Monday, July 30, 2012

Jeff on While My Heart Beats

Jeff recently spoke with The Rob on Pearl Jam Radio about his recent solo album, While My Heart Beats.  You can download a recording of the interview here or you can check out transcription here.

THE ROB: This is your second solo album.  What kind of contrasts, if any, did you set out with when recording When My Heart Beats?

JEFF AMENT: Initially, this group of songs was inspired by a friend who passed away, and initially, the first few songs were just going to be songs that I was going to give to his friends and family. It was a totally different approach.  It just started to fill in, and when I played it for people they sort of felt like some of it was good enough to put out.  It was a long process.  The record was kind of done a year ago, and I was sort of struggling with artwork.  My friend Doug Pendleton, who painted the cover and the back, he sent me his latest group of paintings, The Jaws of Life.  I sort of got reinvigorated about the whole thing when I saw these 30 plus drawings that he had just done.  He had gone through kind of a similar tragedy, and so it was a series of events that sort of kept the ball rolling on this thing.

And mostly it was just sharing the music with all the friends that I grew up with and how we stayed connected all these years, and kind of celebrating that a little bit.

TR: When you start out to make an album, do you approach it like you do artwork?  With an empty canvas where anything can go or happen?

JA: Yeah, I think it’s pretty similar to the way that other people write, and as I’ve gotten to know other people who write novels and short stories and stuff, I think they have books of characters and poems and little ideas, and I have notebooks of that kind of stuff where you have characters or two lines or words that you like or words that rhyme that you like.  Usually the birth of a song is that you have a little riff or a chord that you love, and you build a song around that chord or a progression.  And then all of a sudden, a word or a vowel sound comes out of your mouth while you’re playing.  Usually, at that point I’m usually in the studio trying to get down the initial idea.  It’s usually a long process for me.  I’m not talented enough to write a song in five minutes, the way that some people can.  Everything is a work in progress.

TR: You once considered War in Your Eyes to be one of your best songs ever.  You’ve got Matt Cameron playing drums on that one, and while it kicks up a lot of rhythmic dust, can you take us into the song a bit?  It seems to have a lot of angles to it lyrically.

JA: That song came together pretty quickly.  I had the bass line for the verse, and I asked Matt if he could come up with a cool drum beat that we could loop.  In all of two minutes, Matt came up with something, a little eight bar thing that just worked beautifully over the whole song.  I thought at some point it might progress into something that might need a drum part that consisted of different parts that went with the song, but his beat just went so well with the whole rest of the song, that I kept in that beat that he recorded for me a couple of years ago.

And that was actually something that came together musically really quickly, and it came together in a completely different way than I’d ever written a song before for some reason, and I got really excited about it.  I got excited about how the melody developed.  There are two choruses, and the second chorus is different and the lyric kind of dictates that the melody changes.  It was just a different way of writting for me at the time.  I think I played it for Stone and Stone was really excited about it, and that got me really excited about it so I worked on it more. It’s always cool when a new door opens for your songwriting and you come up with a new way to create and that was it.

TR: Do you still consider it your best?

JA: I think so, yeah.  I love writers and I love poetry, and I love great lyricists.  I’m in a band with a really great lyricist in Ed.  I’m always really inspired by that.  It’s not all that often that I’m onto something that impresses me.  That song, I really like the chorus lyric.  Basically, the anger lights your way back... There’s a positive that comes out of being angry.  Not even your own anger, but someone else’s anger.  I thought that expressed something sort of autobiographical about my relationship with my friend Mike.  I was at least momentarily impressed.

TR: Tell us how you connected with Joseph Arthur on When The Fire Comes and was this the only session that you guys have done together so far?

JA: He opened up some shows for us on the East Coast for Three Fish in 1996.  I was just super impressed by what he could do as a solo artist.  He was one of the first guys I ever saw building songs through loops.  He just does it so amazingly well.  He seems to be one of those guys who are completely uninhibited by his craft.  I’ve just always been inspired by that.  He comes up with a new record every six months, and there’s always like 4 or 5 songs that are just incredible.  You just have a short list of people in the back of your mind that you’d like to work with or collaborate with.  

I just didn’t feel like I was doing that song justice with my vocals.  I hadn’t talked to Joseph in a year, I just threw it out there and said, “I have a song, and if you have any interest, I’d love for you to sing on it.”  And he did and it came back, and I was so excited.  It’s that thing where you should never be afraid to ask.  It kind of got us both inspired a little bit.  We’ve been talking about doing some recording.  I just love him so much as an artist.  I think he’s one of the greats.

TR: Has he made it out to your Montana studio?

JA: That song was done remotely.  The story is that he was staying in a shady part of Zurich, Switzerland, and he could see the red lights in the windows of the Red Light District in Zurich while he sang the vocals.  But he turned that around really quick.  I sent it to him, and two days later we had it, and Brett mixed it the next day.  That was the first thing that got mixed, and that was the centerpiece.  We decided to make the whole album sound like that first mix.

TR: Is Ulcers and Apocalypse your end of your world 2012 song?

JA: That song was kind of written in a low point of my last 3 years.  It was post knee surgery, and because of the medications the doctors gave me I had developed a bleeding ulcer.  So there is a little bit of a moment of feeling sorry for myself, but there was also a moment of, “if there is someone in charge, bring it on.  I can handle anything at this point.”

TR: Through your acrobatics on stage, no one would ever know that you had knee surgery.

JA: Yeah, it’s been a lot of work to get it back.  I have no meniscus in my left knee which is probably 80% due to playing basketball and skateboarding and 20% due to 1991-1995.  I looked at old pictures and saw that I was wearing a knee brace on that knee, and I was like “Oh man, it started back then.” I just never paid attention to that stuff.  I was looking at pictures a couple of years ago, when we were putting together the book and saw all these pictures of me wearing a sleeve on that knee, and I was like “it started 20 years ago.”

TR: When you come up with a rocker like Give It A Name, is there a conscious moment where you decide that this is for my record, or this is for a Pearl Jam record?

JA: If somebody would have fallen in love with that song, it could have easily been a Pearl Jam song, and if I had been more patient, some of that stuff might have been Pearl Jam songs.  When those songs came together, I felt like the 11 songs on the record were all connected, because I wrote them all in a 9 month period.  I felt good about them being on a solo collection.  It’s not that important for me if a song ends up on a Pearl Jam record or my record.  It’s always interesting to hear the guys play a version of your song, because it’s almost always going to sound better.  Doing your art, you’re just doing your art and putting it out there and letting it go and starting over.  That’s the beauty of it.

TR: Do you find yourself always writing songs or do you go in spurts?

JA: I’ve never really felt like I’ve hit a wall. I have a ton of little works in progress, and things that are just me and Richard [Stuverud] playing together, like a base line and a drum part.  So there are always things that I can go and mess with.  I never put much pressure on myself for any of this stuff.  It’s always like, “this is what I do, and I want to get better at it.”  Even if it’s just going in in the morning for 2 or 3 hours and messing around with lyrics or a melody or putting a keyboard part down to kinda move the song in a different direction. I feel like it’s my job to get better at the whole thing … whether it’s being a song writer or a bass player or being supportive of the guy who’s the singer or the drummer or the two guys who are the guitar players.  I feel like when I end up doing a lot of this stuff myself it gives me a ton of respect for the other guys and what they have to do to finish their part of the song.  It’s fun.  I think we’re all kind of in that mood right now.  Putting on each other’s shoes a little bit.

TR: How much Pink Floyd were you and Mike listening to while The Answers was going down?

JA: That was a song that had a little bit of the chorus.  That was about 10 years ago when that got recorded.  I absolutely remember when that was recorded.  It was late at night, and Mike had all of his effects pedals going, and I think what happened was I ended up transferring it to my 8-track and couldn’t find the actual other multi tracks of it.  I had to use the crappy second generation tapes from my crappy 8-track and bounce them back onto my home studio.  Mike’s track is actually split.  There is a keyboard on the left side and Mike’s part on the right side.  We leaned it more to the right side so Mike’s part would come out a little more.  It’s definitely a very home studio vibe to it.  There’s a lot of noise on that track.

TR: Never Forget is another example of your unique approach to songwriting.  Do you want to talk about that?

JA: That was the last song that was written.  I think it was me finally understanding what the whole record meant.  The sentiment was that I’m never going to take anything for granted.  If you’re lucky enough to be 40 or 50 years old.  You start to realize what a gift every day is.  How amazing it is to have good friends and family that are still alive.  Wanting to make sure that you don’t take any of that for granted.  You’re not afraid to tell you’re best friend that you love him every time that you talk to him.  That song was sort of tying up the whole group of songs.

TR: You want to say anything about your friend who inspired this record?

JA: It’s funny.  Initially, my friend inspired a lot of this stuff, and at the end of it, it made me think more about the friends that I still have and the family that I still have and the guys in the band that I still play with and the people that we work with that are like family to us.  There was a transition, a period of time, when there was an end of innocence.  The magic of believing in fate and believing in an afterlife, and all those sort of magical things that you think about when something tragic happens.  At least for me, it felt like the rug got pulled out on all that stuff and I was kind of cynical, angry guy for a period of time. 

I think through the course of writing these songs, it changed back, and I got the magic back.  I lost that cynicism that crept in. It made me think how lucky I am to have been around people that have taught me so much about music, and making music, and how to reach down and pull things out and turn them into songs.  It was just a great process for me.  It was a really healthy hole to be in for a couple of years.  It ended up being really positive, which is exciting.