready just yet to do the whole . . . Once they finish a record, I think they know they’ve gotta crank the whole thing up. If they’re happy with the record, it sort of means they’re going to get the whole thing rolling. I just don’t think they were quite ready to do all of that. They all had various solo things going on.
That’s the best I can figure. You’ll have to ask them. Whatever happened, we got together about five months ago and started back up. We had a group of songs, and we picked from those. The good news is that we had sort of a template of songs that we started in the first session, and we knew we had to do something at least that good, or better. If they weren’t rising to that kind of level, we would just move on from there.
Do you think they benefited from all that time off because they came back with fresh heads?
Um . . . I don’t know if it would’ve been any different if we’d started right back up, but I do know that for whatever reason, the songs weren’t there previously. And we kind of had to wait for the songs to come. I don’t know if that’s any better or worse. Certainly not worse, but I don’t know if it was any better for the time off. But it certainly worked out great. I can’t complain about it.
Do they get together as a group and write prior to meeting back up? Do they record stuff separately and then present them to the group when they reconvene with you? How does the process work?
At this point, most of the guys kind of work on their own thing separately and then bring them in, and they finish them as a group. That’s how most of the stuff has worked out on the last few records I’ve worked on. I think it works out best for them when they do that. Everyone has their own sort of recording gear and their own little studios. I mean, Stone [Gossard] has a full-blown, actual studio. They all have their own recording rigs at home, so they’re able to do their own demos.
In the early days of Vs. and Vitalogy there was a certain amount of everybody getting in a room and kind of jamming out. Now, it’s pretty much everyone puts together songs, and they finish them together as a band.
It’s a relatively unique situation, where you have a band with five songwriters.
Yeah, right. Everyone has something to offer. It’s unique, and it has its own special challenges. You’d like everyone to be heard, but I think everyone has sort of grown up at this point. We’re going to put 11 or 12 songs on the record. Someone may or may not be as represented as they were on other records. This is how it works out.
For some records, someone gets a lot of songs, and the next one . . . It’s just how the songs work out as a team. Again, it can be a challenge from a producer’s perspective, because you’re trying to keep everybody involved. This is very much a band, as much as any band I’ve ever worked with. They do have a leader ”“ Eddie is their leader. But they all kind of lead different spots in different ways, and they do all have their moments. They’re all very capable guys, songwriting-wise.
How does the sound of this record compare to the previous one?
I’m terrible at stuff like that. The way I’ve always kind of recorded records and made records is that we shut up and the songs dictate how it’s going to sound. We don’t really think about it that much. There’s not a lot of pretense about it. So I don’t know that they sound that much . . . we kind of recorded in the same fashion.
But I guess there are a few longer, more devoted songs. On Backspacer I really love that all the songs were fairly short. I love that about it. They were all “get in, get out fast.” This record has a few songs that have a bit more of a . . . they kind of . . . what’s the word I’m looking for here? They’re longer. [Laughs] I don’t know if the word “depth” is right, but some of the songs kind of take you down a road for a while.
There’s a song called “Sirens” that I think is one of the best songs on the record. That clocks in around five minutes, which is long pop song. It really works out. A song called “Infallible” ”“ at least that’s what I believe it’s called ”“ is also a little more developed that way.
I’ll leave it to the guys in the band to describe what the songs are about and that kind of stuff. But as far as sonically, the way it sounds different, I don’t know. You’ll have to tell me.
How has your role as producer changed since the days of Vs. and Vitalogy?
It’s changed a bit. We all kind of hit at the same time. They had just blown up with popularity out of nowhere. So I think that my role at the time was really getting those guys in a room and getting them in a headspace to record and make records. In a lot of ways it was as lot more difficult, just because they were trying to feel their way around it.
We made a lot of good records in those days, but there was a different way of doing it. In those days, there was a lot of setting up. We actually went into Vitalogy without having any songs. We’d start at noon and say, “What have you got?” and we’d start working. We’d never do that now. That’s for young people. That’s for people who have not made many records yet.
Once you’ve made a few records, you realize that’s just toil and trouble. I think my role now has turned into more of a traditional producer. I kind of help them pick songs and help with all of the sessions. We’ve had a trust develop over the years where they trust me to do the right thing, for the most part. And if there’s anything that they’re just not digging what we’re doing, they know that I’ll listen and we’ll figure something else out.
Walk me through a typical day of creating this album.
Well, there’s two different days. One is the tracking sessions, where they’re all in the room at the same time. We still do track the songs with everybody playing at the same time. We may not use everything we tracked at the same time, but I think it’s important for all of us, even with Eddie’s singing. I’ve got to hear everybody at the same time so I know if the parts are going to work or if the key is going to work, or the tempo. All that stuff.
If everybody is in the room at the same time, we’ll listen to the demo that whoever has made, and then we’ll start working on the arrangement that works best for the band. We pretty much worked out every song on this record one song at a time. We would work a song up, work the arrangement, get it sounding right, and then track the song. We’d do that before we moved onto the next one.
How many weeks total did you track?
Mixing and everything, probably no more than six or seven weeks. Maybe a little more.
But that’s across two years.
Right. Well, we did them in two sessions. The first session, over a year and a half ago, took three weeks. Then we were probably in Los Angeles for a couple of weeks to record at this last session. I think we mixed everything in Seattle. They wanted to mix up there because they all wanted to be around. It takes a little longer when everybody is around. I say a “little longer,” but it probably took 10 days. That’s not a long time for some people, but that seems like a long time to me.
Do you ever serve as a band mediator? I mean, what do you do when they don’t agree on something? Are you the designated neutral party?
Sometime’s the producer’s role is to try and be a little bit of ”“ I don’t know if “conscience” is the right word, but just the voice of the band that says, “This is really working. Let’s give it a shot.” And I have said those things out loud: “Hey, let’s really give this a shot, and I promise if this is not working out, at some point we’ll stop and do something else.”
If I really think something deserves attention, I will say that. And they’ll usually do it. And there are times when it works out, and other time they’ll do it and they’ll come back to me and go, “Uh, hey, we’ve tried it and we’re not digging it. Let’s move on.”
I’m sure everything is much easier now. When you started, these were young guys with a lot of pressure on their shoulders.
I like to think we’re all better at our jobs than we were in those days. I feel like I’m better at what I do. But I feel like we were pretty good at it then. They’ve all sort of come to terms with what they want and what they’re doing. They’ve really learned over the years. When we first met and started working, I knew Jeff [Ament] and Stone OK, but I didn’t know anyone else very well at all.
I barely knew Eddie, and Eddie was a tough guy to get next to in those days. And so I didn’t really try that hard, because he didn’t seem to want to. He wanted to be more of a working thing, and that was difficult sometimes. But that’s just how it was.
In those early days, how difficult or hard it might have been, it seemed to work out. But you’re right that it is easier now in several ways. Everything is a little smoother.
Are they more democratic these days?
In some things they’ve always been very democratic, and in some things someone takes over and it’s their moment. That’s how it works. They’ve usually been pretty good at identifying what those moments are. If Eddie’s got a song that he feels really strongly about, then we’re probably going to do it. If one of the guys has a song that they feel really strongly about, I can promise you that we’re going to do everything we can to try and work that out.
There’s also a lot less pressure on them these days. They have this massive fan base, but it’s not like 1993, where the media and the entire music industry was obsessing over their next move.
I think they probably feel that. I don’t. I take each record very personally. I feel like it’s my job to help them put the very best forward. It’s my job to help them put out a record where people say, “Oh, them. I love Pearl Jam! I’d forgotten how much I liked them. I like this stuff, too. It’s great!”
It’s easy for a band that’s been around for a long time to gear down a bit when it comes to songwriting and making records. It’s very easy to bring it down. But not these guys. They want it badly. I think that’s awesome. I’m very happy with that.
I imagine it’s very healthy for all the guys to have solo projects. It means they can go work on their own and then come back and be really reinvigorated. Do you feel that way?
Um, yeah, sure. [Laughs]
To be honest, I would have loved to have gotten back together sooner than a year and a half between sessions. I think it was very doable, but they’re going to do what they’re going to do. One of the reasons they’ve been a band so long and have been able to stay together is that they’ve figured out how to make it work. And it really is not up to me.
People ask me all the time, “Hey, why don’t you work with so and so? Why don’t you work him, him or her?” It’s like, they have to ask me first. It’s really not up to me. The schedule is not up to me. I’ve got to work around their schedules, for the most part.
So their solo things are very important to them. They put a lot of energy and effort into it. My thinking is that I’m very selfish when it comes to Pearl Jam. I’m like, “I want all your energy and your best songs for these records. That’s all I care about.” The other stuff, I’m thrilled that you’re doing it, but I’m very single-minded when it comes to that.
But they keep bringing you back year after year. They could have basically any producer in the world, so that’s got to be flattering.
Well, yeah. That’s awesome. Trust me, I do not take that for granted. I work my hardest, and I have a great team, and I put my best people together with them. Again, I don’t take it for granted at all.
There must be a comfort level with you that they could simply not have with any other producer.
I think so. But along with that, sometimes I’ve got to keep it all business. There are times away from the studio where we’ve become friends. They know my family and I know their families. My kids have grown up around them, and so we have that. That’s a separate, awesome part of our lives that I cherish.
But when we’re in the studio, sometimes I gotta keep it all business. I have to address them and have talks about songs in a way that’s not necessarily, “Hey, we’re all bros!” It’s like, “Hey, I’m your producer and you’re paying me to make tough decisions.”Â But that’s the gig.
How is the Eddie Vedder of today different than the guy you first met 20 years ago?
To me, he’s remarkably the same. When it comes to writing songs and his intensity towards his work . . . He stills pulls out the same typewriter from the same little brown suitcase he’s been using for 20 years. It’s remarkable how much he approaches it the same. I know he’s a different guy since he’s a family man now, a father, but all that looks the same to me.
I was talking to Joey Kramer from Aerosmith about three years ago and he was telling me about the record you started with them. He said it was a tragedy the thing never happened.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
I guess sometimes things just don’t work out.
[Laughs] Um, yeah. You could say that. Joey seems to be an awesome guy. How about that? Let me just say that I really enjoyed hanging out with Tom [Hamilton,] Brad [Whitford] and Joey. They were great. They were awesome.
I just think you caught them at a particularly bad moment in time.
Maybe so, but that didn’t stop . . . Ah, well, never mind. I’m talking to a writer here. I gotta stop.
Lastly, I was just watching video of the Pearl Jam/Neil Young 1995 European tour. You look like you were just having an absolute blast as part of that band.
It really was. From my perspective, I had just gone from someone trying to get anybody to pay attention to me. I was like, “Please hire me to do a job. I don’t care what it is. I want to make records.” Then in 1993, it just blew up. I worked nonstop. Late 1992 and 1993 was out of control, and I had a family. So I decided to take the whole summer off. Everybody was cool with that.
We’d done this record [Mirror Ball] with Neil Young. We did it very fast, but it was a lot of fun. I get a call from Pearl Jam’s manager and I hear, “Hey, Neil’s going on tour and he wants you to come play keyboards and sing, because Eddie’s not going. It’s the rest of the guys, and Eddie’s the only who could play all of the keyboards parts and sing the background.” I said, “Hey, I would love to, but I’m taking the summer off.”
So then I get a call from Neil’s manager.“Hey man, Neil really wants you.” I said, “Listen, I would love to tour Europe with Neil, but I just can’t go. I told my family I was taking the summer off.”
The next call is from Neil. “Hey man, I’d really love for you to come. Bring you family along.” And I went, “OK. Sounds good.” [Laughs]
His point was, “You can play keyboards. You can do all this stuff.”Â I said to him, “I’m really a guitar player, Neil.”Â He goes, “I know, but you’re really good at keyboards, so you can do that. And I need somebody to sing all the backups.” So that was kind of my job. I took my wife and my two older daughters. My youngest was too small. We toured Europe together as a family, and it was a blast.
It had to be surreal to be playing stuff like “Powderinger” and “Cortez the Killer” with Neil Young at these enormous concerts.
It really was. I’m a little older than the band. I think I was 35 at the time. I remember thinking, “I really, really need to take this in. I need to put this in the memory bank.” I made a point to do my best to soak it all in. It was a great time. My older kids are in their early 20s now, but they all remember it. We’ve got pictures of them with Jeff and the band and Neil. It was just a blast.
I don’t think I made any money. I think I spent all of it on my family and traveling, but it was still absolutely great.
It was a bummer that tour never came to the States. Lots of people forget it even happened.
There was talk of that happening, but for whatever reason it just didn’t. I was ready to go. At that point I was like, “This is a blast.”Â But it didn’t happen. We went over to the Middle East, we played in Jerusalem and other places. It was just unbelievable.