All Those Yesterdays: Brendan O’Brien Reminisces on the Evolution of Pearl Jam and the Making of Backspacer

Music Features Brendan O'Brien

Brendan O’Brien is a record producer. He’s actually kind of a big deal, as far as record producers go. If you’ve listened to alternative rock in the last 20 years, chances are you’ve heard his work. His credits including a veritable laundry list of monster acts, from Stone Temple Pilots to Bruce Springsteen, Mastodon to AC/DC, Incubus to Rage Against the Machine. But a band he’s worked with as much as any is Pearl Jam. Returning to the studio with Eddie Vedder and Co. for the first time in 11 years, O’Brien produced the band’s latest, Backspacer. And when Paste rang him up recently to talk about the album, he was taking a break from working on the new My Chemical Romance in Los Angeles. Busy guy.

Paste: When did Pearl Jam first get in contact with you about working on Backspacer?
Brendan O’Brien: I guess we started talking about a year before we actually started recording. But a little before that, they were asked to do a song for a movie, the Who cover [“Love, Reign o’er Me” for the movie Reign Over Me], and we had a blast. We’d known each other for years and we had such a great time doing it, we were like, “Why don’t we just get back together and make a record?” They’ve kind of gone their own way the last 10 years, and it’s been all good. So yeah, we just started talking about it. That was it, really.

Paste: Like you said, it has been a little while since you guys have worked together. When you got back in the studio, was it awkward at all, or…
O’Brien: No, no, no. Not even a little bit. We worked together for quite a while before that, and I think for a while they just wanted to do things on their own. At this point, they were ready to be, for lack of a better word, “produced” again. It was actually awesome. We all worked very hard, but I think I can speak for all of us in that we all had a great time doing it.

Paste: Is there any way for you to compare or contrast it to previous records you worked on together?
O’Brien: Oh, yeah. [laughs] I would say the first records we worked on, I was very proud of them, and they were great, but at that time, we were all in a different place. There was probably more tension back in those days. A lot had to do with the position they were in, and Eddie in particular; there was a lot of stress in their lives. That provided stress toward me, just because of our position. It was a different time. We made four records together, and we did quite well and we had a great time, but I would say it was harder then just because they were in a different headspace and maybe I was still learning my craft a little bit. It was a very singular goal this time. I would say we… I keep saying “great time,” don’t I?

Paste: Well, that’s obviously what it was, and I think it even comes through on the record. It sounds more lighthearted, and I would imagine that for you as a producer and they as a band, you’re both more established and there’s probably a lot less pressure on you both. You guys can do what you want a little bit more.
O’Brien: Well, I think we’ve all established ourselves and we’ve all done what we wanted to do, but make no mistake: I don’t think any of us had any other thoughts other than making the very best possible record we could. We want people to like it. I’m speaking for myself and I’m pretty sure I’m speaking for them; we want people to go get it. I don’t think anyone’s taking that for granted.

Paste: Can you tell me a little bit about what a typical day in the studio was like?
O’Brien: Once we started recording, mostly we would just get together around noon, and when we were tracking, we were tracking all together. We actually recorded most of it in L.A., and I think that was good for them. They weren’t at home, and that was a good situation. They had been resistant to recording in L.A. before, and I live in Atlanta, but that was a good, neutral place to do it, because it kept them out of the routine of their house, and yet they weren’t too far from home. Every day we got to work and everyone was really focused on work. Pretty much every day, their head was in the game. We spent a long time getting the songs together over rehearsal and writing sessions over a 10-month period between tours and my records I was working on. Maybe it was a year we worked, off and on. So when we actually got into recording, we pretty much knew what we wanted to do.

Paste: How close do you work with a band on song ideas? It sounds like you were right there for the writing on this one.
O’Brien: Well, every artist is different. Everybody’s different. In this particular situation, they worked a lot on their own with the songs and I helped them with the arrangements. There was another writing session—I didn’t write the songs, but I was there—in Montana up at Jeff’s place where Eddie wasn’t around, it was just the band together, and it was sort of my job to help them pull all the ideas together and get them arranged. I feel like, on this record, they allowed me to be more of a part of it than maybe in the past.

Paste: Backspacer has a lot of decidedly upbeat and lighthearted moments. Was there a conscious decision on the part of the band going in to give it that sort of mood, or did it develop at the process went on?
O’Brien: I don’t think it was a conscious decision at all. I think that was a lot to do with just what they were writing. Lyrically, Eddie was kind of going that way. There’s some stuff on there that’s fairly melancholy, but I think Eddie has shown his sense of humor in some of these songs. I would have to say the tone of the record came completely from them and where they were at. It just kind of happened that way.

Paste: You mention Eddie’s sense of humor coming out in the songs; can you name any specific examples of that?
O’Brien: I would have to say the song “Johnny Guitar.” That song is awesome. It’s a song about, you know, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and it’s an awesome story and it has a real sense of humor to it. It rocks, and it’s one of my favorite songs.

Paste: What are some of your other favorite songs on the record?
O’Brien: That one, and I think “The Fixer” is, to me, one of their best. If I had to use a word to describe the whole record, it would be “inviting.” It feels more like it wants to let people in. They’ve made records in the past that have been more introverted, but I think this one has that feel to it. I think that “The Fixer” is real and concise with great melodies and lyrics without trying too hard. I think the song “Just Breathe” will just break your heart when you hear it. Those would be the ones I’d pick right away.

Paste: “The Fixer” is an obvious single. It’s so accessible and inviting, as you said.
O’Brien: I think so, yeah. And to their credit, I think they allowed themselves to kind of… You know, they wrote this song that had a really cool beat and very accessible lyrics, and they allowed themselves to make a record out of that song. I’m happy for that. There might have been a time in life where it would’ve been harder to do that, but right now, I think that was something we all wanted to do.

Paste: Were there any particularly frustrating moments you had to work through during the making of Backspacer?
O’Brien: Honestly, not particularly. I would say the hardest part that any of us had to deal with was probably scheduling, just because we’re all kind of grown-ups and we have things we’re doing. You know, I make records for a living and they’re in a very successful band that goes and tours. If I’m forced to pick something, that would be it, but that’s kind of nitpicking, isn’t it?

Paste: On the flipside, do you remember any triumphant or memorable moments that surprised you?
O’Brien: I would say the first day we actually got in the studio. It wasn’t surprising or outside the norm, but the first day it immediately sounded good. It was a really great moment for all of us. We were all just glad we were there. There’s always trepidation. As a group, we hadn’t worked together in probably 10 years, and I don’t think anyone had any doubts about that, but it’s always good to have a start like that.

Paste: I’m sure that sets the tone for the rest of it.
O’Brien: For sure, and that’s not by accident. As a producer, it’s my job to get everybody in the right spot. You can’t take anything for granted. To their credit, they were ready for it to be successful. I’ve been doing this a long time, and there are moment where you go, “This is a great job.”

Paste: Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve watched Pearl Jam evolve over the years?
O’Brien: I’ve known them almost since day one, not quite since day one, but almost, and I’ve seen them evolve from being… They’re still a huge band and they still fill up arenas and all that, but they are not quite the phenom band they once were, and I think that’s great for them. You can’t sustain being a phenom band for 20 years. The first five years of their career, I think, was very hard for them, even though it was massively successful. It happened so quickly, so fast, and a lot of bands burn out at that stage. I believe they withdrew a bit for a while. They sort of made music for themselves, and it was something they needed to do and wanted to do. I’m not discounting the music they’ve made in the last 10 years; they’ve certainly done quite well by it. It’s just a different feel now. I wouldn’t say that’s from me; that’s their outlook.

Paste: It sounds like they’ve settled into a more reasonable and sustainable rhythm, something they can do on their own terms a little bit.
O’Brien: Yeah, and they’ve all grown up a little bit. And I have to say, I believe Eddie’s become, he’s always been extremely talented and a real force to be around, and he takes the reins a lot of the time, but they all contribute. I would have to say, though, of all the things, Eddie’s really settled into his own skin. I’m very proud of him. That’s had a lot to do with their resurgence and success these days.

Paste: You sound like a busy man and you certainly have a lot on your plate now, but have you and Pearl Jam talked at all about working together again?
O’Brien: [laughs] Well, I hope we would, but I’m a record producer. They have to call me, I can’t call them. [laughs] People ask me stuff like that all the time, and it’s like, “Yeah, that’s not how that works.” I don’t just call the artist; they have to ask me. Hopefully they will, and hopefully we’ll do that soon.

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