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Still Aliiiiive

In the run-up to their 20th anniversary next year, Pearl Jam are re-releasing their monster debut, Ten. Here, they reminisce about how the band got together and how they came up with what has since emerged as one of the most important albums of our times

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rsiwebadmin Apr 20, 2009
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Seattle has always been out of the mainstream American rock circuit. So how did the scene develop in the 1980s?

Stone Gossard: Everyone just got in bands. There wasn’t a lot of trying to do anything other than that nobody was getting signed. A lot of us couldn’t play! Whatever we had, we tried to bring to the table and that made some weird combinations of people playing together, so everybody was going for broke in the sense of ”˜What have you got to lose?’

Matt Cameron: Seattle was isolated, so a lot of national known big-time rock acts wouldn’t necessarily come up to Seattle and Portland. That forced the North West music scene to look inward and create stuff on our own turf, play our own clubs. At the time, the Eighties underground in the US was definitely getting a lot more organised with bands like Black Flag and Husker Du, Minor Threat, Butthole Surfers ”“ they were able to create a circuit that had nothing to do with major labels and the known music industry at that time. What our music scene really plugged into was that do it yourself spirit.

Jeff and Stone you started playing together in Green River back in 1984. What were your early influences?

Stone: My influences were a lot of FM rock and pop on the radio. Simon and Garfunkel and disco. You couldn’t help but be affected by disco. Even if you weren’t at the time in love with disco it was everywhere. I missed British punk I never really understood it until I started listening to the Sex Pistols in ’84 and I went ”˜Whoa, this is a rock band.’  Heavy metal was huge too. Motörhead was the ultimate Seattle band, the lynchpin memories of how much you loved Black Sabbath when you were 8 years old.

It is sometimes claimed that Green River invented grunge.

Jeff Ament: [Chuckles] In the last year we’ve played four shows with Green River and while it’s been great to go back we’ve come to the conclusion that we were really just ripping off Black Flag and Motörhead and the Stooges. I guess that’s what ended up being grunge, so we probably owe Iggy and Lemmy and Greg Ginn some royalties from that era. They haven’t asked yet!

In early 1990s, the future of the Seattle rock scene appeared to be Mother Love Bone, in which Stone and Jeff wrote many of the songs. The band was fronted by the charismatic Andrew Wood and was signed to a major label.  Days before the release of the band’s debut album, Apple, Wood took a heroin overdose. He died a few days later from a cerebral haemorrhage. When Andrew died did you feel your chance was gone?

Jeff: I felt like maybe that was my one shot. I hung out with Stone a little right after Andy died. We’d go on long bike rides, sit around, have coffee and talk about anything other than being in a band together. I tried to make some sort of sense about what I was gonna do and if Stone and I were ever going to do anything together again. A friend of mine, Richard Stuverud, was in a band called War Babies. Their bass player had just quit and he said, ”˜We have a show in 3 days. Can you learn these songs and play the show with us?’ I did and I had such a great time, better than the last days in Mother Love Bone. Right around the same time, Stone said that he and Mike [McCready] had been playing some new songs that he’d written and did I want to play on the demos that they were gonna cut.

Stone: I loved writing songs ”“ I had the bug so I was just gonna keep writing. We had some really tough circumstances but at the same time I loved waking up, writing songs and playing in a band ”“ particularly if it’s stuff you can play.

How did you meet Mike?

Jeff: I ran into the singer of Shadow in the parking lot behind the restaurant that I worked in and he invited me to their show. When I got off work, I walked in and Mike was on the stage by himself playing a guitar solo a la Eddie Van Halen.

Mike McCready: [Laughs] He shuddered. Even through Jeff was in the punk rock scene and I was in the metal scene it was a small scene up here in Seattle back in the early Eighties so it was hard not to run into somebody.

By the end of the Eighties, I’d been through the ringer of the music business. I’d been playing in bands since I was 11 and we moved down to Los Angeles in ’86 trying to make it down there with Shadow. We played for about a year, partied, ran out of money and I became totally disillusioned with rock & roll. I got Crohn’s disease, which just brought me to my knees so I changed everything. I just knew it was never gonna happen. I went to the illogical extreme. So I went back to school in Seattle, cut off all my hair and I was reading these Barry Goldwater books. That lasted for about a year then I heard Muddy Waters playing on the Band’s Last Waltz and started playing music again. Like phew.

I heard that Stone was looking for me ”“ he saw me playing at a party jamming to a Stevie Ray Vaughan record when Mother Love Bone was still happening ”“ so for me it was a huge opportunity. In my mind Stone had made it ”˜cos he had a record contract, he’d already put out records, he knows the game and that was the unattainable thing for me.  Stone and Jeff were rock stars around Seattle I had to ask Stone after we started jamming for about a week ”“ are we gonna start a band? What do you want to do? ”˜Cos he was keeping everything very close to his chest. It was an exciting time”¦ brand new”¦ It was a twist of fate for me.

The three of you [Stone, Jeff and Mike] then quickly put together some song ideas. Matt Cameron, drummer with Soundgarden, was recruited to play on the demo tapes. Eight years later he joins Pearl Jam as their full time drummer. But for now, the three of you were still looking for a singer and a drummer”¦

Matt: Obviously I couldn’t predict what it would become but they were all very well-structured songs that you could definitely hear vocals on top. It was just a fun thing to do as I was between tours. It didn’t sound like Mother Love Bone to me. It seemed like Stone was going for something different.

Stone: I expected that we were going to find somebody [to sing] in Seattle only because so far that’s the way it had all worked. We loved Uplift Mofo Party Plan, the Chili Peppers record and the drumming on that record. Then because we’d had some success in terms of getting signed and we were like, ”˜OK, maybe we should be bold enough to call up [drummer] Jack Irons and see what he’s doing,’ because we heard at that time he wasn’t playing with the Chili Peppers anymore. He was playing with Eleven ”“ and I literally just asked him on they way out the door, ”˜If you know of any singers, let us know.’ So he said, ”˜Yeah, I do. I know a guy. Crazy Eddie.’

Eddie Vedder: I was more familiar with Soundgarden and Mudhoney than Mother Love Bone. Maybe that was good so it didn’t come with a whole lot of weight attached to it. I played the tape at work on the midnight shift at the gas station and there was something different about it. It stood out musically though I wasn’t sure how I would fit into it but the songs stuck in my head that night. The next morning I had a surf and it was still in my head.

That’s something about surfing. The last song you hear before you surf better be a good one because it’s gonna stick in your head. You’ve got an hour or two to listen to it while you’re out there. I listened to the instrumentals before I jumped in the water and this idea started forming of a little three-song mini-opera in the spirit of Pete Townshend or Roger Waters [Pink Floyd]. When I got out of the water, I wrote a few songs. It wasn’t any kind of audition tape, just an art project. I can’t imagine that I spent more than 3 or 4 hours on the 3 songs ”˜cos I sent the tape off on my way back to work that night.

And what was your reaction to Eddie’s songs?

Stone: For Jeff it was instantaneous ”“ he loved it and a lot of people realised how good he was. For me it was a longer process. I was probably slow. He was clearly a good singer. I didn’t necessarily get it. You can hear a song in your head but when somebody actually brings you back a finished vocal you can be like, ”˜Wow that’s a different approach.’

When Eddie flew up to Seattle he insisted on going straight from the plane into the rehearsal studio. How did you guys get on?

Stone: Eddie wasn’t a drunk. He was mellow. He brought us gifts. He was very thoughtful and very different and that was a great change so we dove right into it and wrote a bunch of songs. Then we knew it was on. You write your songs and then you’ve got ”˜em, then you go out and play, try to put yourself into ”˜em and hope for the best.

Eddie: Gifts? I couldn’t afford nothing fancy so I must have made a collage on the plane. That was back when you could bring a razorblade on airplanes. I used to keep a knife and glue stick with me and make art projects.

Mike: The first time Ed came to the studio he was wearing a Butthole Surfers T-shirt. He had long hair but it was shaved at the side, cut off shorts and Doc Marten boots that were fairly worn in and a tan because he was living in California. I had already heard him sing on his demo and I knew he had a fantastic, exciting voice so I was wondering what this guy looked like. He was my size. He was short, unassuming but when he opened his mouth he had this thunderous voice and I was stoked. Because he was still feeling the situation out he was very stoic and staid, didn’t move very much as he does now. He would sing with this incredible voice and just stand there. I was blown away. I knew this was one of those moments that only come once in a band’s career. He was the missing piece. There were 5 guys in a band, everybody was firing on all cylinders and Ed was a guy that could lead us to the promised land. I had no idea it was gonna be as huge as it did but I knew we were good.

Eddie: Jeff and I had talked on the phone a few times so we had been establishing a relationship and Mike McCready”¦ well, I just couldn’t believe him. I’d never been around a guitar player who could play like that. Stone is a very confident player. They had a stronger foundation than any band I had ever known. I was looking for comments on the vocals and the lyrics ”“ I wrote ”˜Jeremy’ that week, so was it okay if I dealt with this kid committing suicide? But [laughs] they were more concerned with the drummer Dave Krusen and the tempos. (We still do a lot of talking, bartering and bargaining about arrangements). I remember taking the tapes home every night to a little hotel that I stayed in down the street. It was dark and rainy, typical Seattle. I just remember it sounded different but with elements of all the things I appreciated in music. It had a groove that was its own animal, which evolved in a way that I hadn’t seen or heard with other people’s songs. It had its own identity.

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I was in Seattle for a week and the next Monday I was back at work but I had this tape we had recorded, evidence that something did occur. It took a couple of weeks for it to sink in and then they were saying, ”˜Are you ready to rearrange your life and move up to Seattle?’ This was the first time I hadn’t had a job since I was 15 and I was gonna get paid, live in a basement, be in a band and apparently make a record. I was pretty confident in what I could offer the group but suddenly I was going to be filling up a similar space in the community as their last singer [Andrew Wood]. It felt tricky for a bit. Thanks to the generosity of spirit of the people like Chris Cornell, Matt Cameron”¦ all the Soundgarden and Mudhoney guys, being welcomed into the neighbourhood went a long way to make me really feel part of the whole thing.

The band was originally working as Mookie Blaylock – the name of a pro basketball player. After you signed to Epic Records it became clear you would have to find another name for legal reasons. How did you settle on Pearl Jam?

Mike: Jeff, Ed and Stone saw Neil Young jamming for a long time so the word “jam” was there. I remember this list of names and we were sitting around the B&O coffee shop on Broadway. Pearl was up here and Jam was there amongst all these other words and we were putting them together. Jeff put those two together and we were like that’s it.

How did the recording sessions for Ten go?

Mike: We’d done a few demos prior in our studio, the Galleria Potato Head. When we recorded Ten was when we brought in those ideas that Stone and I had been working on, that Jeff, Stone and I had been working on and what Ed had sung on over the period of a week ”“ ”˜Alive,’ ”˜Once,’ ”˜Jeremy’ and a couple of others that didn’t make the record. We were up in London Bridge Studios in North Seattle and we would go in and record takes daily, and then overdub them later or the next day.

We did ”˜Evenflow’ about 50-70 times. I swear to God it was a nightmare. We played that thing over and over until we hated each other. I still don’t think Stone is satisfied with how it came out. That was maybe the most arduous thing but it was also very exciting to be in a big major recording studio for the first time.

Ten sold 12 million copies and has become a seminal Nineties album. What do you think of it now?

Stone: I think Ten’s still good but I don’t put it on [laughs]. The new mix of the record is great. That’s one of the things I’m most excited about is [producer] Brendan O’Brien doing another mix on it ”“ it sounds a little bit more like our subsequent records sounded so it gives it a different treatment.

Eddie: It was our first record so there were certain things to fight for ”“ lyrical content, arrangements. I had never made a record before so I thought some of the production values ”“ reverbs and sounds ”“ were how you did it. Now we certainly know better. In the end it’s nice to hear it stripped away, to hear the performance a little better. I’ve been hearing these songs live on a weekly basis for the last 17 years so obviously it’s gonna sound more present for to me to hear them in a raw form.

The Super Deluxe Ten reissue package includes the legendary original demo tape. How does that sound to you today?

Eddie: It’s a bit overwhelming in that I’m so grateful that Stone and Jeff had the courage to let me get behind the wheel. Especially considering it was their vehicle. A nice car, you know? If that tape was a driving test I think I passed it but I definitely came close to hitting a couple of pedestrians [laughs]. One part in particular left me in hysterics. The middle of ”˜Once.’ Something I did in the writing to tell the story ”“ it’s insane listening back to that but they gave me the benefit of the doubt on that one. The other two songs are almost exactly the same. The exact imprint of how we play it to this day, so there’s something interesting there too. Nothing ever got reworked. It just was what it was.

The same package also includes a DVD of your MTV Unplugged session, a new remix of Ten by Brendan O’Brien, notebooks and vinyl versions. How did it come about?

Jeff: Sony’s been asking us to do it for a long time but Kelly Curtis, our manager, has had the idea to do a 20 year anniversary retrospective movie so he’s been on board with [film director] Cameron Crowe for the last few years. He presented the idea to us of reissuing some of these records leading up to that and I was really excited about doing Ten. I wasn’t happy with the way the original package came out.

We had pretty severe restrictions in terms of what we could do. They didn’t let us put it out on vinyl and that was a rough blow to us at the time ”˜cos I don’t think I even had a CD player. I was one of the last people that I knew that got a CD player.

Early on, I found out it was better to make bad art yourself than to have somebody else create what they thought would represent you. Ed and I have always been super hands on with all our art and Ten was the one time in Pearl Jam where the finished product really wasn’t 100% what we intended. There was a bit of headbutting going on with the Sony art department at that time. The version that everybody go to know as the Ten album cover was pink and it was originally intended to be more of a burgundy colour and the picture of the band was supposed to be black and white. I felt this reissue was an opportunity to go back and finish what we started.

We had a hard time actually finding original photographs. So all we had to work with was black and white photographs so we have a slightly different version of what the original colour was. We gave it a sepia tone finish. Ed and I dug through boxes and boxes of memorabilia and journals that we kept during the tours and the making of that first record and we created a journal with a lot of those artefacts and it was super fun. I think it was the first time that either one of us had dug through that stuff for 17 years and it filled in some memory loss that we had from that time.  I think it has turned into a really cool package, a real fan’s package.

Eddie: A lot of this project was about revisiting who we were. When I’m asked about those days, the context of the question is usually, ”˜How did you survive?’ or ”˜Were you truly as miserable as you sounded?’ It was nice to go back ”˜cos now I end up remembering that there was magic happening musically and some life changing moments that were all very positive.

In the early days, Ten was a slow seller and you toured for months promoting it. During his first shows, Eddie was a restrained front man. By the end he was an inspired performer. What caused that change?

Mike: What made Ed change from being stoic and being introspective was when Chris Cornell from Soundgarden took him out drinking and gave him an idea of maybe loosening up. I don’t know what he did but after he hung out with Chris he started to open up a little bit more. Then we went on tour, we went to Europe a few times and he became this guy who would climb everywhere during the middle of the songs. I was worried every time he did it. We were in San Diego ”“ it was us, Nirvana and the Chili Peppers. He jumped up on this scaffolding bar, threw his microphone cord over it, climbed up it maybe 40 feet up, while we were doing the solo for ”˜Alive.’  I’m thinking this guy’s gonna fall and kill himself and our career’s over.

Eddie: When we got in front of a crowd it was hard not to push things to make sure that it was gonna be a gig to remember. Of course you should be able to do it just with chord changes and the way you deliver a song. But suddenly the Evel Knievel part of me took over and I felt the urge to push the audience to the edge and pay attention.

The band became hugely successful very quickly and then as a band instead of grasping for every buck you took a counter stance. You stopped shooting videos and got into a battle with Ticketmaster. Was that entirely popular inside the group?

Mike: The idea of pulling back at the height of our popularity was not exciting to me at the time. I wanted to continue to ride it and play the game, to do videos and go on tour, not throw away this great opportunity. In hindsight it was the right idea.

It happened so fast for all of us out of the blue. It was kind of mind-shattering. It was affecting us all in certain different ways and we weren’t talking to each other, we were partying too much, Ed was on the cover of Time magazine ”“ everything blew up and had we not done that at the time ”“ certainly the record label wanted us to not do that. The record company wanted us to do a video for ”˜Black,’ they wanted us to play all the game shows, get on everything they could possibly get on and they fought us for a long time about that and were very pissed about it. Jeff, Stone and Ed specifically wanted to pull back and that saved us.

Jeff: At the time we thought that selling millions of records was the biggest curse ever. We saw the REM kind of slow success as being the right way to do it ”˜cos they came from that same kind of DIY background. But in retrospect that power actually allowed us a lot of freedom and allowed us to do things in a way that probably 99 per cent of the major label bands that were out there didn’t get to do. We created our own method and our own handbook on how to do it and we’re still figuring it out because of the way technology’s changing now.

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Eddie: In the end I think we did OK. We certainly survived it and got through it. At the time I don’t think we knew how else to handle it except for be real about it and say “this is uncomfortable right now.” We couldn’t have ever anticipated the enormity of it all, and the rapid increase in listeners.

Over the years, Pearl Jam have been incredibly supportive of their fans. Was that always in your grand plan or did that evolve?

Stone: It was always in the plan in the sense that we saw right away that doin’ stuff on your own is good. None of us waited for anything to happen. We just started playing, touring and making T-shirts, recording and making coloured singles on our own.

Mike: Our fan base is very important to us. They are everything. They are the reason I am sitting here on this couch in our warehouse. We run a business out of here – it’s very important. It keeps us alive as a band. Our fans are extremely important to us and they follow us around. People go and see hundreds of shows. It just blows me away.

Jeff: After we sold a bazillion records on Ten, we had a bit of power so we decided to exert that power. What would a music fan want? We approached things from that standpoint. The way that Pink Floyd put out packages using Hipgnosis artwork, Led Zeppelin used real special packaging. It was mystical and super-creative and a lot of times, it was totally off the wall. I like to think that we used that little bit of power to make stuff that looked cooler.

Eddie: If I was in a room with 50 fans and 50 people who work in the industry I’d probably feel much closer to the listeners than the businessmen. I think everybody in the band feels that way. We never really got separated from who we were growing up. Some bands have a different arc pre-success.

Pearl Jam was one of the first bands to release official bootlegs – and now internet downloads – of concerts. Did you experience any record company objection when you started doing it?

Stone: I’m sure there was somebody that said it was a bad idea but we just pushed it through and I think in the end they said, ”˜Oh, we sold thousands”¦ so that’s cool.’ I didn’t get the memo [laughs] as to how much we had to make the record company let us do bootlegs.

Mike: The driving force behind the bootleg series was Kelly, our manager, who had been talking about it with Jeff Ament and Eddie. We’ve always liked bootlegs as a band but we would see our own bootlegs out there, we’d collect them and they would be inferior quality. So we decided, let’s just put our own out and charge a little bit less for them and make ”˜em sound as good as they possibly can.

You will be celebrating your 20th anniversary in 2010. Do you see yourself going on indefinitely?

Stone: It would be thrilling if it happened ”“ if we all looked at each other 10-20 years from now and went, ”˜How did we do this?’ We’d have to play a crotchety ”˜Evenflow’ with disco brushes. [Laughs] Our fans are gonna be so old they’re not going to be able to hear us anyway, so maybe we can be video-transformed to look 30 years younger.

Matt: I just don’t want to become the Rolling Stones.

Mike: I don’t think there’s any way we thought our band would last 20 years. We’re still talking. It’s incredible.

Jeff: It’s pretty insane that we’ve lasted 20 years. At the start I guessed we might make 3 or 4 records, have a little bit of success and we would have gotten to play with some of our heroes. Probably the biggest fringe benefit is that we’ve shared stages with Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins, REM, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones and Frank Black”¦ the list goes on and on. That’s the little kid dream come true being able to play with all those incredible bands and artists that we grew up loving and we still love.

What is the secret of your longevity?

Mike: Pearl Jam has survived this long by luck and because over the years the five of us have confronted each other on issues. We have open lines of communication and we’d call somebody on their shit if there’s a problem. The reason why we’ve lasted so long is we write music, we get very intense, we go away from each other, do our own thing and then we get back together. We give each other space.

Jeff: That’s the biggest reason why we’re still around. There was a point about ’93 or ’94 where we sort of disbanded for 6 months, didn’t really talk to one another, didn’t really know where each other was at and went off to live life and refuel. It gave us a lot of energy creatively to get away from the bubble. Right around that time everybody started doing side projects, started working on their own music and that’s been really important and satisfying individually.

Eddie: It’s always been about protecting the ability to play music and to do it with these guys in this band. Whatever we’ve gone through relating to each other, it’s always been small potatoes compared to the bigger picture of this band doing something worthwhile and achieving good things for others on the planet while we’re at it. There have been a couple of times in my personal life where I’ve felt ready to self-destruct and it was the band that helped me through. If I’m having a bad day [laughs] and it does happen [more laughing] ”“ all I have to do is remind myself that I’m in a band with Matt Cameron and I feel a lot better.

Has Pearl Jam always been a democracy?

Jeff: I don’t know if it’s ever been a dictatorship. We started the band with the idea that it was gonna be a democracy but there’s been times in the last 15 years where Ed has had to take the reins because we were about to go off a cliff. At those times where we weren’t sure what we were doing, he’s been great at being able to steer the ship right. He has no problem telling any of us that he needs help. Now we’re pretty good at calling one another and saying things like ”˜How do you feel about this? I’d really love to take the reins on this project and work it through.’ It makes everyone feel a genuine part of the band. Pearl Jam is a real band.

Stone: I’m the luckiest guy in the world ”˜cos I get to be in a band and write songs in a band with 5 songwriters. I get to learn from everybody’s process of how a song structures change and how different people hear different rhythms and different melodies and different sequences. Ed can relate to all these sorts of different things, he always steps outside and keeps exploring new places. I get to play with Matt Cameron, I get to play with Eddie Vedder, come on! And I get to strum along.

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Fav Pearl Jam song

Stone: “ ”˜Nothing Man.’ I didn’t write it. Jeff Ament wrote it. Jeff had the chord changes; him and Ed maybe worked it out before. Real Jeff Ament style, his approach to strumming. It has his character trademarks but at the same time really super simple, Ed connects so well with it that anyone who hears it will wanna sing along.”

Matt: “I really like playing ”˜Glorified G’ a lot from the second record. That’s a quintessential Pearl Jam song ‘cos it’s got the counterpoint guitars panned right and left hard and a really funky bass line.”

Mike: “ ”˜Alive’ ”˜cos it’s our classic”¦ a song that people identify with us. It’s anthemic. I know the other guys probably wouldn’t say that but that’s’ what I think of it and that’s what I’ve heard people tell me. ”˜Alive’ encapsulates the lyricism, the musicianship and the feeling of this band.

Jeff: “I’m really fond of a handful of songs that we recorded for Vitalogy. ”˜Last Exit,’ ”˜Nothing Man’ and ”˜Tremor Christ.’ There’s something about the sound of those songs and how easily they came.  I love playing ”˜Last Exit’ live and whenever I hear it, it just sounds like we did it right. It sounds natural like we captured what was coming out of us.”

Eddie: “We don’t like to do the same kind of set twice so it always changes. In our first year and a half we had about 14 songs to choose from if that. Now it’s about 114. By the end of this record it will be 130. I like the idea if being able to play 4 nights in one place and not playing the same song twice.

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Pearl Jam on Ten

Eddie: “ ”˜Alive’ has changed for me. A healing happened and now I think about it more from how other people are approaching the lyrics (though once in awhile I’ll still go dark with it). I always thought that chorus was a burden but others have it as an affirmation ”¦so I’m going the affirmation route now too.

Stone: “I love ”˜Oceans.’ That probably sums up what I get excited about song writing. What I love about music is aesthetic chords; the simpler the better and then another set that does something to those original chords. It’s a really simple arrangement.”

Matt: “When I was in Soundgarden and we were making Badmotorfinger, Eddie brought up the mixes to Ten and I distinctly remember hearing the chorus for ”˜Evenflow’ and thinking that’s HUGE. So hooky, it’s got a really rad Zeppelin huge rock feel to it. Although we’ve played it a couple of thousand times since I’ve been in the group I think that’s the quintessential Pearl Jam song.”

Mike: “I really like ”˜Alive’ a lot ”“ I look at it as a live song that we’ve done over the years and that people respond to very well and have an emotional attachment to. And I get to do a fun solo on it!”

Jeff: “At the time it was ”˜Oceans’ and it’s still my favourite track. When we recorded it I thought we were pushing the envelope and that there was a lot of other places that we could take the music that we made.”

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