Commentary

Ament lets it roll with Tres Mts.

Updated: March 17, 2011, 4:11 PM ET
By Jim Wilkie | ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- For all the trappings of success and fame, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament does not convey any sense of entitlement.

[+] EnlargeJeff Ament
Courtesy of Danny ClinchJeff Ament, a stand-up guy in more ways than one.

Relaxing in a lounge at the Pearl Jam and Ten Club offices, which features a half-pipe and rehearsal space among the music equipment, merchandise and plentiful band archives, he's quick to point out how fortunate he is to be doing the things he enjoys most.

"Pretty much, it's the stuff that I've been doing since I've been a kid -- music, skateboarding and basketball," Ament says with a smile. "I went to the gym this morning and played one of my two or three days a week runs, down here and play a little music, skateboard a little bit in between. It's a good day."

Ament's latest project, Tres Mts. with singer and guitarist dUg Pinnick (King's X) and drummer Richard Stuverud (The Fastbacks), brings him and his bandmates (along with touring guitarist Mike McCready of Pearl Jam) back to the smaller scale of club shows with a six-city tour that began Wednesday night in Seattle and concludes March 27 in Boston.

Tres Mts. is scheduled to perform March 24 on NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," but a Saturday show in Austin, Texas, for the SXSW Festival with little time to set up and just 40 minutes to play should help keep them grounded.

The band's debut record, "Three Mountains" (iTunes | Amazon), which was released this week, has been in the works since 2001. Ament, Pinnick and Stuverud had yearly writing sessions in Montana, according to a January post by Ament on Pearl Jam's website.

"After a few years of crossed up schedules, in 2010, we finally mixed the baker's dozen songs that make up Tres Mts. These guys are all monsters and this batch of tunes is gonna be fun to play live," Ament's post stated.

The "heavy R&B record" with soul and gospel grooves is powerful on its own. But it's clear that those fortunate enough to witness one of those few shows will be in for a treat -- that was driven home by raucous covers of Roxy Music, ZZ Top and Jimi Hendrix songs Wednesday night at the Showbox.

"The goal is to have a couple of shows where we're just hitting it, so hopefully it works out more often than not," says Ament, who answered your questions in a live chat Thursday.

Ament took a break from rehearsal Monday to talk to The Life about basketball, the demise of his beloved Seattle SuperSonics, skateboarding, Tres Mts., Pearl Jam and more.

The Life: It's been three years since the Sonics left, how have you been holding up?

Ament: I'll be honest, the way [NBA commissioner David Stern] handled the whole Seattle thing … I'm a basketball fan first and foremost and I'm probably more down on the NBA than I've ever been, probably because the way that they handled that whole thing.

And then he came out at the All-Star Game and said -- they were talking contraction and Charlotte, New Orleans and what's going to happen to those teams -- he mentioned 10 cities [for possible team relocation] and did not mention Seattle. And I was just kinda like "**** you, man, are you kidding me?" You're gonna mention Kansas City and St. Louis and you're not gonna mention Seattle? … It was a little dig to Seattle, I think.

The Life: He's got to play that better.

Ament: I just don't think it's smart even from a business standpoint. It's like, come on, it's a huge market up here.

And I was really upset because he was the guy that basically, he made everybody believe that we had the worst arena in the NBA. I remember going on the radio station here, going like, "No, no, I've played all these arenas. It's like the middle of the pack." We just redid this arena 15 years ago, come on. …

The Palace at Auburn Hills [Mich.], it's a really bad arena in comparison.

But whatever, David Stern shows he's a human being by playing favorites. He's running it as a business, kind of the same way as the NFL commissioner is right now. He's on the owners' side and it's crazy, it's crazy. It's crazy to me that the commissioner could be that … it seems like he should be in the middle, he should be the real arbitrator that could talk to both sides.

The Life: What's your mindset in terms of the NBA. Have you adopted a new team?

Ament: It's hard not to be an Oklahoma City fan. I have friends, when I go to the gym I've got my Thunder game shorts and whatever … and they're like "How can you wear those shorts?" And I'm like [pulls up shirt] "Well, look underneath my jersey, man, I've got my 'F*** the Thunder' shirt. I'm bipolar."

We drafted Kevin Durant. Jeff Green's gone now, but it's hard not to imagine those guys flying the green and gold and winning like they are, up here.

The Life: That's got to be hard. Do you still watch how they're doing?

Ament: They represent the best of the new young teams. How can you not love to watch Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on the fast break? It's one of the greatest things going right now.

But I'm more excited about college basketball these days. And it's just too bad the West is a little bit down the last couple of years and there's not -- other than San Diego State and BYU -- there's not really too much in the West to get too excited about in the tournament.

The Life: Sorry about your Montana Grizzlies losing the Big Sky Tournament final last week to Northern Colorado.

Ament: Yeah, you know, they probably had the best group of athletes that they've had in a long time. The point guard had a really bad high ankle sprain in the middle of the season and he just never came back all the way. And that last game they had three of their starters foul out and it just wasn't in the cards for them.

[+] EnlargeJeff Ament
Courtesy of Jeff AmentTouring allows Jeff Ament to try out skate parks all over the world.

The Life: Do you still go to many games?

Ament: Yeah, yeah, I went to four games this year. I was actually in the Bay Area the weekend that they played UCLA so I blasted down to L.A. and saw the UCLA game, which they won at Pauley, which is like probably one of the biggest wins for the program in a long time. So that was exciting.

The Life: Who do you like in the tournament?

Ament: I think the top six teams, Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame seem like the clear [favorites] … I think it falls off pretty good kind of after that. It would be amazing if, outside of those six, if anybody else makes the Final Four. It would be awesome if San Diego State made it, but you just don't know.

The Life: Do you have any affinity for the Washington Huskies, then?

Ament: Oh, for sure. Talk about another team that at the beginning of the season it seemed that they had the best team personnel-wise that they'd ever had and just a series of just one thing after another … just problems and then the whole [Venoy] Overton thing, man. I think [coach Lorenzo] Romar kinda blew it with that thing. I think they should have just came out right at the beginning, I think they should have kicked him off the team, and I think that probably would have helped them.

Well, I could be wrong, they just won the Pac-10 tournament. (Laughs) But they really struggled for that three weeks after that, so we'll see what happens.

The Life: It's a funny team; you don't want to get too overconfident at how far they'll go, but if things fall into place …

Ament: If they're on fire, they could definitely beat North Carolina, I think. But North Carolina's a pretty good team.

The Life: What are some of the best basketball games you've been to?

Ament: Well, right off the top is Game 7 in '96 when [the Sonics] beat Utah here. I mean, we'd lost in the Western Conference finals the two previous years, and so that was just like a giant monkey off our back. I kind of don't even remember what happened right after we won but then I realized a minute after that I was out on the court with the team jumping up and down, so that was pretty cool.

I've seen a couple Final Fours. The last Final Four I saw was [2003] in New Orleans when Syracuse won. Billy Packer's kid is a big Pearl Jam fan and during the games Billy's kid was like his runner so he got to basically sit kind of right next to him at half court. And he let me be the runner for the championship game. So twice during the game I had to get Billy and Jim Nantz Cokes just to make it seem like I was doing something.

And we went to the championship in '94, Duke and Arkansas. … Going to the NCAA tournament at any time [is great]. … I saw Montana beat Nevada a couple of years ago -- that was huge -- in Salt Lake City. Going down last year -- and Montana lost to New Mexico -- but seeing Washington beat Marquette was the best.

And then in the 1970s seeing the Harlem Globetrotters in Havre, Mont., that's when I knew basketball was going to be very important in my life, seeing the Globetrotters and then meeting those guys after the game. Geese Ausbie shaking my hand, big stuff.

The Life: I know what you mean; I saw that Globetrotters' B squad team when I was a kid. For a lot of people the Globetrotters were the highest level of basketball they could see in person.

Ament: Yeah, they split those guys up. I saw them twice, I remember I never saw Meadowlark Lemon but Curly Neal and Geese Ausbie were there once and the first time that I saw them it was just Geese Ausbie was kind of the star of the team.

He was just so nice, I remember him saying, "Hey, little man, how ya doin'?" He put his hand out and his hand was just like, just swallowed me up. And growing up in Montana you didn't see a whole ton of African-American people so that was like my first real interaction with an African-American person. And I just thought that's what I want to be: That guy is the happiest dude on the planet. Playing basketball and entertaining people, like it just doesn't get any better … I think I was in the sixth grade. I thought "I'm gonna be a Harlem Globetrotter."

The Life: Or maybe a Washington General.

Ament: But then I didn't grow. (Laughs) Yeah, I would have been happy with that, man. That would've been sweet. I'll go out and lose every night to you guys.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant looked pretty good in the green and gold of the Sonics in 2008.

The Life: When you're in Seattle, do you just come down here or where do you go skateboarding?

Ament: There's actually bowls all over town. In West Seattle, I have a couple friends who have bowls in their back yards. There's a really great bowl in Woodland Park, and there's a new one going in actually in Delridge, which isn't very far from here. There's another new one in South Park, so there's stuff kinda all over the neighborhoods. And I know all the guys that build that stuff. It's just exciting to be 48 and still healthy enough to do all this stuff, so I couldn't be happier. (Laughs)

The Life: When we were kids, there weren't too many nearly 50-year-old guys skateboarding. It's gotten more like many recreational sports: If you want to do it you still can.

Ament: And I think a lot of it, I think, it's gotten so big, you know snowboarding, skateboarding, BMX, and all that, the X Games and that whole thing. It's gotten so big that people are building incredible skate parks everywhere now. We go on tour, I always hear about these skate parks that they're building everywhere. I'm healthy enough to still skate so I gotta go because growing up I didn't have -- I mean, I grew up in Montana so … there was kind of a little half-pipe in my yard and that was the extent of the skate terrain in Montana. So I've got to go out and make up for lost time.

The Life: So what are some of your favorite skate parks?

Ament: There's an incredible one here that they built about 10 years ago on Orcas Island. And part of that is just the whole experience of going over on the ferry and camping over there. Usually it entails some friends of mine coming out from Montana or up from Oregon, meeting up for a couple of days.

The Life: It's a total experience and not just the park.

Ament: It's an incredible skate park, too. Just a giant -- it's a big circle and it has a big island in the middle of it. It has all sorts of different levels and so it's super fast and a really interesting design at the same time.

And then Oregon's probably got the best skate parks on the planet. The Portland area, I think they committed to building 17 skate parks within the city over the next 10 years. I think that started five years ago and they've built, I think, half of them already and they're full pipes and back-yard style pools and every kind …

Dreamland, who kind of resides there, they've had their hand in building most of those parks so there's a lot of pride in building those things. It's nice to have that next door, reason to go down to Portland, it's such a great city.

The Life: When you're on tour and checking out skate parks on tour, do you ever go with any other musician friends?

Ament: You know, there's only been a handful of times. We were on tour with Band of Horses last year and we were in New York City. And they'd just built a park by Chelsea Piers and we hit that skate park, Creighton [Barrett] and I, their manager, John Silva, and a friend of mine, Mark Reiter, who works at Q Prime, we all went down there and skated.

Ben Harper has actually been skating more the last couple of years so if we ever play a show together again I'm sure he and I will try to hook up.

The Life: He's one guy I was thinking of because we had a story in Action Sports about him and Fistful of Mercy bandmate Dhani Harrison bonding over skating. So I thought you might have skated with Ben because of how much you've performed together.

Ament: Yeah, he wasn't skating at that point and I think a lot of it was he was just worried about his hands and stuff. But you sort of get over that when you start to … I think as you get older, you start to go like, "OK, my ability to do physical things is shortening up and so …"

The last couple of times I've been around Ben … that's all we talked about is skating. So he's into it.

Jeff Ament I think growing up playing team sports is probably the best schooling I could have gotten for being in a band because … at certain times it was easy for me to take a back seat because I always played with players who were better than me, so it was easy to not be the man.

-- Jeff Ament

The Life: If you were a professional athlete, you'd have a clause in your contract to stay off your board. Do you take it easy or any precautions?

Ament: Yeah, I take it easier when we're out there touring. I wear my full pads and stuff when we're touring and stuff, my wrist guards and all that.

But you know, I think anything could happen. People say there's more danger in driving across town in a car than there is riding a skateboard or a motorcycle or whatever.

I kind of made a conscious decision 12, 13 years ago, I had this chance to build a bowl in my yard to skate. And I thought, you know what, this is kind of it for me. I'm getting older and if I don't do it now …

I'm going to be playing music for the rest of my life, I might as well skateboard and play basketball and play music [as long as] I can. And at some point some of my friends will get me out golfing … When all the meniscus is out of my knees, which it's close, I'll have to take up something else.

The Life: Have you had any serious injuries skating?

Ament: I think most of my stuff's basketball-related. I've never had knee problems, but I had knee surgery about a year ago and basically the doctor said you're gonna be a recipient of a knee replacement in about 10 years probably because you have very little meniscus left and it's arthritic. He said you have basketball knees, so it's part of the deal.

The Life: And then there are music injuries that many people probably don't hear about. What about rock-related injuries?

Ament: I think my knees, just because I moved around a lot. It's amazing, I don't think I ever noticed it, but my left knee, when we were touring a lot the first three or four years, I look at pictures and I had, about half the pictures I have a brace on my left knee, so it must have been killing me then. And then I noticed after I had surgery I was like, just the way I move onstage, I was like, "Oh yeah, I put more weight on that knee" and so I sort of had to change that up after not really being conscious of how you move or what you do for all those years.

Part of the physical therapy is like, OK, you have to start moving your body in a different way and using different muscles and not putting so much strain on your knees.

The Life: You say you play basketball about three times a week?

Ament: Since I had surgery it's been more like twice a week. I don't play as long and the doctor told me I should probably quit playing. But I tried not to play for about three months; it was tough. There's nothing that, the team aspect of it, you know, just the competitiveness of it, I just love that. I just love that intensity of the competition. It's a good way to blow off steam, you know.

The Life: Yeah, certainly. That competitive outlet brings out a different side of a person.

Ament: Yeah, that's the best part of it. Whenever you're playing with new people, I'll always try to explain to them like, "Hey, man, when I'm out there it's a different thing, but when we're off the court, [we're friends]. … Leave it on the court." They're like, "Yeah, but it's only a game." I'm like, "Well, yeah, but it's a game. We're keeping score, you know, we want to win." (Laughs)

The Life: Do you bring that same intensity to skating at all?

Ament: It's similar in that there's focus, but it's really different in that it's … basketball the best thing is the team, the best thing is when the chemistry happens and the play happens and you score a hoop and it's all because everybody was unselfish. Anyway, that's the correlation to making music, I think growing up playing team sports is probably the best schooling I could have gotten for being in a band because … at certain times it was easy for me to take a back seat because I always played with players who were better than me, so it was easy to not be the man. It was good schooling for me.

The Life: What sort of music do you listen to when you're skating?

Jeff Ament
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesJeff Ament in happier times during the 1996 NBA Finals between the Sonics and Bulls at KeyArena.

Ament: I think it's a much heavier type of music when I'm skating. When I started skating, punk rock was really starting to happen at that point so all the early punk stuff, whether it's the Clash, the Ramones or the California hardcore stuff with Black Flag, those bands. Motorhead, AC/DC works good, you know. And it's the same music that -- you know it's funny, like when I remember playing high school basketball, that was the music I would bring my boom box on the bus, you'd be cranking "Highway To Hell" before the game, and everybody was singing along and that got everybody stoked up to play and so it's kind of the same thing. I don't listen to that kind of music at home ever, it's more jazz and ambient music that's a little bit more low-key.

The Life: Would you ever make something that would be classified as that sort of typical, harder-edged skate music for yourself or for something like a skate soundtrack?

Ament: Yeah, I think … I put out a little solo record about a year ago and I think there were a couple of little things on that record that were kind of in that realm.

And the first band I was in, Deranged Diction, it was a hard-core band back in Montana. We actually got back together two years ago and we put all these recordings that we had that we made back in the early '80s, we put those out and then we played a few shows. And that was awesome, that was at the very beginning of writing music, so it was interesting to get inside the head of an 18-, 19-year-old kid that was writing this music that with no formal education or no real understanding of like how real pop harmony works or rock melody works. So all these songs from that time were really written with no rules and it was actually kinda freeing, it was kinda like, "Oh yeah, it doesn't have to come from the AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath school of rock melody, it can actually break out of that and write something interesting and catchy and powerful." So it was good to revisit that and it was great to hang out with these guys that I really haven't hung out with in 20 years, 25 years. It's hard to play fast.

The Life: When you're writing a song, do you already have it in your mind that this a Tres Mts song or this is a Pearl Jam song?

Ament: Yeah, you always have an idea of what you think … and then you're always surprised, sometimes Ed [Vedder] or Stone [Gossard] will gravitate toward something that I never would have thought would be Pearl Jam material or whatever.

But the Tres Mts. thing, a lot of that stuff is kinda just written in studio. There were a couple of things, there is a song called "Break," that was actually a song that I wrote 15 or 16 years ago that I thought would be a perfect song for dUg to sing over, so that ended up on the record.

And then there was another song called "Doubting Thomasina" that's a full-on gospel groove that dUg sang on that I put on my solo record. So every once in awhile you come up with something where you go, "Oh man, I can totally hear dUg singing on that or I can hear Ed singing on that" or whatever.

I'm constantly surprised and then I just realize I really don't have any idea what I'm doing or where anything should go. (Laughs) But it's been a fun project, it's been pretty natural, writing the songs is pretty natural and kinda relearning the songs here these last few days it's been pretty natural, too.

The Life: Is it true some of the songs go back to 2001?

Ament: Yeah, that was the first time that Rich and dUg and I got together, so there's four songs on the record that are kinda from that time. And it's just one of those things, you know, dUg's super-super busy with his band, King's X, they've toured a lot over the last 10 years and we're fairly busy, too, so trying to find time to … we ended up carving out three weeks here. He goes to Europe the first of April with King's X and the middle of April we start up Pearl Jam again.

It's cool to fit it in and we've got Mike McCready to come out. He played on a few tracks the last time we recorded. He's giving us a few weeks of his busy life to come out and do these shows, it's gonna be super fun.

The Life: As you wrote in your note about Tres Mts., it's going to be special to hear these songs live.

Ament: As soon as Mike said, "Yeah, I'm in," I was excited to go out and play anyway just because I thought there was a possibility we might do it as a trio. So I thought, "Man, this is going to be really hard," because there's keyboards on some tracks and stuff, and really prominent keyboards and I thought "This is going to be really hard to figure this out, how we're going to do it." And when Mike said he was going to play, I just thought, "Man, I could just see Mike playing with Richard," they kind of have a real similar way in terms of how they can get really excitable in the midst of a song and take the song to a really unique place that a lot of players, including myself, can't singlehandedly take a song to the next level the way that those guys can.

I think just the way that dUg sings and kind of the trading off riffs and singing and all that stuff, there's just some real cool stuff happening. I think live it will take on its own little energy, too. So it's gonna be fun.

The Life: When you've got a band like this and you've got bigger main projects on your plate do you set any big goals for the record or tour?

Ament: Well, it was interesting, we put the record out through Monkeywrench, which is our little record label here. And I remember sitting down with Kelly, our manager; Smitty [Mark Smith], our tour manager and Tim [Bierman], who runs our fan club; Nicole [Vandenberg, PJ's publicist] and everybody, and they said, "Well, what do you want out of this project?" And I said, "I want to play some kick-ass shows." (Laughs) So that's sort of the goal, if we can have some great shows and have a good performance on Jimmy Fallon next week, it's awesome.

Now we know the songs, so if something comes up where we can play a festival here or go play a couple shows somewhere, you know we kinda know the songs, so it'll be easier for us to get together from this point on.

The Life: Where did the spiritual songs come from, all three of you?

Ament: Well, dUg wrote all the lyrics and I think a lot of the lyrics came out of us having conversations at breakfast or lunch or whatever while we were making the music. Just about how similar our backgrounds were in terms of like growing up in conservative religious families and both of our processes over the last 20, 30 years and kind of deconstructing that religion that was sort of pounded into us.

And it's just amazing how like a lot of our earliest kind of musical memories are kind of based around church.

It's an interesting sort of dichotomy on this record; some of the songs kind of have a gospel kind of feel to them but when you really look at the lyrics they're actually sort of anti-religion. So it's part of dUg's process of trying to understand what or who God is. And I'm right there with him, that's naturally where I gravitate in terms of trying to understand your place in the grand scheme of things and the universe.

The Life: There's been a lot of talk about Pearl Jam's 20th anniversary show. How's that shaping up?

Ament: Yeah, I think when we get back from this tour and Ed gets back from Australia I think we're gonna have a meeting at some point in the first part of April. I think in the meantime, Kelly and Smitty are going to look at a couple of potential places where that 20th-anniversary show could be and hopefully at some point in April we'll kind of get the venue and the date cemented. I think we're kind of hoping for Labor Day right now.

I think the band really needs to sit down together and kind of get the overall vision of what we want it to be. I think we've all agreed so far that we would love to include a half-dozen of our friends that have bands that we love to collaborate with, and more of a community type of festival. I think we've reached out to a bunch of those guys, and hopefully that'll be the vibe of the show.


Jim Wilkie is the editor of The Life and can be reached at espnpucks@comcast.net.