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Interview: Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam) Discusses His New Side Band, Deaf Charlie

16 July 2023

Jeff Ament is best known as the bassist for Pearl Jam, the iconic alternative rock band he co-founded in 1990, but he’s also been in the influential groups Green River, Mother Love Bone, and Temple of the Dog. Now he has a new project to add to his impressive resume: Deaf Charlie, a duo he formed with Fitz and the Tantrums drummer John Wicks. Their debut, Catastrophic Metamorphic, was just released on June 30, and the album’s twelve tracks reveal a deeply adventurous and eclectic streak that may perhaps surprise fans of their other bands. During a recent video chat from his Montana home, Ament explains how the creative process worked this time, what inspired him to become a songwriter in the first place, and why he feels such reverence for music. (He also adds that he’s “super excited” to talk to The Big Takeover because he’s read it for forty years. “It’s one of the best places to go to find out where to get new music,” he says.)

You’ve been through many release dates before, but how does it feel as you put out this Deaf Charlie album?

JEFF AMENT: You know what? It never gets old. When we got the box of records last week, that part never gets old. It’s always so exciting to hold the record after you’ve been working on it. And in this case, we were working on this record for three years, so it’s particularly satisfying.

How did you know that you should do an album together?

JEFF AMENT: When the pandemic hit, I started going in the studio, writing a bunch of songs. And the weakest part of the songs I was putting together was the drums, and also just [wanting] a partner to take the songs stylistically in some different areas. I’d done a couple songs with John in the past – he just lived across town – so I reached out to him in April of 2020. I sent him some songs and I said, “Hey, have at it. I’m not precious about any of this stuff. Pull them apart however you want.” It started with a few months of us passing songs back and forth, and every couple of weeks, we’d get together outside and sit at a picnic table and talk about where we were at and where we wanted to go with the songs, with no real idea to have it to be a band or a record. But I think it was a way for us to stay creative during the pandemic, and cracking each other up, and it felt good. At that time, I think everybody needed a little bit of that. It was really important in 2020 to be able to hook up with John and make these songs.

How did you know you’d work well together in the first place?

JEFF AMENT: I mean, I didn’t. The only thing that I knew is, we had done a song like five years before, [after] a good common friend of ours from Seattle had suddenly passed away. I had written a song, “Comeback Player of the Year,” which is on this record. Because John had worked with our friend, I asked if he wanted to come up and put drums on it. He brought all these super weird drums, and he was playing a really unorthodox beat, and I just thought it was the most amazing add-on to this song that I could have thought of. And so in the back of my mind, when I started writing these other songs, I started thinking about what he did to that song. I just knew he’d be the perfect collaborator for this stuff.

As you actually started working on these songs, how did you mesh your style with his?

JEFF AMENT: I think it was mostly just about being open-minded. Because I initiated [this project], most of the songs had verses and choruses and maybe a bridge and an outro, and the lyrics were mostly down. I was just trying not to be precious about any of that stuff, and there was a handful of times where he would keep the vocal in and replace almost everything else, and I was just staying open-minded about that. I was telling myself that sometimes, even though you might have these weird little rules about the things that you won’t do, I think that can hurt you as a musician. And he was really open-minded with me, coming back and sometimes saying, “I think we went too far with that so let’s dial that back a little bit.” I remember he asked me, “What are you hearing this stuff sounding like?” I said, “I think about The Clash when they were at their most experimental, like Sandinista!. Let’s get into that world, but still have it be songs.” So I think they were a huge influence. I think the band Suicide was a big influence. Some of the more experimental aspects of Devo. And post-punk like Romeo Void came up because we were talking about adding saxophone, but I didn’t want the saxophone to be rock and roll-y; I wanted it to be sort of atonal and more of the John Lurie, James Chance kind of New York “no wave” vibe. So yeah, it’s all over the place, which I love.

Lyrically, did you have any particular themes in mind?

JEFF AMENT: I think some of the stuff is a little bit dark because of what was going on at the time politically, environmentally – we just can’t get away from those topics. John was really good at pulling some of that stuff into a little bit more positive territory, giving the songs a little bit more hope.

How did you learn to write like this in the first place?

JEFF AMENT: I think I wrote my first lyrics in 1982 or something. That type of writing went away for a while because I was in bands with amazing singers and lyricists. You partly feel like, “Well, my lyrics aren’t as good as our singer’s.” And then you feel intimidated by bringing songs to a band that’s so great. But twenty years ago, I started putting out little solo things and had side projects I wrote lyrics for, so I’ve been working that muscle pretty hard. And I read so much. I love writers that write in a dark prose style. Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite writers – Blood Meridian is the perfect type of writing, to me, because it’s beautiful but it’s so desperate and dark. There’s something about that that just resonates with me.

How did you know you had it in you to become a songwriter and aspire to that kind of writing?

JEFF AMENT: I think it’s coming out of punk rock and skateboarding, which had a really big do-it-yourself mentality. And the other thing is, I grew up in a small town, so it was easy to be good at it in your town because you might be the only one doing it. Like, I was a skateboarder and there wasn’t any other skateboarders, so I was the best skateboarder in town. Once I decided to go out in the real world, I just thought, “I can do anything.” There was nobody during my entire childhood that told me I couldn’t do something, and I think that’s probably kind of rare. And I wasn’t looking at social media every day, telling me that I wasn’t handsome enough or I wasn’t talented enough or I couldn’t play the guitar fast enough. I was just doing it at my own pace. And all my heroes were doing that exact same thing. Like, all the early hardcore bands, the bands made the artwork and booked the tours and made the T-shirts. So as soon as I was in a band, that was how we did it. Forty years later, we still try to make sure that every aspect of what the band is doing passes through our hands and that we’ve touched it and it’s come from us. Again, that came from all that early punk rock.

How do you maintain that attitude and resist getting jaded or something like that?

JEFF AMENT: I still feel like it’s almost like a miracle when you make something. Like, if you start painting, it might not happen the first day, it might not happen the second day – but at some point, you’ll do something and you’ll be like, “Wow! When I started this this morning it was nothing, and now it’s something that I actually have a feeling about.” I still have never lost that feeling of wonder that you have about where it comes from, and that you got to be the conduit for making this stuff. I really do still love what feels like magic to me. Not to sound hokey, but if there’s a God or if there’s a spirit or whatever, it feels like it exists in songs. When I listen to records, there’s a certain magic that I feel when I listen to the music that I really love. It just feels sort of otherworldly to me. Singers can sing about things that I’ve always been thinking. You’ve had a feeling that you could never put to words, and then somebody writes a song, and you’re like, “That’s exactly what I’ve been feeling for my whole life!” I think that it’s amazing that I get to do that, that I get to do the same things that all my heroes did from when I was a kid. I get to be in a rock band and make music with amazing musicians, and I also have the time to just sit down and write. I feel lucky.