Pearl Jam producer O’Brien: You’d better have Eddie good and loud!
Brendan O’Brien has produced six Pearl Jam albums, starting with their second, Vs., in 1993 and continuing with their upcoming tenth, Lightning Bolt. Ahead of Lightning Bolt’s release on October 14, O’Brien was in London recently to talk about his relationship with the band.
Brendan, you’ve worked with Pearl Jam over a period of 20 years now. What are the pros and cons of having such a well-established relationship with a band?
I think the first cons of making four albums together was that they got tired of being told what to do, which happens to all good artists. Some time after we did Yield, I just think they wanted to do it themselves for a while. The pros are, when they’re ready to do something a little more outgoing, significant – whatever you want to call it, that’s what I call it, I can’t help myself! – they call me again.
And when they arrive in the studio, do they know what the songs are going to sound like, or is there a lot of sitting around thinking?
There’s very little sitting around thinking, I can promise you that. Because you can’t pre-determine what you’re doing. Except that if you do a record with Pearl Jam, you’d better have Eddie [Vedder] good and loud! And a groove going. If I do anything I’ve got to get that right. Most songs we still start by recording live, in the room, with everybody playing at once, even though we don’t keep as much of that stuff as we used to.
You’ve said that some Pearl Jam records are more difficult to make than others. How would you place this one on that spectrum?
The difficulty for me was trying to get them back into the studio. I think that’s probably my value to them, I’m going: “Let’s keep going on, let’s stop fucking around, let’s go.” Thinking of some of their earlier records, Vs. was hard for me to make because I didn’t know any of the guys really. Especially Eddie, and Eddie was very stand-offish in those days. He was just very protective. He would tell me: “You’re Stone and Jeff’s friend” [laughs], when we would get into discussion. That was his defence mechanism. “Alright, man, whatever…”
Sleeping By Myself was used first on Eddie’s Ukulele Songs solo album, and I understand using it again on Lightning Bolt was your idea?
Eddie sent me his record before it came out to see if I liked it. I said: “There’s one song on here that we’re gonna steal, because it’s a Pearl Jam song as far as I’m concerned. And there are gonna be the fans who know that record. I don’t know that the rest of the world’s gonna know that song that much.” His record actually ended up doing much better than I thought it would… but I just thought a lyric like that with him singing it is so unusual, and it’s such a sweet, direct, straightforward song that I felt like we needed it very much.
Where did you record the album?
Henson Recording in Los Angeles, which is the old A&M Studios – the We Are The World studios. We wanted a We Are The World vibe, man! There’s still something about going into a studio, not into a house, not into someone’s fucking garage, that makes people feel like they’re going to work and going to do something significant. I do like that submarine mentality, and everybody going into the ship together. It’s only worked well once for me, recording in houses. That was Blood Sugar Sex Magik. I engineered that, and had the time of my life.
You’ve known Pearl Jam for a long time. How have they changed as people, and as a band?
They’re all pretty much the same guys. They all have families now, so they’ve moved on a little bit. I mean, shit, we’re all 20 years older than we were. I think Eddie has changed quite a bit – not at the core – but in that he’s accepted his role. When I first met those guys, he couldn’t go anywhere, it was crazy. He still can’t go places sometimes. But I think he’s much more grounded in life in general. It’s easier.
Interview: Nick Hasted