Hawai‘i is rarely far from Eddie Vedder’s thoughts.
The Pearl Jam vocalist has a Neighbor Island home where he spends a good part of the year fully engaged in surfing winter north shore swells. Those same waves were also where he met good friend, mad talented Hammond B-3 organ player, unofficial sixth member of Pearl Jam and Waimanalo native Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar.
Vedder also gives back to his part-time home whenever possible.
When Jack Johnson asked him to perform at a fundraiser last December in support of the North Shore Community Land Trust, Vedder squeezed Pearl Jam into a small pavilion at the Waimea Valley Audubon Center for a tight, incendiary set that was the very sweet equivalent of what it might be like catching the band doing Seattle club gigs again. And after almost sitting-in at two previous editions of Johnson’s annual Kokua Festival, Vedder said “yes” to a full solo set with Gaspar at this weekend’s sold-out fourth go-round of the environmental-education benefit concerts.
Vedder phoned from a recording studio in his hometown Seattle where he was working on solo music for “Body of War,” a documentary on the post-war life of 25-year-old Iraq War veteran Tomas Young who was paralyzed from the chest down. The film was produced by Phil Donahue and directed by filmmaker Ellen Spiro.
In a relaxed one-hour chat that revealed a very humble and at times disarmingly humorous soul, Vedder spoke gratefully about his friendships with Gaspar, Johnson and pro surfer Kelly Slater, covering Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Hawai‘i ’78” at Pearl Jam’s epic tour-ending Blaisdell Arena show in December, and his new “Body of War” compositions.
He also spoke seriously and passionately about his belief that people, not politicians, hold the key to changing the trajectory of U.S. environmental policy.
Where are you calling from?
I’m in the studio in Seattle. I’m working on a few batches of songs.
I’m doing a couple of songs for this movie on a soldier I just met. He came home from Iraq with a gunshot wound that took out his spine and he’s been left in a situation where nothing below his chest really works at all, including his stomach and all that. So he’s really in an intense physical condition. There’s a lot of challenges. And he’s so heroic.
And I feel patriotic because he’s standing up against this war … speaking out against this war. He’s not (been) able to maintain his old friendships with all of the guys he served with because it’s kind of unpopular to do that.
The way he says it … soldiers that are still for supporting Bush are like chickens supporting Colonel Sanders.
He’s an incredible young man. I’ve been talking to him a lot lately. And I’ve written a couple of songs for him … kind of becoming his voice for this movie.
Is the film a dramatization? A documentary?
It’s a straight documentary showing his activism and showing his life. I think it’s going to be called “Body of War” and it’s just about finished so we’re adding some music to it. … His name is Tomas Young.
Is he from Washington state?
He’s from Kansas City. He signed up (on) September 13th (2001) to fight the bad guys. And by the time he’s trained and he goes over, he’s going to a different place and a place he never expected to go.
You can read a lot or you can listen to the Bill O’Reillys of the world or even the liberals that have not been, or certainly haven’t served, and you’re not going to hear it like you hear it from somebody who was there or somebody who’s experienced it.
And, of course, now it’s coming out. I mean, you don’t get awards for being right. A lot of people were saying this (was) a bad idea from the get go — including the biggest protest this globe has ever seen — before we got into this mess. …
At least it’s getting to the mainstream now. People see that it’s a (expletive) nightmare.
Are these songs solo tracks?
Yeah. I’m just throwing a few things together on my own.
How did you and Boom wind up playing together at Kokua Festival this year? Did you volunteer? Did Jack recruit you?
I’ve almost played the last two years. I was going to play the second one, but I got snowed in (in) Seattle. I think you had some weather (issues in Hawai‘i). It hit everybody at once.
Last year, I was on an outer island with my guitar and was flying to either O’ahu or Maui or something — wherever the first (concert) was last year. And I had to get home for a family emergency.
So this year, Jack felt that if he put me on the bill then I’d have to come. (Laughs.)
I’m on the bill, but we don’t know what’s gonna happen. But obviously, any time you get to play the Islands and any time I get to play with Jack is going to be a good deal. Everyone’s looking forward to it. …
How long have you and Jack known each other?
Well, I think I met his pop (North Shore surf legend Jeff Johnson) first. I met his brothers before him. So maybe there’s a screening process that they put you through before they introduce you to Jack. (Laughs.)
But apparently I squeaked through.
I would imagine it’s been a few years … maybe 2002 or something. I’m not sure. But I knew of his music before.
(The Johnson co-directed surf documentary) “Thicker Than Water” was probably my introduction to his art.
How did you meet?
It was through Kelly Slater that I met Jack’s family first and then, later, Jack. (It was) Jack’s dad first. We went on a paddling canoe trip and then I met the brothers … and then, of course, his mom Patti.
Some of the people I’m honored to know and have actually become good friends of were actually introduced by Kelly. He kind of swims in magical circles, not only in beautiful waves. He has great circles of friends, and I was honored to be included.
I’ve done some traveling with Kelly and … met some great people around the world and have been really fortunate to know the Johnson’s and the nice community of people up there on the North Shore.
Kelly’s behind that all.
Is Kokua Festival the first time you and Boom have performed together like this?
I don’t think I’ve ever played a gig by myself that wasn’t a benefit. And with all those times, I’ve played with different people here and there. But I don’t think I’ve ever played a show with Boom.
I think the first show that Boom and I ever played together was with the band. I think (Pearl Jam guitarist) Stone (Gossard) was missing because he was (doing) an environmental (project) in Australia at the time. We played the House of Blues, opening for The Who. I think that was Boom’s first gig with us.
It’s great to see the world and see rock ‘n’ roll through the eyes of a local. It’s really a romantic and magical story: our friendship and seeing him travel the planet.
And one thing was cool. We went to Europe. And Boom and his wife Pinky had never been to Europe. We (went) over there last summer and we played Portugal. …
Some time — a couple of hundred years ago — a couple of brothers named Gaspar took off from a port in Lisbon and ended up in the Islands. And I think it was the first time that one of Boom’s family had been back to Portugal since.
To explain that to the audience in Portuguese and then have them see this guy return with a band playing some powerful music was a kind of moving experience.
I’ll bet the feeling was the same for Boom.
I think that there’s a natural chemistry change when you spend a lot of time in (Hawai‘i).
I think you appreciate these things more because you’re away from sidewalks and satellites. You’re kind of protected a bit from normal white noise that’s everywhere, and city landscapes. And I think that your nerves are up on your skin in a really positive way.
You’re connecting with … (Vedder searches for words)
… our surroundings?
Yeah. In a positive way, you’re more vulnerable to pure feeling through emotions in regards to appreciating your life and appreciating things that happen. It’s not just another day on the subway where you almost have to try to meditate yourself out of your body.
I’m just getting long-winded and going nowhere. But I guess what I want to say is that Boom’s way of being is infectious.
I chatted with Boom prior to Pearl Jam’s December show at Blaisdell Arena. He really does seem to take absolutely nothing he has achieved for granted — family, friendships, his life experiences here.
Yeah. I thought I was that way, too. And for the most part, I was. But it’s gotten even deeper since.
He’s been a tremendous … not to make any kind of a reference to The Beatles in regards to our band, but he’s like our Billy Preston, you know? (Laughs.)
He told me his first impression of you — when he met you on the waves and didn’t know who you were — was that you were “a swell guy.” What did you think of Boom?
It’s all been good. It’s all been good. I’ve never thought anything but good about him since I first met him.
How did you find out that he was a damn good keyboard player, too?
I saw him play at a small little wake on one of the outer islands on a very small hillside away from everything. There was a young man who had been part of the musical community … who passed away at an early age, and they had a bit of a wake for him (and) played some music on somebody’s back porch.
And I knew I was watching a world-class (Hammond) B-3 (organ) player. I couldn’t believe my ears.
So I knew that he could play before I met him. That’s how I first saw him — when he was playing.
His highest compliment for you was that you came across very local in your demeanor, your values and your beliefs. So much so, that he told you, “Brah, you sure you not reincarnated and was Hawaiian before?”
(Vedder pauses, clearly moved.) Wow. Yeah.
What has Boom brought Pearl Jam musically and through his personality?
I think the biggest thing is what we talked about. We’ve been able to see, in a way, the things that we’ve accomplished as a group … through a new pair of eyes and another heart and, in some ways, a heart that was untainted by some of the stuff that we had been through. (A heart) less hardened from some of the stuff we had been through early on.
In fact I think when Boom and I got together, (Pearl Jam) was going back into the studio to record after what for us was the hardest challenge and moment in our lives — when we lost nine people at that show in Denmark.
(In June 2000, nine fans were crushed to death during Pearl Jam’s set at the Roskilde Festival.)
It was a healing time for us. And a good way to put it is, Boom was like stem cells, you know? (Laughs.) And he came in and just helped repair. He was part of the healing process in a big way. Fresh new cells that … found every spot that we were ailing.
He seemed to give us new life.
Pearl Jam’s three-hour December tour-ending show here was, for want of better words, pretty darn epic. Was that because the band hadn’t played Honolulu in 13 years or is that how every final show on a Pearl Jam tour goes off?
You always think that the last show is going to be the one, but it’s usually the second-to-last show.
It seems like the last show is going to be the end-all to some long journey, you know? But for some reason, that’s not how the gods play along.
This was a rare occasion, I think, where it really did come together in a way that was, for us, extremely memorable. I think that a lot of things lined up for us. We had a good week of playing beforehand.
It was a real meaningful opportunity for us to get to play (a benefit show) up at Waimea Falls and to be able to contribute back to the Islands in the form of the North Shore Community Land Trust — realizing that (it’s) a really rare coalition that made the preservation of 1,100 acres … of land at Pupukea and Paumalu possible.
It was a great opportunity to be part of that. I felt the vibe was really positive up there. So that kind of just began the whole trip.
The good thing is that you’ve got to wait for your equipment to get from Australia (where Pearl Jam had been touring). So we had a few days (for) everybody in the band and the crew to get into the water a bit.
And it was a bit of a washing off of all the tour dates. It was just a great way and a great place to end what was probably the most extensive touring we’d done since 2000.
One of the highlights of the Blaisdell show was your very reverent cover of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s (and the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau’s) “Hawai‘i ’78.” How did you first become acquainted with the song and Israel’s music?
I don’t even remember. It just seems like it’s part of the atmosphere. It’s part of the land, you know?
If you’re on some kind of hike or if you’re on a long paddle … you just kind of hear that stuff in your head. In some ways, he became, for me, the voice of the Islands.
I can’t tell you when I first heard it. I just feel like there’s speakers hidden in the trees and they’re playing Brother Iz at all times. That’s how I feel. (Laughs.)
“Hawai‘i ’78” is definitely one of Iz’s most powerful recordings. But why did you want to do it?
It was just one that I felt a connection to. I can’t say (the connection) was more than (with) other (Kamakawiwo’ole songs). It was just something that kind of emerged to the top there. I don’t know why.
We played it at sound check that day and there it was. So it was just like a … (Vedder searches for words) a glass ball that came up on shore for us.
Were you nervous at all about doing it? It’s such a beloved composition locally.
I think that I’d be nervous for somebody who didn’t know what that song means. I’d be nervous if somebody was going to touch on that song without knowing where it came from. That wasn’t the case for me. …
We didn’t expect anything from it. It was more (us) wanting to play it to get it into the arena and get it into the atmosphere. We were almost asking Iz to kind of come down and check us out and give us a blessing; and, at the same time, not really thinking too hard about it.
When I heard that it was getting played on the radio, the first thing I remembered was being choked up at the audience’s reaction. I remember feeling the response of the local audience and getting choked up and wondering if it affected the vocal, you know? (Laughs hard.)
Your throat tightens up when you get emotional like that. So I was just trying to contain myself and let myself go at the same time.
This is really talking a lot about myself, isn’t it? (Laughs.)
It’s OK. It was a great moment. … It certainly moved a lot of the people that went to the show.
I heard that after. And I’m glad it was accepted because we came at it from a pure point of view.
What do you admire most about what Jack and Kim Johnson are trying to do with the Kokua Hawai‘i Foundation and Kokua Festival?
First, their ambition for positive change. Not to just give back, but to do it in such an intelligent and effective manner.
Jack’s got a “Whitney Houston thing” — “I believe the keiki are our future.” He’s like Whitney Houston without the drug problems. And his wife is way more stable than Bobby Brown.
There’s a knee-jerk vibe to want to do good. You can raise some money and you can donate some time. But to really get involved with a progressive way of thinking that can become a prototype for others to follow? That becomes not just a full-time job but a lifestyle.
They prove it can be done with … even putting on shows. …
There’s an organization that’s kind of coming together now … (Pearl Jam) has been looking into it and taking some meetings … called … a Smart Project. They’re saying that we can start putting on shows with a lot of things in mind, looking at our environmental impact.
(Pearl Jam has) been doing things like carbon-offset stuff where we figure out what kind of carbon we put out into the atmosphere in the daily business of touring from buses and trucks and things. And then we try to offset that by preserving parts of rainforests and things like that.
This is just part of this Smart approach. They’re looking at waste reduction, the carbon-offset stuff. Sustainable sourcing of (tour merchandise) — which is (looking at) who makes your T-shirts, where the material comes from and (ways) to do that in such a way that’s a positive. …
You’re doing all these things within the business of your group or your concert thing and you’re not being a liability to the planet. You can create a situation where this becomes the norm and then you end up making a large impact.
This is the kind of thing that Jack and Kim … don’t just do in their business lives. It’s the way they live their lives.
And it’s really important because once you see it done, then you realize it can be done.
Jack and Kim do live a good deal of their home life “green.” Do you?
I’m in Seattle. My house is mainly what we call “wet.” (Laughs.)
But Jack and Kim went one beyond. They even did cloth diapers. So they’re still teaching us things.
Just when we think we’re pretty close, they’re raising the bar over there.
What’s your take on our country’s environmental policy under the current presidential administration?
One of the first things that happened — and this is pre-9/11 — was that a lot of the energy policies were rewritten by the energy companies. These are the meetings that, if you remember, were kept secret. And they went to court to keep the minutes of these meetings secret. I believe the meetings were with (Vice President Dick) Cheney and all the attorneys from the energy companies.
And so they rewrote policy, and rewrote law. And the people that they let rewrite the law, as far as I understand it, were the energy companies. …
It’s one of the first things they did (after the 2000 elections), if I’m not mistaken. And that’s an incredibly dangerous procedure or process if you think of who’s in control of something as fragile as our environment.
We like to think of ourselves as a superpower and as leaders. But if we can’t lead in some kind of way where we don’t even participate in something like the Kyoto Protocol, then we have no business suggesting that we’re leading this planet in any kind of positive way. It’s a travesty.
I think what you’re seeing and what’s going to have to happen is things like (Kokua Festival) or a gift of a movie that Al Gore and his co-workers have put out, “An Inconvenient Truth,” that seems to have hit a lot of people.
And it’s never too late.
It’s just a really important time. … It’s up to the community to start doing these kinds of things on their own. … You’ve got a number of mayors across the country — maybe 50 to a hundred of them — saying, “We’re going to run our cities in congruence with things like the Kyoto Protocol whether our nation as a whole chooses to sign on it or not.”
At some point, with politicians being grotesquely financed by large corporations, it’s going to be up to the people to educate themselves. Through technology and the Internet, etc., information is accessible and it’s up to the people to educate themselves and act and let the people lead.
(Politicians) want to be elected. Right now, as opposed to six months ago, you probably will be able … to have an anti-war candidate because that’s how the people are feeling. Finally.
And (it’s) the same with the environment. When people want that and they feel it’s a concern, these guys will want to be elected. So they will be environmentally active candidates.
It’s like you will create that candidate by what you demand. It’s like supply and demand.
The most disheartening thing is when you hear people say, “I just don’t feel like I can do anything about it.” And I think, as a testament to what kind of power the people actually have … I would guess that when this administration hears people say they don’t think people can do something about it, it makes them very happy.
It gives them license to do whatever they want. … (And) they have. And in a very arrogant and incredibly unattractive fashion. And I think in such a way that doesn’t really represent the people that live in this country.
Pearl Jam has never been shy in the past about supporting presidential candidates it believes in. Are there any presidential hopefuls the band is supporting for 2008, or are you still watching what unfolds?
You know, to be honest, I think that Democrats and the media and everybody should be a little less concerned with our next election and a little more concerned with stopping this war immediately. Like now!
Talk to these moms. Talk to these guys that are coming back with injuries. And then try to watch the news and hear things about Hillary’s haircut and YouTube advertisements or something.
There’s a lot of people that will … be dead or maimed in two years of this war continuing. That needs to be addressed right now. We’ll figure (the presidential primaries) out.
When did we start talking about candidates two years ahead of time? …
How is all of this affecting the songwriting you’re doing right now for “Body of War”?
At this point, I’m just writing what comes out. And there’s so much coming out.
If you talk to this young cat Tomas Young at any length you realize that this conversation could be recorded and turned into a book. So in some ways I’m just trying to write his book in songs, or something.
I’m glad that I have an outlet.
And that’s the thing that everyone should realize. Protests are an outlet. Or writing letters is an outlet. Educating yourself, in a way, is an outlet.
Let’s be preventative. If we had a disease and we had to get it cut out, then the next thing we’d want to do is make sure we tried to prevent the next outbreak. …
Do you see the public having a real effect on changing policy?
I think it’s taking place as we speak.
Pete Seeger talks about a giant teeter-totter and people with teaspoons trying to level off the teeter-totter by putting little teaspoons of sand on the one side to level it off and get it to come their way. … Some of the teaspoons have holes in them. And they’re only putting little bits of sand (on their side). And then one day, it just goes over to their side.
And (the other side) wonders, “How did that happen?” And it’s, like, “Ah, it’s those guys with the damn teaspoons.”
It’s out there. It’ll catch fire. You have to believe it.
You can’t sit around as a father or as parents, as Jack and Kim would relate to. You can’t. You’ve gotta know that you’re raising your child and that they’re going to have a beautiful world to live in.
It’s really interesting to teach your kid about the planet. My daughter (Olivia) is 2. And she’s grasping the planet and that it floats around in the middle of a black soup. And she’s trying to figure it out.
But she’s trying to figure it out. At age 2! And that has to be a positive thing for the future. I had great parents growing up. But I can’t imagine them sitting me down to teach me about the environment. It was just a different time.
I’m not much into computers. But just this morning (I found) this thing called Google Earth. Have you heard about it?
Well, if you go far back you’re looking at the planet and all the vast black stars and such. And then you actually zoom in into your house. (Laughs.)
She’s able to see it in a way that I’m just seeing for the first time myself.
And then you can go from Seattle to the North Shore … and look underwater and see everything that leads up to the (northwestern Hawaiian Islands).
It’s incredible! Incredible.
Published: The Honolulu Advertiser, April 20, 2007