Stone Gossard is a name that has been almost inextricably linked to Pearl Jam for more than 20 years, but the guitarist has managed to venture out from the grunge Goliath’s shadow when precious time has allowed. Moonlander, his second proper solo effort, is a musically expansive and lyrically enlightened record, and it’s been a long time coming. Many of the tracks have been lingering about in some way, shape, or form since 2003, but Gossard opted to take the time to let the record take shape rather than rush it through production. Prior to Moonlander’s release, Consequence of Sound caught up with the seasoned Seattle axeman to talk about the album, clarinets, nature, art, touring, and everything in-between.
How did you settle upon the title?
It was a song that I think is important to the record. I thought it was evocative; it wasn’t anything too thought out. But when you’re making your own record, it can feel like you’re in outer space. You’re making a lot of decisions on your own, and you have to take responsibility of them.
That vastness of being in space comes across on record. There are a lot of woodwinds, horns, and other instrumentation that give it a bigger feel in a lot of places. Was that something you went for deliberately, or was there just something about the songs that lent themselves to bigger arrangements?
Probably five or six years ago as I was preparing to record and finish some of these songs, I started playing with a guy named Hans Teuber, who’s a Seattle musician, just a fantastic saxophone, flute, clarinet player. He’s an extraordinary guy. We just started working together when I was doing a little project called Hank Khoir, where we were doing some Hank Williams covers and having some fun doing that. Once we started working together and these songs kept developing, I kept calling Hans in.
I was just so in love with the instrumentation, particularly the clarinet. I think it’s such a great instrument, because it’s a horn but it really can be a keyboard as well in terms of how it sounds. It’s sort of a softer sound that doesn’t overtake a mix but also has all this melodic information that’s really beautiful that kind of floats above a song. As we were working together, I just fell more in love with these sort of horn staffs and clarinet parts that would typically be keyboard parts.
He sort of got in your skin a little bit.
Yeah. Once I started working with him, it just started building. If I was working on a song and thought we could add more detail to it, I would call Hans and he would just start trying different stuff. It was great to collaborate with him on that.
The songs on Moonlander cover a lot of different styles. Was there a sense of freedom that came with writing these songs that wouldn’t necessarily fit what you do with Pearl Jam?
I think any time you’re in a collaborative band, and I would consider Pearl Jam to be that way and Brad as well, you’ve got to work within the confines of the individuals’ collective vision of what it is. Anytime somebody hands you the keys to the car, so to speak, you’re going to have the opportunity to push some things you might not normally get to push. And that’s fun. That’s a cool part of exploring on your own. But there’s advantages and disadvantages to having the keys. You’re responsible for the whole thing, and sometimes individuals with no sort of collaborative experience can try to do too much, and they never find their voice.
So, I’m very fortunate to be in Pearl Jam and love the collaborative process of being in that group, but it’s also exciting and fun to go into the studio on your own one day and go, “Fuck, I’m gonna do something weird.” There’s opportunities to do that in Pearl Jam as well, but there’s a certain starkness to Pearl Jam’s aesthetic that I’m really glad we have, because it keeps things focused on some very simple elements that in the long run I think have served us well.
Photo by Jeremy D. Larson
Some of these songs were written as far back as 2003. What made now the right time to put the record out?
Well, I had basically what I thought was a record’s worth of material five years ago and got really close to releasing it. Of the songs on this record, I think “Both Live”, “Witch Doctor”, “King of the Junkies”, and “Your Flames” were in there, along with some other songs that didn’t make this record. I got really close to releasing it; then, at the last minute, I realized it’s not really as good as it should be, and so I put it aside.
That’s a new thing for me, having that patience in terms of art and feeling that I’m not in a rush. Sometimes things can really benefit not by saying, “No,” but “Stop for a second.” I think I learned a little bit of that from Eddie. He had been really patient with his artistic efforts. I know the ukelele record, a lot of that was recorded years before it came out. He had the shell of the record, but he wasn’t quite ready to finish it, and I think I kind of learned a lesson from him in that sometimes timing is everything.
Eventually the opportunity came back up, studio time became open, and there was time available away from Pearl Jam. It was a great opportunity to listen back over 30, 40, 50 ideas that I had been kicking around over the last 10 years and make some quick decisions about which ones really move me. I really just narrowed it down to those 12 or 15 songs and then narrowed it again. It was a good process. I feel like I made as good of a record as I probably could have made.
Did you approach the songs any different this time around? Do they sound different to you now than they did 10 years ago?
Yeah. I think what distance does is it allows you to forget about all the little details. When you start working on a song, you start listening to every little detail. You say, “Oh, I love this part” or “I want this part to be in there.” But when you set them aside for five years and haven’t heard them and turn them back on, you kind of hear them in their whole one more time, and it gives you a chance to say, “You know what? Cut that part out. We don’t need that part.” A lot of it is simplification, just cutting to the chase and getting to what’s really the good part of the song and taking away the stuff that’s not. You have a good chance to do some editing right as you hear those songs again for the first time. It gives you perspective to be less oversensitive and cleave away the stuff that doesn’t need to be there.
Sure. Everything seems vital when you’re in the moment, but with fresh ears, it’s easier to see the bigger picture.
And you learn a lot in 10 years. You learn a lot about sonics and songwriting and what feels like you. It’s probably similar to writing. I’m sure if you’re a writer, you’re writing stuff and putting it on the shelf for a couple of weeks; then you come back to it and go, “Oh, my God, paragraphs four and five don’t make any sense” or “Maybe paragraph four would make a good opener.”
You mention writing in a way that feels like you. Lyrically, the songs are very anecdotal and autobiographical. There’s also a pretty strong spiritual undercurrent to the songs.
I think that’s right. With spirituality, it’s more of an exploration than anything. At the time I was writing a lot of those lyrics, I was doing a lot of kayaking on Lake Washington, just really going out and sort of having those moments where you’re sort of awakened to the sort of spectacularness of being on the planet. It was amazing, just feeling that depth of existence and how awe-inspiring it is, but also realizing how unaware of it you can be at times. And I don’t know, I might have been smoking some pot, too.
All of the artwork on this record is your own too, right?
Yeah, that’s all me. I think the music and the art are pretty similar in terms of my approach to them. My approach to art has been the same since I was a child. I don’t really have any formal training in music or in art, but I guess what I do have a talent for is just sort of editing, making mistakes, and taking chances on what I think might be good and seeing what I like about it. My daughter, who’s six, is also doing a lot of art these days, a lot of drawing. So, when she would do art, I would do art as well. It’s a lot of smearing of paint, sparkles, chalk and markers and feathers.
You chose to unveil the artwork and songs slowly online over the past few months. Was there an appeal there to releasing everything bit by bit in anticipation for the record’s proper release in stores as opposed to just dropping everything on fans at once?
I think there’s multiple reasons why that was appealing. One, we hadn’t done it before, so it was a chance to do it and just see what happened. I also think it was an opportunity to spread the press over a longer period of time, maybe doing two or three interviews a week instead of 30 in two days. And then from a practical point point of view, releasing a song a week gave people an opportunity to hear about the record over a longer period of time. It was a combination of all those reasons, but mainly there was just an opportunity to do it.
Are you planning to tour around the record?
I don’t at this point. I think at some point in my life, if there was some enthusiasm behind me touring, I could see myself putting a band together and playing some shows, but time is pretty precious at this point in terms of being with my family and spending as little time away from home as possible. It’s something I would consider, but at this point, I think I’m putting my best foot forward just making a record. Records are different than [playing] live. You get to get everything the way you want it, and live is a different beast. So, there’s no plans to tour, but you never know.
What’s it been like in recent years spending less time on the road to focus your energies on different things?
I think if you look at the average amount of time Pearl Jam has been on the road over the past 10 years, it’s probably been about six to eight weeks a year, which in the grand scheme of rock bands is little. It’s not very much at all. We’ve gotten very good at knowing how much we want to tour and finding an amount that keeps us healthy and happy. There will be a record out soonish, it’s almost done, and I’m sure there will be more touring coming in the next year. But there’s a good balance. We’re super fortunate in Pearl Jam to have such loyal fans in terms of people who really want to come and see us play.
Such an enormous part of our band is playing live and going on the road, but luckily we can make the choice to not do it so much that it kills us. So much of Pearl Jam’s energy comes from the actual joy of its members when we’re feeling good. If we have good shows and people feel something from those shows, it’s because we don’t feel like we’re chained to this thing. We’re enjoying it with the audience. If we can keep that going, that’s good for us long term.