When the pandemic hit, Pearl Jam was ahead of the curve. On the cusp of releasing its electrifying new album “Gigaton,” the Seattle juggernaut became one of the first major acts to halt tour plans as the coronavirus rippled through its own community.
Bassist Jeff Ament, who splits his time between Seattle and Montana, retreated to his less populous home state as lockdowns took effect. What was supposed to be a celebratory period, playing an exciting batch of new songs — Pearl Jam’s first studio album in seven years — before tens of thousand of fans each night was instead a reclusive one.
Passing isolated time, Ament unknowingly began work on what would eventually become his fourth solo album under his last name only, the appropriately titled “I Should Be Outside” and an accompanying visual art project.
“When I started looking over the lyrics again [recently], I started thinking back to the beginning of the pandemic,” Ament says of the album arriving Aug. 10. “I think everybody was like, ‘What the hell’s going on?!’ The scientists and the CDC and the president, everybody was saying different things. And a week later, there would be a completely different thing they were saying.”
About a week in, the art school kid turned rock star decided to shut off the TV and radio throughout the day, getting his morning news from outlets like The Washington Post or The New York Times. (“It felt like everybody was pretty emotionally raw at that point. And I didn’t need any help with my opinions.”) Soon, Ament was writing at a pretty good clip, knocking out three or four songs a week when he challenged himself to complete a new song or art piece each day.
Unlike prepping for a Pearl Jam session, where Ament hammers out a handful of ideas over four or five weeks, the pandemic burst of songwriting, sketching and painting had no specific agenda. Art for art’s sake, a cathartic way to process the pandemic’s uncertainty, America’s social and political divisions and several deaths he was dealing with in his personal life. Each morning, Ament would wake up and make tea, and gravitate toward whichever medium came calling.
“There was a two-month period [where] there was so much joy in it,” Ament says. “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that long of a period of that. There was weeks of just real joy in the isolation, just making this stuff out of nothing and feeling like I did something new, whether it was, with my voice or my limited drumming abilities [laughs] or whatever. That’s a good thing to have happen when you’re 58, to feel like, ‘Wow, I’m entering a new zone with this where I really find happiness in the creative process.’”
This joyous, agenda-free creative spurt is the same one that yielded Ament’s “American Death Squad” EP last summer, a seven-minute set of brief tracks that, in hindsight, feels more like an opening of Ament’s audio notebook compared with the more fully formed “I Should Be Outside.”
Handling the vocals and the bulk of the instrumentation himself, Ament knew he had the nucleus of an album once he sent a pair of tracks — the album’s first singles — to in-demand session drummer Matt Chamberlain, who played with Pearl Jam for a short spell in the early ’90s. (Besides Chamberlain, former Fastbacks drummer Richard Stuverud plays on a handful of songs.)
With the punky bop “I Hear Ya,” Ament reaches across the political aisle, reminding himself to continue listening to friends with opposing views, while injecting enough humor to keep his blood from boiling. “A lot of these people are really good human beings, so you’re like, ‘I don’t understand. Help me understand why you believe in this guy or you believe in this system that they’re running.’ … How can you get them to really relate to something and not be condescending and judgmental and pissed off? It’s easy to get into that mode, because there’s a lot to be pissed off about.”
While the track’s not necessarily an outlier, much of the album is a moodier affair, falling somewhere between a contemporary “Space Oddity” and some of the more synth-brushed, atmospheric stuff off “Gigaton.” The hauntingly spacey “Despite All Odds” was written for a childhood friend who died last year after overcoming “extreme scoliosis and all sorts of crazy heart problems” throughout his life.
“The day after he passed, that song just came out,” Ament says. “It was [about] how that guy, he lived till he was almost 60 years old. I think they probably told him when he was a kid he wouldn’t make it to 10 or 12 years old because of all the medical issues he had.”
Alongside the music, Ament produced more than 180 abstract portraits (including the cover art) and has been posting them on his new Instagram account.
While Ament has no plans to publicly perform the new music, Pearl Jam is set to return to the stage with a few festival dates this fall, including Eddie Vedder’s Ohana fest in Southern California. (Back in June, Ament told Variety he didn’t see the band playing indoor arenas anytime this year.)
“Just from a humanity standpoint, it feels like it’s a safe-ish environment in the current conditions,” Ament said of the relatively small (at least by Pearl Jam standards) outdoor festivals. “Although the last couple weeks of spikes, it just adds that same tension we were feeling 18 months ago when we were deciding to postpone the tour.”
As for Seattle, Pearl Jam has announced no hometown shows, though come October, the doors will open on the brand-new Climate Pledge Arena at Seattle Center. During the bidding process, Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke had teased the possibility of hosting some sort of Pearl Jam residency, after the band’s former manager Kelly Curtis served on an advisory board around the arena’s concert experience. Sounds like that may have been putting the cart before the horse.
“I don’t think we ever said that. I’m not sure how that got out there,” Ament says. “I mean, there’s nothing we want more than to have a great arena to play in in this town, because KeyArena wasn’t the greatest sounding arena. … But I don’t know, the jury’s out. Is it going to be a good-sounding arena? I don’t know. I think they made some promises — ‘Hey, we [renovated] the Forum [in L.A.] so it’s gonna be fantastic.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, the Forum sounded great before.’
“But there’s nothing we want more than to have a great-sounding arena that at any time we could just go over and play a couple of shows here and there. That would be a dream.”