Photo by Danny Clinch
Pearl Jam Producer Josh Evans Unpacks The Iconic Band's New Album, 'Gigaton'
"There's a reason Pearl Jam is still going strong 30 years in," states producer Josh Evans. "The guys care deeply about the details that matter and they’re determined to let go of the things that don’t."
While Evans has worked in various capacities with the legendary alt-rockers since 2006, their brand-new album Gigaton (out now on the band's own Monkeywrench Records imprint) marks the first time that the Seattle-based studio pro has been credited as a co-producer alongside the band. The feverishly anticipated record is the band’s 11th studio album overall and their first since the release of their GRAMMY-winning 2013 album Lightning Bolt. After an explosively strong trio of pre-release singles—the adventurously experimental "Dance Of The Clairvoyants," the familiarly ferocious "Superblood Wolfman" and the riff-heavy protest song "Quick Escape"—Gigaton announces a defiantly new chapter in the band's iconic multi-decade canon of bombast and breath.
Gigaton's raucous opener "Who Ever Said" finds Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder growling "Whoever said it’s all been said gave up on satisfaction" and the mantra serves as a bit of a warning to anyone who might assume the band is operating on creative cruise control. Known for continually pushing out their own artistic walls and finding previously undiscovered ways to be completely themselves, Pearl Jam has once again evaded expectations to deliver an album that is both reminiscent of their past successes and wholly relevant to the current cultural, environmental, and socio-political moment. From the climate-conscious album artwork featuring the breathtaking photography of conservationist Paul Nicklen to the unflinchingly "of the moment" lyrical directness that is usually reserved for hip-hop, punk and folk songs, Gigaton finds the band openly embracing hard-earned experience and fresh experimentation to create one of their most prescient offerings to date.
Recently, the Recording Academy spoke with Gigaton co-producer Evans to discuss the band's multi-year journey of writing and recording the album and their renewed commitments to both boundaryless creative experimentation and uncompromising socio-political engagement.
Josh Evans: I guess you could say I kind of started in the mailroom with these guys. I first started working with them as an assistant engineer during the recording of the Avocado album, their self-titled record from 2006. At the time, the term "assistant engineer" meant setting up gear, getting sandwiches, making coffee, cleaning the toilets, or whatever else needed to be done—all of which allowed me to really get to know the band and their crew. When the album was finished, they were moving warehouses to their current location and they hired me to do stuff like moving boxes and painting walls and I ended up working around the warehouse and studio on a full-time basis.
I also started touring with them as a tech. Over the past five years or so, I started recording a lot of their demos, both for band stuff and for some of their individual solo projects. Around the beginning of 2017, they decided to really focus on crafting a new album, so we started recording demos, which turned into new songs, which eventually became the new record. I’m very lucky that they trusted me to help them see it to the end. It was a super collaborative process and it was a very organic evolution over the last three years from being the guy that hit record for the demos to really being included in the various creative exchanges that take place during the recording process. This would be a big project for anyone but it’s certainly a huge project for me.
"There's a reason Pearl Jam is still going strong 30 years in. The guys care deeply about the details that matter and they’re determined to let go of the things that don’t."
Outside of his studio experience with Pearl Jam (he also worked on their 2017 cover of Brandi Carlile's "Again Today" for her Cover Stories tribute album and their 2018 standalone single "Can’t Deny Me"), Evans has also garnered production credits for his engineering and mixing work with artists like Soundgarden, Carlile, Gary Clark, Jr., and the Secret Sisters. However, the particular designation of being a co-producer on Gigaton was not just notable for Evans individually, as it also marked a shift in Pearl Jam’s longtime relationship with GRAMMY-winning producer Brendan O’Brien, who has famously worked with the band on nine of their 10 previous albums. O’Brien still appears on Gigaton playing keyboards on "Quick Escape" and "Retrograde."
Josh Evans: I'm the biggest Brendan O'Brien fan because he's really the reason I got into recording in the first place. When I was a teenager in Seattle in the 1990s, I’d see his name on all of these albums that I loved—Black Crowes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Pearl Jam, of course. After I started working with the band, I was in the studio with Brendan and the guys during the recording of Backspacer and Lightning Bolt and I found out that a day in the studio with Brendan is like a year's worth of studio knowledge. He’s such an incredible producer and on this album, I just wanted to carry on the high standard that he had already set in his work with them.
As the recording sessions for what would become Gigaton started up in early 2017, Evans quickly noticed that the band was operating within a very open, experimental attitude towards their new songs. Some songs were written with all of the band members jamming together in the same room at the same time and some were systematically built within multiple sessions, across multiple locations, over multiple years. Everyone’s ideas were equally on the table for consideration in service of whatever helped best support each song. This experimental environment is readily apparent in the instrumental tracklisting of the new songs, as Evans is credited with contributing instrumentation to six of the album’s 12 tracks and band members can occasionally be seen playing gear outside of their own sonic status quo: guitarist Stone Gossard played bass on "Dance Of The Clairvoyants," bassist Jeff Ament added kalimba (a metallic African thumb piano) to "Alright" and "River Cross," guitarist Mike McCready contributed some keyboard parts to "Retrograde," and drummer Matt Cameron played guitars on "Take The Long Way" and "Alright."
Josh Evans: Each band member is such a talented multi-instrumentalist—I mean, just listen to any of their solo albums—and I think the instrument-swapping was sort of a side effect of the intentional experimentation process for this record. None of the guys have any ego about who's playing what. They're only concerned about the end result. That was sort of the directive during recording: if it sounds good, we’re keeping it, no matter who’s playing it. On "Dance Of The Clairvoyants," Stone was listening to Matt's electronic drum loop and heard a bass line in his head, so he put it down. When Jeff heard it, he really liked it and didn’t have the ego to think he needed to be the one playing the bass on that song. Even though Matt is the drummer, he’s such a talented guitar player and laid down a lot of the guitar on "Take The Long Way" and added these nice 12-string acoustic touches on "Alright" that sounded so great. Sometimes they would lay something down and then tell me to mess around with it or add something weird to it myself. It was a very open process and they were very generous and brave to want to share their songs with me like that.
Back in late January, Pearl Jam released Gigaton’s electronic-influenced lead single, "Dance Of The Clairvoyants," along with a trio of interconnected music videos; with the band deeming the third version to be their first official video in over seven years. Critical reception to the band’s bold creative evolution was initially mixed, due in large part to the sonic shift of mechanized-sounding drum patterns, New Wave synth fills, and Vedder’s undeniably Talking Heads-esque vocal delivery. However, while some listeners may yearn for the band’s more signature sonic ingredients, Evans sees the buoyantly captivating single as a refreshing merger of the band’s longtime influences and current creative freedoms.
Josh Evans: For me, this song is the centerpiece for the record, both sonically and as a representation of this experimental way of working. All of the guys are huge music fans with diverse musical tastes that include some things that would probably surprise most fans. Up until now, the musical references that have come through most noticeably in their songs are the big ones: The Who, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Clash, maybe some Springsteen. Those influences have been really clear. But Ed is also a really big fan of stuff like early Genesis and Talking Heads, which is what makes his vocal on "Dance Of The Clairvoyants" sound so natural. It comes from the same place as his Roger Daltrey-esque screams.
One thing that I'm really proud of on this song is how it continually developed and what we were able to do with the drum sounds. It started out simply enough with this electronic drum beat that Matt had made—no harmonic content, no chords, no bassline. Stone really liked it and heard a bassline that he wanted to put on it. Jeff said he could hear some keyboard stuff and the guitars that you hear on the chorus, so he added both of those. Later on, Mike came up with those funky, Bowie-like rhythm guitar stabs that really set the track on fire. After Matt heard everything together, he really wanted to play live drums on it, but everyone loved the feel of what he brought to that original processed beat and they wanted to retain the unique sonic impact of the electronic drums. So, Neil Hundt, who is Matt’s drum tech, and I spent a day in the warehouse studio with all of Matt’s gear trying to find the right combination to recreate the electronic programmed sounds with live acoustic drums. We tried all sorts of different options—taping up the drumheads, putting pillows in the kick drum, "not this one, let’s try that one over there"—so that what you hear on the record is actually Matt's live performance on acoustic drums. The only sound that remained from Matt’s original electronic beat is this specific hi-hat pattern. He also nuanced his playing throughout the recording, starting off real tight and controlled and then gradually opening it up a bit as the song progressed. It all ended up being this cool human-machine kind of performance that’s really the best of both worlds.
A little less than a month after surprising listeners with "Dance Of The Clairvoyants," the band released the album’s second single, a prototypical PJ rumbler called "Superblood Wolfman." In the lead-up to the single's rollout, the band offered up an augmented reality teaser that involved fans visiting a specific website and pointing their smartphones at the moon, which activated onscreen animations and a preview snippet of the new track. Wanting to create another cool music video as well, the band contacted animator Keith Ross of @TinyConcert who draws deceptively simplistic musical shorts with only a ballpoint pen. "Superblood Wolfmoon" is his first full-length music video and perfectly captures the song’s passionately raw, down-and-dirty vibe.
Josh Evans: For "Superblood Wolfmoon," Ed came in with a pretty fleshed-out demo that he had recorded himself with some guitars laid over a drum machine program. It was kind of sloppy and wild and the guys just wanted to capture that same messy vibe and expand on it a bit within a full band context. We tracked it all in the same room at the same time. The experimental aspect of that one has to do with its arrangement like I still don’t know which part is supposed to be considered the chorus or which section is technically the bridge. On previous albums, we might've tried to chop up the song or define the sections a bit more, but this time around it was more about the energy and the attitude. It’s an exciting and intense song, so we intentionally tried not to overthink it or try to force it into some specific structure.
Earlier this month, the band dropped Gigaton’s final pre-release single, "Quick Escape," a multi-riff monster of a song with a thick, Led Zeppelin-like swagger that thuds and lilts on the impressively propulsive bass-drum-guitar interplay. While this track evokes the "in the room" feel of all five guys looking each other in the eyes as they lock into this massive groove, the truth behind’s its creation is that it was far more a construction than a channeling. In fact, the first time that all five guys actually played “Quick Escape” all together in the same place was during rehearsal for their upcoming tour.
Josh Evans: This one came together through more of a collage-style assembly. It had a few different drum approaches that were chopped and edited. Jeff’s bass part is from his original demo that was recorded in Montana—just a one microphone on a bass amp kind of thing. It just sounded so great that we decided to use it and not rerecord it. Jeff also played those main electric guitar stabs. Stone added that first buzzy solo that you hear and then Mike’s solo at the end is just him lining up all of his effects pedals, dialing in a cool tone, and letting loose. That’s a first-take solo as well, we didn’t touch it up at all. I think this is one that will really hit live and hopefully go on for about five extra minutes at the end.
“Quick Escape” also features some of Vedder’s most politically direct lyrical commentary since 2002’s “Bu$hleaguer” from the band’s Riot Act album. Using quasi-science fiction themes (alongside shout-outs to Queen and Jack Kerouac), Vedder unfolds a global-to-interstellar journey “to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet.” In the same vein, Vedder also directly calls out Trump – though not exactly by his given name – in the charmingly melodic “Seven O’Clock,” referring to him as “Sitting Bullshit” and wondering “Talking to his mirror, what’s he say, what’s it say back? A tragedy of errors, who’ll be last to have a laugh?” Similarly incensed political sentiments can be found in “Who Ever Said,” “Never Destination” and album closer “River Cross” as well. Though the band has never really shied away from directly engaging in socio-political issues throughout its career, Gigaton feels especially forthright in its attempts to speak clearly and candidly into the current cultural unrest. However, it should be noted that the lasting impression of the album forsakes nihilism and apathy in favor of hope and activism; as evidenced by Vedder’s call-to-action in “Seven O’Clock” (“this fucked-up situation calls for all hands on deck”) and his existential longing in “Superblood Wolfmoon” (“I’ve been hoping that our hope dies last”).
Josh Evans: There wasn’t a lot of overt discussions regarding any of the lyrics. These guys all trust each other and trust each other’s instincts. When we started up this project in 2017, we started every day like most Americans, drinking a cup of coffee and asking each other if they had seen the previous day’s news: “Can you believe this? What’s going on here?” Like so many other people, we were just trying to make sense of it all. We all have kids and were questioning what kind of world we were creating and leaving for them. These guys have always cared deeply about that. It’s sort of eerie how even more relevant some of these ideas and themes have become in the past few weeks. That’s really the magic of this band is that sometimes it seems they’re tapped into things that we didn’t know where even there to be tapped into. We all have to find something to hang onto because it's dark right now. What’s the alternative these days?
Rounding out the sonically diverse and thematically experimental album are a couple outliers written by other band members (Cameron’s multi-metered "Take The Long Way” and a slippery waltz from Gossard called “Buckle Up”) and two of Vedder’s most emotionally intimate numbers: “Comes The Goes” and “River Cross.” The former finds Vedder having a poignant one-way conversation over his own twangy, acoustic blues strumming and the latter features his moving baritone lamenting over the invitational wheezing of Vedder’s nineteenth-century pump organ. For all of the successful sonic layering and instrumental adventurousness that takes place throughout Gigaton, both “Comes and Goes” and “River Cross” benefit greatly from the band’s underrated use of restraint and space.
Josh Evans: Some of the other songs on the album were really labored over but “Comes Then Goes” was just about capturing Ed’s performance and then not messing with it too much. We added a couple little things, some feedback textures and an electric guitar doubling the acoustic in spots, but it was mainly about Ed’s performance and his lyrics. Same with “River Cross,” the song is so solemn and cinematic that it didn’t need any extra ear candy. It was so cool to be able to mix this ancient-sounding pump organ from the 1800s with modern-day synthesizers and electric guitars in a way that still felt sacred and prayerful. Thelonius Monk had this famous list of rules for musicians and the one that was most powerful to me was “Don’t play everything, some music is just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.” Sometimes you have to just imply what could be there instead of adding so much in. In some songs, it’s more magical for there to be ideas that only exist in the listener’s mind. This band really understands how to leave the space for that to happen.